Fort Worth sometimes known as the “City of Cowboys and Culture,” is the 16th-largest city in the United States and part of the No. 1 tourist destination in Texas, welcoming 6.5 million visitors annually. Before it was a notable tourist destination, Fort Worth was an Army outpost from 1849 to 1853, protecting the western frontier after the Mexican-American War. In the late nineteenth century it was a “cowtown,” a resting point for cowboys driving their cattle to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail; they filled their time drinking, gambling, and carousing in the saloons. Gone are the days of bawdy cowboy debauchery in Hell’s Half Acre, but the ambience of the Stockyard National Historic District reverberates with stories of outlaws and gamblers. Walking down the weathered plank walkways you feel like you’re stepping into the old timey West. Rustic buildings now house tourist attractions, restaurants, and plenty of souvenir shops.
We had to see what attracts so many thousands of tourists to the place of cowboys, cattle, and some of the best down-home cuisine in America. We spent time investigating the Stockyards National District, the Downtown area, and the cultural district on a weekend giddy-up tour of this iconic American city.
The Stockyards play into the cowboy mythos that resonates within every red-blooded American. This district is the place to experience Western heritage at every turn: unique Western saloons; the world’s only twice-daily cattle drive, the Fort Worth Herd; Billy Bob’s Texas, also known as the world’s largest honky-tonk; and plenty of two-stepping, beer drinking, and guitar twanging. And let’s not forget about the food — whether you are seeking the best steak, barbecue, Tex Mex, or fine dining, Fort Worth hosts a plethora of options.
Starting out with a meal is usually a good way to gauge a place, and we were mightily encouraged to try the chicken-fried steak at the Stockyards’ Horseshoe Hill Café. What is chicken-fried steak? Is it steak or chicken — or a combination of both? We quickly got the low down on what goes into this down-home dish at this notable newbie eatery located along the rustic, weathered restaurant row. Chicken-fried steak may owe its culinary origins to German-speaking immigrants who brought the beloved Wiener schnitzel to the United States. The term “chicken-fried steak” first came from a 1914 Colorado Springs restaurant advertisement. As more people sought their fortunes out west, this tasty tenderized cube steak coated with seasoned flour and then pan fried and smothered with a white salt-and-pepper gravy became a dining staple.
Horseshoe Hill Cowboy Café offers a variety of chicken-fried steaks that would have any good old boy begging for more. Native cowboy cook Grady Spears opened this place to combine great home-style cuisine with Southern hospitality. The menu includes many “ways” in which to enjoy your chicken-fried steak: the Cowboy Way with peppered cream gravy, the Vaquero Way saddled with ancho cheese enchilada, the Farmer’s Way loaded with chili gravy and a fried egg, or Matt’s Way with chili con carne and queso blanco. Our choice was the Frontera Way, offering a thoroughly tenderized flank steak, dredged and dipped and then fried to a golden crust and nestled under a savory blanket of peppered cream gravy with several bright green ancho chiles rellenos to add just the right Mex to the Tex of this iconic dish. Even with a large portion to share amongst ourselves, we found that we would have gladly had our own, since each bite was a miniature moment of culinary bliss. As the novelist, essayist, and proud Texan Larry McMurtry once wrote, “Only a rank degenerate would drive 1,500 miles across Texas and not eat a chicken-fried steak.” We were glad to stop by this homespun kitchen to indulge in a dish that did truly feed our souls and spirits with a glimpse into authentic Americana.
We paid our bill and meandered down the path into the iconic White Elephant saloon. This saloon is located in the once-rowdy Hell’s Half Acre. The historic building resonates with nostalgia, and chef Tim Love has revamped this historic building to include a dance floor and a chili bar for a good bite to eat after all those cold beers. Refreshed with a cold beer from local Rahr & Sons Brewery, we toe-tapped to the country music band and then made our way down to the famous Billy Bob’s Texas to catch some live bull-riding. We really felt like we were part of cowboy culture as we walked into a crowd of Wrangler-wearing cowpokes decked out in expensive leather boots and Stetson hats as they made their way to the bleachers to cheer on the brave bull riders as they struggled to hold on to the reigns of a massive bull. We joined in with the boisterous crowd and yelped and yahooed with the best of them as one rider after another gallantly heaved up and down on the enormous agitated animal. After that it was time to try some two-stepping around the vibrating dance floor already filled with couples sashaying with fancy footwork while twirling, dipping, and swirling their partners with skill and grace. We managed to glide along with the other dancers and gracefully bowed out after a few rotations. With a country music band playing on the main stage, we took our seats to hear a few songs and then made our way back to our hotel after a complete evening embracing the fun and spirit of the historic Stockyard District.
Day two brought us to the 150th anniversary celebration of the Chisholm Trail, with period-costumed Confederate soldiers giving us a glimpse at mythologized history. The Fort Worth Herd was about to make its way through the streets just as they had in times past. The Texas longhorns meandered slowly down the cobbled street as real cowboys led them through the captivated spectators.
We worked up an appetite and decided to change gears by heading to the cultural district to try Heim Barbecue, which has been deemed one of the best in the entire city. All the meat is smoked daily and sides are made in house. With that in mind, we were excited to sink our teeth into some really good Texas brisket. We were not disappointed, as the signature savory slices of smoky, fork-tender brisket brought a smile to our faces and a deep satisfaction to our empty stomachs. After all that great brisket and green chile mac and cheese, we made our way back to the Stockyards for some rest and relaxation on our last night in Fort Worth.
Morning came quickly, and we enjoyed a breakfast burrito at local favorite Esperanza’s Mexican Bakery and Café. Homemade tortillas, tangy sauces, and tender carne asada was just what we needed to begin our last day as we refueled for a look at the Downtown district. Right in the middle of all the action is Downtown’s Sundance Square, a unique urban area that is the perfect place to people-watch and enjoy a cup of joe or a refreshing iced tea on a hot Texas afternoon. We had to stop to see the best in modern architecture married with historic buildings from the 1800s. With 35 blocks of shopping and entertainment that filter out from the square, there is something for everyone. As we enjoyed the relaxing ambience, we watched the multiple water jets spring up from fountains, to the delight of the many little children who were playing amongst the water features. The 32-foot tall Teflon umbrellas brought needed shade to the area, which is home to three live theaters, countless art galleries, and plenty of shopping. Our time was up, and we took one more look around at a city that retains its Western heritage with style, creativity, and that good old cowboy charm.