Clear Fork Station: A Cowboy Oasis
Not too far west on Interstate 20, past the last of Fort Worth's low-slung homes and on the road to Weatherford, farm country suddenly replaces all that suburban sprawl. Also fading into the rearview mirror are such distinctive Fort Worth eateries as Del Frisco's, Reata, Angelo's Barbecue and Bonnell's, all replaced by the drone of a highway dotted with chain chow courtesy of Whataburger or anything with "taco" in its name.
Then, just as suddenly, rising from a bluff of brown scrub like some mirage of culinary salvation, is the sign for Clear Fork Station.
The 3-month-old restaurant is the offspring of some boldfaced Fort Worth culinary names. Its founding chef (he just parted company with the place) is Grady Spears, the seemingly eternal cowboy-in-the-kitchen and one of the main culinary forces behind Reata, Lambert's and, most recently, his popular eponymous restaurant. Clear Fork's principal owner is Pam Benson, whose family has been involved with everything from Fort Worth's ultimate 24-hour diner, the Ol' South Pancake House, to the Japanese Palace.
Though Spears may no longer be manning the grills of Clear Fork Station, his unfussy cowboy comfort-food style, infused with his signature chuck wagon and ranch kitchen sensibilities, is all over the restaurant's lunch and dinner menus. And if the cooking occasionally suffers from timid seasoning, cloying sweetness or Herculean-sized proportions that would compel a burly ranch hand to ask for a doggy bag, some judicious ordering can result in a fulfilling if not transcendent meal.
Clear Fork makes no apologies for a décor and atmosphere that aspire to nothing short of a modern spin on the classic ranch-style saloon-restaurant. It certainly doesn't lack all the little touches that add up to an unabashed feeling of "where the West begins" spirit and hospitality.
In each of its spacious rooms (the restaurant seats 258), there is a reassuring solidity in its cherry-wood chairs, and the bits of twine wrapped around the napkins add a nice rustic touch. Swatches of burlap and sepia-toned postcards peek out from underneath the glass table tops, while metal wall sconces, forged into silhouettes of the Texas Lone Star, buffalo and bucking stallions, imbue the rooms with even more ranch atmosphere.
With Toby Keith and Tim McGraw on the sound system, and vibrant pastels and photographs of cowboys and rodeo stars lining the walls, Clear Fork Station is the kind of place where the baseball-capped and cowboy-hatted patrons mingle easily, and where everyone wants to live up to one of the lofty maxims written on one of the restaurant's chalkboard walls: "Being kind is more important than being right."
Immediately setting the mood at Clear Fork is its service staff. All decked out in flannel shirts, crisp blue jeans and flashing smiles as wide as the Red River, this crew—for all of its molasses-sweet solicitousness ("How's that salad treating you?")—is also extremely efficient. And that swift service begins with their delivery of a plate of warm jalapeño cornbread just waiting to be slathered with a winning marriage of pecan-honey butter.
The restaurant's adroit touch with peppers and smoke is on full display with its twin starters of barbecued bacon-wrapped jalapeños ($9) and Rocky Mountain oysters ($11). Pork fat could envelope a 1040 tax form and make it delicious, so it's hard to go wrong with bacon enrobing these jalapeños, which thankfully were spicy without being scorching. The accompanying guacamole and pico de gallo salsa cooled down any of the jalapeño's residual heat. Meanwhile, Rocky Mountain oysters came sheathed in an expertly fried jacket, but retained their juiciness as they tasted of both smoke and brine. The taste combination was so compelling it rendered the accompanying cream gravy dipping sauce both bland and superfluous.
Unfortunately, the two main dinner dishes sampled came freighted with great expectations, yet ended up disappointing. On the one hand, the chicken-fried steak ($15), with its usual accompaniment of cracked-pepper cream gravy, was almost perfectly executed, with an armor of crispy breading surrounding moist meat. But it occupied—really colonized—so much of the plate as to be a brash dare to any diner to finish it. Larger than most hubcaps, this steak engaged in a bigger cover-up than Watergate of its two superb sides: orange-cinnamon dusted carrots and spinach-onion mashed potatoes.
Meanwhile, the Niman Ranch slow-braised pork shank ($21) was as falling-off-the-bone tender as one could hope for. So succulent was the meat no knife was necessary. Its taste, however, was all but zestless and unable to match its supple texture. It needed a much more vigorous touch of salt and pepper. This main attraction, like the chicken-fried steak, had its thunder stolen by a beautiful sauté of zucchini and carrots and a return engagement by that tasty mash-up of spinach and potatoes.
Lunch provided ample evidence that sometimes a kitchen's saving grace is when it sticks to the simplest of dishes, expertly prepared. That certainly was the case with a Mexican Caesar salad with firecracker shrimp ($12) where the star was not the perfectly cooked and smoky shrimp (though hardly meriting its "firecracker" moniker) but rather the salad's glorious vinaigrette: a poised balance of tart and silken oil that amplified all its ingredients, including the nuggets of sun-dried tomato.
What might have been a yawningly predictable grilled chicken breast ($10) was rescued by the subtle heat from a layer of roasted green chiles. In addition, its accompanying salad of sprightly greens, lemon-spiked vinaigrette and goat cheese crumbles also perked up what could have been a too-conventional dish.
And then there was Clear Fork's way with the humble burger. Every aspect of the CFS Ranch Burger ($9) was sublimely turned out. The bun had a toasty edge, and the beefy burger (cooked to order with a hint of pink in its middle) was so succulent that it dribbled juice down a grateful diner's hands. Its adornments of candied bacon, cheddar cheese, red onion, lettuce and a hefty tomato slice were apt supporting players to the star burger. And the side of house-made chips weren't slackers either, as the honey-combed coins had a burnished skin that cracked with each bite.
Desserts tottered between sweet-satisfying and sweet-overkill. Buttermilk pie ($5.95) was pleasingly dense, but neither the buttermilk's slightly tart aftertaste nor the punch from the raspberry sauce could counterbalance the cake's aching sweetness. Meanwhile, the banana pudding ($5.95) achieved a very pleasing texture with its nubbins of banana lending it a bread-pudding consistency. Its swooshes of raspberry sauce brought a desired brightness to the overall sweet pudding flavor. The pudding's accompanying tortilla strips, dusted in cinnamon-sugar and sticking out like buoys on a banana-yellow bay, were just fun to munch on.
Truth be told, Clear Fork Station is not the kind of "destination" restaurant for which one might set aside gas money and several hours for the 40-plus-mile drive from Dallas to Willow Park, but it's certainly very much worth a detour from the monotonous ribbon of highway where you may not run across something as authentically Texan, or nourishing, for miles to come.
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