Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Great Little Towns in Texas

We are still cooling our boot heels near Austin waiting on parts to arrive for the motorhome.  We will probably be here another week but it’s turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  We are 15 miles south of Austin at the RV dealer campground that is our base but from here have been able to do some great day trips to small towns, state parks and lakes accompanied by food trips to great Texas restaurants.

Spirits friend Oliver enjoying a belly rub.
We found a great day care kennel for Spirit when she can’t go along with us.  It’s called Onion Creek Kennels and is a wonderful dog place.  Spirit can’t wait to get there to see her one special dog friend, Oliver, who is her size and energy level.  She swims in pools and horse troughs, gets muddy, gets bathed and brushed and comes home and crashes for the evening.  Ah….peace!  When we hike, she comes along.

One small town very near to us is Buda, Texas that has a small downtown with some historic buildings.  It also has a great donut shop and Mexican food restaurant called Garcia’s.  Buda is the home of the wiener dog races which will be held this coming weekend.  Can’t wait to see those.  Dachshunds are being spotted all over the campground this week.  Spirit loves it.  She’ll get to go with us.

Another small town south of us is San Marcos, Texas.  The town itself is larger than we expected without a very interesting downtown but the Guadalupe River runs through it and many go there to kayak or tube the river which is fun to see.  We found a restaurant/bar, the River Pub, that sits above the river near a waterfall where you can eat and drink while watching fun seekers ride their kayaks and tubes through the falls.  Some make it, some don’t but it’s a good laugh.  I had their special burger called the B.O.M.B.  It’s burger-onion-mashed potatoes-bacon!  Wow, what a meal.  I just had to try it.  And it came with fried onion rings on top of all that.  Enough said.  I was stuffed.  Nancy had good enchiladas.

Guadalupe River falls waiting for kayakers
Historic mural celebrating sausage while the mural
below celebrates beer
One day we drove to New Braunfels, Texas because it’s a town of German heritage as I am (this is Betsy) and I love German food.  There was a restaurant there, Friesenhaus Restaurant and Bekery, that is known for their German food and I wanted sauerbraten and spaetzle and Nancy wanted German beer, dough pretzels and sausage.  See the photos attached here and you’ll see that we were successful in our pursuits…..so delicious.  There wasn’t a lot else in this town to see or do but we walked around and admired the historic murals.  The barber museum advertised no longer existed and we couldn’t easily find the furniture museum so maybe it no longer exists.  We moved on.
Celebrating beer brewing through a mural - the towns way of preserving their history through outdoor art

Potato pancakes with applesauce

Delicious sauerbraten and spaetzle with red cabbage

It seems as if we hear about a good place to eat then we head to that town.  So Wimberley, Texas was another destination and it was a nice surprise.  There is a great historic town square with cute shops, a pie company, Miss Mae’s BBQ (click here for a link to the previous post on Miss Mae's) and other small cafes.  There is Taste Buds that is a store where you can taste a lot of Texas salsa, jellies and wine as well as a Life Is Good store if you love their t-shirts like I do.  Driving to all of these towns is exhilarating because all of the Texas wildflowers are in bloom and it’s like looking at flower blankets laid upon unending fields as far as you can see. 

Scenes from Wimberley...
Wimberley Pie Company pies
Gallery at the square
A boutique located in a charming stone building
Of course, there is a place to taste Texas wines
Taste buds has everything from salsa, to wine, to candy
Wimberley town square
Texas longhorns in metal
Wonderful kitchen store - Kiss the Cook
A little bit of everything can be found in Wimberley

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Batty in Austin

The bat on the bat boat that hovered above us, setting the scene
Everyone has probably heard about the bats of Austin, we had.  But until you see almost a million fly out from under a bridge just as the sun goes down over the city, it’s hard to comprehend.  We just had to see them.  But what’s the best way to see them?  There are choices so we asked several Austinites.  You can see them for free by standing above them on the bridge where they roost or you can sit in the grass alongside the lake near the bridge with hundreds of other bat watchers.  Other choices are to go out on a boat at a charge of $10 a person or rent a kayak or launch your own kayak.  Even though we have our own kayaks we elected to go on a boat with a narrator in order to learn the history of the Austin bats.

Apparently there was a time when the bats were not wanted in Austin until the office of tourism realized their value to the Austin economy.  The Ann W. Richards Congress Ave. Bridge was renovated in 1980 and 3-inch crevasses were built under the bridge to allow for heat expansion.  The bats found these crevasses ideal for having their babies and much appreciated the tax payers monies that formed their housing project!  In return, Austinites now appreciate the millions of dollars that the tourists add to their economy because of the bats.  It’s a wonderful show.  And it’s the largest urban bat colony in North America and estimated that these bats consume 10-30,000 pounds of insects each year.

The bat boat that seats about 30 people
Austin skyline and the Congress Ave bat bridge just before sun down
The bats are Mexican free-tail bats that spend the winter in Mexico, breed there then fly to Austin in early March already pregnant.  They give birth in late June and July and the babies emerge with the adults in August and September to forage for insects.  They return to Mexico in November.  So they can be seen from mid-March until September in Austin but the best time to see the most bats is August and September which can number to almost 2 million.  This month there are about 850,000.  As the sun goes down they emerge because they don’t like white light.  So it is fairly dark this month when they are flying.  The boat operators use a large red light to make them more visible and so that their flights are not affected by the tourists.

Touring up the lake waiting for the sun to go down
Congress Ave bridge with hundreds of people waiting for the bats to fly
Red light the boat captain used to shine the bats as they began to emerge.  Note the crevasses under the bridge
Photo courtesy of Shelly Kneupper Tucker
Zax's Restaurant
We had a great evening because we headed to downtown Austin around 4:30 pm and made it in time for happy hour at Zax’s Restaurant that is near the bat boat dock.  Nancy did some research to find this restaurant.  We had one of the most delicious pizzas (caramelized onion, goat cheese and kalamata olives) I have ever had and wine is half price a bottle at happy hour.  The boat left at 7:30 just before sunset so we strolled along the lake across from the Austin skyline until we boarded.  It was a Capital Cruises bat tour boat open to the sky that held about 30 people and the boat captain had a great “bat sense of humor.”  The bridge where the bats live crosses Lady Bird Lake that is a 6-mile long narrow lake and more or less surrounds the southern part of Austin city.  The captain narrates the tour, as we motored up the lake and back to the bridge, giving history and information both about Austin and the bats and it was well worth $10.  We had the best view of the bats and learned and laughed arriving back at the dock at 9:00 pm just in time to get back to the motorhome and share our bat experience with Spirit!

Austin prides itself on being weird with inspirational sayings on railroad bridges

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Grilled Pork Tenderloin Stuffed with Point Reyes Blue Cheese Drizzled with Blackberry-Syrah Sauce

One of the greatest things about living in a motorhome is the revolving backyard.  We love spending our evenings outside by the campfire grilling with an open bottle wine in a beautiful park. Here is one of my favorite grilling recipes that works to please a crowd or be shared by just two people.  The recipe is easy, quick and most preparation can be done ahead. 

This recipe is being submitted for the Wine Enthusiast Montana Master Grillers Contest at the Resort at Paws Up (http://www.winemag.com/Wine-Enthusiast-Magazine/Web-2012/Montana-Master-Grillers-Contest/index.php).  If you have ever wanted to have an “American Safari,” check out the Resort at Paws Up.  We’ve never been there, but would love a visit to this luxury ranch so we decided to enter this contest and keep our fingers crossed.
Hope you enjoy the recipe!

Grilled Pork Tenderloin Stuffed with Point Reyes Blue Cheese Drizzled with Blackberry-Syrah Sauce

Serves 2

1          pork tenderloin, trimmed
2-3 oz. Point Reyes blue cheese
1 cup   blackberries, fresh or frozen
½ cup  Syrah
1 Tbs.  balsamic vinegar
2 Tbs.  sugar
2 Tbs.  butter, cold
1  Tbs. olive oil

Preheat a grill.

Feed a wooden spoon handle lengthwise through the pork tenderloin and hollow out a hole approximately ½ - ¾ inch in diameter.  Use your fingers or the spoon handle to stuff blue cheese inside the hole.  Wrap the tenderloin in plastic wrap and let rest in the refrigerator for at least one hour (or overnight).

Meanwhile, prepare the blackberry wine sauce.  In a medium saucepan, add the blackberries, Syrah, balsamic vinegar and sugar.  Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes until the sauce thickens.  Strain the sauce to remove seeds and return to a clean saucepan.  Add cold butter and whisk until butter is incorporated and keep warm, stir occasionally.

Rub the tenderloin with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  Place the tenderloin on a hot grill and cook for approximately 12-15 minutes, cooking evenly on all 4 sides.  Transfer to a platter and let rest under aluminum foil for 5 minutes before slicing.

Slice pork into one inch medallions and drizzle with sauce.  Serve.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Miss Mae’s Bar-B-Q

Rarely (if ever) have I written a post solely on one restaurant, but yesterday we found one that is deserving of a post all to itself.  There are times when a restaurant should be judged on its story and soul and not just the atmosphere, food, service, and wine list.  We found such a restaurant in Miss Mae’s Bar-B-Q in Wimberley, Texas.  The recommendation for Miss Mae’s came from a woman at the town visitor center who said we should give it a try if we were in the mood for bar-b-q.  She warned us not to expect too much from the outside but promised that if we ventured inside we would have authentic Texas bar-b-q.  The restaurant sits just the outside of the town’s main town square and appeared to be quite popular with the locals (as evident by all the fire and police men who sauntered in). 

The menu reads like a bar-b-q textbook: brisket, ribs, sausage, chicken, potato salad, coleslaw, beans, and home-made cobbler.  We stood in line and ordered, took our seats on the wooden booths, and dug in to the mounds of food in front of us.  As we were moaning about how good it was, the owner Steve Dunk came by to make sure everything was o.k.  All we could do was nod in agreement with our mouths full and bar-b-q sauce dripping down our cheeks! 

Steve cutting meat made to order.
Miss Mae's picture hangs proudly in the entrance.
Steve checked on us periodically and his genuine warmth and hospitality was apparent.  When asked about the history of the restaurant he proudly pointed to a picture on the wall of his grandma, Miss Mae, and he began telling her story.   Miss Mae was a woman who wore many hats and Steve described her as a “pioneer.”  In her 40’s she bought a ranch and built up herds of Angora goats, cattle, and sheep while her husband worked in Austin for Frito Lay.  When Miss Mae wasn’t saddled up and tending to the ranch she would cook for the ranch hands and bring food to family gatherings.  It was obvious from Steve that his grandmother was a very hard working woman and when she wasn’t ranching, she was coiffing women’s hair at the beauty shop in town that she owned.  And when she wasn’t ranching, cooking, and coiffing, she was at the plant nursery she owned.  We were exhausted from just listening to all Miss Mae did!     

Home-made cobbler with a personalized
Fondness for Miss Mae’s bar-b-q spread throughout the town and she eventually opened the Red Barn Pit Bar-B-Que in 1983 in the town square.  All the while she was still tending to the ranch, beauty salon, and nursery.  The bar-b-q restaurant was a true family business with children and grandchildren helping out.  After Miss Mae died in 1997, the restaurant closed and at that time none of the family members had an interest in continuing the restaurant.  But a short time after her death, Steve decided to reopen the restaurant on a piece of land that was the site of the old nursery he inherited from Miss Mae.  He bought a double-wide trailer, knocked out the interior walls, added a commercial kitchen, and built another pit to accommodate the towns demand for Miss Mae’s bar-b-q.  The inside of the restaurant is decorated with an eclectic mix of items that were found on the ranch, family heirlooms, and items given by restaurant patrons.

The line may stretch out to the door, but don't be deterred it moves quickly and is
worth the wait.
Family heirlooms, glass bottles, deer antlers, and the original furniture from the first restaurant.
Miss Mae, the daily specials, and the menu - great prices for the large plates of good food.
Steve speaks affectionately of his grandmother and is grateful to be able to continue the tradition that she started.  He couldn’t wait until the line this day tapered off so he could sneak out back and show us the pits.  Steve proudly boasts that all of the recipes are Miss Mae’s … the beans, the sauce, the cobbler, coleslaw, meat, etc ... and everything is home-made.  Bar-b-que’ing must be genetic and a trait he inherited from his grandmother because it is all done by instinct - there is no meat thermometer and no temperature gauge on the pit but the meat comes out perfect with a flawless blend of smoky tenderness.  

Steve proudly displaying the bar-b-q that is slow-cooked for  many hours.
The building that houses the pits is flanked with oak - the wood of choice for cooking.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Gruene – A Great Little Town in the Texas Hill Country

Just 30 miles north of San Antonio is the Texas town of Gruene, a small village on the banks of the Guadalupe River built by immigrant German farmers.  It is a charming little town with impeccably preserved historic buildings from the late 1800’s and a name that visitors have no idea how to pronounce.  We asked a couple of locals the proper pronunciation and got more answers than we bargained for.  Today, everyone just calls it “green.” 

Downtown Gruene.
This little town’s roots date back to the mid-1840’s when German farmers settled the area.  Although the town was originally called Goodwin, it later took the name of Gruene after one of the most influential settlers Henry D. Gruene.   Henry established a large cotton farm in 1870 which attracted other settlers and spurred the business growth and development.  The town grew up around the cotton industry and soon a cotton gin, mercantile, dance hall, and school were built.  The town eventually fell into despair after Henry died and a boll weevil infestation decimated the cotton industry in 1925.  In the 1970’s this all but ghost town saw a revival and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Today, Gruene is once again a thriving and vibrant town that has become a big tourist draw.

Throughout the town’s heyday and demise one business stayed open – the Gruene Dance Hall.  This inconspicuous, plain white building sits quietly at the town’s crossroads during the day but lights up the town at night and the waft of music and dancing draws people from all around.   Considered the oldest dance hall in Texas, this juke joint has seen the likes of famous musical artists that reads like an American music history book.  From George Strait to the Fabulous Thunderbirds,  Arlo Guthrie to the Dixie Chicks, Little Richard to Randy Travis, and everyone in between … including Bo Diddly, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Marshal Tucker Band, Asleep at the Wheel, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Garth Brooks, Emmy Lou Harris, Willie Nelson and on and on.  Stop in for a beer and kick up your heels with the live music.  It seems the place is always open (day and night) and most of the time there is no charge for enjoying the musical splendor that is offered.
The famous Gruene Hall where George Strait, Hal Ketchum, and Lyle Lovett got their starts.
Inside the dance hall is a great old bar ready to serve up cold longnecks (and root beer for the kids).
We enjoyed our stroll around Gruene and quickly discovered this town has a charming personality.  The brick lined streets are filled with whimsically named shops such as “ GiddyUp Gruene,” “Cotton Eyed Joe’s,” “Tipsy Gypsy,” and “Pookie  Jane’s” all of which exude the Texas spirit and fun atmosphere of the towns people.  The stores describe themselves as having “spirited apparel,” “sassy clothing,” “unique collectables,” and many more superlatives that entice shoppers.  Stores range from pottery to candy to rocks and gems to outdoor gear, and of course t-shirts and souvenirs.  If you get hungry head on over to the Gristmill River Restaurant and Bar for unique Texas-style dining.  The sprawling restaurant is perched over the Guadalupe River and is built around the 1870’s cotton gin offering patrons a delightful mix of history and good food.   One store that is not to be missed is the Gruene General Store which has the acclaim of one of “the 40 best places to visit in Texas” and is filled with a little bit of everything, including our favorite, a soda fountain.
Buck Pottery has been hand crafting
pottery for 30 years.
Antique shops line the downtown.

The Grapevine is the place to come for sampling some 20 Texas wines or just relax on the porch with a glass.
Enter Gruene Outfitters and you will be greeted by a super sweet yellow lab.
Gruene General Store is the town's first Mercantile.  The store was founded by Henry D. Gruene to serve families of those working on his cotton farms.  He sold clothing, furniture, farm implements, food, and his own brand of whiskey.
Take your time in the general store, there is lots to see.  We loved the license plates nailed to the floor.
Rows and rows of Texas-themed stuff.
A treasure that we almost could not pass up.
We stopped in Gruene on a whim and happenstance and quickly found there was much more to do than just stroll the streets and shop.  For such a small town, there really is an appealing mix of things to do including riding a raft or tube down the Guadalupe River rapids, relaxing at the day spa, enjoying a wine tasting, antique shopping, fly fishing, wandering through the arts and crafts at the Old Gruene Market Days, and don’t forget the dance hall. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Heading to Austin, Texas

We are in a small town just 17 miles south of Austin named Buda - funny name but a really cute town.  We had planned on spending a week or so in Austin to explore the sights and sounds of one of the most progressive towns in Texas.  Neither Betsy nor I had ever been to Austin but it always gets glowing reviews from friends and family so it ranked high on the list of stops in this monstrous state of Texas.

We chose Buda (instead of Austin) based on a little “oops” that happened with the motorhome.  As we were driving out of a campground, the road spontaneously narrowed, the curb shrunk, and the associated ditch grew bigger.  Next thing we knew our back tire was swallowed up in the ditch.  Damage was minor and not very evident – just a minor bend in one of the basement doors, a bend in the mud flat, and worst of all, damage to the windshield from the coach twisting.  So Crestview RV Center (and campground) in Buda, Texas here we come. 
This is real barbeque - cooked on a pit all day.
After we parked the coach, we rushed to our first destination – BAR-B-QUE.  Someone recommended that we make the scenic 20 minute drive to Driftwood and hit The Salt Lick Restaurant.  Upon our arrival we were greeted by the smell of barbeque from a wood burning pit which permeated the parking lot and guided us inside.  This is always a good sign!  Our rustic table and wood bench were cleverly decorated with fresh flowers precariously perched in a cowboy boot.  Turns out this hardwood was a perfectly comfortable setting for us while we feasted on house-made sausage, pork ribs, brisket, potato salad, coleslaw, bread, pickles, and onions.  Once our stomach ached, we asked for a to-go box and justified our big lunch by swearing not to eat dinner.  Yes, we were full of barbeque (which was our goal), but not too full to sample some of the Salt Licks wines.  We moseyed over to the wine cellar and were greeted by an energetic tabby named Mr. Stripey who led us into the tasting room and rubbed on our legs while we indulged in some fine Texas libations.  This was our first introduction to Texas wineries which are producing some celebrated wines and have become a popular tourist attraction.  

Texas-size lunch.
My favorite table decoration - a boot with flowers.
I'll have to try it at our next dinner party.

This place is not fancy, just good!

The story of The Salt Lick began with Thurman and Hisako Roberts and a yellow pad of paper.  Thurman traveled throughout the state working for a bridge construction company but desperately wanted to keep his roots in the little town of Driftwood.  One night he and his wife took out a yellow pad of paper and wrote down 54 things they could do to stay in Driftwood.  Number 14 was to open a restaurant.  Thurman was known for his delicious barbeque that he frequently took to family events.  The idea for a restaurant set in and he and his son built a pit.  Thurman would go to the pit on Thursday where he spent all weekend cooking and sleeping on a cot.  After a few months, he was spending more and more time at the pit preparing for the busy weekend and, alas, a successful restaurant was born.
The restaurant is large and the grounds are beautiful this time of year but we still wanted to get there early before the anticipated crowds.
The owner's son, Scott, and the restaurant GM decided to go into the wine business and are boasting in their success.
There is a wide variety of whites, reds, and a sparkling.  We could not resist the Syrah.
Mr. Stripey...keep petting him or he will bite your ankles.
We anticipate a two-week stay in the area while we have repairs and service done on the coach.  The only reason I think this time frame is too long is because we are camped less than 200 yards from a Cabela’s store that we can’t resist.  Although Spirit is not crazy about her afternoon walk being around a huge parking lot, we have found some entertaining parks for her.  It is apparent to us there is plenty to do in the Austin area and we look forward to exploring the sights, sounds, and food.