The 40 Best Small-Town Cafes

We sent 39 people on a five-month odyssey to find the finest purveyors of chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, burgers and fries, onion rings, pork chops, cornbread, fresh doughnuts, and hot apple pie. After 24,000 miles, a flotilla of to-go containers, and a forest of toothpicks, the results are in.

December 2008By Comments

Photograph by Randal Ford

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

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

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 spot with exposed brick walls, “How you?” waitresses, and a giant fiberglass steer (that would be Lucy—that’s right, a steer named Lucy) gazing benevolently from the second-floor balcony at the happy diners below. 127 N. Ohio, 972-382-1212. Open Mon—Wed 6 a.m.—8 p.m., Thur & Fri 6—9, Sat 7—9, Sun 7—3. BDS

Comfort | pop. 2,358

There is no longer an inn at the Cypress Creek Inn Restaurant, but who cares? The restaurant delivers on every homey pleasure implied by the town’s name. The dining room is crammed with plastic flowers, stained glass windows, bric-a-brac, framed newspaper clippings of historic events, Raggedy Ann dolls, and clown paintings. Regulars are greeted by name; an elderly woman dining alone was joined by a waiter who sat down to chat while he rolled silverware into napkins. Meanwhile, the chicken-fried steak is among the best we’ve ever encountered—a surprisingly tender cutlet in an irresistibly crispy crust, topped with delish gravy and served with a mound of real mashed potatoes. Pies are tops. 408 Texas Hwy. 27, 830-995-3977. Lunch 7 days 11:30—2:30. Dinner Wed—Sat 5:30—8:30. LF

Cuero | pop. 6,465

A Romanesque Revival courthouse, a racing turkey named Ruby Begonia, and a chupacabra sighting—what more could you want from a small town? Thursday’s special at the Bahnhof Cafe, that’s what. We tried the meat loaf with brown gravy and the chicken-fried steak with white, and we overdid it with the homemade rolls and french fries adorned with a bit of peel. Slicker than most country cafes, the Bahnhof serves wine, but it’s Texas wine (mostly). The bread pudding should properly be followed by a nap (perhaps with one of the bachelor ranchers wolfing down chunky mashed potatoes with their pants tucked into their boots?). Or you could just go antiquing. 213 W. Main, 361-275-2211. Open Mon—Fri 7 a.m.—2 p.m. Closed Sat & Sun. RV

Cushing | pop. 656

What keeps Cushing, a brief distraction on the drive from Jacksonville to Nacogdoches, alive and kicking? The 7th Street Restaurant may be partly responsible. Located in a row of mostly abandoned century-old storefronts in Cushing’s former business district, the locally famous chow parlor puts out the basics with flair. The chicken-fried steak is a must, and under no circumstances may you pass up the creamy, East Texas—style potatoes, mashed with the peels on. Leave room for homemade pie and time to study the impressive wall of license plates, which appears to represent all fifty states (and a number of foreign countries). 754 Seventh, 936-326-8457. Open Mon—Thur 10:30 a.m.—9 p.m., Fri & Sat 10:30—10, Sun 10:30—3:30. AS

Decatur | pop. 6,275

Of the seven clocks that hang in the Whistle Stop Cafe, only one is right. Its numerals have fallen from their posts and sit, jumbled, at the six o’clock mark, but its face reads, “Who cares!?!” Never was this common bit of cafe kitsch more accurate. As we hunched over our chicken-fried steak—a tender cutlet encased in battered goodness and crowned with snow-white gravy—time’s wingéd chariot ground to a halt. As we tucked into one of the richest pecan pies to ever touch the tines of a fork, the wheels fell off completely. Housed in a 1929 stone building next door to the equally historic Petrified Wood Gas Station, the Whistle Stop is run by a bevy of sassy waitresses who quit serving lunch at two. So don’t lose track of time until after you’ve placed your order. 904 S. Business U.S. 287, 940-627-7785. Open Mon—Fri 6 a.m.—2 p.m., Sat 7 a.m.—10:30 a.m. Closed Sun. JB

Edom | pop. 346

When you get wore out, as they say in East Texas, from shopping the quaint row of art galleries in downtown Edom, the forty-year-old Shed will rejuvenate you with a superthick, fluffy-crusted chicken-fried steak, sides of mashed potatoes and okra, and a stout slab of homemade pie, often featuring local fresh fruit. Expect to dine alongside an amiable mix of country folks and artsy types. The staff is extra-friendly, even by East Texas standards. Afterward, check the front porch vegetable stand, browse the gift store next door, or head back to the galleries. 8337 FM 279, 903-852-7791. Open 7 days 7 a.m.—8 p.m. AS

Eustace | pop. 931

Ask anyone where to get the best chicken-fried steak this side of Cedar Creek and they’ll send you to Sue’s, where you’ll find it hand-breaded, well-seasoned, and accompanied by fresh seasonal vegetables. Prepare for a rooster theme carried to the extreme; the birds cover everything—the walls, the counters, even the menus. Pies are baked at least twice a week; the pecan is fabulous. After pushing back from the fowl-print tablecloth, take your tea across the street and sit in the gazebo right on the tiny town square. 103 Edgar, 903-425-8008. Open Mon—Sat 7 a.m.—2 p.m. Closed Sun. AS

Fayetteville | pop. 276

Located in what was, at various times, a confectionery, a doctor’s office, and a saloon, this charming hangout on Fayetteville’s historic square doles out a plate-size chicken-fried steak with a toasty crust and a peppery cream gravy. The fried sweet potato chips aren’t too sweet, and fresh green beans sautéed with bacon and onions remind us of Sunday supper at Grandma’s. Dishes named after locals—Lisa’s Big Salad, Lanny’s Slow Smoked Ribs, Todd Fritsch’s Cowhand Ribeye—confer a sense of community. But no matter where you’re from, you’ll enjoy genuine Southern hospitality. 120 N. Live Oak, 979-378-9035. Open 7 days 11 a.m. until late evening (call). BP

Freeport | pop. 12,557

Not surprisingly, fried shrimp is the star at this joint immediately across from the docks, a favorite of fishermen, divers, and petrochemical plant workers. The chicken-fried steak, catfish, and burgers hold their own alongside what may be the best coleslaw in Texas. Fried dill pickles—sliced, lightly breaded—are an eye-opener, and the marvelous blackberry and peach cobblers provide culinary exclamation points. This place is the real deal. No skinny waitresses here, and natural hair color is conspicuous by its absence. 919 W. Second, 979-233-1352. Open Mon—Sat 11 a.m.—9 p.m., Sun 5 p.m.—9 p.m. SS

Goldthwaite | pop. 1,755

Housed in what was once a wool and mohair warehouse, Peabody’s is laid-back and family—friendly. Every Sunday, owner-cook Allen Knight serves up some of the tastiest chicken-fried steak in the state. The meat is peppered and pounded thin before being hand-dipped in batter. Can’t-miss choices at the daily buffet-style lunch and dinner are the fried catfish and smothered hamburger steak. Each dish is accompanied by an array of fresh vegetables and a choice of straight-from-the-oven rolls or jalapeño cornbread. Knight’s sister-in-law makes the prize-worthy pies from scratch; you’ve got to have the coconut cream. 1206 Fisher, 325-648-3708. Open Mon 6 a.m.—8 p.m., Wed & Thur 11—8, Fri & Sat 6—9, Sun 6—3. Closed Tue. ER

Hearne | pop. 4,611

We would like to use this space to apologize to our waitress, whom we startled with our unbridled enthusiasm. After two bites of the chicken and dumplings, we shouted, “This is amazing!” nearly causing her to drop a tray of iced teas. We then ordered the chicken-fried steak (hand-breaded), the mashed potatoes (lumpily perfect), and a cornbread muffin, and devoured it all. When she warily asked if we would care for some pecan pie, we thumped the table and hollered, “You kidding?” She hurried back with a slice, which, needless to say, we ate the heck out of. Customers: ethnically diverse; half regulars, half travelers. Decor: Confederate. 708 S. Market, 979-279-5171. Open Mon—Thur 10:30 a.m.—10 p.m., Fri—Sun 7—10. KV

Hico | pop. 1,339

You’re headed south on 281 and out of the corner of your eye you see an impossibly quaint limestone cafe labeled “Koffee Kup.” Screeech! Inside, kafe kitsch is king, inkluding a world-klass kollection of salt and pepper shakers. Handmade doughnuts appear at breakfast, and we could eat them all day long, except that sooner or later lunch rolls around, and we’re drawn to the spectacular jalapeño-and-cream-cheese burger on a homemade bun. The meringue pies, though famous, take a backseat to the apricot cobbler. Save a belt notch (or a whole new pair of pants) for a trip to Wiseman House, a gourmet chocolatier just across the street. U.S. 281 & Texas Hwy. 6, 254-796-4839. Open 7 days 6 a.m.—9 p.m. PS

Hutto | pop. 11,889

This friendly joint in Hutto’s old downtown has an inventive way with classic fare. Don’t be perplexed by fried pickles. They’re lightly battered and surprisingly delicious. Homemade onion rings have a spicy cornmeal crust, and the T’s in the BLT are fried and green. Sides are fresh and tasty, especially the palate-cleansing cucumber salad and the Grumpy Potatoes, which left us anything but. The hand-breaded chicken-fry is made-to-order. Baked on the premises every morning, the pies are unfussy yet creative. There were sixteen the day we visited, including a peanut butter variety that makes Reese’s seem like kid stuff. Don’t miss the Pie Happy Hour, an institution that we imagine has caused a marked decline in late-afternoon productivity in the Hutto metro area. 207 East, 512-846-2885. Open Tue—Sat 11 a.m.—8:30 p.m., Sun 11—3. Closed Mon. JS

Italy | pop. 2,121

Forget MySpace. In the tiny town of Italy (pronounced “It-lee”), the Uptown Cafe is the social hub. Our waitress (and the owner’s daughter) pulled up a chair, and suddenly we found ourselves chatting away. It helped that she was toting an excellent burger: thick charbroiled meat served with juicy tomato slices, pickles, and lettuce on a buttered and griddle-warmed bun. Homemade fries are a dying breed, but not at the Uptown, where they come spicy, beer-battered, fresh-cut, or classic. Newspaper articles about locals and celebrities alike line a wall of fame, according to which no less an expert on down-home cooking than Denver Pyle (Uncle Jesse from The Dukes of Hazzard) once sampled the fare at Uptown. Alas, Sorrell Booke (Boss Hogg) was never so lucky. 129 W. Main, 972-483-9506. Open Mon—Sat 10 a.m.—2 p.m. Closed Sun. IK

Johnson City | pop. 1,528

We hate to say it, but the hand-breaded fried pork chop at the Hill Country Cupboard knocked the gravy off the chicken-fried steak. For that matter, the sides—tender black-eyed peas and home-style potatoes with onions from the griddle—almost outshone the main courses, and frankly, the dinner may have been eclipsed by the contents of the (count ’em) two dessert cases. Basically, every bite was better than the last. We recommend the scrumptious homemade doughnuts and the gooey cherry pie with a fall-apart-in-your-mouth crust. If sweets won’t satisfy, there’s a bar in the back (or combine the two vices with a locally made tequila sucker). Menus glued onto paper sacks and a troll doll collection give the requisite quirky touches. Junction of U.S. 281 and U.S. 290, 830-868-4625. Open 7 days 7 a.m.—9 p.m. M. Giller

Junction | pop. 2,576

Mosey down the entry hall, crammed with trophy mounts and a knife case, to get to the great food and friendly waitresses, most of whom have worked at the restaurant for decades and one of whom bought the place two years back. The clientele ranges from tattooed cowboys chomping on homemade onion rings to ladies sharing patty melts. A local from nearby Roosevelt recommended the chicken-fry, and boy, was she right: tender meat, wrapped in a crust with the perfect grease quotient, finished with thick white gravy. The grilled pork chops and peppery mashed potatoes brought us to new heights, and by the time we were slurping coffee from Isaacks-embossed mugs and savoring a few pieces of pie, we were in heaven. Or someplace like it. 1606 Main, 325-446-2629. Open Mon—Thur 6 a.m.—9 p.m., Fri & Sat 6—10, Sun 6—2. M. Giller

Kenedy | pop. 3,329

Kenedy is barely a blip on the road between San Antonio and Corpus Christi, but Barth’s has been a must-stop for more than seven decades. Walk inside and take in the white-and-black-checked floor, the maroon-vinyl swivel chairs at the bar, and the spacious yet cozy booths in the back (smoking section: yes). The chicken-fried steak is mighty fine, but the pies are the showstoppers. We inhaled slices of the flaky-crusted apple and the manna-from-heaven chocolate. When we asked the cashier for a recipe, she just smiled, shook her head, and asked if the kiddos would like a lollipop. 445 N. Sunset Strip, 830-583-2468. Open 7 days 6 a.m.—9 p.m. PBM

Lampasas | pop. 7,867

While the name of this cafe may sound corny to sophisticated city diners, it would be a mistake to assume that the Yumm Factory is some kind of conveyor belt operation. The food is home cooked, and the crowd of locals at lunchtime is a testament to the popularity of the daily menu. If it’s Friday, stop in for all-you-can-eat catfish. Otherwise, try the crispy chicken-fried steak (available in regular or “Yumm” size) with white country gravy. Local vegetables star in made-from-scratch sides, including mashed potatoes, pinto beans, fried okra, and green bean casserole. A wide variety of pies are made daily (the peanut butter pie is its own little yum factory). 1902 S. Key Ave., 512-556-0550. Open Tue—Thur 8 a.m.—8 p.m., Fri 8—9, Sat 6—9, Sun 8—3. Closed Mon. ER

Leakey | pop. 371

Co-owner Leonard Bludworth likes to joke, “If you put a plate of our food on top of your head, your tongue will knock your ear off trying to get to it.” That might be a stretch, but the food is darn good. Personal inspection confirmed the quality of the much-ballyhooed chicken-fry, and rumor has it that the fried shrimp plate is awesome too. With its weathered wood siding, peeling tin roof, Texas and American flags, and general junkyard atmosphere, the Feed Lot is fun, especially in the summer after tubing down the Rio Frio. 547 U.S. 83 S, 830-232-5919. Open Mon & Thur—Sat 11—2 & 5—9, Sun 11—2. Closed Tue & Wed. KT

Lincoln | pop. 276

What with the big old trees outside and scuffed wood floors inside, Elm Creek feels as if it’s in the middle of nowhere. In reality, it’s only about 45 minutes from Austin. Although a grilled chicken-fried steak is a contradiction in terms, you can get one here, as well as a conventional one, both of them state-of-the-art. The crust of the latter was crunchy and light and full of flavor without being too greasy—perfection on a platter. A twelve-year-old burger expert vouched for the handmade ground-sirloin meat patty and toasted bun. The service couldn’t have been nicer. 33 Texas Hwy. 21 W, 512-253-6775. Open Tue—Thur 11 a.m.—9 p.m., Fri & Sat 11—10, Sun 11—9. Closed Mon. LB

Livingston | pop. 6,251

Just down the road from the nation’s most infamous death row, you’ll find a warm cafe that feels like a community center. In this plain-Jane dining room hung with bail bondsmen ads, prison guards and local families feast on the fabulous chicken-fried steak, with a golden-brown and crumbly crust, drenched in thick, peppery gravy. The fries are large and hand-cut. Florida Harris bakes the pies and a few other desserts as well. The wait can be long, and if it’s crowded, you’ll have to maneuver your car between the trees and trucks in the decidedly nonlinear parking lot. 796 FM 350 S, 936-967-4216. Open Wed 11 a.m.—8:30 p.m., Thur—Sat 11—9, Sun 11—4. Closed Mon & Tue. MH

Marlin | pop. 6,019

Can you say sweet tea, cornbread, collard greens, meat loaf, fried chicken, and black-eyed peas? The menu has a high soul-food quotient, and the place is definitely family run. The grub will remind you of a post-church lunch, and somebody here (or several somebodies) knows how to cook. Sunlight pours through the storefront windows onto the aqua-blue walls and a marker board where the menu is written. 259 Live Oak, 254-803-5744. Open Tue—Sat 8 a.m.—2 p.m., Sun 8—3. Closed Mon. AB

McGregor | pop. 4,872

The waitress’ shirt said it all: “Western White House.” Not that long ago, this was one of the places where the national press corps hung out when President Bush was at his Crawford ranch. If the pictures on the wall are any indication, 43’s approval rating never faltered here. Despite its eight years in the limelight, the Coffee Shop is still just a good ol’ cafe that serves good ol’ food to good ol’ people, the kind with dust on their boots and jeans that aren’t prefaded. Be sure to order the onion rings and the rich and fluffy chocolate cream pie. Then it’s back to clearing brush. 1005 W. George W. Bush Pkwy., 254-840-2027. Open Mon—Sat 6 a.m.—9 p.m., Sun 6—2. FG

McQueeney | pop. 2,527

In the summer, lots of folks spend the afternoon waterskiing at Lake McQueeney before stopping at this quaint gathering spot for some grub. The beer is cold and the vibe quasi-rustic (think wooden tables with captain’s chairs and walls decorated with a huge Texaco star and mounted fish and deer heads). Locals go for the steak and shrimp (though to be honest, the pie is skippable). Blake’s is the kind of place where everybody knows everybody else. 9216 FM 725, 830-557-6335. Open Tue 11 a.m.—3 p.m., Wed—Mon 11—9. PBM

Medina | pop. 2,960

You’ll swear you smell a spice-scented candle when you walk in the front door, but it’s really the apple-rific offerings at this small white frame house with apple-red trim. Medina is known as the apple capital of Texas, and Love Creek Orchards makes the most of it, turning out famed apple pie, apple ice cream, apple jam, and apple butter. You may be tempted to eat nothing but apple-based foodstuffs, although you’d miss a pretty fantastic burger (for which, surprisingly, apple slices are not an available topping). The apple-centric gift shop demands a stop on your way out. Texas Hwy. 16 N, 800-449-0882. Open 7 days 11 a.m.—3 p.m. KT

Moss Hill | pop. 49

Simply Country used to be a store and gas station but has been transformed into a homey cafe, right down to the wooden tables and chairs, painted saws on the wall, and pie case by the front door. Owner Charlotte Price and her pie-making mom keep local diners coming back with favorites like ice box banana split and Chocolate Delight, plus the usual meringue and fruit varieties. On Thursday, the twosome starts cranking out pies for the weekend rush. If they run out, you can console yourself with hand-dipped chicken-fried steak and made-from-scratch mashed potatoes. (Weather advisory: The cafe was badly damaged by Hurricane Ike but hopes to reopen around Christmas.) 17174 Texas Hwy. 146 N, 936-298-2825. Open Tue—Thur 5:30 a.m.—2 p.m., Fri & Sat 5:30—9, Sun 6—2. Closed Mon. AMT

Nacogdoches | pop. 31,135*

This treasure of old-fashioned country cooking plunked down between Nacogdoches and Douglass looks a bit like a farm stand, with a cheerful paint job and giant shutters propped open over a well-tended garden. The simple menu of specials changes daily (chicken and dressing, smothered pork chop, chicken and dumplings). All are made with fresh ingredients and a Southern accent. The cornbread is light and buttery. If you pass up the pie, made by hand in the tiny kitchen in full view of the dining room, you will live a life of painful and unrelenting regret. The pleasant, even jovial, waitresses add to the relaxed but amazing culinary experience, which, unfortunately, is no secret. Expect a wait. 4781 Texas Hwy. 21 W, 936-560-2030. Open Mon—Fri 11 a.m.—2 p.m. Closed Sat & Sun. AS

*The population of Nacogdoches exceeds our limit of 25,000, but the cafe is technically located 2 miles outside of town on the roadside. And the pie is damn good.

Riviera Beach | pop. 195

Seaside cafes are usually temples of tepid cuisine, garish multicolored T-shirts, and tacky shorts. But here, the decks are worn from years of traffic coming in for fresh Texas coastal cuisine. Every table has a view of the bay; enjoy it while you choose between a platter-lapping chicken-fried steak or fried morsels of black drum with chile pequín—spiked tartar sauce. The peppery thin-cut onion rings and skins-on steak fries make above-par sides. The fishing in the area is great, so as long as you’re here, grab a pole and try your luck (there’s a bait camp next door, run by the cafe owner’s mother). Or bring binoculars and explore a breezy segment of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. 1289 E. County Rd. 2360, 361-297-5354. Open Sun—Thur 11 a.m.—9 p.m., Fri & Sat 11—10. S. Harmon

Roaring Springs | pop. 239

Three years ago, Gene Chapman drove to Roaring Springs to buy a part for his weed eater. By the time he left, he had bought the general store, laundromat, and cafe. Today, the cafe is the sole survivor of his accidental empire. Step past the red screen door and enter the hub of activity in this tiny town. Chapman enjoys shooting the breeze as he serves up satisfying fare, including a fine chicken-fry, an outstanding BLT with thick, crisp bacon, and a moist cherry-pecan cake. The place is so homey that during the lunch rush, locals pitch in to clear tables. Historical note: The town was once a part of the famed Matador Ranch. 210 Broadway, 806-348-7205. Open Tue—Sat 7 a.m.—2 p.m., Sun 11—2. Closed Mon. LW

Santa Fe | pop. 10,490

With its own outstanding bakery, this restaurant, a mile from the Galveston County fairgrounds, draws tattooed bikers, church ladies, traveling Houstonians, and everyone in between. Baseball trophies and a mirrored pie case next to the register set the right mood. Special honors go to the plump cheeseburger on a tender but substantial house-made bun and to the moist and nongreasy fried chicken dredged in a mixture of flour and cornmeal. The fried squash is crisp on the outside, while the chocolate—peanut butter pie, topped with real whipped cream, will send you to the moon. When you get back, swing by nearby Haak Winery to taste the latest vintage and take in some live music. 12350 Texas Hwy. 6, 409-925-6330. Open 7 days 5:30 a.m.—9 p.m. SS

Seymour | pop. 2,688

One word: “classic.” The Rock Inn has been around for 73 years, and everything about it testifies to old-fashioned quality: hand-pressed burgers, great fries, a fabulous dark-chocolate pie with homemade crust and melt-in-your-mouth meringue. The gravy on the chicken-fry was properly peppery, and the menu offered both chicken livers and gizzards, a rarity these days. If you don’t root for Texas Tech (Lubbock is 165 miles away), you might want to keep your mouth shut, because somebody here really likes the Red Raiders (the decor could be called Tech moderne—red booths, red stools at the lunch counter, and Tech memorabilia plastered on the walls). The only letdown is that after substantial renovations over the years, the Rock Inn is no longer made of rock. 207 W. California (Texas Hwy. 44/U.S. 182), 940-888-2322. Open 7 days 5:30 a.m.—9 p.m. PB

Snyder | pop. 10,447

“Ain’t no Bisquick up in here!” That’s Mrs. Kathy’s motto and she’s sticking to it. The kitchen is in full view of the dining room, so while you wait, you can watch the ladies prepping and cooking their indescribably delicious food from scratch, weaving among one another in a culinary ballet. You’ll marvel at world-class chicken-fried steak, pork chops, and King Ranch chicken casserole. You’ll swoon over real-deal mashed potatoes and fresh corn. Mrs. Kathy keeps a close eye on the plates whizzing by as she banters with regular customers and rings up checks. Don’t be put off by a few highfalutin items such as panini and crepes. This is down-home cooking at its transcendent best. 3413 Snyder Shopping Center, 325-573-2520. Open Tue—Fri 11 a.m.—2 p.m. Closed Sat—Mon. TP

Spur | pop. 966

One look at the Turnaround Cafe and you might be tempted to, well, turn around. Don’t. This beat-up former Gulf gas station has plate-licking-good food, mug-draining-good coffee, and ear-straining-good local news (just lean a little closer to the next table). A pleasant drive through rolling grassland, high mesas, and unexpected canyons takes you to Spur, which was once a part of the historic Spur Ranch and was born with the coming of the Burlington Railroad. If you notice the police chief hanging around, that’s because his wife owns the place. 202 Burlington, 806-271-3983. Open Mon 5:30 a.m.—2 p.m., Tue—Sun 5:30—8. LW

Stephenville | pop. 16,715

Jake and Dorothy’s should be in a time capsule. Hell, it is a time capsule. To celebrate its sixtieth birthday this June, the cafe served chicken-fried steak for $3.60 and buttermilk pie for 60 cents. The line was out the door. Gail Bolling, who has worked off and on at the restaurant for 35 years, is always being asked to take a snapshot of couples who had their first date here decades ago. The kitchen makes everything from scratch, including crisp chicken livers and lattice-crusted cherry pies that would do June Cleaver proud. After dinner, stroll a block to Stephenville’s town square to see the handsome county courthouse. You might spot a cowboy (Stephenville is the cowboy capital of the world) or a UFO (a bunch of locals reported sightings last January). 406 E. Washington, 254-965-5211. Open Sun—Thur 5:30 a.m.—midnight, Fri & Sat 5:30 a.m.—2 a.m. PS

Sweetwater | pop. 10,472

At Ma Allen’s, as the locals call it, you don’t order off a menu. They just seat you at a long table with other customers, and the platters and bowls start coming. You get fried chicken and one other meat (sausage, barbecued ribs, meat loaf, or roast beef), and there are a ton of sides (squash, pinto beans, slaw, creamed corn, chopped spinach, sweet potatoes, boiled okra, green pea salad, potato salad, and buttery whole peeled baked potatoes that fall apart at the touch of a fork). You pass the food around, boardinghouse-style, till you’re so stuffed you start to fear for your chair. At this rate, the peach cobbler could be your last dessert, but if so you’ll die happy and have something to leave your heirs, since the price of this remarkable meal is a mere $8.50 per person. 1301 E. Broadway, 325-235-2060. Family-style Tue—Sun 11 a.m.—2 p.m. Buffet Mon—Fri 5 p.m.—8 p.m. LJG and RR

Tuscola | pop. 725

A waitress pats a customer on the shoulder and says, “I’m so glad to see you!” Big G’s is that kind of place. It hasn’t been in business all that long, but locals obviously like the little roadside cafe, with a buffalo head on the wall and an antique toy scooter and tractor artistically suspended from the ceiling. The barbecue has customers queuing up, and the chicken-fry is far better than average, with a ruffly, toasty crust and peppery gravy. More good marks go to the well-seasoned hand-pressed meat patty on the cheeseburger (though the bun’s mundane). There’s not a lot to do in Tuscola (other than marvel at the Jim Ned High School gridiron, where Colt McCoy learned his chops from his dad), so drive seven miles northwest on FM 613 and poke around Buffalo Gap’s historic village and craft shops. 802 Garza (U.S. 83), 325-554-7603. Open Mon—Sat 11 a.m.—9 p.m. Closed Sun. PS

Wheeler | pop. 1,215

Overheard at a neighboring table: “I’ve lived in Texas all my life and I’ve never had a better chicken-fried steak.” The tender meat is surrounded by a crunchy batter and served with real homemade (i.e., authentically lumpy) mashed potatoes and peppery cream gravy. And the diner’s golden, hand-cut french fries are so good you won’t even want ketchup. Pie lady Lourdes Buenrostra makes ten kinds from scratch, including chocolate, pecan, and coconut cream. The knotty pine walls showcase assorted mounted animals (birds, fish, and a bobcat) and amusing signs like “You know you’re in a small town when … you are run off main street with a combine.” Visit early enough on game-day Friday and you can eat breakfast with the Wheeler High School football team. Go Mustangs! 704 W. Oklahoma, 806-826-3756. Open Mon—Fri 5 a.m.—9 p.m., Sat 5—4, Sun 5—2. CC

Yoakum | pop. 5,503

“Best BBQ and bakery in town!” brags the H & H. A lot of folks obviously agree. Those who aren’t slaves to the brisket are hooked on the crisp chicken-fried steak with white gravy, or they’re fiends for the locally smoked turkey breast, or they’re meat loaf freaks. The mashed potatoes contain tasty tater lumps, and the fried okra and the berry pie are worth fighting over. On your way out, make another pass through the short cafeteria line to pick up a homemade sweet roll or doughnut to keep you company. Then take a minute and stroll over to Yoakum’s architecturally unique public library (it’s housed in the former city electrical plant) or shop for clothes and furnishings worthy of a country music star at the Double D Ranch store. 719 Lott, 361-293-3232. Open Mon—Sat 6:15 a.m.—2 p.m. Closed Sun. RV

Zapata | pop. 5,413

Thanks to nearby petroleum operations and the prime hunting and fishing at Falcon Lake, truckloads of hungry men rumble out of the South Texas brush at noon and head to sprawling El Paraiso. The house specialty, chicken-fried steak, is spectacular, made from top round that’s tender, well-seasoned, and jacketed in a quintessential crust. Families love the place for its copious kids’ menu. One woman is responsible, the late, great Hortencia Medina, who came here from Mexico and worked her way up from dishwasher to restaurant owner. (If paradise is crowded, try one of the two restaurants owned by Medina’s offspring, the Steak House or El Rincon de los Angeles.) 1905 U.S. 83, 956-765-3558. Open 7 days 5 a.m.—10:45 p.m. M. Guerrat

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