For the past decade, national chains have cornered the market on the midprice, casual steakhouse. Big boys like the Outback Steakhouse and their pals have driven countless individuals out of business, while creating an empire of mediocrity in the process. Fortunately for us, someone in Colorado Springs has decided that it is time to fight back.
Lyn Harwell, a veteran of the New Orleans food scene, has changed his focus and his address in bringing Texas T-Bone to South Academy near Chelton. Before coming to town, he owned his own restaurant in Louisiana, called La Madeline, and managed another for celebrity super-chef Emeril Lagasse. Although Harwell may have left crawfish and gumbo for meat and potatoes, he has breathed some convivial Southern hospitality into a truly Western institution.
Start with the enormous barrel of peanuts that greets you at the entrance. Grab a handful before heading into the big, open barn featuring wood floors and big booths with wooden tables. Tanned animal hides and a large collection of stuffed trophy heads line the walls to complete the cowboy country look. Nestled into the corners, large televisions display continuous country music videos while the tunes fill the room. The warm, salty rolls with butter and honey that arrived as soon as we sat down only enhanced the down-home feel.
We were grateful for the snack, as we had an enormous menu to ponder. Steaks here are the main attraction, and they offer sirloin, tenderloin, rib-eye and New York strip in addition to the namesake T-bones, available at 16 ounces ($17.99), 20 ounces ($19.99), and the "Trail Boss" at 24 ounces ($21.99). But wait ... there's more. Texas T-Bone also offers ribs, burgers, chicken and a variety of seafood, including catfish from the Red River. Entrees include your choice of soup or salad, and a side dish. The wait staff's T-shirts say, "Everything is big but the prices," so leaving hungry is unlikely.
Succumbing easily to the temptation of some good fried food, our meal got off to a great start with the onion bale ($5.99), a veritable mountain of thin, crispy onion strings that had been fried to perfection. Served with a honey-mustard dipping sauce (I also asked for some barbeque sauce, which was a sweet and tangy Texas classic), these are the best onion rings/strings I have had in the Springs. Simple green salads followed, wiping down the grease and getting us ready for the main event.
A combination of steak and smothered chicken ($16.99) sounded promising. The 8-ounce tenderloin lived up to its end of the bargain. Bathed in hickory smoke and slow cooked, this specialty of the house brings a Texas-sized mouthful of flavor together with the cow's most tender cut. The chicken played second fiddle in this duo, and did so with a broken string. Instead of a traditional Southern smothering, slices of bacon, mushrooms and a few slices of cheese were stacked atop a boneless breast. Bone dry and almost crunchy, the chicken had been cooked almost past edibility. The same cannot be said of the topping, which didn't seem cooked at all as the cheese on top was tepid rather than hot and melted.
Worse still was the cheese enchilada offered as a side dish, which can only be described as a total failure. The tortilla and its contents had surrendered their individual identity to a gelatinous blob submerged in a pool of pure grease.
Returning to its earlier form, the kitchen's fried shrimp ($13.99) indicated that not everyone in the back had fallen asleep at the wheel. The shrimp were plump, the batter light and the bite crispy. Adding to the fun was a sweet and tangy marmalade sauce that played up the shrimp's natural sweetness. On the side this time was a lovely baked potato packed with sour cream and chives.
While the food may have come up short in spots, the service never did. Our server, Brandy, couldn't have been more friendly or attentive. She knowledgably answered all of our questions and never let our water glasses hit empty.
A kids' menu and enough choices to satisfy even the pickiest appetite make Texas T-Bone an easy place to take the little ones. And, if you like to eat early, check out "Steak Time," Texas T-Bone's happy hour for your stomach. Between 4 and 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, you can get a complete dinner with your choice of 11 different entrees for $7.95, and 11 more (for the heartier appetite) for $9.95.
Despite the hiccups, Texas T-Bone has a lot to offer those in the mood for a good steak in a casual environment and is a better, independent alternative to the many chain outlets around town. Stick to steaks and fried items and you should be in for a good meal. If nothing else, stopping in for an onion bale and margarita might not be a bad way to spend the afternoon.
2070 South Academy Boulevard
Hours: Monday through Friday, 4-10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon-10 p.m.