“That’s 72 ounces, folks, so let’s cheer them on because they’re from Texas with a big Texas appetite!”
On a raised platform stage in the middle of the dining room, three men sat ready to eat. Each faced a 72-ounce sirloin steak, shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad, and a roll with butter. Behind them on the wall were timers counting down from 60 minutes – the time allotted to consume every bite and conquer the challenge. Those are big steaks and this is the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas.
As the saying goes, everything’s bigger in Texas, and this iconic restaurant is no exception. Inside the front door you’ll find a cozy bar, a shooting gallery, a gift shop, a candy shop, and a rattlesnake. But save all that for after dinner and go get yourself a seat in the dining room. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to witness their signature 72-ounce steak challenge.
I sat down with owner Bobby Lee and talked about the history of the Big Texan over a glass of Bomb City Bock, one of their twelve custom brews. The Big Texan has its roots in the time of real cowboys. Bobby’s dad, Bob (RJ) Lee, opened the restaurant in 1960 on Route 66. On Fridays, cowboys from nearby stockyards would come in to cash their checks and enjoy 25 cent beers. The cowboys would eat, of course, and would compete with one another over who could eat the most. Bob noticed how the tourists loved watching the cowboys’ antics.
One Friday, Bob put some tables together center stage in the dining room and challenged the cowboys to eat as many steaks as they could in one hour. As the contest came to an end, one cowboy had eaten 4-1/2 pounds of steak (72 oz), a baked potato, shrimp cocktail, salad, and a roll. And the 72 oz Challenge was born. The menu for the challenge has not changed since that day. If you succeed, your meal is free. If you fail, the cost is $72.
Diners today still love watching cowboys of all shapes and sizes try to beat the challenge. A typical day sees three attempts. As Bobby explains, “There is no profile. Women do better than men. We have lots of international visitors, too, who give it a shot.” The youngest to complete the challenge was an 11-year-old boy from Calgary, Canada.
During my time at the Big Texan, my family witnessed the challenge while we enjoyed our own (reasonably-sized) steaks. While the three men were on the stage eating, people would come up to them, ask them questions, take photos and videos, and cheer them on. In the end, only one succeeded – and he definitely had that “food coma” look on his way outside to get some fresh air.
But there have been some bumps on the road to this level of success for the Big Texan, namely when Route 66 was replaced by Interstate 40. “Our traffic died. Instantly died,” said Bobby, “like flipping a switch.” Fortunately, his dad owned nine acres of land right beside I-40 where he already had a small liquor store. He scrambled to make quick work rebuilding the Big Texan at its current location, where it continues to thrill locals, tourists, and modern-day cowboys alike.
After our delicious dinner, the kids enjoyed checking out the rattlesnake in the gift shop and playing at the shooting gallery. Even though they were stuffed with a big meal, they couldn’t resist begging for some Texas-sized candy on the way out. After all they had witnessed and learned about cowboys and Texas history that evening, I didn’t mind buying a six-inch bacon lollipop.