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Dining review: Stephan Pyles' Stampede 66

Stampede 66

1717 McKinney Ave., Dallas



Posted 6:00am on Wednesday, Dec. 05, 2012

We're a long way from mere sustenance, and you'll see that in action at Stampede 66, the newest restaurant from celebu-chef Stephan Pyles. Youthful, kicky and lots of fun, Stampede 66 is an of-the-moment place that references Pyles' iconic Star Canyon restaurant while folding in motifs from his childhood in Big Spring, Texas -- but with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility that seems tailor-made for contemporary diners who happily chase down food trucks for the latest hipster grub.

For Pyles, it's another decade nailed. In the '80s, he served the first wave of foodies at Routh St. Cafe. In the '90s, he helped define Southwestern at Star Canyon, and in the '00s, his eponymous Stephan Pyles staked a claim in the Dallas Arts District. Many chefs can't lay claim to one marquee restaurant, much less three.

Stampede 66 is both upscale and laid-back, with a menu that extends from smoking chef tricks to funky diner classics like Frito pie. You can fine-dine with a group of friends, or fly solo with tacos at the bar.

Pyles and executive chef Jon Thompson call the menu "modern Texan"; what they've done is take lowbrow food like meatloaf, fried chicken and chicken-fried steak and given it a highbrow makeover, frequently with an ironic wink.

"Freeto pie" ($12) was a perfect example. A foil bag held house-made corn chips, topped with chili and served in a foil bag. Kitschy, but the chili was exemplary, with a complexity of flavors. The base was ground beef, stewed with ancho and chipotle chiles and cayenne pepper until tooth-tender. In place of shredded cheddar was a cheddar "foam," topped with candied jalapenos -- so clever, and so good.

A bowl of red ($12) was straight chili, but also served with a flourish from a tin can with a signature private label. The server poured the chili into a bowl, where it oozed out over a plump fritter filled with goat cheese, ready to burst open and add a rich tang.

The fried chicken ($18) sounded like a science experiment: first brined overnight, then cooked sous vide, then fried, then injected with honey. Making fried chicken sweet may not be elegant, but it sure made it go down easy; it was reminiscent of the popular chicken-and-waffles trend. On the side came biscuits and mashed potato tots in rather scrimping portions.

Venison meatloaf ($18) had less flash and more flavor. The meat was fine and crumbly, with the use of venison and a ring of bacon adding a fine depth of flavor. Accompanying sides were excellent: mac and cheese in a small iron pan, and Brussels sprouts, sauteed until dark and soft. Chicken and dumplings ($12) weren't as good; while the shards of chicken were tender and the dumplings puffy and light, the cream base was achingly rich.

Pyles' sister Alena, most recently at Taqueria Canonita in Las Vegas, helped build Stampede's taco bar, with a half-dozen options, mostly priced at $4 each. These were good, with house-made tortillas and fillings such as brisket, sweetbreads and pork barbacoa; the favorite was fried oyster, with a crunchy cornmeal crust.

Stampede 66 takes charging for bread to a whole new plane with four options that included biscuits ($5), old-school Star Canyon cornbread ($8) and beer bread ($6) served in a Shiner Bock beer can. While fun, none are anything to write home about, and the popover ($10), filled with a drippy and dense dose of pimiento cheese, should be avoided entirely.

While entree prices stay below $20, it's easy to rack up a bill here -- especially if you order the signature prickly pear margarita for an eye-popping $16. This drink, combining tequila with prickly pear puree, dates to the days of Star Canyon, but it's been "mixologized" with the use of liquid nitrogen that gets poured into a big stainless steel bowl table-side, with great puffs of smoke and fanfare. Maybe they'll offer a $12 version minus the smoke.

The restaurant is located on the sidewalk level of the new Park 17 high-rise on the edge of Uptown, and the decor, like the food, is a showstopper, with cactus and horse heads sculpted from wire, and a snaking piece that's filled with light. There's a fire pit near the entrance and a bank of mighty longhorns suspended from the ceiling.

At the bar, the TVs are set to old Westerns, just like they used to be at Star Canyon, and the back wall features squares with cattle-brand marks, like the ceiling at Star Canyon. Denizens of that restaurant might recognize managers Shawn Horne and Linda Mazzei; but it seems more than likely the majority of the Stampede 66 crowd doesn't go back that far.

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