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Good Texas cooking is an art form; at the Country Store in Cotulla, Mike Valle takes pride in his grilled meats
The fire has been going for nearly two hours by the time the first slab of fresh-cut meat is laid on the grill.
The heat flowing from the pit is intense. Aged mesquite logs have turned white and begun to crumble.
The moment is perfect.
Mike Valle scrapes the searing hot grill clean a final time and stares through the pale blue smoky cloud that envelops him briefly.
“This is what people come for,” he grins through beads of sweat. “This right here is the most important thing of all. There’s going to be good eating tonight.”
Mike is the special steak cook and meat market manager at the Country Store in Cotulla. Situated beside the IH-35 access road since the late 1970s, the popular local eatery has changed hands a few times in its history but has maintained a reputation for hearty Texas-style foods, colorful Tex-Mex meals and, above all, authentic barbecue and grill.
Through boom and bust, in good times and hard times, the Country Store’s lights have remained lit and its customer base has remained faithful. Lunch plates, big burgers, enchiladas, chicken fried steaks, and big glasses of iced tea have come from its kitchens throughout; but generations have long appreciated its truly juicy and thick Texas-sized steaks.
This month marks the first anniversary of the restaurant’s weekly Steak Night, a Thursday feature that begins just after 5 p.m., when Mike’s fire pit has reached its optimum temperature, the slabs of ribeye have been cut and T-bones arranged on a platter.
“You have to love cooking to do this,” Mike says immediately after filling another tray with one-pound steaks. “It’s hot work; there’s no question of that. It’s only five o’clock and I’ve already had my first wardrobe change.”
On an average Thursday night, Mike will slice and cook as many as sixty ribeyes and more than a dozen T-bones. There have been nights when as many as eighty ribeyes have gone onto the grill.
“The oilfield workers, the family groups, the people who work hard in our county and who deserve a good dinner, they’re coming back from the pandemic and they’re enjoying a better economy,” Mike says as a repeat customer makes a beeline for the display case in the meat market. Tenderized skirt steak fajita meat, pork and beef smoked sausage, a rake of pork chops and a selection of beef steaks at least an inch thick are ranged behind glass, temptingly lit. Local entrepreneur Charlie Seidel has come for a thick ribeye and a pair of shish kebab skewers. “They’ll come for the meats that they can take home and cook themselves, or out at the jobsite on the open fire, but I like to see them come in and have a really good meal right here.
“You see, it’s the simplicity of it that makes it so good,” Mike says. “The fire is especially hot, which really sears the outside of the steak, and that holds all the flavor in.”
There isn’t much seasoning involved in a good steak. The meat is of premium quality, with just enough marbling of fats to produce the flavor that Mike believes shouldn’t be hidden. He will only accent a fresh steak with a dash of Worcestershire sauce and a sprinkle of salt and coarse cracked pepper because that’s all it takes.
“When you’ve done this a while, you know everybody coming in,” Mike bids farewell and bon appetit to Seidel, who leaves with a grin as wide as the steak he’s about to enjoy. “Once you’ve dedicated yourself to this, you’ll never leave it. There’s satisfaction in producing a well-cut steak and presenting a meal that feeds a Texas hunger.”
Mike started cooking with his father while the family lived outside Chicago. The old kettle-style Weber grill they used was a favorite in the early days. It, too, was a simple thing. There was nothing but serious heat and serious steak.
“We moved here when my dad retired here, and pretty soon I was in the oilfield and started catering meals for the companies out here,” Mike says of his burgeoning reputation for providing a working man’s meal. “I started doing steaks, and I worked for Charlie Seidel a while. There was a Christmas event where I did over three hundred steaks.
“That’s when I knew I was going to be serious about this. And I am serious. Putting a good meal on the table is serious business in Texas.”
For a dozen years, Mike’s reputation spread to South Texas restaurants whose owners would contract him regularly for steak specials, until he took the call from the Country Store, the place he now regards as his permanent base.
“Don’t be afraid of the fire,” he says on his way back out to the grill. “The flame is there to help you. It’s doing all the work.
“I cut this mesquite wood myself on local ranches,” he points to the pit and a small stack of split logs at the side. “This wood is seasoned by time. It’s been sitting about two years. The color is right, the size is right, and the heat these pieces give me will last for hours.”
Mike makes a final inspection of the fresh meats on the cold platter. The ribeyes were deep-chilled a short while before he cut them, and now they’re beginning to soften in the cooler.
“These are ready,” Mike smiles with satisfaction. “Are you?”