You’re on the last leg of a long road trip. Night has fallen, you’re hungry and tired, but you pass up a Sonic, a Dairy Queen, and a Schlotzsky’s. Hoping against hope, you take the business route, head for some tiny town a few miles off the highway, and roll down Main Street, peering at the dark storefronts. Nothing. You’re about to give up when you spy a huddle of cars and pickups ahead. Beyond them, a red neon sign flashes on and off against the black sky— CAFE…CAFE…CAFE.
The image of the small-town Texas cafe exerts a powerful pull on our collective unconscious—the well-worn booths, the row of crusty locals trading jokes at the counter, the owner who knows her regulars by name, the fresh-baked pies. Such places carry the promise of that ever-elusive “simpler time,” when communities were bound by shared stories, pan-fried chicken, and hot coffee. As chain restaurants bulldoze their way across the landscape, we see fewer and fewer of these homegrown joints, yet we want deeply to believe that they still exist, as surely as every four-year-old wants to believe in Santa Claus.
So it was that five months ago, Texas Monthly embarked on a quest to find the best small-town cafes in Texas. Our previous experience marshaling forces for big barbecue and Mexican food stories quickly proved inadequate, as this turned out to be our most massive food feature ever, requiring an army of 39 eaters. When it was over, Team Cafe had driven more than 24,000 miles, visited more than 350 cafes, and blown the editorial budget for the rest of the year. (Embarrassingly, we’d also gained a cumulative 60 pounds.)
Our guidelines were strict. By “small town,” we meant a burg with no more than 25,000 souls. Unpretentiousness in an eatery was paramount, and on our score sheets points were awarded for a cluster of elements that, taken together, we took to calling the Real Deal Factor: family ownership, big-haired waitresses, plastic flowers, police officers or truckers at the counter, chicken livers or gizzards on the menu, a pie case. Conversely, points were subtracted from a cafe’s score (in some cases disqualifying it altogether) for evidence of anything citified, yuppified, or fancy-pants: raspberry vinaigrette, goat cheese, kalamata olives, jazz or techno music, al dente vegetables, or— horror of horrors!—baby greens.
When it came to the actual food, we focused on chicken-fried steak with gravy, mashed potatoes, cheeseburgers and fries, and pie. We also sampled daily specials and personal favorites (fried catfish, fried pork chops, enchiladas, and meat loaf were frequent selections). Using a standardized checklist to evaluate the quality of these items at every stop, we generated a numerical score for all 350-plus chow houses.
When the cigarette smoke, road dust, and eau de fry dissipated, when we finally roused ourselves from our slobbering food comas and managed to tabulate our scores, we had a list of 59 places (the 40 best plus 19 honorable mentions). They exhibit a range of styles. Some are sprawling, others tiny; some are as cute as a dollhouse, others as plain as a mud fence; all specialize in basic cafe fare, but some have a Southern flair, while others boast Tex-Mex or Czech influences. They all, however, make many, if not most, of their dishes from scratch, and this is what truly sets them apart. Because fast-food chains on the highway have eroded some of the customer base, and because it’s so hard to get good, reliable help in a small town, many of the places we visited had long ago begun to resort to prefab food—prepared in advance by a giant conglomerate and then sold to a giant purveyor and then delivered in a giant truck. These 59 joints have, for the most part, resisted the temptation.
So if you happen to find yourself on the road this season, headed home for the holidays, pass up the drive-through and park beneath the flashing neon sign. Drop 50 cents in the cigar box by the register and grab a copy of the local paper. Order the fried chicken, hand-breaded onion rings, homemade rolls, and iced tea in a glass the size of a Chevy Suburban. Have a piece of cherry pie. Wink at the waitress who called you “hon” when she refilled your coffee. You’ll feel like you’re home already. Patricia Sharpe and Jake Silverstein
Bastrop | pop. 7,823
MAXINE’S ON MAIN
Come for the food, stay for the waitresses. The potato skins filled with roasted-green-chile pork are perfect with a glass of homemade lemonade, and the chicken-fried steak is served with just-lumpy-enough mashed potatoes and a velvety, peppery cream gravy, but it’s the staff that elevates this friendly place on Main Street. When we inquired about the award-winning chili, our waitress turned and shouted, “Hey, Maddie, how do you like the chili?” to a ten-year-old girl, who smiled and said, “It’s the only reason I come here.” Another waitress, hair piled high on her head, leaned out the door to check on an elderly man catching his breath at a sidewalk table, then brought him a mason jar filled with ice water. 905 Main, 512-303-0919. Open Sun—Thur 7 a.m.—2 p.m., Fri & Sat 7—9. SVL
Celina | pop. 5,264
LUCY’S ON THE SQUARE
Ah, the pinto beans, seasoned with oregano and thick chunks of bacon; or the hand-battered chicken-fried steak with cream gravy; or the yeast rolls, surprisingly dense and moist, whipped up daily in the on-site bakery; or the towering homemade coconut cream pie, so rich and smooth that a friend, his mouth half-full, slurred, “I thought I didn’t like coconut cream pie, but I just hadn’t tried Lucy’s.” These are some of the memories we treasure from our visit to this bustling downtown