White tablecloths, good service and, oh, yes, good food, aren't enough to sell a restaurant anymore. Restaurants are theme parks, like movie theaters and malls, and Texas itself, unlike Nebraska, is a favorite theme.
In Dallas especially, we seem to need reassurance that we live in the land of Lonesome Dove, that we haven't always been bankers, interior designers, and real estate agents, so we take to the Texas theme and the outfits that go with it. Dallasites have always been torn between their cowboy boots and their high heels. If you don't go to the Cattle Baron's Ball or drive by the static steers at the Convention Center, it's easy to forget that we were once part of the Wild West.
Texas Land & Cattle Co., a steakhouse, is another place you can go to be reminded. Don't forget to wear your boots.
Of course, we're not talking about the real Old West, just the mythical one. The real one would make about as good a theme for a restaurant as Nebraska, unless it was called The Beanery. Beans, not beef, were the real backbone of the frontier menu. Never mind history, though, we're talking about Texas-as-a-state-of-mind--and that mindset must include boots, bluebonnets, hats, horses and beefsteak.
Texas Land & Cattle Co., with its walls of log and limestone, recalls the mess hall at a summer camp in the Hill Country. This is another trend--Fredericksburg as the inspiration for second-home decor, replacing Santa Fe's Southwestern adobe chic. So it's odd but not surprising that Texas Land & Cattle Co. looks a lot like Macaroni Grill, another Hill Country inspiration, only with brands burned into the wooden doorways.
Texas Land & Cattle Co. has been successful with its venture out north; now it's bravely pioneering a corner between McKinney and Oak Lawn, swimming upstream directly against the northward trend.
Two blocks off the beaten track in this business can mean death, so they have to try harder here. And they do, beginning with the first impression. The friendly valet took my car and parked it for free (even though you drive into the parking lot to get to the valet, making his function, friendly or not, seem redundant). The outer door was opened by another cheerful young person as I approached. Yet another cheerfully held it open as I entered, and yet another happily opened the inner door--all speaking friendly words of welcome. You don't get this kind of red-carpet treatment even at Old Warsaw.
And since I'm the kind of person who makes one trip in from the car, kicking the car door closed as I exit because my hands are loaded down with purse, grocery bags, a couple of newspapers, a briefcase and a laptop, holding my jacket in my teeth so I can open the door to the house, I love having doors held for me. A point for them.
Inside--speaking of warm--the big stone fireplaces stay lit even in the rain-forest weather that's become Dallas' new climate. A big painting framed in split logs runs the length of one whole wall. It depicts a herd of longhorns in a dust storm and a cowboy inexplicably shooting his gun in the air--remember, this is the fairy-tale West, not reality. No cowboy ever ate tilapia--and probably not beef like this, either. In her book, Eats, A Folk History of Texas Foods (which I happened to purchase at the Cowboy Symposium in Lubbock, speaking of cowboys), Ernestine Linck includes only one recipe for steak. That comes from Coosie Mac, a former range cook, and I have plenty of space to quote it here in full: build a fire and put on the meat.
They take considerably more trouble than that at Texas Land & Cattle.
The best thing we tried, and I bet the best thing on the menu, is the remarkable smoked sirloin. There's a layer of peppered seasoning next to the rich fat rim, and the meat is perfect--raspberry-red, straight-grained beef slices, cut half an inch thick and laid overlapping on the plate, with the smoky perfume complementing but not overwhelming the near-rawness of the meat. It still lingers on the mind's tongue the way good food can. You can order a 10- or 16-ounce serving at lunch or dinner, and it's sold as long as it lasts, so go while you can get it--we ate some at lunch, and they were already out when we went for dinner. I had a nice piece of smoked tilapia for my lunch; I never claimed to be a cowgirl.
My friend likes a tenderloin, reveling in the luxurious softness of the meat. The Double Eagle Filet, soft as "buttah," gave him a full 10 ounces, plenty to take home. I like a strip, a little more chew and a little more flavor than the filet, and the North Texas Strip was 14 full ounces, six or seven of which I took home.
Sides at a steakhouse are almost always also-rans. Texas Land & Cattle offers a more interesting selection than most, but they were plate-fillers compared to the beef. At lunch we ordered a plate of fried onions and fried pickles as a starter, a Mississippi eccentricity that you don't see too often here, and I'm not really sure why you see them anywhere. They're not terrible, but they're not good. If you really believe that conversation is the best seasoning, go ahead and order fried pickles. They're perhaps a philosophical snack; they excite the mind more than the taste buds. From the first bite your brain is gnawing on the question, why? Why fry a pickle?
Mashed potatoes here are slightly grotesque, served in a steep bowl with a flood of melted butter congealing in stagnant pools in the potato peaks and valleys. I like butter, but those slicks were daunting. On the other hand, a veg du jour was plain broccoli, beaucoup broccoli, I might add, and very plain, starkly steamed and piled on a plate, with very little grease or seasoning. Also, unusually, there's a baked sweet potato on the menu, a simple, good thing to eat, but you don't see them very often. We liked it plain, just with butter, a better accompaniment than the melted cinnamon sugar butter sauce served on the side.
The spicy Caesar salad really did have a cayenne bite, though otherwise the dressing had no character at all. French fries--sorry, "Texas fries"--were good, and to my mind, the best thing to eat with steak, along with a plain salad, although the baked potato was pretty good, too.
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The whole place was pretty good, and since evidently steaks have to be eaten in a men's club or Texas atmosphere, make mine Texan. Texas Land & Cattle Co.'s beef is cheerfully served, flavorful and, for beef, affordable.
Texas Land & Cattle Co., 3130 Lemmon Ave., 526-4664. Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Friday-Sunday 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m.
Texas Land & Cattle Company:
Texas onion strings $4.95
Sliced smoked sirloin (10 oz.) $12.95
The North Texas strip $16.95
Tilapia fillet $14.95
Fried pickles $3.95