We recently took a road trip to visit family in another state. Along the way we discovered bits of our country and ourselves, which is really what road trips are all about. We discovered that West Texas is a visually stunning place. Driving east as you leave the Painted Desert you encounter picturesque landscapes, filled with enormous skies, juxtaposed against shacks and huge cubes of baled cotton. Big cities are few and far between, so you’re just as likely to see towering silver silos, as you are to see zebras (no kidding!). You only have two things to remember: first, don’t speed through any small town in Texas unless you’re hankering for a speeding ticket (there really wasn’t a single town where we didn’t see a sheriff parked outside of town between the 40-mile and 70-mile speed-limit markers). Second, when you’re in Texas, you’ve gotta eat the local food, because they really do food in a special way.
This was nothing like the road trips of my childhood, when I was packed into the car along with my sisters and our mother’s basket of carefully wrapped food. Nor was it a tedious quest for food, lurching from Wendy’s to Carl’s trying to pick food that would not upset our stomachs, a circumstance we endured just a few short years ago. To our delight, Yelp has transformed our culinary experiences, and thereby our lives, especially when we’re on the road. No longer do we need to make the requisite fast-food stop. A little WiFi and patience is all it takes to find the perfect meal when it might otherwise seem you’re in the middle of nowhere. That, plus the fact that gas is spectacularly cheap in Texas, makes it easy to go just a bit further down the road to feast like lords and ladies and forever forego meals in a bag.
So, next time you’re in Texas, keep your eyes open for Longhorns, llamas and goats on your way to our three picks for good things to eat with friends:
- First Stop: Lubbock, Texas. The Cast Iron Skillet is totally worth a detour if you’re hungry before 2pm. We only had the opportunity to breakfast there, but I can tell you we were fully satisfied even as we pined for the fried okra that was two hours into a non-existent future. The Cast Iron Skillet is so good, they close right after lunch. They don’t even have to wait around for the dinner crowd. When you cook like that, you can be demanding. Service is courteous. Food’s served hot and delicious. I recommend the Chicken Fried chicken with a biscuit—the batter is spicy, peppery and crispy; the biscuit is flaky, a winning combo. You can also take a pie or some brownies home.
- The unexpected treasure in Burnet is Crazy Gal’s Café. They serve delightful coffee; it actually stands up to cream. They offer a very nice menu and friendly service. The decor is fun and provides a distraction while you wait. I recommend the egg sandwich, cherry pie, which is made with almond extract, and the pancakes. Yummy!
- Last stop: BBQ, anyone? If you like meat, buckle your seat belt, dress casually and arrive hungry. Lest you think I only eat breakfast, get yourself some world-class BBQ at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano. They serve the best BBQ chicken on earth. This is no exaggeration. This place is all about the food, and mostly, I mean meat. Wait in line outside before you get to the pit where a guardrail keeps the minions from grabbing a tempting morsel off the grill. Seriously, Cooper’s pit is designed to make your mouth water because it’s impossible to decide what to order when confronted with 12 choices of perfectly cooked meats, including goat and turkey and all the usual selections. This unfortunately, is not a vegetarian friendly establishment, so if you don’t at least eat chicken on occasion, give this place a pass, but send your meat-loving friends. It’s also not a place for purest. Meats are arrayed on one enormous grill—together. And at Cooper’s, there’s only one pot of lip-smacking wet dip for all of it. You can, however, ask for it dry and top off from the homemade BBQ sauce available inside. The picnic style-tables inside mean you might make a friend unless you’re a family of ten. All the meats we sampled were tender, cooked to perfection, seasoned with numerous herbs and spices; this was an all around hit. The turkey was unreal, and the pork ribs were as good as my mom’s Dominican-style slow-roasted pork shoulder—now that’s a compliment. Beans with bacon, pickles, water and sauce are all free sides. I recommend the coleslaw—I think that might be vegetarian. If you can’t get to West Texas any time soon, I hear Cooper’s delivers.
Maybe you’ll discover your own treats and surprises on your next road trip. Coming together around food is something most of us enjoy. It has a way of opening our hearts. That’s why it’s a treat to have local food prepared with care. I’m not sure when I’ll get back to Texas, but the memories of passing forkfuls around the table, laughing with friends and family and planning the next meal before one has ended, persists. Even now, I long for the feeling of connection at the table—and another bite of pie.