Austin's Best Down-Home Eats
By Rebecca Chastenet dé Gery, Barbara Chisholm, Pableaux Johnson, Mick Vann, and Virginia B. Wood, Fri., March 3, 2000
No, we're not referring to the liquor known as Texan Janis Joplin's swill of choice or to the Keith Carradine/Powers Boothe swamp movie. We're talking about genuine Southern hospitality and down-home victuals prepared in the time-honored Southern tradition. Perhaps you don't think of Texas as part of the South, and truth be told, sometimes the rest of the South doesn't think of us that way, either. However, we can boast our share of black and white, pre- and post-Civil War settlers from the Southern states who brought their appetites and their culinary traditions with them. All that history and tradition flourished here and is still being practiced in some restaurants around Austin. The Chronicle food staff, Rebecca Chastenet de Géry, Pableaux Johnson, Mick Vann, Barbara Chisholm, and myself, have identifed some of the best Southern Comfort food purveyors in our hometown for your dining pleasure. If you're the kind of person who goes looking for the best in native cuisine when you visit a new city, this story's for you. So, while you're here, pull up a chair and sample a taste of Austin's rich Southern heritage. Y'all come back now, y'hear? --Virginia B. Wood
Threadgill's6416 N. Lamar, 451-5440
Mon-Sat, 11am-10pm; Sun, 11am-9pm
Threadgill's World Headquarters301 W. Riverside, 472-9304
Mon-Thu, 11am-10pm, Fri-Sat, 11am-11pm; Sun, 10am-9pm; Brunch Buffet, 10am-noon, Sundays
It only seems that Eddie Wilson invented Austin. Or that he at least invented Southern cooking. Or restaurants that pay homage to musicians. The cold, hard truth is that he has invented none of those things; he only reflects Austin, runs a couple of Southern restaurants, and continually pays tribute to the rich music and political heritage of his town so well that it appears as if he's done it all himself.
Threadgill's was established in 1933 by Kenneth Threadgill, "The Father of Austin Music." In 1981, Eddie Wilson bought Threadgill's after having founded the fabled Armadillo World Headquarters. Since then, Eddie has written a cookbook and opened a second location in South Austin just spittin' distance from the old Armadillo, named Threadgill's World Headquarters. Threadgill's offers live music Wednesday evenings at the Lamar location and on Thursday evenings at the Riverside joint. Don Walser can be found pickin' and yodelin' on both of these evenings. And every weekday from 11am-1pm, good ole Liberal populist Jim Hightower broadcasts his Chat and Chew radio show live from the South Austin location on Riverside.
Both of these places are deeply beloved and patronized by appreciative Austinites. They are the kind of restaurants you take your family and out-of-towners to. It's the place you go when you're beat, when you need some TLC, when you're hungover. For musicians, it's almost Mecca. Because Mr. Wilson's love of music and local politics (and ain't all politics local?) is second only to his love of good and plentiful food.
The fare is Southern standard home cooking: pot roast, chicken fried steak, catfish, and the like. And the vegetables are legendary: cheesy spinach casserole, San Antonio squash, garlic cheese grits, fried okra, mashed potatoes, and on and on and on. The three- and five-vegetable combination plates ($5.95 and $6.95 respectively) are surely among the top all-time sellers. While the menu was recently revised, and some of our beloved items are missing (roasted potatoes with garlic and green bean, eggplant), there are still plenty of options to make narrowing the selection down to three or even five a challenge. Once you tackle that dilemma, you can pat yourself on the back for being health conscious and take comfort in the fact that there are free seconds on vegetable servings. I defy you to request seconds.
Cornbread comes with your meal, but alas, biscuits are no more to be seen on the premises. It seems sacrilege to omit these buttery beauties from an archetypal Southern menu; let us hope that public outrage overrules whatever factors led to the biscuits' demise.
Still, you can hardly walk away unsatisfied. The food is honestly prepared and generously served, and the experience is quintessential Austin. Walking through the doors you think, "Oh, so this is where Austin was invented!" --Barbara Chisholm
Dot's13805 Orchard Lane, 255-7288
Mon-Fri, 11am-2pm; Fri, 6-8pm for catfish
Dot Hewitt is the undisputed queen of Austin down-home cooking. All you have to do is join the hungry throng of business people, high techies, secretaries, craftsmen, and good food lovers in her cafeteria line every day to know this is true. The restaurant occupies an old ranch-style house, with the kitchen and cafeteria line on one side and dining tables in all the other rooms. As you snake your way through the line of devoted Dot's diners, you'll have ample time to contemplate the bountiful choices before you. Two important caveats: Come hungry and remember to save room for dessert.
The buffet includes an array of salads, entrees such as meat loaf, smothered steak, pork chops, chicken with rice, cheese enchiladas, beef tips over noodles, and Dot's signature fried catfish, plus a daunting selection of side dishes, homemade dinner rolls or cornbread, pies, and cobblers. Load up your tray with an entree and two sides for a mere $5.75, find a table, and chow down. The portions here are more than generous, and the flavors sublime.
Big slabs of juicy meat loaf come with a tangy Creole sauce, the baked chicken with rice is a creamy poor man's risotto, and the rich brown gravy on the tender beef tips clings seductively to the wide noodles, making a very hearty lunch. Fruit pies in flaky crusts, dreamy slices of chocolate icebox pie, and a tangy lemon filling under a glistening drift of sweet meringue are waiting at the end of the line, so plan ahead.
Now, about the catfish. Mrs. Hewitt grew up on a small catfish farm southeast of the city, and her family still supplies the fish for her restaurant. As a result, you can order a whole fried catfish in a lacy, crackling cornbread crust with sweet, moist flesh within. This is a woman who knows how to fry catfish. Every time I make the long trip north to Dot's, I'm tempted by the entree selections right up till I reach the catfish, and then my decision is made. I order fish to eat there and get another entree to take home. The good news is, if you can't make it all the way out to Dot's at lunchtime, they're now open for catfish dinners every Friday evening. Once you've eaten catfish here, you've tasted perfection. It's worth the trip. --Virginia B. Wood
Cafe 29011025 Hwy 290 East (at the only stoplight in Manor, Texas)
Mon-Thu, 6am-10pm; Fri-Sat, 6am-10:30pm; Sun, 7am-10pm
Cafe 290 isn't really a cafe; it's a roadhouse, a boxy diner with a checkerboard floor and picture windows that look out onto its namesake Highway 290. A jukebox in the corner blares country tunes and the occasional pop hit. (While I was there, Garth Brooks crooned about his "friends in low places" at least twice.) The restaurant's clientele is a mix of area ranchers and neighboring small-town residents, with the occasional family and solitary traveler type thrown in for extra color. Set as it is on the side of a lonely straightaway, the cafe could be a truck stop. But if Cafe 290 looks a lot like a "greasy spoon," it should be noted that its food is most definitely a cut above.
A staple of almost every good Southern kitchen is a dependable recipe for "chicken fried," best described to non-Southerners as a crisp, flaky breading that cloaks meats and fowl delectably if it's done right, and deplorably if it's done institutionally. Appropriately, Cafe 290 claims its specialty is "anything chicken fried," and the menu details chicken fried chicken, chicken fried pork chops, and chicken fried steak, the latter "as big as your face" ($7.25 per single order; $9.25 per double). Admittedly, I've never made my own chicken fry batter, but I know a good one when I see and taste it. Cafe 290's chicken fried chicken is bigger than any face I've ever encountered, and it shows every indication of being homemade. Big fat flakes of crisp golden breading amply seasoned with pepper covered the chicken, sealing in its moisture and adding the perfect crunch and just the right touch of salt. To complete the plate, you choose from a long litany of Southern-styled vegetables: mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, pinto beans, green beans, carrots, black-eyed peas, and fried okra, to name but a few, and dinner rolls. Cafe 290's mashed potatoes are a smooth puree, the carrots soft and sweet, the fried okra crunchy, and the green beans redolent of bacon fat. So far, so good. Add to this the slightly sweet, light-as-air dinner rolls and a custard cup brimming with cream gravy, and you've got enough food to hold you for the better part of a week in these days of salads and "lite" dining.
Cafe 290 also grills and fries chicken livers and catfish, makes a mean smothered steak and impressive 26 oz. sirloin for "2 hungry ranchers or one hungry traveler," and serves chicken five other ways besides chicken fried (grilled, Spanish, Mushroom, Ranchero, and Rio). The cafe also turns out some untested Tex-Mex too, along the lines of fajitas, enchiladas, and tacos, and lists a dozen or so burgers to go with their unbelievably mammoth mound of gooey cheese fries.
Folks who work in the area have long been privy to what might be the best Southern food lunch bargain around, a buffet where $5.25 gets you chicken & dumplings or smothered steak on Monday, beef tips or fried chicken on Tuesday, chicken pot pie or tamales on Wednesday, beef stew or King Ranch chicken on Thursday, and meat loaf or fried catfish on Friday. Monday night is all-you-can-eat catfish night ($9.25), and if you're eager to venture into the world of chicken fried anything, head east on Highway 290 on Tuesday nights for Cafe 290's buy-one-get-one-at-half-price Chicken Fry Night. --Rebecca Chastenet de Géry
Hoover's Cooking2002 Manor Road, 479-5006
Mon-Fri, 11am-10pm; Sat-Sun, 9am-10pm
Happy Hour, 4-7pm daily
The menu here reflects owner Hoover Alexander's lifetime of culinary influences. His mother's family hails from a farm east of the city, and that rural Southern heritage is evident in the flavorful vegetable dishes, the hearty weekend breakfasts, and Mom's delicious pies and cobblers. Having spent his whole life in Austin, Hoover learned his way around both the barbecue pit and the Tex-Mex table, so there's good ribs and sausage, plus very tasty chile con queso and enchiladas, to be had here. Finally, the man has an authentic touch with the whole Cajun/Creole, Southwest Louisiana thing that's evident in the genuine New Orleans style muffaletta and the marvelous Creole pork roast. There's something for everyone on Hoover's menu. The servings are he-man-sized and a great value for the money. It just doesn't get anymore down-home Texas than this.
If chicken fried steak is the national dish of Texas, you won't find a better version than Hoover's anywhere. It's tender, hand-breaded beef fried to perfection, napped with a luxurious cream gravy seasoned with just enough black pepper. They'll also chicken fry a chicken breast, which is equally divine. We're partial to the fried catfish fillets and the enormous mound of french fries that arrive beside them; the fork-tender slabs of Creole pork roast are high on our list of reasons to return here time and again. Pay special attention to your side dish choices when ordering entrees, because there are some good ones and some great ones. The black-eyed peas and macaroni and cheese are very good. The garlic cheese grits are great and the jalapeño creamed spinach is a real show-stopper, hands-down one of the best vegetable dishes in town. Just the right hint of bacon and spice, marvelously creamy. It's a must; don't go home without it.
Hoover's is a real hot spot at lunch, with the UT and business crowd packing the dining room, so there's sometimes a wait for a table at midday. The daily happy hour is a great time for your first visit to Hoover's. The place isn't as crowded, there are good drink specials, and all the appetizers are half-price. Those of you who are just coming to life in mid-afternoon can rouse yourself with a bowl of chile con queso spiked with the warm, smoky flavor of chipotle peppers or an order of incendiary chicken wings that'll leave your lips tingling. Relax, have a drink, and contemplate what you'd like to have for dinner. Once you've tried Hoover's, the good food and the big man's genial hospitality will make it your down-home away from home. --Virginia B. Wood
Flo's1311 Chestnut St., 236-8236
Fans of Flo Williams' cooking have been following her around East Austin at her various locations since 1979. In the old days, she cooked out of a trailer, and most patrons sat in their cars scarfing down her satisfying soul food. Now she's got a jim dandy of a little spot on Chestnut Street, a block and a half north of 12th Street. It's in a pristine white cinder block building on the east side of the street.
Inside, you'll find a sparkling clean interior, with about 15 or so tables covered with plastic tablecloths. The last time we were there, Flo had five entree choices from which to choose: chopped steak, fried chicken, Creole-style meat loaf, fried pork chops, and stuffed bell peppers. For $5.25 you get an entree and three sides, and, of course, a slab of light, yummy, cornbread. The veggie choices du jour were mashers, rice, green beans, cabbage, black-eyed peas, and salad.
We were warmly greeted by the most affable waitperson and hustled to a table. The counter at the steam table is where you make your choices, in sort of a mini-cafeteria fashion. I ordered chopped steak, with sides of cabbage, black-eyed peas, and spuds. My companion had the pan-fried chicken, spuds, salad, and green beans. The steak was drenched in rich, brown, onion gravy that matched perfectly with the meat and potatoes. The cabbage and peas were delightful as well.
My companion's chicken reminded me of Miss Zelma Mathews' famous fried chicken that she used to cook for the staff at Jeffrey's every month -- moist, slightly spicy, and flavorful. The green beans and salad were fairly typical Southern fare. The iced tea is pre-sweetened and pre-lemoned, as could be expected at a proper soul food cafe.
I was disappointed that no peach cobbler was available that day, but the lemon cake and the German chocolate cake hit the spot. Had there been cobbler, it would have been absolutely perfect, because the whole experience at Flo's brought back a flood of memories, right down to the overheard gossip about the neighborhood and the goings-on at church. It reminded me of the countless meals (with peach cobbler) we used to eat at Jimmy and Mrs. Young's cafe, The Southern Dinette, on East 11th back in the Seventies.
Flo's is a welcoming spot with great prices and the most gracious service possible. Everyone there bends over backward to make customers feel at home and makes certain everyone leaves full and happy. Flo's is a throwback to the days of the Dinette, and many pleasant repasts of Southern-style soul food on the Eastside. Check it out for an appetizing blast from the past. --Mick Vann
Broken Spoke3201 S. Lamar Blvd., 442-6189 Tue-Thu, 10:30am-10:30pm; Fri-Sat, 10:30am-11:30pm
When you go to the front room of an old-school honky-tonk for dinner, you can expect a few things right off. The specialty of the house will be chicken fried steak, there will be vintage Western swing on the vinyl-stocked jukebox, and at least one of the aging regulars will be sporting a perfectly blocked "goin' out to step" Stetson. The draft beer will be Lone Star, bottles will be longnecks, and you'll drink to the high-pitched whine of pedal steel guitars.
The Broken Spoke, South Austin's landmark country dance hall, draws a steady crowd for pre-dance suppers that are perfectly suited to the joint itself. As our waitress suggested on a recent visit, "You need to think 'beer joint,' honey."
The menu resembles the basic fare of any Texas small-town diner, with offerings from the four basic food groups: steaks, barbecue, TexMex, and "short orders" (sandwiches, nachos, etc.). A solitary nod to the modern poultry revolution is a chicken sandwich and a blue-plate lunch special. All things considered, it helps to be in the mood for meat.
Chicken fried steak, the Great State's official comfort food, is served in classic style -- green salad as a starter, covered in cream gravy, and fries on the side. Dressing options for the salad are traditional, convenient, and color-coded. A steakhouse condiment carrier holds cups of white (ranch), pink (thousand island), and orange (old-style French) dressings that existed before Americans could pronounce vinaigrette. The pounded steak is solid and swimming in a standard white gravy -- bland until you salt and pepper it, but good for sopping with the accompanying basket of store-bought rolls. Fries are fresh-cut, moist, and the only potato option in the house. Thank god.
The barbecue plate is a salty, smoky combination of brisket and sausage ladled with a spicy sweet sauce -- sides are the traditional potato salad and pinto beans.
End the meal with the most comforting of desserts -- a cakey peach cobbler crowned with a scoop of Blue Bell. Again, nothing fancy, but good for a pre-gig meal and one-stop country experience. If you aren't planning on dancing, that's your evening -- you have about 20 minutes before the coma sets in.
But even if you're there for a weekend dinner, you probably won't concentrate too much on the food. The Spoke's atmosphere is a good mix of South Austin tradition with just enough cowboy kitsch to trigger a mix of giggles and awe. There's free bar shuffleboard and pool tables scattered around the joint. Archeologists of the future will marvel at the collection of vintage beer promotions and the glass-encased riding saddle. On dance hall nights (Wednesday through Sunday), tables are filled with distinguished septuagenarian regulars and college-age nuevo-tonkers gravy-loading for a long night ahead.
You'll see the hats. You'll hear the jukebox. And if you're smart, you'll quick-step to the rear door for a few longnecks and a healthy dose of Texas tradition. --Pableaux Johnson
Roy Henry's Famous Waffles & Chicken1815 W. Ben White, 443-4476
Sun-Thu, 5:30am-11pm; Fri-Sat, 24 hours
Policeman Roy Henry is a very busy man. In addition to being one of Austin's finest, he invests in real estate and runs a small business. So every time he drove by the vacant former KFC building on the Ben White access road, he heard a potential business opportunity calling his name. Once Henry decided to make the brave leap into the restaurant business, he settled on a
breakfast-all-day, down-home menu based on some of his Mama's home recipes; he named the dishes after members of his family. He also borrowed a marketing idea from a popular Los Angeles eatery he liked a lot, Roscoe's Waffles & Chicken. Roy Henry opened his own waffles-and-chicken joint early this year, and he's hoping that folks who see the bright neon sign along the freeway will be intrigued enough to stop in and check out his style.
Since I love a hearty breakfast but not always early in the morning, I'm always pleased to find a place that serves a good breakfast any time of the day. Roy Henry's fits the bill. There's eggs with grits, hash browns, bacon, ham, or sausage, plus waffles and good French toast in every configuration you can concoct. Simple, straight-forward, and well-prepared at reasonable prices. What better way to start the day, no matter what the time? Moving on from breakfast, there's the chicken-and-waffles combo, which means you get huge pieces of fried chicken with big waffles, accompanied by pitchers of syrup and melted butter. It's an interesting taste combination.
The chicken portion of the menu here offers your choice of chicken pieces (breast, thigh, leg, or wing) with some good vegetable sides. Try the creamy broccoli-rice casserole, some perfectly spiced black-eyed peas, fluffy mashed potatoes, or creamy corn. It's also possible to make a meal with the vegetable sides alone; choose several for under $5.
Roy also takes a stab at some Cajun specialties, offering red beans and rice, chicken and sausage gumbo, and a very flavorful jambalaya, all hearty Southern fare designed to stick to your ribs all day. Each of these dishes comes with your choice of cornbread muffins, Texas Toast, and hot water cornbread. Hot water cornbread is definitely a homestyle dish you never see on a restaurant menu. The Henry family version is a thick, sweet corn pancake cooked on a hot griddle. If you like sweet cornbread, you've got to try these out. Roy Henry's is a new restaurant, just getting its bearings, but Henry is confident about his product. He's hoping some loyal fans of L.A.'s Roscoe's will stop in sometime soon and tell him his food is as good or better. --Virginia B. Wood
Sallie's Down Home Cooking4140 E. 12th (northwest corner of 12th & Springdale), 926-6804
Not every city can lay claim to having a mecca to Southern-style soul food like Sallie's in its midst. And Sallie's is the undiscovered jewel in our crown of down-home eateries. Sallie Foster is the proprietor and has an engaging smile almost as wide as she is tall. She holds court in a concrete block building with seven tables. When one enters the door, the first thing one sees is a swivel, plush upholstered rocker with a note on it, next to an extension phone. It's aimed at the TV in the corner, and the note tells patrons in no uncertain terms to not sit there. It's Sallie's throne, and not to be sullied by the likes of dining plebeians.
The menu has a stern warning that food takes 15 to 20 minutes to prepare, and "prepare" is the operative word here. It lets the diners know that there is not a steam table in the kitchen crammed full of over-cooking entrees. The appetizer section of the menu is tempting, with items such as chicken livers and gizzards, macaroni and cheese, onion rings, and tater tots or fries (with or without chile and cheese). You will also find several variations on the sandwich and burger theme, and the fried pork chop sandwich sounds mighty tasty.
But we were there for the real food, and went straight to the entree section. Eleven choices were offered, in a price range from $7.25-9.25, with options like rockfish or catfish, chitterlings, fried pork chops, smothered steak or pork chops, or beef tips. The entree gets its own plate, and does a swell job of completely covering the 10-inch platter. The diner gets two vegetable choices from the stellar list of 12 veggie sides, and these come in separate medium-sized bowls. If the entree price seems a little high, trust us; it's an incredible bargain considering the amount of food served -- and an absolute steal when you factor in the taste!
We settled on our orders, waited for the preparation, and stared in amazement when our waitress arrived with the chow. My plate of smothered steak contained a 5x9" slab of toothsomely tender round steak, lightly coated with crunchies, and swimming in a lake of excellent brown gravy (perfect for sopping with the yeast rolls). The side of greens was heavy on the spinach, with possibly collards or chard mixed in, well-stewed in the Old South style, and seasoned with bacon and butter. The red beans and rice were done Cajun style, with chunks of smoked sausage, seasoned with thyme and cayenne -- a delicious meal in itself.
My compadre's plate of smothered pork chops was a whole mess of chops, lightly battered and barely contained in a pool of lighter gravy. The meat fell off the bones, which we would normally have gnawed, had we not been so full. Her side of mashed potatoes was proof that there's an art to real spuds: chunky, yet incredibly light, buttery, and topped with brown gravy. Her coleslaw was typical soul-food-style, with a heavy dressing of Miracle Whip, vinegar, and sugar. Our shared fried okra was not hand-breaded, but tasty nonetheless. A mechanic at the next table cautioned us against passing to the Sweet Beyond without trying the ethereal yams. Consider it done at our next visit!
A word of caution regarding the iced tea: It defies the laws of chemistry by getting so much sugar suspended in the solution. Insulin shock can ensue if you're not prepared. Signage suggested a daily lunch buffet, but it was not in evidence when we were there -- call first if you want to experience a buffet.
If you're new to town and wonder what real Southern/soul food tastes like, or you're wistfully wishing for a taste of Grandma's food from the past, Sallie's is as close to nirvana as you can get without actually slipping over into the Promised Land. --Mick Vann
Soul Kitchen2931 E. 12th, 478-0251
Sat, noon-6pm; Sun, noon-4pm
Don't let the unassuming outside of the building fool you -- there's a soulful heart beating in this little cafe and very good food on the table. The down-home grub here will heartily feed your belly and your soul without cleaning out your wallet. Step up to the counter and order, grab one of the few tables in this small joint, and treat yourself to a very affordable banquet cooked up Southern-style. There won't be any sauce paintings on the plates, no arugula or goat cheese. This place offers what is known as "meat and two," meaning your choice of meats and two side dishes for a nominal price. The meat offerings are your best bet, with crisply fried chicken, fried or smothered pork chops, and a very good meat loaf. Choose from sides such as mashed potatoes, greens, black-eyed peas, and green beans and top it all off with golden cornbread for about $5. --Virginia B. Wood