the steak challenge of a lifetime.
A huge hunk of steak overlaps both ends of my plate, sizzling and steaming invitingly. I've got my knife and fork. My napkin is around my neck. A mug of beer shaped like a cowboy boot is standing by, literally. But there's a problem. Above me, an antlered head of an aoudad sheep peers resentfully down at me from a wall mount. It's making me feel guilty.
There's no connection between the whopping chunk of Grade A Prime American beef in front of me and the hunting trophy that is just one of many, many pieces of Wild West regalia straining every square inch of wall here at the Big Texan Steak Ranch just outside of Amarillo, Texas.
The Big Texan's 50-year-plus reputation leans on wonderful food, fun and Conestoga wagons full of cactus-country kitsch. We're talking herds of mule deer, elk, moose, and bighorn sheep heads; my family is listening to strolling musicians who have tip money tucked into their blackjack-dealer sleeve garters; and a huge stuffed bear–that's taxidermy, not Fuzzy Wuzzy–wearing a cowboy hat. The second floor mirrors a Chisholm Trail bawdy house, with miniature Texas flags toothpicked into jalapeño pepper garnishes and six flag poles outside boosting the real thing into a brisk Texas breeze above a huge, plastic beef steer available for photo ops in front of the brightly painted, old western town façade.
Actually, my steak looks like it could have come from a steer that big. It weighs 72 ounces. That's 4½ pounds of meat. And best of all, it's free–if I eat the whole thing. And a salad. And a baked potato. And a shrimp cocktail. And a roll. With butter. In an hour. That is the Big Texan's famous 72-oz. Steak Challenge.
My son, a few tables away with the rest of my family, is pointing and pretending to laugh at me. He says no way can I do it. I say it's a piece of cake.
No, I don't have to eat a piece of cake, too. I just mean that through the years, about 10,000 Steak Challengers have succeeded. That's a long-running feast of more than 40,000 pounds of beef. Compared to a John Wayne trail drive of that size, my 72-ounce steak seems pretty manageable.
The Steak Challenge grew out of a long ago steak-eating contest put on by restaurant founder Bob Lee to attract rowdy, crowd-pleasing cowboys. The original winner beat out fellow stockyard wranglers who tossed entry money into a Stetson to see who could eat the most steaks in an hour. He essentially ate one steak for every dollar of his $5 ante.
"And he added a potato, roll, salad and shrimp cocktail just to show off," says the founder's son and current co-owner, Bobby Lee. "My dad said, 'From this point forward, anybody who can eat this dinner, which is equivalent to 72 ounces, gets it for free.' And that was in 1962." The original restaurant's towering metal cowboy sign was a Route 66 landmark then. The new location is just off of Interstate 40, but that same Texas-size metal cowpoke still welcomes visitors. He flew to the new location via helicopter.
The rules say I can take a test bite off the clock, so I carve out a chunk and start chewing. Immediately, my taste buds are overwhelmed. This is not only a big steak: it's a steak with big taste, the hearty juices dripping with rich, well-marbled beef flavor. I give them the nod and the big digital clock over the elevated table starts to roll. My family gives me a rousing cheer, joined by a few of the other diners-who admittedly are distracted by their own delicious top sirloins, strip steaks and prime ribs.
By the way, the 72-ounce steak isn't the only big steak on the menu. One diner has an 18-ounce Dallas Cut ribeye bullying a full-grown baked potato off the plate. The 36-ounce Houston Cut gets a platter all to itself.
Working through the first few bites, I'm thinking I may not even have to use the tips I got beforehand from Molly Schuyler, a petite gal who just a few months ago downed two of these 72-ounce steaks in a row.
One tip seems pretty useful, though. "Chew your food," she told me. "Don't try to make something go down when it won't." Funny, my mom used to tell me the same thing.
You can watch Molly's triumph at the Big Texan website, and frankly, it's amazing. And half of all women who try the challenge succeed, compared to just 1 out of every 7 men. Why? "We have super powers," Molly says, chuckling. She'll need them; she's coming back to try three 72-ouncers in a row.
I noticed that Molly took frequent sips of a drink while she was eating, to I try that with my mug of the Big Texan's brewed-on-site craft beer: Rattlesnake IPA, though I considered Palo Duro Canyon Pale Ale or Whoop Your Donkey. The shrimp cocktail is long gone–I polished it off first. My plan is to nibble away at the other sides at regular intervals, to give me a break from a steady diet of pure steak.
I keep at it, steadily whittling down this Chinese Checkerboard size piece of meat. By the twenty minute mark, a lot of it is gone, thanks to my sip and chew technique, but I notice my head is starting to spin. Maybe I should have tried water or the Big Texan's excellent Sweet Peach Tea.
Bobby Lee's brother and restaurant co-owner Dan has seen this moment before. "Once you hit that 20 minute wall, your stomach starts sending signals to your brain: 'Enough, enough, enough.' It could be all over."
Another ten minutes and I may be slowing down on the steak, too. I've got roughly half on board, but there's quite a lot to go. Might be nice to walk around a bit, shake loose a little room, but the rules say I have to stay at the table. Better go easy, though, because what goes in has to stay in, so to speak, or I lose more than my lunch.
What I need now is distraction. I start looking around as I chew, gathering motivation from all the Big Texan trademarks: the huge rocking chair big enough to curl up and take a nap in, the Indian teepee over there, the live rattlesnake coiled in the gift shop, the improbable 20-foot dinosaur in cowboy boots outside and famished guests arriving in the special Big Texan longhorn limos.
This stuff makes Bobby Lee almost as proud as the food. "The true magical element here is the ability to present the Texas mystique," he says. "For 55 years and four generations of travelers, the Big Texan has been the truly genuine Texas."
I look down and the steak is mostly gone now. Still, time is running out. I need more inspiration. I remember Bobby telling me about a past winner: "There was a very shy 12-year-old boy from Calgary who finished the 72-ounce challenge in 28 minutes. He asked me if he was allowed to order dessert."
Not everybody honors the Cowboy Code of honesty. Bob Lee tells of congratulating one contestant. "I lifted his arm and his shirt tail pulled out, causing a piece of hidden steak to fall to the floor," Bob says. "He was disqualified."
I'm still in the running, but the more I eat, the bigger the remainder seems to grow. My tongue is numb and my throat is as tight as a Texas election. Oh, and you know those upside-down luxury cars half-buried in the dirt at nearby Cadillac Ranch? It feels like somebody parked one in my belly.
I look back at the digital time clock; eight minutes. I'm as hot as the open-flame grills being tended behind me, where the steak cooks are all watching me now. A thin line of sweat starts behind my ear and runs down the back of my neck. My jaw is as tight and slow as the Tin Man's before Dorothy found the oilcan. People are watching me warily, as if I could blow like Spindletop.
Suddenly, I remember the Texas-shaped swimming pool at the Big Texan Motel outside, and imagine myself cooling down in it, drifting, soaking, relaxing. I can do this. I can do this.
Then I realize the water in the pool has turned to A-1 Steak Sauce and I start to flounder. I go under once, twice...
Wait a minute. I'm imagining things. There's just a sliver of steak left. I fork it in and, yes, I'm done! My family is on their feet, giving me a hearty cheer. Even my son looks proud. He points at me and we do an air fist-bump over the heads of the rest of the diners. Behind me, the grill cooks give me the thumbs up. It's nice to earn the respect of the professionals.
I sit back and savor the moment. The roaming musicians are strumming "The Yellow Rose of Texas." Families are laughing, enjoying their big Lone Star State meals around plank tables covered with Holstein-hide tablecloths. Giggling couples preserve their bucket list Big Texan outing for posterity by having a waitress take their picture. This is a night they'll remember for a long time.
And so will I.
Even the aoudad sheep up there on the wall seems pleased. Did he just wink at me?