If there's anything Texans like to do it's revel in their history, jubilate in their provincialism, bask in their brashness. In short, they like to brag. "We wanted a name that sounded epic," says Brinker International restaurants alumnus Tye Phelps when asked why he named his new restaurant Love & War in Texas. He adds that the words "love" and "war" and "Texas" are among the five words that most frequently appear in the titles of best-selling books. The other two words are, presumably, "Holy" and "Bible," underscoring Texan humility.
"Everything in Texas history has something to do with love or war or both," Phelps explains. "Bonnie & Clyde, to the Alamo, to San Antonio Rose." Maybe Phelps has a point. No piece of the Union has a history quite like Texas': No other state has had more flags fly over its territory, has the right to split itself into more states if it so chooses, or had its best wide receiver attend his criminal trial in a full-length fur coat in July. It's hard to imagine someone launching a restaurant called Love & War in Delaware.
Not that there's much inflation to this self-absorbed boasting. The 1999 Grolier Encyclopedia says Texas occupies 7.5 percent of total U.S. land mass -- enough square miles to swallow all of New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois, and still have room for pecan pie -- a deliciously sticky dessert ($4.95) at L&WT, especially when ordered a la mode. But such comparisons are foolish, because after a few minutes of listening to a native, you realize Texas transcends state designations. Phelps even calls the regions from which his menu items emanate "the five states of Texas": The Border (with Mexico); The West Texas Plains; the Hill Country; East Texas Piney Woods; and the Texas Gulf Coast.
It's funny to watch a non-Texan try to take all this in. I visited L&WT one evening with a companion who hails from Oregon. We took a seat on the patio, where a guitar player was plucking a tune about why he had to dump his girl: He was Texan, his dog was Texan, his car was Texan, but she was a foreigner -- probably from Delaware. Another guy crooned about being a battle-hardened Confederate soldier in 1865.
Anyway, we ordered the Beaumont bugs ($7.95): little crawdad tails hailing from the Gulf Coast state, armored in batter, deep-fried, and piled on a bed of fries around a ramekin of red-pepper cream sauce. Billed as spicy, the caked tails were actually bland, though the coating was crisp, greaseless, and thick. So thick, my companion peeled it off every tail she picked and just ate the meat, which was notably lacking in moist sweetness. (People from the Pacific Northwest tend to go into "fat shock" when exposed to fried foods.) When finished, she had a small plate piled high with golden brown casings. "Oh, my God. I've never seen anything like that before in my life," said our server after getting a glimpse of the mound. Obviously, this was her first brush with an Oregonian.
But my companion felt the same way about L&WT's Caesar salad. The greens were limp, the croutons were coarse and dull, and the dressing was infused with a fake smoke flavor. She felt better about The Stockyard ($20.95), an 8-ounce filet from the West Texas Plains. But not much. The meat (purported to be Certified Angus) was a bit mushy with a washed-out, livery flavor.
My New Braunfels bratwurst ($12.95) from the Hill Country was far better. Venison brats and shriveled smoked venison sausage -- tossed on a bed of snarling, mushy kraut of little note -- was moist, firm, and savory. The brats, however, did seem a bit too suffused with cheap black pepper.
But the food, eminently passable (it got an "A" rating from the Plano Environmental Health Department), isn't the most engaging thing about L&WT. It's the props and the people. That patio, fashioned out of stone and cedar, has an outdoor seating area bermed with bales of hay that separate the seating area from Central Expressway and a set of railroad tracks. From one patio post juts a long horizontal pole, from which hangs a small ring from a long string. The ring is attached to a hook on the post. The object of this game is to stand far from the post, swing the ring, and try to catch it on the hook. "It's kind of a dart game for Texans," says Phelps. "We kind of stole it from a bar we saw it in."
But that's not all the Texas entertainment Phelps has employed. He has just installed a washer pit. "It's kind of like horseshoes," he says. In this game, washers (not the Maytag kind) are tossed at two small holes spaced several feet apart.
So L&WT is more than grub: It's Texas cultural immersion. Phelps, who grew up all over the state (his father worked for various chambers of commerce), says he not only wants to give people a taste of Texas, he wants to provide a history lesson as well. Most of the flags that have flown over Texas or the Alamo hang on the walls, as do various framed covers of Texas Monthly magazine. There's an 1899 Savage 30/30 Texas Ranger rifle above the fireplace, and the winning paddle from the 1986 Hopkins County stew contest. Phelps says he sent more than 200 letters to various Texas counties for stuff to kitsch-out his digs; much of the paraphernalia is still in storage. "We don't ever want it to look like a theme restaurant," he cautions. "We want to keep it tasteful. We call it Texas Heritage."
Whatever you call it, L&WT is true to its roots. All of the building materials have Texas origins, from the Austin limestone in the fireplace and the patio to the cedar, pine, cypress, and hickory that make up the floors, beams, booths, and tables. There's a massive antler chandelier in the front entryway with horns from Texas hoofed beasts lashed together. Phelps says he wants people to feel like they're dining in a rich cattleman's ranch house on Saturday night, which makes you wonder what bull inspired the ranch-hand school of interior design.
The food -- meat, pecans in the pecan pie, fish and seafood -- is virtually all from Texas. The wine list -- ours was plastered on an empty bottle of Llano Estacado Signature Red -- is purebred Texas. So are most of the soft drinks and beers, with the exception of Coke and a few Buds and Millers.
You're greeted at this ranch house with traditional Southwestern clutter: chips. Only these come in colors typically found in Deep Ellum hairdos. And the made-to-order guacamole ($6.50), "prepared right at the table by a Love and War ranch hand," didn't improve the chips one bit. Metal ramekins filled with tomato, cilantro, onion, garlic, and lime were dumped into a bowl of spoon-scooped avocado and then pulverized into guac glop. The result lacked nutty-rich flavor, as if the avocados were underripe. Or maybe authentic Texas ranch-hand guac needs to be prepared under the tire of a Cadillac.
I once swore I'd never eat a deep-fried pickle after I heard the havoc it wreaks on the typical New Orleans torso. But Texas wagonwheels ($4.95), batter-coated deep-fried pickle slices, were virtually greaseless. And while the batter was a little bland, the salty sapidity of the pickle seeped through, though the ranch dressing was soaked in more annoying fake smoke flavorings.
What really got my culinary spurs kicking was the Trailboss ($21.95), an 18-ounce mesquite-grilled T-bone. It's not elegant by any means, but neither is a Texas hairdo. This is a terrific country steak: hearty, rich, juicy, and tender.
The steak was mated with a tasty smoked corn ear sprinkled with seasoned salt. A portion of the husk was left in place and pulled back over the stem, where it was tied in a neat little bow with a strip of husk. More disappointing was the baked potato bundled in sour cream, butter, scallions, shredded cheese, and real bacon bits. The tuber was undercooked and hard.
Undercooking was the slight affliction infecting the Frio country platter from the Hill Country ($15.95) as well. The plate came with a half mesquite-smoked chicken and a half rack of ribs. Though just a bit underdone and maybe a little spongy, the chicken was still delicious: well-smoked without being blasted. The ribs were dry and mealy, though a side of tasty Lone Star beer beans was firm with malt flavor and beer spark.
Even the border stuff was good. Fajitas Del Rio were offered with a choice of three potential renderings: vegetable, shrimp, and a beef-chicken combo. The chicken-beef combination ($12.95) was good, save for a few drawbacks, namely grease splatters. Grease coated the sizzling metal plate with all the tortilla stuffings and spritzed the surface of the black tortilla warmer. Yet the meat was moist and relatively greaseless. And though it was hard to detect any lime-marinade flavors in the skirt steak, it was tasty, as was the chicken. Yet a side of "Texican" rice was dry and fuzzy.
There's no fuzziness, however, with Phelps' L&WT ambitions. The concept works well: It doesn't take itself too seriously (how many restaurants would put a stew paddle on a wall and call it heritage?), and even if the food isn't uniformly spectacular, the place sizzles with sincerity and good feeling. Plus, the staff is diligent and cheerful, even if a little green. L&WT has that indefinable spirit that more often than not spells success.
Phelps' cohorts in this epic are Matthew Tea, with whom he worked at Brinker, and Travis Shull, a commercial investment manager for General Electric. Together this trio plans to spread their Texas shtick to Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio, among other places. Phelps backpedals a little when pressed on his ultimate plans. "We are not big rich guys that just wanna spill restaurants everywhere," he says. No, they're just regular guys who want to get rich spilling Texas all over itself.
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