The Austin Chronicle

Day Trips

By Gerald E. McLeod, April 24, 2009, Columns

Elm Creek Cafe, on Highway 21 near Lincoln, looks like a great eatery from the road, and the food served inside lives up to the cafe's exterior appeal. The diner serves generous portions of good, country food.

"I guess if we have a signature dish, it would be the beef," says Jay Franke. "We process our own meat from locally grown bulls." She's been the manager since Lynn and Marilyn Kanewski bought the place a little more than a dozen years ago. There's been a cafe here for more than 30 years, but Franke isn't sure exactly when it began.

Almost precisely 45 miles from both Austin and College Station, the cafe is a popular rest stop for sports fans coming and going. "We love college football," Franke says. "We schedule the help around when the Aggies play."

Although a lot of locals stop by for lunch or dinner, most of the cafe's customers are travelers. It was a traveling sportswriter who created a mystery for the staff a couple of years ago. "All of the sudden, everybody started ordering grilled quail and dewberry pie. We couldn't figure out why that combination became so popular all of a sudden," Franke says. It turned out a positive review of the meal had appeared in the San Antonio newspaper's sports section.

From burgers to seafood, there is something on the menu to soothe any growling tummy. "Our chicken-fried steak is tender enough to cut with a fork," Franke says. They cook the dinner-plate-sized breaded cutlet on the grill instead of deep-frying it, she says.

Franke is justifiably proud of the salad bar. The selection is a nice mix of fresh vegetables and homemade salads, including a sauerkraut salad favored by the locals. "We work very hard on the salad bar," Franke says. "We make all our own sauces."

When patrons order their meals, Franke always warns them to save room for pie. Elm Creek has a great selection of meringue pies, as well as dewberry and buttermilk pies. When in season, she adds pecan and pumpkin pies to the menu. Franke makes 20 to 25 pies a week. "On Fridays, we'll sell nine to 10 pies," she says.

Around 2001, the Kanewski sisters moved an old farmhouse next to the original building to use as a dining room. "That's when we got indoor plumbing," Franke laughed. "We used to share restroom facilities with the ball field behind the cafe." The teams now play in a park in Giddings, but the Elm Creek Cafe still waits for hungry players to come through the screen door.

Elm Creek Cafe is on Texas Highway 21 West, seven miles north of U.S. 290. The grill is fired up Tuesday through Thursday, 11am to 9pm; Friday and Saturday, 11am to 10pm; and Sunday, 11am to 9pm. The cafe is closed on Mondays. To place a to-go order, call 512/253-6775.

929th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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