In Search of 50: The Quest Begins With Texas
Texaz Grill at the corner of Bethany and 16th St.
By Jonathan McNamara
Phoenix is a town of drifters. It is a home to adventurers. It's rare to meet a native, but common to meet someone originally from the East Coast or The Midwest or even a different country all together. As a result, much like America at its best, Phoenix is a melting pot of cultures and ideas.
With this as my inspiration, I found myself standing in front of Texaz Grill at the corner of Bethany and 16th St. This would be the first stop in my quest to discover how much of a melting pot Phoenix truly is. How many states cultures are represented here? Twenty? Forty? All fifty?
In the coming 50 weeks I will attempt to seek out restaurants and bars, cultural centers and places of nostalgia for each state in our union. Whether or not I can find examples from each state will be the ultimate challenge. Join me on this quest in search of 50 as I begin with my own home state: Texas.
I asked Texaz Grill owner and former Dallas resident Steve Freidkin why he chose a Texas theme when he decided to open a restaurant in Phoenix in 1985. Freidkin spent many years a butcher and decided that Phoenix was ripe for a steak house. Then he leans over ever so slightly so I can see the glimmer in his eye and smiles on cue.
"We decided the market was good for a steak house and Texas steak houses are [pause for dramatic effect] notoriously good," Freidkin said.
Decor: There is nary a space on the walls or even the ceiling of Texaz Grill. Each square inch is covered by photos of Texas legends, trucker caps, Texas road signs, Freidkin's canned chili collection, talking bass (doesn't talk anymore) and even a little nod to the University of Texas' rivalry with Texas A&M. It's overkill without distracting from the experience. After all, everything's bigger in Texas.
Authenticity: The bar in Texaz contains a collection of Texas history books and a grade school, pull-down map of the Lone Star State that is used to settle geographical debates. Why populate your bar with school materials? "Because people expect me to know it [Texas history]," Freidkin says.
And know it he does. Ask Freidkin to give you a tour of the place and he'll point at one of this thousand wall coverings and tell you something you didn't know about Texas. The Shiner brewery in Shiner, Texas that produces the delicious Shiner Bock beer is actually called the Spoetzl Brewery.
Freidkin may even tell you about how he's making some Texas history of his own. Every year he participates in the Terlingua Chili Cook-Off in Terlingua, Texas. Despite the current trend to use cubes of meet in an attempt to win this chili competition, Freidkin is sticking to his guns by using a chili grind.
When the joints owner spouts off unsolicited philosophies about the appropriate grind for Texas' state dish, you know you're getting pretty authentic.
Food: As I sat down with Freidkin a waitress asked what I'd like to order. I looked at the restaurant owner. "What'll I have?"
Without skipping a beat Freidkin informed that waitress that "He'll be having the Chicken-Fried Steak."
I knew I was in for it.
This guy's name is Chuck.
Sure enough, it was bigger than my head and saddled with starchy side items. You'd expect mashed potatoes, but what if I told you there was also corn and a biscuit that would have made any chuck wagon cook proud?
"Is it better than your mom's?" Freidkin asked with his trademark smile.
"Absolutely, but my Mom doesn't cook chicken-fried steak very often. Her specialty is pecan pie," I said in between bites.
"We'll just have to see about that," he replied. Moments later I had a wedge of pecan pie with a globe of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream. Any other ice cream would have earned Texaz Grill a significant deduction of authenticity points. Freidkin wasn't just passing my tests, he was laughing at me as he danced around them.
The pecan pie was great and I told him so.
"Is it better than your mom's?" he asked.
"You know...it's quite good, but my mom has you beat." I had to be honest.
"I'll accept that," he said. "If you'd said it was better than your mom's I wouldn't have believed you anyway."
Verdict: Speaking as a native of the state (the only time I'll get to do this while on my quest) I can say with absolute certainty that no less than 30 seconds after I entered Texaz Grill I felt like I had worm-holed straight back to Texas. Still, before I could declare this place a successful piece of Texas culture in Phoenix, I had to see one more thing.
Any Texas joint worth its salt needs one key element. Sure, the food has to be delicious and the portion size of any one item must be bigger than your head. Iced tea must be available in large quantities despite not tasting like much of anything. but there's one item I needed to be present before I could declare this first culture search a success: a picture of Stevie Ray Vaughn.
"He's above my jukebox," Freidkin said without looking up from his lunch. Stevie was above the juke box, right at the top where he belongs.
Get Involved: Any thoughts on where my quest should go next? Nominate a piece of your state's culture or just let me know if you agree with my assessment by commenting below.