The first time I met Tom Perini, he was dragging his Texas chuckwagon back from a promotional tour of Poland and speaking lovingly of home – “Buffalo Gap, Texas, population 499.” Today, the official population of this town, village or whatever it is outside Abilene has dropped to 463 – surely the result of people overeating at Perini Ranch Steakhouse. The boldly seasoned steaks grilled over mesquite must have first inspired the phrase “to die for.”
Even after virtually an entire life lived in or at least within an altar call of the Bible Belt, I’m still surprised and angered when some server tells me I have to join a private club to get an adult beverage. Tonight at Perini Ranch, I said essentially (as I often do), “Oh don’t worry, just bring me a sweet tea.” Through the ambiguities of club membership, the sweet tea I wanted a little showed up with the Shiner Bock I wanted a lot. It was something like 104 outside at 6:30 p.m., and the dining room wasn’t air conditioned.
It broke my heart to do so but I passed on steak in one of the world’s best steakhouses, opting instead for fried catfish and hush puppies. I’d had steak the night before at the wonderful Beehive in downtown Abilene, and then ate the rest of its meaty immensity for lunch today. The catfish was mild and sweet tasting, fried in a perfect cornmeal batter worthy of the old Cock of the Walk in Natchez-Under-the-Hill in Mississippi. And Tom Perini is one of those rare cooks who can always make you eat your green beans.
My son, who never seems to get tired of steak, ordered the filet, which came with a side of roasted potatoes and Tom Perini’s standard-issue jalapeno pepper. Thanks to Perini’s own dry rub (which we got a canister of to take home) and an extra crusting of black pepper, the filet was gone before I got tired of photographing my catfish. Thank goodness I’d shot its portrait first.
Dessert may not have been the farthest thing from my mind by this point, but it was close. Still, when I heard the phrase “jalapeno cheesecake,” my natural curiosity got the better of me. The trick, gimmick or magic here is the sweetened jalapeno jelly, which tastes little or nothing like jalapeno. The pickled pepper on top was hot, we were told, so I left that alone; but I used every forkful of cheesecake to chase the last of that pepper jelly all ’round my plate. That stuff, I believe, would be great on almost anything.