Steaking a Claim
One of the hottest pieces of retail real estate in town is at the intersection of West Freeway and Hulen Street, in the shopping complex that includes Central Market, Borders Books and Music, and other nationwide boutique companies.
For whatever reason, the place seems hospitable to every type of business except non-diner, non-fast food. Not long ago, Café New Orleans came and went, and in the storefront with perhaps the best visibility, Big Bowl Asian Kitchen also bit the dust. Maybe the rents were too high. Maybe the food was too adventurous. Maybe a little of both, which is why the newly opened 29 Degree Tavern, in that primo spot formerly occupied by Big Bowl, could be the perfect fit. The straightforward menu is American almost to the point of patriotic, and the restaurant’s parent company, Metromedia, the conglomerate behind Steak & Ale, Bennigan’s, and the Southlake Tavern, has the money to hang around long enough to make 29 Degree profitable. The restaurant and its Southlake cousin represent Metromedia’s foray into the friendly, upscale, neighborhood bar/restaurant market.
Big appetites and burger connoisseurs are directed forthwith to the Tavern’s cheeseburger. Topped with smoked cheddar plus, as specified, pickles, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise, the huge patty of Angus beef on a toasted sesame seed bun was salty but not too salty, cooked to order, and with the kind of fresh-off-the-grill flavor that you thought existed only at picnics. Smaller but no less discerning appetites would do well to sample the Cuban pork sandwich: slices of ham and shaved roasted pork on a soft, toasted ciabatta roll, with provolone and Swiss cheeses, banana peppers, dill pickles, and mustard. Though the item may sound like just a glorified ham sammy, it’s got a lot more going for it, namely fresh ingredients and cheesy goodness.
The tavern’s oddest but most surprisingly delightful appetizer was the Philly cheese-steak roll: a crispy but not stiff egg roll filled with shaved prime rib, provolone cheese, onions, and peppers, and served with horseradish cream sauce. A hankering for the real deal won’t be satisfied by 29 Degree’s smaller and thankfully less overpowering version of the City of Brotherly Love staple. But as far as appetizers go, these mini-Phillies did what good apps are supposed to: not just keep hunger at bay but also function as mini-meals. The Tavern also offers chips and dip, the most impressive of which was the chili con queso, tangy, melted cheddar cheese and spicy chili all mixed up in the same serving cup. The menu also has wings, and while they were traditional in some respects — breaded, fried, and spicy — they also had a little Asian thing going on, detectable primarily in the sauce. Lurking in the conventional, red, Buffalo-wing paste was a hint of teriyaki. Or maybe it was hoisin. In any case, the wings were meaty and succulent, rendering moot any ambiguity over their culinary DNA.
Less successful were the Tavern’s onion rings. They weren’t bad — actually, they were better than most battered and fried rings — but they arrived a tad on the cold side. Temperature wasn’t the problem with the ale sirloin, the restaurant’s signature entrée. Unfortunately, flavor and texture were. Though marinated in ale, brown sugar, and Worcestershire sauce, and served with caramelized onions on top, the 12-oz. steak was dry and somewhat flavorless. The dish was saved by a side of asparagus, a small forest of perfectly cooked spears (not too soggy, not too firm), in some sort of to-die-for garlic-butter sauce.
You’d never know by looking at the place that 29 Degree Tavern is part of a mega restaurant chain. Nearly every seat is a good seat, the bar isn’t stuffed into the back of the space — it’s up front and by the windows where it belongs — and the walls are adorned with massive stenciled reproductions of photos of city life in Fort Worth at the turn of the 19th century. In keeping with the restaurant’s name, the temperature of the beer is 29 degrees Fahrenheit. Doubters are encouraged to consult staffers, who are more than willing to brandish the thermometers. Not sure that cold brew alone is going to draw customers from all over creation — every hang-out, in theory, has cold brew. But by making a big deal out of it, 29 Degree gets itself a cool, quirky name to go with its cool, quirky fare.
29 Degree Tavern
Ale sirloin $15.99
Chili con queso $5.99
Cuban pork sandwich $8.99
Philly cheese-steak rolls $7.99
Onion rings $4.99