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Gap Time

Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap
Written by June Naylor. Photographs by Will van Overbeek.

periniEach visit to Buffalo Gap proves more rewarding than the last. This tiny burg (population about 460) sits in a woodsy hollow less than 10 miles south of Abilene, and reassures me that there are still places whose charm stems from old-fashioned simplicity. Equally removed from modern-world worries is a refuge known as Perini Ranch Steakhouse, the primary reason I bothered to find Buffalo Gap in the first place.

Make it!

Perini Ranch Steak Rub recipe at texashighways.com/recipes-sides-sauces.

Buffalo Gap The Perini Ranch Steakhouse and Guest Quarters is at 3002 FM 89 in Buffalo Gap. Call 325/572-3339.

Buffalo Gap Bed & Breakfast is at the intersection of FM 89 and FM 1235 in Buffalo Gap. Call 325/572-3145.

Abilene State Park is at 150 Park Rd. 32 in Tuscola. Call 325/572-3204.

Buffalo Gap Historic Village is at 133 William St. in Buffalo Gap. Call 325/572-3365.

This visit, I’m introducing my husband to a weekend of Perini Ranch pleasures, starting with lunch at the steakhouse on a sunny Saturday afternoon. As we nab a picnic table on a patio shaded by towering cottonwoods, I’m reminded why I was so taken with this very spot well more than a decade ago: There, at another table, sit proprietors Tom and Lisa Perini, enjoying a meal with a couple of their employees.

Though the Perini Ranch Steakhouse has claimed a coveted James Beard Award, as well as numerous statewide honors for its food and wine offerings, the Perinis rest on no laurels. Remaining steadfastly down-to-earth, Tom and Lisa can typically be found balancing work duties and friendly chats with crowds of friends seated in the cozy dining rooms. That is, however, when they’re not off catering dinners in Colorado, Washington, D.C., Vermont, or other far-flung destinations.

We settle into seats at a shared table and order. Marshall declares his fried catfish some of the best he’s tasted, while I sink my teeth into the Ranch Burger, a sandwich piled with grilled mushrooms, green chiles, and cheddar cheese. In 2013, Food & Wine magazine named it one of the country’s top burgers. Tom could be confident that the kitchen produces a great burger this and every day, but still he asks: “You enjoying that burger? Is it cooked the way you like?”

In 1983, when Tom converted a barn on his family’s longtime cattle ranch into a restaurant, he knew that his restaurant needed to be exceptional if he hoped to draw people out of their way to come there. “You always hear that everything’s about location, location, location, and we knew we had to make this a real destination restaurant,” Tom says. “We’re true to the mission of selling good beef, but we update things to keep it fun, so nothing about eating here becomes mundane.”

I’m among plenty of people who never tire of eating at Perini Ranch Steakhouse, which is why Marshall and I have built our weekend around meals there.

After our ample lunch, we wander a short distance across the Perini Ranch property to the Camp House, one of two lodgings they collectively call the Guest Quarters. Tom, who Lisa describes as a “closet architect,” designed the cozy Camp House and larger Guest House to accommodate visitors who want to hang out for a few days in the Gap. Marshall and I particularly enjoy the Camp House’s wrap-around porch, where we can sip coffee while listening to birds awakening and watching the sun come up in the morning.

perinisComfortable with unfussy décor but luxurious with high-end bedding and bath linens, the two houses stay booked almost all the time. In fact, we’re only able to reserve one of the houses for one night, so we spend our other night nearby at Buffalo Gap Bed & Breakfast. The rustic one-room cabin found at the entrance to town provides all the comfort we need, and we especially like the back deck, a quiet place to sip wine and watch the sun set over the beautiful hilly wilderness.

Between meals and deep sleeps in the country stillness, we wander around, first driving just four miles southwest of the village via Farm-to-Market Road 89 to Abilene State Park. Strolling the half-mile Bird Trail, we follow an old Civilian Conservation Corps road that leads to a bird blind, where we watch for roadrunners and cardinals. We especially admire the beauty seen in the park’s CCC craftsmanship, most notably the red stone tower that once held 5,800 gallons of water.

Back in the heart of Buffalo Gap, there’s a historic pioneer village that represents life in the 1880s. The area sits on an old buffalo-hunting route used by the Tonkawa and Comanche, which later served as a path for cattle drovers pushing Longhorns northward along the Western and Goodnight-Loving trails. We walk throughout the village, exploring a couple of wooden houses, a 1900s doctor’s office, railroad depot, blacksmith shop, and chapel. Other structures—a schoolhouse, gas station, bank, and print shop—illustrate the 1920s.

After a full day of exploring the area, we return to the steakhouse for dinner, when the menu focuses on a solid selection of steaks. I frequently talk to folks at the restaurant who drive from Fort Worth or Austin just for the Perini rib-eye, and to others who plan trips across West Texas with a scheduled stop for Tom’s mesquite-roasted prime rib and a side of his green chile hominy.

Many of those favorites figure among the pages in his cookbook, Texas Cowboy Cooking, released in 2000. Now in its seventh printing, more than 130,000 copies have been sold from the restaurant and in stores around the globe.

More than a few diners come from New York to eat the Perinis’ food, as Tom and Lisa have become regular guest chefs at Manhattan’s James Beard House, the culinary foundation’s celebrated dinner destination. The James Beard House has hosted the Perinis seven times, and foundation members so appreciate the Perini Ranch Steakhouse operation that they bestowed the business the America’s Classics Award in 2014.

Like those New Yorkers and others who enjoy good food and wine, I’m always impressed with the two wine lists Lisa puts together for the steakhouse. There’s the permanent one with better-known, popular selections, but I’m most interested in Lisa’s List, a weekly lineup of new discoveries, both expensive and affordable. For our dinner tonight, we’re indulging in a 2009 Napa Nook red blend, perfect with that prime rib and the peppered strip steak.

“I love finding interesting wines on our trips to California and around Texas, and from other places we’ve traveled, like South Africa,” says Lisa, who earned her Level I sommelier certification in 2014.

Before heading home, we vow to return for the Buffalo Gap Wine & Food Summit, a popular annual gathering that the Perinis host in late April. But we’re not likely to wait that long.

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