Holy Cow, It’s the Big Texan Steak Ranch!

     If you’ve heard one thing about the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, it’s probably about the challenge: eat a 72 oz. steak in an hour and your meal is free.

    While that may sound like a deal to a hungry cowboy, there’s actually a specific list of eleven rules that must be followed. There’s actually a “full meal” surrounding the 72 oz. steak that has to be eaten including shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad and roll with butter. It’s a twin meal to the champion of the very first competition at the restaurant consumed.

     Holy Heartburn, Batman!

     When Bob “R.J.” Lee opened the Big Texan Steak Ranch in 1960, on the iconic Route 66 touting “huge, Texas-size steaks,” many of his regular customers were cowboys who came for dinner after working in a nearby stockyard. Lee noticed that out-of-town visitors were fascinated while watching these Texans try to “out eat” each other.

     As the story goes, one Friday night in 1962, Lee pushed several tables together in the center of the dining room, sat all the voracious cowboys together and told them he wanted to see who could eat the most one-pound steaks in an hour. The cost would be $5 per participant, and whoever won got to keep everybody’s entry fee.

     These cowboys obviously had no intention of turning down the dare.

     One fellow with a hearty appetite downed two steaks in just ten minutes…but he didn’t stop there. He requested a salad and shrimp cocktail with his third steak, and a baked potato and bread roll with his fourth and fifth. By the time the hour was up, he had devoured all the sides and four and a half pounds of steak (72 ounces).

     In response to the cheering crowd, the excited Lee stood on a chair and shouted that from that day forward, anyone who could eat the entire 72 oz dinner in one hour would get it for FREE…and the famous challenge was born.

     It became the restaurant’s biggest claim to fame and was advertised on billboards from Arkansas to Arizona.

     In the early 1970s when Highway 40 replaced Route 66 as the major thoroughfare, Lee and his family purchased land alongside the new highway to build a bigger, expanded version of his steak house dream.

     The original cowboy sign that greeted visitors for years was moved to its new location by helicopter! That would have been a sight!

     If you take the steak-eating challenge today, you are seated at a table on a stage platform in the restaurant, so everyone can watch your progress as the large digital clock above you counts down the hour allowed. Want to see if anyone is attempting it right now? Check out the live stream of the challenge table here.

     Now, I had no intention of attempting such madness, but I did want to check out the restaurant. I wasn’t prepared for how fun and HUGE it is!

     Pulling in to park between the steak house and it’s Old West theme hotel next door, visitors are greeted by the legendary cowboy sign as well as a towering statue of a boot wearing dinosaur propped in two-story tall sticks of fireworks.

     Wait….what? A dinosaur? Well, you just know there’s a story there too! Bobby and Danny Lee, “R.J.”s sons who now run the business share memories of seeing dinosaur statues on a special vacation that took their family across the historic Route 66. “Dino” smiles down on their patrons to remind them that “it’s not always about the destination, it’s about the journey getting there.”

     When you venture inside, be prepared to wait for your table at this popular restaurant. Once they hand you your pager, don’t just sit and wait for heaven’s sake…explore!

     Out back is a large covered beer garden (they have their own craft brewery on site) with live music, old-fashioned games, photo opps that include a stagecoach, huge rocking chair, 18-foot-tall cowboy boot and more.

     Inside try your luck at a carnival style shooting gallery where you can take aim at western targets like rattlesnakes, bad guys and bobcats as well as Frankentein, zombies and Dracula. Who needs Halloween?

     Outside be sure to check out the Texas-shape swimming pool, the motel, a horse hotel (yes, actually for horses), and RV park. And be sure to look down, because this attraction’s attention to details goes right down to imprinting cattle brands in the sidewalks.

     The gift shop has every version of a kitschy souvenir that you can think of, and a few you probably can’t. The night we were there, it was so crowded with tourists looking for that silly something to commemorate their visit that we needed to scoot sideways down the aisles to make any progress. (These are the times a good sense of humor comes in handy!)

     Once our pager alerted us it was time to chow down, the hostess lead my family into an immense, two-story dining room where chandeliers of antlers and wagon wheels hang from the ceiling.

     We felt like we were walking onto a saloon set soundstage of Bonanza or Gunsmoke, complete with swinging doors, taxidermy mounts, spindle railings, and the cowboy-hat-wearing waitstaff.

     Just about everything – including the margaritas – are garnished with some of the biggest jalapenos I’ve ever seen.

     While we waited for our food we enjoyed the two gentlemen who strolled the dining room playing western classics tableside for the diners. I kept my fingers crossed they would come our way, and lucky for us they did, asking for requests. (A personal note here: please be sure to tip entertainment like this as the tips usually make up the majority if not all of what they are paid for the pleasure they bring!)

     Kids meals are served in a cowboy hat that the kids can keep as a souvenir. My teenage daughter wasn’t hungry enough to eat one of the over-sized meals and asked if she could order from a children’s menu. The waitress smiled and said she could as long as she agreed to put on the hat afterward. Good sport that she is, she agreed and did…and no, she would NOT give me permission to post that particular photo.

     I couldn’t resist getting the southern classic chicken friend steak and have to say it’s one of the best I’ve ever eaten. I was relieved that it wasn’t plate-sized as well, but still couldn’t finish it off.

     The vintage look Route 66 / Texan Steak House pattern china was a great touch as well and didn’t go unappreciated.

     If you have any room left for ice cream after all that…they have an ice cream bar in the main, too! Be sure to at least stop long enough to taste a sample…it’s worth it. Then you can wobble back to your car.

     Generations of visitors have come The Big Texan and often share photos with the owners. It’s a tasty tradition. Bobby says he never tires of hearing their stories.

     Just a note: one fun thing we didn’t find out about in time is a complimentary limo service to and from the restaurant! The Big Texan offers a complimentary limo pickup from most hotels, motels, and RV parks in Amarillo, as well as Cavender’s Boot City, and The Starbuck’s on I40 and Grand. Not just any limo, of course! A stereotypical limousine complete with longhorns mounted on the front. Pick-ups start at 4:00 and they drive customers home until everyone they brought is delivered safely back where they are staying. Check their website for the number to make a reservation for this unique shuttle.

      For someone who, as a little girl, devoured anything having to do with the Old West the Big Texan was like stepping into a little slice of good-humored  heaven…even before the food arrived. As a kid I would have eaten it up. But it was just as much fun as an adult.

     I highly suggest putting the Big Texan Steak Ranch at the top of your to-do list when you visit Amarillo. Just be sure to bring your appetite!





Park & Play on Amarillo’s 6th Avenue

     When you hear “National Park Service,” you’re more likely to think of nature and hiking trails, but it also oversees other historic and natural landmarks, and national heritage districts as well. Surprised?

     Amarillo is home to one of these unique designations. The U.S. Route 66 Sixth Street Historic District is a 13-block stretch between Georgia and Forrest Avenues that provides a perfectly “populated” break for your trip across the Texas section of Route 66.

     Situated on a section of city’s Sixth Street (also called 6thAvenue…but that must not have been as catchy) that temporarily merged with the well-traveled Route 66, this stop is far from being your typical Route ghost town.

Golden Light Cafe & Cantina – operating since 1946

     The district and its surrounding San Jacinto neighborhood was originally a streetcar suburb located west of Amarillo’s main business district.

A member of the National Register of Historic Places since 1994, it includes Amarillo’s most intact collection of commercial buildings from the Route’s heyday. Architecture lovers will spot elements of Spanish Revival, Art Deco and Art Modern designs.

     The Bussey Buildings (originally home of the first licensed beauty school in Texas), and Borden’s Heap-O-Cream (one of a chain of dairy product stores) are just two examples of historic buildings that have found new life in the district that now includes over one mile of art galleries, restaurants, antique stores, specialty shops and bars.

Sinclair dinosaur now stands guard over a tire shop

     The Natatorium, which is easy to spot because of its castle-like roof crenelations, was formerly an indoor swimming pool converted into a ballroom when Route 66 came to town. One of the hot spots in the area, it featured performers like Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey. It even had an underground tunnel to the Alamo bar next door. Now the large space offers shopping from over 100 vendors of antiques, handcrafts, jewelry and home decor.

     My daughter and I love antique and vintage shops, so we started our venture at Antiques Plus (2712 SW 6th Street) at one end of the district with a plan to take them all in order. We were immediately charmed by this beautiful shop. Antiques for me, and vintage clothing for her…and a comfortable place for my patient husband to sit and wait for us! Her selection was reasonably priced, and the sweet, chatty manager behind the register had great recommendations for our visit to the district.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     If you’re an antique lover, art collector or just love browsing interesting shops, you definitely want to add this district to your Route 66 itinerary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     There is no shortage of shops to visit and enjoy and we soon found that many were not only dog-friendly, but had official canine greeters as well. One of the most well-known is Lady at the Lile Gallery. You may have come to browse the inventive art (including items made from chipped off paint from the Cadillac Ranch), but Lady will certainly get the majority of your attention. Not surprisingly, the owner told us that many people come by just to meet or visit with the sweet pup.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     Luckily, there are plenty of cafes and restaurants to choose from when your feet need a break: Mexican, burgers, pub grub, barbecue and more. And if your shopping hours take you into the evening, you’ll want to choose one of the venues that also offer live music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     The Blue Crane Bakery (2332 SW 6th) got a unanimous thumbs-up from everyone in our family. We stopped by this hip, family-owned bakery at the end of a long day to pick up a sweet treat after a long day of playing tourist.  Their freshly made Italian sodas are worth the stop alone, let me tell ya!

 

     Offered samples of some of the amazing baked goods, we found it impossible to narrow down our choice, so we ended up taking a small assortment of temptations back to the hotel…and didn’t regret it. There was even a surprise when we opened the box: a sprinkling of diminutive hand-folded origami blue cranes!

     For friendly customer service, assortments of offerings to include vegan and different dietary choices, and just down-right deliciousness, the Blue Crane definitely makes our recommendations list.

     People drove from miles around to visit Sixth Street back in the day, and they’re coming once again to enjoy all there is to see and do in the district

 

Route 66 Kitsch & Culture in Vega

 

   The next stop on our Texas Route 66 trip was the charming little town of Vega, the county seat of Oldham County. Locals, or “Vegans,” are some of the friendliest folks you’ll find along this trek. The people here and their love of the history of Route 66 are a perfect example of how the road and its travelers can become the fabric of a community.

     Walking around the courthouse square, it was easy to spot the show stopping mural of a white buffalo on the side of a building at the corner of South Main and West Main – just across from the Bee’s Knees Café (whose “Sweet Tea” sign would have tempted me into sitting on their bench for a spell if they’d only been open!).

     The massive painting screams Southwest pride and will capture the heart of anyone who loves the area’s history, wildlife and deserts. It is one of four murals painted by talented art partners Joshua Finley and Valerie Doshier in 2014. Tragically, Valerie died of a brain tumor just two years later. What a beautiful legacy of public art she left for passersby to enjoy for years to come.

     The children’s book character of Cheeky Maneeky whose stories she had outlined before her passing were later brought to life by her mother D’Ann Swain’s writing and Finley’s illustrations.

     Another of the duos’ murals appears on the side of a 100+-year old building at 1005 Coke Street that used to serve as the town’s lumberyard. Expanded a few years ago, it now houses the Milburn-Price Culture Museum that displays memorabilia from around Oldham County including a 1926 Model T affectionately named “Tin Lizzy.” (But I’ll say a bit more about her later.)

     The mural at this site depicts the famed XIT Ranch, whose history will be at least vaguely familiar to anyone raised in the state an subjected to local history books. The Panhandle ranch encompassed a mere three million acres (yes, really!) and was conceived in 1879 to fund a new state capital building. At its peak, it raised 150,000 head of cattle, represented by the large longhorn statue who,…ahem…has a “66” brand instead of an “XIT.” The last of the cattle were sold in 1912.

     What’s most likely to catch your eye as you approach the building is the world’s largest branding iron laying on the ground beside the parking area. The XIT iron, made by Greg Conn, was designed so that visitors who drove into the lot at night could cast an immense “XIT” shadow brand onto the side of the building with their headlights. It’s certainly impressive even if you only visit during the day.

 

There are countless vintage gas stations in every stage of repair and disrepair along the route, but the restoration on North Main Street (Coke Street) is sure to make visitors smile.

 

     Colonel James T. Owen opened the “Hi-Way” Magnolia station in 1924 on what was then the Ozark Trail, a partially bricked and partially dirt road. It was only the second service station built in Vega. Owen was an important figure among highway boosters rallying to have Vega as part of the upcoming Route 66.

     Edward and Cora Wilson leased the station from Owen just a couple of years after it was built. The Wilsons lived above the station until 1930, in two cozy rooms with one sink. They had to go downstairs to access the bathroom. Can you imagine? Right on Main Street.

    After the Wilsons, a string of businessmen leased the property including E. B. Cooke and A. B. Landrum. One operator, Kenneth R. Lloyd, claims to have actually married his wife at the small station before moving upstairs to live.

     The station went back under family control when Owen’s son Austin took over the operation in 1933, and entered into a lease with Phillips 66 Petroleum which charged him one cent per gallon of gas sold. The average price of gas was 18 cents per gallon, so that was a pretty good profit!

     By 1937, the year J. T. Owen passed away,  Route 66 was paved through Vega just south of the station.

     Vega’s Magnolia station shut down its pumps in 1953. From 1953 to 1965 the building was home to Slatz Barbershop.

Before restoration, 2002

     The service station remained vacant for decades, until Vegans rallied to restore it. The before and after photos are pretty impressive, don’t you think?

     Restoration was completed in August of 2004, and now the station contains mementos of its previous life. The museum is open on special days or by appointment, but you can glimpse many of its contents through the large windows. A glass-globed pump and blue oil pump sit out front.

 

 

 

     If you’re into the more “kitschy” finds along Route 66, it’s hard to beat Dot’s Mini Museum on North 12thStreet. Dot Leavitt’s family ran a refrigerated storage facility named the Vega Zero Lockers. For years they provided services to locals and travelers along the Mother Road, including “Jugs Iced Free.” Sounds like a pretty good deal, considering most cars didn’t have air conditioning! It was also the only place to buy ice on Route 66 between Amarillo and Tucumcari.

     Determined to share reminders of the era after the interstate passed Vega by, Dot began an informal collection of Route 66 artifacts and memorabilia, which turned into her “mini museum” in 1963.

     Known for her sweet and chatty nature, Dot became instant friends with all who stopped by to learn more about her unlikely treasures. She is said to be the inspiration (along with Lucille Hammons from Hydro, Oklahoma) for the character of “Tin Lizzie” in the Disney/Pixar movie ‘Cars.’ (See? I told you that “Tin Lizzie would come up again!) The character, voiced by Galveston native Katherine Helmond, owned the Radiator Springs Curio Shop and was the oldest auto in town.

“Tin Lizzie” from ‘Cars’

     Dot passed away in 2006 at the age of 89, and the collection is in the care of her daughter, Betty Carpenter.

     If you’re lucky enough to run into Betty on the property, she’ll show you around. There wasn’t a sole in sight on the hot afternoon of our arrival, so we satisfied ourselves by taking some photos of Dot’s whimsical outdoor collections.

     There’s quite a variety to see, including a gravestone for a newspaper that no longer exists, a waving cowboy made of reclaimed metal parts, signs with humorous bits of advice, and…my very favorite…the cowboy boot tree.

     The living tree, decorated with discarded boots of all shapes and styles, actually gets more fascinating the longer you look at it. Taking in the details, you’ll find “well-loved” boots weathering to the point of stitching unraveling, sole nails protruding and heels expanding like the “grow capsules” my daughter used to play with that expand into interesting shapes when you drop them into water. It’s definitely a no-place-but-Texas kind of thing.

     The yard of this diminutive museum alone is worth pulling into the town of Vega.

     If you’re into staying in “rooms with a past,” you’ll definitely want to check out the historic Vega Motel that opened as Vega Court in 1947. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s one of the last remaining tourist courts on the Texas stretch of 66. The Lucky Horseshoe “residence” at the Vega Motel recently opened as an accommodation option for road weary travelers, with enough room for the entire family. Here’s the link. (If you haven’t ever stayed in an Airbnb before, this code will get you $40 off your first booking!)

     There’s even a barber shop on the property, so if you’re in need of a trim after getting windblown on the road…you’re in luck. The rest of the motel is currently undergoing renovations, so I’m looking forward to heading back that way to check on the progress!

     The last thing I wanted to search for before we had to move on down the road was this wonderfully weathered Pepsi-Cola sign…and I feel lucky have have found it.! If you’re in the area and want to see this beauty for yourself, it’s on the original Route 66 between 14th and 15th Streets. And yes, those of you who know me well know that I’m a Dr. Pepper girl through and through, but who could resist this beautifully hand-painted relic?

The building also had “ghost signs” advertising “ice” (which would have been welcome in the heat!) and “Cafe.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     Just in case you’re interested, Oldham Country has the longest stretch of Route 66 stencils painted on the roadbed, at ever other mile marker beginning east of Wildorado (don’t-cha just love that name?) all the way to the west of Adrian. And though I don’t advise sitting on the road for a photo opportunity, there are a surprising number of places on the original Route 66 alignment that you’d be hard-pressed to spot an on-coming car. I settled for snapping my shadow rather than taking a chance. Just sayin’.

Related stories:

Getting Our Kicks on Route 66

Glenrio Ghost Town: Exit 0

Stories Along the Road

A Hero on Route 66

Adrian – Midpoint of Route 66

The Bent Door Cafe’s Quirky Origin

 

Stories Along the Road

     Do you ever see an abandoned car and wonder how long it’s been sitting or how it got there?

     One of the most photographed sights in the Texas ghost town of Glenrio is an abandoned 1968 Pontiac Catalina that rests in front of the remains of a Texaco gas station. It’s not for sale, and the “Private Property” and no trespassing signs do their best to keep people at a distance. (And yes, I respected them!)

     There’s no shortage of old, broken-down cars along old Route 66 – at deserted gas stations, homes, and in empty fields, but this one is different. It has a story.

     In my last blog post, I shared a bit about Joe Brownlee’s businesses and family in Glenrio. If you missed it, you can find it here. In that post I mentioned Roxann, Joe’s daughter who grew up helping her father with his Glenrio gas station. It’s that station the Pontiac sits at now.

     In 1970 when Roxann was just 19 she married 22-year-old Larry Lee Travis, the quiet young man from the small farming community of Darrouzett. The young couple originally lived in Adrian where his father was the preacher for the Methodist church, but soon moved back to her hometown of Glenrio. By 1975 almost all of the small town’s businesses had closed after the new interstate had bypassed them three years earlier, and Larry and Roxann now had an infant son to support.

     The young father approached his former employer, Don Morgan, who closed his own Standard Service Station in Adrian to ask if he could rent the building to run his own station. Morgan, who admired the Larry’s work ethic, agreed.

     For six months, Larry climbed into his 1968 Pontiac Catalina and drove 25 miles to Adrian to run the gas station.

     These lonely stretches of road could be dangerous, and the previous year local gas, shop and service station owners had formed a vigilante force (encouraged by the local police) to patrol the streets and discourage criminal mischief. The lack of burglaries and robberies while the watch was active proved a success, but the participants decided to disband, thinking the hard times may have passed. By the beginning of 1976, the patrols ceased.

     That year on Sunday, March 7ththe 28-year-old father drove his Pontiac to work for the last time. His former boss Morgan called at 7:30 that night to ask if he was prepared to receive and order of fuel, and had a brief conversation with him.

     Just about an hour later, 23-year-old Lewis Steven Powell entered the station and demanded the money from the register. Though no one will ever know exactly what went on the in next few moments, Powell made Larry kneel before shooting him in the back of the head. I’ll spare you he gruesome details, as they aren’t necessary to understand the tragedy of the situation.

     At 8:45 p.m. two tourists pulled into the gas station to use the self-service pump. They were both made uneasy by the constant barking of Larry’s large white dog just outside the office. When one of them went inside to pay, they found Travis.

     The cash drawer and its contents were missing, and Larry’s keys were still in the register.

     As a side note, this was the second time Powell had killed in 36 hours, the earlier incident being in Dallas. He was apprehended after a shoot-out with authorities in Colorado. In a plea bargain to escape the death penalty he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life. He was paroled after just seven years, after which he faced a murder charge in Dallas, and a 40-year sentence for assault in Colorado. It’s horrifying that all of theses convictions resulted in only a few years served. As of 2017 he was back in prison for parole violations, after which I could not locate information about him.

     The Standard station closed after Larry’s death and no longer exists, although its concrete foundations can be seen via Google maps just one mile east of Adrian.

     Larry’s Pontiac Catalina came home to Glenrio where it was parked at the empty station in front of the home in which his young family lived. It sits there to this day, rusting and weather worn, as a silent tribute.

     Roxann still lives in the home behind the station, and the barking dogs you will hear if you leave your car in the vicinity are hers.

     If you come to Glenrio, please respect the Private Property signs and remember that the Pontiac is more than a photo opp, it’s a piece of Glenrio history.

Photo via Google maps