I went to Amarillo, Texas. And if you go to Amarillo, you’ll encounter a strange and specific gravity that pulls you toward a chaotic, many-colored accumulation of buildings just off Interstate 40.
That would be the Big Texan, a palace of beef and kitsch where you can eat a 72-ounce steak for free if you finish the job in 60 minutes or less.
How difficult is that? Here’s a quick video from there showing two men’s efforts to clean their plates. (If you fail to finish in time, the tab is $72.)
The 72-ounce steak challenge was born in 1962, when owner Bob “R.J.” Lee realized there were a lot of hungry, competitive cowboys among his clientele.
These days the empire is run by the next generation: brothers Bobby and Danny Lee, who have already relocated and added to the place.
The restaurant feeds 3,000 diners on a busy day (breakfast, lunch and dinner), and the dining room is built for happy tumult, with animal heads on the walls, hunks of meat sizzling on the grill and strolling musicians strumming. “Amarillo by Morning” gets played a lot.
Bobby Lee says the biggest challenge in the business is finding the right workers. In fact, he said, “if it weren’t for our relationship with the prison and the halfway houses, I couldn’t get a baked potato to the table.”
These days, there’s a whole gaudy compound surrounding the Big Texan, including the Big Texan Motel (54 units and a Texas-shaped pool), a beer garden, a brewery, gift shop, arcade and the Starlight Ranch Event Center, which stages concerts and offers a zip line, maze, dog park, putting green and driving range.
To bring in truckers and other travelers overnighting in Amarillo, the restaurant sends out more than a dozen limousines (with steer horns mounted above the grills, of course) to fetch customers from just about every hotel, motel, RV park and truck stop in town.
The citizen-critics of Yelp give the Big Texan 3½ stars — their assessments of the steaks are all over the place. But on a busy night, the atmosphere is undeniably entertaining.
The Lee brothers say that about one in six eaters succeeds in conquering the 72-ounce steak – 38 people in the first four months of 2018. To see their names and comments, check the restaurant’s on-line Hall of Fame.