Cowtown Diner represents a sweet coming home for Fort Worth native Scott Jones.
For the past 12 years, he has owned restaurants in Dallas, including Cafe Italia and Screen Door in Dallas' One Arts Plaza. But now he has found his métier in Sundance Square, with a fine new restaurant whose dressed-up home cooking and witty Western-tinged decor makes it feel quintessentially Fort Worth.
The place makes a fantastic first impression, wrapping you in comfort and elegance as soon as you walk in. A former La Madeleine, it has been given a beautiful makeover that feels simultaneously rich and retro. A large atrium lets in natural light. Multiple dining areas include a counter that's like an updated '50s diner, with pale green upholstered stools. The main dining room is dark and welcoming, with bright touches, such as the cowhide lampshades and the branded wooden menu covers.
As for what's on those menus, Jones describes the food as being like mom's cooking only better. The menu has pretty much every homey dish from the Southern mom's cookbook, from pot roast to chicken-fried chicken to King Ranch chicken casserole; some are dishes that Jones brought with him from Screen Door.
The food was stick-to-your-ribs but with a polish and sophistication that kept it from feeling like a simple home-cooking joint.
Salads, for example, had sparklingly fresh greens, and there were sweet-potato fries along with the regular russets.
Appetizers were a lot of fun. Sausage balls ($7.95) were like little meatballs with a crunchy cornbread crust. The sausage was made from ground pork, sage and fennel, for a classic taste. Six in an order were lined up on a rectangular wooden plate; the accompanying red-eye gravy was velvety smooth, while creamed spinach lent some gratifying crumple to the texture.
Bacon-wrapped deviled eggs ($8.95) were another novelty that turned out to be better than expected. Their tempura batter was thicker than the usual and offered a solid crunch. The bacon tended toward underdone, but not fatally so; eggs were nicely cooked and came stuffed with a pickled jalapeño. There were four to an order, resting on coleslaw with finely shredded red and green cabbage in a nonmayo vinegary dressing.
Meatloaf sliders ($8.95) weren't legit sliders in that they weren't served on wee little burger burns; instead, this looked more like a meatloaf sandwich on thick toast, cut into squares. Rather too thick to bite, the squares were unwieldy, but the flavor was good. The meatloaf was made with ground turkey and cremini mushrooms and topped with thinly sliced red onions and a blue-cheese mayonnaise.
The most beloved dish was the beef short-rib pot roast ($10.95), with beefy-tasting meat that melted into shredded strands. Mashed potatoes were gorgeously fluffy, while the medley of baby carrots and peas felt very grown-up. King Ranch chicken casserole ($9.95) was a respectable version, but gloppy and not for the faint of heart. Served in a casserole dish, it held large chunks of tender chicken in a thick, cheesy sauce that tasted of chile powder, with trace bits of mashed-down corn tortilla.
You can get a lighter rendition of those flavors in the tortilla soup ($3.50 cup, $4.95 bowl), a ruddy red version filled with shredded chicken and cheese and topped with tortilla strips. There's also King Ranch queso ($6.95), which has the cheese and spices, but no chicken, although you can get it with brisket for $7.95.
Cowtown Diner proudly touts its "Full o' Bull" special, a 4-pound chicken-fried steak, as the world's largest. It comes with mashed potatoes, cream gravy and Texas toast and is $69.95 -- but if you eat it all, it's free.
Desserts include pies and cakes that are made in-house, but our jaunty server said they'd run out for the day. Cowtown Diner is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and keeps late-night hours, too. There's no shortage of ambition; Mom would be proud.