Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Finest Eating Joint in Texas, Part 3

Oh god, that meal.

Let's start with something I forgot to mention during the appetizer course. Valerie, my boss, tried to order onion rings as one of our appetizers, but Trevor the waiter returned to tell us that The Big Texan was out of onion rings. I worked for a summer as a Sonic carhop--the third worst job I've ever had--and one of my responsibilities in the morning before the Sonic opened was to assist in the making of onion rings. As mentioned earlier, I still eat at Sonic, even after working in one for three months. I don't think I'll be returning to The Big Texan without coercive methods. Anyway, it's not hard to make an onion ring, and since the whole menu was swimming in batter, the issue must have been that either A) they were out of onions, or B) they were too lazy to hack up some onions and dip them in the vats of batter. The onion rings weren't the only missing items from the menu that night.

We ordered. Chris the Bottomless Stomach, who had already ordered the 32 oz beer, ordered the second largest steak on the menu, a 36 oz slab of cow, the "Houston Cut" ribeye, that made me feel nauseated at mere contemplation. Most of the others ordered cow products, though Gianna ordered a baked potato with everything but the bacon bits, her best option as the table's vegetarian. Not a cow eater, I narrowed my choices down to either the fried chicken strips for $15.25 or the fried shrimp with "Buck-a-Roo Cocktail Sauce" for $16.95. I thought that it was outrageous to charge over $15 for chicken strips, and I (wrongly) guessed that if they were willing to cute-ify the name of the dipping sauce that the shrimp were the better choice. On the other hand, Amarillo rests about 800 miles from an ocean. I asked Trevor if the shrimp were frozen, which I didn't really care about, but sometimes I watch Gordon Ramsey's "Kitchen Nightmares" show and he's always going on about fresh ingredients. Trevor basically guaranteed that the shrimp were from the deep freeze, but I humored the "how bad can they be?" thought and ordered them anyway, along with a salad and mashed potatoes. Valerie ordered a steak, mashed potatoes, and another side, and Alan, who had talked about ribs for ten minutes, ordered a rack.

Then we sat back and waited. We waited for the two people from our account to join us, as they had been delayed by an event. We waited for the food. Everyone continued to drink, except for Brenda who never received her margarita, and we heard detailed descriptions of the flights from Maryland (our logistics people) and Minnesota (Alan). Trevor somewhat regularly found his way to the table to bring more beer, but not the food. After about 45 minutes of waiting, the appetizer trays scraped clean, we heard a commotion downstairs. A waitress announced that someone was attempting the 72 oz steak challenge. A large man sat at a table in the middle of the first floor with a slab of cow smothering a plate. The waitress explained the rules; eat the whole steak, the baked potato, the salad, the rolls, and three shrimp in an hour and they are free. She didn't point out that if he failed he would pay almost $100 for the meal, or that a vomit bucket sat on the floor beside his table. People gathered around to wish him luck, and lots of people snapped pictures, and the freak show nature of the joint intensified. And back at our table, Valerie and Alan began to grow impatient for our food. The logistics team was still on East Coast time and we were all hungry. Plus, Chris the Stomach was already on his second 32 oz beer. We needed our food.

As Chris the Wannabe Kobayashi criticized steak guy's strategy for downing the massive cow hunk ("You have to eat 75% of it in the first 20 minutes, before your stomach realizes what's happening"), Valerie got up to track down Trevor and our dinners. As soon as she stood, naturally, he appeared with our entrees. He served most of the main courses. I can't speak about the quality of the food down on Gianna's side of the table, though I do know that Gianna's baked potato "with everything but the bacon bits" arrived as only a potato, nothing else, and she knew that it wasn't hot because Trevor picked up the foil-wrapped potato and set it down in front of her without the assistance of a hot mat. Or a plate. I repeat, she didn't receive a plate.

As for my end of the table, well, we weren't impressed by the quality. Valerie's steak was very cold, and Alan's ribs looked awful, with the sauce congealed across a grayish matter that was allegedly meat. Across from me, Kathy cut into her "medium well" steak, which was described on the menu as "no pink, cooked throughout," and blood pooled in her plate. She looked stricken and sent the plate back with Trevor to experience the phenomenon of fire. And then there were my shrimp. I could tell right away that something was off about my shrimp. It was that the top three were fried together as they obviously had been removed from the freezer, stuck together. The cook hadn't bothered to separate them before dropping them in the fryer, and then he hadn't bothered to hide the horror underneath the other shrimp. They were on top, like a prized nugget. Also, I've had good-though-frozen shrimp that were good quality. These little shrimp were obviously not high quality. They were pulverized flat to make them seem larger than the medium-to-small size they actually were. No shrimp exist like that in nature. The tasted pretty nasty, too.

About the time that people began sending their food back to the kitchen for heating/cooking, the two people joining us from our account arrived. They greeted everyone, sat down, and ordered drinks. Meanwhile, Chris the Cow Compactor had torn into the huge steak on his plate. I am very glad that I wasn't sitting next to him, because he's a nice and highly entertaining guy, but watching that cow consumption would have required a bucket for me too. As Chris ate, though, it quickly was obvious to all of us that he was putting the 72 oz challenger downstairs to shame. As Beefy T downstairs was giving up, Chris was mopping up his plate. And because I found my shrimp disgusting and my sides had yet to arrive, I was taking pictures. As the big guy packed up about 2/3 of his steak, Chris all but licked his plate. The waitress presented the challenger with an "I Surrender!" t-shirt, and people cheered the attempt, and I'm guessing that the guy was thinking that the shirt probably tasted better than his steak. If you look closely at the picture, he managed to eat ALL of his salad. Gianna screamed down to my end of the table, "Liz! Look! NO WEDDING RING!" She's constantly on the look out for a future Mr. Liz, and I probably don't show my gratitude properly. Anyway, if you look at the plate behind Chris's juicy remains, you'll notice huge cuts of onion. Guess that answers the onion ring question.

While we were making fun of the guy who failed to eat the 72 oz steak, Trevor stopped by and we quizzed him on the challenge. He told us that about 15 people attempted it each day, and that often it ends with the challenger using the puke bucket. Worse, they don't tell the regular diners that the contestant next to them might ruin the whole dining room's meal by retching four and a half pounds of cow into a metal bucket. I'm glad that we were sitting in the balcony.

In the meantime, we were still waiting on our sides, and after Valerie asked for the third time--I think she wanted SOMETHING to eat and was hoping that the mashed potatoes would compensate for the cold and congealed cow on her plate--the potatoes arrived. They were vile, and possibly the worst "food" on the table. The consistency of glue and adhering to the dishes (I flipped mine upside-down and tried to jar them loose, with no success), they were flavorless, luke-warm, and very, very bad. If you saw the movie The Matrix, and you remember the gross protein substance that Keanu and his pals ate for breakfast, imagine that glop after it has solidified. Those were our potatoes. And after still more pleading, we finally received our second sides, in my case a salad. Now, I normally treat salad as a necessary evil before the good parts of a meal, and I regularly state that I don't eat twigs and shrubs, but that salad was the best thing I ate that night. If only I hadn't waited almost three hours for it to arrive, I might have enjoyed the food portion of my Big Texan experience more. I should make clear that I had a blast taking in the absurdity of the entire scene, but the food was terrible and the service appalling. I don't blame Trevor--he seemed flustered and overwhelmed the whole time, and we found out that he'd only been working there for about two weeks. And it wasn't his fault that starving refugees would have hesitated to eat that food. On the whole, though, I couldn't believe that the restaurant was featured on the Food Network. Valerie, feeling obstinate, demanded that they serve us the dinner rolls we should have received about two hours earlier, and though I didn't eat one, the consensus at the table was that the rolls were good.

And then we ordered dessert. Chris-Who-Ate-Amarillo ordered a slice of cheesecake, and in an attempt to find some food over going back to the hotel hungry, Valerie, Alan, and I shared a piece of chocolate cake. A couple of other desserts were ordered for the other end of the table. Alan ordered black coffee, and Annette ordered decaf. A minute later, Trevor came back and announced that they were out of regular coffee. I lost it. I was laughing hysterically and Valerie questioned my mental state as I openly guffawed at the whole evening. Then she joined me laughing. What kind of a restaurant doesn't have coffee? And wouldn't you send someone to go buy some coffee before admitting that you're out to a table of 11 whose orders have been mangled from the time they sat down? How is this place still open?? When the desserts arrived, Alan immediately sent back our chocolate cake so that they could add the ice cream, whipped cream, nuts, and cherry that were shown in the picture on the dessert menu. They had sent out a slab of cake on a plate with no garnish, and for that matter, no clean utensils. As Trevor tried to hand us forks, he himself, pulled back his hand because he didn't think that the handful of utensils had been washed. And then we heard the laughter from the other end of the table. After a meal of oversized excess, Chris's slice of cheesecake was shockingly small, smaller than the fare at the Olive Garden down the road, smaller than the cheesecake sold in the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru.

God, what a meal.

We rode the hideous limos back to the hotel, and on the ride we figured out that Chris had eaten 36 ounces of cow, his salad, the cheesecake, and consumed a full gallon of beer, and he hadn't even used the restroom. Chris swore that on his next visit to Amarillo, he was tackling the 72 oz monster. I hope I'm not there. I would vomit.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Finest Eating Joint in Texas, Part 2

...We entered the restaurant in all its magnificence. Even though we had a reservation, our table wasn't yet ready, so we perused the extremely classy gift shop. Want your own longhorns for your Cadillac? They're $400 at The Big Texan gift shop. Want a Frisbee that looks like a cow paddy? Check! The visiting warehouse people were impressively captivated by the Texas-sized array o' crap.

And in case you might believe that the crap was confined to the gift shop, let's talk about the interior of the restaurant. Here's what a patron encounters as soon as s/he enters the building: The stuffed bear, the slot machines, the random flag-type stuff shoved in already cluttered areas, the ad for Elvis Impersonator Night--classy. And lest you think that Smoky the Bear was the only taxidermied beast in The Big Texan, think again. I think that they might even stuff anyone who takes the 72 ounce steak challenge and then suffers a terminal coronary in the process, at which point they preserve the dead glutton, prop him against a wall, and proceed to neglect dusting him for about twenty years. The place was covered in carcasses and the carcasses were covered in dust. That elk on the wall? That's not chin hair. That's a dust-covered cobweb. And because Valerie reserved a table upstairs looking down on the main floor, we were eye level with the corpse of Bambi's mom for most of our time in the restaurant. Did I mention that Gianna is a vegetarian? I don't think that The Big Texan's decorating choices swayed her from that path.

As we sat down, nine of us from the publisher present, with the two people from our account running late but expected to join us shortly, we ordered a smattering of appetizers--fried jalepenos, fried mushrooms, and potato skins with brisket on them--and our cowboy-dressed waiter, Trevor, took our drink orders. Chris, the bottomless stomach, ordered a 36 ounce beer, and most of the members of our table likewise ordered beer in large steins. I don't know their thinking, but I wouldn't have been surprised to discover that they were hoping that alcohol would distract them from the roadkill all over the walls. Brenda (the children's book rep) and Gianna were sitting on the far end of the table from Valerie, Brenda's boss Alan, and me, and the folks from our operations/warehouse staff plus the two empty chairs for our guests were in between. I found out later that Brenda ordered a margarita, it being the official cocktail of Texas. I was worried about triggering a migraine, having not slept for about four days and feeling a little loopy already, so I ordered a Diet Coke. Now, I understand that some restaurants stupidly accept the Pepsi incentives for carrying their products over Coke products, but here's the thing: Diet Pepsi is NEVER a suitable alternative to Diet Coke. I know that some people are polite and will settle for Diet Pepsi, but no one ever prefers Diet Pepsi to Diet Coke. And I am not one of those polite people. I suggested to Trevor that he send one of the limos to pick up some Diet Cokes from a convenience store and I'd wait, but I think Trevor knew that with a party of eleven his gratuity was included in the bill and he didn't seem willing to go the extra mile (literally) to help a junky out. I settled for water, and I think the restaurant itself gasped in disbelief that a diner wasn't choosing a beer that came in a mug that was twice the size of my fish bowl (I once kept a beta named Elvis Fauntleroy IV, until I acquired Zorro the cat and Zorro liked to drink Elvis's water). I don't think I fit in with the Big Texan mystique.

...Next, the meal, or, "Sorry we're out of (blank)."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Finest Eating Joint in Texas, Part 1

I am not a foodie. I'd just as soon eat at Sonic (bless the Sonic) as any place that features cloth napkins. Gianna, too, isn't snooty in her cuisine choices, and she's a vegetarian, so when we're on road trips together the restaurant choices are pretty low brow. Recently I drove from Houston to Austin, picked up my fellow rep, and then we drove to Amarillo, and three days later we reversed the trip--roughly 22 hours of driving total. On this four day trip that spanned the entire state of Texas, we ate at classy establishments like the Olive Garden in Abilene, the Subway in Amarillo, and we really splurged on lunch at the Taco Bell in Lubbock. My monthly credit card statement must appall my colleagues in New York, but we tend to go with fast over haute dining. I have as many saved phone numbers for various Macaroni Grills on my cell phone as I do members of the Sullivan clan, and generally I prefer the Macaroni Grill to my family. The car-side servers are more polite generally.

The exception to the quick, boring schlock upon which we regularly dine arises when that obligatory anomaly pops up--the work dinner. While in Amarillo, several members of the publishing universe we inhabit descended from our central offices and warehouse to discuss operations with our Amarillo account. One cannot stroll through the Rick Husband/Amarillo "International" Airport (they fly to Mexico) without seeing advertisements for The Big Texan, the home of the 72 ounce steak. One cannot drive from the airport to downtown Amarillo without passing the actual building in its yellow-rose-of-Texas color scheme and gaudy aesthetic offensiveness. The Food Network even featured the establishment in one of their programs that promotes oddity over quality (Man Vs. Food, I think). There's even a classic episode of one of my favorite TV shows ever, King of the Hill, in which 13 year old Bobby Hill eats a 72 ounce steak at a Big Texan-type restaurant to tweak his nose at his vegetarian ex-girlfriend. The Big Texan is an Amarillo and Texas landmark.

In spite of the alluring tackiness that would normally tempt someone with my love of absurdity (particularly because The Big Texan has a terrifically absurd gift shop), I had never stepped into the building. Gianna is a vegetarian, after all, and because of throat problems and general taste issues, I can't and won't swallow beef except in hamburger form. We'd never been there, and more tellingly, the people we called on in Amarillo never wanted to go there. However, one of our colleagues flying in for operations meetings last week desperately wanted to experience The Big Texan. Our boss Valerie, a great organizer and the type who can juggle personalities skillfully while indulging the crazy guy who wants huge slabs of cow, arranged for a group of us--eleven people in total--to dine at this Texas institution. She even arranged for the Big Texan limos to pick us up at our luxurious Hampton Inn accommodations. In case you were wondering, yes, there are longhorn antlers on the front of the limos. Guessing from all of the talk of alcohol consumption, I figured that I wasn't the only person feeling ambivalent about this dining experience. But I do love the spectacle and the ridiculous, and as we rode to the restaurant I snapped pictures.

A note about the limos--they weren't nice. They reeked, and the upholstery was missing from the side of one of them, and I'm pretty certain that our little party is the only group ever to ride in the limos and not ask to visit a strip club after our meal. I would bet that we're one of the few groups not to vomit in them. Moving on to dinner.

One of our visiting colleagues, a guy named Chris, is one of those high metabolism guys like the hotdog eating champion Kobayashi--wiry and twitchy with energy. I suspect that he may have driven his second grade teacher to the nervous hospital back in the day. Chris had talked big about eating the 72 ounce steak before boarding the plane from the East Coast to the Texas Panhandle, but after eating a big burger for lunch he chickened out. He, by the way, was the one who had seen The Big Texan on the Food Network and I mostly blame him for this excursion. Other people present included other warehouse/logistics staff/publishing supply geniuses Kathy, Annette, and Flo (sounds a bit like the names of phony receptionists on infomercials from my childhood, when every single person with a headset was named "Nancy"), children's rep Brenda and her boss Alan, Gianna, Valerie our boss, me, and two members of the book team from our account in Amarillo, Matthew and Sylvia.

We walked into the restaurant after fifteen minutes of inhaling the aromas of our pimpin' limos...

...more to come shortly...