San Antonio Express-News, Friday, October 11, 2002

A food room with a view
Tiny eatery serves up big dishes, by Mary M. Fisher

TARPLEY – First-time customers at Mac & Ernie’s Roadside Eatery here are often baffled. “When people come here, they ask, ‘How does this work?’ ” says Kelly Bradshaw, right-hand woman to owner/chef Naylene Dillingham-Stolzer. “I always tell them it’s the Tarpley dining experience.”

The Tarpley dining experience begins when customers place orders with Kelly and pay her through the window of a little hut on FM 470. It is just up the road from downtown Tarpley, population 56, near Bandera. They are told to walk up the hillside to a rustic country store, called Brown’s Hilltop, to buy drinks. As they check out the deer corn and snacks, they can choose from the usual convenience store selection of beers and sodas, as well as about a dozen wines in the $10-$15 range. Iced tea – served out of a large Igloo table cooler – costs $1.

Depending on the inclination or weather, diners have two choices for seating: six wooden picnic tables under a tree, or 10 tables in a partially closed-in cement-floored pavilion next to Brown’s. In summer, a fresh breeze passes through the space, which is decorated with old pots and pans, deer antlers, a mounted boar’s head, and beer signs. In winter, the hog-wire panels on window openings are covered with plastic sheeting, and a wood stove is put into use.

Wherever they choose to sit, diners have a view of a field with rolling hills beyond. In the foreground are his and hers wooden outhouses with flush toilets.

The Tarpley dining experience culminates when Kelly, or the newly hired fry chef/waiter, brings plates to the tables. Laden with comestibles worthy of a big city experience, the meals create a kind of disconnect. How, after all, can one be eating an eight-ounce sashimi-grade tuna steak with cilantro pesto on paper picnic plates with plastic cutlery in the middle of nowhere?

That, says Naylene, is what a lot of first-time customers want to know. People will say, “I can’t believe that kind of food comes out of that little shack,” she says. “Or they’ll say, ‘Who thought you could get food like this in Tarpley!’ ”

The answer to the latter question is Naylene herself. As she surveys her life up to the establishment of Mac & Ernie’s, it comes clear how this 38 year old happens to be doing innovative country gourmet cooking in the boonies.

“My mother always encouraged my brother and I to cook,” recalls the Boerne native. “We had Betty Crocker’s Boys and Girls Cookbook.”

By the time she was a teenager flipping burgers at a Boerne burger joint, Naylene was already showing signs of where she was heading. “I got bored with the menu and started experimenting with it,” she recalls.

During a desultory post-high school decade, she traveled, completed a degree in international studies at Southwest Texas State University, and cooked for San Antonio’s Liberty Bar, and Grey Moss Inn in Grey Forest. Later, she cooked for the Alsatian Restaurant in Castroville.

Because of her lack of formal cooking credentials, Naylene is apt to refer to herself simply as a cook. But, she quips, “On a good day, I’m a chef.” Her eatery is open three days a week. For lunch on Wednesdays, she serves beef or pork tacos made with “the finest tortillas money can buy,” overnighted from Laredo.

On Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., when the menu changes, she serves an expanded lunch menu of fried catfish, hamburgers, and her famous cabrito burgers ($5.45). The grass-fed beef is from around Tarpley. The ground baby goat meat for the half-pound cabrito burgers is home-grown at Naylene’s family’s Tarpley-area Three D Ranch, where she and her husband, Steve, live.

When she moved to the ranch in 1992, she confides, “I wanted to grow organic vegetables – but I’m a terrible farmer.” Hence, goats. In 1999, Naylene and a neighboring goat-raising couple named McKinnerney “had this idea to do a little bitty restaurant to market our goats.” They began selling cabrito, fajitas, sausage, and beans out of an 8 by 10 building behind Brown’s.

Demand grew. “We bought a used fryer and added catfish,” she says. And they expanded into the 160 square foot wooden hut they now use. Naylene strung Christmas lights on it “because I think they look pretty at night,” and Steve made four wooden signs saying “Cabrito,” “Burgers,” “Steaks,” and “Catfish” for the front. When the McKinnerneys moved away in 2000, Naylene and Steve bought their half-interest. But they kept the “Mac & Ernie’s” name, derived from their friends’ surname, adding “Roadside Eatery” to it.

From 5 to 9 p.m., closing time, there are certain givens on the menu. On Fridays, the shrimp are fried. On Saturday, they are grilled, mainly, she says, “because I get tired of breading.”

Steak and catfish are other staples of the weekend menu. All entrees are served with a baked potato and a fresh vegetable or a Greek-type salad sprinkled with locally made goat cheese. There is only one salad dressing – a zesty combination of olive oil, red wine vinegar, oregano, parsley, chives, Dijon mustard and garlic.

On a recent evening, the menu written in chalk on a small green board in front of the hut listed specials of rosemary lemon-peppered lamb shish kebabs with cucumber sauce ($9.95), grilled chicken breast with chimichurri sauce ($8.95), teriyaki salmon basted in ginger mustard sauce ($9.95), quail in ancho-honey basting sauce ($11.95) and, for dessert, raspberry vinegar peach pie ($2.25).

Though many of her specials are inspired by traditional dishes, Naylene adds her own twist. Inspired by raita, a cooling Indian side dish, she devised a sauce for the lamb kebab using yogurt, olive oil, garlic, oregano and finely diced cucumbers. For the fresh peach pie, she says, “I used a vinegar pie recipe and though ‘What goes well with peaches? Raspberries.’ ”

Each week, the specials change according to availability and the chef’s whim. “I think that people really like that they kon’t know what will be on the menu when they come, ” she says. Past offerings have included everything from prosciutto tomato basil stuffed pork loin chop to quail with cranberry mango chutney, using Bandera-raised quail.

Naylene plans weekend specials a week ahead and comes in Thursday to prepare for them. With the help of the fry cook, on weekends she cooks everything from scratch in her open air kitchen just behind the hut. No more than a concrete slab with a roof, it is equipped with a five-burner gas grill, a six-burner Vulcan stove, two refrigerators, a freezer, two fryers and a rustic wooden prep table.

“I don’t think I could cook in an enclosed kitchen anymore,” she says. “I can look out and see nature. I see axis deer. People honk all the time. You can wave at them.” Furthermore, she says, she can easily clean it with a hose. And she can see the customers and visit with them when they wander back to compliment the chef or ask for a recipe.

About half the customers come from neighboring towns of Bandera, Utopia, Hondo and Medina. But she says, “We have a regular customer from New York.” And city folk are flocking from San Antonio, Houston and Dallas to sample her fare. “We’re pretty laid back” she says. “We have some customers who bring their own silverware – because they don’t like plastic – and their own wine glasses.”

In the past year, with the help of word of mouth and articles in Texas Monthly, Mac & Ernie’s Roadside Eatery’s evening crowds have doubled to around 100 each night. On weekends, Naylene says, she goes through 30 pounds each of catfish and rib-eyes a night. And she says that she cookes her way through a pair of Wolverine boots a year.

Among the local gentry are folks who would probably kiss those boots in gratitude for bringing the Tarpley gourmet dining experience within such easy reach.