Big Texan Steak Ranch

Posted on Sunday, July 17th, 2011 in Photos

Big Texan Steak Ranch

All of my many journeys down the linear village of Route 66 take me through a diversity of places ranging from big cities to small farm and ranch towns and, of course, the wide open spaces. Since I was a teenager one of my favorite stopping points along the way is the Big Texan Steak Ranch nestled deep in the heart of the Texas Panhandle on the eastern edge of the high plains city of Amarillo.

Although no longer on the original Mother Road alignment, this steak lover’s paradise remains one of the most revered icons on every Route 66 travelers’ “must experience” list.

Like so many of the great culinary palaces travelers encounter, each and every visit to the Big Texan Steak Ranch is memorable. And I am no exception. People from around the globe flock to the place and keep coming back for more. They show up in every kind of motor vehicle imaginable, including one of the Big Texan’s own limousines with longhorns mounted on the hoods.

Some of the diners are locals, who over the years helped establish the Big Texan’s enormous gastronomic reputation. Many are travelers who read about this oasis of hospitality in guidebooks or saw it featured on television shows and in documentary films. Others come because they are curious after hearing countless stories about the place and what transpires inside the cavernous building. But most people who stop are interested in what the Big Texan does best — make hunger pangs vanish.

Simply put, this legendary highway mecca is tailor-made for anyone who enjoys good food and entertainment. The Big Texan routinely turns out beefsteaks so succulent that even diehard vegetarians have been known to fall off the wagon and depart as dedicated carnivores looking forward to their next visit.

That has been the case ever since 1960. That was when the late R. J. (Bob) Hall, formerly a Kansas City restaurateur, his wife Mary Anne, and their growing brood of kids founded the Big Texan alongside Amarillo Boulevard, one of the aliases still used by U.S. Route 66 as it snakes through town. In no time the ingenious entrepreneur’s towering sign of a long-legged Texas cowboy lured swarms of weary and hungry motorists off the Mother Road to refuel on choice steaks cooked over open flames and served with all the trimmings.

Folks knew they would feast on top-quality fare because there was nothing instant at the Big Texan except the service. I was one of those diners. Since the first time I cut into a Big Texan steak when just a sun-tanned boy of summer, I have known I would never leave the table hungry or disappointed. The Big Texan and the Lee family have never let me down. I am willing to bet good wages they never will.

Even when Bob Lee moved the business from its original site to a new location next to Interstate 40 I stayed loyal to the Big Texan, as did many other Route 66ers. In truth the Lee family had little choice but to relocate. It was either make a move or face what so many other businesses suffered — death by interstate.

By November 1968 Interstate 40 muscled its way past the Amarillo city limits and business at the Big Texan plummeted overnight. Bob Lee could not stop the inevitable. As I was later to write about the coming of the super slab: “Most of Lee’s customers vanished as quickly as a pat of soft butter on a hot-baked spud.” Bob Lee himself told me that he never forgot that fateful day when his “business went to absolutely zero.”

Instead of whimpering and turning tail, the Lees persisted. In 1970 they moved to the present location where to this day the Big Texan Steak Ranch remains a staunch Route 66 supporter and successfully competes with the generic cookie-cutter joints crowding the interstate highway. In 1976 after a horrific fire gutted the west wing of their restaurant, the Lees rolled up their collective sleeves and rebuilt. In fact, they expanded and added more features just as they always have done throughout the many years of serving the public. That is why legions of Route 66 travelers pause to buy Mother Road mementos and tangle with all manner and size of grilled beef. The Lees have never forgotten that it was Route 66 that “brung them to the dance.”

That is why I will always stop there. I stop to eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner depending on the time of day. I stop to see the best marketing gimmick on Route 66 when some stalwart soul attempts to devour the famed 72-ounce Big Texan steak and all the trimmings in an hour or less, or shell out a buck for every ounce. I go there to spend the night in one of the comfortable cowboy-style motel rooms. I go there to soak in the Texas-shaped swimming pool after a hot day on the open road. I stop to stock up on the latest in Route 66 souvenirs and road treasure. And I go there to see old pals and make new friends, knowing there will be plenty of both each time I show up.

Although founding father Bob Lee passed away in 1990, leaving behind Mary Anne and their eight children, the Big Texan remains in loving hands. Today the three eldest Lee siblings — Bobby, Danny, and Diane — jointly own and operate the business complex and continue to dispense the same hospitality that has always made the Big Texan a success.

Bon apetit!