Where There’s Smoke

Gilley’s rounds up tasty cowpoke fare on the wild, wild west side of the Strip

Good ol’ boys who ride mechanical bulls and dance the do-si-do need a place where they can chow down on the Strip, and Gilley’s fills the bill. All my exes don’t live in Texas, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be a cowboy sometimes, too. After all, man cannot live on foie gras alone.

This honky-tonk bar and restaurant was founded by Mickey Gilley in Pasadena, Texas, in 1971, as anyone old enough or brave enough to have seen the film Urban Cowboy will attest. Gilley’s Las Vegas—though only connected to the original in name and concept—is a vast space in TI with a dining area fronted by floor-to-ceiling glass windows affording a full Strip view.

The dining room is situated behind a gauntlet of Western props, frenzied tourists taking dance lessons on the main floor and a gigantic bar, all of which you will pass on the way to your table. The walls are covered with items that look like they were pinched from a tack room in rural Oklahoma. Food is pure Americana: ‘cue, comfort food and the occasional dose of hokum.

But I liked some of what I tasted, in spite of my Yankee predilections. First, our bubbly server, clad in an outfit that suggested a combination of Dita Von Teese and Annie Oakley, brought us cold bottles of beer, a paper cone filled with hush puppies and so-called “spicy deviled eggs.”

Regarding the hush puppies, dense little torpedoes that wouldn’t float in the Dead Sea, redemption came in the form of two delicious sauces, a pale-green cilantro ranch and a chunky red chipotle mayo. As to the spicy eggs, they had about as much heat as an Iditarod sled dog. Can you say, “Jaycees Cookbook”? You get the point.

So imagine my surprise when our server came over with a bubbling crock of green chili, trumpeted on the menu as “CT’s Award-Winning Pork Green Chili,” and it turned out to be irresistibly delicious. There was a large Hatch chili amid the chunks of tender meat, and the sauce was subtly shot through with the flavor of poblanos as well. This is one dish I’ll come back for, and soon. Nothing else tasted here came close.

But my guests did like the barbecue pulled-pork sandwich, and I must admit that the shredded meat did taste slow-cooked. The meat’s slathered in a smoked onion barbecue sauce that I found cloyingly sweet, but mine was a minority opinion. For me, barbecue sauce, no matter how complex, is just ketchup, sugar and smoke. I like my meat dry, or spiced rubbed.

The baby back ribs and chicken combo is a gargantuan plate of food for $26, easily enough for two. Gilley’s has a real smoker, and their ribs do have that “low and slow” texture with a proper smoke ring between meat and bone. The chicken, though, tastes baked. Next time, I’ll get a beefy hot link, made by a company called Meyer’s out of Elgin, Texas.

Barbecue platters come with a choice of side dishes: a gummy two-cheddar mac ’n’ cheese, or excellent molasses barbecue beans laced with tiny bits of smoky meat. The only dessert I tried was a warm peach cobbler that had a nice, flaky crust, but I understand the strawberry shortcake is made with a real biscuit.

If you go to Gilley’s just to ride the mechanical bull, you might be a redneck.