Have Food, Will Travel
Good eats in and around Marfa
The tiny West Texas towns of Marathon and Marfa never cease to amaze me. I go there to decompress and disconnect from everything at home but inevitably return with more friends than I had before going. The small communities also keep evolving – if not really growing – and so do their dining scenes.
If we drive the speed limit and take our own snacks, it is possible to get from Austin to Marathon in about six hours. Arriving by mid-afternoon, the pool at the Gage Hotel is a most welcome sight, with the tiny White Buffalo Bar and its impressive selection of premium tequilas and ice-cold beers running a close second. After a dip and a drink, we always look forward to dinner at the historic Gage's restaurant, Cafe Cenizo. Until a few months ago, the kitchen here was the playground of former Austin chef Paul Petersen, who elevated the cuisine and service to a nationally recognized high standard. When Petersen left to pursue new endeavors, sous chef Brandon Martin stepped up to the stove. Martin's menu may be different, but the quality has not skipped a beat. Much of the produce used in the kitchen now comes from the Gage Gardens, where they are growing a variety of vegetables, herbs, and fruit. Chef Martin's pan-seared sweetbreads, served on a bed of finely shredded leeks with a Thai chile yuzu soy butter, are the best I've ever had, and a perfectly seasoned seared salmon over grapefruit-scented jasmine rice was ideal on a warm summer night. Our wines were expertly chosen by new food and beverage manager Steven Wood, and service was professional and friendly. For a nightcap, we headed to the new local hangout, the Famous Burro. Newly refurbished by Neil Chavigny, the former Cottonwood Station is bright, clean, and laid-back. It features a game room, a small bistro menu that changes weekly, and a well-stocked bar where locals mingle with tourists. The next morning, we checked out El Peppercorn Cafe, where newcomer chef Jorge Oliva, a native of Jalapa, Veracruz, has taken over the former Marathon Coffee Shop. Oliva serves build-your-own breakfast tacos, huevos rancheros, and homemade granola, plus fish tacos, gourmet sandwiches, and specials at lunchtime. His salsa casera alone is worth the trip, and I am told by my Marathon friends that his off-menu specials are "right out of Like Water for Chocolate." I've definitely put this place on my must-try list for our next trip because we were headed out to spend the rest of that day in Marfa.
Austin music fans should remember artist and songwriter Adam Bork (aka Earthpig) and showman extraordinaire David Beebe, founder of El Orbits and a lifetime Continental Club fixture. Both are now Marfa residents working in the food industry. Bork and his girlfriend, Krista Steinhauer, operate the Food Shark (under the pavilion between the railroad tracks and Marfa Book Co.), serving "Mediterranean-by-way-of-West-Texas food" out of an Airstream trailer. Many folks raved about the food, and we were eager to try it. Alas, they have limited hours and don't open on Saturdays (next time, Adam!). Beebe is the managing partner at Padre's (209 W. El Paso St.), the hottest new bar in Presidio County and surrounding environs. Housed in a funky, painstakingly restored adobe building that was formerly a funeral home, Padre's atmosphere is reminiscent of the Continental Club – but with a cast of characters written and directed by David Lynch and orchestrated by Beebe's fabulous jukebox. I spent most of my afternoon with David in his tiny, impeccable kitchen, drinking a chipotle-tinged house-made bloody mary, laughing, and catching up on things while he made hand-seasoned burgers, homemade chili, and roux for chicken-and-andouille gumbo. The chili goes into a Frito pie, served right inside the torn bag of chips on a warmed Fiesta Dinnerware plate. Beebe brags about his Cajun-style pickled eggs and defends the name of his Veggie Lover's burger (not just a bland patty but a fresh veggie stir-fry tucked inside a toasted hamburger bun). Good friend that he is, he tipped me off about the new little wine bar across the street.
Tom Schmidt and Pat Quinn own and run the Marfa Guest Quarters (109 W. San Antonio St.), a guest house rental/real estate/art gallery business. They have recently added a wine and beer bar featuring handpicked selections with something for everyone. The room feels familiar and warm, like hanging out at your favorite aunt and uncle's. Pat serves a small, changing menu of homemade bites, like tiny potatoes stuffed with sour cream, bacon, and capers and Campari tomatoes (grown hydroponically at the nearby Village Farm greenhouses) filled with roast beef salad or white bean spread. Two glasses of chilled McPherson Rosé, a lively conversation, and two new friends later, we headed to dinner next door at Cochineal (115 W. San Antonio St.). The modern, minimalist decor; a short but impressive seasonal menu that changes daily; and a wine list that would be the envy of many an Austin establishment (Domaine Tempier Rosé, anybody?) truly set this amazing restaurant apart. Owners Tom Rapp and Toshi Sakihara – formerly of the acclaimed Etats-Unis in Manhattan – came to Marfa to retire but opened this restaurant instead. Their food is ethereal: fresh greens from the garden in a flavorful, "slightly Asian" dressing; lump crab cakes with a side of roasted baby beets; homemade pappardelle alla puttanesca with duck confit; and Toshi's warm, baked-to-order date pudding. This incredible meal left us speechless! My only complaint here was the friendly service lacked the finesse and sophistication of the food – something that can be fixed. Cochineal also serves breakfast at Claudia's @ Cochineal, named for the young lady chef that cooks it. I'll make sure to try it next time. We left the restaurant sated and impressed, ready for a night of dancing at Padre's – along with everyone else in town, it seemed. After a 10-minute hug at the end of the night, David Beebe sent me home blessed by his contagious energy and already hungry for another visit. We'll see y'all soon.
(Tuesday-Friday, 11:30am-3pm) Under the pavilion between the railroad tracks and Marfa Book Co. www.foodsharkmarfa.com
209 W. El Paso St., 432/729-4425 www.padresmarfa.com
Marfa Guest Quarters Beer & Wine Bar
109 W. San Antonio St., 432/729-4599 www.themarfaquarters.com
Cochineal 115 W. San Antonio St., 432/729-3300
101 Highway 90 W., 800/884-4243 www.gagehotel.com
The Famous Burro
Corner of Hwy. 90 and Post Road 432/386-4100, www.famousburro.com
El Peppercorn Cafe
301 Hwy. 90, 432/386-4151