corner of FM 972 & FM 1105
When they're not clogging the interstates during workday commutes, Austinites relish the chance to get out on the rural roads and explore the remote hill towns outside our famed city limits. It's a chance to trade crowded streets and freeway gridlock for smooth, hour-long trips down secluded farm-to-market roads.
And these not-so-impromptu daytrips usually include a hearty meal or other culinary adventure as an integral part of the plan. Most of us have schlepped visiting relatives out to Lockhart or Dripping Springs for smokehouse binges or slowly cruised to Johnson City in search of summertime peach vendors. Outlying barbecue towns such as Elgin and Taylor profit from the hunger of Austin's migratory drivers.
Among northbound explorers, the tiny town of Walburg (population 142) has developed its own reputation as a weekend destination for fans of homestyle German food and open-air beer halls. Located in gently rolling hills about eight miles off Interstate 35 north of Georgetown, Walburg looks like any other microscopic Central Texas farming community -- a few houses, the mandatory mechanic shop, and a bank dating from the turn of the last century. But the big draw of the tiny town is the Walburg Mercantile, a renovated dry goods store that now houses an informal family-style restaurant and outdoor bier garten. Once you hit town, it's pretty hard to miss; it's the only place with a packed parking lot at sundown.
Depending on the time of year, patrons gravitate toward distinct areas of the Mercantile complex. On weekend nights, the Mercantile restaurant pulls in locals and city visitors for the casual atmosphere and hearty German food of chef Herbert Schwab.
Behind the Victorian-era industrial façade, the Mercantile building wears its history on its walls. Built in 1882 by German immigrant Hy Doering, the former general store still has sturdy shelves with beer steins and assorted tchotchkes replacing feed bags and Mason jars. A full wall of glass-front coolers proudly displays an impressive selection of German beers -- everything from now-commonplace brews like Spaten Oktoberfest to the more obscure wheat beers from Franizkaner and Schneider.
The surroundings are informal, welcoming, and family friendly. Colorful oilclothes cover the mostly oversized tables -- durable and perfectly adapted to the large multi-family groups that seem to make up most of the restaurant's clientele. The indoor stage serves as gathering place and impromptu playground for restless kids when it's not showcasing Ron Tippelt's yodeling house band, the Walburg Boys.
The Mercantile's restaurant features the meat-heavy dishes of southern German cuisine, along with a few nods to the Texas homestyle tradition. Sausages and saurkraut abound, ranging from plump steamed knockwurst to Münchner bratwurst (grilled veal sausages). Traditional side dishes such as potato dumplings and spaetzle (tiny free-form egg noodles) accompany various cuts of roasted beef, pork, and veal. Non-red meat options are limited to one chicken dish (Grilled Chicken Breast "Hunter Style") and a poached trout -- probably typical for rural Germany, but somewhat limited given current dietary standards.
On a recent visit, we sampled a couple of soups to take off the winter chill and found the Ungarische Gulaschsuppe ($4.50)to be a real winner. This smooth version of the Hungarian beef stew accented a thick broth with onions, puréed potatoes, and a base of sweet/hot paprika. The simple soup provided a rounded, spicy heat that rivaled the best Texas chili for warming power. However, the featured soup of the day -- creamy Leek and Potato ($3.95) -- didn't fare quite as well. While the texture and essential tastes were fine, the soup suffered from an unfortunate (and unmistakable) burned flavor. Our other appetizer, a slightly greasy, underdone potato pancake (Kartoffelpuffer, $3.95) demonstrated a similar lack of attention to basic details.
Our entrees, however, showed a bit more promise by showcasing the Mercantile's strong suit: entries from the meat group. The house-made Knockwurst ($7.95) were plump and flavorful, perfectly accented by dollops of hot mustard and slightly sweet sauerkraut. The eponymous house specialty, the Schweinelendchen "Walburg" ($12.95), featured grilled pork loin done up Eggs Benedict-style. Topped with slices of salty Black Forest ham and creamy hollandaise sauce, this is the dish for diners who believe that "you can never eat too rich." Eaters of lesser constitution will be overwhelmed in pretty short order. The layered melange came accompanied with sides of fresh spaetzle and a serving of a disappointing reheated vegetable medley straight from your grocer's freezer.
Which leads me to my primary beef with the Mercantile's restaurant. Despite the elevated tone of the menu's self-promotional blurb ("European-trained Master Chef Herbert Schwab ... awaits your whims of appetite in the kitchen"), the overall execution of the dishes hovers somewhere just above short-order quality. With the current availability of fresh produce, there's just no excuse to serve freezer-burned cauliflower chunks while claiming a lofty culinary pedigree. Why not emphasize the restaurant's strengths (simple German specialties and boisterous historic ambiance) instead of gilding the gourmet lily? That said, the Walburg Mercantile deserves at least one visit on the merits of its atmosphere alone.
However, diehard biergarten fans will find the drive to Walburg more than worth the trip. Behind the Mercantile building, a converted cotton gin serves as tented beer hall, with colorful flags of German-speaking countries swaying lazily from the ceiling. A makeshift smokehouse and concession stand serves the same staggering beer selection as in the restaurant, along with a simplified menu of sausages and barbecue.
After dinner, we ambled outside for a post-meal brew only to fantasize over the possibilities of a simple smoked pork chop plate enjoyed on one of the garten's wooden picnic tables. But there were no real disappointments. This year's split-personality winter (and probable early spring) will provide plenty of opportunities for short weekend road trips. And come bluebonnet time, a few beers at Walburg will be just the excuse we're looking for.