Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, September 3, 2003
Take the ’Q

Next stop: Steven’s Garden and Grill, where peace is just a baby-back rib away.


Steven’s Garden and Grill

223 Depot St, Mansfield. 817-473-8733. Mon 10:30am-2pm, Tue-Thu 10:30am-9pm, Fri-Sat 10:30am-10pm. Alcohol: beer/wine with $5 annual membership. All major credit cards accepted.

What I love about this job is what I love about Steven’s Garden and Grill — good food in a great setting. This north Mansfield restaurant serves homey food, with no vertical constructions or fusion spices. But it’s so well-prepared that on a recent visit I nearly forgot that I have to eat with my head (taking note of texture, flavor, and smell), not with my heart — which cried for more ribs.

The restaurant is housed in a spacious barn with a wide porch overlooking a pea gravel lawn, light-bedecked canvas gazebo, and gardens of butterfly bushes, herbs, and sedum groundcover. Lunchtime on one wet day found me sitting in the large dining room, looking out at a lovely garden, listening to the rain on the roof. Here, I had a bona fide transcendental moment — a moment in time in which all the senses are fulfilled. I’ve had these moments when traveling, but never so close to home.

But — drive to Mansfield just for a little peace and quiet? No, drive to Mansfield for old-style barbecue. I was impressed by everything I tried, especially anything from the smoker. The juicy smoked chicken had a nice rub of spices in addition to salt and was infused with smoke. The brisket had a meaty taste, like a good pot roast with a less-intense smoke flavor. And the pulled pork — a smoked pork roast that is served in thick, delicious strands — had a sweet taste-opener but finished with the lip-smacking mellowness of roasted piggy.

The baby-back ribs, though, were magical. After lunch one afternoon, I took a rack home to eat later. Owner John “Steven” Cox came to the table with very specific instructions. I was to reheat the plastic-wrapped rack in the microwave, then chop and serve the ribs. The ribs were amazingly meaty with a heavy jolt of smoke and nary a hint of dryness. They were perfect. The wait staff says the ribs are so good, “you’ll dream about them tonight and come back for more tomorrow.” I laughed at the time but have had a serious rib jones ever since.

Homemade side dishes were equal to the main courses. The baked potato salad was a traditional cold potato salad but made with sour cream and chives and dotted with fresh rosemary. The cole slaw reminded me of my mother’s. It was sweet, sour, creamy, and sloppy. The baby carrots were sweet, and the sautéed mushrooms were redolent with flavor (and butter). And the side salads were spot-on fresh, from the lettuce to the croutons.

At dinner on a recent Saturday night, my guest and I started with soup, gumbo, and an order of nachos. The tortilla soup was well executed, with chunks of smoked chicken and grilled yellow corn filling the bowl. The gumbo was a darker version than gumbo file and was perfectly fine. The nachos — layers of chips, refried beans, cheese, and chunks of brisket — were wonderful, if way too large even for two big eaters.

I also tried the special: a 10-oz. black Angus rib-eye steak. It was thin, almost like a breakfast steak, but packed with flavor. Cox, who can usually be found behind a charcoal grill large enough to spit a person, was somehow able to grill a thin steak rare. The meat tasted bloodier, beefier than most steak I’ve had and was memorable for its gamier-than-corn-fed beef taste.

We ended the evening with a slice of blackberry cobbler. With a crumbling wheat crust and thick filling, the dessert reminded me of a big, blackberry Pop-Tart.

Entrepreneurs at heart, Cox and his wife, Jan, opened the restaurant two years ago. It’s decorated with the remains of a retail gardening business the couple used to run. Baskets, candles, and some iron yard art pieces are still burdened with barely readable price tags. Couple this with the relaxing atmosphere, and it’s easy to imagine spending a peaceful evening of country music, cold beer, and barbecue here.

In a city stuffed with noise — construction machinery, horns, car stereos, sirens, and the hum of half a million people going about their business — quiet is often hard to find. At Steven’s, lunch is just that — quiet. Occasionally trains puncture the peace by whistling and rumbling along their tracks, but other than that, a trip to Steven’s Garden feels like a little vacation away from it all.

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