The Black-Eyed Pea Serves Chicken-Fried Steak
By Gene Street
Chances are you’ve eaten at a restaurant that Gene Street either owns or has owned. Once a long-haired bartender at J. Alfred’s, the bar he opened with partner Phil Cobb, Gene turned from restaurateur into a successful entrepreneur. His Consolidated Restaurant Operations now operates Cantina Laredo, El Chico, Good Eats, Cool River Cafe, III Forks, Lucky’s Cafe, and Silver Fox Steakhouse. And if you’re a carnivore, no doubt you’ve eaten Street’s signature dish: the chicken-fried steak, which he has traveled the world trying to convince other countries to try. It worked great in Britain. Vietnam? Not so much.
One great idea: that’s all I’ve had. Been on earth 69 years and had only one. That’s not true. If you know me, you know that I have what I consider to be a great idea approximately every 30 seconds. (Like turning the Old Church on Cole Avenue into a fondue house. Brilliant!) But on one occasion, in the spring of 1975, I had a truly great idea, and for a while, it seemed like everyone in Dallas agreed.
Phil Cobb and I were a couple of straight-up cats out of Squaresville: a shock absorber salesman (me) and a printing press salesman (Phil) who wanted to meet chicks and were willing to work at it. The Dallas Summer of Love lagged a few years behind the one in Haight-Ashbury, but at J. Alfred’s we were trying like heck to catch up. Sawdust on the floor, a cigar box for a register, copies of the Iconoclast, and Stoney Burns’ Buddy Magazine on the tables. One or two staff members may—may—have stepped out back to smoke some weed. (Free love, baby!)
On Sunday nights, our extremely single pals Billy Bob Harris and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Craig Morton, and a few well-chosen arm candies, would stop by and let me cook for them. J. Alfred’s was a sandwich-and-chips place, but for honored guests, I’d take out a cheap cut of round steak, beat it with a saucer until tender (just like my daddy, Snookie Street, had taught me), and dip it in a flour-egg-milk-salt-pepper concoction. I’d put some Crisco and lard in one of those skillets with a cord, plug it in, and fry up a superb chicken-fried steak. Maybe some mashed potatoes, but the chicken-fried steak was the star. The boys loved it. My mother Billye loved it. The only customer who didn’t love it was a slightly soused Bob Hope, but I think he may have thought something named chicken-fried steak should involve some chicken. Sorry, Bob.
It’s possible that on one or two occasions, I may have claimed that I invented chicken-fried steak. Well, didn’t I? No, actually that was probably a Hill Country cook who sampled the German immigrants’ Wiener Schnitzel in the 1800s and replaced expensive veal with common Texas steak. By 1974, you could order a CFS at Denny’s that looked on TV just like the one your mama made. But it tasted like tenderized plywood. One bite and you knew that meat had been frozen.
Now for my great idea. Remember: beyond Denny’s (a glorified truck stop), there were no casual dining chains in Dallas in 1975, not yet. It dawned on me that people wanted to eat real home cooking without staying home. And they wanted to drink while doing it. We’d do the shopping and the cooking; you’d enjoy a CFS with gravy, mashed potatoes, and green beans for $2.25, plus a cocktail or three. Plus a dish of peach cobbler. Plus you wouldn’t have to wash dishes when it was over.
We found a former Avalon Drug Store on Cedar Springs Road at a great price. No wonder: there were 75 hookers wandering up and down seedy Cedar Springs day and night, which had a tendency to scare away customers (ours, not theirs).
We took a name from a Ray Wylie Hubbard song and called it the Black-eyed Pea. It was like a home run on steroids, out of the park. After the first month, we paid all our bills (we didn’t consider the IRS and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to be priorities, a misconception that was soon corrected) and still had $10,000 left over. Holy moly.
From there on, it was one brainstorm after another. Forty-nine cent martinis. Staying open on New Year’s Day (unheard of for a mom-and-pop operation) to serve black-eyed peas and cornbread. We figured out we didn’t have to peel the potatoes before mashing them, at a labor cost savings of approximately $12 billion a year. People could not get enough chicken-fried food: okra, catfish, french fries, even chicken! No one had heard of cholesterol or trans fats or canola oil. If we had thought of chicken-fried rattlesnake, we coulda sold that, too.
Before we knew it, we were moguls of a restaurant empire that stretched from Florida to Colorado, and for a decade or two, chicken-fried steak was the national dish of Texas. And just when we thought it would never end—why else would we have bought a private airplane?—the wind changed. Suddenly, the entire restaurant smelling like bacon was no longer cool. Doctors and nurses from Parkland who loved the Cedar Springs Pea were ordering vegetable plates. Texas Monthly put me in its Hall of Shame, saying, “Just walking into a Black-eyed Pea is enough to clog your arteries.”
Phil and I sold our baby to a bunch of Brits for $49 million. T.G.I. Friday’s, Chili’s, Bennigan’s, and Houston’s swarmed over the trail we’d blazed and divvied up the territory we had once ruled. I look around today and see a tough economy, microwaveable dinner options, the popularity of diets, fruit shakes, and granola bars, and I thank the Lord I’m no longer in the restaurant biz.
But, man, it was fun.
Gene Street is currently involved with the Movie Tavern concept and Cheaters, the Dallas-based television production.
Southlake Town Square Opens
By Brian Stebbins
Before the David Schwarz-designed shopping mall (and city hall) opened in 1999, the phrase “new urbanism” meant nothing to the average North Texas suburbanite. Now it has spawned imitators across the country, as people have learned to appreciate development on a human scale, with a sense of place.
Shortly before the opening of Southlake Town Square’s first phase, in March 1999, I said that I believed the grand opening would serve as a “passing of ownership” from our vision to the reality of Southlake finally having a downtown of its own. We knew we’d gotten it right when, as the barricades came down, letting the public in, children were playing in the park, throwing Frisbees, and dipping their hands into the fountain. From that moment, the community took ownership of its downtown.
Though many people considered the idea of creating a small downtown “from scratch” novel, the only novelty was the plan to do it over more than 20 years instead of more than 100 years. All downtowns have to start somewhere. I said in 1999 that within five to 10 years, when the shininess wore off and the trees had grown and the project began to show some wear, it was going to be a real head-scratcher to figure out when it was built. It didn’t take even that long. Less than two years later, a visitor walked through Town Square and remarked that it was the best renovation of a historic downtown that he had ever seen.
What we tried to create was something that allowed people to naturally come to this place and not have to think why they were coming, but provide enough destinations that when they got here, they would fulfill any of those desires. In March 1999, Southlake Town Square included about 250,000 square feet of retail and office uses. In 2009, Town Square has grown to more than 1.3 million square feet of mixed uses, including the City/County Town Hall and Library, the Southlake Post Office, a downtown Hilton Hotel, a state-of-the-art Harkins movie theater, a deep lineup of retail establishments, 26 restaurants and other food and beverage operators, and more than 250,000 square feet of office and service businesses. Retail sales in 2008 exceeded $200 million, a testament to the project’s regional draw. And we’re not done. The Town Square master plan accommodates more than 3 million square feet of mixed-use development, leaving an estimated 2 million square feet yet to be built. We’re currently planning for the next 20 years of development at Southlake Town Square.
Perhaps one of the best testimonies to Town Square’s special place in the community came in December 2008, when Forbes.com ranked Southlake the most affluent neighborhood in the country. In the writeup, Brian J.L. Berry, a dean at the University of Texas at Dallas, was quoted as saying that what separates Southlake from its white-collar counterparts is undoubtedly its town square. “It is an upscale community with an expression of that status in its town square,” Berry said. “If there is anything special about the suburb, it is that square.”
Brian Stebbins is a founding partner of Cooper & Stebbins, the developer of Southlake Town Square.
Sundance Square Remakes Downtown Fort Worth
By Edward Bass
Few cities have transformed their downtown cores as dramatically as Fort Worth has over the past 30 years. Even fewer can point to one family that made it all happen, the way Fort Worth can look to the Basses and all they’ve done. It started in the early 1980s, with a two-block project that became Sundance Square.
We have always believed, from the time we started with the restoration of the initial two-block area in the early 1980s, to today with 20 redeveloped city blocks, that Sundance Square is both a financial investment and an investment in the future of our hometown. Cities really need to be re-energized with every generation in order to thrive, and I am proud that our generation is giving the next a healthy, vibrant downtown to enjoy and work with going forward.
I love Fort Worth. I believe it is one of the finest places in this country to live, work, and do business. I cherish the friendliness and the quality of life, and I appreciate the vitality and sophistication. On a very personal level, I have also enjoyed tremendously living downtown since 1984. Year by year, I have been joined by more people, seen more activity, and experienced more energy, and that’s what makes it all the more fun.
It has taken more than 30 years of continual work, patience, and perseverance to create Sundance Square and its environs. We could not have achieved what we have without Fort Worth’s unparalleled spirit of cooperation. When it comes right down to it, it is the people of Fort Worth who have made Sundance Square a success. They have played the most crucial role of all, joining in and coming downtown to partake in all we have to offer. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.
Edward Bass is a developer and an environmentalist.