When Cowgirl Hall of Fame opened in the early ’80s, it was part of a flock of popular downtown restaurants that playfully flaunted their ethnic culinary themes. The group included Cottonwood Café, which tendered Texas favorites like chicken-fried steak; Sugar Reef, which vouchsafed a taste of the Caribbean without traveling to Flatbush; Tortilla Flats, which dabbled in Mexican; Gulf Coast, specializing in Cajun/Creole, in a lonely location that made the Hudson River feel like the Gulf of Mexico; and Miracle Grill, which slung chile-laden Southwestern fare and turned Bobby Flay into a star.
Long after most of the others had ignominiously tanked, Cowgirl persisted. Its location near P.S.3—a public elementary school whose attendees have included Julia Stiles and Claire Danes—guaranteed a heavy flow of parents with their kids, who appreciated the quasi-feminist theme and Old West décor. The place was quick to accommodate them with crayons and colorable place mats, and included a store that sold small, cheap toys. It was a genius formula.
Now, the West Village’s strangest eatery has boldly branched out, creating an offshoot called Cowgirl Sea-Horse, at the northern verge of the South Street Seaport, near the dark abutment of the Brooklyn Bridge, where tourists may fear to stray. Instead of the carefully assembled Patsy Cline photos and barbed-wire displays that characterized the original, the new place is indifferently decorated with stuffed sport fish and dangling outboard motors. But if you go thinking Sea-Horse is a seafood restaurant, you’ll be disappointed, although the menu does offer a smattering of shrimp, blackened fish fillets, and California fish tacos.
Instead, the bill of fare finds its bedrock in the original West Village menu, extending it with dishes from downtown themed eateries of similar antiquity. From Sugar Reef, once a wildly popular East Village spot, comes a coconut shrimp appetizer ($8.35), consisting of six beauties improbably crusted with sugary coconut shreds and deep-fried. You won’t be repulsed by the sweetness. From Tortilla Flats comes a roster of nachos, such as you might have assembled at home from stuff found in your fridge. Cottonwood Café lends its chicken-fried steak, now employing a flattened chicken breast instead of the usual tough minute steak, facetiously dubbing it “chicken-fried chicken” ($13.35). The entrée comes voluptuously sided with lumpy mashed potatoes, greasy collards, and caloric cream gravy, the type of feed that causes nutritionists to shudder. Fuck ’em!
The best of these retro borrowings is Gulf Coast’s excellent seafood gumbo (cup $7.35, bowl $13.35), flaunting a medium-brown roux crammed with shrimp, chicken, and andouille sausage. There hasn’t been such a luscious gumbo in town since Paul Prudhomme packed up his knives and his humongous belly and went home to New Orleans, after he briefly opened a K-Paul’s on lower Broadway in the ’80s. (It probably failed because he 86’d all the chilies from the recipes.) Dishes pillaged from Cowgirl’s West Village menu include a terrific amuse of canned black-eyed peas mixed with green chilies and served with fresh tortilla chips. Given the size of the entrées, this freebie is the only starter you’ll ever need.
Of course, there’s an extensive list of apps anyway, aimed at cocktail swillers who desire to graze lightly. Most—like the okra, clam fritters, and sweet-potato fingers—are deep-fried and hence heavy as lead. Entrées that throng the same “Must to Avoid” list include a Creole crabcake sandwich ($13.35) that’s gigantic but gummy with filler, and a half-pound burger, which the restaurant seems incapable of cooking to order. The pork baby-back ribs are perfectly edible and pleasantly smoky, but can’t compare with the cudgel-size beef ribs that are a memorable feature of the West Village menu.
Yeah, this South Street newcomer offers the type of cooking we used to call “white trash,” before that pejorative was sadly lumped with less-benign racial slurs. This derided cuisine is pie-happy, and at Sea-Horse, you should zero in on the icebox varieties, which are a particular delight in the dog days of summer. Key lime and coconut cream are both insanely rich. But then, white trash cooking is all about conspicuous overindulgence, and nothing is more so than the so-called “ice cream baked potato.” In a recipe that, according to Martha Stewart’s website, was invented at the original Cowgirl, a giant wad of ice cream is formed into a potato, rolled in cocoa, heaped with whipped cream, topped with two yellow pats of fondant “butter,” and set in a puddle of chocolate syrup. It looks exactly like a roasted spud—until it begins to melt.