By Jenny Block, Wed., Feb. 2 2011, Dallas Observer Blogs
Jason Boso is wearing jeans, a battered SMU hat, and a mechanic’s shirt with the name “Easy” on the name patch. He’s cute. Really cute and he’s at the bar having a beer when I get to Cowboy Chow. The hostess introduces us and he gives me the “hey” head nod. I have to remind myself for a minute that I’m here for an interview and not a date. And, for a second, I’m a little disappointed it’s the former.
Country music (the good kind) drifts from the speakers and behind the bar, the staff is tending to some tequila that Boso infuses with 10 different chiles: “Serranos, habaneros, poblanos, a bunch of things that end in os,” he explains.
They make bacon bourbon too, and when I ask where he got the idea for such a thing, he explains, “I perused the Internet and stole it from some bar up north and put my own twist on it. If I have an original idea, it’s because I forgot where I stole it from.”
If you’re wondering how one drinks bacon bourbon (straight up, mixed in a cocktail, etc.), well, Boso, 38, says, you “get a Pabst and shot of bacon bourbon on the side.” For some reason, at that moment, such a suggestion strikes me as perfectly reasonable.
Cowboy Chow serves the kind of food that one might not expect to be chef inspired — chili, sloppy joes, chicken pot pie, grilled cheese. But Boso inspires it. You might think such an inclination would stem from a lifetime of eating and being exposed to that kind of “home on the range” cooking. But nothing could be further from the truth.
“Did you grow up eating this stuff?” I ask.
“My mom is 100 percent Cuban,” Boso says. “I’m white with red hair because I’m adopted. Growing up in Miami, I was eating arroz con pollo, ropavieja. I thought that was what people ate.”
After getting fired from a corporate gig at the age of 28 — for telling off a customer — Boso decided to pursue his true love — cooking. He attended culinary school where he met Quincy Hart, with whom he would later partner. Boso went on to get a gig at the Four Seasons Resort and Hotel in Las Colinas and Hart got a job with Pappas Brothers.
In 2006, once they got their funding together, the vision they had been working toward since they met in school became a reality, Twisted Root Burger Company, “the only trained chef-driven burger joint in town.” Twisted Root even has its own pastry chef, Steve Thompson, formerly of the Four Seasons, who makes homemade ice cream for the restaurant every day. And, two years later, Cowboy Chow was born.
“I wanted to provide a place that you can come with flip-flops and hat on backwards and still get a good piece of meat. It’s almost better that eating at home.”
Of course, well-cooked basics aren’t all Boso’s interested in. In fact, these days, he’s up for trying almost anything when it comes to food, including the duck tongue tacos at Jose Andres’ restaurant in Vegas. “It’s a little tongue-y. It actually tasted good. But after the second taco it starts to infiltrate your mind. ‘Who’s tasting who here?’ you wonder.” But even though he’s open to any kind of food, there is one kind of people he does not care for. Posers.
“I got my CSW (Certified Specialist of Wine) just so I could go and say, ‘You’re an idiot. It’s not at all fruity’ to people acting like they know all about wine but don’t.” It’s no surprise that Boso has no patience for that sort of nonsense. He wants everything he does to be authentic.
Both Cowboy Chow and Twisted Root are grounded in food as well as space. It’s the experience that Boso is after, not just a taste. “As you can see, as important as the food is, the entertainment that comes from the restaurant [is even more important]. I hope you leave with a chuckle and a laugh. I hope you see something interesting on your plate, that you think, ‘Woah, that was cool.'”
The burgers at Twisted Root are ratio rock stars — just the right amount of everything, combined together to give you all the tastes and flavors your mouth is rooting for. But the sides are no slouches either. The “Fried Ride,” for example, although terrible for you, is ridiculously good. Hand-Cut Sweet Potato Chips, Twisted French Fries, Fried Green Beans, Quincy’s Spicy Fried Pickles, Onion Strings served with Peppercorn Ranch and Chipotle Ranch. You can see how it would be tough to go wrong.
The star at Cowboy Chow, on the other hand, is the brisket. Saucy and tangy, sweet and tender, served on tiny slider buns, you can make a meal of those alone. But that would be a shame since the fried green tomato lollipops, Indian Fry Bread, and Cowboy Nachos made with homemade potato chips and cojita cheese are equally drool worthy.
There was just the right amount kitsch and downright good cooking in Cowboy Chow’s food to make it elevated chuck wagon fare instead of themey grub.
Ask Boso how he makes it all work and he makes it sound so easy. “It’s simple: Just a good combo of flavors. The reason Cowboy Chow is different is because we take the time to braise [the meat]. Braising is my favorite way to cook something. I wanted to base a restaurant around braised meat. The secret is seven hours. The secret is patience.”
We talk about the food scene in Dallas and I ask him about something Kent Rathbun said. Are Dallas diners really scared of food? “Yes,” he says. “They have grown up as meat and potatoes kids and they are scared to venture out. I have friends I have to hold down and shove fois gras in their mouths. I wouldn’t be embarrassed of anything [we serve here]. But the ribs and chicken-fried steak are there because people want them. It’s hard to jar people off of what they’ve been eating for 15 years. No chips and salsa. I want everyone to order the fry bread.”
And lest you think Boso believes he’s the only one doing right by food, he greatly admires others who are striving to do the same. “If you go to a Kent [Rathbun] restaurant you should order anything you don’t usually eat because you know it’ll be done right. The same with Dean [Fearing’s] restaurants. People eat too much at Outback Steakhouse and think that’s good,” Boso says with disdain and then adds with a smile, “I’m an opinionated son of a bitch.”
Boso has three restaurants, which spreads him thin, so how does he keep things as he intended? “I hire great people like Andre [my manager] who has been with me for three years. You hire people with passion and keep them on the crazy train. And I set up very simple systems that even a non-food person could understand. Everyone is in charge of one thing and what makes it great is the five different components put together in an interesting way.”
“The culture is harder to keep up with than the food.” And the culture is key to both the Twisted Root and the Cowboy Chow experiences. Cheekiness and plain old “laid-backness” is the order of the day. Everyday.
“I look for personality people as much as people in the food industry. I just hired Dan Glazer, a headliner at Ad Lib, so he can get on the mic and make fun of people [at Twisted Root]. We’re irreverent like that. My philosophy is that if I can embarrass one person and 99 others snicker, then I’m really making 99 percent of the people happy and one percent unhappy.”
Down the line, Boso says he’s “looking into doing a sandwich place with cheese steaks, grilled cheese, Korean barbecue sandwiches. Elevating all that. Not just cheese steaks but cheese steaks with caramelized red onions. All hot sandwiches. Let the New York guys do that [cold deli] stuff. I want to do all iron skillet stuff.”
As I shut down my Macbook Air and get up to go, Boso touches my arm. “You don’t even have to write this down. But I want you to know what I’m really trying to do.” There’s an earnestness that comes over him that makes me settle back into my stool. “I wanted to bring an everyday local place with a chef attitude [to Dallas]. My average ticket is seven bucks. I can do a really damn good brisket Sloppy Joe and a really interesting grilled cheese and a damn good pot pie that you can’t get somewhere else. I’m bringing the chef in the white coat to the everyday guy.”