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We, of course, wanted to know where the cows were.
Turned out, they’re gone. Or at least they’re being auctioned off someplace else now. Where once assembled the ranchers of Christian County to sell their cattle they have now, as Joni Mitchell warblingly reminded us, put up a parking lot. Along with a big self-storage business and an auto repair place.
While the well-marbled Angus and Herefords may be meeting their fate elsewhere in southwest Missouri, though, the ranchers are still here. And packed in more closely than livestock pen’s worth of heifers, stirks, weaners, and beeves of all sorts. What keeps ‘em coming is the Nixa Livestock Café, which—let’s establish this right up front—isn’t likely to garner any Michelin stars should that esteemed guide start covering the eateries of southwest Missouri, but which should.
The café began as a way of feeding the ranchers and buyers who attended the weekly auctions of cattle in a big, loamy-floored auction barn that was, until a few years ago, connected directly to the building that houses the café. Once a Saturday morning tradition in Christian County, the auction’s been moved to another site. The café, though, is a local standby for those who are, dining wise, in the know.
If Christian County sounds familiar, it may be because it was the locale for the movie version of Winter’s Bone, the woeful tale of drug-addled hillbillies that was not exactly a big boon to the tourist industry there. Christian County’s deep in southwest Missouri, in the heart of the Ozarks. Lest you think, though, that it’s all impoverished rustics tending to their meth stills, you should remember our account of visiting there, in the booming Christian County berg of Nixa, Missouri when we discovered the fabulous French-Mediterranean Café. Nixa’s become one of the fastest growing communities in the whole country. As it grows, some of the old, rural aspects of life in what has been a farming community since the early 19th century have disappeared. Others, like the Livestock Café, are flourishing. As we found when, on a recent Friday we visited and found the place crammed with happy eaters.
When we say “crammed,” by the way, we mean that while there are some individual tables, the preferred seating at the café is at long tables (at right) where friends and strangers convene. We sat across from a rancher and his wife who, one of our tablemates insisted really, really was actress Kyra Sedgewick and if that’s true, she’s got the most fascinating double life in or out of Hollywood. Beside them was a muscular crew-cut wearing a Glock and a polo shirt with the crest of the DEA on it who was probably not in Christian County on vacation. Old-timers and office workers were eating, as they say down there, cheek by jowl.
Naturally, the name of the place excited us with the potential of having a real “farm to table” experience. We were hoping to order our meal at the stun gun stage. No luck there. The principal fare is hamburgers and cheeseburgers, steak and eggs, and the like, in hefty portions and while there were some salads mentioned on the menu, one has the distinct impression that ordering one might be rather like asking if there are any good Domaine Romanée-Conti on the wine list. And there are pies, house made, with Crisco in the crust, like the café’s legendary coconut cream version, that have fans coming from all over southwest Missouri. The real draw here, though, and the reason we were there, is Fried Catfish Fridays.
Our order arrived, still sizzling, crowded onto a big white platter (above left). Meaty, thick chunks of fillets hitting the hot fat with just a paper-thin, slightly salty cornmeal crust. If this is how fried catfish looks, we already knew how it was going to taste. Coleslaw comes with just a faint, peppery kick. Crinkle-cut fries. Cornbread muffins that go down easy and hushpuppies slightly herbed (both above right), with their own crunchy coating that gives way to a fragrant, cakelike center. We had every intention of trying a slice of one of the day’s pies, but by the time the contents of our platter had been reduced a few lonely golden crumbs, we had to beg off on the waitress’ dessert offer. Next time.
There’s a lot of the “pretentious proletariat” out amongst the food world. Food celebrities like Tony Bourdain hunker down in some Third World hovel to snack on ant larvae-stuffed tortillas and to report with smug satisfaction to viewers that this is how the “real folks” eat. The reality is that in most places blessed enough to have them, the real folks are just as likely to eat at Hardee’s or KFC as they are at the local spots preferred by TV hosts flaunting their supposedly hoi polloi palates. Still, there are some places where locals gather, not to fulfill stereotypes but because friends are there and the food’s good. The Nixa Livestock Café’s a good example. And if you happen to be in that area on a Friday at lunch, the catfish is worth a visit. Even if the cattle are long gone.
Nixa Livestock Café 533 W. Tracker Rd Nixa, Missouri 417-725-3510 Mon - Fri: 6:30 a.m. - 2 p.m. Sat: 6:30 a.m. - 12 p.m. Sun: Closed