Just Like Ma Used to Make

Authentic Ferguson Fare at the Austin Hilton

Ma Ferguson's Restaurant

600 Middle Fiskville Rd.
(Austin Hilton), 206-3030
7am-11pm, daily

photograph by John Anderson
Miriam A. Ferguson (1875-1961) was the first woman elected governor of Texas, serving two non-consecutive terms (1924-26, 1932-34). In 1991, family members donated Mrs. Ferguson's entire collection of memorabilia, including a large assortment of cookbooks and handwritten recipes, to the Bell County Museum in her birthplace of Belton. Museum executive director Carl Randall McQueary thoroughly researched the Ferguson collection and wrote a casual political history/cookbook entitled Ma's in the Kitchen--You'll Know When It's Done (Eakin Press, $16.95, hard). McQueary's book is ostensibly the source material for much of the menu and some of the actual recipes used at Ma Ferguson's restaurant in the Austin Hilton hotel near Highland Mall.

The format of the restaurant venue in this Hilton has changed several times in recent years, which could account for the odd combination of furnishings and decor in the dining room. The newest incarnation has been heavily promoted since its opening in mid-September with print ads featuring pictures of the governor herself. The campaign attracted my attention because historical Texas foodways are a particular interest of mine, and I'd enjoyed a review copy of the McQueary cookbook when it came out in 1994. I re-read the book and set out to the Hilton, curious to see if the food was authentic Ferguson fare or if the restaurant was Ma's in name only.

The menu is done on newsprint, a re-creation of the Ferguson Forum newspaper published by the Fergusons while they were out of office. Names of family members, servants, and political rivals are sprinkled throughout dishes such as Ouida's Grilled Chicken (a sandwich for $6.75), Bullington's Basket (fried appetizers for $4.95), or Ross Sterling Stew ($5.95 Blue plate special). Besides its unique design, the most noticeable thing about the menu are the affordable prices, not exactly vintage 1932, but reasonable just the same. And it's a good thing the menu makes very interesting reading because the service is extremely slow. On two occasions, we were seated for almost thirty minutes before orders were taken and there were very long lapses between courses. At neither time was the dining room anywhere near full. Luckily, the food was worth waiting for, and a good value for our dollar when it arrived.

On our first visit, we attempted to choose some appetizers and entrées that claimed to be authentic recipes from McQueary's book. The Sweet Potato Croquettes ($3.95), barely sweet orange nuggets rolled in crisp bread crumbs and lightly fried, were delicious dipped in a bowl of sweet chili chutney. Alberta's Oven Done Chicken ($6.95), a family recipe from a bargain list of All-Day Entrees, proved to be an excellent choice too. The one-half pecan-smoked chicken is slathered with tangy BBQ sauce and served with garlic mashed potatoes. The formidable Mrs. Ferguson would be proud to call either dish her own.

The rest of our dinner wasn't taken from the book but was equally as good. Ella Gayles' Tortilla Pie ($4.25) is really a tasty plate of modern-day quesadillas made with smoked chicken, pico de gallo, mushrooms, and cheese that suffered only from being garnished with large, woody branches of cilantro. Seared Pork Loin ($11.95), stuffed with duck sausage and napped with a flavorful apple brandy cream sauce, was tender and succulent, though calling its polenta-like side dish Indian Corn pudding was a bit of a stretch. Ruby's Red Tequila Shrimp ($12.95) features marinated grilled shrimp with ruby red grapefruit sections in a subtly tart, creamy tequila-lime sauce arranged around a serving of pecan wild rice. All entrées include salad, vegetables and warm rolls. Be advised the salad is served family-style with tongs for each person to serve themselves and the crisp greens are tossed with mild bleu cheese crumbles and dressed with a light vinaigrette.

Our second visit with Ma came on a blustery cold winter night that called for a filling meal, and we were not disappointed. The friendly waitress explained a section of the large menu that offered Complete Dinners for Two and again, they are quite a deal. There are four dinner choices priced at $19.95 and $17.95 that include salad, bread, 2 entrées, vegetables, and dessert. We opted for the Steak and Shrimp ($19.95) and thoroughly enjoyed the 8oz filets cooked just to order with the Ruby's grilled shrimp and large baked potatoes. Considering that Ma Ferguson always campaigned for lower farm rents and lower taxes, she could be justifiably proud of these values. However, her status as a gracious Southern hostess would make Ma cringe at the sight of the restaurant's tacky cotton tablecloths -- faded and poorly ironed -- that cover the tables in an eatery bearing her name.

The menu also features a list of reasonably priced sandwiches, and there are daily blue plate specials ($5.95) for lunch that include potatoes and a vegetable of the day. The list of All-Day Entrées are also a bargain, offering full meals like Joe Wallace Chicken Fried Steak ($6.25), fried or baked catfish ($7.25), and Roast Turkey and Dressing ($6.25). The only drawback for permanently adding Ma Ferguson's to a list of reliable bargain dining spots would be the leisurely service that plagued our dinner visits. The management needs to keep in mind that no woman who ran both a household and the state government would tolerate thirty-minute gaps between courses in a nearly empty restaurant. If they can't feed a few people any faster than that, you have to wonder if the management could handle the crowd when word of the pleasant, affordable food makes Ma Ferguson's popular.

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