Friday, December 5, 2008

A Legend Confirmed

We set off for brisket and smoked sausage. Does this sound familiar? We were driving through downtown Kerrville and I spied a sign reading Hill Country Café “A Texas Legend.” Well, we took this as a challenge. A Texas legend? We’ll decide if we think this is a Texas legend!

We walked in a little before one o’clock and the lunch rush was about over. Looking around, we noticed that this minimally decorated restaurant seemed to be a haven for locals and that the waitresses knew the names of all the regulars. Our immediate thought –this is our kind of place. The menu was fairly typical for small town cafes with plate lunches, salads, sandwiches, and daily specials. The latter is a plate lunch from the menu with the addition of beverage and dessert for $8.04(?).

I was thinking about eating light (the half sandwich with a cup of soup and small salad) until one word caught my eye – enchiladas! I had to have them. Chuck saw that they served a chicken fried steak sandwich which he ordered with mashed potatoes and white gravy instead of the fries.

The chicken fried steak on Chuck’s sandwich was an object of art. Somehow in the battering and frying process, they managed to get these little pieces of batter to stand upright on the surface of the meat – I thought they looked like stalagmites coming from the floor of a cave. While Chuck was getting his camera ready, I was sneaking these crisp bits from the edges of his steak. He did offer me a taste of a small – and I mean small – piece of meat and this was a truly fine chicken fried steak. Having my fill of mashed potatoes earlier in the week, I didn’t bother to taste them. He said they were good and I’ll take his word for it.

My enchiladas were a tasty, messy delight – two flour tortillas wrapped around cheese and topped with a fairly spicy chili with more cheese and chopped raw onion and slipped under the broiler until the cheese topping melted and bubbled. Surrounding the plate are toasted corn chips – all the better for scooping up the cheese and chili mixture. And served on the side was the café’s homemade picante sauce – a very good and very spicy mixture of finely minced tomatoes, jalapenos, onions and spices.

At the end of the meal, one of the men from the kitchen came out to begin closing for the day. Chuck asked if he was the creative force behind the chicken-fried chicken sandwich. “Sort of,” was his modest answer.

When I learned he was not only the cook, but also the owner, I asked, rather directly, “So what makes the café a Texas Legend?”

Owner/cook Mike Piper said he could not claim credit for this designation. In the mid-70’s, when the chain restaurants began to play a larger part in restaurant choices, Texas Monthly ran an article highlighting the independent, family-run restaurants. In this article the Hill Country Café was featured and described as “a Texas Legend.” The designation was embraced by the then-owners. Mike spoke with reverence for the café’s mission and with pride in his culinary efforts.

I had grabbed a “to go” menu and noticed that one of the breakfast platters was huevos rancheros – eggs topped with cheese and, depending on the region of the country, either a spicy tomato or red chili sauce. Knowing that we were going to need to houseclean the RV within the next couple of days, I decided that before we engaged in such a strenuous endeavor, a hearty breakfast would be in order.

So on the morning of the Great Cleaning, we took ourselves off to consume sufficient calories to get us through the day. I, of course, went with the huevos rancheros which came with a choice of hash browns or beans and flour tortillas. I love hash browns but have too often been disappointed when my plate arrived and I would find a frozen potato patty. If I wanted frozen potatoes, I’d eat breakfast at home. So I asked the waitress about the hash browns and she indicated that they weren’t frozen and that most customers really liked then. Hash browns it was then. Chuck ordered that day’s breakfast special – two pancakes, two eggs, and two slices of bacon. And an order of hash browns. And a bean and cheese breakfast taco.

What a breakfast. The hash browns were ordered crisp and came just that way with lacey, crunchy edges. Just as an order of hash browns should be. The soft tortilla taco was filled with cheese and a version of refried beans which left most of the beans whole and were seasoned with a very smoky meat which added a depth of flavor to what is often a bland food. The pancakes were six or seven inches in diameter and maybe a quarter of an inch thick. These were full of good pancake flavor and absorbed the syrup perfectly. The thick-cut bacon was more chewy than crisp but now we’ll know how to order bacon for future breakfasts.

The secret to huevos rancheros is the sauce and this proved to be the same excellent picante sauce from our earlier meal. And, to my delight, we received a generous cup of this sauce on the side which promptly made itself to the top of my hash browns.

When our waitress brought this table full of food, she joked that we’d still be eating until the lunch rush. Was she wrong! In short order, we ate every morsel, and I wiped up every bit of egg yolk and picante with part of one tortilla.

The "Texas Legend" is a keeper and will probably be the site of many meals during our Kerrville stay. For the low prices – and I mean LOW – friendly staff, and lovingly-prepared food, Hill Country Café rates my highest score of 5.0 Addies.

Dizzy Dean said, "If you can back it up, it ain't bragging."

Mike and the Hill Country Cafe team in Kerrville can back it up.

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