The Austin Chronicle

Day Trips

By Gerald E. McLeod, December 4, 1998, Columns

The Empresario Restaurant in Goliad

photograph by Gerald E. McLeod

The Empresario Restaurant in Goliad provides good home cooking in a small-town coffee shop atmosphere that is pure Americana. The choice of items on the menu honors the cooking traditions of South Texas with Mexican dishes, Bubba's Gourmet barbeque, and a few seafood items to remind diners that they're close to the Gulf Coast.

On the historic courthouse square, Empresario's is the main meet, greet, and eat spot in the community of 2,000. The coffee crowd begins coming in at 6am and gathers around the communal table in the back until almost lunchtime, says owner Mary Thigpen.

Built in 1903 as a hardware store, the limestone and brick building at the southeast corner of the town square has housed a number of different businesses in the last 95 years. It has been a restaurant for the last 13 years. The Thigpens bought the restaurant in 1997 after a career in fast food and a small cafe in a local hotel. "We love it," Mary says about owning a restaurant. "It's a lot of work, but it's a lot of fun too."

When the Thigpens purchased the business it was only opened for lunch. They have expanded the service to breakfast through supper and added a thriving catering business. When looking for good food, the Thigpens will take a good recipe when they can find it. They kept some of the items from the last owner's menu and many of the Mexican food dishes come from Mary's family recipes.

"You've got to have the meat sauce to have good Mexican food," says Mary, who was born and raised in the Goliad area. The sauce on the enchiladas is a spicy, thick, home-style red gravy. Mary's aunt makes the thick tortillas that go with the Mexican food. On weekends menudo is one of the most popular breakfast items on the menu.

The Thigpens have six cooks who help them during the 16-hour days. "I don't know what I would do without my head cook, Deborah Mead," Mary says. Many of the recipes are Deborah's or a combination that they worked on together. Each of the cooks has their own specialties that give the restaurant the wide range of offerings. It is good employees that allows the Thigpens to have flexible schedules. "Sometimes I'm only here for a little while," Mary says, "other days I'm here until after midnight."

If you asked almost anybody in town what is the best thing on the menu at the Empresario Restaurant they'll most likely tell you that it's the pies. "Coconut meringue is the most popular," Mary says. With a meringue that is four inches tall and thick enough to hold up a silver dollar, nothing finishes off a meal or complements a cup of coffee better than Empresario's pies. Mary expects to sell about 50 of the whole pies at Thanksgiving.

What is Mary's favorite item on the menu? "It's the Breast Delight," she says. One of their popular sandwiches, the Breast Delight is a chicken breast on a San Francisco French roll with bacon, sautéed onions and mushrooms with your choice of three cheeses. They also have a big Bubba Burger that's not a Whataburger-style hamburger. Empresario's has live entertainment on Friday nights and all-you-can eat breakfast buffets on Saturday and Sunday, 6-11am.

Day trippin' can build up a big hunger, and finding good restaurants along the way can often be a challenge. Empresario Restaurant is one of those great finds that will have you going back every time you pass through town. They're open daily, 6am-10pm. For more information, call 512/645-2347.

Goliad is one of the oldest settlements in Texas, the birthplace of the cattle industry in the state, and one of the most historical areas to explore. Established in 1749, Presidio La Bahia across the San Antonio River from town is the most complete restoration of a Spanish fort in the U.S. The old fort includes an interesting museum, a parish chapel that has been used for more than a century, and a unique bed-and-breakfast inn.

The Goliad State Historical Park preserves the Mission Espiritu Santo de Zuniga and a beautiful stretch of the San Antonio River. In addition to a museum in the old mission granary, the park allows camping, fishing, swimming, and has hiking trails. Call 512/645-3405 for more information.

Coming up this weekend ...

Hecho a Mano is a once-a-year shopping opportunity of handmade goods at the Cultural Arts Center, 1301 Guadalupe St., San Antonio, with $1 admission on Dec. 5, 9am-6pm and free admission on Dec. 6, noon-6pm. 210/351-7787.

Annual Closing of the Orange Show in Houston at 2402 Munger St. features Wayne "The Train" Hancock and Carl Dixon for an evening of eclectic excitement, Dec. 5, 7-11pm. This is the last chance to visit the dream world of a Houston postman until next spring. 713/926-6368.

Flood Victims' Benefit in Wimberley features Ray Wylie Hubbard, Doc Toler, and more, Dec. 6. 512/847-6564.

Main Street Bethlehem in Burnet brings to life the holy village, Dec. 4-6 and 11-13. 512/756-4481. Also, Christmas at Ft. Croghan in Burnet revives the frontier days at the old fort, Dec. 5 &12. 512/756-4106.

Holiday on the River City Flyer gives special holiday rides on the Austin steam train, Dec. 4,11,18. 512/477-8468.

Coming up ...

Stargazing at the Fountainwood Observatory at Southwestern University in Georgetown offers views through a 16-inch telescope with astronomy students to guide visitors to the stars, Dec. 11. 512/863-1242.

Newborn white rhinoceros at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center outside of Glen Rose is doing fine. Named Newton, he weighed 100 pounds at birth and is one of only 7,500 white rhinos in the world. Fossil Rim has one of the most successful captive breeding programs in the world.

Augustus or "Gus," a whopping five-foot-tall giraffe born at Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch, joins the second-largest giraffe herd in Texas north of San Antonio, and is the fourth giraffe born at the Wildlife Ranch. 830/438-7400.

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