By Hal Smith
What are the odds that a rancher from Buffalo Gap, Texas (pop. 499), would rise to the top of a New York Times “best” list? At least 200 to 1—that’s how many other food vendors clamored for recognition before the Times’ tasters announced the best mail-order food gifts of the year in November 1995. But, with his mes-quite-smoked peppered beef tenderloin, Tom Perini ate the competition for lunch.
The restaurateur and caterer, fa-mous around West Texas and points beyond for his Perini Ranch Steak-house, defines ranch cooking with his mesquite-grilled beef, barbecue, ribs, catfish, and all the fixings.
Perini’s restaurant, in Buffalo Gap (15 miles south of Abi-lene), lies on a dirt road near a pass where Comanches and buffalo hunters once fought for control of a buffalo migration route. You won’t find the steakhouse without carefully looking, for it wasn’t supposed to have happened at all. Tom started ranching on the property in 1965 and began a sideline catering business eight years later. In 1983, the restaurant, which sits back about 1,000 feet from the road, emerged when Tom decided he could no longer manage the catering and ranching businesses simultaneously. Happily for us, he chose to continue cooking rather than growing beef.
Authenticity drives Tom’s business decisions, from the recipes and atmosphere to the building it-self—first a hay barn, and now a down-home restaurant devoid of Western kitsch.
“There’s a fine line between be-ing cutesy and real,” says Tom in his easygoing West Texas twang. “I don’t need wagon wheel props to make our place feel ranchy. This is a ranch—people get that feeling as soon as they walk in the door. We thought about installing central air, but that’s not part of the real Texas feeling.” Instead, on hot summer nights, the steakhouse relies on screened windows and doors and an old-fashioned evaporative (or “swamp”) cooler.
“We were cooking with mesquite long before it became trendy,” says Tom, “because it’s a Texas tradition, it gives a nice flavor to the meat, and the coals last a long time. Plus, the trees grow on the ranch.”
Outside, behind the restaurant, the kitchen staff burns mesquite to reduce it to glowing coals, then brings it into the kitchen for grilling brisket, pork ribs, whole ribeyes, and peppered beef tenderloin. It was the latter, one of Tom’s signature items, that The New York Times termed “spectacular.”
Also out back, a stone’s throw from the mesquite fire, is a 100-year-old chuck wagon filled with seasonings and cooking equipment, the culinary hub of Tom’s far-flung catering excursions. He took the vintage wagon to Japan in 1991 on a tour organized by the Texas Beef Council. Accompanied by Charlie Nagatani and the Cannon Balls, a Japanese country-western band, Tom grilled his way across Japan with 2.5 tons of mesquite in tow.
International jaunts aside, the steakhouse offers an authentic venue for live country music and two-stepping diners on weekend evenings. The walls of weathered railroad ties chinked with concrete, and the rusty, salvaged-tin ceiling (which came from an old blacksmith shop on the ranch) immediately serve notice that you’ll feel most at home here in casual attire.
Tom Perini spends many of his nights schmoozing with guests at the restaurant. These days, except for catered affairs, when he may cook for upwards of 1,200 people, he entrusts daily food preparation to his staff. On a typical night, he glides from table to table, stopping to chat at each and make sure his customers are satisfied. Outside on the patio, tiny lights adorn the mesquite trees that grow among the tables.
“This is what I call a nice joint,” says Tom. “It’s a place where you can bring the kids and grandparents. People from Abilene come out to take off their ties and have some ribs while the kids go outside, play hide-and-seek, and chase the dogs around. It’s a family deal.”
A big vegetable garden in front of the restaurant, where you can sometimes spot the owner at work, further suggests you have come to a neighbor’s house for a dinner party. “One year, I planted some hybrid cucumbers that just grew like crazy,” says Tom. “I didn’t know what to do with them all. So for a while, every guest took home cucumbers—like ’em or not! It was fun. People remember times like that.”
In August 1995, Tom made an unforgettable trip to New York City, where he cooked at the James Beard House, which invites the nation’s best chefs to showcase their specialties at pricey dinner parties.
“I was nervous,” Tom says of his Big Apple debut. “I’m really a cowboy cook. Unlike some of my friends in the Texas Restaurant Association, I don’t do any ‘plate drawing,’ where they drizzle sauces to ‘paint’ your dish. If you find a leaf on one of my plates, you send it back!
“I explained all this to the folks at the James Beard House when they invited me. They said, ‘Don’t worry about it—we want good, regional cooking.’ ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘I’ll be there wearing a white hat, but it won’t be a chef’s hat.’”
Being honored by the James Beard House, which now lists the Perini Ranch Steakhouse in its directory of fine American restaurants, apparently didn’t go to Tom’s head. “I was in the kitchen [at the James Beard House] when I half-heard the intercom: ‘Chef, line one.’ I paid no attention. ‘Chef, pick up line one.’ It went over my head. ‘Chef, please answer.’ Finally, someone came in and said, ‘Mr. Perini, you’ve got a phone call.’ Well, you know, I’m a chuck-wagon cook—I assumed the call had to be for someone else.”
While in New York, Tom decided to send some tenderloins to local magazines and to The New York Times. The accolades from the newspaper put Tom’s mail-order business on the map as well as in the upscale Neiman Marcus catalog.
It’s not difficult to get the ex-rancher into his storytelling mode, particularly when it concerns such coups, which still seem to amuse and surprise him. When, for example, Gov-ernor George W. Bush wanted to have a catered cookout behind the Governor’s Mansion after the Texas-Virginia game in October 1995, a staffer contacted Tom to ask about his food. “Well, I’ll tell you what,” Tom said. “Next week, I’m going to be in Austin to cook for the Texas Restaurant Association at their office. So why don’t you just send over your decision-maker for a taste?
“Well, the day arrives, and I’m working and getting ready to serve for the TRA, and this lady walks up and says, ‘Tom Perini?’ And I look up and it’s Laura Bush.” Momentarily flustered, Tom explained that he sure didn’t mean for the First Lady of Texas to have to come over and test his food personally.
“Oh,” Laura Bush deadpanned, “I thought you asked for the decision-maker at the governor’s house.” She got a plate, and Tom got the job.
Then there’s the time Tom went on Mexican television to promote Texas beef. “I was supposed to show how I flame-broil our tenderloin, but when we got to the TV station, there was no mesquite anywhere. The only thing I could find to burn was some old plywood. We got our flames, all right—and plenty of smoke—but we couldn’t let anyone taste the meat.”
Besides tenderloin (by special request only), specialties of the Perini Ranch Steakhouse in-clude Bread Pudding (a combination of sourdough bread and pecans; Tom’s version is laced with whiskey sauce), Mexican Hominy (seasoned with bacon, cheddar cheese, and green chilies), Zucchini Perini (zucchini rounds baked in a special meat sauce and topped with Parmesan cheese), and Jalapeño Cheese-
cake (a rich treat prepared with homemade jalapeño sauce).
“To draw people
to an out-of-the-way restaurant, you need signature items,” Tom says. “To beat the chains, you have to be really different.” Or, you have to be Texas, pure and simple.
From the June 1997 issue.