It is Friday night and our flight home is tomorrow. We have to get up early to load the car and make the long journey to the airport. We need sleep. So why then, you might ask, am I being spun around the Silver Dollar Saloon by a vegetable farmer in leather chaps named Duck, downing the last dregs of a bottle of Bud as we two-step across the sawdust-covered dance floor? I’ve just got the hang of this surprisingly complicated move when a cowboy sidles over and asks to take the reins. His name is GD, he tells me, “or God Damn, depending on the day!” He has a white bandana tied around his neck, a leather-bound knife in his back pocket, a wide-brimmed hat and the loudest voice I have ever heard. Wanna buy Spotify plays? Check Socialwick!
All around us, couples in denim shirts and diamanté-studded jeans twirl past, their hands fused together as they sing along with the live band. The tune ends and GD tips his hat to me. I attempt a curtsey, and out of the corner of my eye watch as a horde of leather-clad bikers pour in. There are rumours flying around that one of the cowboys by the bar has just ridden his horse all the way from Calgary in Canada back to here – Bandera, Texas.
Let me start from the beginning.
Issy and I had come to Texas to meet cowboys, eat brisket and listen to bluegrass. We wanted to get to the heart of this sprawling American state known for its rich musical heritage and even richer food.
And so after a weekend in Austin – the liberal, hippified child of Texas – we rolled on to the highway, all hints of the city disappearing from sight as we set off into the Lone Star State. The roads soon widened out, as giant mean-faced trucks slid past like ships. Flat grasslands turned into golden cornfields swaying in the wind. A Texan flag flapped above an RV dealership called American Dreams, and we hurtled past a group of hitchhikers holding cardboard signs. At 3PM, the June heat cranked up to around 35 degrees. Shallow pools of water on the road turned out to be patches of burning-hot air rising from the ground. We clutched our water bottles close.
We were making our way towards the Sage Hill Inn and Spa, a 16-room boutique hotel buried deep within 88 acres of sprawling countryside. Two hours after our estimated arrival time, we gave in and pulled into a lone gas station to ask for directions. As if the words ‘slightly intimidated British tourist’ had been branded onto our foreheads, a man marched over to ask if we were lost. He set down his 12-pack of beer and pencilled a map onto the back of a napkin.
His shaky directions brought us to the gates of an opulent wooden mansion approached by a winding, gravelly path. A hammock rocked gently in the breeze and the dipping sun turned the surrounding trees into forests of spun gold. The manager of Sage Hill greeted us, then showed us to the pool – a silky, still body of water shaded by an oak tree – before walking us over to the hotel’s fire pit. He led us down a path lined with heather and cacti towards the main house, where he introduced us to the inn’s head chef, who was picking edible flowers to accompany that evening’s menu of local food and Texan wine.
We spent the evening swimming and padding round the grounds in our bare feet. After a dinner of lamb with potatoes followed by lemon pie, we lay on the wide hammock reading. In the morning, we sat outside on two wooden armchairs as crickets chirped and the temperature rose. We ate muffins with homemade plum jam before reluctantly packing up our things, overcome with the feeling that we would always be welcome at Sage Hill Inn.
The question of Texas’s best barbecue is contentious. “Hell, we can’t even decide what to call it,” one local food writer told us, explaining: “Barbecue, BBQ, Bar-be-cue, ‘cue! Everyone thinks they know best.” Driving through the webbed city phone lines and soaring fast food signs of San Marcos, we found Kent Black’s Barbecue, a steel building approached via a line of stores selling parts for cars. This legendary spot often comes top of the barbecue list. As we stepped inside, country music boomed out while locals lined up at the counter to pile their red plastic trays with brisket, ribs and slices of pecan pie. A floor-to-ceiling family portrait dominated the dining room. “That’s me!” said a tall man standing behind us, beaming. He introduced himself as Kent Black, a third-generation pitmaster, and asked us to meet him at the Black family’s original restaurant in Lockhart that afternoon.
Lockhart is the barbecue capital of the world. In this sleepy town, which looks like the set of a Spaghetti Western, you’ll find the holy trinity of barbecue restaurants. First on our list was Smitty’s Market, where meat was being smoked over a blazing fire. I asked for pickles at the counter, my tray piled with soft, piping-hot ribs. To my surprise, the clerk threw her head back and laughed. “Well, what kind of pickles you want?” After filling a cup with dill, sweet and tangy onion pickles, she asked where I was from. “London?” she exclaimed: “Girl, you’re a long way from home.”
Next on the list was the barn-like Kreuz Market, where we ate smoky sausages and followed the restaurant rules: “No barbecue sauce (nothing to hide); No forks (they are at the end of your arm); No kidding (see owner’s face.)”
It was then time to meet Kent in downtown Lockhart. We waddled over to Black’s Barbecue, where newspaper cuttings of presidents and American football teams vied for space with stuffed animals mounted on the wood-panelled walls. Kent greeted us right on time (“Hi y’all!”) striding proudly over to the brick pit that his father built in the 1940s, where huge blocks of meat were being gently smoked. It was 39 degrees outside and about ten degrees hotter in there. Our eyes stung in the thick smoke. “We’re keeping a family tradition alive here,” Kent said, slicing up a hunk of brisket and handing us each a piece. The meat was salty, warm and yielding, infused with the distinctive flavour of local wood, which they dry out in the back room. In Texas, barbecue represents respect for local tradition, which explains why some the oldest places’ original recipes are the most cherished. “This new obsession with barbecue means people aren’t doing it right anymore. We treat every piece of meat with the same respect we always have,” said Kent, before bringing his son out to meet us. “He’s a pitmaster too, now. You gotta be tough to be a pitmaster.”
Our next stop was San Antonio, a former military town which has transformed into a vibrant city. There is a youthful energy at play here, coloured by the city’s rich cultural mix of American, Spanish and Mexican heritage. We stayed at Hotel Havana, a Mediterranean Revival-style building embraced by magnolias and palm trees. Rooms were filled with bright tiles, featuring mahogany four-poster beds as well as deliciously creaky floorboards. The hotel was right next door to the River Walk, where bars and restaurants lined a long emerald stretch of water.
Warm evenings in San Antonio can be spent eating some of America’s best Mexican food (El Regio, a tiny truck parked in front of a male strip club, sells particularly delicious tacos) and listening to raucous live music (Sam’s Burger Joint is a temple dedicated to blues and roots music.) We performed karaoke to a crowd at Viva Tacoland, where the city’s cool kids clapped/cringed along underneath the spread of an oak tree laced with fairy lights. At Pearl Brewery, boutique restaurants and craft coffee bars were squeezed between disused rail tracks and the hulking warehouses of San Antonio’s oldest brewery. Our last evening in the city was spent in Burgers Brews & Blues, a diner at the end of a long residential street where a bluegrass band played until 2AM to a roomful of dancing locals.
On our way out of San Antonio we stopped off at Mr and Mrs G’s Home Cooking, a restaurant sandwiched between a dilapidated liquor store and a long stretch of highway. The door swung open to reveal a room buzzing with people licking their fingers and leaning back in plastic chairs to share jokes. A man paced towards us. “What are you two tall drinks of water doin’ in here?” he said, grinning. He was Mrs G’s son Ken, and he pulled up a chair as we worked our way through chicken dripping in sharp, spicy sauce, sweet potato pie, turkey with stuffing and banana pudding. He threw a couple of dollars at his friend and asked him to “grab these English ladies some root beer”. His mother and grandmother came to join us, and as we left, his grandmother – who wore red lipstick and a hairnet – asked if we could introduce her to the Queen. We told her that is she ever visited London, we would make sure of it.
After driving for around an hour we approached Fredericksburg, where signs advertising fresh peaches swung wildly in the wind. Pickup trucks piled with velvety fruit were parked in front of farms, selling peach cobbler, peach ice cream and jars of peaches stewed in vanilla. We made a pit stop for ice cream at Das Peach Haus, a rickety farmhouse with miles of peach orchards behind it, overlooked by pine forests and a sapphire-coloured lake, before ordering a taxi and diving into Texan Wine Country.
Visiting three prestigious vineyards – Becker, Pedernales and Grape Creek – we tasted a colour chart of delicate, meticulously crafted wines (20 small glasses, to be exact.) The terrain was thick with greenery and overlooked by endless blue skies. “Wine is Texas’s best kept secret!” said India, a cheery sommelier at Becker.
Felling woozy in the heat, we headed back to Fredericksburg. We were spending the night at Barons Creek, a collection of log cabins scattered alongside a bubbling brook. We fell asleep on rocking chairs with bees and hummingbirds buzzing past our noses. We woke up to the last light of day, and drove a few miles up the road to Hilltop Café, a 1930s gas station-turned Cajun restaurant owned by blues singer Johnny Nicholas. The waiter urged me to try the Swamp Platter, made up of catfish and frogs’ legs. I nodded and smiled as he asked me for the third time if I was enjoying it.
The next morning we climbed up to the peak of Enchanted Rock, a Mars-like pink granite dome rising up above the dramatic Texan Hill Country. After exerting ourselves for the first time in a week, the only option was to stop off for a few plates of pie at the Fredericksburg Pie Company. We took a tray of lemon meringue, peach and key lime slices out onto the porch, where wind chimes sang in the breeze. It had just turned 11AM when the owner, her white-blonde hair piled high on her head, flipped over a sign on the front door reading: ‘Pies sold out.’ We drove away from the town past signposts for Crabapple Creek, Cherry Mountain and Pecan Street, sinking deeper still into the countryside.
As we drove into Bandera, a horse-drawn wagon clopped by, driven by a man in a denim suit. The tallest thing in town was a water tower on stilts. I half-expected to see John Wayne rounding the corner holding a smoking pistol.
We were staying at Silver Spur Ranch, a guesthouse a few miles out of town. We threw our bags into our cabin and tentatively approached the stables, where a wrangler called Tom holding a horse on a rope greeted us merrily. Until then, the nearest either of us had got to riding was clinging on to the safety pole of the number 55 bus, but Tom handed us each a cowboy hat and eased us onto two muscular horses. A small crowd of staff had gathered to watch us attempt to mount the animals, clapping and cheering us on. In moments, we were trotting along behind him through miles of brambly woods and shaded hills.
Afterwards, we lay on top of the hay bales at the back of a trailer, accompanying the head rancher Jay to his afternoon cattle feed. Eight giant longhorns bustled towards us, encircling the truck and clacking their glinting horns together as they gobbled up their grain. “They’re gentle, really,” Jay laughed as we edged away, “except for that one”. He pointed to the only bull of the group. It ran its front hoof along the ground, its nostrils flaring as it fixed its dark eyes on us. “He can be pretty aggressive.”
The pride of Bandera is its annual Riverfest. Locals compete in a ‘best barbecue’ contest, and were putting the finishing touches on their creations as we arrived. Hundreds of tents were pitched along the cool, spring-fed Medina River. Children splashed about while families sat in circles drinking beer in the afternoon sun. Moments later, we found ourselves sitting at a wooden bench in a gazebo. “Ya’ll are goin’ to be judgin’ today!” Pat, a Riverfest veteran, told us. We were instructed to remain silent and cover our scoring cards as we marked 16 pots of ragingly spicy salsa, 14 fajitas and 18 varieties of margarita. The competitors watched on nervously, with one shouting: “Bet’cha don’t have salsa like this back home!”
That night we went to the rodeo, alive with a chanting crowd and blaring bluegrass music. As we arrived, cowboys were straddling the steel gates of the stadium, while others were limbering up on the grass. All of them were wearing Stetsons, blue jeans and pointed leather boots with spurs, waiting for the bull riding to commence.
Rows of Texan flags rippled in the warm wind, and floodlights shone down on the dusty stadium. The air was hot and charged with electricity. A woman with thick blonde hair and a necktie leant against the gates. She turned and beamed at us. “Welcome!” she cried as the show began, Texas’s modern Roman gladiatorial games.
We watched six thrashing bulls ping out of their pens, slamming their riders onto the ground in seconds. Each cowboy wore bright leather chaps, some adorned with red, white and blue fringing. A rodeo clown stepped in front of one bull just as it bucked high in the air, and its hoof slammed into his face. The blonde woman put a hand on my back as I held my breath. “Don’t worry,” she said, “those boys love the bulls like their own children”.
The evening led us to the Silver Dollar Saloon, where ‘those boys’ went to spend their pay cheques on beer and dancing. As the evening began to wind down, Jay offered us a lift home. Leaving the swinging doors of the bar, we started lifting ourselves into the back of his pickup truck. “No, you can’t sit there!” he said, helping us down again. “The deer will jump in the back with ya.” We squeezed into the front with all the windows rolled down, the air still relentlessly hot. The moon looked like a peel of orange. I started to reflect on our week, which had felt more like a year, packed with adventure.
I thought of the manager at Sage Hill, who stood at the door waving us goodbye as we drove away. I thought of the group of friends in that busy San Antonio diner, who cleared a space on their table so we could sit close to the live band. I thought of the wrangler who turned his horse round every few minutes to check we weren’t hanging from a cactus by our trouser leg, and of three generations of the G family filling our plates and sending us home with pieces of pie wrapped in cling film.
Texas is a spirited place, beating away like horses’ hooves on the ground. Everything here is buoyed by a feverish pride – from family recipes spanning generations to a local map scribbled on a napkin. Locals want you to love their state like they do; to many, Texas is the centre of the universe. And in that final evening, buried deep in the silent heartland of the state, it felt like the centre of ours as well.