Dining Out is Fun
Texas cafes have what it takes to get you through the day—mashed potatoes and chicken-fried steak. The rest is gravy.
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We always liked the Colonial Cafe. It was part of the character of the main street of Navasota, a Kennard family stronghold, something we took for granted. No matter where we went in the world or how long we were gone, we always thought that the Colonial Cafe would be there when we got back, just down the street from the Navasota Abstract Company and catty-corner from the John Deere tractor place.
But now the Colonial Cafe is closed, and we feel the way we did when Ed’s great-uncle Willie died. He was one of those relatives we liked even though we didn’t see much of him. We had always intended to do this or that together, but we never did. We’re sorry for the time we didn’t spend with Uncle Willie and for the meals we didn’t eat at the Colonial Cafe.
The passing of the Colonial is a shame because it was a piece of that Texas you don’t find much anymore, the Texas of the fifties, back when just about everybody drove a Ford with a sticker on the rear window that read, “Built in Texas by Texans.” Don’t misunderstand; we’re not opposed to change. It doesn’t bother us that gas stations don’t check your oil and your air or even pump your gas. We don’t care that there aren’t any dime stores or barbershops or drive-in movie theaters that show something besides pornography. Those aren’t the things that define our state. But cafes are different, and their waning numbers underscore the erosion of Old Texas. The day may come when the only Texas cafe you’ll be able to find will be in Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum—and it won’t serve food. This erosion didn’t start yesterday, of course; it’s been happening for years. Obviously it has something to do with the development of the interstate highway system, which avoids small towns, and the growth of fast-food chains. How can a local cafe survive a highway bypass or compete with the marketing macho of a McDonald’s, a Wendy’s, a Dairy Queen, or a Sonic? It can’t.
But the cafe hasn’t vanished altogether. If you look hard enough, you can still find authentic Texas cafes in which to eat—and some in which not to. But you have to know where to look, and unfortunately for urbanites, the city is usually not the place (though there are a few notable exceptions). No, to find the real thing you have to search in small towns—and you have to get off the freeways. You’re about as likely to find a cafe on a big-city freeway as you are a Texas highway patrolman willing to ignore the fact that his radar just clocked you doing 83 miles an hour.
Once you’ve discovered what appears to be a cafe, it is necessary to check it for authenticity, or else you could easily end up eating in heaven forbid a restaurant or a barbeque joint. A simple but generally reliable rule is that real cafes usually call themselves cafes. Another good test is the cashier’s counter. A glass display case with a well-worn cash register and a spindle holding plenty of “Dining Out Is Fun” receipts is a promising sign. Another is the local club placard. If the Lions eat there, consider it good enough for you.
Speaking of signs, an authentic cafe has lots of them. At Orsak’s Cafe in Fayetteville, you’ll find this pearl of wisdom: “Don’t criticize your wife, remember who she married.” At another place we noted “Spending money can seriously damage your wealth.” In Dallas at Ginnie’s Bishop Grill we saw a sign that read, “Home of homestyle Southern cooking. We feed Texans not Frenchmen. So we cook Texas style for Texans and are proud of it.” Cafe owners also post a lot of rules on hand-lettered signs, mostly having to do with intoxication on the premises, bounced checks, and a minimum dress code, as in “No shoes, no shirt, no service.” We’re glad to see that “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” has all but disappeared from the walls of Texas cafes.
The strangest “Hours Open” sign we found was at Michalsky’s Cafe in Fayetteville: “Open as long as there is a light. No light, no open.” Below it in smaller, handwritten letters is “Cooks gone dancing.” We were told that the sign was made by one of the owner’s good friends, now deceased – gone, we hope, to that ultimate honky-tonk.
Because cafe owners have to spend so much time in their places of business, they personalize their surroundings. We haven’t seen one cafe in Texas that didn’t have a photograph or two on the walls, most often of children and grandchildren. Tied for second are photographs of high school cheerleaders and of sportsmen proudly displaying trophy deer or fish. Should you want the cafe owner to talk to you instead of just ringing up your tab, ask about the pictures.
One of the admirable things about the people who own cafes is that they all seem to possess a business attitude of “Make do with what you have got, then you’ll have no need for what you have not.” Sarah’s Cafe in Fort Stockton marks its ladies’ room with a picture of a woman cut from a magazine – no words, no universal gender symbols, just straightforward graphic communication. That same make-do attitude is likely the reason you never see cafe employees wearing uniforms. If you do, the cafe has probably been recently purchased by a yuppie drop-out who still drives a BMW. Please, turn on your heel and exit.
Cafe menus aren’t fancy, and they’re invariably used until they wear out. You’re bound to see a lot of prices that have been changed, new items scribbled in, old ones inked out. Our favorite menus are the ones with generic pictures, made by V.C. Menus in Eastland (see “Local Menu Makes Good,” TM, November 1983). On one trip across Texas we once saw the same picture of a hamburger at three different places in a single day. The most sensible menu for a cafe is a chalkboard, which conveys a sense of just-cooked food and never leaves you wondering why they raised the price of catfish from $3.55 to $3.65.
We like cafes for all the condiments and food accessories that let the customers do it their way. Is the meat loaf not quite to your taste? Never fear. Right at your fingertips are salt, pepper, A.1. Steak Sauce, mustard, catsup, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, Evangeline Red Hot Sauce, ReaLemon, sugar, Sweat N’ Low, Cremora, margarine, and one of those narrow-necked bottles of vinegar with lots of little green peppers in it.
You can find wonderful, quirky things for sale in cafes too. The Farmer’s Market Cafe in El Paso has a display for getting your baby’s shoes bronzed with Senti-Metal. Sarah’s Cafe in Fort Stockton will sell you bubble gum in the shape of tacos. And the New Ulm Tavern and Cafe in New Ulm sells more packaged junk food than you ever knew existed.
Though all cafes have a lot in common, no two are exactly alike. America’s fear of the unknown has let many restaurants, the fast-food places in particular, cash in on predictability while treating food as something less than vital. A Texas cafe, luckily, is a place where food is still more important than style or speed. Cafe eating is honest, no-frills eating. It’s also a real bargain. Where else can you buy a chicken-fried steak with a salad, french fries, and a vegetable for only $3.50?
Cafe owners work fifteen hours a day, cope with the ever-changing price of goods while keeping menu prices stable, and get up at five in the morning so that you and I might eat our two fried eggs at seven. As long as a few people are still willing to work that hard for that little, let’s enjoy the cafes that remain. Here are several of the better and more interesting ones that we found on an extensive cafe quest through Texas.
U.S.19 (six miles south of town),
about sixty miles southeast of Dallas.
Wednesday through Monday 5:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
In the Coon Creek area between Athens and Palestine, 78-year-old May Martin has been serving some of the best food around for 53 years. Her customers are construction workers, farmers, fishermen, and even celebrities such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Hank Williams, Jr. Like many cafes in deep East Texas, May’s is a little rough-and-tumble, not the place to bring your stuffy Aunt Flossie. Even so, it has a certain charm: each table (and there are only seven) has a centerpiece of fresh onions and green jalapeno and serrano peppers. Cows graze in a pasture nearby, and from the window you can watch wild birds chowing down on the cafe’s day-old hushpuppies.
For human customers, there’s roast beef, chicken-fried steak, and barbecued ham (all the barbecuing is done on an old A&M barbecue pit in the smokehouse, and about fifty pounds of meat are cooked there every other day). On Thursday May buys fresh vegetables from Dallas. For dessert you can choose from several kinds of homemade cobbler—apple, peach, and berry, to mention three. An entire meal, including cobbler, is $4.
306 Commerce (U.S. 87 North),
about 110 miles northwest of Austin.
Seven days a week 5:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
The art deco–inspired building that houses the twenty-year-old Club Cafe cuts a sharp contrast to the pickup trucks in the parking lot. On the inside, the entire cafe is carpeted with sculpted wall-to-wall pile in a trendy khaki color. The booths have been separated with posts, like horse stalls, and on the walls are framed photographs from Brady’s local paper—a girl’s tap dance recital, some Shetland ponies, a man who has caught a three-foot catfish.
Travelers, ranchers, businessmen, and preachers stop by for the Texas-size cinnamon rolls and glazed doughnuts made fresh each morning. Every table has five or six empty coffee mugs at the ready, to be instantly filled as the waitresses work the floor. With breakfast everyone gets homemade biscuits and a bowl of smooth cream gravy. Initially doubtful, we found ourselves eating “gravy bisquits” with wild abandon after one taste. An order consisting of one egg over easy, hashbrowns (regrettably the frozen variety), instant hot chocolate, and those terrific biscuits and gravy costs about $2.50.
The cafe is definitely worth a Friday night dinner as well, when you can get fried catfish, home-sliced French fries or baked potato, homemade hushpuppies, and a trip to the salad bar for just $4.25. We heard that the cafe fries more than two hundred pounds of catfish every week. Fayrene Parks is the incumbent owner—“Nineteen months now,” she reports. So far, so good.
DAVID’S CORNER CAFE
109 Commerce, about 65 miles west of Houston.
Monday through Saturday 7 a.m.-7 p.m.,
Sunday noon-11 p.m. or midnight (kitchen closes at 2 p.m.)
This cafe was named after owner Mary Belle Nowicki’s son, who works in the family’s meat market next door. Needless to say, the market supplies the staples for the daily menu of hot roast beef and chicken-fried steak and for the rotating specials of ham, barbecued sausage, pork, chicken, and meat loaf. When possible, Mrs. Nowicki buys her vegetables—including black-eyed peas, cabbage, and lima beans—from local sources. The sauerkraut, corn, and green peas are canned and the mashed potatoes instant, but they taste just fine, which goes to show that a little seasoning and tender loving care make a big difference. For lunch you can choose one meat, three vegetables, a dessert, and a drink for just $3. The highlight of David’s Corner, though, is the dominoes game. Players drift in every day after two (that’s the only time Mrs. Nowicki will allow them to play) for another round in the game that has been going on for the last thirty years.
BLUE BONNET CAFE
Texas Highway 29 at Buchanan Dam (eight miles west of town),
about 45 miles northwest of Austin.
Wednesday through Sunday 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Closed Monday and Tuesday and three weeks at Christmas.
The white stucco thirties-style building is quiet most of the year, but during the summer sessions at nearby Camp Longhorn, says co-owner Bonnie Marx, the walls echo with the noise of the camp counselors’ shenanigans. We got the idea, though, that Bonnie is happy to be overrun year after year by the campers and others who come to eat some of the freshest and best fried catfish in the state.
This flaky fish, dipped in cornmeal and served with real French fries, hushpuppies, and an unremarkable salad, comes in small and large portions for $5 and $6.25. The day we ate there it was close to perfection; our only lament was that plastic packets of ReaLemon had taken the place of lemon slices. We know the prefab stuff is cheaper, and that’s important to cafe owners, but in this case it really doesn’t taste as good as the real thing. The recipe for the hushpuppies was passed down by the original owner of the Blue Bonnet, Peanut Davis.
In the dessert category, the cafe’s meringue pies have become a legend in their own time; once Bonnie had to make 29 in two days. But we found the 22-minute cake, a rich chocolate cake covered with a chocolate glaze and topped with pecans, even better. Bonnie makes it when she feels like it, so you just have to hope she feels like it the day you visit. Celebrity advisory: Charley Pride and Faron Young have dropped in on occasion.
Spur 125 (behind the old post office),
about eighty miles west of Houston.
Monday through Saturday 7 a.m.-10 p.m.
There are two reasons to visit the Burton Cafe, maybe three. The first is to try the cafe-made pie for only 70 cents a slice (chocolate, coconut cream, buttermilk, apple and peach, among others). The second reason is to listen to the chatter on the cafe’s blaring police and fire radio receiver. The third is to see the chair that actor Larry Hagman autographed while in the neighborhood to check on his oil investments. He arrived in a helicopter and gave owner Rosalie Powell his souvenir $100 bill. (It says, “This note isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”) The bill is now—of course—proudly displayed in the cafe.
500 block of Walnut,
about 65 miles west of Houston.
Monday through Saturday 6 a.m.-5 p.m.
Sunday 6 a.m.-1 p.m. (no Sunday dinner,
but you won’t have room for it anyway).
For the last 28 years Grandma Hertha David (pronounced Dah-vid) has fired up the ovens at the City Cafe at about six every morning. When we arrived at ten we were almost bowled over by several people apparently on their way to a mid-morning feast at a local business, staggering under boxes of fresh kolaches. Besides these jam- or fruit-filled Czech pastries, Grandma Hertha makes bread, cinnamon buns, dinner rolls, and pies. She bakes only once a day, so when something runs out, that’s it.
But the City Cafe isn’t just a bakery. It’s a family-tree cafe operation as well. Aunt Nancy and Aunt Margie grow fresh vegetables in the summer, while a daughter and son-in-law provide all the cafe’s meats. Granddaughter Jo Ann waits on your table with baby Zachary perched on her hip. Son Billy, a passionate fisherman, has two largemouth bass hung judiciously on the wall, as if there will be more to come.
The chicken-fried steaks we had for lunch were so huge they hung over the plates. The gravy was slightly lumpy, but the meat had been hand-breaded, always a good sign. The City Cafe once tried to switch to frozen French fries, but the regulars complained so much that the Davids reconsidered. Our meal, one meat and a choice of three vegetables, was less than $3. Every Wednesday the lunch special is Mexican food, all homemade.
306 N. Belton,
about 45 miles south of Dallas.
Monday through Saturday 5 a.m.-3 p.m.
When Vernon McGuyer came to Corsicana in 1976, he had only $128 in his pocket. Today he owns and runs Roy’s Cafe, which feeds around five hundred people a day. Checking the company logos on customers’ shirts, we noted Sears, Pinkertons, Mrs. Baird’s Bread, the local Cadillac dealership, and a pipeline company. The phone keeps ringing because members of the cafe’s who’s who are often paged while on their coffee breaks. Roy’s is a friendly, energetic place that serves all the coffee you can drink for the price of one cup. All told, the eight veterans among the employees have put in more than 140 years at the cafe. After examining the business cards and memorabilia on the bulletin board, visitors should try the homemade biscuits or the cinnamon toast (cinnamon on both sides and topped with more sugar than your mother ever allowed).
TOM AND JO’S CAFE
702 S. Elm,
about thirty miles north of Dallas and Fort Worth.
Monday through Saturday 6 a.m.-8 p.m.
Remember those places that used to have individual jukebox selectors in every booth? Tom and Jo’s Cafe is one of them; you slide into your booth, punch up Willie Nelson singing “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” order, and never miss a bite or a beat. All in all Tom and Jo’s is a pretty decent cafe; nothing is outstanding, but nothing is really bad either. After eating at plenty of places where nothing was really good, we’ve come to respect proprietors like Gerald Sitton, who gives you a palatable meal at an honest price. A good cheeseburger in a basket, served with real French fries, is $2.05. A slice of homemade pie will set you back 80 cents. Tom and Jo’s also has lunch specials, but avoid the vegetables unless you like them canned.
FARMER’S MARKET CAFE
Tuesday through Sunday 7 a.m.-8 p.m.,
Monday 7 a.m.-3 p.m.
The old wooden bench in front of the Farmer’s Market Cafe is a fine place to ponder the changes twenty-odd years have brought. At one time the site was on the edge of El Paso, surrounded by farms; thus the name. Today the big white stucco building sits at a major intersection, surrounded by commercial enterprises, but it still has the feel of a small-town cafe. The proprietor, Tino Hernandez, leases the space by the month. The building’s owner hopes to sell the land to a supermarket or chain store and cash in big, so the cafe could disappear any day.
Although the popular attraction here is barbecued brisket (which can be a tad dry), the huevos rancheros breakfast is a bargain. It consists of one or two fried eggs on a tortilla liberally doused with freshly made Spanish sauce and grated white cheese, hashbrowns (these are real fried potato patties), and homemade refried beans flanked by extra flour tortillas and a mug of hot coffee, all for $2.55. The day we ate there we were served by a pleasant waiter with a mere eighteen-year tenure. On any particular day the special might be spareribs, hot links, Swiss steak, tacos, or chicken fried steak, with three vegetables, for $2.75. The soup every Friday is—always has been, always will be—fish chowder. The Farmer’s Market has even had a sports star, golfer Lee Trevino, as a customer.
On the square,
about seventy miles east of Austin.
Seven days a week 7 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-9 p.m.
Sophie Michalsky has been decorating this place for more than 21 years now. The result is unparalleled cafe kitsch. Besides the Coke machine and the jukebox, there are velvet paintings from down Mexico way and a scale that dispenses fortunes. Those items mingle with sombreros dangling from deer antlers, Shiner beer calendars picturing dogs playing poker, gimme caps, plastic birds on perches hanging from the ceiling, old Christmas cards, wrought-iron ships, and even an award that Sophie’s husband, Jerry, received in 1982 from the American Institute of Architects for some fancy carpentry he did.
But no matter how cluttered and chaotic the decor, the menu is straightforward and simple. Sophie calls it “Take what I got,” and regular customers phone ahead to find out if a favorite dish is on the stove. The vegetables are fresh whenever possible, and she makes pies when she can. Jerry likes dewberry pie so much that he picks the berries himself. Sounds like a great bet during the dewberry season in April.
One caution: from the outside the place looks dreary. There is only one window and nothing else to invite you in, but take our word for it—the decorations alone are worth the experience.
On the square,
about seventy miles east of Austin.
Tuesday through Sunday7 a.m.-6 p.m. or later.
On the one and only square in Fayetteville, just a biscuit’s throw from Michalsky’s Cafe, is Ike and Edith Orsak’s place. We had a solid country breakfast here of smoked ham, eggs, and hashbrowns, and Ike, a taciturn type who takes pride in the food he serves, made us some real hot chocolate. Lunch specials include fried chicken, fried fish, barbecue, and anything else Ike and Edith feel like fixing. One of the best reasons to go to Orsak’s, though, is to read the multitudinous signs on the wall. Apparently what Ike lacks in talkativeness he makes up for with signs, especially funny ones to improve your disposition and make your coffee last a little longer. The Orsak community bulletin board is worth a look-see too.
1008 C Street,
about twenty miles southeast of San Antonio.
Monday through Saturday 10:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Wright’s Cafe is the right cafe in Floresville. It is frequented by nearly everyone, including the town’s most famous family, the Connallys. An elk head belonging to John Connally’s son Mark hangs here—a memento of a recent hunting trip to Colorado. Bert and Alma Wright started the cafe in 1954, after they did a brief stint as owners of the Baumann Cafe, also in Floresille, where they got their antique marble counter and massive stained-glass back bar. The counter case holds, besides the usual chewing tobacco and antacids, a lineup of crocheted dolls.
Bert butchers all the meat himself, the chicken-fried steak is hand-breaded, and Alma herself cuts up the chicken for frying. Most of the time you can choose from seven vegetables. Of special note for dinner is the fried quail. For dessert ask about Alma’s coconut and lemon pies, which she makes from scratch when the mood strikes her.
106 S. Nelson,
about eighty miles southwest of Odessa.
Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-9 p.m.
Closed Sundays and holidays.
Cleo Castelo, who with husband Mike owns Sarah’s Cafe, is Fort Stockton’s self-appointed ambassador of goodwill. She sees to it that first-time lady visitors receive a complimentary miniature Mexican pot and a quesadilla. (Men get only the quesadilla.) While tallying up your check, she will tell you to call her collect if you have car trouble on the highway, and her guest register has signatures from all over the world.
It never ceases to amaze us how Mexican restaurants can take five ingredients and turn them into 45 different meals. Sarah’s is no exception. Here your lunch starts with tostadas made at the cafe. The green and red chili sauces are prepared from a recipe handed down by Cleo’s mother, who started the restaurant in 1929. Cleo guards the recipe so closely that she goes in early to prepare it when nobody else is around. Unfortunately, the red chile sauce was a touch too tomatoey for us, and the enchiladas with green sauce were soggy. The fresh guacamole was exceptionally good, however.
just north of Tomball and 25 miles northwest of downtown Houston.
Monday through Wednesday 8 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday 8-10,
Saturday 10-10, Sunday 9-9.
Of all the country cafes that Houstonians rave about, Goodson’s is the one. Ella Goodson, 78, has been running the place for 34 years, making her a real survivor in the business. But not long ago Ella broke a kneecap, which made it hard for her to supervise the cooking, and the cafe’s kitchen seems to have fallen on hard times.
The official policy is to use fresh meat (bought daily) and vegetables (some frozen goods are used when fresh is unavailable, and only the green beans and corn are ever canned), but things were not up to snuff when we ate there. One thing we can wholeheartedly recommend, though, is the cornbread—it’s some of the best in the state. Ella’s secret is to generously grease the pan, which fries the bottom of the bread to a crispy brown. We really admire Ella Goodson, and we want to like her cafe. Here’s hoping for better luck soon.
U.S.159 (1.2 miles southeast of town),
about seventy miles west of Houston.
Tuesday through Friday 4 p.m.-10 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
Closed Sunday and Monday
You have to really want to go to Pinky’s to find it, because it certainly isn’t on the map. But if you take the trouble, you’re in for a treat. Pinky’s is owned by Norma and Lloyd Wubbenhorst, who along with their son Roger and his wife, Patsy, have been running the cafe for five and a half years.
Pinky’s serves a generous hand-breaded chicken-fried steak, as well as great cream gravy made by Norma. Roger, a refugee from a nine-to-five job in Houston, fixes memorable pinto beans, using a recipe he won’t divulge. The food is made from fresh ingredients as much as possible. During our visit Roger was deep in negotiations with a local woman for fresh farm eggs. In the end, he bought three dozen.
During the Austin Chalk boom, Pinky’s was a bit more active, but it still enjoys the support of the local Lion’s Club. Note the fifties gasoline pump (which no longer works) and the red, yellow, and pink roses in front. On the inside, don’t miss the nickel-Coke machine.
HILL COUNTRY CAFE
about sixty miles northwest of San Antonio.
Monday through Friday 5:30 a.m.-2 p.m.,
Saturday (breakfast only) 5:30 a.m.-11 a.m.
The waitresses at the Hill Country Cafe have a habit of photographing their customers and hanging the pictures on the cafe walls, so dress for posterity if you decide to stop in. And speaking of dress, don’t be surprised if the waitresses are dressed alike. They do that for special occasions; last Christmas they all showed up as elves.
Ray and Marlin Marie Snider have owned their cafe for only three years, but in that short time they have established a reputation for good, honest food. They make their biscuits from scratch and process their own potatoes for french fries, mashed potatoes and hashbrowns. Lunch specials include liver and onions, chicken-fried steak, fried catfish, roast beef, and both fried and baked chicken. You also get your choice of two vegetables, a salad or coleslaw, iced tea or coffee, and a piece of Marlin’s cake or pie, all for just $3 to $3.40. the cafe is popular with the movers and shakers around Kerrville; the mayor and a table of his cronies have coffee there almost every day.
OLD BORUNDA CAFE
203 San Antonio,
about 175 miles southwest of Odessa.
Erratic hours. Call ahead.
By now Carolina Borunda Humphries’ cafe may be the best-known obscure cafe in Texas. In fact, you might have already read about it in these pages (“Is There Food After Stockton?” TM, March 1983). So we won’t tell you again that the fare is basic enchiladas and tamales in a ubiquitous chili gravy of astonishing orange hue, and we won’t repeat that everybody in the county eats at this tidy white diner, from young families with crying tots to cowboys with spurs that jingle-jangle-jingle. No. We have only one word to say to you: pralines. Luscious, brittle morsels of brown sugar and pecans made by Carolina’s niece, these world-class candies will soothe you mightily on the rest of your journey across West Texas. Don’t neglect to lay in an adequate supply. There’s nothing worse than reaching over to grab another and finding that you ate the last one along about San Angelo.
about twenty miles northeast of San Antonio.
Monday through Saturday 6:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
Success can undermine a good cafe, and big, bustling Krause’s is flirting with trouble. If you don’t believe us, listen to this: even though the biscuits and cornbread are made from scratch, they’re served with Shed’s Spread instead of butter, and of the twenty-odd pies, only four are homemade. We suspect that the daily flood of customers may be forcing the cooks to prepare the main dishes well in advance. Perhaps that is why our food was cold. The menu has become so diversified that there seems to be no specialty. You can get just about anything, including steaks and sauerkraut and ham sandwiches, all of it acceptable but none of it fantastic.
The late Gene Krause started this cafe back in 1938 as a place that served chili, stew, and hamburgers. Today it is run by his son and daughter-in-law, Kermit and Mildred, and pie and deli operations have been added. There can be too much of a good thing, you know.
On Main one-half block west of FM 156 (across
from the post office), about 25 miles north of Fort Worth.
Seven days a week 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
“Why don’t you too go to Ponder/And tear a steak asunder/Then you too will cease to wonder/Why we all go oft’ to Ponder.” This verse, the first poetry we have ever encountered that was inspired by a steak, was written in the guest book at Ranchman’s by a satisfied customer. By way of explanation, owner Grace “Pete” Jackson says modestly, “We just cook like we cook at home.”
So famous is this place that Hugh O’Brien, Ruth Buzzi, Lindsay Wagner, and visitors from London, Paris, and Puerto Rico have signed the guest book with raves. Some guests insist on having a souvenir. President Jimmy Carter’s mother, Miz Lillian, purchased the cafe’s rustic outhouse several years ago and had it delivered to her daughter’s home in nearby Argyle.
The reason for the Ranchman’s popularity is clear. Pete cuts her own thick, juicy steaks exclusively from the short loin and loin end, reserving the trimmings to be ground up into some of the best hamburger meat in North Texas. Lunch specials change daily, and breakfast always includes cured ham, bacon, or sausage. Lunches are $3.95, steaks $6.75 and up. To top it all off, Pete makes some of the best pies in the state, using only fresh ingredients. A pie like her chocolate—made from real chocolate, not a pudding mix—is a rarity in cafes. Knowledgeable customers reserve slices before they sit down to eat, and they also make reservations to dine. From the atmosphere to the food to the one-block downtown in which the cafe is located to the personality of Pete herself, Ranchman’s has everything you could ask for in a cafe. We just wish Pete could be around for another eighty years.
BUD’S WAGON WHEEL CAFE
U.S. Business 77 (three miles south of town),
about 45 miles north of Brownsville.
Monday through Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
From the outside, Bud’s looks like any old South Texas honky-tonk. In fact, Paul Whitworth, editor of the Raymondville and Willacy County News, says he didn’t even go into the place for the first three years he lived in the Valley. When he was finally persuaded to by a friend, he found that folks like the county judge, attorneys, shopkeepers, bankers, and farmers had been eating there for years. They come for the locally famous chicken-fried steak and the liver and onions (“best in the world,” raves one fan), but the thing that puts Bud’s in a special category is the shrimp and fish caught fresh in the Laguna Madre. Bud Young, who has owned the cafe for thirteen years, buys directly from local fishermen whenever possible, and our filet of fried flounder was A-OK. The french fries are the real, old-line kind, not sissy frozen ones. Plate lunches (your choice from three meats, three vegetables, and dessert) are $3.50.
Every few years there comes a veritable monsoon in the area and since Bud’s is located in a little dip in the highway, it almost always gets flooded, once for close to two months. When that happens, Bud closes until the water goes down. Then he attacks the damage with buckets and brooms. The regulars wait patiently until the cafe is back to normal, then they all queue up again. It’s that kind of place.