A bit of web searching and chatting with locals led me to Tolbert’s Restaurant in Grapevine, Texas – a city just off the north end of DFW’s runway 13R-31L. The buzz was that Tolbert’s had amazing, award-winning chili. That’s enough to get me into the car, so off I went.
Arriving in Grapevine was a bit strange. As my GPS ticked down the distance to within a half mile, I was still passing pawn shops, payday loan establishments and run-down fast food joints. I mentally prepared myself to enter a rough roadhouse. Once I made the last turn from Texas State Highway 114 onto Grapevine’s Main Street, the difference was like night and day. Main Street is a busy entertainment district with several restaurants, shops, local businesses and a movie theater that shows classic films and children’s programming. On the night I drove past, they were playing The Odd Couple (1968). The restaurants were bustling, and all thoughts of rough-hewn tables, spilled beer and rowdy patrons left me.
To say the place was busy was an understatement. I was lucky to get a seat at the bar. As I reviewed the menu, I noted from fragments of overheard conversation and from looking around the room, that this was largely a local crowd. A mix of date night couples and businessmen unwinding at the end of the week seemed to dominate the crowd. On the stage in the back corner of the restaurant, a band was setting up their kit to play. Seeing all of this, I felt I had made a good decision for my evening meal. Having already had several steaks this week (it’s hard not to when in Texas), I opted instead to try a cup of the chili, some guacamole, and what Tolbert’s menu referred to as ‘donkey tails’.
The guacamole arrived quickly, accompanied by an ample basket of tortilla chips. The chips were rustic and still warm. If they’re not made in-house I would suspect they’re sourced very locally or Tolbert’s staff are masters of illusion. In addition to the guacamole, I was given two bowls of salsa. The first salsa I tried had a slight edge of heat, but was very watery. The second bowl was just as watery, but didn’t provide very much at all in the way of flavor. The guacamole, however, was good. It had a faint heat at the end, but wasn’t anything unique or special.
To quote the menu, donkey tails are “two all-beef hot dogs stuffed with cheddar cheese, wrapped in flour tortillas, then lightly fried. served with Tolbert’s salsa and mustard sauce, and a shot of chili on the side.” These, like the guacamole, were good, but nothing phenomenal. They tasted pretty much as you’d expect them to taste, beefy & cheesy, and certainly not diet food.
Moving on to the main event, so to speak, I sampled the chili. This cup of Texas red, garnished with chopped onions, shredded cheddar and a chile, looked just like I expect any good chili to look and my mouth literally started watering in anticipation. I removed the chile from the top. While I’ve been known to pop a pepper or two, I just didn’t want to assault my poor unsuspecting taste buds with a raw chile when they were expecting some beefy chili goodness. When I put first cheese-dripping spoonful into my mouth, it felt as if I had just lit a dud of a firecracker. Where was the flavor? Where was the heat? Rather than a spectacular explosion of beef and spices, I got a faint beefiness and some flat tomato flavor. The raw chopped onions didn’t even wake up my mouth, which makes me suspect they were old.
Ultimately, I left Tolbert’s disappointed and feeling that the meal hadn’t been worth the time it took to get there. Now, I’m not saying the food was bad. It just failed to live up to it’s award-winning reputation. The place seems to have a nice selection of standard Tex-Mex and American fare. If I was staying at a hotel nearby, I wouldn’t shy away from stopping in for a bite, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit Tolbert’s a second time.
If you find yourself near Grapevine and want to try it out for yourself, you can find Tolbert’s at:
423 South Main Street
Grapevine, Texas 76051