When I was a kid, I managed the feat of trick-or-treating dressed as the Lone Ranger three years in a row. I had a BB gun, bow and arrow, several cap guns and at least two horselike amusement devices. Every night I fell asleep to Fess Parker singing “Good Night, Little Wrangler” on my Disney record player or my old man playing “Blue Tail Fly” and other old-fashioned favorites on his six-string.
For better or worse, my thoughts eventually turned to Middle Earth and a galaxy far, far away (and, later, more cosmopolitan interests). Somewhere inside me, though, the latent cowboy remained. I’ve always owned a pair of boots, often long for fewer fences and more freedom and can still shoot a beer can off a log from a respectable distance with my trusty Red Ryder.
Needless to say, something inside me was thrilled when I set foot in Bainbridge’s Cowboy Food and Drink. The brainchild of Michael Longo, the man behind Market Square Bistro and Firefly, this is one independent joint with a good shot at giving the increasingly prominent barbecue chains a serious frontier-style beating. With its mixture of Texas roadhouse décor, laid-back sensibilities and affordable, excellent, gut-busting culinary offerings, Cowboy is a sure-shot to wake up the mud-flap, six-pack, beer-crack, over-taxed, flag-wavin’, fun lovin’ country boy (or girl) in each of us. (This previous series of descriptors was borrowed almost verbatim from Garth Brooks. Yee-haw! Sorry.) In fact, almost anyone will enjoy a trip to Longo’s latest eatery with or without a trip down memory lane, as the décor and the menu keep with the finest honky-tonk you could imagine.
Nestled far from the open range in a Bainbridge strip mall, Cowboy has the kind of stripped-down, unpretentious charm that pervades most shot-and-a-beer joints. The ceilings are exposed, the floors are concrete, the bar takes a prominent place in the center of the room and the accent walls are galvanized steel of the sort one sees blowing off barns and sheds in tornado movies. Tall tables ring a stage, which hosts live bands on Friday and Saturday nights, and the rear of the room offers some of my favorite barroom recreations: pool, pinball and an ancient bowling machine.
Cowboy feels comfortable, authentic and not at all like the canned, every-unit-is-the-same national “dining experiences.” Cowboy is different from any other hole-in-the-wall juke joint, however, thanks to the heavenly, smoky smell of authentic barbecue, which wafts above the décor and the softly glowing allure of the bowling machine. Admittedly, I am an enthusiast for this particular cuisine, but to my mind, there is nothing better than walking into an eatery and being greeted by the inviting smell of well-prepared food. And the food at Cowboy, under the watchful eyes of Longo and executive chef Jacob Westervelt, is absolutely well prepared.
As it turns out, I happened upon Cowboy after far too long. The 500-pound (that’s meat capacity) Southern Pride smoker has been fired up since September 2004 and, in retrospect, I can’t imagine where I’ve been wasting my barbecue dollars before finding this gem. When I discovered Cowboy was Longo’s place, I had to go. Since opening Market Square Bistro (now Firefly) in 1994, Longo has been the primary purveyor of gustatory goodness in his neck of the woods, with his thumb on the pulse of most things culinary since his days as the kitchen manager at Piccolo Mondo. It only stands to reason that his dedication to excellent methods and ingredients would carry over to Cowboy and, boy, has it ever. From top to bottom, the extensive menu, which ranges from Tex to Mex and some places in between, is thoughtful and well-executed. Nothing we tried tasted pre-fab or moderately mundane. Even the three house barbecue sauces — Texas BBQ, Carolina Mustard and One Spicy Mutha — are made weekly in-house.
We tried our darnedest to sample a wide range of items on the Texas-sized menu. Apparently, among the Small Grub selections, the slow-smoked chicken wings (6 for $3.99) are extremely popular. Needless to say, we failed to try them, but you should. We did try the beefy, flavorful Texas chili ($4.99) with just-right heat, cheddar cheese and cool pico de gallo and sour cream; the heart-stopping (as in “fetch the defibrillator”) chorizo con queso ($6.99) with its smooth cheese and spicy sausage; and the iceberg wedge ($4.59), which proved our only attempt to eat something even moderately healthy, its delicious toppings of smoked bacon and house-made bleu cheese dressing notwithstanding.
While we await our entrées, it’s a good time to order more beer (there are plenty of selections in draft and bottle) or a round of margaritas. The latter are offered with your choice of tequilas (Cowboy seems to stock every brand known to man) and can be purchased by the glass or pitcher. On one small down note, the pitcher prices, which hover in the mid-$30 to mid-$40 dollar range, seem a little steep. More so, probably, to lushes like me who can put down a pitcher by themselves. Although, as I think about it after a few tall drafts ... the pitcher price didn’t seem too bad at all. Oh well, dinner’s here, so we’ll move along.
Cowboy features a full section of Tex-Mex specialties from fish or carne asada tacos ($9.99) to burritos and enchiladas. Unfortunately, with a whole page of barbecue options facing us, we almost had to skip this section, though we did bother a nice gentleman at the bar who seemed pleased with his order. On my second visit, I coerced my sous chef, Ryan, into ordering the Mexican Hamburger Helper ($10.99), an interesting take on the “my-mom-can’t-cook” classic with macaroni, chorizo, roasted poblano peppers and cheese sauce. Again, a heart-stoppingly tasty time. The menu also features burgers and barbecue sandwiches, which, again, we didn’t try in our haste to order more smoked and/or barbecued meats. So, what should we talk about next? Oh, I know, barbecue.
The barbecued meats at Cowboy are rubbed with Longo’s secret blend of spices and smoked “low and slow” for as long as 15 hours. This attention to doing things right shows in everything we ordered. So, in no order, we do not hesitate to recommend: hand-pulled pork ($12.99), slow-smoked beef brisket “Texas style” ($13.59), BBQ half chicken ($12.99), BBQ baby-back ribs (1/2 rack $14.99, full rack $19.99) and any combination of the above.
Longo and Westervelt show creativity in their BBQ spaghetti ($12.99), a sort of five-way, Cincinnati-style affair with smoked brisket, BBQ sauce, pico de gallo and jack cheese, and the exceptionally interesting BBQ sundae ($12.99). This last dish, an oversized Mason jar layered with pulled pork, coleslaw, baked beans and barbecue sauce, was probably my favorite for appearance and flavor. Sides are all excellent and barbecue-appropriate. Standouts were the pit-baked beans, Jose’s coleslaw, refried black beans and sweet potato fries. Apparently, Cowboy also offers desserts, but on both trips I would have actually died if I’d eaten anything else.
So, in the end, while I doubt I’m going to leave behind my life as a chef and writer to become the high plains drifter I started out to be, it’s good to know there’s a joint with cold beer, perfectly smoked barbecue and a bar bowling machine that’s calling my name. (Incidentally, by the time you read this, Longo will have opened a second location in Mentor with a mechanical bull. Honey, call my insurance agent and get the crutches out of the basement!)
Cowboy Food & Drink, 8586 E. Washington St., Bainbridge Township, (440) 708-1011. Kitchen hours: Mon 5 - 10:30 p.m., Tue-Thu 5 - 11 p.m., Fri and Sat 5 - 11:30 p.m., Sun 4:30 - 10 p.m. Bar open until 2 a.m. Mon-Sat.