On a recent Saturday night, at his new restaurant on the north side, Grady Spears bounces from table to table, laughing and chatting, posing for pictures, shaking hands and giving hugs.
For those who have followed Spears’ career, this celebratory scene is straight-up deja vu.
The Fort Worth-based chef has been here before, many times, buzzing around his just-opened restaurant, a proud new father passing out cigars. And diners have been here before, too, thrilled to be a part of Spears’ latest place, but always, in the back of their minds, wondering just how long it’ll last.
Spears’ reputation for his “cowboy cuisine” has nearly been outshone by his reputation for quickly parting ways with new projects. In 2011 alone, he left two restaurants, Clear Fork Station in Willow Park and Grady’s Restaurant on Forest Park Boulevard, and joined a third, Line Camp Steakhouse in the small town of Tolar.
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Many thought Spears had found his calling at the latter, where he served his signature dishes in a remote, romantic ranch house; his stint there, too, didn’t last.
Out of all of his restaurants, it makes the most sense for him to stabilize at his newest, Horseshoe Hill Cafe, not because of what it is but what it’s not: It’s not big, it’s not outside of Fort Worth, and it’s not a large menu.
Horseshoe Hill is a small Stockyards joint whose main attraction is chicken-fried steak, the dish for which Spears is best known; this should be a cinch.
In a tip of the hat to burger, pizza and taco joints that have taken on more adventurous flairs, the concept is a smart one: chicken-fried steak done six ways. You can have it topped with white cream gravy or with any number of more unusual toppings, among them a chile relleno, chile con carne, a fried egg and queso.
Each time we visited, the chicken-fried steak was outstanding, no matter how we had it. During one visit, we tried it Vaquero Way ($17), paired with a cheese enchilada, whose sweet mole sauce was the perfect counterpoint to the pleasant saltiness of the steak.
During another visit, we ordered it the Cowboy Way ($16), with just peppery cream gravy, and marveled at the simple, rich flavor of the Lone Star beer-infused batter and the suppleness of the steak. It comes with a knife but you won’t need it.
It’s attractively presented on a campfire-style metal platter that matches the restaurant’s rustic decor. Underneath the steak is a bed of hearty mashed potatoes, topped with the same peppery gravy that’s ladled on the steak.
Prices range from $15-$19. A less expensive option: sliders ($10), a trio of dinner rolls stuffed with generous pieces of chicken-fried steak. Portion-wise, you’re getting about half of a chicken-fried steak, so it’s plenty of food. Cream gravy comes on the side.
Elsewhere on the menu, we loved the calf fries, served by the dozen ($16) or half-dozen ($10). The crisp, fried batter gave way to meat so tender and so not gamey, you forgot what you were eating.
Less impressive was the Pan de Campo ($9), a freshly made flatbread topped with candied bacon, melted cheese — a mix of goat and Monterey Jack — and leaves of spinach; it lacked flavor and focus.
One of a handful of dishes Spears resurrected from Line Camp was Bob Armstrong Dip ($8), a nod to Matt’s El Rancho’s dish of the same name.
Served in a Mason jar, this terrific dip consisted of layers of refried beans, queso, chile con carne, sour cream and pico de gallo. Accompanying it were crispy housemade white corn chips, still hot when they hit our table, and a giant spoon, allowing you to scrape up every last bite.
Sides, served family-style, were for the most part very good. Our favorite was the blue cheese cole slaw ($3). Studded with chunks of blue cheese, it was of the thick and creamy variety, with an irresistible sweet-tart flavor.
Also good was the green bean casserole ($3), less of a casserole and more of a straightforward sauteed dish. Beans were fresh and colorful, each firm and brightly colored, and were lightly bathed in a rich bechamel sauce.
Dessert consists of another of Spears’ greatest hits: a nightly fried fruit pie, ranging from blueberry to blackberry to strawberry. Two half-moon pies come per order, and it’s more than enough for two people. Each is topped with a reduced sauce from the berries.
At lunch, the restaurant is counter-service. You order from a blackboard menu, then your food is delivered to your table. Table service kicks in at dinner, with friendly servers and a chance to shake hands and say hi to Spears.
When you see him, be sure to tell him to stick this one out.