What's on the Slab
Texas roadhouses are far from middle-of-the-road
By Kathy McCarty, Fri., June 13, 2008
As a middle-aged guitarist stands on the bar, playing blues licks with his teeth, a rangy cowboy with a sunburn and a blinding white smile teaches his son to play pool, both of them in matching straw cowboy hats. The brightly colored balls glow in the pyramid of pool table light. All sides of the roadhouse are thrown open to the deep Texas night, miles of country darkness in every direction.
It is easy to see why Cindy's Gone Hog Wild is popular with the bikers: The crowd is carefree, everyone is dancing (age or ability regardless), and the whole place overflows with the joy of life. This biker-friendly roadhouse on Highway 71 East boasts two stages, a powerful PA, a full bar, and great hamburgers, as well as Tex-Mex, steaks, and salads. For the duration of ROT Rally this year, they've hired a cook from Trudy's to do beef, chicken, and shrimp enchilada specials and have booked bands for the whole weekend. Owners Cindy and Mike Herman are committed to live music and never charge a cover. Fact is, bikers are generally unpretentious and straightforward folks, and the places they like to hang out are all easy to love.
"We had 7,000 bikes through here last year," Mike says.
Out in Willow City, Harry's is a legendary biker spot right on the Willow City Loop, one of the Texas Hill Country's sweetest rides. Harry's is a very old, smallish building; it looks as though it used to be a small-frame house or store. In the middle of the dining room sits a pot-bellied stove, still in use; every square inch of the walls and ceiling and outside of the place is covered with bikers' graffiti, saying who was here, when, and where from, each biker leaving his or her mark. Harry's is so thick with time and history, both inside and out under the tree-shaded tables, that it feels like the heart of Texas biker culture, and you've been lucky enough to find it.
Harry himself pulls up in a crazy, dazzling white stretch limousine; the door opens and out comes Luxi, with a gold chain around her waist and no shoes. Harry follows. He is a legend. The same year that Harry's opened, two of his friends started the Republic of Texas Rally, and Harry's has always been a stop on the Poker Run. Harry serves barbecue, and though the menu is limited, the chow is awesome, and the beer is cold. This year Harry will be serving sausage wraps, sausage sandwiches, and pork-and-garlic sandwiches (actually, Harry called them "Hog's Ass & Garlic Sandwiches").
Sitting at Harry's, it feels like 1975, like the back roads are wide open, and the Texas summer is bearably cool. Harry barks: "Tell them Harry and Luxi will be here. And we're going to have live music all Saturday afternoon."
Just down the road is Knot in the Loop Saloon, another biker-friendly establishment. The recent near-tornado in Willow City uprooted many trees and pulled up their sign, but the saloon is undamaged. "The sky was black, just black, and
boiling!" says Robin Nichols, who runs the Knot with partner Wayne McAdams. "They say it was a straight wind, but it sure looked like a tornado to us."
The Knot has the best hamburgers for a hundred miles around, and the best jukebox. Marty Robbins and George Jones pour out like honey onto the serene landscape, and the shady front porch looks out on an archetypal scene of black cattle languidly grazing in green grass. It is a classic Texas roadhouse, with a full bar and that laid-back, friendly Texas feeling. The menu is extensive, and though a lot of the fare is deep-fried, it is good and crisp and hot as a volcano.
Coming out of the Willow City Loop down Highway 71 toward Austin is Angel's Icehouse. Frequented by bikers and Lake Travis-bound families alike, Angel's is welcoming to all comers. Like Cindy's, Angel's walls are big garage doors that are thrown open to the winds in the summer, with big fans and misters. There is a kid's play-scape, dogs are welcome, and their full bar is always jamming. The menu is an extensive array of bar-food favorites: chicken-fried steak, burgers, fried appetizers, nachos, wraps, and salads.
There is plenty of room and tons of shady parking. "One thing I noticed," explains Mary Blumer, "bikers like to look at their bikes while they are eating. Not to guard them; they just like to look at their bikes. And talk about them. So I put the bike parking right here along the deck."
Mary and her partner, Sara Shulman, never set out to run a biker bar; it just turns out that the bikers like her place, along with everyone else. "When we first opened, the president of the Banditos [Motorcycle Club] asked me if he could hang his colors here. And I am thinking, ummm, are the colors going to go with my decor?" Mary laughs and imitates her round-eyed naivete. "His friends were holding up the colors, doing a bit of a sell job, and you know, I was afraid. ... What if another club came in, and there was a turf war or something? I mean, I didn't know! So I declined as nicely as I could, and they were perfect gentlemen, of course."
Dally's Down Under, out Highway 290 near Johnson City, is a new roadhouse that is generating buzz. Owner Dally Vuletich, a New Zealand stonemason, has fashioned a gorgeous destination with a 25,000-square-foot handmade cobblestone parking lot. The interior is equally stunning: Entirely paneled in long-leaf knotty pine and cedar, all polished to a high buff, with a huge stone fireplace and handmade polished cedar tables, it is unforgettable. Dally also has a genuine 60-pound dingo dog named Carter Brown. "He likes to dance with the girls." Vuletich shyly admits.
Vuletich keeps his beer at 27 degrees and then packs it directly onto the ice, and last year he had more than 7,000 bikers grace his establishment during ROT. "This year, I am going to have brisket, lots of brisket, and I am going to roast a whole hog on a spit," he promises. He's got live music lined up, too.
In Austin, restaurants and bars along Sixth Street are bracing themselves for the onslaught of bikers that the ROT Rally provides. Paradise, Casino el Camino, and Habana Calle 6 are staffing up and stocking up for the extra business, and even posh and swanky Parkside is hosting a fundraiser on Thursday, June 12, for Bikers Against Child Abuse, as well as literally beefing up the menu by adding more meat entrées.
Up I-35 at Highway 290, Bikinis Sports Bar & Grill, which specializes in gorgeous women in bikinis (rather like a locally owned Hooters, only Bikinis), looks like a miniature Sturgis every Wednesday and Thursday night, with hundreds of cherry machines lined up in the parking lot. "Last year during ROT, we had over 600 bikes in the lot at one time!" laughs manager Chris George. "This year we are having a bikini contest on Thursday and live music Thursday, Friday, and Saturday."
Across the highway in Lincoln Village, biker club colors hang in profusion at Rock City Icehouse. The decor here is black and chrome, the stage is big, and rock & roll is king. Run by Eleanor and Paul McGuff and frequented by KLBJ's Johnny Walker (who rides an Indian), Rock City Icehouse serves specialty pizzas, fried finger food, and wings. Giant TV screens showing sports are in every sight line, and live bands rock out all night every night. Rock City has earned Biker loyalty; Paul is a biker himself. "The presidents of the clubs come here; they come here to meet and socialize. We have the colors out. We've got huge parking, too! Once the stores close, it's all ours." Eleanor chimes in: "One night a bike club president was in, and he didn't have his colors on. I asked him, 'Why aren't you wearing your colors?' and he said, 'I'm not on my bike tonight.' That's what these guys are like. They are true blue." For ROT, Rock City has booked a host of bands for the weekend. Thursday night is Biker Night; during ROT however, every night is biker night.
"The key is respect," says Paul. "We respect the bikers, and they respect us."
Addresses, phone numbers, and websites for these and many other restaurants and attractions can be found in "Two-Wheeled Texas."