I grew up in Stephenville, a small town in the state of Texas, the self proclaimed “Cowboy Capital” of the world. To me, the best places to eat were usually in the middle of nowhere. A long drive in my parents’ car took me to food oases in near ghost towns like ZJ’s in Gormon, home of the best apple pie on earth, or Mary’s Cafe in Strawn, which makes a country-fried steak that’s to die for. While these places were famous locally for perfecting their singular comfort food dish, they weren’t exactly known for refined or innovative menus. If that’s the kind of food you wanted, you’d have to drive to Dallas, and pay more than you could probably afford to spend on a meal.
On a recent trip home, I was surprised to get word that a classically trained chef from Dallas was serving some seriously good food in Bluff Dale, TX, a town so small that if you blink while driving through it, you’ll miss it. The first time I walked through the door of “Let’s Eat”—a tiny shed-like box converted from an old 1900’s-era post office—I knew that this restaurant was unique.
It felt lived in. The place looked like it had been put together with spare parts. The tables could have easily been hand-me-downs, and the knick-knack adorned walls had that kind of musky scent that takes decades to develop. Chef/owner Curren Dodds hopes it feels like walking into a friend’s house, and with the welcoming energy emitting from this burly tattooed guy, it certainly does.
The large room merges kitchen and dining area, chef and patrons into a single, compact, cozy space. This open plan allows Dodds to easily reign over his domain, chatting gregariously with patrons as they watch him sear their steaks and grill their chops.
He knows many of them on a first name basis, and claims that for some, he doesn’t even need their order because he already knows what they want when they walk in the door. Sometimes he thinks he knows what they should want, and encourages them to branch out and try new things. This could mean duck sausage hot dogs with cherry mustard, or lavender mashed potatoes. Pretty fancy for cowboy food, and not what I was expecting to find in the middle of nowhere, North Texas.
“Getting cowboys to eat their green beans”
For Dodds, it’s really simple: Let’s Eat is about having fun and serving affordable food that tastes great because everybody “deserves good food, it doesn’t matter where you live.” To keep himself interested, he rotates the menu every two to three months. Lunch is your standard burgers and sandwiches, but dinner is when he gets to play. Dishes feature fresh, local ingredients—like the tomatoes and squash that customers often donate—or others that tickle his fancy, like fish flown in from Hawaii. Comfort foods get fancified, with butter-poached lobster thrown into the mac-n-cheese, rabbit diced among crispy nachos, and roasted garlic smuggled into the bread pudding.
He can’t help but fiddle with the mashed potatoes, folding them with chipotle or garlic or whatever else seems good that day. And this is Texas, so of course there’s plenty of beef, which Dodd procures from local shops C&J Butcher and Butler’s Smoke House. There’s buffalo tenderloin with jalapeno jack cheese grits and maple vinaigrette, and on New Year’s he’s doing a beef tenderloin with a tart made with smoked wild leeks (ramps).
His steaks also find their way off the dinner table and onto the judging table as he is known for consistently winning the Texas Steak Cook-off. His secret: salt and pepper. “Buy good meat,” Dodds said. “If you do too much to it, the food doesn’t get to speak for itself.”
“Dinner and a show”
Dodds’ food certainly speaks for itself, but he’s all too happy to speak about it, serving as a sort of culinary tutor, explaining what he’s doing as he’s doing it, and offering patrons the chance to come up watch, ask questions, and glean new tips. “I finally found something to do with my ADD” joked Dodds. “I multitask.” Multitasking is a bit of an understatement. While he does have a few servers and a dishwasher, Dodds also answers phones, busses tables, coordinates seating, and serves some of the food himself.
Dining here is not just dinner, it’s an experience. A BYOB-restaurant where most show up in jeans, patrons are seated shoulder-to-shoulder with total strangers in a room that holds 35 people at most. Every time I’ve eaten there, it’s been a challenge to not make new friends with whomever you’re sitting next to. My family and I once ended up exchanging phone numbers with a couple that wanted to swap cocktail recipes. It’s easy to forget that you’re at a restaurant, not Thanksgiving at your relatives’ house or a dinner party.
Let’s Eat opened in 2004 after a friend suggested he open his own restaurant. “My sister asked me a couple of years ago ‘were you ready’? I said I was ready a long time ago, I just did it for somebody else.” Trained in French technique by a long line of pastry chefs and sugar blowers, Dodds has worked at some of the Texas’ finer establishments, like the Omni Mandalay in Las Colinas, Rough Creek Lodge in Dallas, and The Cliffs at Possum Kingdom Lake. How did somebody with this level of talent end up on the edge of nowhere serving food to a room full of cowboys? As Dodds says, “I’d rather wake up and see turkey and cattle in my front yard than vagrants eating out of my trashcan, like I did in Dallas.”
Curren Dodds is currently working to move to the old general store across the street, which is four times as large as Let’s Eat. The funding is coming “the old fashioned way”, which is from debt-free cash he’s saving from profits and donations, without any pressure from banks or loans. The “dinner and a show” atmosphere will remain, but this time, he’ll get a bit more help in the kitchen.
28602 US Highway 377
Bluff Dale, TX 76433-3566
Music by Guilty Ghosts
“The End of Akira”
“Top Prize Fighter”