A sign outside greets you to Mac & Ernie's.
TARPLEY - The drive out to Tarpley takes a good hour-and-a-half. Maybe it would have been shorter if we had listened to the commands from a new GPS system, put into service for the first time. But I guess we won't find out until the next time we head up to Mac & Ernie's Roadside Eatery for dinner.
The drive to this Hill Country town, population somewhere around five dozen souls, offers many enchantments. At dusk, coming around a certain bend in the road about 20 miles from our dinner destination, the Hill Country scenery suddenly took on an almost storybook quality. Gentle hills and trees seemed cloaked in a dusky haze, and we encountered an unexpected appearance of a stream; further on, a sudden, dramatic rock formation near the road. Few vehicles were on the road, making our noisy car-full feel we were headed to a place known only to a special few.
Those "few," in fact, include many in the American foodie TV-watching public.
The chalkboard lists the evening specials.
Naylene Dillingham-Stolzer's country restaurant, open on weekends, has been featured several times on the Food Network, as well as in newspaper and magazine articles throughout the land. Here, the list of Texas-fried seafood offerings goes hand-in-hand with some gourmet menu items, like homemade Lamb Sausages with Fig & Olive Tapenade, or Grilled Mahi-Mahi with a basil-infused aïoli. If it's just a good (12-ounce) rib-eye steak or thick-cut pork chop you're looking for, it will come out expertly seasoned and grilled.
Those who visited the restaurant's old location will be happy to know that none of its famous funky atmosphere has been compromised in the new. The little shack that served as ordering booth and part of the cooking area has been moved to the new location and plopped down right at the entryway. So, you get to walk right through it to go inside. At lunch, the restaurant's famous Cabrito Burger is still offered on the menu.
You'll still stand in line to order. But there are indoor tables, enclosed in colorfully painted walls. Outside are Mac & Ernie's traditional weathered picnic tables, some set under sprawling oaks with twinkly lights, and a protective awning over a few more tables.
Naylene Dillingham Stolzer, left, talks to friends at Mac & Ernie's.
The servers are friendly and no-nonsense; they dash out of the restaurant proper to the folks dining al fresco.
They shout out names of those whose orders are balanced high above their shoulders on big metal trays. Tots totter around, ice cold beer and wine is consumed, and patrons call out to one another across the tables. Nobody should ever feel left out at Mac & Ernie's.
"Big Daddy" Pork Chop
Two of us wisely ordered the "Big Daddy" Pork Chop with a salad (Naylene's dressing, a vinaigrette, is the one choice: take it or leave it, but it's very good) and a baked potato. My companions glared lustfully at the pork chop set down before me. They had gone for more fru-fru items — the Lamb Sausage and Mahi-Mahi. But there was enough pork chop to share.
Two gents who shared our picnic table, sitting to my right, were also clearly dismayed that they had not ordered the pork chop. One of them had ordered fried catfish and the other the Chicken Kebab with Thai Green Curry seasoning. These were very good, they insisted, as their eyes strayed wistfully to my plate. So, my advice to big eaters who like pork is — just order the chop. It was perfectly cooked — a little pinkness toward the bone, a nice salt-enhanced crust on the outside.
Ice cream and cake - yum.
The mahi-mahi was tender, and my husband passed the aioli around for us all to get a nice hit of garlic to our palates. The fig and olive tapenade was so good that my friend and co-editor here on SavorSA got Naylene's recipe
for it and posted it.
We ended the perfect evening by sharing two big hunks of chocolate tres leches cake. The cake was sublime, but we'd ask for a little more generosity with the milk that is supposed to soak it. I'm thinking a pool of thick, creamy chocolate milk around the cake would have put it over the top. But our praise of the Guinness Stout-Chocolate-Maple Bacon ice cream is without reservation. Be sure you get some.
The open kitchen at Mac & Ernie's
If you are asking yourself if Mac & Ernie's is worth the hour-and-a-half drive (more or less) let us assure you it is. The drive is pleasant and the outdoor temperatures on fall evenings in that part of the Hill Country are a blessing.
Go, enjoy, and be sure to wave hello to Naylene, putting out all those good eats back in the kitchen.
Mac & Ernie's Roadside Eatery
11804 FM 470
Tarpley, TX 78883
(Check the website for the weekend's menu specials.)
Lunch: Friday, Saturday
Dinner: Friday, Saturday
Breakfast and brunch, Sunday (10 a.m. - noon, noon-2 p.m.)