An Amarillo Detour

A large statue of a cow bearing a sign reading Free 72oz Steak.

Photo © Laura Martone.

Last month, a reader informed me that she’s planning a cross-country RV trip this winter – from North Carolina to Florida to the West Coast. Since she’s never taken such a trip before, she was wondering if I had any suggestions for must-see destinations along the way. In fact, my husband and I have made the trip between Florida and California several times, though our specific itinerary has always depended on the amount of time available.

If you’re not on a tight schedule, take I-10 along the Gulf Coast and venture across Louisiana and Texas, making time to explore cities like New Orleans and San Antonio. Although you could continue along I-10 and visit intriguing spots like Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico; Tombstone, Arizona; and California’s Joshua Tree National Park, you might want to avoid the long, boring stretch across western Texas. If so, head north from San Antonio on I-35 to Austin (the Texas state capital), then on to Oklahoma City. From there, I-40 will take you across the Texas Panhandle to one-of-a-kind detours like Santa Fe, New Mexico; the Petrified Forest; and, of course, the Grand Canyon.

If you do opt for the I-40 route, I’d highly recommend stopping in Amarillo for a spell. There, you’ll spy one of my all-time favorite spots: the Big Texan Steak Ranch, a legendary place that’s been featured in numerous magazines and television programs. For several miles prior to Amarillo, you’ll notice billboards advertising the Big Texan’s free 72-ounce steak challenge – an infamous contest that began at the restaurant’s original location on historic Route 66. For nearly five decades, carnivores have accepted the ultimate dining trial: to devour a 72-ounce hunk of beef, cooked to order, along with a salad, baked potato, dinner roll, and shrimp cocktail, in an hour or less.

Those who pass the test get the dinner for free and their name emblazoned in the book of fame, where thousands of winners are preserved for posterity. Those who fail have to cough up 72 bucks for the meal (which, incidentally, takes three days to digest) – and usually cough up a lot more than that. Just ask founder R. J. Lee’s daughter, who accidentally left her watch on the stage when one sorry contestant found out his eyes could handle a lot more than his stomach.

This is no place for die-hard vegetarians. The cavernous dining hall, lit by wagon-wheel chandeliers, is lined with massive longhorns and a herd of stuffed deer heads. There’s also a giant stuffed grizzly bear in the foyer, plus a well-lit display of the contest beef, just waiting to tempt potential victims. But, even if you’re not up for the 72-ounce challenge, you’ll have no shortage of protein-rich choices, from pork spare ribs to filet mignon.

The Big Texan has been owned and operated by members of the Lee family for nearly 50 years. Numerous celebrities have dined there, and many waiters and waitresses swear that the place is haunted, which only adds to its charm. Not just a dining establishment, the Big Texan includes a Western-style motel (with a Texas-shaped pool), a gift shop, a gambling area, a shooting gallery, and a “horse hotel.”

Many of the Big Texan’s visitors have surely considered giving the contest a shot but, like me, opted for something in the 12-ounce range instead. It’s easy, after all, to feel daunted by previous winners: a 69-year-old grandmother, an 11-year-old boy, and a vegetarian couple who have succeeded nearly a dozen times. Still, people keep on trying. In March 2008, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, the world’s best competitive eater, devoured the entire meal in just under nine minutes.

Although I’ve never accepted the challenge, I’ve always had a good time, and the steaks are worth every penny. So, if you ever find yourself on I-40, pay a visit to the Big Texan. It’s open every day of the year, including holidays. If you think you can take on a 69-year-old grandma with a hearty appetite, more power to you. I’ll be watching from a nearby table, ready to toss a bucket your way.

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