101 Cornelius Rd. North
Dude Factor: 8, or Grandpa Simpson, on a scale of 1 (Grandfather clauses) to 10 (Royal Tenenbaum)
Our trip to Willie's Place was more than just dinner for my Grandpa Neudecker. It was nothing less than a pilgrimage. Since health and vision problems have kept him mostly bound to his room in recent years, "Willie's Place" on XM Radio has been one of his most reliable companions. So, from the moment he planned his visit to Dallas from Indianapolis, he'd been excitedly talking about Carl's Corner.
His enthusiasm was tempered by his sarcastic, cynical streak, of course.
"Wait till we get down there and find out it's just a goddamn gas pump," he'd rasp between puffs on a Winston, wheezing with laughter.
We found out it was a bit more than that Saturday night, after first passing Carl's Corner entirely for a shopping excursion at the outlet malls in Hillsboro. Needless to say, Grandpa was not happy about this side trip, and fumed in the car instead of letting his daughter (my mother) buy him a jacket, growling, "That woman drove past Willie's Place to go to a goddamn dry goods store?"
Nonetheless, we made it in plenty of time to have a few cold Lone Stars before dinner.
Willie's Place is divided into four separate parts: the Whiskey River Saloon, the Blue Skies Cafe, the general store and Willie's Theater. Regional country bands play on weekend nights at the saloon, while bigger-name acts play in the theater. The dudes in our party headed to the saloon while the kids and womenfolk got appetizers in the cafe.
It was quickly evident that we were the only people in the saloon who weren't truckers or bikers, but nobody gave us any guff. In fact, after a few cheap cold ones and a couple games of pool, we had to be dragged out. Grandpa was particularly impressed by the bartender's command of the lexicon's four-letter words as she related a recent story about being too drunk to pull her jeans back up in the bathroom. Naturally Grandpa, who is somehow able to spot an attractive female rear end from 50 yards despite an advanced case of macular degeneration, shared his own theory about why she struggled with the tight pants.
Yet despite the Camel Light and Winston smokescreen my brothers and Grandpa created (no smoking ban in Carl's Corner), my wife eventually found our table. We bought some time by buying her a Lone Star, but then Mom finally breezed in and convinced us to come to supper.
After checking out the random assortment of photos, platinum records and various other memorabilia, we looked over the menu--burgers, meatloaf, steaks, sandwiches. I'm sure there's no need to describe the items. What, you were expecting pan-Asian fusion or Southern French cuisine from Willie Nelson? The only surprise was how affordable it was for a place that could easily jack up the prices for tourists. With the exception of the $24.99 porterhouse and a couple other steaks, everything was under $12, with several sandwiches at around $8 each.
I got "Willie's Favorite," a 10-oz. chicken-fried steak, with green beans and mashed potatoes.
"We have a smaller version," the waitress offered. I laughed off the suggestion. How big could 10 oz be?
Grandpa got the French dip sandwich with onion rings. My youngest brother ordered a New York Strip extra well-done, which nearly provoked a sibling fist-fight. I tried to suggest that he try it medium-rare or at least medium rather than having all the flavor cooked out of it, but he insisted that charring was what gave steak flavor. As only a brotherly argument can, the debate quickly grew heated as each questioned the intelligence and taste of the other, Grandpa laughing and egging it on all the while.
The food arrived before we came to blows. And suddenly the server's offer of a half order of the CFS made sense. The steak was enormous, covering most of the dinner plate. For the 10 oz. of steak, there had to be twice that amount of breading.
As for the taste, it was pretty good if not spectacular. Crunchy batter gave way to chewy gray meat of undistinguished origin. Thick, salty cream gravy did an OK job of covering up how bland and dry the potatoes were. It was definitely quantity over quality. I'm guessing Willie had a serious case of the munchies when he declared it his favorite. Everything else I sampled was pretty much middle-of-the-road as well.
But let's face it: Willie isn't trying to blow you away by some dramatic new interpretation on Southern cuisine. The place aims to do nothing more than show you and your trucker pals, biker buddies, or your ne'er-do-well family members a good time and sell you a ball cap or 12-pack on the way out. And Saturday night, Grandpa's XM friend managed all that and then some.