Texans are famous for their love of artery-clogging steaks the size of Volkswagens. Amarillo's Big Texan Steak Ranch restaurant features a 72-ouncer (eat it in under an hour and get it free). Locals are rabidly fond of chicken-fried steak. This oddity is a thick slab of inexpensive beef beaten until tender and dipped in batter, deep-fried like chicken, buried under a puddle of cream gravy, doused with pepper, and served with a glob of mashed potatoes (skins on). Home-style veggies such as okra and black-eyed peas are also worthy accompaniments. A good chicken-fried steak -- crisp, light, and tender -- is weirdly enjoyable, but an inferior one can be like gnawing on an old tire. Note to Yankees who don't want to get laughed out of town: Don't specify "medium" or "medium rare" when ordering a chicken-fried steak. It comes only one way: cooked.
But steak -- whether broiled or chicken-fried -- is only part of the story. The real holy trinity of Texas eats consists of three down-home staples no true Texan can do without for long: chili, barbecue, and Tex-Mex.
Chili -- A bowl of Texas red, hot, or hotter than hell is often thought of as Mexican or Tex-Mex. But it's as Texan as they come, with its origins in San Antonio in the late 1800s. Chili (not chile, which is Spanish for pepper) should be thick, meaty, and spicy, and served unadorned. Real Texas chili is made with beef (or occasionally rabbit or venison) but not beans. This standard has been relaxed, though, and plenty of Texans like pinto beans (never kidney beans) in their chili. There are annual chili cook-offs across the state; the most famous is held in the border town of Terlingua. Degrees of fire are usually designated as one-, two-, or three-alarm or indicated by an X, XX, or XXX. Four Xs means that the bowl of devil's soup is guaranteed to scorch your tongue, lips, and entire digestive tract.
Weird food item: Frito pie, which is meaty chili, cheese, and diced onions poured over a plate of (or into a bag of) Frito's corn chips. Frito pie is a staple in Texas school cafeterias (or at least it was when I was growing up).
Barbecue (BBQ) -- Vying with chili and chicken-fried steak for the honor of state dish is barbecue (though Texans didn't invent it; the word comes from the Spanish, barbacoa, and the style originated in Spain and evolved in the Caribbean and Latin America). Still, the art of roasting meats over an open fire distinguishes Texans from, say, lesser humans. Texans slow-cook (smoke) beef brisket and ribs (and, to a lesser extent, pork, chicken, turkey, sausage, and cabrito, young goat) in pits over mesquite or hickory wood. The slow roasting and wood give it its unique, revered flavor. Texas barbecue, unlike its worthy regional competitors in such places as Memphis and the Carolinas, is almost wholly focused on beef, and it tends to be tangier and spicier than the sweeter pork popular in those places. A plate of brisket or ribs is served with heaps of tangy barbecue sauce (which is often also employed as a basting sauce), and side dishes such as potato salad, pinto beans, and coleslaw. A proper Texas barbecue will be either a down-and-dirty, ramshackle joint such as Sonny Bryan's in Dallas and Angelo's in Fort Worth, or a rustic place in the country with long picnic tables and a huge barbecue pit in full view, such as the Salt Lick in Driftwood, outside of Austin.
Tex-Mex -- Neither identifiably Mexican nor strictly Texan, Tex-Mex is, as the name indicates, a hybrid menu of simple dishes. A Texan gets homesick for authentic Tex-Mex cooking just as fast as she does for barbecue or chili. No Texan has ever had good Tex-Mex except in Texas; both barbecue and chili seem a bit easier to reproduce over state lines. Not spicy or intricate like authentic Mexican food, Tex-Mex is greasy, filling, tasty, and cheap, a step above addictive junk food. There is little distinction between dishes and ingredients. Almost all involve corn or flour tortillas, lots of white and yellow cheese, chili, hot sauce, and rice and refried beans -- meaning that a good plate of Tex-Mex will lack for color. It will be essentially a uniformly muddy yellow-brown hue. Tex-Mex dishes can be spiced up with Tabasco sauce or scorcher jalapeño peppers, which young Texans learn to gobble up like pickles.
All Tex-Mex meals begin with tortilla chips and salsa (hot sauce) and guacamole for dipping. Enchiladas, chiles rellenos, tacos al carbón, and burritos have long been the standard-bearers for Tex-Mex, but in the past couple of decades fajitas, grilled beef or skirt steak rolled in flour tortillas and dolled up with guacamole, pico de gallo, and cilantro, have become the most popular dish. Less than authentic, but wildly popular, is the substitution of strips of barbecued chicken breast for beef.
Beverages -- Texans wash down chili and barbecue with plastic glasses of ice tea (it's the rare Texan who says iced tea) the size of small oil drums, and Texas beer, preferably longnecks of Lone Star, Pearl, and Shiner Bock, drunk straight from the bottle. Beverage choices shift slightly in Tex-Mex restaurants. While pitchers of ice tea are fine, the beer should be ice-cold cerveza, Mexican beer such as Corona, Tecate, Dos Equis, or Bohemia, usually served with a wedge of lime squeezed into the bottle or can. And the number-one libation for washing down a plate of Tex-Mex is the margarita, a tart concoction of tequila, lime juice, and triple sec, either served on the rocks or frozen. Most margaritas use cheap well tequila, but connoisseurs opt for "top-shelf" margaritas (served on the rocks), made with 100% blue agave tequilas. And the connoisseurs of connoisseurs drink aged tequilas -- called reposado or añejo -- straight, followed by a "tequila chaser," like the one served at Javier's restaurant in Dallas: a shot glass of orange juice, lemon juice, V8, pepper, salt, and Tabasco.
Texas also has a surprisingly robust roster of wineries, many in the Central Texas Hill Country around Fredericksburg and the High Plains near Lubbock. Llano Estacado and Pheasant Ridge are national award winners.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.