The Cafe Next Door

When it comes to the vast expanses of the western regions of Texas, one thing is certain — the counties in this part of the Lone Star State seem to go on forever. Crockett County, named after Alamo hero Davy Crockett, covers 2,807 square miles of land or more than 1,800,000 acres. That’s a whole lot of land by any measure.

Ozona, located on Interstate 10 between Houston and El Paso, is the county seat of Crockett County. Ozona was originally known as Powell Well when it was founded in 1891 by E.M. Powell, a land surveyor. The name of the community was later changed to Ozona because of the open and fresh air or ozone.
For those traveling down those long stretches of Interstate 10, Ozona is a great place to stop and stretch. And that’s exactly what I did on a recent road trip from my home in Katy to the Franklin Mountains. I stopped to top off my gas tank in Ozona and noticed a small cafe next door, appropriately named The Cafe Next Door. I couldn’t resist.
The Cafe Next Door offers a full menu of mouth-watering home-style dishes, including hamburgers. I ordered my usual bacon cheeseburger with a side of onion rings and a tall glass of iced tea. The onion rings, our waitress cautioned, would be enough to feed two. I assured her that I would have no problem with that.
The burger was really delicious. It had a healthy portion of meat beneath a warm blanket of cheese, crispy bacon, and fresh vegetables. The onion rings were cooked to perfection. They were so good, in fact, that I completely forgot about the french fries lying undisturbed on the table. But, because I only have so much room in my stomach I had to set my priorities and eat more onion rings than french fries.
The wait staff was friendly and attentive to our needs. And the general atmosphere of the place was great. This is a small town cafe at its best — friendly folks, delicious food, time to eat a meal without feeling as though I had to rush. My friends and I enjoyed eating at The Cafe Next Door. We have marked it down as a must-stop on future road trips.

I hope you’ll stop and check out the food at The Cafe Next Door on one of your future road trips on Interstate 10. This is the kind of eatery, after all, that adds a measure of culinary adventure to any road trip.

Hiking the Aztec Cave Trail

When it comes to outdoor adventures in the Lone Star State, the Franklin Mountains have much to offer. Franklin Mountains State Park is located at the westernmost tip of Texas and is the largest urban park in the nation. The park encompasses more than 26,000 acres in the city of El Paso, and yet once in the park, you would never know you were anywhere near a city.
The Franklin Mountains are roughly three miles wide by twenty-three miles long and divide the city of El Paso. The range rises to an elevation of more than 7,000 feet above sea level and offer some of the best hiking and biking trails in Texas. The state park has some of the best camp sites of any state park — every one with a beautiful view of the mountains.
The Aztec Cave Trail is one of the most popular hiking trails in the park. According to local lore, early El Pasoans reportedly found bones and other Native American artifacts in the caves. However, they mistakenly concluded that the early inhabitants were Aztecs and the caves soon became known as the Aztec Caves.
The trail to the caves is not long but it is steep. The trail is well-marked and well-maintained. There are a couple of primitive campsites along the way for visitors who want to spend the night at campsites located a bit higher than the other sites at the park. These are definitely bring your own water sites.
At about a half-mile into the hike, the trail becomes increasingly steeper but very manageable for hikers. I hike with trekking poles which make sections like this a bit easier to negotiate. The payoff at the end of the trail makes the hike absolutely worth it all. Once you arrive at the caves it is easy to understand why native peoples were drawn to places like this.
The view from the caves is absolutely magnificent. The ceiling of the main cave is stained by smoke, evidence that ancient peoples once spent time here and enjoyed the same beautiful vistas that visitors today enjoy. I’m glad that sites like this have been preserved by the Texas Parks and Wildlife system for us and future generations to enjoy.
If you enjoy hiking you will definitely enjoy the Aztec Cave Trail and the several other trails at Franklin Mountains State Park. If I lived in El Paso I would make it a point to visit and hike these trails as often as possible. As for me, I am already making plans to return to the Franklin Mountains to hike again.

Sagebrush Cafe & Gifts

Fort Stockton is located along Interstate 10 — not quite halfway between San Antonio and El Paso. Fort Stockton was originally a military fort named for Lt. Edward Dorsey Stockton, an officer in the First Infantry who died in San Antonio in 1857. Established in 1859 at Comanche Springs, within the site of the present city, Fort Stockton provided protection for travelers, freighters, and the mail service.
From its earliest days, Comanche Springs was a favorite rest stop for folks traveling between San Antonio and El Paso. Not much has changed. Fort Stockton is still a place where those traveling across the Chihuahuan Desert along Interstate 10 can find a bit of rest and refreshment. And for those who have some time, it’s worth checking out Fort Stockton’s Historic District.
On a recent road trip from Katy to the Franklin Mountains in El Paso, some friends and I stopped to eat at the Sagebrush Cafe in Fort Stockton. This modest eatery offers a full menu of homemade dishes, including hamburgers. And, for soda lovers, the Sagebrush offers a variety of Texas soft drinks, including one mighty tasty Texas Root Beer made with pure cane sugar.
Because there is nothing I like more on a Texas road trip than a delicious homemade hamburger, I ordered the bacon cheeseburger with onion rings and a cold Texas Root Beer. I am not a big soda drinker but just could not resist the temptation to try the root beer. And, of course, I was not disappointed. Texas Root Beer is a product of the Dublin Bottling Works in Dublin, Texas. These folks have been bottling sodas for more than 120 years and have definitely perfected the art.
My bacon cheeseburger was a work of art in itself — with a healthy portion of perfectly cooked meat, crispy bacon, pepperjack cheese, moist buns, and fresh lettuce, tomato, and pickles. The first bite was a foretaste of what would be an absolutely delicious meal. Everything about this burger was right. This was an honest-to-goodness absolutely delicious burger. And the pepper-sprinkled onion rings certainly held their own as well. Delicious.
There are more than plenty of fast food places along Interstate 10. But, I prefer to explore and discover more interesting stops along the way. I learned about the Sagebrush Cafe by asking a local guy working at a gas station. I’m glad I took his advice. The Sagebrush Cafe has earned a spot on my list of favorite places to eat in the Lone Star State.

Prairie Heritage Festival

The Prairie Heritage Festival is an annual event hosted by the Coastal Prairie Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists. This free, fun, and family-oriented event is held each year on the first Saturday in November at Seabourne Creek Nature Park in Rosenberg.
If you have never visited Seabourne Creek Nature Park you should add it to your list of places to visit when you are in or near the greater Houston area. This park is maintained by the Coastal Prairie Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists and is fast becoming a great place to educate folks about what this part of Texas looked like before settlers arrived.
The Prairie Heritage Festival features a number of guests who man booths with hands-on activities, live animals, crafts for kids, informative displays about plants and critters of the Coastal Bend region, glimpses into pioneer life, info on our state parks, and much more. If you love the outdoors then you will love the Prairie Heritage Festival.
I enjoyed strolling from booth to booth to look at the various displays and ask questions. I learned some interesting stuff about cavity-nesting birds like bluejays, learned about butterflies, came face to face with a few snakes, an interesting little owl, and other wildlife. I especially enjoyed watching the kids interact with these critters.
I am grateful for the Texas Master Naturalists and all that they do to promote learning about our beautiful region of the Lone Star State. Seabourne is the perfect setting for this event. The master naturalists maintain an area in the park that shows what prairies along the coastal bend used to look like — a great place to learn about the native plants that give prairies their iconic look.
The master naturalists also teach about how we can all do our part to preserve, restore, and recreate native plants. You can even purchase prairie grasses and plants at the festival to plant in your own yard. My wife is determined to bring the prairie to our own backyard. I’m ok with that. And, be sure to visit the butterfly garden at Seabourne. All of the plants that attract butterflies are labeled so that you can know what to plant to start your own butterfly garden.
Be sure to save the date for next year’s Prairie Heritage Festival on your 2018 calendar. You can also learn about other fun and family-oriented events sponsored by the Coastal Prairie Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists by visiting their website.

The Jay Cafe in Needville

Needville owes its interesting name to August Schendel, the German immigrant who purchased a large tract of land and settled in the area in 1891. The following year, Schendel opened a general store to serve the people of the area popularly known as Schendelville.
When Schendel made application for a Post Office, he tried to use the name Needmore because everybody seemed to need more things. Makes sense! The Post Office, however, denied the application because the name was already taken. So, Schendel settled for the name Needville. The rest is history.
Located on state highway 36 in Fort Bend County, ten miles south of US 59 and southwest of Houston, Needville still lives up to its name. If you find yourself with a huge appetite and in need of great food, then you should get to The Jay Cafe in Needville as quickly as you can. This place serves up home cooked dishes at their best.
While I was momentarily tempted by the menu-full of delicious meal options, I ordered the Bacon Jay Burger and opted for the house seasoned fries instead onion rings. And, of course, a tall glass of iced tea — the perfect choice after a morning of adventuring with my wife’s Texas Master Naturalist group.
My burger arrived piping hot and flanked by a heaping serving of fries. I could see that I certainly would not need more bacon. This burger had a healthy helping of crispy bacon and cheddar cheese served on a moist bun with absolutely fresh fixings. Everything was visually right about this burger.
Burgers, however, are about a whole lot more than optics. And this burger did not disappoint. One bite and I knew that this was some of the best meat I have tasted on any burger I have reviewed. The big, crumbly patty of meat was perfectly seasoned and cooked. Enjoyed every single bite.

My only complaint is that I did not have room for dessert. The Jay Cafe offers a fantastic assortment of pies and a red velvet cake that looked absolutely amazing. Next time I visit I think I am going to start with dessert. At this point in my life I have no business buying green bananas or hoping I have room for dessert. Life its too short for that.

I am really glad that I visited the Jay Cafe in Needville. This place is just one more example of one of the many really good places to eat around the Lone Star State. Lucky for me that I live within driving distance. I certainly plan to eat at the Jay Cafe the next time I venture in their direction on one of my day trips. And, I will start my meal by eating dessert first!

Monument Hill State Historic Site

Monument Hill is a prominent sandstone bluff overlooking the Colorado River and the historic town of La Grange. It is an absolutely beautiful spot. The surrounding woodlands and prairies were a favorite hunting ground of prehistoric tribes. Later Spanish explorers traveled and traded along this route and named it El Camino de la Bahia or the Bay Trail.

Monument Hill, however, is more than one of the most beautiful spots in Texas — it is hallowed ground. The hill derives its name from the towering monument that stands vigil over a granite crypt. That crypt is the final resting place for the remains of men who died in the struggle for Texas independence.

In September of 1842, Mexican invaders had captured nearby San Antonio. When news of this invasion reached La Grange, Nicolas Dawson mobilized the local militia to go join the fight. Along the way, Dawson and his company of 54 men were attacked by the Mexican army, killing 36 of Dawson’s men. This incident became known as the Dawson Massacre.

The deceased were later buried near Salado Creek. The survivors were taken prisoner and marched over 1,000 miles toward Perote Prison near Vera Cruz in southern Mexico.

In the winter of 1842, over 300 Texan soldiers marched to the Mexican border town of Ciudad Mier to avenge the brutal Dawson Massacre. Once again, the Mexican army overpowered the Texans, took 250 prisoners, and marched those prisoners to Mexico City.

Within six weeks of their captivity 181 men escaped. Harsh desert conditions, however, forced 176 of them to surrender. Mexican General Santa Anna was outraged by their defiance and ordered that one out of every ten men be executed.

The men drew beans from a pot containing 159 white beans and 17 black beans. Those who drew the black beans were executed. This came to be known as the infamous Black Bean Lottery.

In 1847, Texas Ranger and white bean survivor Lt. John Dusenberry returned to Mexico to exhume the remains of the Black Bean victims and return them to Texas. He chose La Grange as their resting place because it was the home of Captain William Eastland, the only officer executed in the Black Bean incident.

Inspired by Dusenberry’s actions, citizens of Fayette County exhumed the bodies of Dawson’s massacred company from their graves near Salado Creek and brought them to La Grange. On September 14, 1848, the remains of Dawson’s men along with those of the Black Bean victims were reburied in a common tomb at Monument Hill.

The present day granite vault was placed around the old tomb in 1933. The adjacent tower was erected by the Texas Centennial Commission and dedicated in 1936, the centennial of Texas independence.

Monument Hill remains a beautiful resting place for the men who gave their lives in the struggle for Texas independence. As you plan your Texas adventures and road trips, consider a visit to Monument Hill to pay homage to those brave men whose names are forever etched in the history of the Lone Star State.

Orsak’s Cafe in Fayetteville

I love venturing to places I have not yet visited in the Lone Star State. On a recent road trip from Katy to La Grange, my wife and I decided to take a lunch detour to Fayetteville — and I am so glad we did. This small town is about the closest thing to a time capsule you will find in Texas. Fayetteville has somehow managed to retain quite a bit of yesteryear charm in our ever-changing world.
Our purpose for taking this detour was to find a place to enjoy a bacon cheeseburger. And, according to the information we read online, Orsak’s Cafe was the place to go. This small town diner is located on the town’s historic square and offers a menu-full of enticing home-style dishes, including burgers.
As soon as we drove into Fayetteville we knew we liked it. No cookie-cutter homes here. Just charming little homes, each with their own unique architectural features — homes that have been around so long that they are shaded by mature trees and crepe-myrtles in full bloom. We enjoyed driving around and looking at the homes and the old business on the town square, including Fayetteville’s historic court house.
When we arrived at Orsak’s it was obvious this is a popular place. The locals were already seated at their favorite tables when we walked in. Folks were friendly and offered their greetings as we made our way to an empty table. We felt right at home among folks enjoying good conversation and delicious meals.
Cheryl and I decided to split a bacon cheeseburger with a side of onion rings. Since the burgers at Orsak’s are pretty big, this was a good call. Our burger arrived already cut and plated on two plates with a healthy portion of homemade onion rings on each plate. Very nice service.
The first bite was absolutely delicious. The portion of meat was generous, the ingredients were fresh, the bacon was crisp, the bun was nice and moist, and the onion rings were cooked to perfection. Everything about this meal was enjoyable and had us hooked. As we ate we talked about when we might be free to come back to Orsak’s.
After lunch we walked around the town square and enjoyed perusing the town bulletin boards that were chock-full of posters, flyers, bulletins, and notes announcing upcoming community events. Very blast-from-the-past kind of stuff in this day of social media advertising. There are all sorts of shops and restaurants and even a museum on the town square along with numerous historical markers.
Cheryl and I agreed that Fayetteville is one of our new favorite places. We can’t wait to go back and introduce friends to this small Texas treasure and to enjoy lunch again at Orsak’s Cafe. If you find yourself anywhere near Fayetteville on your next toad trip, take the time to visit. And remember, wherever your road trips take you, get off the beaten path and explore a place you have never visited.

Beach Morning-Glories

I am a big fan of hardy Texas plants — the kind that stubbornly display their beauty under the toughest of conditions. And when it comes to hardy plants in the Lone Star State, the beach morning-glory has definitely earned its place on the list. This is one tough yet essential plant that plays an important role on Texas beaches.
Beach morning-glories thrive in one on the most hostile environments in Texas — our beaches. This blossom-yielding vine is unaffected by the scorching heat, strong winds, and salt water along the 367 miles of Texas coastline. Regardless of what the Texas coast throws at this plant, it continues to thrive.
On a recent trip to Mustang Island State Park near Corpus Christi, beach morning-glories were on full display under overcast skies. The rain soaked dunes at the park were draped with beautiful morning-glory vines. These fast-growing vines can reach lengths of thirty feet. They play a key role in stabilizing sand dunes by sending their roots deep into the sand.
There are several species of morning-glories. The particular species I saw at Mustang Island was the Ipomoea pes-caprae also known as railroad vine, bayhops, and goat-foot because the two-part leaves resemble the footprint of a cloven hoof. This species produces a beautiful deep pink or fuchsia bloom.
Beach morning-glories bloom from April through December along Gulf Coast dunes and beaches. They add beauty to our Texas beaches while providing the essential service of stabilizing sand dunes and the barrier islands that protect the Gulf Coast. Look for this beautiful Texas wildflower the next time you take a stroll down one of our Texas beaches.

The Passion Flower

One of the things I enjoy most about traveling Texas backroads is the opportunity to see so many wildflowers on display. There are few things that will cause me to pull over to the side of the road quicker than the beckoning beauty of wildflowers. That’s why I keep my handbook of Texas wildflowers in my truck for easy access.
On a recent road trip that took us trough Marathon in far west Texas, my wife and I stopped to chat with the owner of a really cool bed and breakfast — styled in quintessential adobe accented with the vibrant colors of the southwest. A stroll through their courtyard garden brought us face to face with the beautiful passion flower.
The passion flower is one amazing flower, the product of a herbaceous vine that crawls and climbs with its auxiliary tendrils. This vine produces a showy flower and a fruit with edible pulp. When split open, the inside of the fruit resembles the inside of a pomegranate. Delicious! Reminds me of mangosteen which I first enjoyed in Cambodia.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the passion flower is how it got its name. According to legend, a Jesuit priest discovered the vine in Peru in 1620. He was so captivated by the beauty of the flower that he had a vision in which he associated the components of the blossom with the passion Christ.
The Jesuit suggested that the ten petal-like parts of the flower represented the ten disciples (excluding Peter and Judas). The five stamens represented the wounds Jesus sustained in the crucifixion. The stigmas represented the nails and the fringe of the flower represented the crown of thorns. Additionally, he suggested the leaves were reminiscent of the Roman spear and the tendrils of the Roman whip. Thus the name — passion flower.

The passion flower is also known as the Maypop, a name that comes from the hollow, yellow fruits that make a popping sound when crushed. Regardless of the name, however, one thing is certain — this is one magnificent flower. There are more than 500 species of passion flower, any of which would make a wonderful addition to any garden. I’m certainly glad that the passion flower made its way to Texas — just one more beautiful thing to behold in the Lone Star State.

All American Bar and Grill

The Trans-Pecos is one of my favorite regions in Texas. I love the vast open spaces of the Chihuahuan Desert and the small towns that cling to life there. I like the town of Pecos — probably because I have always been a fan of Pecos Bill, the mythical cowboy who inspired some fascinating tall tales among range hands.
Pecos is the site of the world’s first rodeo, held there in 1883 to showcase the skills of cowboys from three of the area ranches. Pecos is also known for its flavor-rich cantaloupe which have been grown in the area since the late nineteenth century. The Pecos-grown fruit was a favorite of Helen Keller, President Eisenhower, and President Johnson.
While on a recent road trip to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, my wife and I drove the backroads toward Interstate 10. Our route took us through Pecos, located at the intersection Interstate 20 and Highway 285 just west of the Pecos River. Hungry for a burger after a morning of hiking, we stopped to eat at the All American Bar and Grill.
This small town eatery fits the description of a dive, which is what made it appealing to us. When we walked in the first thing we noticed was that the place is decorated in what I can only describe as an “Early Garage Sale / Storage Room” motif. While it was not entirely off-putting, it was a bit odd. Nevertheless, we were there for the burgers and not the decor.
I ordered my usual bacon cheeseburger plus a side of hand-cut fries and a tall glass of iced tea. The burger and fries arrived piping hot and ready to eat. The burger had a healthy helping of meat resting on some really fresh lettuce, tomato, and crispy bacon. As for my first bite — really good. Everything in this burger worked well together to deliver on flavor.
The fries were also delicious. Finding places that serve hand-cut fries is not always easy. Not may places go to the trouble of cutting and preparing their own fries. So, I was thankful for the generous helping of fries and the full squeeze bottle of ketchup. I savored every bite. All things considered, I enjoyed my burger and fries at the All American Bar and Grill.

The next time you are on the road, make lunch more adventurous by driving past the fast food places and finding a burger dive. There are so many great places to eat burgers in Texas, I only wish I had more time — and more metabolism. Let me know if you come across a good burger joint and I will add it to my list of places to eat the next time I hit the road.