Eating calf fries with Grady Spears and Bud Kennedy
Warning: This story might be offensive to some readers and cattle.
We even ate steaks blindfolded.
But this one seemed a little nuts.
It all started when we were talking about the 2016 edition of the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, and our “Eats Beat” columnist, Bud Kennedy, reminded us that calf fries, that cowboy delicacy, originated in Fort Worth.
More specifically, Cowtown was the first place where someone had the cojones to put them on a restaurant menu.
The story goes that one day in the 1920s, a ranch hand shuffled into Theo’s Saddle & Sirloin Inn, an early Stockyards restaurant owned by Macedonian Theo Yordanoff, and asked specifically for calf fries. Yordanoff wasn’t sure what they were, and he certainly didn’t offer them on his menu, but in an effort to make his customer happy, he went to a nearby slaughterhouse and asked for the raw materials.
Even better, the slaughterhouse gave them to Yordanoff for free. So he began selling calf-fry sandwiches for 15 cents. And they were a hit!
It’s about here we should probably explain what calf fries are, for the uninitiated.
To paraphrase delicately, some restaurants describe them as the byproduct of when a calf becomes a steer. To put it more bluntly, they are bovine testicles, regularly served on the range but wrapped in euphemisms on menus. Or, as one local steakhouse so cleverly bills them on a T-shirt, Calf Fries are The Original Sack Lunch.
Usually served fried and battered with a dipping sauce, calf fries have become a gourmet appetizer of sorts, just as likely to show up on a Food Network show like Chopped as they are to grace the menu at Stockyards staples like Riscky’s and Cattlemen’s Steak House.
The taboo treat has a trough full of more nicknames — Rocky Mountain oysters, prairie oysters, even huevos del toro. But in Fort Worth, where it all started, just call them what they are: big (or little) balls of Cowtown.
But first, a little history
As we began this odyssey, we were reminded of a classic Calvin and Hobbes strip in which Calvin, musing about the many wonders of the world, asks: “Who was the guy who first looked at a cow and said, ‘I think I’ll drink whatever comes out of these things when I squeeze ’em?’ ”
The same could be asked of calf fries: “Who was the guy who first looked at these and had the huevos to say, ‘I think I’ll find out what those taste like after we throw ’em into the branding-iron fire?’ ”
Homer Robertson, who led the chuck wagon team at the recent Lonesome Dove Trail kickoff event in downtown Fort Worth, says he thinks the tradition might trace back to Spain, even before the Spanish arrived in Mexico.
“They ate organ meat,” Robertson said. “They didn’t let anything go to waste.”
Theo’s, which is credited with starting the calf-fries-on-the-menu tradition, began on 23rd Street in Fort Worth. In 1943, it moved to East Exchange Avenue, and closed in 1985. The Riscky family reopened it in 1993 as Riscky’s Steakhouse and kept calf fries as a signature item.
“They once were, literally, fresh [bought] from people we knew,” pitmaster Joe Riscky told us. “This guy Mark Baker, he used to sell us a bunch. He does the cattle for Ross Perot. He would bring ’em in, literally, in black trash bags — I don’t need to go into details.
“But they were different sizes, and now we’re buying them more uniform. That helps a lot.”
Fort Worth chef Grady Spears, who sells calf fries at his chicken-fried-steak restaurant Horseshoe Hill and will even have a calf fry stand at the Houston rodeo this year, agreed that the uniformity is important.
In other words, yes, size matters. But maybe not in the way you’d think — as Jack McDavid, who starred on Food Network’s Grillin’ and Chillin’ with Bobby Flay, found out.
“We did this deal called A Book and a Cook,” Spears said. “It was 20 cookbook authors from around the world. Jack wanted to do calf fries. ... Jack ends up getting these bull [testicles] that were probably about 5 pounds apiece. But the bigger they get, the more rancid and mealy they get. So it was not a good thing. It was a disaster.”
Although calf fries are considered something of a delicacy — “testicle festivals” celebrate them all over the West — there are still a handful of Fort Worth restaurants that regularly serve them. And this is definitely their peak season. With Stock Show visitors in town, most servers said they expect requests for calf fries to multiply.
And, thus, so will the stories.
Everywhere we went, servers had calf fry tales to tell. About parties of 10 ordering them, with only one poor, unsuspecting neophyte not knowing what he was eating. Parents ordering them for their kids, and telling them they were eating chicken nuggets, only to spring the truth on them afterward. A dash to the restroom ensued.
One restaurant staffer told us her husband flat out refuses to eat them, but she’s been slipping them to him for years, telling him it’s chicken. He’s never questioned her. Another said he used to like calf fries — till he saw them in their unadulterated state.
“They look a little too much like fellow soldiers,” he said.
We ate them — and ate them — at lunch for about a week. We even ate them after seeing them au natural. And as exotic foods go, calf fries are fairly tame and mighty tasty. But the breading and dipping sauces definitely help when you’re trying to keep your eyes (and minds) off the balls.
We began our calf-fry odyssey at Spears’ chicken-fried-steak haven, where they’re on the menu as Rocky Mountain oysters and available at $12 for a half-dozen or $18 for a dozen.
They’re served with peppered cream gravy, which is the standard dipping sauce, and with spicy ketchup. You order at the counter at Horseshoe Hill, and that was where a friendly, knowledgable woman told us to try them with a little hot sauce dribbled into the gravy.
Unsauced, the calf fries are coated with a light batter made from flour, pepper and Lone Star beer. When you get to the meat, it is tender and mild, tasting a bit like veal.
We liked the cream gravy, and the employee’s suggestion was on target: Putting a little hot sauce in it provided a pleasant kick. The spicy ketchup was a little less exciting and covered up more of the delicacy’s flavor.
This is a great place for first-timers to try calf fries, because Spears, the Cowboy Chef, is a virtuoso with a fryer and his kitchen staff takes great care to clean and butcher the meat properly. (Trust us, you don’t want to try them at a place that doesn’t.)
The “oysters” are beautifully battered, not too big, and have almost no hint of the musky flavor you might get at a less seasoned place. If you split an order, you should still have room for his signature CFS, which is offered in a half-dozen variations (including topped with chili gravy and a deep-fried egg or with chili con carne and queso blanco).
204 W. Exchange Ave., Fort Worth, 817-882-6405, horseshoehillcafe.com. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Spears is an alumnus of this nearly 20-year-old downtown Fort Worth restaurant, which will also be serving calf fries at the Stock Show’s Reata at the Backstage food service area. But the calf fries here ($13.95) are very different from the version Spears serves at Horseshoe Hill.
Most of the fries we tried had a soft coating or batter, but Reata’s were very crunchy. One half of our calf-fry-tasting duo loved this; let’s call him the Crunch-aholic. He said Reata’s calf fries reminded him of a really good piece of crispy fried chicken.
The other taster — Gumby — found these babies too much of a workout for his tender teeth and jaws. (This all worked out in the end, because Crunch-aholic devoured the majority of the Reata calf fries while Gumby enjoyed Reata’s signature tenderloin tamales.)
This version also gave the biggest nod to vegetables: Aside from the cream gravy, there were pieces of carrot, cabbage and other veggies on the plate, as well as — in a touch we really liked — a few bonus onion rings. This is also a pretty good place for calf-fry neophytes to start, because all that crunching takes your mind off the cringe-inducing nature of where calf fries come from in the first place. (Although our table was situated right below a stuffed buffalo head, so we never could escape its disapproving gaze.)
310 Houston St., Fort Worth, 817-336-1009,www.reata.net. Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily; 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Fred’s Texas Cafe
This Fort Worth shrine is best known for bodacious burgers and coldass beer, but Fred’s is also the culinary playground of “Outlaw Chef” Terry Chandler, which means that not only does Fred’s serve calf fries, but it’s also one of the few places in town to offer them “nekkid.”
Now, before you let loose an “eeewwww,” keep in mind that Fred’s unfried calf fries are wrapped in thick-cut bacon with a jalapeño spear stuck in there for some heat.
In other words, it looks nothing like you might fear, and it tastes better than you’d imagine — smoky with just the right amount of spiciness. And the calf fry gives each bite an earthy flavor, reminiscent of a mild chicken liver.
The sourdough-battered calf fries were very good, too, with a light coating and chipotle cream gravy that will satisfy any traditionalist.
But for our money, order the naked calf fries. They’re pricey at $18.95 for a dozen, but they come with a side of french fries and bragging rights. Anybody can eat ’em fried.
915 Currie St., Fort Worth, 817-332-0083. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-midnight Tuesday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday; closed Mondays. Additional locations at http://fredstexascafe.com.
For our next calf-fry encounter, we forged west, to Buffalo West steakhouse, inside an old Steak & Ale restaurant in west Fort Worth.
Here, they’re served as an appetizer, six per order for $11. Of all the calf fries we devoured, these had one of the most interesting presentations. They were served on a bed of lettuce and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. On the side came two dipping sauces: a very good (and spicy) house-made ranch sauce and ketchup. The ketchup, you see, was for the accompanying french fries. Yes, the calf fries at Buffalo West come with actual fries.
The calf fries were pretty good specimens, with a hand-breaded batter that found a nice balance between crunchy and soft. The meat itself was tender and not the least bit gamey; they didn’t taste that much different than a chicken nugget.
If you’re with someone who remains reluctant to try them, give ’em the french fries.
7101 Camp Bowie West, Fort Worth, 817-732-2370, www.buffalowestfw.com. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday, noon-midnight Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday (brunch), 2-7 p.m. Sunday.
Cattlemen’s Steak House
In our exhaustive research for this story, we have found recipes — as well as many pictures that we can’t unsee — from “testicle festivals,” including the big “Testy Festy” at Rock Creek Lodge in Clinton, Mont.
The website Modern Farmer reports that the Rocky Mountain Oyster Fry in Virginia City, Nev., has seen taco and sushi variations, as well as chocolate-covered calf fries.
So a calf-fry pizza, which you can order off the bar menu at Stockyards stalwart Cattlemen’s, isn’t really that out there (you can order the pizza in the dining room, but it is not on the main menu).
It’s a thin-crust, 10-inch or so “Balls to the Wall Pizza” ($10.95) with an Alfredo sauce, a tasty jack-and-Parmesan blend, red onions and some dashes of salt and pepper, then dotted with calf fries. If you didn’t know better, you’d think a sausage pizza had landed on the table, and the pepper gives it just the right amount of spice. The onions are a little aggressive — they actually put off an experienced calf-fry eater more than the little guys on the pizza did.
Cattlemen’s was the one place where we didn’t hear a story about diners not knowing what they were getting into with calf fries: Most people who come to a place called Cattlemen’s are pretty up on their bovine culinary knowledge.
And considering that this is a place that offers a calf-fries platter (with applesauce, a touch we didn’t see elsewhere) for $21, that knowledge can come in handy.
2458 N. Main St., Fort Worth, 817-624-3945, cattlemenssteakhouse.com. 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday
If you’re on a calf-fry crawl, note that in the Riscky’s universe, they are only available at the Steakhouse, where the Fort Worth tradition begun by Theo Yordanoff has been kept alive. The Steakhouse is in the former home of Theo’s; his name is even on the walls.
Calf fries (on the dinner menu, but available all day) come in an appetizer portion of nine or so (weird to think of these coming in an odd number, huh?) for $5.99 or in an entree portion for $13.99 (side, dinner salad or soup included).
We found the breading at Riscky’s to be similar in texture to Horseshoe Hill’s, but the calf fries themselves to be ... juicier. Which is normally a good thing, but in this case it reminded us a bit more about what we were eating.
The dish comes with the usual cream gravy, but our waiter suggested trying them with A.1. steak sauce. We really liked the vinegary boost they got from the A.1.
Note: We also liked another Theo’s holdover, Kapusta, a sauerkraut soup brought to Texas from Poland. Paired with the appetizer portion of the calf fries, it made for a pretty memorable lunch.
120 E. Exchange Ave., Fort Worth, 817-624-4800, www.risckys.com. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Monday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
M&M Steak House
How old-school is this north-side hole in the wall? It doesn’t have a website or an official Facebook page. It doesn’t take credit cards. And it has a vinyl jukebox! You know, from the days of 45s, A-sides and B-sides, with lots of Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline and Bob Wills.
That last fact alone is enough to make us fall for this nondescript concrete building on Northwest 28th Street, about a mile or so west of the Stockyards district.
Chances are you won’t find many tourists here, but you will find an abundance of taxidermy on the walls, not to mention smart locals and one of the friendliest restaurant staffs we’ve run into in a while.
The menu says to expect a 30- to 45-minute wait for calf fries, which means that this place takes great care with the little guys. We went for a half-order ($14.95 for about nine fries; a full order is $18.95), which came with cream gravy and a mustard dip.
But these didn’t need much help: The breading found the right balance between crisp and soft, the meat had a bit of livery duskiness without being too strong.
We were told to come back for the frog legs, another be-patient-when-you-order-them specialty. If they’re as good as the calf fries, we’ll be there. Hey, another quest!
1106 N.W. 28th St., Fort Worth, 817-624-0612. 5-11 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Cash only.
Staff writer Rick Press and correspondent Malcolm Mayhew contributed to this report.
More places to find calf fries
Caddo Street Grill: One of the staffers at Horseshoe Hill, who grew up in Cleburne, told us about this place, but we didn’t make it there by our deadline. “Caddo Calf Fries” ($11.99), listed under “Caddo Classics,” are seasoned and fried, and served with country gravy and french fries. Road trip from downtown Fort Worth! 211 S. Caddo St., Cleburne, 817-648-7793, www.caddostreetgrill.com
Redneck Heaven: The “breastaurant” lists them on the menu this way: “You’ll go NUTS for this all-time Redneck favorite!” ($9.99). 3840 N.E. Loop 820, Fort Worth; 701 N. Watson Road, Arlington; 2501 S. Stemmons Freeway, Lewisville. www.redneckheaven.com
The Rustic: There must be more than two places in Dallas that serve calf fries, but that’s all a Google search turned up, and this cool uptown Dallas joint — known for its large (and often packed) “Backyard” patio and live music — is one of ’em. They’re $6.95, served with buttermilk dip, and the menu just says, “If you have to ask ... .” 3656 Howell St., Dallas, 214-730-0596. therustic.com
Dunston’s Steakhouse & Bar: So you’re cruising down the menu at this place, and the appetizers look virtuous: grilled Brussels sprouts, spinach artichoke dip ... and then there’s the calf fries ($9.95), right after the calamari. 5423 Lovers Lane, Dallas, 214-352-8320. http://www.dunstonssteakhouse.com/loverslane