Home For The Holidays, Texas-Style
At his newest restaurant, Stampede 66, Chef Stephan Pyles aims to do what he does best — tell the story of Texas on the plate.
Photography by Claire McCormack
Stampede 66, the latest Dallas restaurant from Stephan Pyles, is named after two places that shaped the innovative chef’s youth in Big Spring, Texas.
The “66” comes from the Big Spring Phillips 66 Truck Stop Café, his parents’ diner: “When Interstate 20 went through, it put my family’s place and a lot of other mom and pop cafes out of business,” Pyles recalls, “just like on Route 66, the highway Phillips 66 is named after.”
The “Stampede” comes from the name of a dance hall that was built in Big Spring in 1954 by country musician Hoyle Nix, an early rival to Bob Wills. (Nix’s classic song “Big Balls in Cowtown” is still played on radio stations across the country and has been recorded by Wills, George Strait, and Asleep at the Wheel.)
But Pyles’ chic new eatery, which opens in October, won’t be much like his parents’ truck stop diner or Nix’s dance hall — except for the core inspiration. “The menu consists of familiar Texas dishes reinterpreted with a contemporary twist,” says Pyles.
Located on the ground floor of a tony Turtle Creek high-rise just north of the new Klyde Warren Park that connects Uptown, Downtown, and the Arts District, Stampede 66 is the 19th restaurant debuted by the Lone Star State’s celebrity chef. The list contains some of the most famous restaurants in Texas, including Routh Street Cafe, Baby Routh, Star Canyon, AquaKnox, and the eponymous Stephan Pyles.
For his latest endeavor, Pyles has tapped Jon Thompson, his former chef at Samar, to serve as executive chef. Pyles is also collaborating with the globe-trotting “Pilgrim Chef,” Najat Kaanache, to develop a few signature menu items. Kaanache brings a unique cultural and culinary diversity to the table, having worked at some of the world’s most cutting edge restaurants, from Spain’s elBulli to Napa’s The French Laundry to Chicago’s Alinea.
“No one presents the traditional mastery of Texas flavors like Stephan,” Kaanache says. “I just help him translate these traditional flavors in a new way. When you play with modern techniques, you have to be careful to keep the traditions — give people what they are used to, but mix it with a little bit of craziness. Together, we are creating a new way to arrive at what is special about Texas. Through some very modern techniques, we are re-imagining the classic dishes and telling the same story of Texas in a different way.”
For example? “The Margarita and Taco Bar at Stampede 66 features several takes on the classic margarita, including my original from Star Canyon, the Cactus Pear Margarita,” says Pyles. “Try a hot and cold margarita — the base is frozen with liquid nitrogen and topped with warm passion fruit ‘bubbles.’ These tequila marvels will be the perfect accompaniments to our tacos, which will be composed from house-made nixtamal.”
Such mind-bending concoctions have justly earned Pyles fame as the godfather of New Texas cuisine. But as far as he has pushed the boundaries of Southwestern flavors, Pyles has remained equally tied to his memories of the Old Texas food he grew up with, especially around the holidays.
“We ate dinner at the house, but we spent a lot of time at the cafe — it was open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” he says. “We used to decorate the place with strings of lights in the windows and a Christmas tree near the cash register. I can still hear Tammy Wynette and Faron Young wailing from the jukebox. The waitresses had Southern accents and beehive hairdos. My favorite was Myrtis Simms — she was from Mississippi and she used to call me ‘Mr. Stevie.’ Even the truckers were like family. It didn’t feel like a place of business — it was an extension of our home. I think that’s where I got my instincts for hospitality.”
We asked Pyles to create a holiday meal for Cowboys & Indians readers, one that illustrates Stampede 66’s blend of history and innovation. He obliged with the fabulous menu and recipes that follow. The meal starts with Corn and Coconut Soup with Shrimp Albondigas. When I complained that it sounded pretty exotic for the grandparents, Pyles suggested I think of it as a creamy corn chowder with coconut milk instead of butter and cream.
Instead of turkey, Pyles gave us a recipe for Molasses Grilled Quail with Cranberry Barbecue Sauce and Mable’s Buttermilk Biscuits. I asked him if he ate a lot of quail growing up. “No, but we ate a lot of dove. People were always bringing us dove because everybody hunted in West Texas. You can buy quail in a good supermarket, but you can’t buy dove, so I can’t serve it in the restaurant. But if your readers have some dove or other game birds in the freezer, they should feel free to substitute it for the quail in this recipe.”
The Cranberry Barbecue Sauce is a Texified addition inspired by his mother. “My mom always served canned cranberries for holiday meals,” Pyles says. “I remember you could see the ridges of the can in the slices. Later on, she got fancy and started making a cranberry Jell-O mold.” As for the biscuits, they are named for Mable Stanley, the matriarch of a family that was close to Pyles’ family when he was growing up.
“Mable was a great Southern cook from Mississippi,” he recalls. “She taught me how to make buttermilk biscuits. She used self-rising flour and a cast-iron skillet. Mable also gave me the 100-year-old longhorns that are hanging on the wall of the restaurant. A museum wanted them, but she gave them to us instead.”
Instead of pumpkin pie, Pyles finishes the meal with a spectacular Pumpkin Crème Brûlée Tostada with Cajeta. The crème brûlée and tostadas are pretty easy to make; you can make the caramel sauce too if you want, but the goat’s milk cajeta found in bottles in Mexican markets is hard to beat. Look for the goat head on the label.
I asked Pyles if he thinks the ambitious recipes he put together for this amazing meal are really easy enough for casual home cooks. “Well, there’s an easier way,” he says with a chuckle. “Call Stampede 66 and make a reservation.”