Warning: if you’re attempting to find Cowcatchers Steaks at night, be prepared for a little frustration. Unless they have installed a lighted sign in the interim, your only clue to location, other than the address you’ll have to glean from reading mailboxes, is that it’s about five minutes from Highway 281 on Bulverde Road.
Look for a modest gate on your left, leading to a compound set back from the road. Once you’ve determined this is it, the search isn’t over, especially if the bar-waiting room nearest the parking lot isn’t open. Your best bet is to cut across the informal courtyard created by the collection of casual, barn-like buildings. On the right, you’ll find the door to the main dining room. At last. Fortunately, rewards await within.
Barn-like is not an adjective the creators of Cowcatchers would take badly; they have gone to lengths to collect parts of antique structures in the fashioning of the space, and the wood pillars from a 19th century Pennsylvania barn are especially worthy of some attention for their evocation of historic building techniques — assuming you can take your eyes off the also-antique chuck wagon looming overhead. You have likely never seen the underside of a chuck wagon.
The chuck wagon is a great, nostalgic symbol, but most of us would prefer the kind of cuisine coming out of the Cowcatchers kitchen to the grub the ever-resourceful “coosies” turned out on the trail. Button mushrooms weren’t a part of their arsenal, for example, but in the hands of Cowcatchers’ cooks, they become nuggets of more than knee-jerk interest: The peppered coating is flavorful, the cream gravy dip actually adds to the experience, and the mushrooms themselves, an impressive mound of them, are actually good in their own right. They don’t reheat well, trust me, so you might as well go ahead and eat them all.
Onion rings are another appetizer option, though you can also get them with entrées. And, oddly, so are steak bites — logical, I suppose, if you plan on ordering the pork chop or grilled chicken breast. Or if you simply like steak in all its forms (there’s a steak salad, too). The bites (yes, you can specify degree of doneness) are served on a platter with no adornment whatsoever, and they need none.
We had to make a conscious effort to stop eating both bites and ‘shrooms, fearing fullness before the entrées even arrived. The hiatus, in any event, allowed an interlude for contemplation of our Coppola Claret, an amiable companion to both fungus and flesh. There are other headliners as well, all reasonably priced, on the modest but better-than-expected list.
Altogether unexpected was the realization that the steak selection consisted of Certified Angus rib eyes in several thicknesses and a petite filet, nothing more. No cowboy T-bones, colossal Porterhouses or New York strips. And certainly no sizzling butter or stupendous spears of asparagus. Just simple steak impeccably prepared with a little black pepper. (Steak sauce was almost apologetically offered but refused.)
There’s an additional flavor kick from the wood used in grilling (mesquite was suspected, but not confirmed) — a taste not apparent in the bites which are presumably cooked for a shorter period. But that’s all. Rejoice.
There’s less inherent flavor in much of today’s pork, but Cowcatchers’ kitchen managed, with the aid of more of its favorite spice, black pepper, to coax much from our 16-ounce chop. Only in comparison to the 1-inch rib eye did it suffer. The onion rings we selected from a list of included sides that also offered a “loaded” potato, sautéed mushrooms and onions and mashed red skin potatoes, were just as good as the battered buttons (it was the same batter, for that matter).
And green beans sautéed with bacon and onions turned out to be a far cry from the canned and overcooked cousins often presented in country-style restaurants heavy on gingham but light on freshness. Even the salads, though not aspiring to city-slicker status, were bright, fresh, crisp and appealing, with the house dressing, a vinaigrette with feta cheese, beating out the sweet but tangy honey mustard.
There’s another chuck wagon of sorts outside, and on Sundays, the only day the restaurant is open for lunch, cobblers issue from its relaxed frame. The kitchen’s rendition, though not prepared from fresh fruit, is altogether acceptable, however, and only by dint of much effort did diligent dining companion, who had resisted the temptation to cowgirl-kitsch it up for the occasion, and I also resist finishing off the peach version with an (obligatory) side scoop of ice cream. This, of course, we couldn’t take home.
The remainders of every other order — about 50 percent of each, in fact — came to us in plastic foam boxes neatly labeled by our thoroughly professional waitress. She also brought a discreet white shopping bag.
Take this as a sign that Cowcatchers may be clad in corrugated tin and old barn wood, but it’s thoroughly sophisticated in many other ways. Now, if you can just find it…
Author: Ron Bechtol
Photographer: Janet Rogers