Sunday, July 15, 2007

Report from the Hinterlands: Waco, Round Top, Schulenburg


I spent the last week in Waco. If you are ever in Waco, and you want some oustanding and innovative food, there is only one place to go: leave town.

Waco's food scene is dominated by chains. It has IHOP, Denny's, Outback, Applebees, Chilis, Pei Wei, Cracker Barrell, and Luby's. I suspect that any local flavor was repressed by the Walmart effect: big high volume chains move in and force out any restaurant with character or innovative cooking. Waco's food is so bland, it might as well be a suburb of Dallas.

Waco still has a few non-chains, but the food in those restaurants was not very good. At the low cost end, the burger joint called Health Camp is famous. But their little burgers are not much better than Whataburger.

At the expensive end, Diamond Back's allegedly serves Texas-style steaks and seafood, plus sushi (?!?). A tortilla soup had three times as much chips and American cheese as either broth or chicken. A dish advertised as "trout" had an undesirable, muddy flavor more like a bad tilapia or catfish.

I ate at other Mom and Pop restaurants, hoping to discover some sort of unique regional character, but all I found was sub par, bland food. Ultimately, I found myself returning to Luby's. At least their fish tasted fresh.

My experience in Waco does not prove that food is always bad outside of large urban areas. In fact, I have experienced a few counterexamples to that proposition in the last few months.

Round Top

Several weeks ago, I had a fantastic meal in Round Top, Texas, population 68. Round Top is mid-way between Houston and Austin on US 290. It is the home of antique shops and a famous summer classical music festival.

The best restaurant -- maybe the only restaurant -- in Round Top is Royers Cafe. Royers is a very casual joint that has a pricey menu. It manages to combine small town dishes and flavors with big city-style cooking. The pork tenderloin is grilled, but it tastes like it has been slow cooked on a smoker like a fantastic brisket. It is covered with a sweet and sour peach and pepper glaze. Although it is country-style food, it is innovative and extremely flavorful. I have never had anything quite like it.

I also tried a bite of Royer's strawberry rhubarb pie. This pie had an amazingly dense, toothsome texture that left me dreaming about it weeks later.

Royer's thrives because it is a destination for tourists from Austin and Houston who want upscale food somewhere in between. It is run by expatriates from the city, trying to establish a great restaurant in a small town.


Another alternative to chains in some small towns is the small-town local restaurant that survives the chains because it is so much better.

Schulenburg, Texas, which sits mid-way between Houston and San Antonio, has some great German food. A few months ago, I returned to a long-time favorite -- the classic German/Texas diner named Frank's. Besides burgers and steaks, Franks has five or or six daily specials that often include barbecue, chicken fried steak, or German sausage with German-style potato salad and sauerkraut. I especially like the sauerkraut. Franks also has some very good pies, much lighter in texture than the pie at Royers.

Frank's is a traditional slice of Germany-to-Texas immigrant culture that has not been rubbed out by the Walmartization of small-town Texas. It successfully competes with the local chain restaurants and hopefully will outlive all of them.


morgan weber said...

Hi FoodInHouston gentleman. I just started reading your blog this morning and ran across this article on Waco. I wanted to concur with your feelings on Diamondback's. One cannot go to Waco for any sort of fine dining. 1424 Restaurant on Washington Ave., probably does the best fine-ish dining in Waco. The real gems in Waco are the mom and pop joints. One of the best burgers I've had in years comes from a little place called Dubl-R Hamburgers, located on 18th street. Lupita's used to be my pick for questionably safe, but always delicious Mexican food, but alas, they've closed their doors since I left Baylor. When I'm in Waco and want Mexican food, I'll go to Burrito De Jalisco on the corner-ish of Valley Mills and I35. Rosa's, although a newer chain from the Midland/Odessa area, put out wondeful food with fresh tortillas. BBQ seekers can go over to the north side of the Brazos on Wednesdays and partake of all-you-can-eat ribs at Tony Damaria's, but get there before noon or they'll be gone. If one is looking for American classics with an Asian flare, Kitek's cannot be missed. These are just a few of the places we frequented. I lived in Waco for five years while attending Baylor and made it a point to find the best hole-in-the-wall joints around. Before I forget, I must mention Bush's Chicken. If you're in the mood for some good fried chicken tenders and sweet tea, this is your place.

K said...

I'll second what morgan weber said about Dubl-R Hamburgers, but when the best restaurant in town is a greasy burger joint, you know you're in trouble.

My other two favorites when I lived there were El Siete Mares (very, very fresh fish and it was BYOB!) and Burrito King (for really good Mexican food -- NOT Tex-Mex).

Overall, yes -- good food is hard to find in Waco. But for the most part, people that live there are too whitebread to know or care.

anonymouseater said...

I tried three times to go to Kitok's but they were closed each time -- often without any explanation. Because it is a Korean restaurant in Waco that specializes in burgers, I really wanted to try it.

I tried El Siete Mares once. A shirmp dish was home-cooked, and the shrimp were decent quality for Central Texas. But the spicing was not very interesting. It tasted like a paste of garlic, a little pepper, and too much salt. Maybe I just ordered poorly.