Food for Thought

Longhorn Beef — it's what's for dinner at a growing number of Houston restaurants

Longhorn Beef — it's what's for dinner at a growing number of Houston restaurants

Texas longhorn, cow, steer
Texas longhorns are extremely popular and valuable as show animals. And now, we’re starting to eat them again. Brazos 4-H Archery Club
Marene, Longhorn Beef, Sam Clegg, November 2012
Sam Clegg is a casting agents’ version of a Texas rancher: Hat, boots, Wrangler jeans.  Photo by Marene Gustin
Marene, Texas Longhorn, tents, November 2012
So I headed over to Urban Harvest’s market one Saturday morning. Luckily I made it there early, since the Cleggs often sell out by 10 a.m. Photo by Marene Gustin
Texas longhorn, cow, steer
Marene, Longhorn Beef, Sam Clegg, November 2012
Marene, Texas Longhorn, tents, November 2012

When the server at Giacomo’s Ciba y Vino first told me the specials one day, I was momentarily confused by the Texas Longhorn polpotini with tomato Gorgonzola sauce.

You know how you see or hear something out of context and it throws you?

I was, like, I didn’t know chef/owner Lynette Hawkins went to UT, or was there a game on that day?

Oh, wait, the dish was named for the ingredient: Texas Longhorn beef.

 “I didn’t think people ate Longhorn beef,” said a friend when I told her of about those fabulous meatballs. “I thought they were just for show.”

 Which seemed a little out of place in an Italian restaurant. But that was before I tasted those divine meatballs.

Now, Longhorn beef has popped up before on some restaurant menus, a couple of years ago it showed up at Zelko’s Bistro and Max’s Wine Dive, but I had not tried any of those dishes and they didn’t seem to make much of a splash.

“I didn’t think people ate Longhorn beef,” said a friend when I told her of about those fabulous meatballs. “I thought they were just for show.”

Well, yes, but originally Texans bred them to eat them.

History lesson

To make a long story short: In the 1500’s Spaniards brought cattle over to Mexico and on to Texas were they were crossbred with English breeds to develop the modern Texas Longhorn. (See The Rare Breed with James Stewart for a more romantic telling.)

The Texas Longhorn was a hardy breed, they would eat pretty much anything and could survive the harsh weather. At one time during the 1800’s, 10 million Longhorns were driven north on cattle drives. A less hardy breed wouldn’t have survived the trip, but our Longhorns could.

 The Texas Longhorn was a hardy breed, they would eat pretty much anything and could survive the harsh weather. 

 But then we killed off all the buffalo (OK, almost all) and we invented barbed wire and started fencing in our herds on grassland and people preferred the fattier taste of European beef. Longhorn herds dwindled until the 1920’s when Congress stepped in, possibly the last time they did anything good. With federal funding, Forest Service employees gathered a herd and shipped it to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in order to save the breed from extinction.

Okay, maybe that wasn’t the short version, but fast forward a few decades and Longhorns had become a vanity breed, a breed that wealthy Texas ranchers bred as homage to the past. Today they are extremely popular, and valuable as show animals.

And now, we’re starting to eat them again.

Restaurant specials

You know that burger and the Bolognese sauce at Monica Pope’s Sparrow Bar+Cookshop that are so tasty. Yep, Longhorn beef.

“We love the Funks’ (owners of Sabra Ranch) Longhorn beef,” says Pope. “Great flavor, but the breed also tests lower in cholesterol and higher in protein, also higher in vitamin A, CLAs and omega 3 fatty acids, all crucial in reducing cholesterol, diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure. And the Funks are just great people, too!”

Getting back to those meatballs at Giacomo’s, one day Sam Clegg’s daughter Martita was dining there and had her dad’s brochure with her. She gave it to Hawkins who requested some Longhorn beef. After one taste she was hooked.

 So try it for yourself and decide. Frankly, I love the taste and the fact that it’s healthier than other types of beef.

 “It’s leaner, healthier and sweeter than other beef,” says Hawkins who now gets a weekly delivery for her polpotini and Bolognese sauce. “You can buy some if you want,” she added. “He’s at the Eastside Farmers Market on Saturdays.”

So I headed over to Urban Harvest’s market one Saturday morning. Luckily I made it there early, since the Cleggs often sell out by 10 a.m.

Sam Clegg is a casting agent's version of a Texas rancher. Hat, boots, Wrangler jeans. But not an easy interview since there was a constant stream of customers tasting the Longhorn meatballs and chili Susan Muncey was cooking up at the booth and wanting to ask the rancher questions about his beef.

Clegg’s Texas Longhorn Land and Cattle Co. in Port Lavaca (and yes, "la vaca" is Spanish for cow) started out as one of those vanity herds.

“My wife wanted a few Longhorns to put in the front pasture for show,” Clegg said.

So they bought a small herd for show, but then they started to process the beef and play around with a few recipes about 10 years ago. “My wife Marta’s 1668 chili is a recipe handed down through her family, and of course back then they made it with Longhorn beef, so that’s what we tried first.”

The dish became such a family favorite that they decided to go commercial with it. But first they wanted to drum up interest in the beef, hence joining the Urban Harvest Farmers Market. And so far it looks like they are doing well. Dozens of customers sampled the wares and asked about the meat, which is natural, grass-fed, hormone-free beef. After tasting and talking to Clegg, a lot of people were buying three to four pounds of ground Longhorn.

So try it for yourself and decide. Frankly, I love the taste and the fact that it’s healthier than other types of beef. Pretty soon you’ll be able to buy the chili from Texas Longhorn Land and Cattle Co., but for now you’ll just have to buy the meat at the farmer’s market and make your own (and No, Marta isn’t giving out her recipe) or sample some at Giacomo’s.

And of course there’s that whole Texas pride thing, whether or not you’re a UT alum. Texas Longhorn beef, it’s what’s for dinner.