Let's put aside pup tents for a moment. The American cowboy is an icon of rugged individualism coupled with stalwart determination, plus a little recklessness thrown in. The cowboy myth is embodied in the stoic, emotionally distant adventurer.
You feel it at Cattleman's Steakhouse. The moniker on the canopy over the horseshoe driveway is done up in red neon, hinting that there might be a raft of harlots in Versace petticoats within, serving up doses of calf fries with the poker chips. OK, so the myth fractures a bit under the weight of the fountain in front that burbles water dyed crème de menthe shade and a rock water feature on the patio that inexplicably features a white plaster elephant head. But burst through the white French doors (French doors?) into the vestibule, past the opulent mirror-backed bar with a thicket of vines twisted overhead and a baby grand off to the right, and you'll face a dining room sweating the most iconographic cowboy trait: hushed solitude.
It's 7:15 on a Friday evening. The dining room is devoid of guests. Two men in silk shirts and boots huddle with a woman in dark slacks and black pumps, draining Bud long necks out on the patio as full throated V-Twin hogs rumble down Shorecrest near the shores of Bachman Lake.
Shrimp cocktail $7.95
New York strip $20.95
Rib eye tequila $17.95
Baked salmon (lunch) $7.50
Key lime pie $5
There is nothing else to pierce the silence, no Hank Williams audio wallpaper, no dinner prattle, no bustling crackle of flatware slapping plates. The waiter's footsteps on the parquet dining room flooring are like distant thunder; the rattling hum of a refrigeration unit like the forlorn call of a loon on some range lake at dusk.
"You decided on a wine?"
A cartoonish image of a steer head glares from the plastic-coated wine list that contains just 10 wines of the type you might find on a 7-Eleven end cap: a Sterling Chardonnay here, a Beringer White Zinfandel there. We opt for the Napa Ridge Pinot Noir.
"Very good, sir."
He could have been a cattleman once. He is long, lean and lanky with tanned, weathered skin, well-salted charcoal locks and a subdued drawl that reels back into his tight mouth as his sentences tail-off. He wears a white shirt and a cobalt blue tie wrapped in a black vest. Let's call him Harry Dean Stanton. (Remember Repo Man?)
You can hear Harry Dean Stanton reiterate the wine order at the bar as another wet-slapping V-Twin rumbles down Shorecrest.
"I'll tell you what goes good with this," he says calling from across the dining room floor as he shuffles to the table with the Napa Ridge. "We've got a steak and lobster special: Two for 69 bucks. Uh huh. You get two steaks, two lobsters, baked potato, and soup or salad."
"What kind of steak?"
"Any kind of steak you want. What kind you want? You name it; I'll give it to you. I just want you to be happy." He clicks open his cork puller. "It's ouuutstanding. Hmmm, mmmm, mmm." The worm turns into the cork with a pulsing squeal. He rips it from the bottle lip with a wet muted pop.
Harry Dean Stanton has been strolling this dining room for 15 years, he says, since the time it was Pierre's By the Lake and through the four-month period it was Azuca Latin Steak House, a venture headlined by Leo Villa, formerly of Javier's. Says Harry Dean Stanton: "Didn't make it. Nope. Didn't make money." It's been Cattleman's for about three months.
The menu is sprinkled with a number of hoary American dining room favorites: liver and onions in brown sauce, whole catfish and grilled pork chop served with apple sauce. But the core of this menu is steak, some of it allegedly prime.
The prime New York strip, for example.
"How do you want it cooked?" He slows over the last word, segmenting it into four syllables, placing special emphasis on the hard "c" and "k" sounds. "No asparagus tonight. I got green beans."
The shrimp cocktail lingers over a sulking bed of withered greens, all artlessly draped in broad beads of cocktail sauce. It poses like a canopy over a shallow bowl filled with cool water dyed green. Yet this odd visual did nothing to ameliorate the cocktail impact. Each shrimp is limp and soggy, curved like the clutching fingers of a corpse that had just surrendered its rigor mortis. The shrimp are tough, stringy and tasteless. One shed its tail the instant it was pierced and lifted from the flaccid vegetation with a fork. Could this be surplus freeze-dried shrimp from the Gemini space program, originally scheduled for rehydration sometime before Nixon developed his famous "I am not a crook" shtick?
"Would you like steak sauce?"
It's been a long time since we've heard that question. It's usually posed in truck stops or steak 'n' eggers. But this inquiry isn't the most amusing element in the Cattleman's steak experience. That rests on the plate rim, which is ribboned with pink mashed potato swirls that culminate into a frothy starch blossom.
Yes, there still is baked potato: a massive purse split and pried open like a ravenous Muppet mug. A plate of four plastic ramekins containing bacon fragments, shredded yellow cheese, chives and sour cream is delivered for installation into the spud gash. The potato is dry.
As is the steak. The rib eye tequila is gray (Harry Dean Stanton didn't ask how I wanted it co-ok-e-t), stiff and mealy. Yet this complexion characterized only about 60 percent of the outer steak perimeter. Once you slash your way to the center, the meat is dull pink, dry and mealy. No matter. The rib eye tequila came with a ramekin of tequila sauce, a fluid of indistinct attributes that looks suspiciously like the vinaigrette dressing dribbled over the house salad: a dull green, slightly sweet drool with a texture suspiciously similar to Mott's apple sauce.
The prime New York strip is better--a thicker cut with a richer bleed and deep, even grill-bar striping. With the steaks comes a pork rib on a saucer, drenched with a thick orange barbecue sauce that breathes remnants of Heinz 57. The moist meat tumbles from the bone.
At lunch, Cattleman's hushed solitude faces vigorous encroachment. When we arrive, there is a couple supping on soup and salad while they await a plate of beef liver and onions. After that couple leaves, another arrives to fill out the vast dining room. The rush doesn't rattle Harry Dean Stanton. He doesn't miss a beat.
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I scrunch my eyes and order the baked salmon from the lunch special card stapled to the menu, imagining it might arrive floating in a pool of green fountain water. Instead, it comes on a plate with a puff of sticky overcooked rice sewn with tiny flecks of celery and carrot and a flock of overcooked and shriveled zucchini wedges that would make for a swell Gerber strained meal component if the zuc hadn't been so thoroughly desiccated.
The salmon itself, however, is a surprise. The butter sauce is a bit unctuous and plodding, but the meat is slightly crisp at the edges. It tumbles away into flakes under pressure. This salmon is the lone strain of competency here, other than Harry Dean Stanton, that is. The tangy smooth Key lime pie is OK too.
But this exposes a riddle: Why, with a charming dining room embracing a spectacular Bachman Lake view and an engaging waiter lording over the floor, is Cattleman's Steak House such a ghost town? To probe the riddle, I called Jake Stanley, owner of Stanley Refrigerated Express trucking and Cattleman's proprietor. I asked what lured him into the restaurant business.
"Oh, I don't know. I've done lots of things," Stanley snarls. "I mean, you know...I don't have time for this bleh, bleh interview. What made me decide to get into the restaurant business? Ain't that some shit?" (click). 3430 Shorecrest Drive, 214-358-2379. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. Open for dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$$