From barbecue and gourmet popsicles to America’s only sotol distillery and some of the best pie you’ve ever tasted, the quaint towns in Texas Hill Country comprise one of the best foodie road trips in the country. On the outskirts of Austin, towns like Kyle, Driftwood, Dripping Springs and Lockhart form a cohesive culinary destination, each one distinct and flavorful. Easily accessible from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, a few days spent roving around this underrated region is a trip worthy of every food-lover's bucket list.
Kyle and San Marcos
Just 30 minutes southwest of Austin, Kyle makes for a charming trip-starter, especially if your first stop is the iconic Texas Pie Company. Thanks to this bakery and restaurant, Kyle earned itself the title of the “Pie Capital of Texas,” and it’s got Julie Albertson’s hearfelt recipes to thank for that. While the restaurant serves savory entrees as well (the casseroles and pot pies are certainly meal-worthy), it’s best known as a dessert Mecca, and rightfully so. Pies come in all flavors, from classics like blueberry and buttermilk to neoteric takes like snickerdoodle and Mexican chocolate cream. For Albertson, love for pie runs deep, having learned techniques and recipes from her grandmother. So if eating pie at the adorable Texas Pie Company feels like eating pie at your grandma’s house, you’ll understand the nostalgia pangs.
Down the street from the Texas Pie Company is a sunny little storefront called La Ola Pop Shop. Here, the bill of fare is ice cream and paletas made with fresh, wholesome ingredients. Coolers are brimming with vibrant options in a dizzying array of flavors, from avocado cream and pecan to cantaloupe and something called “Insanity,” a kaleidoscopic combo of mango, pineapple, watermelon, jicama and spicy tajin. Especially when the temperature soars, La Ola is a breath of fresh air in the Texas heat.
Sometimes the best hidden gems are hiding in plain sight. Like in the case of Cody’s Bistro & Lounge, a cozy community haven nestled in a San Marcos strip mall. The modest facade belies the fact that this place serves some of the most interesting (and theatrical) cocktails in the region, easily rivaling anything happening in larger cities. By torching wood, perfuming glassware with smoke and accenting spirits with the likes peppercorns and aged balsamic, the bar elevates classics and makes a bold name for itself. The cocktails captivate, but the food stands up on its own as well. Unexpected delicacies like escargots, duck poutine, open-faced smørrebrød and beef Wellington enriched with foie gras are just a few highlights coming out of the kitchen at this unassuming powerhouse.
One of the most transportive, illustrious dining experiences in Hill Country comes by way of Palmer’s, an eclectic San Marcos restaurant with some interesting history behind it. Originally built in the 1920’s, the building that houses the restaurant was the home to a Texas State University professor before it was turned into a restaurant in 1978. Nowadays, the convivial property still has the look and feel of a luxe home, albeit retrofitted with dining tables, a bar and a fountain-clad courtyard lit up with bulb lights. The menu is exciting and unexpected, drawing inspiration from locales like New Orleans, New Mexico and Mexico. Tortilla-crusted catfish, pork chops with honey-habanero glaze and smoked chicken-filled chili rellenos are a few examples of Palmer’s hearty, soulful offerings. Don’t pass up the drinks, either. Known for their bracing margaritas, the restaurant goes the extra mile by serving drinks with grapefruit juice ice balls, for added flavor and a pop of color.
From San Marcos, it’s off to the bucolic town of Wimberley, an easy 15-mile drive northwest.
When you think of Hill Country, The Leaning Pear is the type of restaurant that captures those expectations and exceeds them. Run by husband-wife duo Rachel and David Buchanan, the restaurant, which looks like a lavish cottage retreat, is nestled into the rolling hills, providing the perfect backdrop for food that is locally inspired and sourced, with an inclination towards seasonal flavors at their most vibrant. There’s even an bountiful herb garden in the middle of the huge patio deck, lending luster and aroma to dishes and drinks. By working with familiar, timeless dishes and flavors, the kitchen upgrades comfort food with dishes like the wood-fired “Zucchini Padre” pizza with zucchini-basil pesto, cherry tomato, corn, garlic confit and fresh mozzarella. Or the chicken and grits, which finds a succulent roasted chicken breast nestled atop a bed of green chile-bacon grits. Or the luscious and smoky grilled hanger steak with roasted poblano-cotija crema, corn, tomatoes, black beans and funky huitlacoche. Wash it all down with a quenching limeade or a local Texas beer.
Big things are happening in the small community of Driftwood, roughly 13 miles northeast of Wimberley. Here you’ll find Desert Door Distillery, the only sotol distillery in the United States, where the agave-like plants typically distilled in Mexico are stepping into the American spotlight at a vast facility serving elegant cocktails in a stylish, artful tasting room. Cozy up to the bar and order the “Desert Paloma,” which subs sotol for typical tequila in a medley of grapefruit juice, agave nectar, soda, bitters and lime. The result is the quintessential Texas cocktails, the perfect middle ground between tart, bitter, sweet and smoky, and altogether delicious.
You can’t eat your way through Texas without indulging in barbecue. And you can’t talk about barbecue in Texas without bowing down to The Salt Lick, a meaty institution in Driftwood that’s evolved over the years to include various dining rooms and decks, pizza and even wine. From a mighty, roaring barbecue pit, The Salt Lick churns out brisket, pork ribs, sausages, turkey and beef ribs. Bison ribs are a recent introduction, and a hot commodity. Fill up your trays and take your food outside, and be sure and save room (if you can) for some blackberry cobbler a la mode.
Carry on another seven miles northwest from Driftwood to spend some time in Dripping Springs.
You might not expect it from the outside, but Creek Road Cafe (pictured above)) in Dripping Springs features some dazzling, wholly original takes on international and regional flavors, each plate executed with flair, precision and style. The housemade ravioli is an apt starter, filled with silky-smooth chicken mousse and glazed with creamy shallot sauce, while a smattering of toasted almonds provide crunch. Take your taste buds to Korea with the spicy sauteéd shrimp, which brings the heat with a Korean red pepper and garlic chili sauce. Served with sticky rice and sesame-flecked spinach, it’s as light and refreshing as it is pungent. For something a bit richer, the Champagne chicken is a decadent homage to French technique, wherein broiled chicken breast gets a splash of Champagne cream sauce and a side of warm Brie and mushroom-Parmesan risotto. The restaurant itself is so quaint and snug you feel like you’re having dinner in someone’s living room.
In the morning, start your day off with some killer crêpes at the aptly dubbed Crepe Crazy, a Parisian-inspired cafe that’s become so successful they’ve expanded with a larger location in Austin proper. The thing that makes this place really special, aside from the assortment of sweet and savory crêpes, is the fact that the restaurant employs an all-deaf staff. Unlike anything else in the country, it’s a restaurant that strives to show the world that deaf people can do anything that everyone else can do, including filling crêpes with chorizo and scrambled eggs, prosciutto and apricot jam or peanut butter, bananas, honey and roasted almonds. While the classic crêpe offerings are available, it’s the novel flavors and whimsical ideas that really set this place apart, as evidenced by the options filled with the likes of dulce de leche, s’mores and even Oreo mascarpone.
Luling and Lockhart
Now it’s time to dive deep into Hill Country’s thriving barbecue scene and experience why the region ranks among the best in the country. To start, head to Luling, about 53 miles southeast of Dripping Springs on the other side of San Marcos. Here, you’ll find a local institution called City Market, a frills-free joint where a sparse menu of brisket, ribs, turkey and beef links are doled out in heaping portions on butcher paper, alongside sides like beans, potato salad and cole slaw. Laid out like a large cafeteria, with timeworn photography and paraphernalia, City Market is a timeless treasure that’s become a small-town tourist attraction in and of itself. Visit in June to marvel at the local spectacle that is the annual Watermelon Thump, a famous multi-day event anchored by a watermelon seed-spitting competition — the current distance record is an astonishing 68 feet.
Hopefully at this point you haven’t reached your barbecue limit, because Lockhart beckons. The designated “Barbecue Capital of Texas,” about 15 miles north of Luling, is a quiet yet burgeoning town where the aroma of smoked meat permeates the air. Historic destinations like Black’s Barbecue and Smitty’s Market routinely draw lines, but the reigning king is Kreuz Market (pictured at top). This enormous warehouse-sized facility is stunning for its sheer size and scope, and the fact that it’s been packing in customers for decades. Using flaming-hot brick pits in the tradition of German meat market cookery, Kreuz features a pared-down menu of brisket, beef ribs, smoked sausage, pork chops, pit ham, spare ribs and smoked turkey. All orders are rolled up in butcher paper and customers are encouraged to feast with their hands. The whole experience feels as primal as it does timeworn, with the reward of some of Texas’ most supreme smoked meats.
For something a bit less smoky but no less indulgent, enjoy brunch at Market Street Cafe & Apothecary (pictured above), a heartwarming storefront stocked with sundries, candles and locally made jewelry. A keystone in Lockhart’s town square, the eatery features creative, eclectic dishes inspired by regional American staples. This includes a cheesesteak with housemade cheese sauce, bell peppers and onions on a sweet roll, a monte cristo layered with strawberry jam, turkey and provolone on poppy seed brioche and a pecan-crusted chicken breast with sweet onion-honey mustard cream sauce. To drink, the watermelonade is summer in a glass, and don’t miss out on the award-winning fries.
Just across the street from Lockhart’s historic courthouse, acclaimed chef Parind Vora is putting the tiny town on the map for a whole different reason. You won’t find any barbecue basics at Lockhart Bistro or his fine dining restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Jezebel (pictured above). Instead, you’ll find two distinct dining experiences that simultaneously draw upon the chef’s well-traveled background and his love for Texas Hill Country. The latter is palpable on the bistro’s dinner and brunch menus, where locally inspired dishes and ingredients lend themselves to savorous dishes like chicken-fried steak with country gravy, blackened chicken breast with garbanzo bean croutons, smoked salmon migas and French toast with honey-lavender goat cheese and cinnamon ice cream. At Jezebel, a pint-sized tasting menu restaurant nestled within the bistro, Vora serves periodic dinners unlike anything else in Hill Country — or really anywhere. With just six regal seats, the intimate space serves as Vora’s venue for ingenuity and dexterity, exhibited via individualized dishes tailored to each guest’s preferences. Since there are no physical menus, it’s an opportunity for the chef to flex his creative muscles and whip up dishes like tandoori-spiced chicken, squid ink-dyed gazpacho with crispy corn fronds and foie gras with totally unconventional accompaniments like starfruit and pickled turmeric root.
Where to stay
Whole roving around Hill Country, there are plenty of unique places to rest your head between meals. Here are the best:
Tucked away in a forested section of Kyle, Sage Hill Inn & Spa (pictured above) is a dashing adults-only hideaway with homey accommodations that range from standalone cabins to multi-room suites with fireplaces, tubs and patios. There’s a pool, bocce court, hot tub, restaurant and miles of moderate hiking trails weaving throughout the property, which provide nice vistas of Hill Country. Keep an eye out for the inn’s resident peacock, Kevin.
When in Dripping Springs, hole up in one of the cute cottages at The Alexander at Creek Road (pictured above). While still close to the Dripping Springs dining action, it’s secluded enough to provide the perfect amount of tranquility, especially considering how comfy the accommodations are.
Between barbecue meals, Ellison House (pictured above) in Lockhart takes that homey ambience and cranks it up a notch. What once was an actual home is now a boutique inn restored with farmhouse-chic design. Nowadays, the property contains four large rooms, a huge yard and shared kitchen space and living room on the first floor. With old-fashioned keys to enter your rooms, Ellison House somehow simultaneously feels preserved in time and exquisitely modern.
Written by Matt Kirouac
Read more posts by Matt Kirouac