The ups and downs of eating in the Hill Country.
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In Texas, the search for good food quite often leads you over back roads. We took some of these through the Hill Country recently, and came up with some surprisingly worthy restaurants: outstanding barbecue, Mexican and German food, down-home cooking, and one or two really elegant spots.
There’s one feature of these Hill Country places we feel we should prepare you for: the waitresses. They are generally over fifty, dead serious about their responsibilities, and dressed in organdy aprons over starched house dresses, black lace-up shoes, and hair nets over gray iron hair. Their formidable looks produce the proper respect from children (one grandmother type refused dessert to my son until he had eaten all his vegetables). If you’re not traveling with children, you will not have to fear the brat at the next table. Those Hill Country waitresses run a tight ship.
In early Texas, travelers stopping at rest points usually ran up against a limited menu. They might order sausage and soda crackers, or, for variety, rat cheese and soda crackers—back then, the proprietor gave the crackers away. Now you have to pay for them, but you can still enjoy this country repast at Hondo Crouch’s little town of Luckenbach, located on Ranch Road 1376 eleven miles east of Fredericksburg off U.S. 290 East.
Besides the Texas Seafood Special (sardines and soda crackers), you may wish to try Opa’s dry sausage made in Fredericksburg, rat cheese, or the best Van Camp’s Beanie Weenies in the state chased by all the long-neck beer you can buy. A must-see for Hill County travelers, Luckenbach is a funky wood frame building (circa 1850) housing a post office, general store, and a beer joint in the back. Next door is a cotton gin, blacksmith shop, and molasses press with cooker.
You can also play dominoes, throw washers, swim in the creek with the cottonmouths, borrow the tambourine or tub bass and make music with the pickers and singers who frequent the place. If the house specials don’t appeal, bring a picnic lunch from home and go to join the fun. It opens at 1 p.m. every day but Wednesday.
If you’re traveling Interstate 10 between Kerrville and San Antonio there are several places to stop depending on the time of day, your taste, and your pocketbook. In Kerrville on State Highway 16 you can get a good lunch at Gordon Findlay’s Pioneer House for $2.25. There is a good salad bar, homemade vegetable soup, and a choice of shrimp scampi, lobster, prime rib, steak, or hamburger, with corn on the cob or sautéed mushrooms on the side. Drinks and beer are served, and the service is cheerful. The décor is Kerrville memorabilia, with calico napkins and Revere flatware. Findlay’s is open every day for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and for dinner from 5:30 to 9; on weekends they serve until 10 p.m.
Raleigh House, an institution with camp parents passing through Kerrville, is one of the last of the country inns that cater to the traveler. Located in an old house 3½ miles west of town on Junction Highway, it is owned and operated by Martha R. Johnson. You may have steak or lobster, a salad from the bar, fresh vegetables, homemade blueberry muffins and breads with real butter and great cheesecake. Bring your own bottle. It is open only during the summer. Hours are noon to 2 p.m. and 5 to 8:30 Monday through Saturday (closed Tuesday), and Sunday from noon to 8 p.m. Call for reservations on Saturday night (367-5681).
At the other end of the Kerrville spectrum is the Acapulco Cafe, 1720 Water Street. It may look like a dive, but its Acapulco enchiladas defy description. Order their excellent guacamole and soft tortillas, and bring your own beer for a Mexican dinner par excellence. It is open seven days from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Grandpa and Charlotte Holmes’ Cypress Creek Inn in Comfort boasts 23 years of “truly home cooking.” Sit on chrome chairs, rest your elbows on plastic table cloths, and stare at the mounted jackalope while waiting for a menu. For $1.60 you choose from pan sausage, creamed chicken on a flaky biscuit, barbecued hamburger, or calf’s liver and onions (though, from experience, we suggest your avoid the latter). The chicken-fried steak topped with a pale gravy looks bad but tastes good. Charlotte makes all the desserts, and we recommend the cherry or Boston cream pie in particular. A family of five can eat the plate lunch, homemade dessert, and the adults can drink beer, for just about $10. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 8 Tuesday through Saturday, and Sunday 11:30 to 2:30. Closed Monday.
Near Boerne is Lloyd E. and Carol Hood’s Po-Po, the four-star restaurant of the Hill Country. It’s nestled in the oaks off the Welfare exit of Interstate 10 on the east side of the freeway a quarter of a mile toward Waring. There is no sign on the freeway. Lloyd, looking across his packed dining room, maintains that word of mouth is the best and only advertising that Po-Po has ever used. Lloyd and Carol are the third generation to own and operate Po-Po. Carol’s Bavarian grandparents moved from Wisconsin into the rock house next door to Po-Po in 1947, when Po-Po was just a beer joint. The noise was so bothersome that they just bought the place. Grandpa had restaurateur experience in New York where his father had operated an old dining car eatery. Grandma came from a long line of passionate Bavarian cooks. They began to serve steaks and fresh seafood in the ancient stone building. They erected a six-foot red neon sign that blinks off and on: EATS. That ended their advertising expense permanently. The interior can best be described as country camp. Po-Po’s owners have traveled the world, bringing back over 800 souvenir plates which hang on every wall. There’s a lush indoor garden and a small display of antiques. You’ll get a linen napkin and blue-rimmed pottery plate which will be garnished nicely with parsley, a radish rose, and a jelly, sadly in a foil pack. Since 1947, Po-Po has never bought a frozen steak or any frozen seafood. Meat, fish, and produce are delivered fresh daily. Their prices are as remarkable as the quality of their food (choice sirloin $4.95; fried chicken $3.25; fried shrimp $2.95; fried oysters $3.35) and the portions are generous. Skip the house salad dressing. Once you find this restaurant, you’ll want to return. Ask Lloyd and Carol why it’s called Po-Po. It is open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Monday.
At Boerne try the Antler’s Inn at Main and Blanco. A big pot of beans, hot or plain, will start you out in this old converted limestone hotel building. Steaks and seafood prevail. Moose heads grace the outside walls, and there’s art work from Hill Country artists for sale. The Trophy room upstairs provides Texas-sized drinks and a piano player entertains. Hours are 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, Friday and Saturday 5 to 11, and Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Tuesday.
Steve Spence’s Settlement Inn in Leon Springs is an entire community—potter, Western art gallery, and quilt shop, and across the tracks, a blacksmith, weaver, jewelry maker, and restorer of antiques. The food’s all barbecue—ham (somewhat dry), ribs, brisket, and sausage—with standard extras—pickles, onions, jalapeños, potato salad, coleslaw, or beans. The a la carte menu is confusing, so ask for clarifications. The lunchroom is open from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the diningroom from 5 to 9, until 10 on Friday and Saturday. Closed Monday.
One of the best breakfasts in Texas is served at Krause’s Cafe in New Braunfels, one block off the main circle on Castell Street. Krause’s has been in operation 36 years. Tommy Krause, son of the originator, employs a man in the back who smokes bacon and sausage exclusively for Krause’s. The biscuits are good, the hot cakes are made from scratch, and the bread comes from a local German bakery. Two eggs and Krause’s sausage or bacon costs $1.45. You can also buy blood sausage and panna (scrapple to Yankees). Lunch offers enormous and delicious sandwiches on your choice of bread (oh, that poppy seed bun); for 50 cents extra you get a large portion of home fries. A fine hamburger costs 90 cents, a sausage sandwich, $1.35. There’s also German potato salad, pork hocks and sauerkraut, a barbecue plate, coleslaw, pinto beans, bottled and draft beer (dark and light), and homemade German chocolate pie and angel food cake. This restaurant seats 250 people; try to sit in the smaller diningroom, which is quieter. Krause’s is open daily except Sunday from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
You can choose anything from the sublime to the ridiculous in Blanco. Salt Lick Too, an off-shoot of Driftwood’s Salt Lick, is next to the abandoned courthouse. A good barbecue plate for $2.95 (child’s plate, $1.25) provides a generous portion of beef, ribs, or sausage with potato salad, beans, coleslaw, hot bread, and tea. For $1.75 you can get a quarter of a chicken and all the above. Draft and bottle beer are available. For dessert try homemade ice cream at 30 cents or homemade pecan pie. The diningroom is a big clean barny room with yellow picnic tables. Hours are 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day except Monday.
The Hunter’s Inn across the street provides all the amenities of a big slick city restaurant, and is the only watering hole on State Highway 281 between San Antonio and Dallas. The red plush interior is dominated by a nine-foot stuffed polar bear. Of note are the excellent wine cellar, Falfurrias butter, and marvelous hot bread reminiscent of Mexican bolillos. Every meal is cooked to order. The impressive menu includes steaks, quail, jumbo shrimp, frog legs, salmon steak, and fried oysters, rounded out by a salad from the bar, baked potato, asparagus, corn on the cob, broccoli, and homemade desserts. The child’s plate is $1. It is open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. every day except Wednesday; the bar is open until midnight for late-night travelers.
In Fredericksburg, Traveler’s Cafe at 152 East Main offers barbecue and German or Mexican food. The best weiner schnitzel in town costs $1.85 on the plate lunch; or try fresh Gulf oysters at the same price. Everything is served with German fried potatoes, red cabbage, or black-eyed peas and homestyle bread. A 50-cent loaf of bread is worth the price. It is open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, except it closes at 2 p.m. on Sunday.
Burrer’s at East College and Llano Street is an old red frame building belching black smoke with a faded sign out front that says barbecue. All barbecue is sold by the pound to go. It is open only on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10 a.m. until all the barbecue is gone. Go early.
Cypriana Valdez’s El Gallo at 108 South Crockett in the Security Bank Building is a paneled room, plastic and formica, but you won’t care if you order the chicken enchiladas with sour cream or the chalupas compuestas (which means with guacamole). Cypriana says her customers want guacamole on everything. You will too once you taste it. El Gallo’s is open every day except Sunday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The Sanchez-Navarro Spanish Cellar, 201 North Llano, is in a marvelous old house, its main diningroom in a half cellar of limestone. Try the chile relleno—one of the best we’ve tasted in the Hill Country. Not only can you buy beer, but also good, reasonably priced Spanish wines. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. every day except Monday.
Llano is home of Inman’s barbecue. (Their red caterer’s wagon is always at the Texas Arts and Crafts Fair or Quiet Valley Ranch outdoor concerts.) Their restaurant, Inman’s Kitchen at 1108 Berry (one block off the main street), is an old house with sawdust floors, red checkered tablecloths, tractor seats are the tables, and excellent homemade chow-chow—for sale in pints for 65 cents. Try a beef plate, and serve yourself from the big pot of beans. Inman’s is famous for its turkey sausage, but we find it dry. The hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day except Sunday.
Another gem in Llano is Abby’s Mexican Kitchen in Abby’s trailer house on State Highway 16 on the north edge of town. The sign is small, but the food is superior. Abby prepares every order by hand. The standard array of Tex-Mex dishes are all delicious, especially the enchiladas. There are only two tables in her trailer, so most customers take the food out; if you eat in, you’ll be inundated by delicious aromas and Willie Nelson tapes. Bring your own beer. Abby’s schedule is rather complicated: dinner from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. only on Wednesday and Saturday; lunch 11:30 to 2 Thursday through Saturday. Closed Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday.