by Gerald E. McLeod

Joe Garcia maintains a constant presence watching over the mobile kitchen parked behind the Manchaca Volunteer Fire Department. Joe's job on Friday nights is to be sure the serving trays are full of cole slaw, french fries, hush puppies, and, of course, the special of the evening -- all-you-can-eat fried catfish.

Every Friday evening the fire hall fills with hungry diners waiting their turn to feast on golden fried catfish with all the trimmings. Clarence Vogel, owner of the kitchen and catering service, says most Friday nights they cook around 600 pounds of catfish.

When asked how they manage to fry the fish to a perfect crispiness, Vogel says, "Well, we've been doing it for a long time." The volunteer fire department was organized 26 years ago. The cafe was added 15 or 20 years ago, he said. They added the fish fry about 10 years ago.

Originally the fish fry was to help pay for construction. The all-volunteer fire-fighting organization now has four stations in the area between Austin's southern city limits and the Travis county line. The fire department gets financial support from the cafe that opens Monday through Friday from 6am to 10pm.

The cafe's chicken-fried steak rivals the catfish in popularity; hamburgers, pork chops, fried chicken, and other sandwiches are all served in portions big enough for a hungry firefighter. The homemade pies alone are worth the trip to the southern end of Manchaca Road. A sign behind the cash register reminds folks to try their great breakfasts.

On an average Friday night 500 diners fill the picnic tables under the tin roof of the open-sided pavilion to dine on Southern fried food and listen to a bluegrass band. In the winter, several hundred crowd into the dining room surrounded by neon beer company lights. It's the kind of place where the kids can run free and the adults can enjoy a cold drink after loosening their belts. For most of the patrons the fire hall is a regular outing.

"The cafe gets all of the credit, but the firefighters do all of the work," Vogel, who is also the VFD president. The department has 56 volunteers on call 24 hours a day. The territory used to cover about 99 square miles, but Vogel isn't sure how big the area is anymore. "The City of Austin keeps creeping further south," he said.

The Manchaca Fire Hall Kitchen is on FM1626 west of Manchaca Road. The fish fries are held on Friday nights, 6-10pm. For more information, call 282-3600.

Coming up...

Carver Jazz Festival at the Carver Community Cultural Center in San Antonio presents local talent, June 20-22. 210/225-6516.

Peach JAMboree & Rodeo in Stonewall offers food, music and a rodeo at 8pm followed by a dance, June 21-22. 210/644-2735.

Burnet County Fair & Rodeo at the County Fairgrounds in Burnet happens June 20-22. 512/756-6642.

Coming up...

Covered Wagon Dinner Theater at the Caverns of Sonora, tour the caverns, then stay for supper and a show on Saturdays, June 22-Aug.10. 915/387-2880.

Wolf Howl at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center outside of Glen Rose is educational and fun as visitors take a close look at these misunderstood and endangered animals, 5pm-10pm, June 29. 817/897-2960.

Day Trips, Vol.1, a book of the first 100 day trips from this column, updated and expanded, is available for $6.95, plus $3.05 for shipping and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, 1712 E. Riverside Dr., Box 156, Austin, TX 78741.n

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