When I was growing up, my hometown was no more famous than any other tiny, black dot on the Texas road map. Nothing much of interest to visitors, except the Playdium Swimming Pool, once the largest family-owned pool in Texas (probably still is), or the rodeo held every August. Folks passed West on their way to Dallas or Austin with hardly a sideways glance.
That’s all changed. West is now as popular as the “Beer Barrel Polka.” Last summer, at the Sea of Happiness pub in Chicago, I overheard a couple mention a Czech town south of Dallas (they couldn’t remember the name) that made the best fruit pastries they’d ever eaten. “That’s West,” I informed them. “The pastries are kolaches, and that’s where I’m from.” They bought me a glass of wine and shared their peanuts. I felt like a celebrity.
So what’s changed over the years that has put West on the map? Two things: the Texas Legislature’s proclamation of West as the “Kolache Capital of Texas,” and the town’s invitation to celebrate its heritage at Westfest. Held every Labor Day weekend www.westfest.com), Westfest attracts thousands for two days of polka music, dancing, and kolache eating. But you can sample the best of West anytime—just bring your appetite, and take Exit 353 east off Interstate 35.
Sitting right off the exit is the newest bakery in town, That Czech Bakery, owned by members of my family. Don’t be fooled by the Citco sign. Father and son Ronnie and Ryan Kaska added a bakery to their convenience store and turn out between 200 and 600 kolaches a day. “Although we’re the new kids on the block, we use my mom, Katie’s, and my aunt Hattie Kaska’s old family recipe,” says Ronnie. Aunt Hattie still comes in to bake a few mornings a week, along with Marcella Kaska (my mother).
A quarter-mile down the road, William Polk’s Little Czech Bakery is all but little. Open 24 hours and averaging 400 dozen kolaches a day, it guarantees you a sweet, yeasty pastry at any time. Be sure and peruse the bakery’s gift shop for a “Life’s a polka. Let’s dance.” T-shirt.
From the service road, turn east onto Oak Street, and two blocks down on the right, you’ll find the Ole Czech Smokehouse and Bakery. New owners David Gerik and Jeannie Anderson not only bake kolaches, bread, and cinnamon rolls, but they also smoke some tasty meats like the pork sausage used in their sausage rolls. Made with kolache dough, the blend of savory and sweet flavors is unforgettable.
Save room, though, because you’re just getting started.- Visit Georgia Montgomery’s Village Bakery in historic downtown West, where locals have gathered for true coffee kolache-ing since 1952. “Our guest book has names of people from all over the world,” says Georgia, “even emissaries from the Czech Republic.” Two blocks down on Main Street, Kolacek’s Bakery sits on the site where owner Jimmy Kolacek’s father lived as a boy in his aunt’s boardinghouse. Kolacek’s bakes several varieties of fruit kolaches (apple, cherry, peach, apricot, and pineapple), but try the prune version, a local favorite by far.
Kolaches aren’t the only lip-smacking-good eats in West. For example, Nemecek Brothers Meat Market (West’s oldest family-owned business) has operated in its original location since Easter Sunday 1896. Their sausages, hams, and ring bologna are made from founder Ernest Nemecek’s original recipes. Ernest’s granddaughter and current owner, Cindy Hobbs, has incorporated new curing processes without losing the integrity of her grandfather’s recipes. “People who used to live in West come in and ask if our products taste like they did when they were kids. When we pass out samples and watch our customers smile, we know we’ve done well.” Be sure and sample one of the newer, more requested items, called the hot chubby (a frankfurter made with hot red peppers).
In the mood for a sit-down meal? Try Picha’s Czech-American Restaurant, located in the old Royal Confectionary building, where the Picha family has served Czech fare since 1980. Stuffed cabbage rolls, sausage and sweet kraut on rye, and chicken and dumplings are the house specialties. Patsy and Albin Picha have recently turned over the operation to daughter Jenene and her husband, Kevin Smart. But Patsy still comes in every morning to bake her famous coconut, chocolate, and lemon meringue pies.
Gloria Allen, owner of Wild West Steakhouse (Palace Drugs back in 1911), serves up home-style meals that will make you weep. “We take pride in our sausage and kraut sandwiches, but we grill some darn good steaks using Black Angus beef,” says Gloria. Also on the menu are southern-fried specialties such as catfish, fried pickles, and frog legs.
Now, when folks approach my hometown, they often take the time to stop. The aroma of kolaches and pork sausage wafting across Interstate 35 is just too irresistible.
West lies 17 miles north of Waco on Interstate 35. For more information, contact the West Chamber of Commerce (in the renovated MKT depot) at 308 N. Washington (Box 123) 76691; 826-3188; www.westchamber.com. The area code is 254.
That Czech Bakery (826-5908) and Little Czech Bakery (826-5316) are along the I-35 service road; driving into downtown, Ole Czech Smokehouse and Bakery (826-3309) is on the right, at 508 W. Oak St.; across the railroad tracks are the Village Bakery (826-5151), at 108 E. Oak, and Kolacek’s Bakery (826-5031), at 306 N. Main St.
Also on Main St. are Nemecek Brothers (826-5182), 300 N. Main; Picha’s Czech-American Restaurant (826-3008), 220 N. Main; Wild West Steakhouse (826-4474), 128 N. Main; and Leo’s Mexican Restaurant (826-5039), 306 N. Main. Czech American II (826-3460) is at I-35 and Exit 351. West Pizza House (826-3805) is at 505 W. Oak St. There’s also a Subway (826-3883) at 209 S. George Kacir Dr.