Cow chips and dip
You've got to hand it to Gilbert Cuellar. He sure knows how to make a venture reek with the sweet smell of success. A former El Chico Corp. executive, Cuellar is the brain behind Texana Grill, the massive new Texas memorabilia lodge in Arlington that doubles as a restaurant. And it's a real kitsch stinker.
The stench came home to roost while I was sitting in a booth at Texana. There, parked on the wall at eye level, was a photograph of a man with a shriveled face, a grizzled gray beard, and dark sunken eyes. The man smiled big, displaying a set of decaying front teeth with the word "Texas" scrawled over whatever enamel was left, one letter per tooth. It was spelled right too.
This is the last thing you'd think people would want to spy while munching chips & dips ($5.75) or armadillo eggs ($4.95), breaded jalapeños stuffed with cheese and fried. Especially since Texana's eggs were small and mushy with too many unmelted cheese shreds hanging from the jalapeño.
But people come in hordes to this lodge rendered in Austin limestone, corrugated metal, and rough-hewn timbers. So many, in fact, that live entertainment is reserved for weeknights only -- just "too busy on weekends," says Cuellar. Texana's armadillo eggs are served in little six-slot Styrofoam egg cartons, so this might be part of the draw. Another might be the cow-patty display in the entryway, a table with four old cowboy boots for legs and a glass top under which several cow chips are assembled. Cuellar says he and his partners once discussed having the entire bar top fashioned in such a way, a touch that would have given new meaning to the term "shit-faced."
Instead, the bar is cypress and timbers with bar tables made out of heavily shellacked tree-trunk cross-sections. Animal trophies are parked everywhere: a bobcat, a weasel, a large-mouth bass, a deer rump. In a move seemingly aimed at driving the Gloria Steinems of the world into indignant fits, the roof above the bar is plastered with virtually every bikini-babe beer poster ever produced, marking a time when beer marketing embraced female flesh instead of frogs, lizards, and "Dick."
In the dining room, wooden mallards with tin wings hover above the tables, and there's a sign that reads "All stressed-up and no one to choke." Cuellar says Texana's Tex-junk was culled from many sources including flea markets, the barns of avid Texana collectors, and old Texas Hill Country diners.
That region also drives the menu with offerings such as Opa's smoked sausage ($4.75) from Fredericksburg, slices of moist, chewy link scattered over a slice of white bread in a basket. Other items include "chicken breast a la Lawnboy," (carpeted in spinach), "death burgersteak" and "roadkill on a bun," a basic burger. "That was one we came up with pretty late one night," says Cuellar of the last one. "A lot of these names are beer-induced."
Yet despite monikers and decor that flirt with indigestion, a lot of this stuff is quite good. Mesquite-grilled chicken breast ($9.95) was juicy and tender with a good blast of grill flavor. And despite a preponderance of tough gristle and plump beads of fat, the T-bone ($17.95) wasn't bad either: dripping, tasty, and perfectly grilled. Even the cornmeal-breaded catfish filets ($11.95) were dank and flaky with a crisp shroud.
Danger strikes only with the sides. Ann's BBQ beans were little more than a bowl of brick-red mush. Potatoes and gravy were runny swirls that looked like squirts from a soft-serve machine. Flecked with green substance, Gruene rice was good with separate, moist grains, but there was no distinctive flavor to speak of. Salads -- served in chilled bowls, indicating that they were abandoned in a cooler -- were infested with browning head lettuce with drying edges. And for God's sake, steer clear of the balsamic dressing, a sharp goop of balsamic and mayo resembling curdled gravy. Apple cobbler ($3.95) topped with ice cream was also a flood of runny goo that overwhelmed whatever sparse remnants of crust survived the mix.
Cuellar cut his teeth at El Chico Corp., a company he ran with his father after they picked it up in a leveraged buy-out in 1982 and then took it public. He developed Texana Grill, fashioned after small Hill Country cafes, in 1991 in Nashville, Tennessee. It was a shrewdly crafted concept, and its success sent ripples through the corporate structure. "It was beginning to cause a rift within the company," he says. "There were people that wanted to stick with the tried-and-true El Chico Mexican food concepts."
Prodded by the indecisiveness, Cuellar cut loose in 1992 from El Chico and picked up Texana in a stock swap, keeping it thriving for almost eight years until it was shuttered and transplanted to Arlington.
Cuellar says he's eyeing Grapevine, Fort Worth, and Plano for Texana Grill expansion. But he might want to tighten a few things before blustering through the metroplex. While Texana's service is cheerfully attentive, the dining room is grubby, scattered with debris. And the restrooms were...well, let's just say they made a backhouse privy stacked with Sears catalogs seem wholesome. And that may be more old-fashioned Hill Country cafe authenticity than anyone can take.
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