Before it was a notable tourist destination Fort Worth was an Army outpost from 1849-1853 protecting the Western Frontier after the Mexican American War and then it became known as “Cowtown” as Fort Worth became a resting point for cowboys driving their cattle to Abilene, Kansas along the Chisholm Trail and with the influx of Cattle came the rough and ready cowboys who filled their time drinking, gambling and carousing in the gentlemen saloons. Gone are the days of bawdy cowboy debauchery in Hell’s half acre but the ambience of the Stockyard National Historic District reverberates with stories of outlaws and gamblers. Walking down the weathered plank walkways you feel like your stepping into the old timey West. Rustic buildings now house tourist attractions, restaurants and plenty of souvenirs shops for every type of traveler.
Being such a tourist draw for Texas, we had to take a trip to the Lone Star State to see what attracts thousands of tourists to the place of Cowboys, cattle and some of the best down home cuisine in America. Fort Worth has district areas for visitors that offer a plethora of recreation and dining options. We spent time investigating the Stockyards National District, the Downtown area, and the cultural district on a weekend giggy-up tour of this iconic American city. The Stockyards are a historic district that plays into the inner cowboy within every red blooded American. This district is the place to experience authentic western heritage at every turn; unique western saloons, the world’s only twice-daily cattle drive; the Fort Worth Herd, Billy Bob’s Texas also known as the world’s largest honky- tonk, and plenty of two stepping, beer drinking, and guitar twanging amongst the cowboy culture of this unique slice of Americana. And let’s not forget about the food. Whether you are seeking the best steak, BBQ, Tex Mex, or fine dining, the Stockyards offer a plethora of dining options as well.
Starting out with a meal is usually a good way to gage a place and its environment, and we were mightily encouraged to try the Chicken Fried Steak at a place known as the Horse Shoe Hill Café. What is Chicken Fried Steak? Is it steak or a chicken or a combination of both? We quickly got the low down on what consists of this down-home dish at this notable newbie eatery located along the rustic weathered restaurant row of the Stockyard district.
Chicken Fried steak may owe its culinary origins from German immigrants who brought the beloved Weiner Schnitzel to the United States. The first terming of “chicken fried steak” came from a 1914 Colorado Springs restaurant advertisement. As more people sought their fortunes out west this tasty breaded tenderized cube steak coated with seasoned flour and then pan fried and smothered with a white salt and pepper gravy was sought out as a dining staple. Horseshoe Hill Cowboy Café offers a variety of chicken friend steaks that would have any good old boy begging for more. Native cowboy cook Grady Spears opened this place to combine great home-style cuisine with down-home southern hospitality. The menu gives many “ways” in which to enjoy your chicken fried steak , including, the Cowboy Way with peppered cream gravey, The Vaquero Way saddled with ancho cheese enchilada, The Farmers Way loaded with chili gravy and a fried egg, Matt’s Way with chili con carne and queso blanco . Our choice was the Frontera Way offering a thoroughly tenderized flank steak, dredged and dipped and then fried to a golden crust and nestled under a savory blanket of peppered cream gravy with several bright green ancho chili rellenos to add just the right Mex to the Tex of this iconic dish. With a large portion to share amongst ourselves, we found that we would have gladly had our own since each bite was a miniature moment of culinary bliss. Larry McMurray aptly stated, “Only a rank degenerate would drive 1,500 miles across Texas and not eat a chicken fried steak”. We were glad to stop by this homespun kitchen to indulge in a dish that did truly feed our souls and spirits with a glimpse into authentic Americana.
We paid our bill and meandered down the path into the iconic White Elephant saloon. This saloon is located in the once famed Hell’s Half Acre, where rough and tumble cowhands made their way to raise a little hell after driving their herds for hundreds of miles to Kansas. The Historic building resonates with nostalgia and Chef Tim Love has revamped this historic building to include a dance floor and a chili bar for a good bite to eat after all those cold beers. Refreshed with a cold beer from local Rahr Brewery , we toe-tapped to the country music band and then made our way down to the Famous Billy Bob’s Texas to catch some live bull-riding. We really felt like we are part of cowboy culture as we walked into a crowd of wrangler wearing cowpokes adorned with the expensive leather boots and Stetson hats as they made their way to the bleachers to cheer on the brave bull riders as they struggled to hold on to the reigns of a massive writhing bull.
We joined in with the boisterous cowboy crowd and yelped and yahooed with the best of them as one rider after another gallantly heaved up and down on the enormous agitated animal. After that it was time to try some toe-stepping around the vibrating dance floor already filled with couples sashaying with fancy footwork while twirling dipping and swirling their partners with skill and grace. We were indeed intimated at our meager attempts to move about with some sort of coherence. We managed to glide along with the other dancers and gracefully bowed out after a few rotations. With a country music band playing on the main stage, we took our seats to hear a few songs and then made our way back to our hotel after a complete evening embracing the fun and spirit of the Historic Stockyard District.
Day two brings us to a celebration of the 150 year of The Chisholm trail with period costumed Civil War and Confederate Soldiers giving us a true glimpse of history. The Fort Worth Herd was about to make its way through the streets just as they did in times past. The Texas Longhorns meandered slowly down the cobbled street as real cowboys lead them through the captivated spectators.
Truly this is the reason that Forth worth has been nicknamed “Cowtown” since this remembrance offered us a look into the life of the American Cowboy. We worked up an appetite and decided to change gears and head of the cultural district to try Heim BBQ which has been deemed as one of the best places for BBQ in the entire city. All the meat is smoked daily, sides are made in house, and with that in mind we were excited to sink our teeth into some really good Texas style brisket. And we were not disappointed as the signature savory slices of smoky fork tender brisket were just we had hoped for in bringing a smile to our faces and a deep satisfaction to our empty stomachs.
After all that great brisket and green chili mac and cheese,we made our way back to the Stockyard area for some rest and relaxation before our final moments in the Fort Worth area. Morning came quickly and a breakfast burrito at local favorite Esperanza’s Mexican Bakery and Café. Homemade tortillas, tangy sauces, and tender carne asada was just what we needed to begin our last day as we refueled for a look at the Downtown district.
We had to stop at Sundance Square to see the Downtown area that marries the best in modern architecture with historic buildings from the 1800’s. Right in the middle of all the action is Downtown’s Sundance Square a unique urban area that is the perfect place to people watch and enjoy a cup of Joe or a refreshing ice tea on a hot Texas afternoon. With a 35-block of shopping and entertainment area that filters out from the Square there is something for everyone on the itinerary.
As we enjoyed the relaxing ambience we watched the multiple water jets that spring up from the metroplex to the delight of the many little children that were playing amongst the water features.
The 32-foot tall Teflon umbrellas brought needed shade to the area that is home to three live theaters, art galleries and plenty of shopping. Our time was gone and we took one more look around at a city that retains its western heritage with style, creativity and that good old cowboy charm.