When local radio personality and restaurateur Bob Cole announced recently that this iconic South Austin eatery was struggling financially, it seemed like the right time to take another look at the place. I mean, any restaurant that's been around since 1947 deserves a chance at survival, right?
I'll admit I hadn't been to Hill's Cafe in several years – maybe not even since I moved from the Boudlin Creek neighborhood. However, after a long talk with Bob Cole about all the efforts he had put into keeping the longtime South Austin open, I was really curious about what the problems might be at Hill's. What I found is an enormous restaurant with an appealingly-updated, classic Texas roadhouse menu, serving food that is well-prepared and reasonably priced. My diagnosis: this place needs a very proactive, on-and-off premise special events and catering department to maximize the profit potential of all the facilities, because the food and service seemed fine to me.
For the first 25 to 30 years Hill's Cafe was open, most Texas roadside cafes offered much the same classic menu: a couple of steaks with baked potatoes; a burger and/or a club sandwich with fries; a Chicken Fried Steak with mashed potatoes, a vegetable, and peppery cream gravy; maybe a plate of fried catfish or fried shrimp; a plate of Tex-Mex cheese enchiladas napped with chili; perhaps a little barbecue if they had a smoker out back, and pie or cobbler for dessert. Simple, reliable, and satisfying. Hill's Cafe, which grew out of a 20-seat coffee shop attached to the Goodnight Motel on what was then known as "the old San Antonio Road," was no different.
While key elements of that classic menu remain, Hill's food isn't frozen in time, and Cole's cooks are not just phoning it in. For appetizers, we chose the Green Chile Queso with El Lago chips ($5.99) and some Brisket sliders ($7.99) on soft potato rolls. The molten bowl of queso was chock-full of sauteed onions, peppers, and tomatoes but not overly spicy. The sliders were as good as any I've had around town, packed with chunks of tender brisket in the dark and earthy house molasses barbecue sauce and a bright, crunchy house "Cole" slaw. What's not to like?
No review of a restaurant like this would be complete without consideration of the Chicken Fried Steak ($12.59) and the huge Hill's Cafe version distinguishes itself with a crackermeal crust and two gravy options, the Yella (not my favorite) and the white pepper, which was much more to my liking, but could still use some salt and pepper, in my opinion. The mashed potatoes and green beans on this plate were not just filling up space, they were both well-executed and very tasty. Hill's is doing fine in the chicken fried steak department.
Portions on the burgers, sandwiches, and salads are all generous and the steak options are reasonably priced. My only real disappointment here was a serving of the Pear and Peach cobbler ($4.99) that was a doughy mass of thick, undercooked crust and bland topping. Maybe the baker just had a bad day, but I'd say that one needs some work.
Barbecue is one facet of the Hill's Cafe menu that probably needs attention. Don't get me wrong, the barbecue items we sampled were good enough, but this is a very tough barbecue town, smack-dab in the middle of one of the most distinctive barbecue regions in America. If a restaurant is going to promote barbecue in Austin, Texas, and compete with nationally recognized barbecue joints and several homegrown barbecue chains with very busy catering operations (Salt Lick, County Line, Pok-e-Jo's, Rudy's, Smoky Mo's, just to name a few), the barbecue offerings have got to stand out. I found the house Cole slaw and potato salad very impressive and they pair well with both the brisket (sliders, plates, and enchiladas) and Elgin sausage (wraps, plates, sandwiches), but it's not exactly barbecue to write home about. If catering is going to be the salvation here, Hill's needs to step up its barbecue game.
4700 S. Congress 851-9300
Tuesday & Wednesday, 11am-2pm & 5-9pm;Thursdays, 11am-2pm & 5-10pm
Friday & Saturday, 11am-11pm
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