The waitresses at The Big Texan Steak Ranch in the panhandle city of Amarillo wear sheriff's badges and leather vests and let loose hearty howdies when you walk in the door. And, they offer a challenge many can't refuse: the 72-ounce steak. Patrons who eat this $250-value in an hour or less get it for free. (If they don't finish or cheat by standing up from the table or getting help from others, they pay a discounted price of $72.) Let me, for one second, emphasize the enormity of this task: It's 4.5 pounds of meat, and it covers an entire dinner plate three inches deep.
The restaurant is painted smiley-face yellow and lit up as bright as a car dealership parking lot.
While Laura and I ate mac and cheese and coleslaw in The Big Texan (NOT cool, I know), a large man wearing a baseball cap took on the challenge. He sat in the designated spot, under a spotlight on the stage in the center of the dining room. As he cut, chewed and swallowed with the calm confidence of a man who knows he is capable, a red digital clock behind him counted down the time that remained. (We left before the time ran out, so unfortunately, don't know the outcome.)
According to the hostess, one in 10 participants succeed at the 72-ounce challenge, which has amounted to about 9,000 since the challenge started in 1960. About four women try each year; usually two succeed.
* A 69-year-old grandmother is the oldest to have completed the challenge.
* An 11-year-old boy is the youngest contestant to have finished.
* A 20-something named Joey Chestnut currently holds the record, at eight minutes and 52 seconds (see it on YouTube).
* A 500-pound Bengal tiger from Florida completed the challenge in only 90 seconds, though he did it in front of the building and not on the stage.
Laura and I stayed at the old-west-themed motel adjoining the restaurant. We found the rooms worn but clean and full of character.
The bedspreads were patterned like cow skin, a wall-sized cowboy mural hung over the dresser and swinging saloon-style doors led to the bathroom.
In all, we found the Big Texan over-the-top, but much more interesting than the Howard Johnson.