Fred's Texas Cafe in Fort Worth (Photo by Louis DeLuca)Terry Chandler is definitely ready for his close-up. And not a moment too soon, either, as Hollywood comes calling this month. Chandler, whose tongue-in-cheek nickname is “the Outlaw Chef,” owns a Fort Worth landmark called Fred’s Texas Cafe, where taping begins very soon for the Food Network program called Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. The producers of the show couldn’t have picked a better place, as Fred’s may well be the most beloved of all of Cowtown’s divey diners.

Chandler was not quite a teenager when his folks founded the little watering hole some 30 years ago, naming it for the family dog, Fred. Today the little ramshackle building still sits tucked away in what was for many decades a relatively quiet industrial area off Seventh Street, but is now blossoming into a white-hot quarter of boutiques, fancy restaurants, and upscale condos. Most remarkable about Fred’s is that as this momentous transformation takes place all around it, the low‑key café remains a comfy hangout with very cold beer, ball games on TV, a particularly carefree attitude, and an exceptional menu that includes goodies such as smoked-chicken tacos, New Mexico‑style green-chile stew, calf fries with chipotle gravy, and brunch migas with ranchero sauce.

For years, regulars knew it as the place to take the date who merited the litmus test: If he or she could warm up to the spirit of Fred’s, you’d found a keeper. There were devotees who fretted when a fire prompted a remodeling of the place a couple of years ago. The loyal clientele worried that Fred’s might lose some of its signature run-down character, but Chandler was quick to reassure, “It’s still Fred’s, but with a face-lift.”
Sure enough, the café’s famously eccentric essence prevails, but there are signs that Fred’s—which Chandler now co-owns with his wife, Jennifer—has adopted a smidge of sophistication: There’s actually a printed menu these days; you can now order wine, not just beer (a full liquor license in the works) ; credit cards are finally accepted; and there’s no smoking indoors.

Sure enough, the cafe’s famously eccentric essence prevails, but there are signs that Fred’s—which Chandler now co-owns with his wife, Jennifer-has adopted a smidge of sophistication: There’s actually a printed menu these days; you can now order wine, not just beer (a full liquor license in the works); credit cards are finally accepted; and there’s no smoking indoors.

The patio area remains the place to grab a table or picnic bench, listen to live music, and even pitch washers with your kids. Inside, you’ll still find the sparkly gold-vinyl booths and a handful of barstools, but the back wall is now covered with a cowboy-campfire mural, which is a nod to Chandler’s second career as a cowboy cook. Just last summer he worked for five weeks as the official chuck-wagon chef on the legendary 6666 Ranch at Guthrie.

Chandler loves to share stories about his ancestors, including a great-uncle who was a renowned West Texas chuck-wagon cook and who would whip up vittles at get-togethers at the family ranch on the Caprock. As a boy, Chandler was hooked on this cowboy life. Back in Fort Worth, he washed dishes and learned to cook at Fred’s, all the while busting broncs in local rodeos. During his Marine Corps stint, Chandler fell in love with street food in far-flung places around the world, then went on to work as a gypsy chef at places such as a North Carolina seafood restaurant and a guest ranch in southern Colorado.

Over the years, Chandler has successfully combined classic cooking techniques with his own chuck-wagon experience. Adding to his distinctive appeal, Chandler dresses in trail-era costume, with his signature knee-high boots complementing the long braid hanging down his back, whether he’s working at Fred’s or catering a party from his chuck wagon.

When Chandler became bored with flipping the mighty fine burgers at Fred’s, he began to expand the menu. He launched Hot Night on Friday evenings, making specials like New Mexico-style lamb green chile, rib-eye steaks in chipotle brown butter, and shrimp tacos with mango-habanero salsa. On Saturday night he might offer an order of butter-seared quail with a chile de arbol-and-red wine reduction or buffalo tenderloin with his fire-roasted tomatillo sauce. From his smoker, you get the smoked chicken for those amazing tacos, while the fryer produces some of the best buttermilk-battered chicken-fried steak you’ve ever tasted, which is always good with green chile hominy on the side.

Among newer kitchen revelations has been the Sunday brunch, a remarkably simple but satisfying experience. Tops is the plate of quail with eggs your way, in which the grilled, meaty birds get even better with a spoonful of rich, roasted-tomato salsa, spiked with fresh jalapeño.

Yet, in spite of the gussied-up chuck-wagon offerings, Fred’s burgers remain the most popular menu item. A couple of minor changes lie ahead at Fred’s. The kitchen, which was built to feed a crowd of 40 people at a time, strains to turn out food for more than 200 on a busy evening, and Chandler’s seven cooks struggle to find working space, so he’s planning to enlarge it somewhat. And, the patio will be partially enclosed for year-round seating.

A couple of minor changes lie ahead at Fred’s. The kitchen, which was built to feed a crowd of 40 people at a time, strains to turn out food for more than 200 on a busy evening, and Chandler’s seven cooks struggle to find working space, so he’s planning to enlarge it somewhat. And, the patio will be partially enclosed for year-round seating.

But nobody should worry. It’s still Fred’s, just with improved packaging. And right in time for a shot at fame.

From the January 2009 issue
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