We’ve all been there. You’re hungry. You mull the idea of going somewhere you haven’t been, like the hot new spot that recently showed up on some (ahem) esteemed publication’s “best” list. But you don’t need to be wowed. You need to be fed. And some mysterious combination of existential fatigue and gastronomical determinism points you, for the umpteenth time, toward comfort, reliability, and a minimum of nonsense: you want what you want and you know where to get it. You want your place.
That’s the idea behind this collection of what we’ve been loosely calling “local favorites.” Early this year, feeling besieged by the tyranny of the trendy, we posed a few questions to a group of staffers—most notably our own veteran dining critic Pat Sharpe—and freelance contributors: What’s your local favorite? Where would you send your college roommate? Your fun aunt? Where do you go when you want to feel at ease the minute you walk in the preferably squeaky door? Answers in hand, we tasked some of those passionate folks with making visits to their top picks, but this time with a writer’s eye.
It could be a rustic cafe on a two-lane road or a cozy big-city bistro, but what each of the restaurants on this list has is a strong sense of place, an abundance of hospitality, and a lack of pretense. You may have to wait for a table, but you don’t have to plan weeks ahead only to get a reservation for either 4:30 or 9:30. Your servers will not subject you to the “we recommend family style” lecture, nor advise two to three disparate plates per person, nor refer to anyone in the kitchen as “Chef.”
As for the food, it’s important, of course. It’s gotta be good. But it doesn’t have to be—and here we search for the right overused food descriptor—amazing. Many of the dishes at these spots are unapologetically served in plastic baskets or grease-soaked paper. If the tables are covered in white cloth, that’s just to soak up an errant drop of briny oyster liquor, a drip-drip-drip of ranch dressing, a swath of red sauce left by a rogue meatball. Decor is less antique mirror and handblown-glass light fixture and more license plate and taxidermy. There’s a time and place for exquisite and cutting edge. There’s also a time and place for a shower curtain “door” on a restroom stall.
Most important, these restaurants share an intangible vibe, a know-it-when-you-feel-it quality. More than a few of them have been around a while—they’ve hung in there because they’re doing something right, even if that something is not immediately obvious to a newcomer. Maybe it’s the family that’s run the place for generations. Perhaps it’s the server who welcomes you by name. The familiar faces at the bar.
Had we included all the suggestions we received from our staff, we would have needed every page in this magazine. You’ve likely heard of most of these spots and even been to some. If not, check them out. And email us your local favorites at [email protected]. We plan to keep celebrating these places in future issues and online.
Anyway, why are we hanging out on the sidewalk? Let’s head inside. You’ll love it.
With a simple brick exterior and a prime location on Seawall Boulevard, just steps from the Gulf, this forty-year-old joint feels like a beach diner, or perhaps a slightly more upscale Whataburger. Enjoy 180-degree views of the water as you dive into a platter of grilled tilapia, shrimp, oysters, potatoes, and spicy coleslaw. Or go for the whole blue crab, boiled with zesty Cajun seasoning and presented with a small wooden mallet. Should you need lessons in the art of crab smacking (pro tip: wrap it in a paper towel first), the waiters are more than happy to assist. —Arman Badrei
The dock at Big Pines Lodge, in Karnack, and a plate of grilled shrimp surrounded by fried everything else.Photographs by Arturo Olmos
Big Pines Lodge
The chicken-fried steak is “hee-yuge,” my waitress said when I asked what regulars order at this barnlike place nestled up against Big Cypress Bayou, about fifteen miles northeast of Marshall. And she wasn’t just talking about the dish’s popularity. Judging by how wide she held her arms out, the full size was something roughly the length of my torso and the “half” size was maybe three fourths of that. She gave me the once-over and gently suggested I try the BPL platter: fried shrimp, catfish, and chicken tenders. (The menu offers nonfried items, but when in Karnack . . . ) With origins in a fishing camp, Big Pines Lodge opened sometime in the early fifties (no one seems to know the year). Guests occasionally arrive by boat, tying up at a pier off the covered patio, and every once in a while someone spots a gator cruising along the surface of the glassy water. Inside, the place is filled with Bigfoot decor. Silhouettes of the cryptid adorn napkin holders and staff T-shirts (“Bigfoot doesn’t believe in you either”), and there’s a Bigfoot Burger on the menu. “Oh, it’s a thing here,” another server said with an eye roll. That’s an understatement: members of the Texas Bigfoot Research Center, based in nearby Jefferson, have been known to gather at Big Pines after their annual conference. I’m told they’re a friendly if somewhat rowdy bunch—just don’t voice doubts about the creature’s existence or you might be served up an hour-long lecture detailing evidence to the contrary. —Josh Alvarez
When my husband and I moved with our kids back to San Antonio after a fifteen-year absence, my list of date-night spots was long. Near the top: Cappy’s. Forty-six years after it opened, in 1977, Cappy Lawton’s namesake remains a fixture. What keeps locals coming back? The brick-walled spot, tucked behind a handful of Broadway storefronts in Alamo Heights, is unpretentious. The space is expansive but still intimate, particularly the second-story dining area, where the branches of old live oaks seem eager to embrace guests through the windows. And the food. Fan favorites include the potato-crusted halibut, grilled honey-lime-glazed pork chop, and horseradish-coated “mustang” chicken. Few places in the city can boast the consistency of Cappy’s kitchen. —Sandi Villareal
Crispy-crunchy fried chicken and stellar sides served by Eddie Chatman (above, far right) and his crew at Chatman’s Chicken, in San Antonio.Photographs by Mackenzie Smith Kelley
In a working-class neighborhood on the city’s East Side, this tiny joint serves the kind of fried chicken that commands a loyal following. That’s most evident on Sundays, when the cheerful red- and yellow-painted spot is packed with hungry families wearing their church clothes. Eddie Chatman is famous for working the waiting line during busy periods, handing out fried riblets and chatting up customers. At the counter, you’ll see no baskets of breasts and drumsticks drying out under heat lamps; here, every order is prepared from scratch, and the chicken is consistently tender and juicy, with a crunchy crust. Chatman’s also does a brisk business in two of my favorite parts, livers and gizzards. (When Chatman calls out an order to the cooks, he calls the livers “ladies,” as in “I need eight ladies, spicy!”) The side dishes are stellar, especially the fried okra and the sweet potato pie (which, I contend, counts as a vegetable). You can take your meal to go, but hanging out is half the fun at Chatman’s. When I go there alone, odds are someone will strike up a conversation and invite me to join their table. —Dan Goodgame
Clear Springs Restaurant
While plenty of catfish grow fat in Texas rivers and ponds, it’s not easy to find a restaurant that knows how to fry filets that are crispy outside and moist inside. One place that excels at this is the original Clear Springs, just five miles southeast of the main plaza in New Braunfels. While catfish is the specialty here, along with the crispiest onion rings in Central Texas, regular diners who seek some variety can also choose among shrimp (boiled or fried), pan-seared trout, chicken-fried steak, and burgers. If you can manage it, save room for one of the house-made desserts, especially the banana pudding (almost as good as my mama’s). —DG
This dive looks a little like a place where an outlaw would lie low, with its rusted train car parked out front, sheet metal fences, and ample tree cover. While that may not be appealing to everyone, it positively screams “good times” for those looking to enjoy drinks on the dingy but charming patio. Inside, a finders keepers ambience reigns: crab traps, license plates, a signed Johnny Cash mug shot (authenticity unverified), old photographs of fishers and shrimpers, and pinup girls in the (only men’s, I imagine) restroom. As for the food, the kitchen does a damn good job. The burger and fried catfish are reliable, but your first order should be the Oysters Gilhooley, grilled with garlic butter and Parmesan. —AB
It’s a sign!
“NO kids. 18+. Don’t even ask!
We don’t care who you are.”
On the fence outside Gilhooley’s, San Leon
Green’s Sausage House
Going by the name alone, it would be fair to assume that this quaint spot in the heart of “downtown” Zabcikville (about ten miles east of Temple) is a business dedicated solely to sausage. And that would be reasonable, as this family-run affair does indeed stock a bunch of the stuff. But the impressive meat counter also has bacon, ham, jerky, and specialty meats such as scrapple and souse. And then there are cheeses, as well as a selection of some one hundred jarred jams, pickles, relishes, and salsas and a case full of daily-made kolaches, cinnamon rolls, turnovers, cookies, breads, pies, and pound cake. And an assortment of homemade brittles too. Adjoining the market is a popular restaurant that has been feeding Zabcikvillians and Templeites and hungry folk from surrounding farming communities for more than six decades. Among a menu of compulsory cafe fare—biscuits and gravy, chicken-fried steak, fried catfish—there’s an item that deliciously links the store and the cafe, achieving a succulent sausage singularity: Green’s famous sausage burger, a one-third-pound patty of house-made pork sausage that is griddled to perfection, topped with chopped onion and pickle, and served on a mustard-slathered white-bread bun. Get it with sauerkraut! —David Courtney
Fried and True
In Texas, we believe we can fry just about anything. So it’s no wonder that our go-to restaurants offer such a bounty of battered bites.
The Hunt Store
Just west of Kerrville, this all-in-one gas station, convenience store, cafe, bait shop, and occasional live-music venue has also served, in one iteration or another, as a sort of community center for tiny Hunt and the surrounding area for more than 75 years. And in the summertime, when the hills are alive with young sleep-away campers, the Store, as it’s known locally, has been a welcome way station for parents on weekend-long pick-up and drop-off missions. Beneath a low-slung awning advertising beer, jerky, and more, the creaky screen door is a portal to simpler times. Inside the rustic cedar-and-stone building, life’s pace slows a bit, like the flow of the Guadalupe River, whose north and south forks converge nearby. In the morning, locals sip coffee and shoot the bull at large cypress-wood tables. Later, folks gather at the cafe for burgers and cold beers. The small but perfectly serviceable menu also features a Hunt Store original, the French Taco: a beef patty or sliced chicken breast, pico de gallo, lettuce, and cheese of your choosing, wrapped in a warm flour tortilla. For dessert there are usually house-made brownies and cookies and, since we’re in a convenience store, selections from the ice cream freezer. —DC
Comstock, a town of a few hundred or so in southwest Texas, has just one restaurant, the only eatery along a 120-mile stretch of U.S. 90 between Del Rio and Sanderson. You would think the J&P might rest on its laurels. Far from it. This friendly joint, housed in an unassuming metal building, serves excellent down-home fare to fun-seeking locals, camo-clad hunters, Border Patrol agents, and sunburned anglers alike. “I love that you can drive by there at, like, nine p.m. on a Friday or Saturday, and there is clearly a party happening,” says one regular patron. The ambience is best described as jovial outlaw. In the parking lot you might find an ATV with an “I Heart Explosives” sticker. Inside, the bare-plywood walls are decorated with sports memorabilia and humorous signage. (The men’s room declares “Pissing Rules: Stand up close. No, a little closer. Aim at round bowl with water in it.”) The game is always on the TV, and the small bar does a brisk business in Shiner Bock and Keystone. I’ve been eating at the J&P for years, and the only thing I have ever ordered is the chicken-fried steak, with its crisp batter and lush gravy. But I hear good things about the burgers, such as the aptly named Heart Attack: two cheese-covered patties tucked between two (!) grilled-cheese sandwiches. —Forrest Wilder
Jake & Dorothy’s
This classic spot opened in 1948, and other than signs of loving use—the brown linoleum countertops are mostly worn through to white—not much seems to have changed. The white-and-green checkerboard floor. The display of candy at the register. The wheezing refrigerator at one end of the counter. The menu here is traditionally Southern, meaning partitioned ceramic plates piled high with items such as chicken-fried steak—which is served with the gravy underneath—potato salad, and greens. And banana pudding for dessert, of course. The two sprawling rooms are almost always crowded with locals, many of whom the longtime waitresses greet by name. The servers are so friendly that I never feel bad that they don’t know mine. Yet. —Bryan Burrough
This colorful East Austin institution, opened in 1962 by Joe Avila and his wife, Paula, is a favorite of mine because of the bacon. Dredged through flour and then sizzled on the flattop grill, it turns what might otherwise be an ordinary breakfast taco into an addiction. That said, I’m always ready to double down on my porcine obsession, so on my last visit I asked if I could have the pork chop taco with the whole chop, rather than the usual breaded and fried morsels that fill the appropriately dusty flour tortilla. What arrived was more chop than taco, of course. It was intimidating and glorious and I don’t think I ate even half of it, as the dubious server who took my order likely could have predicted. But that’s the kind of place Joe’s is. Families cram into booths and enjoy migas and carne guisada and dazzling pan dulce, while customers line up awaiting their turn for a table, hungry for the home-style cooking that has kept them coming back for decades. —José R. Ralat
South Padre Island
There are plenty of restaurants on South Padre Island where you can order an entirely deep-fried meal. After all, nobody goes to the beach to feast on salads. But must everything be so . . . similar? A forty-minute wait on a weekday is your first clue that Josephine’s delivers something special. Seated in a booth surrounded by rooster art, my thirteen-year-old son, Nick, and I feasted on a hearty omelet stuffed with chorizo and grilled onions and a Cubano sandwich, which he described as tasting “like an enchilada and a burger had a baby.” We came back early the next morning, to beat the crowds, and veered onto the sweeter side of the menu with Gabby’s French Toast (seared brioche stuffed with strawberry cream cheese) and Nutella crepes. I like fried food. I really do. But Josephine’s is Padre’s ultimate palate cleanser. —Katy Vine
Enormous onion rings and the “winter entrance” at Josephine Street, in San Antonio.Photographs by Mackenzie Smith Kelley
If you often drive 281 through San Antonio, you’ve likely noticed a modest white house at the bottom of the Josephine Street exit ramp, just north of the Pearl District. Or maybe you’ve spotted its blue neon signs advertising “whiskey” and “steaks.” This is Josephine Street, which was a hangout decades before the fancy eateries of the Pearl came on the scene. Occupying the 1906 Finke’s Meat Market building, it’s got a charmingly uneven wooden floor from which the trunk of a five-hundred-year-old tree rises into the dining room. The restaurant’s specialty is grilled steaks, most of which are a bit thin for my taste, but all come carefully cooked to order. The star of the show is the chicken-fried steak. The kitchen also offers a selection of fried and grilled seafood, and the pecan pie (made with bourbon, of course) is top-notch. A tip for bargain hunters: try the lunch specials, each served with a salad and a side, for $12. And speaking of bargains, service members enjoy a 25 percent discount. That’s if they have to pay at all. Often another diner will spot a table of soldiers from nearby Fort Sam Houston and quietly pick up their tab. —DG
Named for a five-hundred-year-old deity, the Radha Kalachandji Temple sits on a shaded corner of a residential neighborhood east of downtown Dallas. In a renovation completed in 1981, a group of local Hare Krishnas added rosy-hued ornamental domes to the former Mount Auburn Christian Church and, a year later, opened a vegetarian restaurant. Today it is possibly the most soothing dining experience in Dallas. Incense and music greet visitors just inside the heavy double doors, and in the dining room and the peaceful shaded courtyard, patrons quietly focus on the bounty they’ve collected on their trip through the buffet line: brown and basmati rice, steamed vegetables, varieties of dal, stir-fried bok choy (one of my favorites). The crisp pappadam is the more traditional accompaniment, but I can’t pass up a slice of the fresh-baked cinnamon-raisin bread. A glass of the tamarind lemonade is a must, and don’t leave without trying one of the desserts, either the halva or the vanilla rice kheer. —Daniel Vaughn
Taftoon bread, doogh (a Persian yogurt drink), kashke bademjan, and more at Kasra, in Houston; owner Morty Parsa and his son Adam.Photographs by Arturo Olmos
Like many of Houston’s treasures, this Persian restaurant is nestled in a strip mall. In the recently renovated dining room, decorated with images of the ruins of Persepolis, you’ll often find owner Morty Parsa (“the nicest boss I’ve ever had,” said one staff member) sitting and checking receipts in front of a wall crowded with plaques and framed reviews. Start with the Persian equivalent of chips and salsa: freshly baked taftoon bread waiting to be topped with feta cheese, radishes, and fresh herbs. You must exercise restraint, though, and save room for the kashke bademjan: warm, creamy, and slightly sweet, it’s the Persian (and I say better) version of baba ghanoush. Then you’ll be ready for the pièce de résistance, the dish said to have originated with soldiers’ skewering meat with their swords and cooking it over a fire: the kebab. There’s the traditional kubideh, ground meat blended with onion, and its brother barg, a filet mignon sliced thin, both served with saffron-scented basmati rice. —AB
Khyber . . . and India’s
If someone made me choose between Khyber North Indian Grill and India’s, I would have to take the fifth, because to me they are somehow the same restaurant or, put another way, part of the same restaurant family (they’re also about four miles from each other on Richmond Avenue). Most important, they’re part of my family; after my mother died, my father burst into tears the first time we returned to India’s without her. Both have staff that pegged us as regulars early on and have greeted us accordingly ever since, and both have flawless saag paneer, the dish I want as my last meal. The current owner of Khyber, Mickey Kapoor, ran India’s for many years, so you get the idea. Neither place offers the creativity of other local—and very fine—Indian restaurants, such as Kiran’s and Pondicheri, but that’s part of the charm. We’ve never gone wrong with our favorites—or, frankly, deviated from the menu at all—so I can attest to the superlative kabab-e-dilruba, the dal, and the onion kulcha at India’s and the equally superlative reshmi kabab, dal, and onion kulcha at Khyber, which come, always, with a side of dry jokes and political analysis from Kapoor. —Mimi Swartz
Cheese-smothered brisket machaca and other scenes from Kiki’s, in El Paso.Photographs by Mackenzie Smith Kelley
Crab enchiladas might seem like a weird item at a restaurant in landlocked El Paso. But if any of the regulars at Kiki’s think so, they don’t care. What they do care about is the family-friendly atmosphere cultivated by owner Hector F. Latigo, who started working at Kiki’s in 1986 and bought the place 26 years later. And the food, which includes items such as chile colorado and brisket machaca drowned in queso. The wood-paneled walls in the dining rooms are lined with framed articles and photos, including a page of yellowed newsprint dated March 12, 2004. It’s from the El Paso Times, and it’s signed by members of Aerosmith, the word “Yum” in black marker on the top right. Latigo recalls receiving a phone call from a representative of the band requesting a table for twelve. He remembers thinking it was for the roadies, but “then a bus drives up, and all the Aerosmith band comes in.” People were standing on the sidewalk outside, and none of the diners already inside Kiki’s would leave. “That’s one of my fondest memories,” Latigo says. —JRR
Lil Thai House
This tiny downtown restaurant has a rock-solid following, built, co-owner Will Ruegg says, on fifteen years of practice “polished by friction.” Standing room only is standard soon after the place opens, and you’ll find all kinds of folks, from families and long-haired locals to lawyers in suits and, one suspects, recently released overnight visitors to the nearby Gregg County jail. Ruegg greets regular customers by name, and as often as he’s taking or serving orders, he’s helping his wife, Puktra, in the tiny kitchen. Ease is intrinsic at LTH, what with Flatt and Scruggs on the stereo, succulents on the windowsills, and at least one chair at each of the fifties-era laminate tables draped in a crocheted cover. As if this sustenance for the senses were not enough, the food is astounding. My favorites include the spicy egg rolls, stuffed in equal measure with minced beef and veggies, and the tangy basil chicken with a crispy fried egg. Note that spice ratings are true to their descriptions; if you courageously order something “very spicy,” such as the excellent mixed-vegetable green curry, you’d best be prepared. —Alison Sterken
Georgetown’s Monument Cafe and its famous buttermilk pancakes.Photographs by Chad Wadsworth
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say I moved to Georgetown because of Monument Cafe. I’ve since eaten there . . . well, let’s not linger on unnecessary details. Nearly thirty years old, it’s fashioned after a no-frills midcentury diner, with black vinyl booths and round-top stools. It’s a bustling place at almost all hours, and looking around you get a genuine sense of Georgetown: tables are filled with Sun City retirees, young families, immigrants from South Asia and South America, Southwestern University students, and soldiers based at Fort Cavazos. The menu may put you in mind of greasy spoons, but the offerings are varied and thoughtful. The lunch menu is typical American fare, and no dish disappoints. But breakfast is where it’s at, with items such as a migas scramble, chicken and grits (perfect on a cool morning), a quinoa bowl, and house-made granola with fruit. But the showstopper is, in my not disproved estimation, the best buttermilk pancake in Texas. Get it with blueberries. And be aware that just one of those suckers could probably feed Georgetown High’s offensive line. —JA
The order counter and the Cattleman Burger at the Original Kincaid’s, in Fort Worth.Photographs by Chad Wadsworth
The Original Kincaid’s Hamburgers
Charles Kincaid’s Grocery and Market opened on Camp Bowie Boulevard in 1946, selling canned peas and pork chops, dog food and dish soap to families getting back to normal life on the heels of World War II. The grocery store thrived for nearly two decades, but then came growing competition from supermarket chains. The butcher (and eventual owner), O. R. Gentry, realized that Kincaid’s needed a gimmick to keep people coming in, so in 1964 he started selling burgers and milkshakes at the rear of the store. Soon enough, Kincaid’s became the place to treat the kids after a ball game, to take a date after the school dance, to nurse a hangover. Those first burgers were big and basic, and they still are (the most popular is the Cowtown Deluxe, with bacon, grilled jalapeños and onions, and homemade pimento cheese), but they’re not the only attraction. It’s the whole unpretentious, slightly goofy package. The owners kept canned goods on the shelves long after the place ceased to be a grocery store; they suspended colorful product balloons overhead (Mr. Peanut, a bottle of Tabasco). More than a burger joint, Kincaid’s is the come-as-you-are meeting and eating place for the whole city. —Patricia Sharpe
It’s a sign!
“Friends don’t let friends eat fast food.”
Posted behind the register at the Original Kincaid’s, Fort Worth
The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation
Yes, Houston is blessed with many Tex-Mex and Mexican restaurants. And yes, the restaurant chain founded by Ninfa Laurenzo in 1973 has had its ups and downs. But somehow, through it all, the Original Ninfa’s has maintained its dignity and the loyalty of its customers. The mazelike layout is even more mazelike with some new additions, and the air-conditioning in the back room still has only two settings: is-it-on? and frigid. But the chile con queso and the guacamole remain stellar, as do the margaritas. The portions are plus-size, and some of the fancy new items on the menu, such as the wood-roasted octopus, snuggle comfortably alongside old favorites, meaning cheese enchiladas and the classic, made-famous-here (for Texans, that is) tacos al carbón. If you don’t see a friend, neighbor, or local pol in the crush, stick around and they’ll show up. And even if some of the most famous and beloved waitstaff are no longer there, those who remain at least act as if they’ve known you for years. —MS
While You Wait
We’d all like to be seated upon arrival, but these places have so much character you won’t mind cooling your heels a bit.
If you grew up in Lubbock, as I did, the opening notes of Orlando’s commercials likely still ring in your head (“O sole mi-oooo . . . with a jalapeñoooo!”). Known for its wide-ranging Italian menu infused with a healthy dose of spice, Orlando’s has been an institution for almost sixty years. For my family, Friday nights meant a takeout pasta Party Pack: enough spaghetti and meatballs for many meals over. Nowadays I dine in when I visit, heading straight to the neon-bedecked bar and ordering as many appetizers as I can stomach, such as various vegetables of a fried variety and the spicy Mafia Queso, served with seasoned chips (and garlic bread, naturally). Wash all of that down with a gloriously frosty schooner of beer or an Italian margarita (with amaretto!). —Emily Kimbro
Oscar’s Super Burrito
There may be more photos of local high school football players hanging on the pale pinkish-orange walls of this thirty-year-old joint than at an actual high school. But in Midland and the greater Permian Basin, football is life. And at Oscar’s, that life is sustained with insanely—perhaps laughably—large burritos. Take the Football Player, stuffed with German sausage, Mexican chorizo, eggs, rice, refried beans, and french fries. Or the Lee High Coach, a thick flour tortilla enveloping a chile relleno, bacon, ham, sausage, refrieds, chile con queso, potatoes, and three servings of scrambled eggs. It’s a tough job putting together a winning team! On my last visit, I struck up a conversation with Amanda Salcedo, a middle school teacher who grew up eating at Oscar’s. “My friends and I used to sneak over during class, but my teacher didn’t mind as long as we brought her a burrito,” she recalls. Nowadays Salcedo and most other folks order from the hand-painted sign at the drive-through. But nothing beats sliding into a booth and doing your darndest to eat an entire burrito. —JRR
This cheery cafe is infused with the same laid-back vibe that permeates the charming Hill Country hamlet upon whose charming square it’s situated. Located across the street from the old 1885 Blanco County courthouse (the current, 1916 Blanco County courthouse is in Johnson City), the open, roomy space occupies the 1937 Crist building, which once housed the Blanco Lumber and Hardware Store. Note the wall that displays meticulously recorded rainfall statistics dating back to 1900. At lunch and dinner, tables covered in colorful oilcloth are loaded up with sandwiches, salads, soups, and specials from the sizable menu. The superb house-made chicken salad comes on a flaky croissant and boasts chunky meat, crisp apple and celery, pecan, and a hint of tarragon; riding alongside is a snappy dill pickle spear. The burgers stand out as well, and so does the assortment of draft beers (more than a dozen taps) from hometown neighbor Real Ale Brewing. Be sure to leave room for dessert, which can be had in the form of cookies, cakes, and pies (the key lime is tops). —DC
Downtown Brownsville is undergoing rapid development. But fortunately, some things don’t change. Since 1922, in a space narrower than the width of an adult’s outstretched arms, this burger joint has seen it all. Gloria Perez, who purchased the business from the Rutledge family, in 1995, starts the restaurant’s burgers (loaded with double patties, double cheese, and a slice of ham) on the same grill the founders fired up more than a century ago. Bianca Gonzalez, a Brownsville native I spoke to, said, “My mom and I would thrift shop downtown, and that would be our little treat for the end of the day. Whenever I eat there I am reminded of all those times I spent with my mom.” In a quickly modernizing downtown (and a city known mostly for breakfast tacos and barbacoa), places like this are harder and harder to find—and worth a pilgrimage. —JRR
S&D Oyster Company
Inside this old-school spot, diners sit on wooden chairs sized for 1976-era butts at tables covered in red-checked cloths. Meanwhile, servers in crisp white shirts, black bow ties, and red aprons rush around the dining room delivering cups of dark-roux gumbo and iced platters of Gulf oysters. The restaurant may be a mere 47 years old, but the building has a long history. S&D is housed in what was once the McNab Grocery, in an orange brick building constructed in 1891 in what is now Uptown Dallas. An addition completed in 2015 made room for patio seating and a second bar. On the wall of that new bar hangs a framed menu from the first day of the restaurant, and it’s almost identical (except for the prices) to the one you’ll be handed, right down to the iced tea poured over crunchy ice and garnished with a sprig of mint. Most diners start with those raw oysters, but equally tasty are the grilled versions or the simple dish of lump crab with rémoulade on the side. The fried-seafood sandwiches come on soft buttered bread, gently browned on the griddle, and the french fries are crisp perfection. The slaw here is one of the most interesting I’ve tried. Created by Mary Kay Story, who founded the restaurant with her husband, Herb, her version features cabbage so finely chopped that the paprika-dusted shreds hold the shape of the scoop that transferred them to the bowl. —DV
It’s a sign!
“I hope my ship comes in before my dock rots.”
Above the entrance to the bar at S&D Oyster Company, Dallas
I’ve heard that you can sit indoors at Spechts, but in my decades of visiting the Bulverde country restaurant, my family has only ever marched immediately round back. There, adults can claim a prime picnic table while children run off to befriend the cattle at the fence, dig into the makeshift sand pit in an old truck bed, or strike up a game of bags (back in the nineties it was horseshoes, but beanbags are less of a liability). It’s the perfect backdrop to an easygoing meal. The food is what you might expect from a stop along a remote Texas road: chicken-fried steak, fried pickles, onion rings. But over the years, the offerings have been elevated a bit. The chips and signature white queso are great, but the pulled pork nachos take that standard up a notch. And the burger gets an upgrade in the Spicy Spechts, which is piled with pepper jack cheese and both grilled and fried jalapeños. Kids can munch on grilled cheeses and chicken fingers in between laps around the field. A night at the Spechts of my childhood meant a bit of a road trip, through the part of then undeveloped north San Antonio where the Hill Country lifts off. The dark sky would greet us as we walked out of the restaurant, full bellied. Now housing developments inch closer, and the stars feel farther away. But Spechts is still Spechts. —SV
At the Starlight, a onetime movie house for local miners that for a while lacked a roof, characters of all stripes gather to get a drink, enjoy a good meal, strike up an even better conversation, maybe dance to some live music, and admire the glittering night sky from the front porch, sometimes through a local enthusiast’s telescope. The Kathy’s Cosmic Cowgirl margarita (jalapeño-infused tequila and prickly pear nectar) pairs perfectly with the antelope burger with roasted green chiles and Swiss. But if you want something a little more elevated, try something that was elevated, briefly: quail, marinated in tequila, with a blueberry balsamic reduction. —JA
A heck of a spread at Texas Chili Parlor, in Austin.Photographs by Chad Wadsworth
Texas Chili Parlor
“Well, I wish I was in Austin . . . in the Chili Parlor bar, drinkin’ Mad Dog margaritas and not carin’ where you are.” “Dublin Blues,” by lauded Texas songsmith Guy Clark, captures the charm of both the Chili Parlor’s atmosphere and its margarita (two parts Monte Alban Mezcal, one part triple sec, one part fresh lime juice). The song harks back to an era that found Clark and a bunch of other hard-partying Lone Star luminaries (known collectively as Mad Dogs and including, among others, future governor Ann Richards, writer Larry L. King, and Willie Nelson) carousing at some of Austin’s notorious hangouts, including this one. Though few Mad Dogs are still around, the famed hole-in-the-wall in the shadow of the state capitol endures, some 47 years after it opened its doors. Upon entering, patrons are instantly transported back to more-carefree times. The air is pungent with the smell of chili powder, and the decor is a mishmash of neon signs, old photos, and sundry ephemera. These days the Chili Parlor is populated with denizens of state government and the nearby University of Texas campus, as well as everyday Austinites who drop in for steaming bowls of red offered in three levels of heat, X to XXX. (There are also a vegetarian chili and even—Lord, forgive them—a version WITH beans.) The Mad Dog margarita, by the way, is reportedly TCP’s best-selling drink. We recommend having at least one—but no more than three. —DC
It’s a sign!
“No checks . . . no foofoo drinks,
no talking to imaginary people.”
On the wall of the main dining room at Texas Chili Parlor, Austin
I nearly missed my ride back to Austin the day I had lunch at Tokyo Cafe. Every time I was almost through eating, I spotted “just one more thing” that sounded too good to skip. First it was the Tejas Roll, a tidy cylinder of seaweed with slivers of pristine yellowtail and avocado, spiked with fried jalapeño, chile mayo, and sriracha. And I couldn’t miss the famous Tok Fries with Japanese spices. As my friends grew more and more nervous—“Hey! Ask for the check!”—I serenely requested miso cake and coffee ice cream. Like the many other customers who linger over their own “one more thing,” I am always seduced not just by the food but by the many charming details: the high ceilings, the paper lanterns that seem to float overhead, the array of variously sized windows on one wall that make it look like a contemporary art installation. Tokyo Cafe opened in 1997 as a much more traditional place. Six years later, when the owners retired, their son Jarry Ho and his wife, Mary, took over the operation and began to tentatively modernize it. Executive chef Kevin Martinez joined the couple in 2009, and things really took off. The place is predictably busy with regular customers, so you may find yourself jockeying for space in the small parking lot and waiting for a table if you don’t have reservations. —PS
XXL Ranch and Steak House
Deep in the panhandle
The owners of this rural steakhouse, Charles and Linda Stephens, say more than half of their customers are locals. Of course, “locals” in this case is defined as those who drive from either Dumas, eighteen miles to the west, or Stinnett, twelve miles to the east. From either direction, everyone pulls off Texas Highway 152 at the painted sign for XXL and drives two miles down a dirt road to find the restaurant. But they’d better have a reservation. Since the steakhouse opened, in 2008, the number of seats has grown from 24 to 64, but since XXL is open only on Friday and Saturday, those are usually spoken for. Customers are most likely to order the steak dinner, which features a sixteen-ounce bone-in ribeye that the couple sources from a meat market in nearby Stratford. In a tiny kitchen, Charles cooks it to order over an oak fire on a grill that’s more than fifty years old, and it comes with a salad, a baked potato, garlic bread, a whole grilled jalapeño, and a link of sausage. Customers can bring their own alcohol, but none is sold at the restaurant. And before you drive all that way with just a credit card, know that the XXL takes only cash or check. —DV
This article originally appeared in the November 2023 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.
Illustrations and lettering by Holly Wales