Big Texan Steak Ranch
No matter how you slice it, 72 ounces is four-and-a-half pounds. That's a lot of meat.
At the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, it's free. If you can eat it in an hour. While everyone else in the restaurant watches.
The Dream: Eat a Whole Cow
R.J. "Bob" Lee opened the Big Texan in 1960. It stood along Route 66 near the Amarillo stockyards. One day in 1962 a cowboy came in so hungry that he said he could "eat a whole cow." Bob decided to see if that was true. The cowboy quit after 72 ounces of meat, but Bob was still impressed and announced that anyone who could match it would get their meal for free.
The Big Texan moved in 1970 to a spot along Interstate 40 (A helicopter airlifted the restaurant's iconic cowboy sign). With exposure to farther-flung diners, unfamiliar with cowboy lore, the "Free 72 Ounce Steak" challenge adopted the rules that it still follows today (Most Big Texan visitors, however, are satisfied to pay, and eat, smaller portions).
America's hero-scaled food landscape has evolved; today hundreds of eateries vie for attention from prodigious portion patrons, pro competitive eaters, and gastronomical horror TV shows. But the Big Texan is a bonafide tourist attraction. Before you are even inside, you know this place is going to be good. The building is painted bright yellow; Texas flags flap like pennants; the front porch creaks under your feet. A huge steer, "Big Moo," stands in the parking lot, along with a 15-foot-tall cowboy boot, a 27-foot-long goofy dinosaur wearing a cowboy hat ("Big Tex Rex"), and a painted wooden photo op that lets you put your head on the body of someone about to dig in.
When you enter, it is dark; stuffed bears loom. There's a shooting gallery with human dummy targets, a wooden rocking chair big enough to hold several 72 Ounce Steak contestants, and a large gift shop with a live rattlesnake. Urinal splash screens are imprinted, "Home of the Free 72 oz Steak." Next to the check-in desk, on a bed of ice, is a sample cut of meat, lying there, juicy with grill lines. It inspires shock and awe; a mountain to be climbed.
The dining hall is surrounded by an upper floor gallery, and at the head of the hall is a raised platform. On the platform is a single table, flanked by the flags of America and Texas and two large trash cans (Contestants who puke are immediately disqualified). An old-school digital countdown clock ticks off the seconds. On the wall behind the platform hangs an enormous cattle skull, red light glowing from its nose and eye sockets. Other dead animal heads look down from the walls, hoping for the last laugh.
And here's the catch; it's not just a 72 ounce steak that you have to eat in an hour. You have to eat a 72 ounce steak dinner. That means 4.5 pounds of meat plus a shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad, and a roll with butter (The extras are normal-size). The restaurant's open flame grill sizzles just behind the contestants' table, its greasy fumes adding to their fervor and/or misery.
If you can't finish, the dinner will cost you... 72 bucks.
According to the menu, over 50,000 have started the Free 72 Ounce Steak challenge; less than 9,000 have finished. Only a handful of women try each year -- but they have a better success rate than men, and their number includes the oldest person ever to win, a 69-year-old grandmother. Other notable champions include pro wrestler Klondike Bill, who ate two 72-ounce steak dinners in an hour, and competitive eater Joey Chestnut, who ate his entire meal in less than nine minutes.
If you take the challenge and win, you receive -- in addition to all that free meat -- a t-shirt, a souvenir plastic boot mug, and a certificate of achievement. Before you leave you can add a pithy comment next to your name on the lobby's Wall of Fame (Typical are, "There goes my diet," and, "What's for dessert?").
Diners too clotted to drive away can rent a room at the Big Texan Motel next door; it looks like a main street in an Old West town, and has a Texas-shaped swimming pool. Next to it as an honest-to-goodness horse motel with stalls for twenty.
The Big Texan Steak Ranch has shrugged off everything from Mad Cow Disease to red meat reprimands against cancer and clogged arteries. Business is humming; the Wall of Fame honors visitors from across the planet. According to the restaurant, 500,000 people eat here every year, happily risking insanity and death -- we'd guess that few of them come for the salmon platter.