The roadside billboards for the Big Texan Steak Ranch began appearing as we headed east out of Tucumcari, New Mexico. “Free 72-ounce steaks”, they promised.
Work that out. Seventy-two ounces is slightly more than 2kg, or roughly 10 times the size of the average steak serving in a New Zealand restaurant. This called for further investigation.
The Big Texan Steak Ranch is a restaurant on the outskirts of Amarillo, Texas, the self-proclaimed beef capital of the world. A giant fibreglass steer stands out the front. As it happened, we were staying next door in a magnificently tacky motel that resembled a street frontage from a Hollywood western. So after checking into our accommodation, we ambled over to eat.
As the name implies, the Big Texan Steak Ranch is enormous – the size and shape of a dance hall, with an upper-floor gallery extending around three sides, all decorated in what might loosely be described as an eccentric Wild West style. On the Saturday night we were there, it was packed. (Recession? What recession?)
On being shown to our table, we noticed a raised platform where several young men were eating. Other diners clustered around taking photos, and we idly wondered who the privileged guests were. Periodically, another would join them, accompanied by an announcement over the PA system – barely audible amid the hubbub – and a burst of applause.
We soon realised that these heroic trenchermen were tackling the “free” 72oz steak. The realisation also dawned that the generous offer came with a catch: the steak was free only if you managed to eat it all in one sitting.
No one did, at least while we were there. Every so often, one of the contenders would admit defeat and step down. This was accompanied by a rah-rah announcement over the PA praising him for his daring and inviting the crowd to show their appreciation (which they did).
It was an entertaining and quintessentially American spectacle that seemed to reinforce negative stereotypes about the fondness for excess. It also tended to confirm the perception that Americans are unadventurous eaters, addicted to a diet of steak, burgers, chicken, pizza, hot dogs and fries.
Unfortunately it’s largely true. Many Americans seem to regard food simply as fuel. They enjoy the trappings and social rituals associated with eating, yet seem largely indifferent to what they put in their mouths. This explains why American restaurants, especially the ubiquitous chains, offer endless variations of the same limited and tiresome culinary repertoire.
The first thing a New Zealander is likely to notice in a typical American restaurant is the size of the portions. Diners are routinely served with such gargantuan meals that a “to-go box” – their equivalent of a doggy bag – is often provided automatically.
In a fabled steakhouse called Jocko’s, in the nondescript Californian town of Nipomo, even a quartet of brawny Stetson-wearing cowboys at the table next to ours had no qualms about requesting to-go boxes. This seemed the ultimate admission that American servings are ridiculously large, yet no one seems prepared to take the obvious step and cut back.
New Zealanders dining in America are also likely to be struck by the relative lack of variety. This doesn’t apply in big cosmopolitan cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco, where restaurants and cafes offer food of a range and style not unlike that of Auckland or Wellington. But in the American heartland, the options narrow considerably.
There’s a distinct correlation between the vehicles Americans drive and the food they consume. In New York and San Francisco, people drive modest-sized cars, often European, and eat French, Italian and Asian. But in areas of the US where V8 pickup trucks predominate – in other words, almost anywhere outside the bigger cities – you have to search hard to find restaurants that serve anything more adventurous than the familiar staples. The cheeseburger with fries is the culinary equivalent of the Ford F150, the good old boy’s pickup that ranks second only to the Toyota Corolla as the best-selling vehicle of all time.
The link between vehicles and food goes even deeper. America is a nation on wheels. The national freeway system, a legacy of Dwight D Eisenhower’s 1950s presidency, hums 24 hours a day, and much of the fast food industry is geared to feeding travellers. You could theoretically spend a lifetime cruising US freeways without ever having to deviate into a town. The motorist’s every need is met by restaurants, gas stations, motels and hotels strategically located beside the highway.
During a petrol stop at godforsaken Kettleman City, little more than a name on the map at a California highway junction not far from where James Dean died in a high-speed collision with hapless student Donald Turnupseed in 1955, I noted a Carl’s Jr, a McDonald’s, a Jack in the Box, a Taco Bell, a Subway, an In-N-Out Burger and a Starbucks. There’s no local population to speak of; the food outlets depend entirely on passing traffic. (Incidentally, never make the mistake of assuming the word “city” in the name of an American town denotes size. Usually the reverse is true.)
The virtue of the chain restaurants found in such places is not that they offer choice and variety. On the contrary, they appeal because consumers know exactly what they’re going to get.
Even the familiar can apparently seem daunting to conservative diners. In a homely bar and grill in the small town of Abilene, Kansas, I watched as three middle-aged couples intently studied the menu for an agonisingly long time before making their choices. Yet the dishes were the same as those available in thousands upon thousands of similar restaurants across the US – essentially steak, burgers and chicken. It was the sort of place where you could have ordered without even seeing the menu.
This is not to say such places don’t have the potential to spring a surprise. It was there that I saw a diner order a drink consisting of Budweiser Light and tomato juice, a concoction I’d never heard of and had no desire to try.
For all that, it is possible to eat well in the US, even in heartland states that are derided by sophisticates from the east and west coasts as culinary deserts. There’s even a chain, Applebee’s, that offers a more innovative and appealing menu than its Tweedledum and Tweedledee competitors.
Some cities are justifiably famous for their local specialities, such as New Orleans with its Cajun dishes: gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish étouffée and red beans with rice. In Mother’s, a famous cheap eatery on Poydras St, I watched an overweight, red-faced cop with a classic US lawman’s moustache go behind the servery and help himself. No one raised an eyebrow.
No one should visit Chicago and not try the city’s deep-dish pizza. On a Sunday night we squeezed into a crowded branch of Lou Malnati’s, a chain founded by the son of the man credited with pioneering the deep-dish pizza in 1943. Pizza purists would recoil in horror, since the Chicago speciality bears little resemblance to the classic Neapolitan style. Baked in a deep pan, it has a rich buttery crust and a filling of thick gooey mozzarella, mildly spicy Italian sausage and a copious quantity of tomato sauce (not the condiment we call tomato sauce, which Americans call ketchup, but closer to the sauce used in pasta dishes).
Texas is proud of its barbecued brisket, but it’s not something I’d rush to recommend. We made a pilgrimage to the famous Goode Co Texas BBQ, located amid car yards and gas stations in an unprepossessing suburb of Houston, where you order from a faded menu board that looks as if it hasn’t changed in decades. Food is slopped onto your indestructible ceramic plate at a servery and you eat at long tables in a stiflingly hot room whose smoke-stained walls are lined with photos of 1930s western swing bands.
A sign advises that unlicensed possession of a weapon on the premises is a felony with a maximum penalty of 10 years. (Presumably that .44 Magnum in your wife’s handbag is fine as long as you’ve got the necessary piece of paper.) Goode Co was more memorable for the atmosphere than the food, although the pork ribs were impressive.
In Galveston we ate at Gaido’s seafood restaurant, a 100-year-old institution overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. It was enormous, with dozens of waiters marshalled by controllers using walkie-talkies. The food – shrimp, crab, catfish and stuffed prawns – was excellent, if a little old-fashioned, and the service was friendly and efficient, as it almost invariably is in American restaurants.
Service is one of those things, like steak, that restaurants around the country do very well. Even in cheap diners and cafes, waiters and waitresses seem to take a genuine pride and pleasure in doing a professional job. You never get the feeling that serving other people is below their dignity or too much trouble, or that they’re doing the job only because they need the money to pay their university fees.
Here and there, even in unlikely places, you find pockets of ethnic cuisine. In the charming town of Fredericksburg, in an area of Texas settled by Germans and very proud of its ethnic origins, we enjoyed German sausage, potato salad and sauerkraut as tasty and authentic as any you’d eat on the banks of the Rhine.
In Bakersfield, California, which has a large Basque community, we ate in a busy, unpretentious Basque restaurant called Benji’s. Our waitress, noting our accents, introduced us to an electrical contractor from New Plymouth, a regular customer, who was dining with his American wife a couple of tables away. (If you happen to find yourself at Benji’s, try the pickled tongue.)
And then, of course, there’s Mexican food, which is available almost everywhere and offers a palatable and relatively healthy alternative to bland mainstream stodge. But even here there are traps. In Muskogee, Oklahoma, a town not over-endowed with culinary options, we made the mistake of thinking a Mexican restaurant’s crowded car park was a sure sign of good food within. It wasn’t.
Experience has taught us that modest family-run Mexican cafes are more likely to deliver, such as the one on the fringe of downtown San Antonio where we had an excellent breakfast of huevos rancheros – eggs, bacon, refried beans, fried potatoes, tortillas and salsa – for $2.99 each. That’s the price of a single latte in New Zealand.
Speaking of breakfasts, here’s a tip for anyone travelling in America. At all costs, avoid biscuits and gravy. The “biscuits” resemble doughy scones and the “gravy” is a thick, glutinous white sauce. Inexplicably, this is a breakfast favourite in America, but I reckon it’s the food served in Hell.