The ambiance is pleasant and surprisingly quiet. The servers are simpatico. It's hot as hell outside, but there's no indication that a vision of the apocalypse is about to occur before our very eyes. We're good people, really we are. We may not love Jesus, but we're willing to pretend if it will help save the world.
Suddenly, there's a whoosh and clatter as two servers unload two gigantic plates on the table. I look at one, Texas poutine, and my heart freezes in fear. Yellowish lava has boiled out of the underworld, scorching trees, turning them into logs, then flooding them with the hot blood of the unsaved.
"Is everything OK?" the server asks, apparently noticing that I'm in shock.
"Sure, sure," I mutter.
We're at Big Tex Cantina (308 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-377-3939) in Decatur. The new restaurant is owned by former Texans Jonathan and Justin Fox, who also operate the wildly popular Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q. Their cooking, which they call "comfort food," is loyal to their Texas roots but playful with recipes.
The poutine that has just arrived at the table, for example, is a Texas take on a Canadian classic of fries and cheese curds — to which have been added red-chili gravy and gobs of melted cheese. Basically a substitute for the inevitable nachos, it is truly an apocalyptic gut bomb. I'm talking so much fat and grease that we can't eat half of it — and we ordered a half-size portion to begin with.
Bring out a Styrofoam take-out box, please.
Our other starter is a special of four sliders more appropriately called "sloppy Joses." The four fill the serving plate and the ground-meat filling spills out of them. The meat is saturated with the restaurant's melted yellow and white cheese with roasted jalapeños and red salsa. There's also plenty of pico de gallo. We get through just more than half.
Gut bomb numero dos. Bring out el segundo Styrofoam box, por favor.
I know I'm going to be sleeping upright tonight. My stomach is already boiling. But here's the thing, the reason we requested the take-out boxes. "Some of this stuff tastes pretty good," I say to Wayne.
"Yeah it does," he says.
Anything with excessive gooey cheese is likable, of course. Chuck E. Cheese can tell you that. But there are a few special effects here. The meat in the sliders, for example, is ground brisket and Angus beef and it tastes great. The use of actual cheese curds in the poutine is a surprise, too.
Moving along, with two Styrofoam boxes already on the table, our entrées arrive. I've ordered the chicken-fried steak. I used to eat this dish in Houston a lot and I've never found a really good version in Atlanta. It's round steak pounded until tender, dredged in flour, fried and served with cream gravy. (You have the option of substituting queso at Big Tex.) The steak doesn't thrill me. It's not crispy enough and the gravy is cool and congealed. I eat half and don't ever want to see it again, I'm so full. But Wayne calls for another Styrofoam box.
His own entrée is a plate of three tacos — brisket, fried avocado and fried catfish, each served on double corn tortillas. The catfish and avocado scare me. They are coated in crushed Fritos. (I was happy when I didn't find Frito pie, one of the most horrific dishes on the planet, on the menu here.) But the catfish and avocados don't taste awful. The brisket, straight from Fox Bros., I assume, is the best.
Wayne eats most of the tacos and defers on the server's offer of another Styrofoam box. "Why do we have to take my chicken-fried steak home but not your tacos?" I ask. Silence. Then he slips the tacos into the box with the steak.
No sides go home with us. My favorite is the creamed corn, which is not creamed corn at all, but a cup of kernels in broth, topped with some ... cheese! Purple-hull peas are average. The turnip greens, slimy and sugary, don't compare to the collards at Fox Bros.
In the end, there is a sweet fuse for the gut bomb — chocolate buttermilk pie with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. The crust isn't the best, but I'm tired of complaining.
I take a walk around the place before we leave. It's gigantic. The walls are covered with Lone Star kitsch. (Happily, I find no pictures of George Bush.) There's a large bar dispensing a zillion different beers. And, hidden away, there's a room with another bar and a pool table. I think booze may be key here, as it is at most cantinas. Would you mind being left behind in the Apocalypse of the Gut Bomb if you've got a gigantic watermelon margarita in your hand?