Saturday, January 3, 2009

Farewell to Hill Country Cafe

There are some places that you know you're going to like the minute you first walk through the door.

That was the way it was for us the first time we visited Hill Country Café (“A Texas Legend”) in Kerrville, TX. And we returned time after time, becoming quasi regulars. It was comforting to sit in the dining room and see at one table a group of men in feed caps and plaid flannel shirts. At the next table was an older woman, impeccably dressed and hair meticulously groomed, eating with gusto a plate of grilled liver and onions. Hill Country Café became home.

I’m not sure if my favorite meal at the Café is breakfast or lunch (they aren’t open for supper), since I have enjoyed both. So as a farewell to the Hill Country Café, the following is a roundup of some notable meals eaten there.

Let’s start with breakfast. Usually I would order the Huevos Rancheros but would on occasion order “out of the box.” One morning, the special was biscuits and sausage gravy with your choice of either hash browns or home fries. The photo shows Chuck’s order with the home fries – quarter inch slices of potatoes that were lightly browned just as he likes them. (I would have wanted them crisper.) Now I’m not going to claim that this was the best biscuits and gravy ever. That honor still goes to the Pines Restaurant in Sparta, NC. But this was a very good version. Two light biscuits came with a bowl of white pepper gravy that was thick with large pieces of sausage. The sausage appeared to have been cooked in large pieces and then roughly chopped. Not traditional but good indeed. Hash brown lover that I am, of course I ordered them and they were crisp as usual. In lieu of catsup, I ask for the picante sauce. Nothing like a little jalapeño pepper to get the morning off to a good start. Also shown in the photo is a bean and cheese taco that accompanied this and every other breakfast Chuck had here.

Having been intrigued by the breakfast tacos and having enjoyed a small – and I do mean small – sample of Chuck’s bean and cheese taco, one morning I threw caution to the wind and ordered a egg and sausage taco, an egg and bacon taco, and – of course – hash browns. Both tacos were made with a light and slightly chewy flour tortilla. Eggs were cooked like a thin omelet and each taco contained a generous amount of meat. The bacon in the bacon and egg was the same thick cut and smoky meat that accompanied Chuck’s pancakes one morning. And the sausage was chopped just as in the gravy. And I topped both tacos and the hash browns with a generous amount of – you guessed it – picante sauce.

Now if it's lunch and it's Friday, it’s Fried Fish Special day at Hill Country Café. For $8.04 you get your choice of salad or slaw, the fried catfish, fries, and your choice of fried okra and some forgotten alternative side. When I see fried okra on the menu, nothing else is important. And with this came your beverage and the dessert of the day.

As you can see from the photo, this was an enormous plate of food. Only restaurants can fry at the temperatures that give you food that is cooked through, crisp, and oil free. Such is the way with all of the fried foods at Hill Country. The catfish fillet was corn meal crusted, sweet, and absolutely flaked when you cut into it. There was so much food that half of my fries and okra, along with a portion of Chuck’s okra, came home with us and was re-crisped for dinner.

Dessert also came home with us. In fact, we didn’t even know what dessert was until I opened one of the styro boxes that night and saw that it was bread pudding. Now I am no fan of bread pudding, nor is Chuck. But I cut a piece in half, warmed it in the microwave, and topped it with a little whipped cream from a can. We each ate one bite, looked at each other, and said “This is really good. I don’t really like bread pudding but this is really good.” A very simple preparation: no raisons, no nuts, no rum sauce. Just bread, eggs, cream, sugar, and cinnamon with a sauce with a brown sugar base. During a subsequent visit we told Mike Piper (the owner/cook) that we didn’t like bread pudding but really liked his. He laughed and said he hears that all the time.

Hill Country Café’s owner also owns Classics--Burgers and “Moore.” On our earlier visit we were remiss and didn’t get a photo of the personable young man who brings your food to the table. During our last visit to Classics, I suddenly realized that he looked very familiar. It turns out that he is Mike Piper’s son, Shane.

Like many local newspapers, the Kerrville Daily Times conducts an annual survey of readers' ratings of best restaurants in several categories. Before leaving, we cast ballots for Hill Country Cafe for Best Breakfast and Best Chicken Fried Steak and for Classics for Best Hamburger.

Absentee Ballots, of course. Honest.

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