In Amarillo, they have a stake in beef Texas temptation: It looks like an offer you can't refuse, but you may find the conditions are more than you can stomach.

October 29, 1995|By Bonnie Weston | Bonnie Weston,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

On every route into the flat and dusty town of Amarillo, gaudy billboards and advertisements tease bored travelers: "World's Biggest Steak. 72 Ounces. Best in Texas. Eat at the Big Texan. FREE."

Since little else about the alleged yellow rose of Texas stirs the imagination -- it lays legitimate claim to being one of the world's largest sources of helium, but this is hardly the stuff of gift shops -- you may find surprising thoughts crossing your mind as mile after mile of Interstate 40 whizzes by:

Why not try a 72-ounce steak, gratis? Others have -- why not me? So what if it's more red meat than I ate in 1994? It can't be that big.

Well, I can tell you that it is that big. But back to that later.

Such road-weary musings have given the Big Texan restaurant the last and very lucrative laugh on bigger beef fans than I since 1959, when it first started serving its behemoth top sirloin.

More than 18,000 people -- cheeky outsiders, for the most part -- have tried and failed to best Amarillo's beef; a mere 4,000 have triumphed.

One man did eat two.

Amarilloans delight in these lopsided numbers.

An otherwise amiable people, they know their town is not a tourist destination. Most of us just pass through, rushing across the Texas panhandle on I-40 to somewhere else. They can't do much to slow us down.

But they can artfully trip us up, drawing us against our world-traveler will into one of the most shameless tourist traps I've seen, one dedicated to the hometown team: Big Beef.

Beef is big in Amarillo. Really big.

And -- provided you are not squeamish about how red meat moves from hoof to plate -- you can dip your boots in its cattle culture without losing more than a few hours of drive time.

The Big Texan is the most obvious stop. Its billboards and old-West facade can't be missed.

But to appreciate the true enormity of both the meal and the local fervor for beef, indulge yourself and start at the Western Stockyards, reputedly the world's largest weekly cattle auction.

This could be just another of the oversized claims Amarilloans use to boost the stature of their city (remember: big beef and big helium). No matter. The auction is big. It's fun. And (unlike the steak) it's actually free.

The stockyards themselves are a wonderful outdoor maze, acres of interlocking pens with swinging gates and intricate pathways that allow the cowboys and cowgirls to herd cattle efficiently through the indoor auction hall.

The main attraction is the auction. And for that the big day is Tuesday (although you are welcome to tour the stockyards any weekday), when the place is jammed with large men in large hats who come to buy and sell large quantities of cattle.

The auctioneer's words blur as cattle change hands every 15 or 30 seconds, fast enough to sell more than a half-million head each year.

At first, I was outraged. Time and again he cried, "Sold for $64." I'm no comparison shopper, but if a 1,000-pound steer sells for $64, how can the grocery store justify charging me as much as $9 or $10 for a 12-ounce porterhouse steak?

I posed this question to one buyer. He asked if reporters attend college, then explained that the final price is the price paid per 100 pounds. That 1,000-pound steer really cost $640.

If you like beef, my advice is to nod politely, even if the markup still strikes you as a tad high.

Otherwise, a friendly cattleman like Elmo Edmonds will remind you that not every cut is prime rib. Fair enough. But he and his brethren won't stop there.

Native pride rising, they will go on to explain how absolutely nothing is wasted. Without going into the painful details Mr. Edmonds showered on me, I learned that the price of cow heads depends on whether they are sold with or without the brains and tongue, and that hearts can be pickled for European epicures but also figure into nearly every slice of cold cut sold in the United States.

By now, the older, skinny cows at the auction have landed between hamburger buns, while the yearlings are enjoying a final season at pasture. Their older siblings are at a feedlot, foolishly gorging themselves on rich foods that put nice, white fat on their bovine bones.

"You need a minimum of fat," explained Mr. Edmonds. "Without the feedlot they wouldn't have enough of the fat America wants. They just wouldn't taste like the burgers America likes."

It quickly became clear that I was dangerously close to being honored with a personal tour of Amarillo's own feedlots and slaughterhouse -- where, Mr. Edmonds says, 400 "carcasses" are "processed" each hour.

I demurred. That adventure would likely have derailed my rendezvous with Big Beef at the Big Texan. Watching your steak being prepared from scratch is a little messier than selecting the lobster of your choice in a tank.

So, just how big is a 72-ounce steak?

At 4.5 pounds, it's roughly the difference between me and my ideal weight.

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