Buffalo Don't Have Wings. Buffalo Tasting Tour. South Dakota.
When buffalo fly.
One after another the mighty buffalo cascade over the cliff, tumbling down-down-down like muscle-bound boulders. The most fleet-footed of the Blackfoot Indian Tribe drive the rumbling herd into lanes that siphon out to a cliff and traject into a sheer drop which will assuredly cripple any beast making the ill-fated leap, if not kill it first.
The Blackfoot run behind, beside and in front of the thunderous stampede corralling it as best as they can. Within sight is the funnel of death marked by stacked stones. The lead Blackfoot is the swiftest in the tribe but has the most harrowing role of directing the panicked herd towards the precipice while staying a breath's length ahead of a crushing demise, all while wearing the weight of a buffalo's hide on his back. This is no time to stumble. He looks for the fissure just before the edge and drops himself into it like a pebble, precisely when what seems to be a universe of buffalo shooting over his head like a thousand black and brown comets. Their great speed stirs the air above him and heavy hooves pound the ground like war drums.
Some of the buffalo perish instantly while others lie twisted in a heap, snorting and grunting in great agony. Down below the macabre rally is concluded with spear thrusts snuffing any life out of the barely living. The carcasses from nose to tail are processed. Flesh, hide, sinew, bones, everything is meted out to the tribe. So successful was this jump that there are surplus scraps for the carrion feeders as they glide in sinister circles up above or crouch in the shadows like rapacious janitors ready to tidy up after the slaughter.
All of this was necessary before the horse was reintroduced to the Americas. All of this was necessary just for dinner. We don't do this anymore. All we need to do is pull up to a restaurant, find a really close spot, park and eat. This is why we're fat.
The "buffalo" or American Bison is an animal that, at its mightiest numbers of 60 million plus, made the earth rumble. For the Plains Indians this beast represented an endless bounty of food, hide and other resources like a lumbering, furry grocery store and Home Depot combined. For the fur trader, the buffalo was a cash cow and business was good. The railroad industry promoted culling of buffalo due to the disruption the animal caused when they were struck by trains or lying on tracks. Both the U.S. Army and U.S. Federal government encouraged the mass killing of buffalo for reasons like supporting ranchers via the reduction of bovine competition and to force the Native Americans off the Plains and into reservations by destroying their primary food source and threatening them with starvation.
These activities dramatically drove the animal's population down to less than 1000 by the late 19th century, to the brink of extinction. Only at the turn of the last century (around 1899) was there any effort to save the buffalo. This reintroduction took place in South Dakota and presently the buffalo population in the U.S. hovers at around 300,000. South Dakota is also where buffalo meat is raised and incorporated into some of the local food. Like they say, sometimes to save an animal, you have to eat it. Thereby, South Dakota is where I launched my buffalo tasting tour. Is that wrong?
Buffalo sausage omelette at Colonial House.
This tour began at the Colonial House Restaurant on Mount Rushmore Road in Rapid City, South Dakota. The Colonial House is a misnamed eatery where the ambiance doesn't quite match its moniker. It's a place you'd naturally expect to see petticoats on the hostesses and doilies on oak tables. Instead you get an eyeful of pop culture memorabilia from a fully poseable Batman action figure with extreme codpiece to vintage Hanna-Barbera lunch boxes and random movie one-sheets on the walls. The exterior says Mount Vernon but the interior screams Comic-Con. Once you make piece, er, I meant peace, with the Colonial House, it becomes just another good ol' American diner. (Damn that Batman doll!)
My breakfast selection of the buffalo sausage omelette pretty much selected me since buffalo meat was the point of this meal. The omelette was teamed up with a suspiciously Pilsbury-esque biscuit and bland country gravy. But the biggest letdown was the buffalo sausage itself, dry and tasting vaguely like beef. Fat is flavor and, since buffalo is a very lean meat, this sausage had none. Even in texture, this sausage lacked all the personality of a juicy and tender packet of pork. Maybe buffalo simply shouldn't try to be something it's not, like sausage.
Buffalo ribs at The Trail Drive Café.
At high noon, I found myself appropriately looking for lunch in the tourist cowboy town of Keystone, South Dakota. This was once home to Carrie Ingalls, sister of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of Little House on the Prairie. It's also the gateway to Mount Rushmore. The choices in this literal two horse town were fairly desperate: the cowboy burger place, the cowboy pizza place, the cowboy diner or any number of chuckwagon suppers. Since I wasn't in the mood for a culinary reenactment of Bonanza (remember, Hop Sing was the cook), I pulled into a dusty parking lot in front a facade of a frontier strip mall. The sign sign out front read buffalo ribs. I thought, "Rack 'em, boys!"
Normally I don't review a restaurant's service because I'm only interested in whatever interesting dish they offer. However, the Trail Drive Café bent over backwards to demonstrate its incompetence, indifference and "we don't give a rat's ass" attitude. This wild west tourist trap unleashed its assault gradually by cleverly sending as cannon fodder a Russian foreign exchange student with no restaurant experience disguised as a waitress. She was polite and nice but in her eyes resided a noticeable look of dread. She proceeded to return to my table to clarify my order on four different occasions. None of those visits did she bring the waters requested nor did she put down table settings.
At this point, the owner (a man whose immediate relatives must be members of the Addams Family, no offense to the undead) decided to shadow our Russian waitress/train wreck. At first I was relieved, but ultimately, he'd make her look like Gordon Ramsay with respect to running a restaurant. He just didn't care. In fact, he almost dared you to walk out of his place. He savored the opportunity to argue the fine points of his menu with him, like whether onion rings counted as sides. There was no "I'm sorry for the misunderstanding" or "It's a confusing menu" or anything diplomatic, but rather his position was "I just had this same argument with another customer yesterday." What a prick.
After an hour, the waitress presented the meal in parts like she was trying to sneak each component of the lunch to me as if I were wasting away in some maximum security prison, dinner roll first then cole slaw, etc. Still no water, napkins or silver.
Luckily, I ordered buffalo ribs so I dove right in using my hands without having to wait on my waitress. Thank Hoss, my time in cowboy hell paid off, the ribs were delicious and tender. Slow simmered in seasoned water and then smeared with a generic, sweet BBQ sauce (which I normally despise), these ribs shouldn't have been this good but they were. There was a slightly wild and gamy taste that distinguished this meat from beef and I welcomed it. Were these buffalo ribs delicious enough to forgive the atrocious service? Let's just say I'm asking around for alternate rib joints to wash the taste of the Trail Drive out of my mouth.
Buffalo burger and sweet potato fries at Desperados Cowboy Cuisine and Gallery.
So far this buffalo tasting tour was bringing me down. If it wasn't the food that disappointed, it was the service. I was desperate, so desperate, in fact, that I'd end up at restaurant called Desperados Cowboy Cuisine and Gallery. Well entrenched in Hill City's Main Street, this establishment for all-cowboy grub even has a life-sized statue of a horse on the roof. The old time western building was so convincing that I expected at any moment for a real desperado to launch himself through saloon doors with guns blazing as the band played on. It was that kind of place.
As I entered, the energy was comparatively different. The waiting area housed the "gallery" portion of the restaurant where western trinkets and art books were displayed and sold. The larger restaurant part of Desperados was decorated pretty much like the gallery in a "tasteful" cowboy motif like stained-glass cattle skulls and wall-mounted saddles. The servers were young and perky like those you'd find at TGIFriday's sans flair.
Once again, I didn't really have a choice. There was pretty much one buffalo item on the menu, the buffalo burger, whose sidekick was a mole hill of sweet potato fries. They were probably the best fries I've eaten in a long while — crispy, light, sweet, salty and satisfying in many ways. Don't ruin it with ketchup neither.
The buffalo burger came just in time because the table behind me was a group of loud Obama bashers who kept opining louder and louder their uninvited views. I had to remember that I wasn't anywhere near LA. "Buck Fush!!" "Gesundheit."
I took a huge bite of the burger before I could lose my appetite from the next table's screed. The burger was heavenly. Done medium-rare, this was the best taste of buffalo I had the entire trip. The patty was as moist as any premium ground beef and it was dense with flavor including a kiss of gaminess, just enough to give it buffalo cred. The meat is locally sourced and processed from a buffalo ranch up the road near Crazy Horse and Custer. The buffalo are grass fed and freely roam just like in the song. This meat was undeniably fresh, vibrant and lean.
I'd imagine the Blackfoot enjoying buffalo meat even fresher and cleaner than what I had devoured. Now I see why they went through all that peril, risking their lives, running like the wind and jumping with the buffalo.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to hang my counterfeit handicap parking placard and score this space right in front of the TGIFriday's where my buffalo wings are waiting.
A delicious ending to the buffalo tasting tour.
Buffalo sausage omelette
2501 Mt. Rushmore Road
Rapid City, SD 57701
The Trail Drive Café
824 Highway 16A
Keystone, SD 57751
Desperados Cowboy Cuisine and Gallery
301 Main St
Hill City, SD 57701-2837