In a small, fenced parcel, presumably somewhere in Texas, two perfectly dressed cowboys wrestle a young calf to the ground. They use their knees to pin the animal to the dirt while a third cowboy holds a thick length of metal in the smoldering coals of a fire in the background. It is an image that makes me very glad to be at the top of the food chain. But it's a strange backdrop for a restaurant that features a stew filled with the flesh and organ meat of a suckling veal calf.
The high-definition video loops on a number of screens strewn around the dining room at Stampede 66, the downtown restaurant recently opened by the illustrious Stephan Pyles. The founding father of Southwestern cuisine built a temple to the Lone Star State with his most recent project, making use of the state's most literal icons and little restraint. It is very likely that no restaurant in the history of restaurants has packed more Texas under one roof.
Snakeskin booths scalloped like cowboy seashells greet you when you first walk in the door, as does a massive indoor pergola that shades several tables from an invisible sun. A massive wire sculpture of a snake (a Texas rattler, for sure) frames the large bar that runs along the back of the dining room where longhorn trophies hang from the ceiling in endless repetition.
1717 McKinney Ave., 214-550-6966, stampede66.com. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 4 p.m.-midnight Monday-Friday, 4 p.m.-midnight Saturday. Closed Sunday. $$$
Fried green tomatoes $12
Venison meatloaf $18
There are more TVs, displaying grainy rural images framed in faux window frames, as if a cattle roundup were in progress under a sunny sky out on McKinney Avenue. There are cowboy hats on the walls, bright red cowboy shirts on the staff, and some of the time, cowboy tunes blast from speakers in every direction. The décor is poured on so thick you might wonder when the live entertainment will begin. It's as if a set designer for the Dallas Opera had been turned loose upon the room to create a backdrop for a modern Texas musical — including a color-changing light show.
When the food is good, the space comes together. This is the case when a small bowl of jalapeño-studded cornbread and a mini-Dutch oven full of sweet and spicy ranchero beans hanging over a tiny fire arrive at the table. You might be tempted to yodel like Jimmie Rodgers when they remove the metal lid from the pot. The presentation is kitschy, sure, but those beans and cornbread are damn fine eatin'. The same goes for a square of venison meatloaf painted with grill marks served with a small cast-iron skillet of mac and cheese.
Sonofabitch stew is as old as cattle raising, but not many cowboys have rustled up a bowl of stew like this one. Most recipes call for nearly an entire calf's worth of organ meats boiled simply with water, garlic and loads of hot sauce. Pyles' version is built with a blond veal stock enriched with cream, with a small, perfectly cooked cube of liver, fried sweetbreads, tongue, heart and tender veal. Bright pickled onions and vibrant green Brussels sprout petals pop with color on the background of beige and grays, but they also highlight the oxidized green beans that have spent way too much time simmering away into tasteless veg. Otherwise it's an outstanding bowl of soup you should order with biscuits to sop up any remaining broth.
Other errors sting a big more. A creative rendition of chicken-fried steak made with buffalo seems innovative but falls flat. The meat is pounded and molded into an egg shape that holds pepper gravy like a yolk inside. Break it open to make that gravy gush, and the breading will fall off revealing an unappetizing piece of meat the color of wet newspaper. The "gun barrel" greens that are served on the side explode with acidity, though.
A popover gets the injection treatment, too, though the plural "s" on the menu needs to be corrected. (You only get one for $10.) The bread seems to defy the laws of kitchen physics, billowing upward like a cumulonimbus cloud from an oversized thimble before a cook fills it full of oozing pimento spread like Easy Cheese.
Tacos across the board are good, making use of freshly pressed tortillas and fillings that shine more often than not along with a sextet of memorable condiments. Fish, based on Gulf Coast bycatch (the creatures inadvertently captured while harvesting a target species), are an especially good choice, but all the versions are tasty. The $4-per-taco price tag seems a tad like extortion for the brisket and pork versions, though.
Of course, tacos may never have been served with such impeccable service. Pyles' new staff runs like just like a casual, rodeo-themed version of the polished front end at his eponymous fine-dining restaurant. Here, they fold napkins like bandanas and make fresh prickly pear margaritas with a smoky liquid nitrogen show from a cocktail cart that's wheeled around the dining room. The well-trained staff knows the menu front to back. Let them help you find some of the better gems that make their way out of the kitchen.
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Those include the vegetables across the board, which seem to especially shine. Don't miss the riff on a caprese salad made with fried green tomatoes that warm and melt mozzarella cheese. A light cornmeal breading clings to the dense and tart tomatoes, which are tempered by a small drift of chowchow foam with a subtle sweetness.
Calabacitas and blossoms showcase squash from blossom to fruit in crispy, tempura-fried and casserole versions alongside a floral mousse.
A salad of pig ears is even more innovative. They're served with small spheres of green apples turned to lollipops, earthy chorizo and a tangle of arugula, and Pyles makes offal more approachable than any chef in Dallas, demonstrating why he's one of the most well known restaurateurs in the region.
Pyles can take trash cuts and turn them into something stunning and finds inspiration in a humble bag of Fritos heaped with Texas-style chili and slivers of fiery jalapeño. "Freeto-Chili Pie," the menu calls the creation, tucked into a custom bag stamped with the restaurant's name. This dish is as Texas as it gets, and Stampede 66 may be the perfect restaurant to define the Dallas dining scene right now. It seems over-the-top ridiculous that "Deep in the Heart of Texas" is playing when the plate of chili-drenched, house-fried corn chips descends on my table. I can't help myself and clap four times.