I’ve mentioned it a few times in a few other stories I’ve written that there is a strong connection between nostalgia and food. I love restaurants that have history and I love even more having history with a restaurant. Personally speaking, The Little Red Barn Steakhouse qualifies on with both of these. Folks in the know have been flocking to this East Side institution since it first opened its doors in 1963. You can count my family and I among those faithful diners.
I can conservatively say I have been eating at this beloved San Antonio institution for over 30 years. Over this time, the LRB (we’re tight like that, so I can use the abbreviation) and I have formed a special bond. As I have gotten older—and “wider”—I have watched this beloved place grow, too. I think it is fair to say that this landmark steakhouse has tripled in size over the years, expanding its family-friendly dining areas to accommodate its exponentially growing number of patrons (it can currently accommodate over 800 patrons, making it one of the largest steakhouses in the country).
Many a personal milestone has been celebrated at the LRB. Birthdays, anniversaries, promotions, heck, even meals after surgeries, have all been eaten there. It’s as if I’m visiting a friend’s house each time I stop by to dine. Inside, the walls are colored bright red, the picnic-style table seating gives ample views to the menu painted in mustard-yellow on the walls. Faux oil lamps and string lights give enough light to view the waitresses decked out in their cowgirl-style uniforms, complete with cap guns in holsters harkening back to a bygone era.
The murals (my favorite is of an old cowhand getting dragged through a cactus patch by a runaway bull), the cattle brands of ranches in the area, the old, the lacquered ropes and the endless line of greeters who have uttered the phrase, “Watch your step and follow your hostess,” all combine to give me an almost Pavlovian experience every time I visit. I know I’m going to get a dang-good meal when I return to The Little Red Barn.
I get a little emotional when I rhapsodize about this place, so enough about the memories! Let’s get to the food. As I said, I have been coming to The Little Red Barn for a long time and I would hazard to say that nearly 90% of those trips have been to dine on one meal in particular: the chicken fried steak. I am a dyed-in-the-wool chicken fried steak connoisseur and I have eaten them all over the country and LRB is my hands down favorite.
Now, there is an important distinction to make at this point: if you look at the restaurant’s menu, you will find entries for “country fried steak,” and “chicken fried steak.” Ordering country fried will get you probably what you’re expecting, a breaded and fried piece of tenderized steak slathered in cream gravy and, don’t get me wrong, it’s good. However, I have had a long-standing relationship with the LRB’s other version of the dish. You get the same cut of meat, done in the same delicious, golden-fried style, but this time, it is slathered in chicken gravy.
The dish is so savory; if I were so inclined to add pretense to this review, I would call the taste you get from the combined gravy (which is liberally, and I mean liberally, sprinkled with bright red paprika) and steak umami. It is wonderful. With this meal you would get your choice of meat, a starter salad (insider’s tip from me to you, try the restaurant’s version of green goddess dressing), a side and some dinner rolls (a basket is brought to the table; usually in orders of three depending on how many are in your party).
The sides, for decades, were a baked potato and French fries. These days, mashed potatoes and green beans are also options. Whenever I have ordered the dish, I like to double down on the fried and go with a heaping pile of French fries. I have found they are the perfect vessel for sopping up any stray bits of gravy. The steak has always been more than ample-sized, fork-tender and fried to perfection.
In recent years, to coincide with evolving tastes and customer demand, Little Red Barn has stepped up their overall steak game immensely. All the classic cuts can be found and cooked to order: old school T-bones, porterhouses, sirloins (bone-in or bone-out) and ribeyes. The steak and shrimp is also a popular dish. If, for some reason you aren’t a steak fan but have continued reading to this point, there are fried fish and chicken options. In the past, few years, appetizers, desserts, beer and margaritas have been added to Little Red Barn’s arsenal.
I really could go on and on about how much I love this place. As food trends come and food trends go, as tastes change, as hip and in the moment fads drift in and off of our collective palettes, I find it extremely comforting to know that there is a place that has been serving up great food since the Kennedy administration. Do yourselves a favor, go eat a good meal and make yourselves some food memories of your own.