In Amarillo, they have a stake in beef Texas temptation: It looks like an offer you can't refuse, but you may find the conditions are more than you can stomach.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On every route into the flat and dusty town of Amarillo, gaudy billboards and advertisements tease bored travelers: "World's Biggest Steak. 72 Ounces. Best in Texas. Eat at the Big Texan. FREE."

Since little else about the alleged yellow rose of Texas stirs the imagination -- it lays legitimate claim to being one of the world's largest sources of helium, but this is hardly the stuff of gift shops -- you may find surprising thoughts crossing your mind as mile after mile of Interstate 40 whizzes by:

Why not try a 72-ounce steak, gratis? Others have -- why not me? So what if it's more red meat than I ate in 1994? It can't be that big.

Well, I can tell you that it is that big. But back to that later.

Such road-weary musings have given the Big Texan restaurant the last and very lucrative laugh on bigger beef fans than I since 1959, when it first started serving its behemoth top sirloin.

More than 18,000 people -- cheeky outsiders, for the most part -- have tried and failed to best Amarillo's beef; a mere 4,000 have triumphed.

One man did eat two.

Amarilloans delight in these lopsided numbers.

An otherwise amiable people, they know their town is not a tourist destination. Most of us just pass through, rushing across the Texas panhandle on I-40 to somewhere else. They can't do much to slow us down.

But they can artfully trip us up, drawing us against our world-traveler will into one of the most shameless tourist traps I've seen, one dedicated to the hometown team: Big Beef.

Beef is big in Amarillo. Really big.

And -- provided you are not squeamish about how red meat moves from hoof to plate -- you can dip your boots in its cattle culture without losing more than a few hours of drive time.

The Big Texan is the most obvious stop. Its billboards and old-West facade can't be missed.

But to appreciate the true enormity of both the meal and the local fervor for beef, indulge yourself and start at the Western Stockyards, reputedly the world's largest weekly cattle auction.

This could be just another of the oversized claims Amarilloans use to boost the stature of their city (remember: big beef and big helium). No matter. The auction is big. It's fun. And (unlike the steak) it's actually free.

The stockyards themselves are a wonderful outdoor maze, acres of interlocking pens with swinging gates and intricate pathways that allow the cowboys and cowgirls to herd cattle efficiently through the indoor auction hall.

The main attraction is the auction. And for that the big day is Tuesday (although you are welcome to tour the stockyards any weekday), when the place is jammed with large men in large hats who come to buy and sell large quantities of cattle.

The auctioneer's words blur as cattle change hands every 15 or 30 seconds, fast enough to sell more than a half-million head each year.

At first, I was outraged. Time and again he cried, "Sold for $64." I'm no comparison shopper, but if a 1,000-pound steer sells for $64, how can the grocery store justify charging me as much as $9 or $10 for a 12-ounce porterhouse steak?

I posed this question to one buyer. He asked if reporters attend college, then explained that the final price is the price paid per 100 pounds. That 1,000-pound steer really cost $640.

If you like beef, my advice is to nod politely, even if the markup still strikes you as a tad high.

Otherwise, a friendly cattleman like Elmo Edmonds will remind you that not every cut is prime rib. Fair enough. But he and his brethren won't stop there.

Native pride rising, they will go on to explain how absolutely nothing is wasted. Without going into the painful details Mr. Edmonds showered on me, I learned that the price of cow heads depends on whether they are sold with or without the brains and tongue, and that hearts can be pickled for European epicures but also figure into nearly every slice of cold cut sold in the United States.

By now, the older, skinny cows at the auction have landed between hamburger buns, while the yearlings are enjoying a final season at pasture. Their older siblings are at a feedlot, foolishly gorging themselves on rich foods that put nice, white fat on their bovine bones.

"You need a minimum of fat," explained Mr. Edmonds. "Without the feedlot they wouldn't have enough of the fat America wants. They just wouldn't taste like the burgers America likes."

It quickly became clear that I was dangerously close to being honored with a personal tour of Amarillo's own feedlots and slaughterhouse -- where, Mr. Edmonds says, 400 "carcasses" are "processed" each hour.

I demurred. That adventure would likely have derailed my rendezvous with Big Beef at the Big Texan. Watching your steak being prepared from scratch is a little messier than selecting the lobster of your choice in a tank.

So, just how big is a 72-ounce steak?

At 4.5 pounds, it's roughly the difference between me and my ideal weight.

In more universal terms, it translates to about 18 McDonald's quarter-pounder hamburgers, 18 scoops of Baskin-Robbins ice cream, or three dozen cake doughnuts.

It is so big that it bulges over the sides of a platter-size plate; the garnish looks like a small head of lettuce.

Then, of course, there is the catch, the one from the small print on the billboards: It is yours for free, 50 bucks' worth, only if you eat it and an array of side dishes within one short hour.

That's more than an ounce per minute on the beef, alone; hardly time to chew each bite five times (I asked if my waitress knew the Heimlich maneuver, but the joke was apparently in bad taste).

Inside the Big Texan, blinded by the glittery decor, surrounded by every kind of mounted animal head but a cow's (remember, nothing is wasted) and deafened by the pounding steps of the Top of Texas Cloggers, you learn just how seriously the owners take their 72-ounce challenge.

For starters, you pay up front; cash is preferred.

"I ain't had no one offer one of those," said our waitress, Kim, frowning at my Visa card. "Let me ask my supervisor."

My credit proved good, so we moved on to the paperwork. To place my order (medium-rare) I had to sign a contract stating I had read all the rules.

About 25 minutes later, Kim returned with the steak and side dishes -- a roll, shrimp cocktail, baked potato and salad -- and her boss. He explained that I had to eat everything but the fat, potato skin and garnish.

I took a bite, gave my approval, and the clock started.

Kim returned now and again to advise me of the remaining time and to encourage me with anecdotes about past winners -- like the man who vomited into his plate but pushed on.

I'm sorry to say that I didn't even limp across the finish line, much less attempt such heroics. I put down my fork after 40 minutes -- feeling much as if I'd been to a local feedlot, slathering on more of that fat America so likes.

By ignoring the side dishes altogether, I had made my way through 19 ounces of beef.

Kim, cheerily shaking salt on my wounded appetite, said most losers at least eat half. Why, recently a young woman just my size finished and then ordered onion rings. One man tried three times.

I began to suspect Kim worked on commission. But in fact, I think she simply shares her townspeople's secret satisfaction each and every time their beef bests another outsider.

"Sorry you didn't finish it," she offered in mock sympathy. "But I really think you'd have been a lot sorrier if you had."

If you go

Here's the beef: The Big Texan, 7701 Interstate 40, (806) 372-6000. Open 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Beef entrees range from the 5-ounce Li'l Texan Steak Dinner ($4.85), to the famed 72-ounce Top Sirloin ($50, though you get a refund if you finish the whole thing in an hour). Nonbeef entrees include chicken, shrimp and vegetarian dishes.

Here's the beef II: Stockyard's Cafe, 100 S. Manhattan, (806) 374-6024. Open for breakfast and lunch 6 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and for dinner 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Fridays through Saturdays. This is a coffee shop adjoining the auction building at the Western Stockyards. Many cattlemen credit it with the best and most reasonable steak in town. The cheapest is an 8-ounce sirloin club for $5.95; the priciest is a T-bone for $14.95. Menu also includes Mexican dishes and basic bacon-and-eggs breakfasts.

Here's the beef III: Western Stockyards, 100 S. Manhattan, (806) 373-7464. Open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays. The big event is the Amarillo Livestock Auction, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays. Entry is free and noncattle people are welcome to walk around the operation. Locals are happy to explain the goings on.

Hang your hat: Big Texan Motel, next door to the Big Texan restaurant. $30-$65 per night. For reservations, call (806) 372-5000.

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