Editors note: At press time, the Golden Ox was recovering from a Monday, May 4, fire. Pat Paton, Golden Ox publicist, told Charles Ferruzza Monday night, Well definitely be open for Mothers Day brunch.
A tall, broad-shouldered cowboy — complete with hat, boots, seriously ripped blue jeans and a very deep voice — strode manfully through the main dining room at the Golden Ox on a recent Sunday morning. Following in this cowboy's trail were his wife and a gaggle of children. The guy looked and sounded like an honest-to-God cattle wrangler, but what the hell do I know of cowboys?
I grew up in an urban neighborhood watching reruns of Bonanza and Roy Rogers. If a man wears a 10-gallon hat on TV or in real life, he's a cowboy, as far as I'm concerned.
"He's a very high-powered lawyer," whispered Steve Greer, co-owner of the Golden Ox, "and a very good customer."
That morning was the second Sunday that Greer and his crew had set out a brunch buffet. "Good spread," the cowboy lawyer announced an hour later, as he strode manfully out of the restaurant with his family in tow.
That's a short but pretty accurate review of the Golden Ox's Sunday brunch, the newest innovation for a restaurant that turns 60 years old this month. It's not the greatest brunch in town, but at $12.95 for adults and $5.95 for kids, it's a lot of bang for the buck. I had taken along my friends Bob and Ross for breakfast, and they were surprised, as they piled their plates, that the dining room wasn't busier. There was another family in the room, headed by a patriarch with a cowboy hat (a real rancher, I learned later), and a couple of other occupied tables. Mostly, though, we had the buffet to ourselves.
On Sundays, Greer sets up the buffet in one of the restaurant's private dining rooms. It's an impressive array of cold salads, biscuits and gravy, pancakes, French toast, scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese (very good), fried chicken (not so good) and first-rate burnt ends. That morning, a man in a chef's jacket was slicing little pieces of beef tenderloin. The desserts need some work, definitely from a visual standpoint; Greer could learn a few tricks from the casino buffets, where even the lousiest pastry looks like a million bucks.
Still, it's only fitting that the Golden Ox buffet is more chuck wagon than haute cuisine. The restaurant itself, despite its long history, isn't considered one of the snazzier steak joints in town. And that's exactly why its fanbase likes it so much. The Golden Ox, the antithesis of the Capital Grille, is unpretentious, laid-back, not ridiculously costly — in fact, the dinners still include a soup or salad and a vegetable.
"People either love the Ox or they hate it," says a friend of mine who falls in the former camp. "It's the only steakhouse in town where most of the customers wear cowboy hats or ball caps. It's a guy restaurant."
It was built as a guy restaurant back in 1949; its first owner was an all-male organization, the Kansas City Stockyard Company. When the steakhouse opened its doors in May of that year, the raucous, smelly, bustling stockyards were still vital operations in the West Bottoms, and the neighborhood catered to the men who worked there. Until the flood of 1951 put a nearly fatal damper on the area, the stretch of Genessee near the Golden Ox was once crowded with modestly priced hotels, pool halls, barbershops and — rumor has it — at least one whorehouse. There were other restaurants, too, including the Rancher's Café and the Cowtown Coffee House.
You have to give the Golden Ox credit for outlasting not only the stockyards but also about everything else that has come and gone in the West Bottoms (including, some might say, the era of Kemper Arena) over the past six decades. With apologies to Stephen Sondheim: Good times, bum times, the Golden Ox has seen them all — and, my dear, the joint's still here.
"You want to go where?" my friend Linda asked when I offered to take her and her husband, Richard, and our pal Franklin to dine at the legendary Ox. "Is it still open?"
That's one of the problems that Greer and his business partner, Bill Teel, have had to cope with since purchasing the restaurant six years ago. "We still get phone calls asking if we're open," Greer says.
The Golden Ox did close for two weeks in 2003. And Greer and Teel reopened those heavy glass front doors to dining rooms that had gotten a damned good cleaning and upgrade. Only the long, deep main dining room actually dates back to 1949; the adjoining rooms were added later. The bar, where a jazz combo still plays on weekends, looks pretty much as it did in 1968.
I wasn't totally sold on the place when I last reviewed it ("Well-Aged Beef," April 26, 2001), but I have to hand it to Greer and Teel — the place looks better than it has in years. The décor may date back to another era (which is part of the Ox's charm), but the banquettes have been reupholstered, and the place is spick-and-span.
The night I dined with Linda and company, we noticed the cowboy hats and ball caps immediately. "Most of the tables are filled with men," Linda said. "Do you think some of them are real cowboys?"
I couldn't say, but the place serves real big food. We bypassed the calamari and shrimp-cocktail choices on the starter list and went straight for the good stuff: a combo platter loaded with fried mozzarella sticks, onion rings, excellent burnt ends, and a spinach-artichoke dip actually jampacked with chopped artichokes.
We all raved over the tender burnt ends, slathered in a sweet but punchy sauce. Greer added a well-rounded selection of barbecue to the menu a couple of years after deciding that most tourists paying homage to Kansas City's oldest steakhouse also wanted those signature KC dishes on the menu.
Oddly, then, the only real clinker at that night's dinner was the slab of beef that the Golden Ox has based its reputation on, the Kansas City strip. Franklin's strip was beautifully cooked but not as tender as it should have been. I was glad I hadn't ordered it. My meal was pretty solid from start to finish. I loved the bowl of creamy lobster bisque — who knew? — dappled with chunks of shellfish. The chicken-fried steak wasn't greasy and was fork-tender, and the twice-baked spud was sensational.
Richard said his 12-ounce cut of prime rib was "sheer perfection," and Linda, who can be fussy, loved her juicy, tender petite filet. The side dishes — baked potatoes dripping with butter and sour cream, seasoned green beans, garlic mashers — were all great.
The desserts were not so memorable. The chocolate mousse and the bourbon pecan pie were just fair and had clearly emerged from some commissary bakery. Ditto Linda's strawberry shortcake, which everyone loved anyway.
I pushed the shortcake away after a couple of lean older men in 10-gallon hats passed our table. Real cowboys, I decided, don't eat dessert. But they do eat at the Golden Ox, and that's a claim few other local restaurants can still make after 60 years.
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