Sweetie Pie’s Ribeyes … a name on a billboard that I started to notice at some point in the first decade of the 21st century as I made my trek from the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex to Albuquerque, New Mexico, traveling north on US 287 through Decatur. When you have made the same drive at least once annually for 34 years, things that are new catch your attention. Such was the case with this dining establishment. While the name had always piqued my interest, our relationship remained in the “acquaintance zone” over the years. This all changed when I was invited to participate in an event at their recently opened location in North Richland Hills.
In an attempt to prepare for this event, I did a minimal amount of research so I might be a little better informed when I attended. The things I read only served to further whet my appetite, as I discovered that Sweetie Pie’s is owned and operated by the Vinyard family, the proprietors of two other local eateries: Bubba’s Cooks Country and Babe’s Chicken Dinner House. I have never dined at the former, but the latter is a place I hold in high regard when it comes to “comfort food.” This knowledge caused my already intrigued anticipation level to further elevate as the date approached.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I entered the building that’s exterior is modeled after an old Texas cotton gin and located at 6720 NE Loop 820 in North Richland Hills, Texas. Upon arrival, I realized that I would be given some information and history, prior to dining. In my mind, I equated this to attending a graduation and having to suffer through the ceremony to get to the part that really matters to you. I could not have been more incorrect, as I considered the discussion prior to the meal to be much more of a blessing than a burden.
As we all got seated, we were poured a glass of Austin Hope Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, which I enjoyed very much. As I did so, I listened to Paul Vinyard, the patriarch of the family, tell us the story of the business he and his wife Mary Beth (Babe) started in 1981, with the goal of putting their two children, Joel and Tiffany, through college. You could tell the importance of family to Paul and how important it was to him to be more than just an employer. Both of his children work for the company and were in attendance that night. Vinyard introduced us to Gene McGuire, one of two chaplains employed by the company who tend to any of the employees’ spiritual needs. McGuire has quite the back story, which is covered in his book, “Unshackled,” where he talks about the 34 years, nine months and 15 days he spent incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. Vinyard also introduced country music singer, Coffey Anderson, to the crowd and told us that he would be providing entertainment later in the evening.
Having laid a nice background for us, Vinyard then began to tell us of the inspiration behind Sweetie Pie’s. It was his desire to create an atmosphere where you could go out for a great steak without having to put on a sport coat and worry about breaking the bank. So he brought in his brother Joe, who is fondly referred to as Uncle Joe by all the employees, and charged him with developing the concept. After a decade and a half of success in Decatur, they decided to expand the concept to include the DFW area.
Vinyard spoke of the detail they put into this design: the purchase of the authentic century-old Smithfield Gin Mill, which was originally located in Gunter, Texas; the collection of the sheet metal that was required to make the outward appearance authentic; the fact that every panel of wood in the interior has been reclaimed; the purchase of the two old dusty pickups that you pass by as you enter the restaurant, which they intentionally leave undusted for effect; and the artifacts that adorn the inside of the restaurant, along with a nice history lesson of the Texas Navy, which is featured prominently in the art that hangs at Sweetie Pie’s.
Vinyard then introduced us to the representatives from Nolan Ryan Beef to educate us on their Goodstock brand, and how the adaptation and investment in the Temple Grandin Responsible Cattle Care Program creates not only a better environment for the cattle, but a high-quality product. While I have personally always been ambivalent when it comes to how my beef is raised, I do understand that it is an issue for some. If it produces a better product in the end, as they say it does (and from the taste of my steak, I certainly would not refute that point), then consider me a proponent. An easy Google search will allow you to find out whatever you want to know about the process, if you are interested.
As we listened to Vinyard, we were provided with baskets of freshly made yeast rolls and the waitstaff discreetly recorded our personal preference of the temperature of our steak. If my meal that evening had ended with rolls, I believe I would have left fully satisfied. But it did not; it merely started there.
Our meal began with a 12-oz. Goodstock ribeye served with a loaded baked potato. Fortunately for me, prior to serving us the first course of the evening, we were advised not to consume it all, as there would be many additional tastings throughout the evening, and they would be happy to box up our leftovers. Much as it pained me, I heeded that advice, and I am certainly glad I did.
With the featured item of the menu savored and sampled, our attention turned to an assortment of other dishes that were served in generous tasting potions. The first two items that arrived were a sampling of roasted veggies, which, according to my research, are only available at the North Richland Hills location; and a tasting portion of lemon sole, lightly breaded flounder served in a lemon-butter sauce. While neither my wife or I count seafood among our favorite choices, we bravely sampled and left nothing on our plate, so I feel certain it is a fine choice for those whose preference is fish. The next menu item to make an appearance was the smoked pork chop. The bites provided to us were very tender and tasty. It was accompanied by a slightly sweet dipping sauce, which provided a nice enhancement to the overall flavor. I was discussing this selection with a relative who lives close to the original location, and he informed me the pork chop is his go-to menu item when he visits.
As someone who is always on the lookout for an outstanding chicken fried steak, I anxiously anticipated our next sampling. The sample of chicken fried ribeye that was placed in front of me exceeded my lofty expectations. It was tender enough to be cut with a fork and as tasty as any chicken fried steak I have ever tried. After polishing off my sample and half of my wife’s, I had a strong urge to stroll the room and look for other leftover bites. But in the end, my fear of embarrassing this publication and my bride won out, and I remained seated. I honestly had no idea what to expect from the next item presented, tuna sticks, but I heartily dug in and was not disappointed. It would never occur to me to lightly bread and deep fry steak strips of tuna and serve them with a side of serrano gravy, but I am certainly glad it occurred to the Vinyard family.
The final entrée tasting sample was the BLT, which, when ordered from the menu, includes a quarter pound of smoked bacon. It is served on two slices of Texas Toast, freshly baked at the restaurant, and garnished with homemade mayonnaise. That seems to be a lot of effort to put into a basic sandwich item, but judging by the end result, it is effort well-spent, and the item is nowhere near basic.
This left only the dessert portion of the menu to sample, so I ordered a cup of coffee and waited. My patience was rewarded when I was presented with a piece of pecan pie and a chocolate crepe. I did find myself curious as to why they didn’t serve the pecan pie ala mode, but that question was quickly answered when I got a taste of the homemade whipped cream that was served as an accompaniment. While I was initially skeptical concerning the chocolate crepe, any doubts disappeared after my initial taste. It was covered in almond slivers and the same homemade whipped cream that accompanied the pecan pie, and the crepe was the right amount of thin, a definite do-over for me.
In addition to sending us home with our leftover steak, baked potatoes and any other items from the tasting menu, Sweetie Pie’s was also generous enough to bestow us with some of their ribeye chili, portions of their broccoli cheese soup and fried apricot pies with vanilla icing to sample. They also included more of their delicious, homemade yeast rolls. My household found both the ribeye chili and the broccoli soup to be outstanding when we sampled them later in the week. My wife and I did not sample the fried apricot pies. I passed those along to my father, who reported back to me that they were an enjoyable item to consider as an option.
It’s always a funny question for me to answer when people inquire of me about the bests I’ve encountered in my life. What is the best cigar you’ve ever smoked? What is the best whisky you have ever drank? What is the best golf course you have ever played? So many people have different tastes that there is no definitive answer, plus price points almost always play a factor when giving consideration. My brother and I can’t even agree on the best George Strait song, but both of our picks are in the other’s top five.
My overall conclusion would be that Paul Vinyard accomplished what he set out to accomplish when he came up with the concept of Sweetie Pie’s – to create an atmosphere where you could go out for a great steak without having to put on a sport coat and worry about breaking the bank. But I think he created a lot more than that. I have no hesitation about recommending Sweetie Pie’s as a place to get a good steak at a very fair price. I also think if I ate at Sweetie Pie’s several times and never ordered a steak, it would still be an establishment I would continue to frequent and enjoy immensely.
Stop in and give them a try yourself and see if you agree with me. Plan accordingly, though. Based on their website, the restaurant is “dark” between the hours of 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.