Guy Wilkinson packs his appetite to boldly venture where the meals are bigger than, well, Texas.
It doesn't take long to realise I'm in Texas. Just minutes after touching down I find myself in a Tex-Mex restaurant staring open-mouthed at a beef burrito the size of a small child.
It wouldn't be so intimidating if I wasn't still reeling from the jetlag. Or if this beast wasn't slathered in enough cheese to satisfy your average fondue fiend for a lifetime. Never mind, if I have trouble swallowing, I can always fumble for the small bucket of lemonade beside me.
It's no myth about Texas - here, size definitely matters. Bigger is better and it's easy to see why an obesity epidemic is in full swing.
That said, I soon discover that although the portions are ludicrous, Texas cuisine has more than a few plus points. The region's proximity to Mexico and its colourful frontier history have all contributed to the Lone Star State's reputation as a culinary hotbed. Spicy Tex-Mex, sumptuous BBQ ribs, mammoth steaks and hearty breakfasts are all synonymous with Texas living.
Breakfast: the heart-breaker
Fat warning Serious.
Breakfast is said to be the most important meal of the day and you'd be hard pushed to find a Texan who'll disagree. And if you're looking for a bowl of muesli or a fruit salad, forget it. For my first breakfast, I opt for a regional favourite: chicken-fried steak with all the trimmings and a side order of grits. The latter is a southern speciality - a corn and maize-based concoction that looks like runny white porridge but tastes quite different. You add butter and a spoonful of sugar or salt to taste and actually it's not bad.
When my food arrives I am once again speechless. The steak - initially coated in seasoned flour - has been deep-fried beyond all recognition. Slathered in a viscous, creamy sauce, it comes with a giant biscuit (basically a big dough ball) and fried potato and onions. Just looking at it causes a heart murmur. Despite the guilt, it's delicious.
Subsequent diner trips prove equally hedonistic. "The Ugliest Breakfast in Town" consists of scrambled eggs, sausage, hashbrowns and cheddar cheese, piled on a biscuit and topped with sausage gravy, while the "Hobo Special" includes two eggs, home fries, grilled onions and bell peppers, ham and shredded cheddar cheese, served with a biscuit and gravy. Feeling dizzy? Try eating it. You soon will be.
Other points of note include the "bottomless coffee" system. It seems waitresses here don't feel they're doing their job unless you're shaking from a caffeine-induced adrenaline rush. It's basic filter coffee but for the price you can't argue.
Cost An average breakfast with coffee is about $US7 ($10.20) plus 15 per cent to 20 per cent tip.
The writer dined at Broadway Diner, 1505 South Broadway, Sulphur Springs, Texas, +903 438 8500.
Tex-Mex: say cheese
Fat warning Pretty high.
This term is used to describe the blending of authentic Mexican recipes with a Texan style of cooking. Essentially, the Tex side involves using more cheese in the cooking and a variation on traditional Mexican seasoning. Tex-Mex has really taken off in Texas - it seems there's a restaurant specialising in it on almost every corner. One of the best is Joe T Garcia's in Fort Worth - well worth a look for its tranquil ambience as much as the food.
Typical Tex-Mex generally includes the usual suspects - fajitas, tacos and nachos - but there's usually something a little extra on the menu.
At Garcia's, I opt for a house speciality - the Bistec Ranchero. It's superb. Slices of grilled beef are slathered in a spicy tomato sauce beside a whopping portion of refried beans, rice, peppers and a basket of steaming flour tortillas. Other specialities I try (on separate occasions, I hasten to add) include Chile Rellenos - a chilli pepper stuffed with meat - beef tacos, burritos and the Chicken Flautas - essentially a meat-and-cheese-filled corn tortilla. Almost without exception, the portions are too epic to finish.
I can't help but notice the average customer is seriously porky. Most don't skip on dessert either.
Cost A main costs around $US19 and chances are you won't need to eat again for some time.
The writer dined at Joe T Garcia, 2201 North Commerce Street, Fort Worth, +817 626 4356. And he dined at Ama Lur, Gaylord Texan Hotel, 1501 Gaylord Trail, Grapevine, +817 778 2215.
BBQ ribs: nice rack
Fat warning Red alert.
Perhaps the most iconic dish to Texas is the rib platter. They come in many different formats: pork ribs, beef ribs, spare-ribs, baby-back ribs, or even short ribs. Usually you can choose between a quarter, half or full rack.
Most Texans are somewhat cagey about revealing their cooking methods but apparently the ribs are marinated for a few days, then slow-cooked in the oven before hitting the grill.
I brave a half rack in a homely, traditional-type joint, The Circle H Barbeque in the small town of Emory. Once again the portion is gigantic. Even when splitting the meal with a friend, I'm soon slumped sideways in my seat, deep-breathing while dabbing sweat from my forehead with a napkin. The meat has a delicious smokey flavour, though, and is tender enough to fall right off the bone.
Side orders include chilli beans in thick BBQ sauce, hunks of corn bread, creamy potato salads, coleslaw and refried beans. They are almost as good as the ribs.
As in many Texan restaurants, I'm astonished by the prompt service. Seconds after I'm seated, a flurry of activity ensues; ice water is placed on the table, food and drink orders are taken and it seems like only seconds have elapsed before the food arrives. It's efficient but almost too much so.
Perhaps I'm old fashioned but I like a brief chat before filling my face. The tipping culture in America provides a ubiquitous efficiency but can be a double-edged sword.
Cost A rack large enough to fill two people costs around $US20, while sides are around $US3 each.
The writer dined at Circle H Barbeque, 500 E Lennon Drive, Emory, +903 473 2037.
Steak: love it tender
Fat warning Medium and seemingly not so rare.
Steak houses are everywhere in Texas and most pride themselves on choosing the finest cuts of meat. In cowboy country there's no shortage of cattle, so expectations are high. I head to the Y.O. Ranch Steakhouse in downtown Dallas where the buffalo filet mignon is the lunchtime speciality. During my trip this was the only meal where the portion size was not exorbitant. Served with a portion of mash, the meat was tender, tasty and cooked to perfection.
Many steak houses also offer Tex-Mex dishes but it's best to order dishes relevant to the restaurant's specialities to avoid disappointment. Like many restaurants in Dallas, the walls here are decorated with longhorns, stuffed animal heads and a variety of hunting pictures. It's a little disconcerting, especially for those in favour of our furry friends but Ernest Hemingway-types will love it.
Cost The buffalo dish was around $US19 at lunchtime though most steak joints boost the prices considerably come dinner.
The writer dined at Y.O. Ranch Steak House, 702 Ross Avenue, Dallas, +214 744 3287.
... and if you're still hungry
Texas's proximity to Louisiana has also influenced the cuisine and there are a few good Cajun restaurants around. If you're in Austin, be sure to visit the Boiling Pot, specialising in seafood gumbos. Here, boiled crawfish, whole crabs, shrimp, chorizo sausages and potatoes are all poured from the boiling pot onto paper table cloths, leaving diners to feast with their hands. It's a lot of fun and the food isn't too shabby either.
Those with a sweet tooth should also try the famous Round Rock yellow donuts. Each contains enough sugar to leave you twitching in your seat but the taste is unbeatable.
Cost A small Cajun gumbo comes to around $US18. A larger combo with more seafood is around $US45. A dozen yellow donuts are around $US4.50 .
The writer dined at The Boiling Pot, Austin, +512 472 0985. And at Round Rock Donuts, 106 W.Liberty, Round Rock, +512 255 3629.
* Getting there Qantas flies from Sydney to Dallas for around $1850 before tax. Other airlines offer cheaper fares with less-direct routes. For more details phone Flight Centre on 133 133 or see flightcentre.com.au.
* Staying there For extensive hotel listings in various cities, visit the official Texas tourism website at traveltex.com and click on the "lodgings" tab. Bookings can be tailored to suit your own preferences.
* Further information For listings on Dallas restaurants visit dallas.com/restaurants; for more information on eating out in Austin, try diningoutwithrobbalon.com; for suggestions about Fort Worth try activediner.com/restaurant/Fort-Worth. San Antonio also has plenty of restaurants by the Riverwalk. Try alamocity.com/restaurants.