Nueces County Record Star, September 30, 2004

It’s time to saddle up and get up to this tiny little community in the Texas Hill Country and enjoy one of Naylene Dillingham-Stoltzer’s world-class cabrito burgers and exotic Tres Leches desserts.

This gal can cook!

I stumbled into the utopian cook shack tucked between clear running Williams Creek and the Williams Creek Depot at Tarpley after having been tipped off by Uvalde-Castroville area rancher Larry Milstead through longtime friend Aubrey Harper Jr.

It was just after a trip to a San Antonio eye doctor when I accompanied Aubrey, whose eyes had been too dilated to drive, that he suggested lunch at Mi Tierra. I was recovering from a bad cold, but a bowl of the famous San Antonio restaurant’s chicken-tortilla soup partially restored my health.

Aubrey had a small steak Mexicano with all the trimmings and that’s why I was surprised when he said, “Let’s ease up to that little place at Tarpley that Milstead told us about.”

I wasn’t in any particular hurry, after all, the Texas-Arkansas football game wasn’t until the next evening, so we set sail for the Texas Hill Country.

Tarpley is about a dozen miles southwest of Bandera or about twice that distance northwest of Hondo.

The trees are green up there, the streams are running cold and clear and wild turkey, deer and ringtails run free. Picturesque hay meadows are abundant and one could easily visualize Indians behind every big rock in another era.

But this was mid-September and Naylene Dillingham-Stolzer rules these rustic rocks with a deft touch, a creative mind and as much culinary skill as you might expect to find in any five star restaurants in our nation’s largest cities.

Sound a little over-hyped? Sorry, but I’ve got the gastronomic credentials from visits to the best restaurants in Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Miami and dozens of smaller cities and communities in the U. S., Canada and Mexico.

What I’m saying here is that Mac and Ernie’s Roadside Eatery is a top-notch bump in the road. Now, I can’t call it a fashionable place, because it’s simply an 8×20-ft. cook shack where you literally walk up to the window, place your order and retire to a sprawling oak tree near the Williams Creek Depot.

At the depot, you can saunter in for a cold beer, soft drink or bottled water to go with your meal. In the afternoon local cowboys might just have an ice chest full of longnecks sharing the shade with you. It’s a truly unique place.

In a few minutes Naylene will come find you in that shade, pridefully delivering the delicious food she has personally prepared.

And, I don’t just mean cooked. She literally raised the cabrito our excellent burgers were created from. The ranch-raised meat was ground, formed into a patty, grilled and served on a fresh Kaiser roll with a slice of Bermuda onion, fresh lettuce and a thick slice of a red tomato.

In spite of the fact that we had eaten a meal just two hours before, we both wolfed down our burgers like they were the last food on Earth.

I asked Naylene to sit with us for a few minutes and tell us about her eatery and her menu, which she graciously accommodated.

She told us she had operated the eclectic establishment for four years with some help, but largely shouldered the bulk of running the place herself.

She’s closed Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, cooks only beef, chicken and pork tacos on Wednesdays, shops for groceries on Thursdays and cooks hamburgers, cheeseburgers, cabrito-burgers, fried catfish, sausage wraps and steaks on Fridays and Saturdays.

“We stick to our hours like peanut butter sticks to the roof of your mouth,” the energetic entrepreneur added. She’s open on Wednesdays from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. with her one-dish offering (tacos) and on Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m.

“I thought you said eclectic, Wildman,” you ask. Ahh, I forgot to tell you the dinner menu starts at 5 p.m.

Recently there have been offerings of grilled pork tenderloin with a sweet-tart Vietnamese dipping sauce, grilled tuna with roasted jalapeño mayonnaise, basil-grilled chicken breast with sun-dried tomato aioli, grilled grouper with corn relish, Ancho chili-honey-basted quail and the usual 12-ounce ribeyes, fried catfish and fried shrimp.

Naylene and husband Steve also raise their own beef when he’s not busy with his full-time responsibilities with the Boy Scouts of America. About 150 folks can usually be counted enjoying the rustic outdoor weekend dinner dining and the scrumptious food. The renowned “Southern Living” magazine plans a feature spread on the place in its October issue, but we’ve just scooped ’em here.

Naylene told me that one of her recent customers drove over from San Antonio after hearing about her establishment on a business jet flight from the west coast.

That was exciting to hear, she admitted, but said she also gets just as big a kick out of some of the locals who ride up horseback for a meal and others who bring their kids to go swimming in Williams creek just a few yards behind her back door while she prepares their food.

Mac & Ernie’s Roadside Eatery, thanks to Naylene Dillingham-Stolzer, is a rare gem in the Texas Hill Country. Did I mention that her Chocolate Tres Leches Cake and Coconut Cream Pie are to die for?

John Willoughby is a lifetime resident of South Texas. Readers may reach him at johnw