By Ron Stern
Situated about halfway between Austin and San Antonio, the city of San Marcos is the epicenter of a culinary area of deliciousness known as The Texas Hill Country. Spread over multiple counties, this region offers the real Texas experience. Get your taste buds ready for action and prepare yourself for down-home hospitality as you experience award-winning barbecue, one-of-a-kind distilleries, and family-owned eateries.
One of the first things that you will notice about a visit to the Hill Country is how friendly and helpful people are. Etiquette and manners are still in vogue and adults are frequently referred to as “sir” and “ma’am.” Most venues are located in Hays and Caldwell counties and can be reached in about an hour’s drive from San Marcos.
Best of the mom and pop restaurants
Small towns and cities are where you will find some of the most unique, non-chain foodie establishments.
For example, the town Kyle has been called “The Pie Capital of Texas,” primarily due to the pastry skills of Chef Julie Albertson and her Texas Pie Company. Just look for the giant cherry pie jutting out of the rooftop.
Albertson’s chocolate fudge, Dutch apple, and strawberry rhubarb pies, all use her family’s secret sugar dough recipe. She says her pecan pie tied for the best in the nation by Jane and Michael Stern in their book “500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late: and the Very Best Places to Eat Them.” Her dough is legendary in these parts, and it ships right to your door from her website.
Just down the street is La Ola Pop Shop, which makes homemade ice creams and paletas (ice pops). Using fresh, natural ingredients, they create approximately 35 flavors including avocado and cream, kiwi-coconut, and a local favorite — Cookie Monster.
Celebrating their sixth year, Cody’s Bistro and Lounge in San Marcos is a neighborhood restaurant and bar serving up eclectic American cuisine and colorful cocktails. Even located in Texas, their most popular entrée is the iconic Beef Wellington, prepared with a tender sirloin wrapped in puff pastry.
Palmer’s Restaurant Bar and Courtyard has been recreated from its 1920s origins and is a small oasis complete with a fountain. Try tableside guacamole and Mexican martinis, one of which uses a frozen ball of hibiscus.
Serving Southern dishes with an Asian twist, Creek Road Café in Dripping Springs has developed quite the reputation for the place to go for an elevated yet unpretentious fare.
You don’t have to travel all the way to France to enjoy authentic crepes. Just head over to Crepe Crazy for sweet or savory folded pancakes, filled with ham and cheese, Nutella or other ingredients. This is one of the few places in the world where they employ an all deaf staff.
Surrounded by mesquite trees and lush landscaping, The Leaning Pear is run by two native Texans offering locally-inspired Hill Country cuisine. Menu favorites are its meatloaf, chicken and grits and crab cakes.
Celebrating the ‘spirit’ of Texas
Using plenty of grit, determination and entrepreneurship, resilient Texans create their own American dream. Such is the case with local distillers who have carved out their own creative niches.
Deep Eddy Vodka in Dripping Springs uses water from underground aquifers to produce smooth, clean-tasting and handcrafted spirits. Choose from a variety of vibrant flavors including grapefruit, peach, lemon and cranberry.
Sotol (Desert Spoon) plants have been a part of the West Texas landscape for generations. Desert Door Distillery was founded by three military veterans who distill a unique beverage that fills the taste gap between agave and mescal. Sotol is becoming more in demand as people discover its unique taste, creating a whole new category of fermented beverages.
AFT (Austrian Farms of Texas) Distillery in Lockhart — the only fruit-to-bottle Edelbrand distiller in the state — uses techniques passed down from master distillers in the Austrian Alps. You can really smell and taste the fresh apples, pears, and cherries.
Barbecue for all
Established in 1874, Luling — once known as “the toughest town in Texas” — was built on cattle, cotton and oil. But today, hungry travelers with a craving for barbecue head to City Market. Family-owned for the past 30 years, this establishment slowly cooks their meats over a pit of post oak wood. No fancy plates or tablecloths here — just butcher paper wrapped around flavorful brisket, ribs, and sausages served with a tangy mustard sauce.
Luling is also known for its annual Watermelon Thump festival. The highlight is a seed spitting contest with the record of a whopping 68 feet.
Open since 1967, Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood is home to award-winning meats and was featured on Top Chef Texas. The eatery’s ever-expanding domain showcases its success; every week it caters to thousands who come for their taste tantalizing meats as well as their own brand of wines.
With a long barbecue history that dates back to 1900, Kreuz Meats in Lockhart uses a “low and slow” brick pit method in this traditional German-style meat market. Famous for their dry rubbed ribs, they also feature barbecued beef, pork and turkey.
The culinary experience in the Hill Country is as beautiful and unpretentious as their beloved bluebonnets that grace the landscape during the spring. If you come for a visit, enjoy the countryside hospitality but come hungry — you certainly won’t leave that way.
—Contact Ron Stern at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at globalgumshoe.com. This was a sponsored visit; all accommodations, meal, and transportation that were the subject of this review were provided at no charge to the writer. However, all opinions herein are the author’s.