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A Star is Rebornby Mark Stuertz | Modern Luxury Dallas magazine | January 2, 2013
“Climax.” “Concepcion.” “Lady Love.” “Frog.” “Frognot.” “Toad Suck.” Names of Texas towns, branded on wooden planks, clad the wall leading to the restrooms at Stampede 66, Stephan Pyles’ ode to Texas comestibles and kitsch. You can find a Texas town for almost any word, it seems. And isn’t that the beauty of this fine republic?
Quotes about Texas from luminaries such as Kinky Friedman, Ann Richards, Carl Sandburg and Molly Ivins are interlaced with custom-shot scenes of Augustus Ranch (near Yoakum) on plasma screens throughout the restaurant. Here’s one from James Michener: “What you Northerners never appreciate... is that Texas is so big that you can live your life within its limits and never give a damn about what anyone in Boston or San Francisco thinks.”
I often wondered why Texas chefs—or more specifically, Dallas chefs—don’t think like this, but more on that in a minute. One of the towns branded on a board near the restroom portal is Gasoline. Originally the site of a cowboy line camp in southeastern Briscoe County, the Panhandle town was allegedly named for the gasoline engine—a novel energy source at the turn of the last century—that powered the community’s circa 1906 cotton gin. The gin burned down in 1938. It earned a historical marker in 1990. Gasoline was nothing but that marker and a few scattered homes in 2000. No one has bothered to produce population estimates.
Gasoline is a metaphor of sorts for the inspiration driving this Texas-centric restaurant on the ground floor of a luxury residential high-rise. High above the Stampede 66 dining room hangs a large Phillips 66 sign. It’s a reminiscence of the West Texas truck stop in Big Spring that was operated by Pyles’ family when he was a boy, long before he put Routh Street Café, Star Canyon, AquaKnox, Stephan Pyles and Samar on the map.
He returned to the site last September. The truck stop was still there (though it’s been sentenced to demolition). The dining room with the eight-seat counter was huge in the pocket of boyhood memories—in actuality it’s tiny. It’s about as big as the long banquette separating the Stampede 66 dining room from the bar. A metal rattlesnake wavers along the back of it, a spine of computer-controlled, hue-shifting LED tubing running through its wavering length—from mesh rattle to twisted wire tongue.
More than a few of Stampede 66’s dishes are derived from Pyles’ mother’s handwritten Phillips 66 truck stop recipes. Chicken fried (buffalo) steak. Buttermilk biscuits. Rich, creamy buttermilk pie. Red Velvet (66) cake. Honey-fried chicken—crispy sweet and incomparably juicy—saddled with biscuits, mashed potato tots and a small mason jar of pickles—fried chicken puppy love.
But others are just pure guts and Texas glory. Sonofabitch stew, simultaneously described as “made of unmentionables” and “Texas’ greatest contribution to civilization” in Frank X. Tolbert’s iconic A Bowl of Red, is an old ranch hand recipe. It’s loaded with fried sweetbreads, heart, tongue and liver—an all-beef symphony of the cheapest and most vitamin-packed cuts. It’s rich, brash and bold.
If you find yourself short on the necessary guts to dive into a bowl of S.O.B., order up some courage from the margarita cart—a Rubbermaid hauler clad in reclaimed wood planks that can be trundled to your table by request. From this platform, the signature Modern Star Canyon Margarita is born.
Prickly pear purée is treated with liquid nitrogen, transforming it into a fruity slush, as fluffy cascades of rock concert fog spill over the cart like a silent Niagara. The slush is then mingled with fresh lime, Patrón Citronage and Don Julio Blanco (a spirit that flows freely in the super cool liquid nitrogen breeze). The pool is topped with lime foam and a dehydrated candied jalapeno. This refreshing burst of sweet and tart and buzz pairs well with this mobile Texas kitsch. Now go spoon up some beef heart.
Or temper your margarita hum in a more conventional manner. Stampede 66 has a lithe selection of street-inspired tacos and tamales crafted from corn pulverized in-house, such as fried oyster tacos with shredded slaw and smoky mushroom and huitlacoche (call it corn smut or maize fungus) tamales. The pork barbacoa taco is a corn tortilla spread flat and topped with strands of juicy shredded pig flesh meticulously flecked with cilantro, micro greens and onions. Tacos can be dipped, dribbled or slathered in salsas and garnishes from small metal pots.
Stampede 66 fare is crafted with refined technique. Pickled and deviled eggs, for example is a sous vide pickled egg (studded with jalapeno “pop rocks”) flanked by deviled eggs staked with stiff strips of candied bacon. It’s an engaging temblor of popping, prickly flavors tempered with velvety textures.
Like those eggs, the crispy pig’s ears salad is an exhilarating ensemble of juxtaposed sensations—crispy, Spock-like ears rising from fluffy field greens, a blanket of chorizo sauce with melted Texas cheddar and perfect golf balls of candied apple dotting the periphery. Think of it as pork rind porn by Alice Waters.
There’s venison meatloaf, a little on the arid side (not unexpectedly), with rich flavors that pop, and a mac and cheese side that rivals any in Dallas. Servers boast you can cut the cowboy coffee hanger steak with a fork. Yeah, maybe if you have an arm wrestler’s wrist. Treated with an espresso-chili rub, the rich juicy hanger is cooked in a sous vide oven for several hours before it’s kissed on the grill and topped with a sudsy dollop of espresso foam.
Chefs in Dallas often bemoan the Dallas dining scene, bereft as it is of the cutting-edge trends, techniques and newfangled French-ery that blesses climes like New York, L.A. and Portland. But this expansive spread of dry prairie, rock and pine isn’t hospitable to hipper-than-thou coastal-itis. So why pretend?
Stampede 66 is loaded with Texas impressionism. In the center of the dining room, a spindly tree sculpture reaches up to a disk of big sky bathed in digital blue. Wire horse heads burst from the wall above the open kitchen. Staggered rows of Texas longhorn antlers hover over the bar. Reclaimed wood and Texas limestone mingle with plasma screens.
Yet for all this display of Texas authenticity, there sure is a lot of refined laboratory kitchen technique, precision and fussiness. Seems a little incongruous in this land of muddied-up pickup trucks and dusty snakeskin boots. Almost makes you yearn for a bowl of Sonofabitch from a pot cooked outside in the parking lot. If there was a parking lot.
Scatter a few petrified cow pies on the polished wood floors and a couple of bowls of rattlesnake jerky on the metal bar surface and Stampede 66 would be just about perfect.
1717 McKinney Ave., Ste. 100
Open Tue.-Thu. 6-10pm
The Stampede 66 authentic “bowl of red” is delivered to your table in a can. The server opens it tableside and pours it into a bowl with a goat cheese fritter. What would the late Frank X. Tolbert think? Can you hear him rolling?
Like Star Canyon, Pyles’ enormously successful restaurant in the 1990s, the wine list is divided into Texas wines and “imports” from locales like Napa Valley and Oregon. Still, native pinot noir (Messina Hof) is a rough-edged drink. We opted for the Hook and Ladder (Russian River) to pair with our pig’s ears.
Adventures in Ablutions
Restrooms are differentiated by the names of famous Texans listed on the doors. Janis Joplin, Farrah Fawcett and Tina Turner versus Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson and Tom Landry. In the men’s room there’s a rebar “66” branding iron perched in front of a poster of a semi-nude blonde clad in black leather chaps. What would Sandra Fluke say? What would be the Texas rejoinder?