Every time I take a trip somewhere, I pretend to have no expectations. I am this open-minded, come-what-may, explore-the-unknown traveler. It’s mostly hogwash. Granted, I am open-minded, but I have all kinds of stereotypes and clichés swirling in my head. Quite frankly, I am hoping to find those stereotypes and briefly join in on the clichés. And this trip was no different. But when I got there, Texas just ’bout took out a double barrel shot gun and blew all my silly notions to bits. I sure as heck loved every minute of it!
First off, Texas is not miles and miles of flat dirt as far as your little eyes can see. Nope. We stayed at a place in between Austin and San Antonio called Sattler Village. This is Texas hill country, folks. Not only is this area void of miles and miles of flat dirt, it is filled with trees n’ deer n’ lakes n’ rivers. The state is obviously quite large, so the miles and miles of flat dirt are out there, just not where I was exploring. I also thought the weather would be really dry. No again. Being about 90 miles off the Gulf, it was downright humid. Leaving my flatiron at home was a true mistake. Plus, it rained on and off while we were there. A warm, almost tropical rain. Who new. I eventually got to the point of just keeping my hair up and showering twice a day (being a little sticky, is not even a little sexy). Lastly, I expected to see everyone in cowboy boots, wide-brimmed hats, and talk r–e–a–l slow with a howdy y’all accent. There were a few boots but not so much the cowboy kind. Some had hats but it’s not a widespread fashion statement. They do have their y’alls and some fun twangy phrases, but it is more understated. It’s a subtle change in language. Don’t get me wrong, though – all those clichés live somewhere. But it’s a MUCH smaller percentage than I thought. Okay, so now that we’re all straightened out, here’s what Texas is really like…..
We started in Austin. Because we arrived in the late afternoon, we decided to grab dinner. Our wonderful hosts took us to Bess Bistro. This is Sandra Bullock’s restaurant and it is nestled below an apartment building. It was posh with great service. The menu included high-end southern cuisine such as a gourmet Kobe burger, roasted chicken with crawfish salad, and a blue cheese spinach salad topped with fried egg. The fried green tomatoes were a great appetizer as well as the roasted artichokes. Cost was about $15 to $20 a plate which is not bad for this date-worthy restaurant. They also had a decent wine list (!). Down the street from Bess is a very lively downtown area with bars, shops, and music. The architecture is hip with a taste of country. I can easily see this being a fun Friday or Saturday night hang out. We were there on a Sunday, so it was a bit muted but with good potential.
So we started high-end with Bess in Austin and drove on down to the simple life in Sattler Village. Just past the county post office, the VFW, and the drive thru feed store is the place where we stayed. A lovely 1400 sq. ft. home owned by our hosts – folks we’ve known for years in Los Angeles. The area is quiet with lots of foliage and a few simple homes. Not only is it nice to stay with locals who can show you around, it is a very special experience to live as they do for a whole week. First off, there’s the food. Homemade biscuits and gravy for breakfast is a total delight. Then, there are the pralines. Fresh pralines made with local pecans. It’s mostly melted brown sugar and butter. Speaking of which, butter is in just about everything. You do not come to the south to lose weight. For a snack between meals, there was a big jar of pork rinds available for picking. Secondly, you really need to plan ahead for your errands. Got to go to the store? Well, we need to drive 10 to 15 miles down the road to the large HEB store. That’s Henry E. Butts for those of you not familiar. Hungry? The convenience store at the gas station is selling a large soda and two hot dogs for only $1.99. Or better yet, there is a taco stand along the highway that has great tamales. Just on the side of the road. In the middle of nowhere. Well, I shouldn’t say nowhere – there’s a ranch nearby with goats n’ gazelles n’ other kinds of four-legged creatures. Lastly, let’s talk money. A 1400 sq. ft. home built within the last 10 years is about $100,000. A model home with all the fixins’ is about $350,000. That second one really hurts. As you can guess, in Los Angeles, it’s hard to find a decent condo for that price. Let alone a brand new, built-to-your-liking model home. Suddenly, the humidity feels less sticky.
I really did like Sattler Village, but there was a lot of exploring to do. We visited Turkey Cove off of Canyon Lake. Turkey Cove is on a hillside with winding roads and tons of deer. Note to self: Drive slowly and stay alert. There were about 12 deer grazing in someone’s front yard, 3 of which were bucks. Not sure how that works on a daily basis but it appears that they coexist with the humans well. There is a lodge just near the shore where locals and visitors can launch boats and kayaks. Our hosts were newly minted kayak enthusiasts. So we decided we had to give it a go. With a fear of flipping over and getting sun-burned at the same time – I am more of an indoor girl than I’d like to admit – I piled on the sun block and held in my core like crazy. Thank you, Pilates! It ended up being a lovely day and the kayaks were pretty tough to shake up. This is the first time I officially wore a cowboy hat in Texas country. With yoga pants, a UV-rated shirt, and layers of SPF 85. Not exactly red-carpet ready but a good day none-the-less. I would do it again, with more tenacity.
We also visited neighborhoods along the Guadalupe River. Once you get past the RV park, there are a variety of homes with small decks down towards the river. It was mighty quiet while we were driving through, but I imagined folks barbecuing, swimming, and fishing when it’s a bit warmer. I should also mention there are no building permits. This is against the very nature of my architectural/planning soul. Much like people joking that a shot gun takes the place of local law enforcement, they just don’t have building inspectors check if your house is safely built. If your house falls down, just sue your builder. He shoulda known better. In that light, we came upon some funny lookin’ homes. The yard clutter, chickens, n’ horses are at your discretion. Man, I love this place.
Driving in and out of the countryside neighborhoods, it was nice seeing the green landscape sprinkled with livestock. I already mentioned the deer, horses, and chickens. We also saw a few longhorns, which felt like a rite of passage in these parts. We came upon a cow that had just given birth to its calf. The baby was still wet and confused on the ground while mama decided to graze for a bit. She came back and cleaned him up with her tongue. A couple of days later we decided to drive back. The little guy was finally wobbling around on his legs. We also saw “oreo” cows, as our hosts call them. They are cows that are primarily black with a giant white stripe down the middle. Not gonna see any of that in So. Cal.
Downtown New Braunfels was a treat. This area is comprised of lovely old buildings showing Texas history while serving the modern community as offices, bars, and shops. We ate baked goods at Naegelin’s Bakery and they had one of my favorite German cookies – pfeffernusse. This is a good time to note that the Germans came to this area in the mid 1800s, hence, the yummy pfeffernusse. Their influence can be seen all over the place, most notably in the names of the local cities. Moving on, we tiptoed around the lobby of the Faust Hotel. This fine establishment smelled a little musty which made it even more cool as we walked around its nostalgic interiors. There is a modern bar buried in the back; however, the main structure itself stays true to its 1920s roots. We attempted to do a pub crawl through the main strip of town, but some of the bars had a heavy layer of smoke. This California girl is spoiled with smoke-free businesses. That said, we still hit up three spots worth mentioning. The Black Whale Pub was our first stop. This was an easy sports bar with nice atmosphere. We also stopped at Kork the wine bar down the street. This was a classy spot, much like what you would find in L.A. If you need a good fix of Kim Crawford, this is a great place to lounge. My favorite spot, though, was The Phoenix Saloon. The Phoenix is a large space with a cool bar, restaurant seating, and two stages. The ceiling is lined with tin, the walls are brick, and there are only a few antlers fixed by the bar. This was the perfect taste of Texas. Literally. The chili was fantastic! I highly recommend the mild chili bowl with the side of cornbread. The Frito pie is also a great appetizer to share. This is a bag of Frito chips cut open on its side with a big ‘ol scoop if chili on top. We were there at dinnertime and a guy played guitar and sang on the front stage. The back stage looked big enough for a band to pound out some serious country. As the evening rolled on, local business professionals slowly trickled in and the open commercial room got pretty lively. The atmosphere was just right with music, locals, and modern country décor. If you make one stop in New Braunfels, this should be it.
The most picturesque town we visited was Gruene. Pronounced like the color green, this tourist stop looks like a movie set. I seriously loved it and every other small town we visited afterwards seemed like a knock-off. You can walk through the original 1860s dance hall with uneven wooden floors, old tables, and a simple stage. They still provide lively music and dancing throughout the week. Aside from the dance hall, the nearby gristmill is now a restaurant. There was quite a bit of foot traffic coming from the gristmill and I have heard it’s a great place to dine. We were heading to “Red Solo Cup” night at the local bar later (dollar beers and fried chicken!), so the gristmill will have to wait until our next visit. There is a charming bed and breakfast less than a block away from the dance hall and a fun antique shop with all kinds of interesting trinkets across the street. I picked up an antique silver ring to remind me of our day in Gruene and our trip in general. I tend to purchase wearable souvenirs – things I know I’ll use, enjoy, and not have to dust later. Across from the antique shop is your run-of-the-mill souvenir store with all the typical tokens, t-shirts, and treats. Speaking of treats, most of the shops we visited had samples. Salsa, mixed butter, and dips are all set out for your tasting pleasure. Grab a cracker and spread on, honey. As for the souvenirs, I do enjoy the fun phrases such as ‘In order to be old and wise, you must be young and stupid’. Or ‘You can go to hell, I will go to Texas’. And, of course, ‘Remember the Alamo’. The fun phrases also translate into fun business names. Such as ‘Gruene with Envy’ and ‘Tavern on the Gruene’. You might think this is kitschy, but I think it’s light-hearted and welcoming. Something else that I didn’t know about this state, is the number of wineries it has. I had no idea Texas made wine. I am not talking a few – there were about 10 to 15 wineries and tasting rooms sprinkled between Austin and San Antonio. One such tasting room is in Gruene. The people here in Texas are so darn nice, that some will give you your first couple of tastes for free. I think having my free wine in picture-perfect Gruene is when I started to fall in love with Texas.
We did make our way to San Antonio for some big city exploration. We started at the supposedly haunted Menger Hotel. An original building that has since expanded, word is that it hosted wealthy landowners. It is a very elegant representation of how businessmen traveled in the 1860s. I suspect some big business decisions were conceived in those pretty Victorian walls. Just a block away is the Alamo. I honestly didn’t know a whole lot about the Alamo and originally considered it strange for a whole state to worship a single site. Well it was more silly of me to write it off so easily. For those of you not up on your Texas history, the battle at the Alamo was a massacre. They fought off the Mexican troops, but could not protect their fortress. This was a pivotal loss because the failure motivated many more to join the fight and Texas independence was eventually won. I could feel the mix of sadness, strength, and perseverance there. They say that no one knows more about winning than the losers. That’s the Alamo. Across the street from the Alamo is the River Walk. I suggest visiting this in the afternoon and enjoying a nice dinner along the water. There are several spots to choose from and we ate with friends at Mexican Manhattan. The elevated patio gave us a nice view of the nighttime lights glimmering on the water below. San Antonio is also a bustling city with theaters, commercial buildings, and shopping centers. While I enjoyed my afternoon there, I found myself happy to drive back to quiet Sattler Village for the night.
We visited a variety of other towns, bars, restaurants, ranches, and road-side eats during our seven day tour. I’ll save you the time of reading about each one as not all were absolute gems. I would be remiss, however, if I did not mention our favorite barbecue spot and our favorite steakhouse. The barbecue spot, well……it’s not exactly a restaurant or a bar. For all intents and purposes,….it’s a gas station. Gas stations are kind of a big deal out there and this one had some of the best brisket I have ever tasted. They also have good turkey and sausage. After you fuel up at Rudy’s, you can head inside for great cuts of meats and a few tasty sides. You order by the weight, same as you would at a deli. They pile it all into a soda crate and you eat off a paper place mate. They also have loads of barbecue sauces to try, but I kept things simple. The meats were too good to drown, in my opinion. The large space has several long picnic tables and when the weather is nice, they open the garage doors along the edge of the station. I still can’t believe the food was so good. Another fantastic place to hit up is the Tejas Steakhouse and Saloon. Located in Bulverde outside of San Antonio, this place is what Claim Jumper’s wished it could be. The biscuits are phenomenal. I mean it. The meats were thick and juicy, cooked to your liking, of course. I ordered a yam as a side and it came soaked in the best cinnamon butter I’d ever tasted. Again, no weight loss here! To add to the experience, the manager was really great. A true cowboy with impeccable manners and a belt buckle the size of a small calf, made sure to stop by to welcome us and check on our meals. Southern hospitality never gets old. And when you are finished with your grub, just head outside to Tejas Rodeo. Special events include a true rodeo experience as well as live music and dancing. We hadn’t hit rodeo season just yet and the rain poured that night so the music was cut short. Regardless, expect great food and entertainment at Tejas. I recommend making a reservation, as it got increasingly crowded while we dined. I also recommend driving out there during daylight. It’s off the beaten path and while it’s worth the trip, it’s a little hard to find after sun down.
So there you have it. Texas is not a flat, dry state with slow-talkin’ cowboys walking the streets. It’s much more than that. I am not only glad that I got to know the real Texas, but I can’t wait to go back and see more. Besides, there is one thing I did not get to do but was on my list – I wanted to go two-steppin’ in one of them old dance halls. See, now I have to go back. But this time I will bring my flat iron and leave the narrow-minded stereotypes at home. Texas is just too big for all that small talk. Catch y’all later.