Cooper and I are both foodies. We love trying new dishes, food that defines a place or region, and trying to work with ingredients we have never experienced before. In addition, Cooper loves to try the local brews and I love to try the wines from grapes grown or processed in the area we are visiting.
For the past month we have been in the Hill Country of Texas, close to San Antonio, in the small town of Bandera, Cowboy Capitol of the World. (See past posts for more information on this area.) We soon noticed that there are regional food and beverage favorites that stand out.
Food of Hill Country…
- Beef is KING! It is Texas, after all. Cattle were the reason for the development of the cowboy, to move the cattle from wherever they were raised to the shipping points and railroad cars to transport beef across the country. Beef is on most every menu. Steaks are the purest cut of choice (or prime – <smile> ) and the staple of backyard BBQs and BBQ restaurants.
- Which brings up BBQ. BBQ takes on a whole new meaning in Texas. BBQ involves custom-made secret rubs, hours and hours of smoking (smokers are even for sale at the grocery stores – everyone has one), and the recipe for grandpa’s secret BBQ sauce is passed down from generation to generation. The sections in the grocery store devoted to all-things-BBQ are huge. Sauces, rubs, tools, smoking wood and pellets, smokers and grills (but mostly smokers) from the small to the humungous.
BBQ restaurants are as much entertainment as they are places to get smoked meats,, either as a sit-down meal or by the pound to go. Many started as meat markets. Brisket, ribs and smoked sausage are king. We went to Cooper’s Old Time BBQ in LLano, the original Cooper’s and the funkiest. To enter the restaurant, you walk past a huge line-up of room-sized smokers laden with meat. Inside the restaurant, you grab a school lunch tray, silverware, and tell the man behind the counter what kind of meat you want. Half pound of brisket… OK. He cuts off a hunk of meat, weighs it on butcher wrap paper, wraps it up and slaps a price tag on it. If you want an ear of corn, let him know that, too. Wrapped in one of the paper boats. You get to the end of the line, pay your tab, and go find a seat at the long picnic tables lined up in the dining area. Then you can go to get serve-yourself beans at the huge heated pots and bread from the bags of Texas toast-bread. Pickles are in the big pickle jars on the side table. Paper napkins….nope. Rolls of paper towels sit on the tables. You need them. Mustards, hot sauces, ketchup, steak sauce – all available on the tables. Beverages are serve yourself. When you are all done, you wrap everything in the butcher paper you got your meat in and toss it all away. Pretty fun, and outrageously delicious meat.
- Chicken fried vs fried chicken: Every restaurant worth its Texas-ness has a chicken-fried steak (beef again) on the menu. But they also chicken-fried chicken and chicken-fried pork cutlets. Chicken-fried steak, chicken or pork is basically a meat cutlet, pounded or tenderized, dredged in seasoned flour and fried in hot grease – either in a fryer or in a pan (preferably cast iron, from what I hear). The cooked cutlets are then served on a plate with a cream gravy, sometimes made from the drippings in the fry pan, mashed potatoes, biscuits and (preferably) corn. Now, this is not to be confused with fried chicken. Texans LOVE fried chicken. Most every corner has some kind of fried chicken shop – Chesters, Churches, Express Chicken…and most restaurants that serve chicken-fried also serve fried chicken. But, don’t be confused. You can chicken-fry most any kind of meat, but only fry chicken pieces as fried chicken.
- Mexican food is even more prolific than chicken and chicken fry. There are Mexican restaurants, food trucks and taco stands, sometimes several right next to each other, in every community. Here fajitas (beef is king) are done differently than we get the meat in Colorado. A whole heavily seasoned skirt steak is grilled, preferably on a BBQ grill, then sliced and served with grilled vegetables. In Colorado fajita meat is usually trimmings sold as strips seasoned and cooked in a grill pan. Big difference! The grocery stores sell tripe, tongue, pigs feet, posole (hominy), and pinto beans, necessary ingredients for a whole variety of Mexican dishes. I have no idea what to do with tripe (other than menudo), but I love all the rest. I finally checked menudo and posole off my Mexican food dishes-to-try, and learned the difference between the two. Both are made with posole (hominy), but menudo is made with beef tripe (stomach wall) and posole is made with pork. People rave about where to get the best menudo, but it wasn’t something I wanted to try making without knowing what its supposed to taste like. We went with Yolanda, Charlie and Jennifer, friends from Pioneer RV Park, to a Mexican lunch buffet where I could serve myself a small cup of menudo to try. I actually liked it. Tamales are available everywhere, both in savory and sweet flavors. One thing we haven’t had a chance to try is a “puffy taco”. I thought a puffy taco was probably like a gordita (a fat taco made with a fried flour tortilla), but am told it is done with a deep fried corn tortilla that puffs up, to make the lowly taco a whole different experience. Henry’s Puffy Tacos was the first in San Antonio to sell puffy tacos. We just learned about puffy tacos and didn’t have time to get to San Antonio to try them. Next time.
- German food is also prominent in Hill Country. Refugees from economic and social strife in Germany, followed by idealistic communalists and liberal political refugees, came to the Hill County looking for freedom and opportunity. From the architecture to the foods to the names of many of the communities, German life is alive and well in Hill Country. Towns like Gruene (Green), New Braunfels, and Fredericksburg have embraced their German heritage. Foods like schnitzel, spaetzel, and sausages of all kinds are on menus. I had a dish of beef cheeks and handmade spaetzel at the Welfare Cafe, a short distance from Boerne (Bur-nee), on Cooper’s birthday. It was delicious!
- Many Native American foods evolved into the Mexican food we eat today. As the conquering Spaniards integrated with the local tribes, and each adopted the others’ ways, the lines between their food choices blurred. Originally the Native Americans in this area were hunter/gatherers, but when drought drove the animals away and the food they gathered couldn’t grow, they had to adapt to an agrarian way of life to control their environment. Irrigation systems helped them to raise the foods they needed, usually having to settle in a place near flowing water rather than being nomadic. Native Americans raised corn, collected mesquite pods to grind into flour, and collected prickly pear pads (nopales) for a vegetable and cactus flowers/buds to make into syrups and wine. They collected nuts, fruits, and lots of different kinds of berries. Natives would make corn tortillas by grinding corn on a metate with a mano, both made of stone, and then cooking the tortilla on hot rocks. We watched a demo of this at Mayhem on the Medina event. Squash of all kinds, beans of all kinds, and corn of all kinds are staples we have all adopted.
- Game meat is not prolific on restaurant menus, but hunting is huge among locals. And so is defense of gun ownership. The tribes were prolific hunters and gatherers, and Texans have followed in their footsteps. Hunting is huge here in the Hill Country, as are the deer herds. There are deer everywhere! Birds, rabbits, squirrel and ducks, as well as bear and wild turkey abound. While I haven’t seen much game on restaurant menus, you can buy rabbits and ducks in the grocery store. And the meat markets sell all these meats right next to the beef and chicken.
- Pecans are everywhere in this area. There are orchards, large and small, in every corner of the surrounding counties. Pecan pie here is made with cups and cups of chopped pecans throughout the pie, way more than any recipe I have ever tried. Pecan trees offer shade in the parks and RV parks, but the falling pecans can make a racket when they fall on the trailer roof.
- Peaches are also big. While Georgia and Colorado are known for peaches (at least to me), apparently Texas Peaches are also famous. We aren’t here during peach season, but there are signs of the love of peaches everywhere. Peach ice cream, peach cobbler, home-canned peaches, peach honey spread (some also with pecans) and Peach Blue Bell Ice Cream (another Texas icon) abound.
- And the snack of choice in Hill Country – pork rinds. Texans take their chicharones (fried pork rinds) very seriously. Take a look at the container of pork rinds we found at Costco. At Mayhem on the Medina there was a vendor selling HOT fresh rinds, with all kinds of seasonings and the line was long. Of course, we bought some. They were really good! Light, fluffy and perfectly seasoned. They are so much better fresh.
Cooper is a beer drinker and I like wine, mostly white, although I am trying more reds. Just as in the rest of the country, craft brews and boutique wineries are popping up all over Hill Country. With the German history of the area, beer making is a natural for microbrewers.
There is a Hill Country Craft Beer Trail that “starts” in New Braunfels. Of course, you can start anywhere you want, the organization for the Beer Trail is housed there. Currently there are 15 breweries on the trail, some with tasting rooms and restaurants attached, and others so small they are only making beer. There are actually 35 mircobreweries in Hill Country and another 35 close to Hill Country including those in San Antonio (35 minutes from Bandera) and Austin (2 hours from Bandera). Cooper has discovered the Pedernales Brewing company in Fredericksburg and their Lobo beers (Lobo Negro is his favorite). While in Fredericksburg, he tried the beer because it was local and on tap at one of the restaurants we went to.
Ironically, not many of the restaurants have any of the local brews on their menus. Cooper always asks what local brews they have on tap, and, at least here in Bandera, it’s like it never occurred to them. (There are no breweries in Bandera but they could certainly carry beers from the region.) We predict this will change when the breweries get large enough to be able to produce enough and have created a delivery system to get the beers to the restaurants. It seems microbrewing is still pretty new (but prolific) in the region. The Bandera Liquor Store was telling me yesterday that the Pedernales Brewing Company has only recently started delivering their beer to Bandera. Before that, the store would go to Fredericksburg to pick it up.
Wine making in the region is also taking off. The climate in Hill Country, with cool nights and warm days, is extremely conducive to grape growing. We can tell the industry is fairly new just by seeing the age of the vineyards and grape vines. All are very young.
The Texas Hill Country is home to over 45 wineries and vineyards and Fredericksburg is the epicenter of the Hill Country wine region. There are more than two dozen wineries and tasting rooms located in Fredericksburg and Gillespie County — not to mention dozens more wineries located within an hour or two drive of Fredericksburg. Gillespie County wineries have been producing a variety of quality wines that have won both state and national honors. Wine production in Fredericksburg dates back to the original settlers who used the native mustang grape to produce wines.
When we were in Fredericksburg (and Cooper discovered his Lobo Negro beer), we were visiting with Scott Franz’ (Steamboat Pilot reporter) parents (Cate and Steve) in their gallery, Cate Zane. Cate was telling us that, although the proliferation of wineries in the area is a great marketing tool for Fredericksburg lodging, it seems to be hurting the retail trade in their downtown because people are spending time tasting wines and not browsing in the shops. We heard the same story in some of the other shops. They also let us know there are 30 new wineries opening in the area in the near future, which will certainly be a draw and put Fredericksburg on the national wine radar, but has significantly raised the fear-factor among retailers on Main Street. Personally, I believe that visitors will do both wine tasting and shopping. I like to taste wines with the best of them, but if there are fun shops and galleries nearby, I want to experience those as well. A little wine seems to loosen the purse-strings, if you know what I mean.
Wrap up Hill Country
Our time in Bandera and the Hill Country of Texas has been everything and more than we expected. We are thrilled we chose to base ourselves in a small town rather than one of the larger communities. Bandera only has 934 people, but is within easy driving distance to all of Hill Country. Most every day we ventured out into the countryside, either on our scooters or by truck, to explore. We got to know some people, saw some wonderful museums and art venues, tried some wonderful restaurants and enjoyed some brews (or wine). When we visited Bandera 15 years ago, there was something about it that captured our hearts. When it was time to hit the road in retirement, it was at the top of our list. Maybe it was the Cowboy Capitol tag line that got us, but I think it was more the people, the scenery, and the quirkiness of the place. Those things still exist. There is a bit of a backward simplicity that is appealing, recalling a simpler time. Not to say the people are naive, but they seem to embrace (or exude) a take-it-or-leave it approach to life. There is nothing slick or polished. We like that. We will be back sooner than later.