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Young blonde takes challenge: Big Texan’s 72-ounce steak

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AMARILLO, Texas — If you've never seen a young woman in a staring contest with a 4 1/2-pound slab of red meat, it's a thing to behold.

Her nostrils flare. Her eyebrows twitch. She blinks. She exhales lightly through pursed lips. Then she picks up her serrated knife to begin sawing at her butterflied top sirloin, all 5,200-odd calories of it, cooked medium and sprawled on her dish like a catcher's mitt on home plate.

For its part, the steak is impassive.

Girl vs. Steak. That's a twist on the usual story line at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, fabled home of "The Free 72-ounce Steak." (That's "free" with an asterisk: It's only free if you finish it, plus the sides — baked potato, salad, baby shrimp cocktail and dinner roll, in less than one hour.)

The usual plot is this: Guy walks into restaurant. Guy is huge. Guy played football in college. Guy is hungry. Guy is boastful. (Or Guy is nervous — it depends.) Guy starts strong. Guy starts to tire. Guy's friends chant "Chew! Chew! Chew!" Guy fails. Guy throws up.

Just about every day, someone tries to eat the Big Texan's signature 72-ounce cut. Only one in every five or six manages to finish it. The others are out $50 plus tax, which is real money for a meal in Amarillo.

Women are different. Not many women try to eat the big steak, maybe one every couple of months. But those who do try are deadly serious. About half succeed. And Angela Daniel intends to succeed.

Twenty-six years old, blonde and fine-featured, she is a normally proportioned 135 pounds, perhaps 5-foot-6.

"I can eat anything," Angela said. "I come from a whole family of big eaters. . . . My grandmother is a couple of hundred pounds overweight. I can eat a lot of food. A lot."

Meanwhile, Angela's steak has gone on the grill, where it is sizzling amid burgers and rib-eyes. The grill is at the head of the Big Texan's cavernous dining room, and open to it. The grill man who tends it, Robert Black, has watched at close range as contestants have won and lost. He thinks Angela has a good shot — as long as she eats smart.

"First of all, you better cut your meat with the grain — makes it more tender and less chewy," he said, poking at the big sirloin with a grill fork and tossing steak seasoning on it. "You better eat your potato and all that small stuff first. Don't drink no water. Just fills you up. And better eat fast, man."

More than 35,000 people have taken the Big Texan's challenge, but no more than 6,000 have succeeded. Past winners include a 69-year-old grandmother, an 11-year-old boy and Frank Pastore, a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds in the early '80s, who set a speed record by downing the whole meal, side dishes included, in 9 1/2 minutes.

Angela, for her part, is unswayed by past agonies and triumphs. Serene and self-assured, she strides to the Big Texan's head table, which sits on a raised platform overlooking the dining room. Just over her shoulder is a digital timer that reads 60:00. "I'm feeling real confident," said Angela. The steak is the size of a phone book.

Then, with a quick shake of salt, Angela is off. "It's very good," she allows after four minutes, taking a sip of wine.

After six minutes, she has downed the baby shrimp cocktail in a few deft forkfuls. After eight minutes, much of the potato is gone, and Angela is working on the salad between mouthfuls of meat.

Reality is starting to set in, and it is cruel. A large man in an orange shirt, a biker, approaches Angela to let her know that a guy he knew, a 350-pounder, tried to eat the big sirloin last year and couldn't. Another man wanders by, takes one look at the sirloin and shakes his head. "That's a roast," he said.

Angela is looking tired and glassy-eyed. She picks at her potato, which is served with sour cream and butter, a pitiless touch.

Twenty-nine minutes and eight seconds have elapsed when Angela throws in the towel. She's looking slightly green. Dennis is there to console her.

"I can't eat it. It feels like 72 pounds, not 72 ounces," she said. "No, I'm not going to do it. I'm sorry, baby. I would've eaten more if I could."

"Oh, baby, it's all right. . . . We'll have leftovers for days!" Dennis says.