Fall weather just screams, "Hit the road. Go for a drive. Get outta town."
Yo u know you want to. But you also know that a drive always sounds better when there's sustenance of some sort at the end of the road. And when that sustenance involves chips, salsa and a salted glass, well, so much the better.
Now Zionsville isn't that far away. But the charming Boone County town makes a great fall drive destination — and with the addition of the Salty Cowboy, Zionsville now has an appealingly kitschy Tex-Mex joint that's loud, affordable and fun.
And while the casual, hang-out quality of the bar seemed like the big draw to me, the dining room was full of families on our recent visit. And why not? The food at the Salty Cowboy is familiar, priced right and plenty good. But paired with a tequila or moonshine cocktail, a michelada or a bottle of Shiner Bock (or, yes, a $2 can of PBR), the tacos, fajitas, burgers and burritos make the Salty Cowboy a fun and filling dinner stop for a get-outta-town tour.
Located off Zionsville’s brick-paved main drag at 55 E. Oak St., the Salty Cowboy is owned by Shari Jenkins, who also has Noah Grant’s Grill House & Oyster Bar. But the new Tex-Mex place has a personality (and menu) all its own.
In a place like the Salty Cowboy, you just have to start out with a margarita, and the house version, $7, was solid, with the canning jar-style mug carrying out the country theme. Canning jar glassware has become a trend that just won’t disappear, and the jars seem to be a way for a restaurant to proclaim itself a countrified, down-home kind of place, whether it really is or not (I’m thinking here of the North End Barbecue & Moonshine). I’d just as soon enjoy the salted edge of a margarita from an actual glass, thank you very much, but like I said, the trend won’t die. I just hope the house-barreled Four Roses Manhattan is not served in a jelly jar.
In any case, there are also a few craft brews on draft, some Texas and Mexican beers in bottles and three wines by the glass. Clearly, the focus is on tequila. After all, the Salty Cowboy does call itself a tequileria.
Beyond the booze list, the Salty Cowboy does a good job of appealing to a variety of tastes. The menu includes pulled pork, beef brisket, ribs and chicken for the Texas barbecue crowd, some fajitas and burritos, a few apps and a good variety of $4 tacos – mostly pulled pork, chicken and fish (though I did spot a vegetarian version with the corn and black beans of Texas caviar). Nachos named for Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton made me think of Bakersfield’s salads (named for Johnny, June and Willie), and overall, the Salty Cowboy did remind me of the Mass Ave. taco/tequila/whiskey joint.
It’s almost as loud, at least in the bar, even on a Sunday night. The music ranged from classic Johnny Cash to current country artists, and if the long communal table we were seated at had been full, conversation would’ve been even harder. But still, it’s a fun bar, with a younger, livelier atmosphere than you might expect in Zionsville.
Service was quick and attentive, and our chips and salsas, $3.50, arrived in short order. We liked the thin, crisp chips and the two kinds of salsa, though they were both quite mild; the verde version had just a bit of heat.
For entrees, we opted for a pulled pork burrito, $11, which featured lots of tender, smoky meat, sautéed onions and poblanos We added on a side of that Texas caviar, $3, although we really enjoyed the side that was included: a very tasty verde rice.
We also tried two tacos. The pescado, $4, featured battered cod, nicely cooked though under seasoned, which was livened up by a sweet-spicy cabbage and cilantro crema. Next time, I might get the cowboy pescado instead, a spicier version with habanero pineapple salsa. The Corona chicken taco, also $4, was quite mild as well, with lots of juicy, flavorful chicken brightened up with pickled onions.
You won’t find much in the way of dessert on the Salty Cowboy menu, just a traditional pecan-infused cream liqueur (for those over 21) and a s’mores jar, $7, which the menu says is enough to share – so we opted for that. And while the small canning jar (again with the jar) of graham cracker crumbs, chocolate pudding and marshmallows was certainly an uncomplicated dessert, it was tasty. And while I would have liked a smaller graham cracker layer and a bigger (and richer) chocolate pudding layer, we certainly ate it up. Kind of like the restaurant itself – kitschy and uncomplicated but definitely appealing.
Jolene Ketzenberger covers local food at EatDrinkIndy.com. You can follow her on Twitter @JKetzenberger.