Mike Sutter’s Top 10 country cafes from San Antonio to the Hill Country – San Antonio Express-News

Ten miles north of downtown Fredericksburg, out in the middle of nowhere, you can see the painted steel roof announcing Hill Top Cafe shimmering like a mirage off the blacktop of U.S. 87.

Johnny Nicholas started the place in 1980 with his wife, Brenda. He’s a mellow guy with a shaman’s eyes, a blues guitarist who played with Asleep at the Wheel when the Austin band won its first Grammy. That’s him on the wall, in photos with Eric Clapton, with Stevie Ray Vaughan, with an old girlfriend named Wynonna Judd.

Brenda passed away in 2016, and Johnny still plays gigs at Hill Top, and the Saxon Pub and C-Boys in Austin. But mostly he’s in the kitchen, making gumbo, getting chicken-fried steak ready for the hot oil that transforms it into some of the best in the Hill Country.

And that’s the story of Hill Top Cafe, out where the oak trees have died en masse from the freeze of 2021. Out where you can grab a cold bottle of Bud straight from the cooler, out where you can get fried catfish or a Greek salad or a two-handed cheeseburger. Out in the middle of nowhere.

But somewhere is catching up to nowhere fast, and Hill Top won’t be alone forever. And that’s the story of the country cafe, the story of us all. We’re born, we branch out, we build communities around us, we come back to ourselves, we pass on the best to the next generation.

What makes a country cafe country? Is it the chicken-fried steak, the long drive, the people? It’s all of that, but mostly it’s the stories. It’s Carol Irwin building up Buttermilk Cafe into a place New Braunfels can call home at the endcap of a shopping center. It’s the “Nearly 3 Dozen Sold” sign above Hill Country Cupboard in Johnson City. It’s the waitress who took over Grumpy’s Mexican Cafe north of San Antonio after working the floor for 15 years.

The cities have caught up to so many of these country cafes, but their food and their spirit and their accents haven’t changed. And these are the best of them, the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio, right in the middle of somewhere.

On ExpressNews.com: Top 10 fried chicken in San Antonio

Hill Country Cupboard in Johnson City is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes (clockwise from top left) Southwest hamburger steak, chicken-fried steak, pancakes, a fried veggie sampler and fried catfish.

Hill Country Cupboard in Johnson City is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes (clockwise from top left) Southwest hamburger steak, chicken-fried steak, pancakes, a fried veggie sampler and fried catfish.

Mike Sutter/Staff

10. Hill Country Cupboard

The “Nearly 3 Dozen Sold” sign isn’t hard to figure out, a cheeky reference to chicken-fried steak with cream gravy flowing like rapids down a rocky river. It’s good, like most everything from the kitchen of a place that’s been practicing its craft since 1981. The cook was proud to announce she’s been here 37 of those years, enough time to master Southwest hamburger steak studded with cheese and jalapeños, a sampler of fried green tomatoes, onion rings, mushrooms and squash — you know, vegetables —  and pancakes that don’t need to be as big as tractor tires to get where they’re going. 101 U.S. 281, Johnson City, 830-868-4625, thehillcountrycupboard.com

Richter's Antler Cafe in Spring Branch is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes chicken-fried steak with green beans and macaroni and cheese.

Richter’s Antler Cafe in Spring Branch is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes chicken-fried steak with green beans and macaroni and cheese.

Mike Sutter/Staff

9. Richter’s Antler Cafe

I’ve seen a couple of barbecue joints come and go across the street from Richter’s Antler Cafe in Spring Branch, their parking lots empty while cars trolled for the last empty spot here, fed by the steady getaway traffic down Texas 46. They come for the atmosphere, for the everlong Christmas glow of backlit antlers hung from the ceiling, for the nonchalant chickens strutting on the back deck. And for chicken-fried steak laid out in two long sections with just enough shag to get crust, gravy and beef in every bite, with sides of jalapeño mac and long green beans snapped by hand. Frog legs take some getting used to, but the payoff’s like country tempura. The country cafe paint box also carries shades of auburn, the gravy over iron-willed calf’s liver and simple hamburger steak. 1 Sun Valley Drive, Spring Branch, 830-885-6328, www.antlercafe.com

Mama's Cafe on Nacogdoches Road is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes a pancake breakfast, oatmeal and a biscuit with sausage gravy.

Mama’s Cafe on Nacogdoches Road is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes a pancake breakfast, oatmeal and a biscuit with sausage gravy.

Mike Sutter/Staff

8. Mama’s Cafe

This cluttered stretch of Nacogdoches Road just off Loop 410 wasn’t exactly the country when the Lawton family dreamed up Mama’s Cafe in 1981. But country is where the heart is, and Mama’s heart is in a breakfast that goes all the way through lunch, with softball-size biscuits, reliable pancakes, and a bowl of oatmeal with raisins, pecans, brown sugar and coconut laid out like a morning charcuterie board. The Lawtons combine the charm of a small-town diner with the professionalism that drives their Cappy’s and La Fonda on Main restaurants, a combination at Mama’s Cafe that creates consistency across a greatest-hits menu of chicken-fried steak, meatloaf, fried catfish and liver with a crown of fried onions, plus the best fried mushrooms in this report. 2442 Nacogdoches Road, 210-826-8303,mamascafesa.com

On ExpressNews.com: Top 10 taquerías in San Antonio

Granny D's in Canyon Lake is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes Patriot Pancakes with strawberries, blueberries and whipped cream; and the Big Dam Breakfast with eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, hashbrowns and biscuits and gravy.

Granny D’s in Canyon Lake is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes Patriot Pancakes with strawberries, blueberries and whipped cream; and the Big Dam Breakfast with eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, hashbrowns and biscuits and gravy.

Mike Sutter/Staff

7. Granny D’s

During a weekend retreat at Canyon Lake before COVID, I couldn’t get a seat at Granny D’s. Everybody in a 20-mile radius beat me to it for pancakes big enough to fuel the lake life for going on 10 years now. Granny’s Patriot Pancakes are a full foot in diameter, the biggest and best in this report, layered inside-out with strawberries, blueberries and whipped cream. The Big Dam Breakfast means never having to choose between bacon, sausage and ham: You get them all. Breakfast is the matriarchal ruler at Granny’s, but she’s attended by a loyal lunch court of chicken-fried steak, fried catfish and hamburger steak with a side of onion rings. 14312 FM 306, Canyon Lake, 830-964-4677, no web presence

1838 Grill in Seguin is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes (clockwise from top left) chicken-fried steak, spinach-and-strawberry salad, carrot cake, fried catfish and liver and onions.

1838 Grill in Seguin is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes (clockwise from top left) chicken-fried steak, spinach-and-strawberry salad, carrot cake, fried catfish and liver and onions.

Mike Sutter/Staff

6. 1838 Grill

A trailer loaded with curly-horned goats drove past the front windows and parked by the road during lunch at 1838 Grill, the mark of a country cafe that feeds the actual working part of a country community. Named for the year Seguin was founded, the restaurant opened in 2017 with a timeless menu of fried catfish, all-meat chili, liver and onions, and a chicken-fried steak the size of a sunflower in full bloom. The cafe opened and closed a location in New Braunfels last year, but the Seguin original is still in full swing, including the in-house cake operation that produced the best slice of carrot cake I’ve had since my wedding. All the sweetness, all the icing, none of the stress. 1338 E. Court St., Seguin, 830-401-0980, 1838grilltx.com

Hill Top Cafe in Fredericksburg is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes chicken-fried steak, a Greek salad, fried catfish and a cheeseburger.

Hill Top Cafe in Fredericksburg is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes chicken-fried steak, a Greek salad, fried catfish and a cheeseburger.

Mike Sutter/Staff

5. Hill Top Cafe

They sold gas for seven years after Hill Top Cafe opened outside Fredericksburg, a throwback to the building’s 100-year history as a gas station and roadhouse. Chef, owner and musician Johnny Nicholas creates diner classics that lean on quality over quantity, including a curled chicken-fried steak with herb gravy that infuses the tight crust like roux in a gumbo. He also lays out fried catfish in two-bite sections with crisp breading and earthy fish in perfect balance, along with the best classic cheeseburger in this report. 10661 U.S. 87 N., Fredericksburg, 830-997-8922, hilltopcafe.com

Buttermilk Cafe in New Braunfels is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes buttermilk pancakes.

Buttermilk Cafe in New Braunfels is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes buttermilk pancakes.

Mike Sutter/Staff

4. Buttermilk Cafe

With its smart plantation shutters and West Elm aesthetic, it’s hard to call Buttermilk Cafe a country cafe. But the menu begs to differ. Fried mushrooms, corned-beef hash, chicken-fried steak, meatloaf and more than 20 side dishes, including sweet potato casserole, cornbread stuffing and black-eyed peas. About that buttermilk? It goes into great buttermilk pancakes and the best pie in this report, a smooth and sturdy buttermilk pie with a caramelized crackled sugar top. It’s all part of a tight symphony of service and execution orchestrated by Carol Irwin, a trained chef who owns the cafe with  daughters Marcy Hill and Monica Crull and husband R.C. Irwin. They opened Buttermilk Cafe in 2011, overlapping Carol’s ownership of the River House Tea Room in Gruene before she sold it five years ago to focus on the cafe. When I asked her to define what makes a country cafe country, Irwin said it best: “Country cooking uses fresh, seasonal ingredients. It knows how to make do with less. And it makes everything from scratch.” 1324 Common St., New Braunfels, 830-625-8700, thebuttermilkcafe.com

On ExpressNews.com: Mike Sutter’s Top 10 San Antonio restaurants

Hungry Horse Restaurant and Catering in Boerne is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes meatloaf, fried catfish and apple pie.

Hungry Horse Restaurant and Catering in Boerne is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes meatloaf, fried catfish and apple pie.

Mike Sutter/Staff

3. Hungry Horse Restaurant and Catering

The Hungry Horse saved us $2,000 on a car. Really. We left a dealership in Boerne in the middle of negotiations to think things over at the cafe. And by the time we came back? Things magically loosened up. Just one more reason to love this cafe that began its life in San Antonio 40 years ago and came to Boerne in 2001. And like the best places for chicken-fried steak, meatloaf and the classics of country cooking, it’s worked hard to hang onto its identity as a great place for big portions at a fair price. The key here is ordering by how much you can eat: pony, regular or large. The pony will do; the large is a flex. Especially the chicken-fried steak, piled like three separate steaks, each with its own golden crust, unified by peppered cream gravy with three sides and a sweet muffin. 109 Saunders St., Boerne, 830-816-8989, hungryhorsehillcountry.com

Bobbie's Cafe on South Flores Street is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes chicken-fried steak with sides like green beans and mashed potatoes and a cheese enchilada plate with rice and beans.

Bobbie’s Cafe on South Flores Street is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes chicken-fried steak with sides like green beans and mashed potatoes and a cheese enchilada plate with rice and beans.

Mike Sutter/Staff

2. Bobbie’s Cafe

The story of Bobbie’s Cafe stretches back 50 years, even before the late Bobbie Padilla put her name on it in 1986. But it seems like the South Side cafe picked up serious momentum just last year, booming across social media feeds and best-of lists. The influencer frenzy aside, there’s a reason for the attention: Bobbie’s Cafe makes some of the biggest and best chicken-fried steak, pancakes and onion rings in the city. Under the stewardship of Bobbie’s grandson Greg Ferris and his wife, Ana, Bobbie’s is the place to show off chicken-fried steak to out-of-towners who’ll marvel at the gravy dripping from a steak that left the surly bonds of the plate and touched the face of God, or whatever breathless hyperbole people use on Facebook. I’ll save that for the banana cream pie. 6728 S. Flores St., 210-923-1158, bobbiescafe.com

Grumpy's Mexican Cafe on FM 2252 is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes (clockwise from top) a bean burger with onion rings; fried catfish; puffy tacos; a chicken-fried steak breakfast with eggs, bacon and biscuits; and Fruits of the Forest pie.

Grumpy’s Mexican Cafe on FM 2252 is one of the Top 10 country cafes in and around San Antonio. The menu includes (clockwise from top) a bean burger with onion rings; fried catfish; puffy tacos; a chicken-fried steak breakfast with eggs, bacon and biscuits; and Fruits of the Forest pie.

Mike Sutter/Staff

1. Grumpy’s Mexican Cafe

Kesia Jackson was in the right place at the right time in 2021 when Ed “Grumpy” Azzoz decided to retire from the cafe he started with his wife, Tammy, in 2001. After 15 years of serving chicken-fried steak, puffy tacos, fried catfish and breakfast plates to the community around Schertz, Bracken and Selma that she affectionately calls “Grumpyville,” Jackson took over for Grumpy himself. And her cafe hasn’t missed a beat. It has the most diverse menu on this list: equal parts taquería, Tex-Mex mom-and-pop, catfish house, burger joint and country diner. A gloriously ragged chicken-fried steak with eggs, hash browns and biscuits is one of the region’s perfect plates of food, the catfish is as dusty and fresh as a weekend fish fry, and bristling onion rings form a halo around a massive bean burger with a chalupa tucked inside. It’s a country cafe representing all the countries that matter to us: America, Mexico and Texas. 18817 FM 2252, 210-651-3444, grumpysmexicancafe.godaddysites.com

msutter@express-news.net | Twitter: @fedmanwalking | Instagram: @fedmanwalking

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