TARPLEY — One of the best steaks I’ve eaten this year came with plastic cutlery and was served on a paper plate plunked down on a rooster-themed vinyl tablecloth. The steak was the 12-ounce rib-eye at Mac & Ernie’s Roadside Eatery. For an extra $5, the cook piled on a half-dozen hand-breaded fried shrimp. Surf-’n’-turf, Texas Hill Country style — and every bite was excellent.
It’s not news to most who live here and in the surrounding area that Naylene Dillingham, chef and owner of Mac & Ernie’s, dishes up some awesome grub. “Grub” might be something of a misnomer, though, applied to the likes of grilled quail with an ancho chile and honey glaze, or grilled mahi-mahi with mango and cantaloupe salsa.
Since opening in 1999, the reputation of this tumbledown eatery has spread beyond its immediate environs, slowly, but oh-so-surely. On a recent Saturday night, Dillingham and her assistant cook, Quinton Hathorn, put out 211 meals. The Friday night before they’d served 160. Not bad numbers when you consider that the town of Tarpley, a wide spot in the road about 12 miles southeast of Bandera, boasted a population of 30 when the 2000 census was taken.
“I’d say most of my customers drive about 50 miles to get here,” says Dillingham. A tall woman with a straightforward, shoot-from-the-hip style, Dillingham is aware that the unprepossessing appearance of her restaurant might be off-putting to some. She doesn’t care.
“Once I had five or six people come driving up in a Suburban. Five got out and one lady stayed in the car. She said ‘I’m not eating in this little shack.’ So the rest of them got back in the car and they left.” But, I like that shack factor. I like that this little shack produces what it does.”
She does care for the loyal clients who line up outside to order at her window, be it in suffocating heat or chilly winter wind. She serves lunch on Wednesdays (tacos only) and lunch and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. One of her renowned items on the lunch menu: goat burgers.
If customers go away unhappy, say because she got swamped or ran out of a menu item, she’s unhappy. During one of the big dinner nights in March she ran out of shrimp. And some people had to wait an hour for their meals.
“It was just so upsetting. I hate it when we piss some of our customers off,” she says, shaking her head.
National fame is making its way to Mac & Ernie’s. Dillingham’s recipes are featured in two cookbooks, Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives: An All-American Road Trip, and Texas Hill Country: A Food and Wine Lover’s Paradise, by Terry Thompson Anderson.
The Food Network paid her a visit in 2007 to shoot footage for Fieri’s show, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Dillingham was told her business would jump by 40 percent after the show aired. It did. Now, she’s anticipating another boost when the Travel Channel features Mac & Ernie’s on Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Food on May 12.
But, the term “bizarre” is not one anybody in the know would apply to Dillingham’s food. The woman has been cooking professionally for 20 years and will tell you that cooking is her one and only skill. Born in San Antonio, raised in Boerne, she has cooked in Castroville as well as in San Antonio at the Liberty Bar.
“The only time I didn’t cook was when I was in college,” she says. Dillingham claims to have “done the tour” of Texas universities, finishing with a degree in international studies from Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.
Dillingham and her husband, Steve Stolzer, opened Mac& Ernie’s in 1999 with partners Deryl and Jill McKinnerney. (Say “McKinnerney” out loud — that’s where the restaurant’s name comes from.) Six months into the venture Deryl received a job offer out of town. “One of those jobs offers you just can’t turn down,” Dillingham says.
In 2008, Stolzer, a ranger with Boy Scouts of America, was transferred to a camp in Navasota where he does facilities maintenance. He comes back on the weekend and the two of them run a commercial cattle operation from their 3-D Ranch a few miles away off Farm Road 462. They also raise a small herd of goats, which supplies the meat for the cabrito dishes and goat burgers at the restaurant. Goat burgers are just as popular as the cheeseburgers, Dillingham says.
The original Mac & Ernie’s was housed in an 8-by-10-foot portable storage building. The menu offered pinto beans, a sausage wrap, cabrito tacos, and fajita tacos. She was able to put fried catfish on the menu after she found a good fry cooker at an unusually good price. “I kiss that little S.O.B. every day,” she says.
In 2000 she upgraded to the current building. It’s 10-by-16-feet and offers more space for the cooks, but no room for diners. A few steps away, though, a white tent provides covered seating. Up a gentle rise across the dirt parking lot is a collection of picnic tables, and behind that is an open-to-the-air room referred to as the “patio,” with more seating. She can seat about 100 customers at a time.
The blackboard dinner menu that leans against the wall next to the ordering window offers entrées such as ahi tuna with wasabi mayo, the 12-ounce rib-eye and lamb chops with lamb sausage on a special called “Lambfest.” When she gets a hankering for “something chicken-fried” it goes on the menu. One of her favorites: chicken-fried filet mignon with bacon-serrano cream sauce. This is one-third of an entrée dubbed the “Fryfecta,” which also comes with an Axis deer chop and a lamb chop.
“Once I stuffed quail with crawfish and pico de gallo, and I sold the piss out of it,” Dillingham says, a look of happy remembrance on her face. “What I’ve been thinking about doing lately is a carpetbag steak. Know what that is?” she asks. I don’t until she tells me. It’s a beefsteak slit open, stuffed with fresh oysters, and grilled.
“Those two flavors — they’re like the peanut butter and jelly of the meat and fish world,” Dillingham says.
She makes the choices about what to cook on a given day by consulting her own appetite. What appeals to her, she’ll offer to her customers. “We’ve built up a trust. I don’t think there’s anything intimidating about my food. Vertical stuff? How do you eat that? I want to set a plate down in front of somebody and have them say, ‘Mmmm, I can’t wait.’”
Forget making desserts. Dillingham isn’t much into sweets, she says. “I just open a bag of flour and it seems to shoot out all over the kitchen. I’m not a baker.” But her order-taker on weekends, Kelly Bradshaw, is. The menu on the night we visited offered a thick, creamy coconut pie and a chocolate tres-leches cake.
We headed out to Tarpley to try the Wednesday tacos. When the order arrived it was simple: two hefty pork tacos in warm flour tortillas, the cubes of tender pork crowned with a flavorful but not spicy-hot green sauce, topped with shredded cheese. Dillingham’s parents and a cousin had driven over from Boerne for lunch and were seated at one of the picnic tables having a chat. Her mother, Shirley Dillingham, assured us that her daughter hadn’t learned to cook from her. “She’s way better than I am,” she said.
Later, we drove up on a Friday night for dinner. Despite a wind with a chill factor in the upper 30s, there was a line at the window. We ordered, then walked up to the nearby Williams’ Creek Depot to buy beverages. Then we squeezed into the room next to the store, where heavy plastic sheeting over the window openings blocked out some of the cold, while a hard-working wood stove inside helped make things cozy. The décor was classic Texas roadhouse: antlers, beer signs, twinkly lights, a few tables for four, and a couple long tables for bigger parties.
Our server was pleasant and efficient at threading her way through the packed room. My companion had ordered the Lambfest. The sausages were well-seasoned, grilled patties. The lamb chop was mild in flavor and extraordinarily tender. A lightly dressed romaine salad on the side and a baked potato were faultless. For an extra $5, my friend had added an ancho-glazed quail. It was just spicy enough and succulent.
A day or two after dinner we called the chef, and the talk turned to her Saturday-night tradition of chicken-fried “something.” Dillingham said she’d been thinking about medallions of lobster sliced off the tail, lightly chicken-fried, and served with a chipotle beurre blanc.
“Man, doesn’t that just sound downright decadent?” Dillingham said, gleeful mischief in her voice.
Uh-huh — just save a place for us.