Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Memorable Bite or Two

Good food is not always a given – not every restaurant is capable of providing what you consider good eats. While there are great places to eat in most areas, the fact is that the best places to eat are more often than not, privately owned, one of a kind establishments. These are usually family owned and family run businesses where quality comes from the heart and is delivered to each and every customer. If you are lucky enough to be near such a place (or more than one), then you know exactly what I mean.

Everyone has their own ideas of what a great place to eat is – these are my favorites.

Burgers and Fries

Holly's Drive-In
If you love hamburgers and soft ice cream, Holly’s Drive-In, in Post, Texas, is a must visit. If you live anywhere near Post and nearby Lubbock, take the time to try the food at this great drive-in. It’s a classic small town sort of place – a place where you can step back in time to a kinder, gentler era. Holly’s is far, far from the artificial atmosphere of too many modern ‘theme’ restaurants. This family owned classic drive-in is a throwback to a time when quality in food and service, and a small town, homey sort of feel meant something. Holly’s is not a put-on – it is the real thing; an all too rare commodity in today’s world.

How good are the burgers? Well, they are that good – good enough that I would drive out of my way to eat a Holly Burger. They are perfectly cooked to order, with fresh ingredients and the added touch of a bun lightly grilled in butter – all combined to produce one of the greatest burgers I have ever eaten. Sure, anyone can make a hamburger, but these aren’t just burgers – a Holly Burger is a taste of America.

Besides the outstanding burgers, the beauty of Holly’s is the fact that it is a real place – not some corporate guy’s idea of what America used to be, or a contrived way of trying to recreate the past by filling a restaurant with rusty flea market junk, like so many modern chain stores try to do. Holly’s is as authentic as it gets, and they represent a lost art – an independent business that doesn’t try to recreate the past – they allow you to step back into it. Post is a small town with the kind of atmosphere that only exists in such a place – a classic American town with a classic American drive-in.

Holly’s Drive-In
615 South Broadway St.
Post, Texas 79356
Baked Goods and Barbecue

Chappell Hill, Texas
It’s in a big, orange building that sits on the south side of Highway 290 in Chappell Hill, Texas, just a few miles east of Brenham, and about 65 miles northwest of Houston.

The building itself stands out, and that is also a perfect description of the food they serve in the Chappell Hill Bakery and Deli. To say that this family owned restaurant does barbecue and baked goods is like saying that a Ferrari is a metal thing that moves fast – a massive understatement. It is much more accurate to say that this wonderful place has the power to waylay passersby and stuff them with some of the most amazing food the lucky eaters have ever had.

The very first time I stopped at the Chappell Hill Bakery and Deli; the very instant that I stepped through the door, I thought ‘oh wow, this is going to be a great place to eat!’ It was the intoxicating aroma of barbecue that hit me first – the sweet, smoky smell of what I knew was going to be something special. As we walked in and that aroma swept over us, we walked past tables with happy customers eating lunch. Every plate looked inviting and delicious – each was piled high with various kinds of meat, potatoes, and vegetables. I was trying not to stare at people as they ate, but I couldn’t help it – the food all looked so incredibly appetizing.

Then I noticed that on the right side of the large serving counter, was a huge display of pies and other baked goods. Are you kidding me? They have homemade baked goods too?

Oh yes they do.

First things first though - as much as I love pie, I had to order lunch first. I stood there looking at the menu above the counter, and I could not decide what to eat. This was not fair – I only had time to stay for one meal. How am I going to pick just one thing, and still have room for desert? This is what a restaurant should be like – menu items that scream out ‘pick me!’ A restaurant should be a place where you know you’re going to get a great meal, no matter what you choose.

Finally, after careful deliberation, I ordered a plate of various smoked meats, along with potatoes and a vegetable. I’m reasonably certain that no matter what I had chosen, I would not have been disappointed. There was no chance that the food would be ordinary – not in this big, orange building. It was a full, satisfying meal, and I knew there was no way I would have room for pie. The rest of the family had the same problem, so we decided to buy a whole pie to take home.

It wasn’t just pies though – the display case was filled with trays of freshly baked kolaches. If you have never had a kolache, you have no idea what you are missing. These pastries, of Czech and Slovak origin, are very popular in Texas and for good reason. The Chappell Hill Bakery makes a stunning variety of these incredible treats, from ham and cheese, sausage, cream cheese and many different flavors of fruit fillings. You had better buy more than a dozen, just so you have some left by the time you get home. Besides the pie, we bought two dozen of our favorite kolaches.

By the time we arrived home, we were ready for desert; the pecan pie and kolaches did not last long. Just as with the barbecue, Chappell Hill baked goods are in a class by themselves.

Unfortunately, we live two hours from Chappell Hill, so we don’t have a chance to eat there very often. On the other hand, maybe that is a good thing – I could go broke just eating this food. If you get the chance to be anywhere near this place, look for the big orange building and prepare yourself to eat very well.

Chappell Hill Bakery and Deli
8900 Highway 290 East
Chappell Hill, Texas 77426
Mexican Food

Jalisco Cafe, Silver City, New Mexico
My family and I stayed for a night in Silver City, New Mexico while we were on vacation several years ago. We had traveled all day and were looking for somewhere to eat that would be just a little different than the usual – no chain restaurant for us that night, if possible. After checking into our motel, we asked the woman working the desk to recommend a decent restaurant – some place where the locals would eat, but not necessarily where tourists would likely go. As luck would have it, we were in the right place at the right time, and happened to ask that question of the exactly the right person.

She gave us directions to The Jalisco Café, and told us that although it was on a main street, it wasn’t necessarily a place where tourists would go. We found the restaurant and had a great dining experience that we will long remember. The Jalisco Café is a Mexican restaurant, probably more accurately identified as ‘New Mex/Mex’.

The restaurant was busy when we arrived – tables full of obviously happy people. The staff was friendly and efficient. They didn’t keep us waiting long – less than ten minutes to seat us. The food was more authentic than what you will find in any chain Mexican restaurant – clearly made with pride and care. It was spicier than the ‘watered down’ fare found in most ‘Mexican’ restaurants; the flavors more clearly defined – different, and far tastier than any ‘Mexican’ food I had ever eaten.

The servers were helpful and although the restaurant remained busy and full the entire time we were there, we were encouraged by several staff members to take our time and enjoy our meal. After an exceptional main course, we lingered over coffee and tasty sopapillas for desert.

We returned to our motel that night feeling that we had been treated to something special – a dining experience that most tourists miss out on. I learned a valuable lesson that night – when traveling, don’t be afraid to ask local people for restaurant suggestions – you might just end up somewhere special, like the Jalisco Café.

The Jalisco Cafe
100 S Bullard St
Silver City, NM 88061-5314

Pizza and Pasta

Bella Marie's, St. George, Utah
People in New York, Boston, and Chicago probably think they have the market cornered on great pizza. There is no denying that restaurants in those great cities make some of the finest pizza in the country, but they are not the only ones.

If you find yourself in the high desert of Southern Utah, there is a pizzeria worthy of praise for producing some of the finest pizza I have ever eaten. Bella Marie’s Pizzeria, in St. George, Utah, was an entirely unexpected find. Unlike most restaurants in this hurry up modern world, Bella Marie’s takes the time to make their own pizza sauce and dough. What comes together on a plate in this little restaurant is something so special that it stands among the finest anywhere.

Although I have only been fortunate enough to eat there twice, each time was an experience that will stay with me. Bella Marie’s makes pizza that is so fresh and tasty that it stands among the best offered in any and all of the great pizza cities of the US. You just cannot go wrong eating in this restaurant, located in the unlikely desert town of St. George, Utah.

To eat pizza in such a restaurant is to ruin every other pizza choice readily available in any American city. No disrespect intended to any of the many pizza chains across the country, but I can’t bring myself to even mention their names in the same article as that of Bella Marie’s. I haven’t even tried any other entrée they offer – the two times I have traveled to the St. George area, all I wanted to do was eat Bella Marie’s pizza. I can’t imagine that any menu item there isn’t world class, but it’s their pizza that stands out for me.

As I write this, a little over two months after my last visit, I can still taste it – the tanginess of the cheese blend, the richness of the sauce, and the perfection – did I mention perfection? – of the crust, are vivid in my mind. I have eaten great pizza before, in New York, Boston, Chicago, and even in a little restaurant in Bozeman, Montana called The Pizza Oven back in the 1960’s. For my taste buds though, the exceptional pizza from Bella Marie’s, is the best I have ever eaten – bar none.

Bella Marie’s Pizzeria
1487 S. Silicon Way Ste. A-1
St. George, Utah 84770

Hot Dogs

Standing in line at Voss', Utica, New York
You might think, hot dogs? Really? The answer is Voss’ Bar-B-Q, in Yorkville (Utica), New York. This little place that is only open part of the year (they close in winter) has been a fixture on Oriskany Boulevard for more than 70 years. My parents ate there as kids growing up in Utica, and over the years I had heard them speak of how memorable a Voss’ hot dog was. Mom and Dad aren’t the type to speak reverently of food – especially something as simple as a hot dog, so I knew that there must be something to this. What I discovered when I finally had the chance to eat there, is there is no such thing as ‘simple’ when describing a Voss’ hot dog.

Family owned, and family run; Voss’ Bar-B-Q is a one of a kind place – an institution in Upstate New York. They offer many menu items, and several variations of hot dog meals, but all I wanted was the classic Voss’ hot dog on a bun grilled with butter, and the fries. I sat there at a picnic table on a pleasant late summer evening, as traffic rushed past just a few yards away, and enjoyed the best hot dog on the planet.

You can’t even call Voss’ a drive-in – it’s a ‘walk up’. If you’re lucky enough to find a parking spot in the small lot, you stand in line at the window and watch smiling people pick up their orders and hurry off as though they can’t wait to bite into their food. You may laugh at that, but by the time you reach the window, with the fabulous aromas emanating from within, you can’t wait to dig in.

A Voss’ hot dog is not just a hot dog – it’s a taste experience that will leave you wanting more.

Voss’ Bar-B-Q
Oriskany Boulevard
Yorkville, NY 13495

Home Cooking

The famous Blue Bonnet Cafe
Who doesn’t love home cooking? Who doesn’t want to eat the food that you grew up with – food so good that only a Mom can make to your satisfaction? That kind of food only exists at Mom’s house, right? Not quite. There is a place where you would swear your Mom must be in the kitchen, cooking your favorite food – The Blue Bonnet Café, in Marble Falls, Texas.

This outstanding eatery has been featured on The Food Network; former president and first lady George and Laura Bush and a number of other famous people have eaten there. It is no accident that people flock to this café – great food draws crowds, and the food at The Blue Bonnet is not just good – it is memorable.

We stopped at this famous spot on our way home from a trip one recent summer day. We weren’t sure what to expect for wait time – a well-known restaurant like this at lunchtime would almost certainly require a long wait. When we arrived, we could see that the place was packed, but we waited less than fifteen minutes before the friendly hostess seated us.

Sometimes, such a place does not live up to expectations. How many times have you gone somewhere or done something that was highly anticipated, but didn’t turn out like you expected? That didn’t happen at the Bluebonnet – it was even better than it’s advance billing.

My son Brendan and I ordered Mama’s Famous Pot Roast with homemade red skin mashed potatoes; my wife Tiffany had the hand battered chicken fried steak, and Emily had a hamburger. I noticed that everyone at our table – in fact, everyone that I could see around us - smiled throughout their meal. I’ve never seen so many smiling people in a restaurant; everyone that I could see clearly loved the food. My pot roast was exceptional – they don’t call this home cooking for nothing. But that was just the beginning. Then came the pies – oh wow, the pies.

The Blue Bonnet keeps a glass case display with fresh pies of just about every conceivable flavor. Just walking past that case as we were seated was an experience in itself. Look at that one – no wait, look at that one. How are we going to choose which one of those pies to sample? What a happy dilemma to have, and of course, no one was disappointed with his or her choice – every pie slice was exceptional.

After eating at this restaurant, you may be tempted to take a look, just to be sure it isn’t your Mom back there in the Bluebonnet kitchen, but it may as well be. If you love home cooking, you need to find your way to Marble Falls, and eat at The Blue Bonnet Café. Although it’s not your Mom cooking in their kitchen, you will smile and enjoy your food, just as though Mom made it herself.

211 Highway 281
Marble Falls, Texas 78654

© 2012 LTM

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