Written by Texas Highways
Back in the 20th Century, most Texans enjoyed four basic food groups: home-cooking, burgers, barbecue and Mexican food. Burgers and barbecue were usually brought home, but the family typically went out for Mexican food. This is when important familial bonds formed by way of tortilla chips, red salsa and Number 2 Dinners. After the meal, following the puffy tacos, enchiladas and refried beans, there would be the choice of a praline or frozen concoction for dessert. As the waiter refilled the last iced tea glass, he (or she) would inevitably ask the time-honored question: “Candy or sherbet?”
Veteran mixologist Leslie Coyle, one of four bartenders at the Lobby Lounge at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, knew she had found a good gig when her bosses encouraged her to develop special cocktails for the holidays. Beginning November 21 through January 4, in an homage to Clemente Clarke Moore’s famous poem “The Night Before Christmas, the Lobby Lounge serves up three “Nice” cocktails and three “Naughty” cocktails. Drop by the hotel, or test your bartender’s skills at home: Recipes follow.
Coyle enjoys a good glass of Cabernet or Malbec, but her eyes really light up when she talks spirits. “ I think about each drink as if it’s a work of art,” she says. “What flavors go well together? What might be unexpected? Should the glass be short and green? Tall or red? What garnish would look pretty? And then I want some drinks that are good before dinner, and some that work well as a dessert. So I’m always trying to do a variety.
“Of these six drinks, my favorite—a dessert drink—is the Cookie Crumbles, with Bailey’s and Butterscotch Shnapps. It’s kind of an adult interpretation of childhood comfort food. I also love the Snow Angel, which is made of champagne and Cointreau. It’s light, a little sweet, and refreshing—perfect to ease into the evening with.”
Has Coyle ever had any cocktail catastrophes? “Well,” she says, “I had this great idea for a holiday drink last year. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a drink with cookies floating on it, a cocktail that recalled the treats kids put on the fireplace for Santa?’ Then I realized that cookies will not float. They get soggy and sink to the bottom of the glass. In theory, it was perfect, but in practice, it didn’t work.”
Live and learn. Cheers to the 2008 holiday season. Good tidings to all. —L.M.
Cookie Crumbles¾ oz. Bailey’s
¾ oz. Goldschlager
¾ oz. Butterscotch Shnapps
Directions: Serve in a rocks glass.
Garnish with a mint leaf.
Silver Bell1 oz. Amaretto
1 oz. Monopolowa Vodka
3 oz. Heavy Cream
Directions: Serve in a white wine glass.
Snow Angel½ oz. Cointreau
4 oz. Domaine Chandon
Directions: Serve in a champagne glass. Garnish with a sugar rim and orange twist.
Texas Vixen1½ oz. Don Julio Añejo
4 oz. Cranberry Juice
Dash of lemonade and 7-Up
Directions: Mix all ingredients into a pilsner glass. Garnish with a slice of orange.
Dark Winter1½ oz. Kahlua
1½ oz. Godiva Dark
Dash of Rumpleminz
Directions: Serve in a martini glass.
Garnish with a chocolate stick.
The Grinch1½ oz. Midori
½ oz. Paula’s Orange Lemonade
Directions: In a rocks glass, mix all the ingredients together. Garnish with a cherry.
By Maxine Mayes
Two years ago, on a trip to the Hill Country community of Utopia, I was prowling the aisles of a shop that specializes in French country antiques and came upon a stash of old cookbooks in a back room. I bought two, and learned they had once belonged to Laurel Waters, chef-owner of The Laurel Tree, a restaurant just south of town. The cookbooks soon led me to visit the restaurant, which has French connections of its own.
The Laurel Tree sits amid the oak-covered hills that ring Sabinal Canyon in northwestern Uvalde County. An architectural gem, the restaurant features exterior arches, a red-tile roof, and a turret-like structure patterned after a pigeonnier (16th-Century French pigeon house).
Inside, the feel of a French country house continues. A two-sided rock fireplace defines two distinct dining areas; another fireplace graces a charming party room. Across the back, an expanse of windows overlooks a wide veranda (for al fresco dining) and the centerpiece of the outdoor space: a majestic oak tree some 400 years old. At night, the light from three 19th-Century crystal chandeliers suspended from its branches casts a soft glow over the yard.
Styled after a European “guest table”—a small establishment that emphasizes fresh ingredients and local specialties—The Laurel Tree opens for lunch and dinner only on Saturdays. The menu changes weekly, depending on the herbs and vegetables in season, but always includes a choice of two main courses, one featuring beef, pork, or poultry, the other, usually fish. (Dinner consists of five courses, while lunch is lighter.) Recent dinner entrées have included pork tenderloin with white wine-Dijon sauce, grapes, and 1015 onions, and seafood lasagna with shrimp, crab, scallops, mushrooms, and three cheeses.
The ambiance is relaxed and intimate, in keeping with the restaurant’s Provençal inspiration.
After meeting Laurel Waters, I understood The Laurel Tree’s “French connection.” As a fashion design major in college, Waters won an intercollegiate design competition; the prize was a semester at the Paris Fashion Institute. She says she “fell in love with Paris completely” and returned to France a few years later for a longer stay. That time around, she focused on food instead of fashion, earning Le Grand Diplome in cuisine, pastry, and wine from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and interning at three prestigious French restaurants. Between classes and work, she took every opportunity to explore France, Provence in particular.
“I would find wonderful hole-in-the-wall restaurants and taste their specialties,” recalls Waters. “Often I would be mis-taken for a food critic when I was alone and writing in a notebook … .” The notebook was her “dream book,” in which she sketched appealing features of Provençal architecture as she planned the guest table she hoped to open someday back home in Utopia. “I wanted to create the kind of place that people would seek out and fall in love with while traveling,” she says.
What are the odds that a rancher from Buffalo Gap, Texas (pop. 499), would rise to the top of a New York Times “best” list? At least 200 to 1—that’s how many other food vendors clamored for recognition before the Times’ tasters announced the best mail-order food gifts of the year in November 1995. But, with his mes-quite-smoked peppered beef tenderloin, Tom Perini ate the competition for lunch.
The restaurateur and caterer, fa-mous around West Texas and points beyond for his Perini Ranch Steak-house, defines ranch cooking with his mesquite-grilled beef, barbecue, ribs, catfish, and all the fixings.
Perini’s restaurant, in Buffalo Gap (15 miles south of Abi-lene), lies on a dirt road near a pass where Comanches and buffalo hunters once fought for control of a buffalo migration route. You won’t find the steakhouse without carefully looking, for it wasn’t supposed to have happened at all. Tom started ranching on the property in 1965 and began a sideline catering business eight years later. In 1983, the restaurant, which sits back about 1,000 feet from the road, emerged when Tom decided he could no longer manage the catering and ranching businesses simultaneously. Happily for us, he chose to continue cooking rather than growing beef.
Authenticity drives Tom’s business decisions, from the recipes and atmosphere to the building it-self—first a hay barn, and now a down-home restaurant devoid of Western kitsch.
“There’s a fine line between be-ing cutesy and real,” says Tom in his easygoing West Texas twang. “I don’t need wagon wheel props to make our place feel ranchy. This is a ranch—people get that feeling as soon as they walk in the door. We thought about installing central air, but that’s not part of the real Texas feeling.” Instead, on hot summer nights, the steakhouse relies on screened windows and doors and an old-fashioned evaporative (or “swamp”) cooler.
“We were cooking with mesquite long before it became trendy,” says Tom, “because it’s a Texas tradition, it gives a nice flavor to the meat, and the coals last a long time. Plus, the trees grow on the ranch.”
Outside, behind the restaurant, the kitchen staff burns mesquite to reduce it to glowing coals, then brings it into the kitchen for grilling brisket, pork ribs, whole ribeyes, and peppered beef tenderloin. It was the latter, one of Tom’s signature items, that The New York Times termed “spectacular.”
Also out back, a stone’s throw from the mesquite fire, is a 100-year-old chuck wagon filled with seasonings and cooking equipment, the culinary hub of Tom’s far-flung catering excursions. He took the vintage wagon to Japan in 1991 on a tour organized by the Texas Beef Council. Accompanied by Charlie Nagatani and the Cannon Balls, a Japanese country-western band, Tom grilled his way across Japan with 2.5 tons of mesquite in tow.
International jaunts aside, the steakhouse offers an authentic venue for live country music and two-stepping diners on weekend evenings. The walls of weathered railroad ties chinked with concrete, and the rusty, salvaged-tin ceiling (which came from an old blacksmith shop on the ranch) immediately serve notice that you’ll feel most at home here in casual attire.
Tom Perini spends many of his nights schmoozing with guests at the restaurant. These days, except for catered affairs, when he may cook for upwards of 1,200 people, he entrusts daily food preparation to his staff. On a typical night, he glides from table to table, stopping to chat at each and make sure his customers are satisfied. Outside on the patio, tiny lights adorn the mesquite trees that grow among the tables.
“This is what I call a nice joint,” says Tom. “It’s a place where you can bring the kids and grandparents. People from Abilene come out to take off their ties and have some ribs while the kids go outside, play hide-and-seek, and chase the dogs around. It’s a family deal.”
A big vegetable garden in front of the restaurant, where you can sometimes spot the owner at work, further suggests you have come to a neighbor’s house for a dinner party. “One year, I planted some hybrid cucumbers that just grew like crazy,” says Tom. “I didn’t know what to do with them all. So for a while, every guest took home cucumbers—like ’em or not! It was fun. People remember times like that.”
In August 1995, Tom made an unforgettable trip to New York City, where he cooked at the James Beard House, which invites the nation’s best chefs to showcase their specialties at pricey dinner parties.
“I was nervous,” Tom says of his Big Apple debut. “I’m really a cowboy cook. Unlike some of my friends in the Texas Restaurant Association, I don’t do any ‘plate drawing,’ where they drizzle sauces to ‘paint’ your dish. If you find a leaf on one of my plates, you send it back!
“I explained all this to the folks at the James Beard House when they invited me. They said, ‘Don’t worry about it—we want good, regional cooking.’ ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘I’ll be there wearing a white hat, but it won’t be a chef’s hat.’”
Being honored by the James Beard House, which now lists the Perini Ranch Steakhouse in its directory of fine American restaurants, apparently didn’t go to Tom’s head. “I was in the kitchen [at the James Beard House] when I half-heard the intercom: ‘Chef, line one.’ I paid no attention. ‘Chef, pick up line one.’ It went over my head. ‘Chef, please answer.’ Finally, someone came in and said, ‘Mr. Perini, you’ve got a phone call.’ Well, you know, I’m a chuck-wagon cook—I assumed the call had to be for someone else.”
While in New York, Tom decided to send some tenderloins to local magazines and to The New York Times. The accolades from the newspaper put Tom’s mail-order business on the map as well as in the upscale Neiman Marcus catalog.
It’s not difficult to get the ex-rancher into his storytelling mode, particularly when it concerns such coups, which still seem to amuse and surprise him. When, for example, Gov-ernor George W. Bush wanted to have a catered cookout behind the Governor’s Mansion after the Texas-Virginia game in October 1995, a staffer contacted Tom to ask about his food. “Well, I’ll tell you what,” Tom said. “Next week, I’m going to be in Austin to cook for the Texas Restaurant Association at their office. So why don’t you just send over your decision-maker for a taste?
“Well, the day arrives, and I’m working and getting ready to serve for the TRA, and this lady walks up and says, ‘Tom Perini?’ And I look up and it’s Laura Bush.” Momentarily flustered, Tom explained that he sure didn’t mean for the First Lady of Texas to have to come over and test his food personally.
“Oh,” Laura Bush deadpanned, “I thought you asked for the decision-maker at the governor’s house.” She got a plate, and Tom got the job.
Then there’s the time Tom went on Mexican television to promote Texas beef. “I was supposed to show how I flame-broil our tenderloin, but when we got to the TV station, there was no mesquite anywhere. The only thing I could find to burn was some old plywood. We got our flames, all right—and plenty of smoke—but we couldn’t let anyone taste the meat.”
Besides tenderloin (by special request only), specialties of the Perini Ranch Steakhouse in-clude Bread Pudding (a combination of sourdough bread and pecans; Tom’s version is laced with whiskey sauce), Mexican Hominy (seasoned with bacon, cheddar cheese, and green chilies), Zucchini Perini (zucchini rounds baked in a special meat sauce and topped with Parmesan cheese), and Jalapeño Cheese-
cake (a rich treat prepared with homemade jalapeño sauce).
“To draw people
to an out-of-the-way restaurant, you need signature items,” Tom says. “To beat the chains, you have to be really different.” Or, you have to be Texas, pure and simple.
Just five minutes outside of Round Top, the 200-acre educational center and living-history museum known as Winedale shines come springtime. On March 20-21, one of Texas’ most respected craft shows, Winedale’s Spring Festival & Texas Crafts Exhibition, takes place amid the 11 major historical structures gathered in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s by Houston arts patron Ima Hogg.
Few edibles rank as high among Texans in the category of necessary foods as pie. One of the dishes we require at every celebration or Sunday dinner, it belongs up there with chicken-fried steak and cheese enchiladas. When we need the comfort that grandma’s hugs once supplied, we reach for a slice of homemade pie. Pie has also held a significant role in the community; as pie suppers were important fund-raising events, along with cakewalks, fish frys, and chicken dinners. A look into vintage Texas cookbooks reveals recipes for syrup, pecan, peach, apple, buttermilk, mustang grape, and osgood (raisin-date-pecan) pies that were popular as much as a century ago.
Veracruz-style seafood and Mexican food at Cap'n Roys have proved to have staying power on South Padre Island.
Few edibles rank as high among Texans in the category of necessary foods as pie. It belongs up there with chicken-fried steak and cheese enchiladas. So, if you're ready to be tempted, we've pinpointed some of the tastiest options.
People use to swear the Famous Mineral Water Company's Crazy Water could cure what ails you. Today, it remains a top seller and talso is the key ingredient at the company's bar featuring water, coffee and slush drinks made with it.
Childhood summer vacations spent on the sand at Port Aransas passed far too quickly. Even though my sisters and I would collapse from exhaustion at the end of long, hot days romping in the waves, we’d nevertheless complain mightily when Mom knew we’d had too much sun and insisted we go inside the screened-in porch of our beach cottage to play Monopoly.
When a friend of mine in Houston bought a getaway house in Bacliff, on the western shore of Galveston Bay a few years ago, I scratched my head in puzzlement. If you want an escape, I asked him, why not seek out a place in the Hill Country? Why not a cabin in the cool New Mexico mountains?
In the 19th Century, tragedies washed over Galveston as regularly as the tides: deadly fires, yellow-fever epidemics, and hurricanes. Anecdotally, this legacy of destruction left Galveston one of the nation’s most haunted cities. Even for travelers without a taste for the macabre, the wide range of said-to-be-haunted sites offers a fascinating glimpse into Galveston’s colorful past. In fact, I’ve come to the Island to learn more about local history, largely by looking for ghosts.
I confess. I am a dreamer. A grasshopper in an anthill world. Each month, as soon as I pay the bills, I take the money left over and go hiking or mountain biking. Maybe go fishing. Or pitch a tent, build a campfire, and cook out. Some folks who know me substitute my sobriquet “grasshopper” with the more definitive “bum.” They can say what they will, but I prefer to live outside.
Seeing the San Bernard River flow unimpeded to the Gulf of Mexico is something of a miracle. The project, completed in March 2009, holds the promise for a 21st-Century renewal of the region where Stephen F. Austin issued his first land grants in the 1820s.