Texas is big. (Dinner plate cinnamon roll big.) It’s a whole other world with regions and cultural divisions that I can’t even begin to cover or, as a foreigner, ever understand. As outsiders, we cling to our stereotypes of Texas in an effort to make sense of it all. Television, the media, and George W. Bush have helped us, for better or worse, attempt to understand the subtleties of what it means to be Texan. But, let’s push those preconceived notions of Texas out of our mind, for the moment, and take a look at another representation of Texas, its cuisine.
When it comes to culinary stereotypes, I saw my share on my plate on a recent trip to Granbury, Texas, a small, spirited town an hour southwest of Dallas-Fort Worth. Large portions, oversized cuts of beef, and big, beautiful desserts found their way to the table. Tasty, decadent stereotypes that asserted the statement that everything, indeed, was “bigger in Texas.” But don’t let stereotypes fool you, as they were made to be broken. I also discovered an unfamiliar Texas cuisine that didn’t seem much different than the rest of the country, traditional fare served up with big flavors, locally sourced ingredients, and with a creative spin taken on the classics.
The Firehouse Cafe sits unassumingly in, where else, a strip mall. On entry, you see two good signs: a case full of pies and a crowd of locals packed in on a Friday morning grabbing breakfast. Firehouse decor lines the walls and owner, Angela Solis, is most likely behind the counter greeting new and old visitors alike. Angela stopped by our table to chat and deliver the most important news, her famous cinnamon rolls were available and made by hand each day.
My group promptly ordered one to share and perused the menu of diner standards including pancakes, eggs, omelettes, waffles and french toast. A TexMex favorite, the breakfast taco, also made an appearance and while I didn’t order one, I can report that it was the biggest taco I’ve seen in my life. Instead, I opted for the Breakfast Special and for under $4 ate eggs, sausage, hash browns, AND a biscuit with gravy. I immediately regretted not ordering the Firehouse Open Faced Scrambler, comprised of the same ingredients but stacked high and smothered in gravy. But there was a cinnamon roll to share and a slice of pie on its way, so there was no chance of me going hungry. With the entire breakfast menu under $7, as well as an inexpensive lunch and dinner menu, it’s difficult to not order dessert. A slice of Coconut Cream Pie topped with whipped cream and toasted coconut was a decadent ending to breakfast, luckily I was sharing. But not knowing when I’d be back again, I couldn't pass up the opportunity for freshly made pie. And with excellent diner coffee filling my mug, I had to make sure it paired well with all my diner favorites.
The Firehouse Cafe is a great example of homestyle Texas food done right. Angela and her team are a bit of a family themselves, the “newest” employee has been there four years and they’re thrilled to welcome you to the Firehouse family, even with a bit of teasing. When asked if gravy could be put on the side, our waiter responded “sure, you could, but that would ruin all the fun.” Empty plates, big smiles and full bellies leave the cafe daily. But, unlike the regulars (some of them come in 7 days a week,) I had to save room for more.
Just down the road from downtown Granbury, Grady Spears has set up a new take on classic, cowboy cooking. Grady’s Line Camp Steakhouse in Toler, Texas nods at cowboy tradition both in its relaxed setting and culinary standards. Grady is no stranger to the spotlight with cookbooks, television shows and the award-winning Reata Restaurants under his belt. But at the Line Camp, he seems to have found his signature style: good, honest cowboy cooking in the heart of the Texas countryside.
The aroma of mesquite filled the air, coming from the smoker out back, no doubt. The place smelled “right” and the food that followed was phenomenal. The fresh, off the cuff menu changes regularly. “Heck, I might change it up tonight, “ Grady scoffed as we asked about his what a visitor might expect to see on the menu. As he chattered on about his career, his garden and his love of fishing, I snacked on bacon wrapped jalapenos and Bob Armstrong Dip, a traditional queso dip, named for a famed Texas politician, with chunks of avocado and served alongside warm tortilla chips. A new take on the Texas classic, chicken fried steak, was served up slider-style allowing for a snackable alternative to the traditional meal. And pork chops, tenderloin glazed in a sweet and subtle tang that surely came from molasses, was served alongside green mashed potatoes. The green secret? Spinach. Last, but not least, the simple sweet potato may have been my favorite bite. The crisp skin and soft interior was topped with butter, I secretly wished that I didn’t have to share. I hadn’t seen this Southern tradition cooked so perfectly since my grandmother’s table.
Grady Spears serves up outstanding, fresh cowboy food that says Texas, but his dishes and techniques would be familiar to any old city slicker, like myself. His “source local” approach, with an on-site garden and butchering, resonates with any innovative restaurant in the United States. But he’s got one step up on his urban counterparts, his slice of Texas countryside lends itself both to new trends and continuing tradition. No rooftop gardens here, it’s just simple food off the land and a good meal. And it’s worth the trip.
Regardless of where you end up in Granbury, Texas, whether it's a traditional home cooking or Texas tradition turned on its head, one thing is for certain. I discovered, through my culinary adventure, that tradition is tasty in both of its forms.
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