Saturday, December 3, 2011

Good, as Steakhouses Go

Texas Land & Cattle Steak House
201 North St. Mary's Street
(in the Drury Inn, on the Riverwalk 
next to the Sniper Trees floodgate)

Here's the thing about steak houses: if you own an outdoor grill, and are willing to spring for the charcoal and some mesquite chips, and take the time to monitor your piece of meat on the grill, you can make yourself a steak every bit as good as what people seem willing to pay any amount for. 

It used to be that steak houses had access to better quality meats than you could find at your local supermarket, but that's no longer true. The HEB I shop at, much as it irritates me in oh, so many ways, carries some excellent USDA-Prime steaks, as good as any you'd find at any of the big-name places around town. So what you're buying at a steak house is the convenience of having someone else do all the work, and plying you with alcohol and all the good, hot bread you want.

The holiday season is a particularly good time to visit
restaurants on the Riverwalk
Because I have that knowledge firmly lodged in my brain, I can't bring myself to go, any more, to the really high-end steak houses. I've been to all of them, I believe, and I've never yet had a steak that is really worth the exorbitant charges they ask for. When I have that yen to let someone else cook my meat, there are only a few options for me*, and all of them chain restaurants: Outback, which has franchises in twenty countries around the world; Saltgrass, a part of the Landry's Restaurant empire; and Texas Land & Cattle, which at least has the advantage of being Texas-born, though it now has a few locations beyond the light of the Lone Star.

All of these steak houses offer high-quality meat, properly cooked, nicely accompanied, and served in a comfortable setting. They compete on seasonings, which is purely a matter of personal preference, and on gimmicks like Outback's "bloomin' onion" and it's Australian theme. Texas Land & Cattle's gimmicks — it's "signatures" — are the smoked sirloin and the lettuce wedge, both of which found their way to our table last night.

The lettuce wedge is exactly that: a big chunk of iceberg lettuce, gussied up with bleu cheese, bacon, tomato and croutons. As salads go, if you like bleu cheese, this is an excellent choice. It's crisp and fresh, and it's so large you might want to just have the rest of your meal served in a go-box. Personally, I rate bleu cheese right above molded bread on my list of favourite foods, so I opted for the tortilla soup as an appetizer. The creamy broth was reminiscent of the excellent tortilla soup my wife makes, with the added bonus of smoked chicken, which imparted a pleasing flavour, lifting the soup above the ranks of the merely good tortilla soups. The serving should have been larger, the tortilla pieces more plentiful, but overall it was a satisfying prelude to the meal.

The smoked sirloin is the item that keeps this restaurant at the top of my steak-house preferences, such as they are. It is a sirloin, the whole thing, coated with cracked pepper and smoked, which is something I can't do at home. It's the item I've chosen from the menu probably nineteen times out of twenty. Last night my wife chose it (in combination with the lettuce wedge), and it was as good as ever. But I decided to sample some of the other items on the menu for a change, so I went with the TXLC Trio, a sampler plate with a six-ounce sirloin steak (graded USDA Choice, not prime), a mesquite-grilled chicken breast with barbecue sauce, and four medium shrimp (fried or grilled; I chose grilled). The menu lists a rice side-dish, but I got a baked potato instead. 

Having had my soup and two loaves of soft, crusty, hot bread, it's no surprise that about half my entrée made it home to be today's lunch. There is a lot of food on the TXLC Trio plate, enough even to make a curmudgeonly miser like me feel like I got a pretty good deal. (A nice, refreshing drink of bourbon helped, too.) The steak was cooked just a tad beyond the medium-rare I ordered it at, but close enough to call it done right. The chicken was cooked, I would say, just about perfectly too, though I found the barbecue sauce used to be much sweeter than I care for; a common complaint for me. The shrimp were cooked through and nicely seasoned, but the tails were burnt. I don't think it'd really be fair in counting off for that, though, since probably 99% of the customers any restaurant gets wouldn't give a hoot in Hell about the state of the meatless tail. But I'm one of those peculiar people who will usually eat the crunchy little buggers, so I was disappointed that they were carbon instead of calcium.

Latest city inspection: May 2011
33 demerits (rather a lot)
The baked potato was steroidally huge, and accompanied with all the fixings we want on a "loaded" potato, including a mixture of cheddar and jack cheese instead of the usual cheddar. If I'd've thought to ask for some jalapeño slices for it, it might have been perfect. (And another benefit to go to a steak house instead of cooking at home is, they don't serve microwaved baked potatoes at restaurants, and we all know there's a noticeable difference.)

The downtown location of Texas Land & Cattle is in a hotel. That would normally be a strike against it for me, because hotel restaurants tend to cater to a clientèle other than the local population. But a steak house is a steak house is a steak house, and besides, this particular hotel can claim some indulgence as part of a locally-owned chain. Besides, the Riverwalk is such a pleasant place, especially this time of year. I've also been to the location on Loop 410, and actually prefer it in some ways (convenient free parking, for example, but when the weather's fine, as it was last night, the distance from door to car is actually a point in favour of downtown restaurants). The interior décor is pleasing if not authentic, and the staff that I've encountered at the downtown location, and not just on last night's visit, has always been of the highest calibre for efficiency and helpfulness.
Texas Land & Cattle Steak House on Urbanspoon

* There are some good independent steak houses around, but my wife doesn't ever want to go to those places.

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