“Let’s go to Billy Bob’s for dinner” is something I thought would never come out of my mouth.
The honky-tonk known for country music concerts and professional bull rides seems an incongruous venue for favored fare.
But we heard it through the food grapevine that chef Mark Hitri, formerly from one of the finest dining rooms in all of Cowtown — Saint-Emilion — is now presiding over the kitchen with a revamped menu .
So on a recent random weeknight, with nary a musical act drawing us there, we made the trek to Billy Bob’s…and were duly rewarded for our effort.
For infrequent visitors, the “restaurant” gets lost amid the neon lights and maze of pool tables. Our eyes adjusted quite nicely, however, after we found the menu board, hanging above a counter bearing a sign with a diagrammed cow that reads “Angus Beef Chart.”
No, this is not a fancy set-up. But many of the offerings strike us as promising and are nicely evolved from the restaurant’s barbecue-and-beer past.
Take the yellow squash soup ($4.50), a thick almost-stew, with chunks of chicken and green chiles. Nicely spiced, it didn’t need pepper, and most importantly, didn’t have too much salt. A pureed squash soup might seem like a strange thing to enjoy on an 85-degree day, but this iteration was nearly perfect, with a nice brightness.
The quail sliders ($9.25) are three yeasty biscuits, piled with moist, shredded quail and topped with a salsa verde aioli. (Apparently, even aioli has gone country.) The biscuits were of the just-out-of-the-oven, melt-in-your-mouth variety, making the mini-sandwiches winners.
Then we buckled down and tried some stereotypical cowboy food. The chicken fried steak ($11.95) was just the thing: A generous (but not overly so) plank of crisp batter that complemented the cube steak. We paired it with pillowy mashed potatoes with thick cream gravy and the black bean and corn salad, a piquant mix with cilantro and onion that, all in all, gave the entree a peppy dash of freshness.
With Cooper’s Barbecue across the street, Billy Bob’s doesn’t need to rassle with a smoker — it simply sells the joint’s serviceable meat and anoints it with an in-house sauce that’s brimming with sweet flavor. The roasted chicken plate ($13) wasn’t flashy, but it was satisfying. And falling in step with the meal, the sides — fried okra and sweet potato fries — were a cut above.
And speaking of, nothing tests a kitchen’s mettle more than when a group of 20 or so all orders at the same time (darn tourists!). It was our luck that we arrived on their heels, but the capable cooks were undeterred. You could tell it wasn’t their first, um, rodeo.
Underneath a display of signed hamburger buns by the likes of the Band Perry and Miranda Lambert, we dined on food served atop plastic baskets and we used disposable silverware. We took it as an assured sign: Nothing should upstage this food.