Holidays in Texas with famed steak maestros Tom and Lisa Perini call for a crackling fire, some roasted prime rib, and plenty of bubbly.
From the festive deep-red New Mexico ristras hung on its patios to the old-fashioned multicolored Christmas lights strung on all of its buildings, Perini Ranch Steakhouse serves up the holidays with extra sides of nostalgia. Tom and Lisa Perini live on the 600-acre ranch in Buffalo Gap, Texas, 14 miles southwest of Abilene, and run the place. It’s grown into a compound with several businesses — their world-renowned steakhouse; catering company; mail-order beef tenderloin business; and the Country Market, where you can shop for home goods and kitchenware and popular Perini Ranch items including their cookbooks, steak and rib rubs, and cool Perini swag like custom-designed Buffalo Gap T-shirts. For those who might want to spend the night, there are two guesthouses on the property, too. If you’re going the few miles into town or heading to nearby Abilene State Park for some lake time, there’s the Gap Café (by Perini Ranch), where the coffee is “big city,” the pastries are homemade, and the chicken-fried steak’s made with rib-eye.
For as long as the couple’s been in business — 37 years now — families have been making the drive out west to eat their Certified Angus Beef, served up in steaks and burgers hailed by many as some of the best in the state, if not the country. Over time, they’ve amassed a cultlike following. In 2002, when George W. Bush was president, Perini and his team set up on the White House lawn and catered the Congressional Picnic. They’ve also cooked for renowned chef Jacques Pepin. And friends Billy Bob Thornton, cutting-horse icon Buster Welch, and Tanya Tucker often stop by.
Recipients of the esteemed James Beard Award for America’s Classics, the Perinis recently released their second cookbook devoted to their simple Texas-inspired recipes, Perini Ranch Steakhouse: Stories and Recipes and Real Texas Food (Comanche Moon Publishing).
We caught up with Tom and Lisa one afternoon between lunch and dinner service and got a big helping of their West Texas holiday cheer.
Cowboys & Indians: What’s the first impression someone gets when they come to Perini Ranch for the holidays?
Lisa Perini: When you get out of the car, the aroma is amazing. We cook everything over a mesquite live fire, and the smell of steaks cooking and mesquite wood burning is as comforting as you can get. We also mix in a little New Mexico pinyon at Christmastime. It makes me happy.
Tom Perini: When you walk in, there’s a big fireplace right inside the front door. You can get a drink at the bar and go outside to sit at the outdoor fireplace if you need to wait for a table. We have blankets that you can wrap up in.
C&I: Ah, drinks! What are some of your favorite holiday cocktails?
Lisa: If it’s early in the day, an eggnog or a bourbon milk punch. A hot toddy is always fun by the fireplace in the evening.
C&I: How about an easy hors d’oeuvre to go with? What would you suggest?
Lisa: Cheddar-Pecan Cheese Straws are the ultimate cocktail snack. You can make a batch and freeze them and pull them out when you have guests. There’s just enough spice that it makes you want to have another cocktail, and that’s never bad.
C&I: Ok, on to dinner. Tell us about how the menu at Perini Ranch Steakhouse reflects the holiday season.
Lisa: We’re all about beef, so of course meat is the center of the plate. We have seasonal side dishes like the roasted corn and poblano-pepper pudding, roasted acorn squash, bourbon-glazed carrots, and the pear-cranberry crisp for dessert. Our menu is always comforting, but the holidays make it even more so.
C&I: What do the two of you look forward to most during the holidays?
Lisa: Throughout the celebration of the holidays, we’re always working when people are playing, so when things are starting to wrap up, the night before Christmas Eve, we have a handful of close friends and family that come over. We’ve probably been doing this 10 or 12 years now. We bring in a sack of East Coast oysters and we shuck oysters and stand out back in the freezing cold near the barbecue pit and we eat oysters and we drink Champagne. We also might make a gumbo and put sausages on the pit, but oysters are the center part of this. We’re in the beef business, so for this one day, we don’t have beef and it’s a real thrill to have oysters. It’s really nice.
C&I: Christmas itself must be pretty low-key, then. What do you two do for Christmas?
Tom: We have tamales for Christmas-morning breakfast. There’s a great little place in Abilene, and you go through a major ordeal to order them, but it’s worth it. Usually it’s tamales and Champagne. We highly recommend the tradition. We started it years ago, and it’s worked out really well.
C&I: Do you two have a holiday movie you always watch?
Tom: A Christmas Story, the one with the little boy and the Red Ryder BB gun. The time period is the late ’30s/early ’40s and all he wants for Christmas is this BB gun. The mother says, “No, you’ll shoot your eye out,” and the teacher says, “No, you’ll shoot your eye out.” It comes on every Christmas Day and we watch it while we’re having tamales and Champagne sitting in front of the fireplace with our basset hounds.
Lisa: One’s named Gus, after Capt. Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove. Robert Duvall, who is a friend of ours, wasn’t impressed. The other’s Jett, after James Dean’s character, Jett Rink, in the movie Giant.
C&I: Wait a minute. One of your basset hounds is named after a James Dean character?
Tom: His personality matches it perfectly.
Perini Holiday Cheer
Champagne Of Choice
“Our friends at Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard in Los Olivos, California, make a fabulous sparkling wine, Fesstivity. And for a serious treat, it’s Billecart-Salmon Brut Rose.”
“Tom has a pretty serious sweet tooth, so you’ll sure find toffee from Susie’s South Forty Confections in Midland, Texas, in his stocking! As for special pet treats, our dogs are so spoiled, they think it’s Christmas every day!”
By The Fire
“Tom really enjoys classic movies, especially classic westerns — think John Wayne. I’ll be reading a book or clipping recipes from magazines, with the intention of trying them soon!”
“Christmas Day is probably a lazy afternoon with a nap, some quality dog snuggling, and Christmas music. We just enjoy being in our home and being together. That’s a special day.”
Visit Perini Ranch Steakhouse online at periniranch.com
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Photography: Images courtesy Wyatt McSpadden
From our November/December 2020 issue.