Foodie Events / Restaurants

Texas’ Most Legendary Steakhouse Is a Small Town Wonder — the Magic of Perini Ranch Reaches 40 Years

A True Home On the Range

BY // 04.25.23

Some small Texas towns have a personality all their own. For instance, when someone mentions Gruene, a true Texan immediately envisions one of the most storied dance halls in the state. Luckenbach is known for its indelible connection to Waylon, Willie and the boys. Many other small Texas towns are known for producing some very special food or beverage. Terlingua is known for its chili. Dripping Springs for its vodka. West for its kolaches. Shiner for that famous brand of beer. And Buffalo Gap, located just south of Abilene, is known for steak — thanks to Perini Ranch Steakhouse.

Perini Ranch’s 40-year celebration will kick off on Tuesday, May 2. Owners Lisa and Tom Perini have a lot planned this year at their Perini Ranch Steakhouse. The party begins with the launch of a six episode podcast series in partnership with Texas Monthly titled “Meet Me At The Wagon.” That’s also when the Perinis will introduce their fourth book called A Celebration of 40 Years, exploring the rich history of both the cattle ranch and the famous steakhouse. The new book contains photography from Tom Perini’s private collection.

The cattleman began catering chuckwagon meals around the state in 1973 and opened the doors to the Perini Ranch Steakhouse a decade later in 1983. Tom Perini’s move was in the earliest days of the farm-to-table (or in this case, ranch-to-table) movement. For reference, Alice Waters opened her now long famous Chez Panisse in 1971 in Berkeley, California — one of the first American restaurants to feature locally sourced farmers, ranchers and diaries.

Perini – Well known for steak and pepper crusted tenderloins, it’s all about the beef at Perini Ranch.
Well known for steak and pepper crusted tenderloins, it’s all about the beef at Perini Ranch.

Of course, awards, accolades and national appearances for Tom and Lisa Perini and their steaks have stacked up over the years. These include an invitation to cater the congressional picnic at the White House in 2001 (which was upended by the 9/11 attacks), making the cover of Texas Monthly in 2011 and the James Beard Awards naming Perini Ranch an America’s Classic in 2014.

Many Texans got their first taste of Perini Ranch’s staple mesquite smoked peppered beef tenderloin by receiving it in the mail. It is a favorite culinary gift, which is available to order online year-round.

Life On Perini Ranch

While Perini Ranch only serves locally sourced certified Angus beef, visitors to the ranch will be treated to a more historic view of West Texas with a herd of Texas longhorns grazing nearby.

Tom Perini tells PaperCity, that while longhorns aren’t the best for steaks, his herd is a truer vision of what early ranchers would have found in Buffalo Gap. Thousands of head of native longhorns have called the land home ever since the Spanish explorers first imported them centuries ago.

Perini’s father started the family ranch in 1952, and he really didn’t know much about ranching when he returned home in 1965. So Tom Perini studied the ranching business on his own. He credits his mother with encouraging him to keep going and for all of her sage advice.

“Mothers always know best,” Perini says. “She got to live long enough to see us be successful. It’s a wonderful life, but a hard business. When I started doing chuckwagon dinners, chuckwagons were quickly being discarded and replaced with pickup trucks.”

This working cattle ranch is about as authentic as a steakhouse can get in Buffalo Gap. But Perini Ranch only serves certified Angus, not longhorn beef.
This working cattle ranch is about as authentic as a steakhouse can get in Buffalo Gap. But Perini Ranch only serves certified Angus, not longhorn beef.

“One thing I can tell you is that if you put too much salt in the beans, cowboys are going to tell you about it,” Perini laughs. “We’ve tried to stay true to West Texas, and the food that you’d find here. We serve old-fashioned green beans seasoned with bacon drippings and have recipes flavored with beef tallow like you’d traditionally find on a ranch.

“One of our favorite recipes is our green chile hominy.”

The dining experience at Perini Ranch is also authentic. A casual affair, with kids running around and playing on the dance floor, while their parents sip a margarita. It’s all part of the formula that Tom Perini thinks made it a success.

“I did everything wrong in the beginning,” Perini says. “People would drive down the highway looking for us and miss it altogether. It took a while for it to work. We built our business solely on word-of-mouth with no advertising budget.”

Tom Perini refused to ever put a baked potato on the menu “because everyone was doing that at the time, and serving them with imitation bacon bits.” This rancher winces while relaying this.

Perini also refused to sell out. When approached with the option of franchising Perini Ranch Steakhouses far and wide, he and Lisa discussed it, but knew they’d not only lose control but also the reputation they had worked so hard to build.

While much of the menu and rustic charm at Perini Ranch Steakhouse was intentional and by design, Tom Perini says other things just happened organically. Like that waft of grilling steaks that greets diners right as they enter.

“When we get a Southern breeze, it takes the smells right from our kitchen to the parking lot,” Perini says.

Perini – Ranch even has lodging to extend you stay at Perini Ranch.
Perini Ranch even has lodging to extend you stay and amplify your experience.

The Perinis have added guest quarters on the ranch, including a restored 1885 ranch house. There is also shopping at the Perini Ranch Country Market and more dining at The Gap Cafe.

40 Years of Texas Ranching

The six-episode podcast “Meet Me At The Wagon” will highlight West Texas and its ranching history. Tom Perini will be joined by singer Reba McEntire, actor Rex Linn and celebrity chef Dean Fearing in these discussions.

The new book A Celebration of 40 Years explores both the cattle ranch and its famous steakhouse. It was co-written by the Perini’s longtime friend and Fort Worth-based food and travel writer June Naylor, following two earlier best-selling cookbooks — Texas Cowboy Cooking and Perini Ranch Steakhouse: Stories and Recipes for Real Texas Food.

In the fall, Perini Ranch will host an outdoor art exhibit. It will be open to the public from September 28 to October 29, and curated by Michael Grauer, curator of cowboy collections and Western art at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. It will feature photography from Tom Perini’s private collection, presenting the history of Buffalo Gap, chuckwagon cooking and Perini Ranch Steakhouse.

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