Welcome Back to Perini Ranch

By Anna Mitchael

The Texas staple that never grows old

The first time I went to Perini Ranch I was newly in love. My boyfriend and I drove the distance from Dallas to the restaurant, located in the not-bustling, not-metropolis of Buffalo Gap, Texas, in a state of constant mystification that we could have so much in common. You, too, breathe? You, too, like burgers?

After lunch, the plan was to drive two hours to go to Larry McMurtry’s Archer City bookstore, Booked Up. When we had all the books we could handle — or they kicked us out so they could close up, which would likely come first — we would return to Dallas.

Now we are a couple decades down the proverbial road yet that day still comes to mind quite often. Usually with the question: “What were you thinking?” All in all, it was about seven hours of driving to eat burgers and look at books. Granted, the conversation was riveting. (You, too, like football?) But the idea of such a day is hard for my middle-aged mind to process.

As they say: time changes things.

Now, that boyfriend is my husband. Saturdays that used to be filled with row after row of dusty books to peruse, hundreds of miles of country music and cooing in each other’s ears, and medium-rare cow are spent doing things for and with our three children. We are at the soccer fields, or when things get really spicy, Sam’s Club. In addition to those obvious, markable changes, there are also subtle shifts. With time, he and I have learned that nestled among the many things we share there are differences. He does not like rom-coms. Or entire vacations are built around the idea of renting a cabin and writing for 13-hour days.

You, too, do not enjoy talking at length about feelings?

All of this is relatively predictable, and though it means I am completely, helplessly, tirelessly middle age, I wouldn’t trade any of where we sit. Yet there are times when I wonder about the pieces of where we were. Is the woman who would wander new highways in search of a burger gone, or just buried under all she needs to do on a Saturday?

A couple months ago I asked this same question of my husband. “Do you think in another decade, when we have more time on our hands, that woman will return?” The meaning of the question settled around us like the low-level appliance buzz in our kitchen: Is time really changing things, or just layering them?

As it ended up, not long after I asked the question, we ended up with a Saturday to ourselves. So many things could be done with the day. Yardwork, for starters, and don’t even get me started on how many jumbo boxes of lunch snacks needed to be purchased. But I hadn’t quite shaken the question of where that girl had gone — the one who didn’t need to do anything efficient to call it a good day. Who could look at a road stretching out before her, an itinerary with no function other than curiosity and cow, and still find joy. Without much conversation, deliberation or planning we decided to let the grass grow and to leave the fish-shaped crackers on the shelf for another discerning shopper. Booked Up is permanently closed — as book lovers might already know, much of its remains are parked in the Hotel 1928 library — but Perini Ranch was open. The road was calling.

You, too, like memory lane?

Though the day before I couldn’t have told you what the parking lot looked like, when we pulled in, I remembered it all. Gravel lot, wood fence, neon Perini Ranch steakhouse lights in the window. How unfolding yourself from the car is about stretching the body and preparing the stomach. Suddenly I remembered just how good the burger was. Good enough that I must have downplayed it in my mind, knowing it is inconvenient to crave a food that’s only available hours away from your home. Now that wasn’t a problem though. That burger, good enough that it’s regularly featured not just in Texas write-ups but nationally, was just inside the building: I could crave it all I wanted for the hundred steps to reach it.

The restaurant, at 2 p.m. on a Saturday, was full. Yet given the nature of our trip, here’s the thing I especially appreciated: no one was rushing anywhere. I’m sure there are soccer fields somewhere in Buffalo Gap and we saw a farmers market on the way in. But there’s no Sam’s Club. The remoteness and fact that anyone who isn’t a local must intentionally drive to reach the restaurant lends a feeling of wanting to stay a while. We are there for the food, for the lingerability.

The first time we visited, I don’t remember even looking at a menu. We had driven there for the burger and so we were getting the burger and that was the end of the story. You, too, like a satisfying short story? This time, however, we also tried the mac and cheese, which hit just the right gooeyness ratio of cheese to pasta and the zucchini, a staple they are known for — think tomatoes and spices baked with the veggie just long enough to make it a comfort food. And while I thought those two dishes plus the burger would be enough, I was so glad we got talked into the hominy, a reminder that bland is what you make of it. Last but not least, the burger. The burger. The burger. There are reasons people make it a bucket list item to try. The huge patty has flavor and just enough drippings to make it one with the bun with cheese melted into the mix. Toppings in just the right proportion. I thought I was finished eating before it was done but then backtracked and wiped the plate clean. Then we sat at that cozy table, looking out the window at the landscape and listening to other diners for much longer than we needed to. I suppose that’s what the trip was about though. I didn’t ask my husband the question again, about whether we were actually changing or just layering. I didn’t really need to. The low-level buzz around us there was the answer. Where one part of our lives is regularity and efficiency right now, other parts remain: connection, lingerability, tradition, nostalgia. For us, Perini Ranch will always be a holder of that goodness. If you end up with a Saturday to spare, perhaps it can be for you, too.

Green Chile Hominy

From “Perini Ranch Steakhouse—Stories and Recipes of Real Texas Food” by Lisa and Tom Perini

If you only make one recipe from this book besides a steak, it should be this hominy.

Not only is it the Steakhouse signature, on the menu from almost day one, but it works equally well for breakfast and dinner. Tom created the dish when working with the late Louise Matthews of Albany, Texas. Mrs. Matthews held an epic party in conjunction with the Fort Griffin Fandangle, the oldest outdoor musical production in Texas, which showcases ranching life in West Central Texas with music and merriment.

You can assemble the hominy dish a day ahead.

Vegetable oil spray
10 slices bacon
1 cup chopped onion
Four 15-ounce cans white hominy, drained, with 1⁄2 cup liquid reserved
1 or 2 pickled jalapenos, minced, with 1 tablespoon liquid from the jar
1 cup chopped, roasted, peeled and seeded
New Mexican green or poblano chiles
8 ounces (2 cups) shredded Cheddar

Heat the oven to 350 F. Spray a 9×13-inch baking dish at least 2 inches deep with vegetable oil spray.

Put the bacon slices in a cold skillet. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook the bacon for 3 minutes on one side. Turn the bacon and cook on the other side to desired doneness. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

When cool enough to handle, crumble the bacon with your fingers and set aside.

Carefully pour off all but 2 to 3 tablespoons of the bacon drippings. Return the skillet to the stovetop and stir in the onion. Cook over medium heat until the onion is tender, 5 minutes. Pour in the hominy liquid and jalapeno liquid and cook until reduced by about one-half, about 5 minutes. Add the hominy and jalapenos and heat through. Stir in half of the crumbled bacon and half of the cheese.

Spoon into the prepared baking dish. Scatter the remaining bacon and cheese over the hominy. Bake for 25 minutes, until the cheese on top melts and the hominy mixture is bubbly.

Let sit for 5 minutes before serving.

Serves 10 to 12 guests.