This place better be good,” I muttered to myself as yet another passing eighteen-wheeler rattled the windows of our car. Several friends and I were on our way to dinner, and I was feeling guilty that I had insisted we go to a restaurant in the little town of Cibolo, 25 miles northeast of San Antonio, about a forty-minute drive from the Alamo City on freaking Interstate 35. What was I thinking? Yes, Kindling Texas Kitchen made a lot of sense for my purposes. It had just hired a new head chef, Efren Sandoval, a 36-year-old veteran of the San Francisco restaurant scene who was born in Michoacán. It also had a slightly bizarre backstory, especially for a place named Kindling: the night it opened, a small fire started in a wall. Though the blaze didn’t spread, it revealed building problems that took six months to correct. But since reopening in May, its classy Texas cooking had been getting high marks from both customers and local food journalists. Given all this, I was optimistic the food would be promising enough for me to suggest that people get on the highway and risk PTDD (post-traumatic drive disorder) to check it out.
We parked near the 1908 House of Wine and Ale next door (a sibling operation) and walked up the wide porch steps of the 1911 frame bungalow housing Kindling. At the front, the host was sorting out a couple of groups, so we walked around, peeking into a small, cozy bar with unpainted wood walls and pausing to admire glass jars of preserved vegetables on display, chandeliers made of colorful old bottles, and a whimsical watering can in the shape of a pig. I experienced a vivid flashback to my grandparents’ house in the small Central Texas town of Cameron. Between the beguiling setting and the fact that the restaurant was fully booked at seven o’clock on a Saturday night, I quickly forgot all about my nerve-racking drive.
We took a table in one of several smallish dining rooms, with tall, white shiplap walls and stained-pine flooring. A waitress bearing menus gave us a big smile. I ran my eye down the list of starters and came to a full stop at the intriguing “Sourdough Service.” “Tell us about it,” I requested. She described the bread, meat, and cheese combo, adding that all of Kindling’s loaves and desserts are made by Charlaine “Charlie” Brown, the grandmother of one of the previous chefs. We ordered a plate to share, and then, because they sounded so good, we added two dozen charbroiled Gulf oysters.
In a few minutes, our server was back with a big plate stacked with heavenly grilled slices of thick, buttery sourdough. Flanking them were two small pots, one filled with chestnut-colored apple-raisin jam, the other with a house ricotta that wasn’t as easily spreadable as I would have liked. Arranged neatly next to them were thin slices of pastrami, house-cured and subtly smoky, and a dish containing soft chunks of “Umami Butter,” which turned out to be rich European butter swirled with fabulous cheeselike clotted cream and a mushroom puree. Then the oysters arrived, and in seconds we were slurping them down and swishing the accompanying French bread through a fragrant pool of melted garlic butter dotted with Parmesan and fresh herbs from the garden.
Having started out family-style, the five of us just kept sharing when we graduated to the entrées, happily reaching across the table, spearing bites from one another’s plates—somehow, it seemed to fit the setting. The meat program is special to Sandoval, who has been busy establishing ties with local ranchers. Best of show was a splendid braise of beef neck so rich it reminded me of barbacoa. A classic French demi-glace upped the ante, and the whole thing sat luxuriantly on perfectly al dente squash and Parmesan risotto—not for the faint of arteries, this combo. Neither was the heritage pork confit with a flavor that spoke of long, slow roasting (though a slightly stringy texture detracted a bit). The one major meat course that needed work was the Certified Angus ribeye, just plain chewy despite its nice pepper crust. The little side of buttermilk crème fraîche was bright and lilting, though, and the accompanying tallow-roasted rainbow carrots and baby potatoes may have been the best thing on the plate.
I had hoped for a robust seafood selection, but there was only one oceangoing entrée that night, blackened redfish with filé gumbo. The spunkily seasoned fish filet itself was fine—snowy white, moist, dense—but the pleasant gumbo was more like a vegetable soup—with cooked red bell pepper and celery in the broth and fresh green onions scattered generously on top.
Somewhat to my surprise, given the meat-centricity of the menu, vegetables, while not exactly abundant, were not missing in action either. The menu had a Caesar salad and charred broccolini with lemon and olive oil. Also pinto beans cooked with chunks of ribeye and bacon. But the most varied meatless offering was the vegetarian entrée, a charred brussels sprouts, broccoli, and sweet potato salad with toasted pecans and cranberries. When I griped that it needed more of the creamy Caesar dressing that came with it or, better, a totally different dressing, the vegetable lover at our table quietly took the bowl away from me and finished it by herself.
Desserts, by the indefatigable Charlie Brown, are classic. And popular. “Hurry!” we told our server when she announced they were running low on choices. “Grab whatever’s left!” She came back huffing and puffing with three on a tray. I liked the filling of the two pies—tart lemon meringue and creamy chocolate silk—but their thick, clunky crusts were a disaster. The table favorite was a slice of plain but pretty dark chocolate cake with salted caramel icing. “Birthday quality,” somebody said.
Several days later, I called up Kindling’s wife-and-husband owners, Lis and Jayme Mathis, to ask them what had induced them to open a restaurant and a wine bar in a town of some 30,000 people. Turns out it was self-preservation. The two longtime residents were tired of driving into San Antonio for a nice evening out. But there was another reason. “Our little city is growing like crazy,” said Lis, “and we don’t want to see its wonderful old houses torn down to make way for Taco Bells.” They’ve even helped start the Old Town Cibolo Business Alliance, which formed a historical society to keep an eye on things. That got me to thinking about the small-town renaissance happening across the state. For decades, rural Texas towns have been dying as people fled to the big cities. But now, with traffic woes and rising costs, people are fleeing in the opposite direction. Could a big city’s ills become a small town’s salvation? It’s looking that way in Cibolo.
Kindling Texas Kitchen
209 N. Main, Cibolo
Opened December 8, 2018;
reopened May 11, 2019
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Get Ready to Be Charmed in Cibolo.” Subscribe today.