Moving to Texas from Australia was awesome for a number of reasons. Proximity to excellent barbecue, Tex Mex and Whataburger was an instant advantage. Getting to watch football games at normal time of the day (rather than 3am on a Monday morning) is another fringe benefit. But one of the real luxuries is not having the pressure of limited time, and being able to take great little road trips all over the great state and discover it’s many gems.
My latest adventure took me north west of Austin, out to the plains of West Texas and the city of Abilene. Well, technically speaking, it initially took me 15 minutes south of the city to a little town of under 500 people called Buffalo Gap, which also happens to be home to one of the most legendary steakhouses in the country, Perini Ranch.
Tom Perini is an icon. A charismatic man with a well-worn cowboy hat and captivating drawl, he has released a cookbook, catered for Presidents, travelled to Japan, Poland and Russia as an ambassador for American beef and appeared in countless magazines being celebrated as the quintessential cowboy cook. Tom is the real deal, starting his career catering at ranches across the state and eventually opening up his restaurant in 1983.
There’s nothing fancy about this steakhouse. No compound butters, no dry ageing room, no Laguiole knives, and that’s just the way Tom wants it. He favors upper-third Choice grade meat, cooked directly over mesquite coals, and he includes a strong recommendation on his menu that folks don’t order their steaks well done.
Taking a seat in the rustic dining room decorated with awards, faded Texas flags and taxidermied Longhorns, it was a pleasure to share a meal at Tom’s table, as he guided me on a tour of his menu. The food is uncomplicated and honest, with a focus on simple ingredients prepared with a great deal of care. The night I visited, the special was a Caprese salad made with incredibly fragrant tomatoes from a farm just down the road.
After being fed a procession of pork ribs, perfectly seasoned fried quail legs, cornmeal crusted catfish and a host of sides (including my new favorite, green chile hominy), my choice of a 22oz bone-in Cowboy Ribeye hit the table, cooked flawlessly to rare. Cutting into the very tastiest part of the steer, I hacked off a piece of the Spinalis Dorsi and in a gesture of respect, handed it to my host who took it from me with a knowing grin. Halfway into my ribeye, Tom asked me if I knew the difference between a restaurant and a joint. “Go on, tell me”, I said. “Well, see”, he drawled from across the table, “at a joint you use your hands. So pick up that steak by the bone and eat it proper”. And dammit if that’s not exactly what I did.
Long after the sun had set, I hit the road towards Abilene proper, where I would spend the next two days gorging on even more meat and discovering the sites. When you’re on a meat-themed road trip, you gotta learn to rally. So despite having downed a hefty amount of protein mere hours earlier, 11am found me standing outside Stillwater barbecue, the waft of smoke from the pit out back smelled of great promise.
It’s true that I believe Austin is the epicentre of modern Texas BBQ, with shockwaves rippling out to Dallas, Houston and other areas close by. Sometimes those shockwaves manage to travel a little farther out, as evidenced by the excellent barbecue found at Stillwater.
Matt Proctor moved away from a career in oil & gas to begin a BBQ catering service, which eventually morphed into his current brick & mortar joint. Let me tell you plainly, his food is excellent. Using an offset fired with mesquite and oak, he churns out impossibly juicy brisket, cayenne-flecked pulled pork, enormous pork spare ribs and a host of other meaty treats. His sausages are from Austin, too – Hudson’s jalapeno cheddar with the cheese oozing out from beneath the taut casing. Proctor may also have redefined comfort food with his brisket mac’n’cheese… Stillwater barbecue is a must-visit.
To get the most out of a trip out Abilene way, here are the things you need to check out:
- Frontier Texas! Yup, the exclamation mark is part of the signage. It’s a modern museum that tells the story of how west Texas was settled. Highlights for me were learning how the killing off of the bison population was directly linked to the beginning of cattle ranching in Texas, and also having my morbid curiosity piqued by the display of actual human scalps taken in the 1800s (gross/awesome). The fact that I was watching the entire series of Hell On Wheels around this time made it even cooler.
- The Beehive, Albany. Around 20 mins out of Abilene sits this “wild west” style steakhouse that’s been around for decades. The facade looks like something Disney modelled their Frontierland exhibit on, and the place has been popular with many Hollywood celebs who’ve filmed Westerns in the area. The Beehive is run by Ali, an incredibly charismatic Iranian immigrant who will happily stand at your table and make corny jokes as long as you’ll let him. Go early if you go on a Thursday, it’s all-you-can-eat shrimp night.
- The Mill. As the name may suggest, it’s actually an old mill that’s been converted into a wine bar with a welcoming outdoor space. Thursday night is steak night, where $20 gets you a ribeye, two sides and a free serving of killer atmosphere.
- Paramount theatre. Known as the finest structure of it’s kind between El Paso and Fort Worth (and trust me, that’s a long way), the theatre was built in 1930 and has been beautifully restored. Jimmy Stewart even attended the premiere of his movie Take Her, She’s Mine here back in the day, and between functioning as a modern theatre and cinema, they still screen classic films.
- Sayles Landmark. I can’t even begin to do justice to this stunning B&B -it’s straight out of the pages of a high end interiors magazine. A beautiful old Victorian mansion lovingly restored with incredible details – one of the beds upstairs is made from salvaged church pews from Manchester, England; a spectacular brass & copper 1900s chandelier from an old bank sits in another guest room, and one of my favorite features, the bathroom that has been ‘wallpapered’ with old leather-bound legal books, written in part by the man who originally built the property. I’m still a little in awe just thinking about it.
- Missile silos. A remnant from the cold war, Abilene is surrounded by 12 of these missile silos which are incredible time capsules of a bygone era. Easily to miss from the outside except for a flat trapdoor and small concrete stairwell that suggests something more may lie beneath, these silos sit eighteen stories below the ground (!!!), and feel like a piece of the set from Apollo 13. Though none are technically open to the public, a little digging around in town will probably gain you access to one, they have been known to host raves an even weddings in them. Definitely one of the coolest hidden secrets in Texas!
I was a guest of the Abilene CVB who covered my accommodation and meal costs.