You have to go to Roanoke.
For months, we had been hearing this mantra from our foodie friends, about a burgeoning restaurant row in the tiny town a few miles north of Keller. But was this just one of those situations where the in-crowd merely rallies around something obscure and weird as a means of lording their hipster sophistication over the rest of us?
Actually, the in-crowd knows exactly what it's talking about. We can't speak for all of the restaurants that populate the newly paved North Oak Street -- among them the recently opened, German-flavored Gerhard's; the casual Mexican spot Tortilla Flats; and the longtime Roanoke stalwart Babe's Chicken Dinner House. But we can speak for Cowboy Chow -- and it's extraordinary.
The original Cowboy Chow opened in Deep Ellum in summer 2008; the chef, Jason Boso, is also responsible for the haute burger joint Twisted Root, also in Deep Ellum. Last fall, he opened both a second Cowboy Chow and a second Twisted Root, basically next door to each other, in Roanoke. (There's an empty storefront in between the two restaurants, set to be occupied by a Roanoke outpost of the Fort Worth Italian spot Brix.)
And while we know what you're thinking -- please, no more gourmet Southern cooking, surely the most overworked dining concept of this young century -- Cowboy Chow serves up food that sets it far apart from its competitors.
We started with the Navajo fry bread ($4), a big moon of fried dough dusted with some sort of chili powder and accompanied by two dipping sauces, clover honey and black bean. We preferred the honey -- its sweetness contrasted perfectly with the gentle spice of the bread -- but the black bean was nothing to gripe about.
Most of the main courses at Cowboy Chow are nouveau variations on old-fashioned comfort food, such as the tater parfait ($9) and the cast-iron chicken pot pie ($8). Both were flawless. The tater parfait arrives in a mason jar, brisket on the bottom, with layers of cowboy caviar (black beans and corn) and mashed potatoes, and then topped with cheese and tortilla strips. You have to dig deep and use a little muscle to get all of the ingredients onto your spoon, but when you do, the flavors combine in sinful fashion.
The pot pie, which arrives in a miniature cast-iron pot, is a more delicate affair -- the golden puff pastry top looks as if it might crumble in the wind. When you dig in, you discover that this is an exquisitely old-fashioned chicken pot pie, with diced vegetables and shredded chicken swimming in a lusciously creamy sauce.
There were only two of us for lunch, but we couldn't resist trying the "7 Hour" baby back ribs ($12 for a half rack, $18 for a full rack), which come slathered with a root beer barbecue sauce. The sauce turned out to be a tad too sweet for our taste, but the ribs were flawlessly cooked, with uncommonly juicy meat falling off the bone. As with most items on the menu here, the portions were very generous: Even if it had been the only thing we were eating, the half-rack would have been more than enough for one person.
Of the sides, we sampled the macaroni and cheese ($3), which was neither overly gooey nor overly starchy. The drinks menu features any manner of offbeat options, both alcoholic (the Mexican Coke, $7, featuring vanilla-infused bourbon and pure cane Coca-Cola, looked especially tempting), and nonalcoholic (the sweet watermelon tea, $2, is similar to the tasty iced tea offered at Twisted Root).
If there was a disappointment during our meal, it was dessert. By that point, our expectations were so high that the marshmallow and brownie s'more, accompanied by graham cracker-crusted fried ice cream ($7), was probably inevitably going to let us down. The s'more was tasty but overly familiar; the crust on the ice cream yummy, but the ice cream itself a little blah.
For this, we harbor no grudge. Indeed, everything about our visit to Cowboy Chow, from our friendly server to our seats at an open-air counter that overlooks the goings-on on North Oak, was so wonderful that we would have forgiven far graver missteps. Our advice: Get there before this best-kept secret is completely out of the bag and it becomes impossible to secure a table.