Getting lost and found (and fed) in the Texas Hill Country
It was a gorgeous crisp autumn day, and the winding road was taking me and Blanca deep into the Texas Hill Country.
I guess you could say we were lost. I knew more or less where we were - about three miles south of Waring (population: 73) and a stone's throw from Welfare (population: 36), but I hadn't found what I was looking for - an organic farm called Ahisma that I'd heard supplies a few of the restaurants in the Boerne/Comfort area with produce. Somehow I had missed my turn.
Considering my sense of direction is not nearly as sharp as my senses of taste and smell, you'd think I would own a GPS device. But, no. Not yet, anyway. Blanca (my little white pickup) and I rely mostly on Google map directions scribbled on the back of junk-mail envelopes - or the recollections and guesses of humans in the vicinity.
I hadn't seen much of anything all afternoon except fence posts, scrubby trees and a couple of buzzards circling overhead. It was sometime between 3 and 4 p.m., and I was beginning to doubt that I would be able to complete my mission for the day: eat lunch at High's Cafe in Comfort, a popular spot recommended by the young woman who had given me a splendid pedicure that morning at the Kendall Inn Spa in Boerne (she also happens to be an enthusiastic supporter of good, fresh, local food); chat with organic farmers in nearby Waring; then head back to Comfort for an early dinner at the Texas Bistro (a cozy, elegant space in a restored 19th-century building); and finally, get on the road home to Austin by 7:30. So far, all I had checked off my list was lunch at High's (which was quite good, by the way; for details and a recipe, turn to D5).
Around the next turn sat a scruffy white frame building with a little covered porch in front and a sign on the door that read Welfare Cafe and General Store. Oh, good, I thought. I can stop and get fresh directions.
After I opened the door and stepped inside, I knew I might not make it back to Comfort that night. And boy, was I glad I didn't have a GPS device - if I'd known exactly where I was going, I would never have found the Welfare Cafe.
Ghost town gourmet
Aside from the cafe and a one-room school building dating from the late 1800s, Welfare is essentially a ghost town. According to the historic marker next to the cafe, Welfare sprang up in the mid-1800s and prospered to some degree as a marketplace along the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad. Much of the town burned to the ground after the turn of the century. The general store and post office, which now houses the main dining room and the kitchen of the Welfare Cafe, was rebuilt in 1916. Gabriele McCormick and her husband, Dave Lawhorn, restored the building when they bought the property about 12 years ago. The couple's home sits a few hundred feet from the cafe. Behind the home are vegetable and flower gardens; and behind the gardens are a number of fenced areas where McCormick keeps chickens, guinea hens and a few goats and cows.
You might be wondering why anyone would want to open a fine-dining restaurant in a ghost town. The way McCormick explains it, it just happened. "I didn't come to Welfare to start a cafe," she says. "We were just driving around looking for property to buy. Something big enough so I could have a garden."
When they found the Welfare property, they loved its remoteness and its towering 400-year-old oak trees. They were ready to get out of the big city of San Antonio. After a while, McCormick, at the time a real estate agent, grew tired of driving into the city for work, so she decided she had to come up with work she could do in Welfare. That's how the Welfare Cafe and Goat Barn was born.
Behind the cafe is a large attached outdoor dining area shaded on one side by a wisteria-covered arbor. That's where I spent a couple of hours that Saturday relaxing and dining on one of McCormick's scrumptious daily specials: Texas quail, mashed potatoes, cream gravy and sautéed squash with red peppers. The crust on the quail was perfectly crisp and not greasy. The quail was tender and flavorful and not gamey. The potatoes were creamed perfection, and the gravy ladled on the plate beneath the quail (fine dining style) was divine. But perhaps best of all was the fried green tomato appetizer, which came with a dollop of smoked trout pâté topped with pan-fried capers.
I was traveling alone, and I was dining early, about an hour before the regular dinner crowd, so I was happy to have the company of Lucy, McCormick's golden-haired hound dog, who was snoozing on the ground a polite distance from my table. Between my appetizer and the main course, she got up and left the patio. She returned a few minutes later with a bone, which she gently laid at my feet. Was I supposed to throw it or eat it? I wasn't sure. I gave her a little scratch under the chin, and she went back to her lounging spot. Definitely one of the finest moments I've ever had in a fine-dining establishment.
McCormick, who has had no formal culinary training, says she learned to cook from her German grandmother, who specialized in slow-cooked stews and sauces. The cafe's regular menu features a number of German-influenced dishes, including schnitzel with a lemon butter and artichoke sauce and (the more traditional) Holstein with ham, asparagus, sunny side up egg and anchovies. "My Oma knew how to develop flavor," says McCormick.
In all of her cooking, McCormick emphasizes fresh ingredients and made-to-order preparations. "I buy as much produce from locals as I can, in addition to what I can get from my own garden. I would like to locally source all my meats as well," says McCormick, who is still looking for more homegrown sources. One thing she's adamant about, though - her own turkeys and guineas will not be showing up on the menu anytime soon. Diners, however, are free to visit with them over the fence and eat their free-range eggs for Sunday breakfasts at the cafe.
One of those big Sunday breakfasts, which include Venison bratwurst, apple pancakes, eggs every which way (including in a blue crab omelet) and homemade breads, has my name on it, and I'm pretty sure I'll be headed back to Welfare before too long. But next time, I'll know right where I'm going, just like most of the cafe's other patrons who are willing to make the drive for dinner from San Antonio, Austin, and Kerrville.
For being so out of the way, the cafe has a fairly steady clientele. When I asked McCormick what she thought was keeping those people coming back for more, she said, "I guess it's the atmosphere and unexpected quality of the food. And perhaps the white tablecloths and napkins."
Another thing I was glad to find out? I'm not the first lost person to find her way to the Welfare Cafe. Some folks, McCormick says, think it's a general store and walk in expecting to buy beer and cigarettes. Oops, no cigs, but how about some rouladen or kartoffelpfannekuchen?
For those of you who never get lost because you have GPS devices, consider unplugging for your next drive through the Texas Hill Country. Just leave yourself open to whatever the road brings - no telling what you might find.
Fried Green Tomatoes with Smoked Trout Pâté
About 8 oz. skinless rainbow trout
1/2 cup cream cheese
1-2 Tbsp. prepared horseradish
1 Tbsp. tarragon, dried or fresh
1 Tbsp. shallots, minced
1/2 tsp, garlic, minced
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbsp. capers
Herbed bread crumbs (if possible homemade with dried basil)
2 medium green tomatoes
1/4 cup buttermilk
Unbleached flour (enough for dredging tomatoes)
4 small ripe baby Roma or salad tomatoes, roasted (optional)
To smoke the trout: Start fire in smoker using a mix of dry and water-soaked mesquite. Pour 1/2 gallon water in pan, add 6 oranges cut in half and place pan over heat in the smoker. As the mesquite gets hotter and starts to flame, it heats the water with the oranges. Once you have good steam and smoke, place the fish in the smoker and leave it for 20 minutes, or until the fish is just firm to the touch. Do not overcook, or it will be dry.
To make pâté and tomatoes: Combine cream cheese, horseradish, tarragon, shallots, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper in food processor. Then, using a fork, flake in trout. Let sit in fridge for 1 hour for flavors to develop. Slice green tomatoes; dip in flour, then egg mixture; then coat with breadcrumbs. Brown on both sides in about 1 tsp. olive oil in a 9-inch non-stick pan. Add a little more oil and briefly fry capers. Drain tomatoes and capers and a towel.
To serve: Place a spoon of trout pate in center of plate, arrange 2 or 3 fried green tomatoes (and roasted tomatoes if using) around pate and sprinkle with fried capers and coarse sea salt. Serves 4-6.
- Gabriele McCormick, Welfare Cafe
As soon as I stepped into the store side of High's Cafe and Store, I knew I was in a place where keep-it-fresh-and-simple tastes would feel at home.
The first sign was the stack of recent cookbooks by "Pastry Queen" Rebecca Rather and seasonal produce wizard Deborah Madison near the front door, along with bottles of Texas olive oil and Texas wine. The second sign was the long line of customers leading me through an open door into the adjoining kitchen, prep and check-out area. Not an easy choice, though. Italian white bean soup, chicken salad (on mixed greens or on homemade bread), open-face crabcake sandwiches served on a slice of sourdough toast topped with baby greens, tomato, purple onion, capers and remoulade.
A chat with a woman in line, who said she eats there at least once a week, convinced me I should have a crabcake and a house salad - "the one with pears and cheese and nuts," she said. When I got to the counter and saw the special salad of the day was made with quinoa, I had to try a little of that, too. Plus a glass of sauvignon blanc from the nearby Singing Water Vineyards, because I'd never tasted it before, and it was made just down the road. (Glad I did. It was dry, slightly fruity, crisp - and perfect with my crabcakes and salad.)
The warm voice of chief cook and co-owner Brent Ault coming out of the loudspeaker let me know when to pick up my tray. "Renee, your lunch is ready." I ate every bite, and then, from my table on the patio, I watched as customers continued to line up for lunch.
The day I was there, the daily dessert feature was panna cotta. As I watched and listened, I heard several customers raving about it. One woman went back for more because her dining companions sampled so many bites she hardly got any. I decided I'd better try some. But by the time I went back to the counter to order, the panna cotta was sold out. "We always have a dessert feature," Ault said, "and the panna cotta just happened to move that day."
Later, when I asked him to name some of his regular customers' other favorites, his list included chicken salad, daily special soups (currently cream of cauliflower), crab cakes and chicken pot pies on Fridays. "Our most popular cookie is our oatmeal raisin cranberry," he said. "And people love our Key lime tart, brownies - everything, really. All scratch made, baked off in the morning."
I followed up with Ault later by e-mail to learn more about his cooking methods and his restaurant. Following is a slightly abbreviated version of that e-mail exchange:
American-Statesman: Would you say that most of your customers at High's are B&B guests on weekend getaways or locals?
Ault: We have a great local following, Comfort and the larger Hill Country area. Tourists are icing on the cake; Houston, San Antonio, Austin mainly.
The day I was there, a Saturday, there was a line from noon until 2. Is that typical? About how long did it take you to establish such a steady business?
Our business has steadily grown over (five) years. We have enlarged our menu, added the store, enlarged our kitchen, added seasonal cooking classes, wine tastings and a happy hour. We are in the process of creating a new wine bar down the street. No name yet.
Where did you learn to cook?
I am a self-taught cook, and prefer that term to "chef." I learned by doing. Food just makes sense to me. Ingredients, pairings, flavors get my creative energy going. I also enjoy teaching the classes we have. I hope to make it all less intimidating to people. I had a similar business in Fort Worth in the early '90s - Sundance Market and Deli. I was pastry chef for Navajo Grill in Fredericksburg for several years before joining with my business partner, Denise Rabalais, to create High's.
Are the recipes yours? What makes a new recipe a keeper in your book?
Recipes are ours with few exceptions. If I use others', I adapt it for our needs and change it a bit. A keeper would be a recipe that receives favorable reviews from customers over and over. I prefer a simple, fresh, creative approach to food.
Do you buy meats and produce from local growers? And how do you decide which local wines to feature?
When possible, we buy produce from locals. But there are not many who can provide the quantity we need. I personally shop for the cafe in San Antonio. We love to support our local vintners. They are producing some very fine wines. Denise puts together our wine selection. Recently, we had a lovely evening featuring Texas purveyors: goat cheese, chocolatier, olive oils/vinegars and wine producers. All local. All Texan.
What do you think keeps your customers coming back for more?
Our customers keep coming back because we serve consistently good food and we serve it in a friendly, cheerful, clean environment. I also think people are drawn to small towns. (High's offers) a big city taste in a comfy, quaint small town.
Add your own fresh flavors
I've been playing around with Ault's recipe for quinoa and sweet potato salad for the past week. I've found it to be quite forgiving and fun depending on what ingredients you have on hand and in your garden.
Instead of prepared seasoning mix, you can use fresh minced garlic, a combination of fresh chopped herbs from your garden and a bit of finely chopped serrano pepper; then add a pinch of powdered cinnamon and mace. Because just-harvested Texas oranges and tangerines are showing up at groceries and farmers' markets around town, I tried about 1/3 cup fresh squeezed tangerine juice instead of orange concentrate. It tasted great. Instead of raisins, you could also try dried cranberries or cherries. And instead of pinenuts, try using toasted pecans, which you can collect by the pocketful at public parks around town that are planted with these native trees. Hurry before the squirrels get them all.
Quinoa-Sweet Potato Salad with Orange Herb Vinaigrette
2 cups cooked quinoa (cook in filtered water, salt and 2 bay leaves)
1 medium sweet potato peeled, diced and cooked until just tender (boil in filtered water with salt and 2 bay leaves)
¼ cup golden raisins
¼ cup minced parsley
1/3 cup chopped scallions
Salt and pepper to taste
Toasted pine nuts (To toast: cook 5-10 minutes in dry skillet over medium low heat, stirring often until lightly browned)
Toss first six ingredients with Orange Herb Vinaigrette (recipe follows). Serve chilled or room temperature, topped with pine nuts. Makes 4-6 servings.
Orange Herb Vinaigrette:
½ cup red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
¼ cup orange juice concentrate
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
Zest of one orange
1½ Tbsps. Greek Mediterranean Seasoning (available at World Market) - a dried blend of chili flakes, garlic, lemon peel, dill weed, dill seed, oregano, cinnamon, mace, spearmint leaf and chervil
1½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Combine everything except oil in a blender. Blend well and slowly drizzle oil into the mix while blender is running for a smooth emulsification.
- Brent Ault, High's Cafe and Store
While you're in the Comfort/Boerne area
Ahimsa Farm, 65 Cravey Road, Waring
Small, chemical-free transitional organic farm on the Little Joshua Creek near Boerne. Free range eggs, vegetables, fruit, flowers. Community Supported Agriculture shares of farm produce are $200 a season.
Directions (theirs, not mine): From Interstate 10, take Waring-Welfare exit, proceed past PoPo Restaurant, take right on Waring Welfare Road and go about 4 miles to Cravey Road; turn right and you will see House on Cliff ; come over the bridge to the first farm on the right after the Little Joshua Creek. Sign on gate: Ahimsa Farm (Ahimsa means compassion).
Hours: Fridays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturdays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Contact: 830-537-4875 or 210-323-8824. E-mail: Ahimsa108@aol.com
Santuario Sisterfarm, 28 Hein Road, Boerne
This farm, which is part of a nonprofit organization founded in 2002 by Latinas of the Texas-Mexico Borderlands and Dominican Sisters, is dedicated to cultivating biodiversity and cultural diversity. Adrian Dominican Sisters Carol Coston and Elise D. García are co-directors. One day a month (except July and December), the farm is open to the public for tours; workshops may be arranged at other times. Tours are from 10 am to noon and include examples of organic growing methods, composting and worm bins, water conservation and green building. Vegetable and herb plants, produce and pastured eggs from Sisterfarm's chickens are (sometimes) available for purchase.
Contact: 830-537-4327; www.sisterfarm.org .
Kendall Inn's Loft Salon and Spa, 116 W. Blanco Road, Boerne
Manicures, pedicures, massage, hair styling, facials and more. Free mimosas and fruit and cheese plates served to groups with advance reservations.
Contact: 830-249-1384; email@example.com; www.theloft-salonandspa.com
Cypress Grille, 170 S. Main St. A, Boerne
A fine dining establishment that was recommended by just about everyone I met in Boerne and Comfort. Definitely on my list to try next time. Sidenote: My excellent waiter at the Welfare Cafe (Steven) also works part time at Cypress Grille.
Hours: 7-10:30 a.m. and 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, for breakfast and dinner; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday for lunch.
Contact: 830-248-1353; www.cypressgrilleboerne.com
Cibola Nature Preserve, 140 City Park Road, Boerne
The Cibolo Nature Center is located on 162 acres of natural lands off Highway 46 just west of the Kendall County Fairgrounds. The Cibolo Nature Center's mission is conservation of natural resources through education and stewardship. The center and its land are popular with hikers, bird-watchers and naturalists. Regular workshops offered.
Hours: 9 am- 5 pm Monday-Saturday; visitor center closed on Sundays
Contact: 830-249-4616; www.cibolo.org
Bear Moon Bakery and Cafe, 401 S. Main St, Boerne
Popular spot for homemade baked goods and morning coffee. Also daily lunch specials that often feature seasonal, locally grown produce. For a quick breakfast on the run, I tried a cheese filled German pastry that was delish -- just right flaky crust, and a cheese filling that wasn't too sweet
Hours: 6 am - 5 pm Tuesday-Saturday; 8 am-4 pm Sunday.
Contact: 830-816-2327; www.bearmoonbakery.com
Welfare Cafe, 223 Waring Welfare Road, Boerne
Hours: 5-9 pm Thursday-Friday; 8 am-9 pm Saturday-Sunday
Live music on Sundays. Available for private parties.
Contact: 830-537-3700; www.welfarecafe.com
High's Cafe and Store, 726 High St., Comfort
Hours: 8:30 am -4 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays; happy hours every Saturday 4- 7 p.m. (wine tastings and complimentary snacks)
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 830-995-4995; www.highscafeandstore.com