Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Return to a Favorite

During our visit to Kerrville, TX, three years ago, we had the chance to eat quite a few meals at the Hill Country Café, which, established in 1942, is the longest continuously operating cafe in Kerrville. The café has been owned by Mike and Cindy Piper (the owners of Classics Burgers and “Moore”, also) since 1989. The café sits on the site of the first H-E-B grocery store (Here Everything’s Better), and the present H-E-B is one of my favorites in our three-plus years of travel.

Having been told by a nice young man (Mike and Cindy’s son) at Classics that the best time to catch Mike was at breakfast, we made sure that meal was part of the plan.

Nothing has changed since December 2008. The daily specials are still hand written on wipe-off boards along the back wall.

The regular clientele are of a certain age and gather at a round table in the back for coffee and conversa-tion.

If a diner is younger than fifty, he (in this case) is more than likely sharing breakfast with his grand-father.

Table tops contain ads from local businesses.

And a steady stream of people come in asking for either Mike or Cindy.

And the menu, like virtually all menus in these parts, combines American diner standards (eggs with meat, hot cakes, French toast, grits, and biscuits) with Tex-Mex choices (Chili Cheese Omelets, Spanish Omelets, Huevos Rancheros, and Breakfast Tacos).

Chuck chose the short stack of blueberry hot cakes with a side order of home fries. I always marvel at the multiple variations on the home fry. Here they were small rounds of potato that had been lightly browned. The hot cakes were exemplary—light and fluffy, no baking soda taste, and absolutely loaded with juicy fresh berries.

My selection was the huevos rancheros (which I remembered fondly from our earlier visits) with a side of hash browns and a flour tortilla. What sets these apart is Mike’s house-made ranchero sauce, which packs just enough heat to wake you up in the morning. And the sauce is especially good when mixed with the egg’s yolk and mopped up with the tortilla.

But it wasn’t for breakfast that we revisited Hill Country Café. It was for lunch. And, in particular, for the greatest chicken fried steak ever. Chicken fried steak so good that it should be inducted into the Texas Culinary Hall of Fame. Let’s make that the All-World Hall of Fame.

That being the case, it was easy to pass on that day’s specials—Liver and Onions (yuck) and Mom’s Meatloaf, which I also remember fondly from our last visit to Kerrville.

Chuck ordered the Chicken Fried Steak platter which came with mashed potatoes and gravy, slaw or salad (he chose slaw), and baked beans or cooked carrots. This last was a no-brainer—it would be the baked beans.

Not wanting the potatoes, I chose the Chicken Fried Steak sandwich and ordered a side of the baked beans.

The mashed potatoes were real mashed—not from a bag or box. The slaw was a mix of shredded cabbage and carrots with a light not-too-sweet mayo-based dressing. And the beans were—as Guy Fieri says—“off the hook.” I suspect that the sweetener was molasses--it had that not unpleasant but somewhat bitter taste. Cooked with the beans was a generous amount of thick-cut smoky bacon. These were awesome beans.

But the main event was the chicken fried steak. Mike’s is different from any other. The coating is crackling crisp with little projectiles—or stalagmites as I described three years ago—of batter that erupt from the surface and edges. And when you bite into the crust, the resulting crunching sound caroms around the dining room—echoing off the walls and bouncing off the ceiling and floor. When I asked our server Mike’s secret, she told us that in addition to deep fat frying the steak Mike uses an egg wash and then hand pats the coating onto the meat. He has perfected the art of chicken fried steak.

I am sure that Mike won’t be insulted when I say that Hill Country Café’s food is not gourmet food. Rather, it is American diner food expertly prepared. Hill Country Café is what it is—a small Texas town café that caters to its local clientele. Nothing more. But certainly nothing less than 5.0 Addie eats.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

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