Saturday, September 20, 2008

About Town in Fredericksburg, Texas

There's a certain set of elements common to the small, southern, tourist-friendly town that makes these types of places easily identifiable. For the tourist, they center around a cluster of a few blocks containing local specialty shops, or at least shops that put up a "local" appearance. Mixed in are a few restaurants that primarily focus on the area's reputation or heritage, from Victorian to German to whatever nickname the town has garnered over the years. Parking is always limited and awkward, and often the buildings are presented as old, regardless of their real age, as a way to draw in the nostalgia-seekers and history buffs. And there's almost always one good sweet shop or chocolatier selling their decadent treats to tourists needing a sugar-fix or a good way to truly blow their diet to smithereens.

I've been to a number of these towns, and when they aren't quite as well known beyond about a 200 mile radius, they tend to be more relaxing and maintain their charm. Once they reach much beyond that, they morph into something entirely different; they become a haven for rednecks, a tourist trap complete with twenty-seven miniature golf courses and traffic that slows to a crawl. When that change becomes imminent, I scratch them off my travel destination list. I've seen what both look like, and fortunately there's enough of the good kind left that I don't think we're in danger of them all going downhill to become the next version of "hillbilly hell."

Fredericksburg shares the basics of the better type of these small towns. Parking isn't quite as difficult, although it is somewhat limited. The class of shops there is a bit of a step up from the typical corner ten-dollar t-shirt stands and trinket shops; those looking for designer label clothing can shop here quite well. Crowds were very moderate, and the main street blocks are a mostly flat, easily accessible area to roam around during the day. It's clear that a number of the shops aren't someone's dream business where they've poured every last penny of savings into making it happen. Someone has provided quite generous funding so that no detail goes unnoticed, from the flooring to the light fixtures and every inch in-between. Not all are this way, but enough to make them worth noting.

The German heritage of the area shows in the restaurant menus, schnitzel in about every form is commonplace, as well as German beer, beer and more beer. Did I mention that they clearly must move a lot of German beer? While there, my husband and I went to August E's for dinner one night and The Auslander Biergarten another evening. Both were good, though I will say I liked the atmosphere and food overall a bit better at August E's.

For hotel, we chose a suite at the Fredericksburg Inn & Suites. It's well located for convenient access to the shopping and dining district. For the price, it wasn't bad but I would probably choose something a little quieter and newer for any return trips to the area. With the old school outside entrances to the rooms and a courtyard in the middle with a large pool, it's going to be a bit noisy by design. The staff there was exceptionally friendly and helpful, which these days is a very pleasant find. The included continental breakfast was worth stopping to eat, and better than many others I've found.

Fredericksburg was our home base for the trip, but we spent a good deal of time driving the back roads of Texas Hill Country. The quality of roads that seem to be completely out in the middle of nowhere is pretty impressive. Another noteworthy thing was the friendly nature of other drivers. Anytime we were behind someone that was traveling a bit slower than we would prefer to go, all we had to do was wait a minute. As soon as it was reasonable to do so, they would pull off to the far right side of the lane, using the shoulder of the road as much as possible to allow us to pass. If only all slower drivers went to Texas for a little driving lesson... sigh. On Saturday, we made a lunch stop at Frio Canyon Motorcycle Stop in Leakey, Texas. Talk about your obscure places, this is up on the list of out-of-the-way eateries that's worth finding just for the experience. The eclectic collection of motorcycles, cars and other unusual motorized devices made for entertainment just walking through the parking lot. Oh and they serve food too.

Also just a few miles east of Fredericksburg is Wildseed Farms. Their primary business is wildflower seed used throughout the US in highway areas for erosion control and other purposes. At their Fredericksburg store, they have a large selection of garden plants and gardening items, decorative accessories, locally produced foods like honey and preserves. They also have a $5 tour of their Butterfly Haus and trial gardens. For a amateur photographer or hobbyist, this place will virtually guarantee a need to go buy more camera memory cards on the way back into town. I clicked away until I saw the dreaded "CF Full" on the display and let that be my indicator I'd been behind the lens long enough. (See picture at left from the Butterfly Haus and above from the trial gardens. )

I'd rank Fredericksburg up in the group of still really undiscovered small tourist-friendly towns with places like Blowing Rock, North Carolina or St. Charles, Missouri. It's a bit more upscale like those two towns, but with the benefit of Texas Hill Country roads right at it's doorstep, it does have some extra mileage. The only downside I see is that it's a 13 hour drive to get there. That's a long way to drive, especially when a significant portion of the plan after I get there is to go for a drive.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Back to Nashville

Recently I made my yearly pilgrimage to Nashville to see Alton Brown's seminar. As always, it was well worth the trip and he has a fun and informative talk. I always come away with a case of the "wants" for new toys that he's using on stage. This year was no exception, he used a Thermal Circulating Bath to slowly cook beef spareribs. (See picture at left.) I hope that Alton is right in his theory that we'll be seeing these machines become more consumer level in usability, size and price. I just don't have a deep abiding love of ribs, and so far I've not found a recipe that is so spectacular as to justify lightening my wallet by a few thousand dollars. Get the cost down into the few hundred range and it might get more appealing.

The event was at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, as it has been the last couple of years. It has been renovated which is nice, but the details were skipped somewhat. It seems the quality of maintenance has declined over the last couple of years. The resort has become very much a convention oriented hotel, with I suspect a grand total of about five rooms with king beds in the whole facility. Despite reserving a king bed room three years in a row, I've yet to get one. Apparently the whole Gaylord reservation system is a disaster as I haven't gotten the right type room I've reserved anytime I've been to any Gaylord location. Not once. The hotel overall is still worth visiting just because the immense indoor gardens are a visual treat. They're a shutterbug's idea of a fun house, giving me a chance to hone my mad photography skills.

Within the property is Old Hickory Steakhouse, an upscale restaurant heavily oriented to the carnivore. The atmosphere and presentation are excellent, but the food was a bit disappointing. Previous visits were better but this time didn't impress me all that much, especially for the price. The restaurants overall on the property tend to be overpriced; and while the buffets offer a plentiful variety, they're just moderate in quality and taste.

Saturday morning provided us a chance to meet Alton during a breakfast Meet & Greet. The staff there put together a well run event that morning, with a nice variety of interesting dishes that I wouldn't expect to find on any buffets there. They came with the recipes too, so I've already repeated a couple of them at home. The food at this part of the event served as a clear indicator that while they do have the ability to serve up some quality dishes, the corporate rules don't let them showcase these talents in the restaurants. The presentation was great too; if I could have found a way to get my hands on the "portable flat-top" they used to cook the Turkey Re-Hash, I'd have one right now. Not that I have a clue what I'd use it for, but it's one of those culinary goodies that drives me into finding recipes to justify it's existence in my kitchen. Or garage as would be the case here. This thing is pretty sizable. I appreciate the helpfulness of the chef manning the devise, as he was quite happy to show off that slab of cooking goodness. (See picture at right.)

On Saturday evening we found Macke's, a small and obviously somewhat not well known delicious restaurant. Patrons should be lined up out the door of this place. We had excellent food all around! The shrimp appetizer was phenomenal, as well as the low country boil. I believe the menu changes seasonally, which definitely makes me want to go back more than once. It was quiet and the setting perfect for a relaxing dinner to end a great day of entertainment, education and downright fun.

It's a Gamble: Food away from the Interstate

Sometimes when you venture off the known food road you're rewarded with a memorable experience. Those aren't always the best food experience but it's one of those risks generally worth taking. On the way to Texas hill country my husband and I stopped at Dixie Diner in Texarkana. The food was mostly food service bland but the music was funny. For some truly odd country music this is the place. The example that sticks with me most was the song where the only lyrics I could catch were "chicken fried". Now that I think about it, one other singer did seem to have an abnormal fixation with the phrase "visibly shaken". I'm not really sure why either would inspire an entire song dedicated to their wondrous phraseology, but someone deemed it necessary. We also made a stop at Penny's Diner, somewhere in southern Texas. It was another instance of the setting made the meal better. The waitress was chatty, but in that good southern hospitality sort of way and the place definitely had the 50's long metal diner building style down quite well.

I wouldn't really recommend either diner, but they were worth a good laugh and provided sustenance. Not every off-the-beaten-path choice is a perfect winner. It could also be that I've finally traveled enough to become a tough customer to surprise and impress.