By Jan Williams
For many summers my husband and I made our way from Dallas to the Texas Hill Country. Our kids went to summer camp near Kerrville, and we would make this drive to pick them up when their summer of fun was over. It was a chance for us to down throttle from the hectic life in Dallas and experience the beauty of the Texas Hill Country.
Once we realized there was a scenic route to our destination—one where we did not have to fight the stress of driving I-35—our trip took on a whole new sense of adventure. We’d leave Dallas in the traditional way, down 35 South, but then at Cleburne we would turn off from the highway and take the back roads. Although my husband is one of those drivers who likes to get in the car and not stop until we arrive, I like making frequent stops. That frequent stop mindset is how we found and have come to cherish some great restaurants, some Texas lore, and some summertime treats.
We would strategically plan our departure time from Dallas so that we’d land at our favorite spots for lunch and afternoon snacks. Hico was one of those planned stops. About an hour and a half south of Dallas in this rural town lay two incredible food experiences. The first is the Koffee Kup Family Restaurant where chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, and fried okra are always served. This local diner has been in Hico since 1968, and their tradition of in-house baked goods starts early in the morning with donuts and biscuits and continues throughout the day with breads and pies. I usually had to pace myself through the meatloaf and mac and cheese to have enough room to enjoy a piece of lemon meringue pie. And if that was not enough calories to choke a horse, I’d then walk across the street to the second food experience in Hico, Wiseman House Chocolates. In a quaint white house is an artesian chocolatier who hand makes chocolates filled with ingredients from Belgium and Venezuela. You can find everything from Texas whiskey truffles to almond toffee to my favorite dark chocolate ganache dipped in dark chocolate then hand drizzled with more chocolate. I would fill a bag with these goodies and tell myself I’d make it back to Dallas in a couple of days with something left. That generally never happened.
About three hours outside of Dallas, the topography starts to change and rolling hills appear around Burnet. This is when it hits you that you’ve entering that special place called the Texas Hill Country. As we drove past these big, wide expanses of land, I would sometimes imagine I could see the Native Americans sitting on their horses protecting their grounds. I’m sure those blurry visions had something to do with all of the sugar I had ingested at lunch in Hico.
As we enjoyed the beautiful scenery, we’d start thinking about our next feeding…also known as snack time. Depending on whether we wanted salty or sweet would determine where we’d stop. If it was a salty treat, we’d head off the road at Luckenbach. Yes, there really is such a place, the same one Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson made famous in the song “Luckenbach, Texas.” This blip on the map has one structure that houses the post office, a gift shop, and a small snack bar called the “feed lot.” The snack bar dishes out some incredible French fries. An entire potato is spiral cut and deep fried and when served looks like a winding potato chip. We’d grab our fries and cold beers and head to the open-air seating area, complete with roaming chickens and, of course, a guitar picker. It was almost an obligatory request for the musician to play the famous song. The food and atmosphere all rolled into making this stop a little slice of heaven in the middle of nowhere.
Sometimes our mid-afternoon feeding would call for a sweet treat. We’d forgo Luckenbach and start looking for seasonal fruit stands along the side of the road that were loaded with fresh peaches. After trying several stands, we found our favorite at Vogel Orchards—a full working farm complete with a fruit stand, gift shop, and the world’s best peach ice cream (sorry Blue Bell).
When we left Dallas in the afternoon, we would wait to eat dinner further down the road in Fredericksburg. Although there are plenty of good restaurants on Main Street, one year we threw caution to the wind and ventured 13 miles off the highway into the back hills. The road was so narrow and bumpy and the area so remote, my husband swore if we died no one would ever think to look there for our bodies. But at the top of a very steep hill lay this burger oasis known as the Alamo Springs Café. As we made our way into what looks like a grocery store from the 1950’s, we found only about 8-10 tables and a refrigerator case where drinks are served on the honor system. The burgers are so thick and juicy they are served with a knife in the center to hold them together. The jalapeño cheese bun was the crowning touch. If finding and eating at Alamo Springs is not a treat in itself, there is an added bonus if you are there around dusk. The bats! That’s right, thousands take flight just like the ones that fly out from under the Congress bridge in Austin.
After gorging ourselves getting down to the Kerrville area, my husband and I would have to come out of our food coma and remember the reason we were there was to pick up our kids from summer camp! Two days later the children were retrieved and off we’d go back to Dallas and, of course, look for more eating adventures.
The trip home was generally on Sundays. Once again, we’d strategically plan what time we would leave to properly position ourselves for lunch. Marble Falls and the Blue Bonnet Cafe was always the targeted destination. Now in business for 90 years, the Blue Bonnet Cafe is a watering hole for locals and a destination for travelers. There was always a line when we arrived on Sundays, but the wait was well worth it. When the menus were presented to us, we’d all oooh and aahh over a full list of home cooking choices. But like regimented soldiers our family always ordered the same thing every year. My husband was the fried chicken guy; my daughter the pot roast queen; my son was the traditionalist ordering chicken fried steak; and I’d enjoy Thanksgiving in August with the turkey and dressing. Our orders never varied, and we were never disappointed. The food was always outstanding but almost paled in comparison to the pies this tiny kitchen dishes out. The meringue pies are a true work of art. The beautiful fluff stands at least 12 inches high and then is perfectly toasted, making each pie look like it has a light golden dome. Even with the lure of the meringue, my very favorite is their pecan pie. These pies are filled with locally grown pecans and could easily win a blue ribbon at the State Fair. You know the place is well known for their pie when you see the big sign advertising the Pie Happy Hour! Just a note to remember, the Blue Bonnet Cafe closes at 1:45 on Sundays, which we sadly discovered one year after rolling in too late.
Eventually family and friends would make this trip with us to the Hill Country, not because they were interested in picking up our kids from summer camp, but to experience all of the stories we had told about the places we had been and the things we had eaten on the back roads of Texas.