Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Texas Hill Country and Our Ranchette Revelation


   

      Fresh off our week sabbatical moochdocking with friends in Salado we spent a week at the Joint Base San Antonio Canyon Lake Recreation Area ($20 @ night).  This is one of the 'perks' afforded to active duty, guard, and retirees when traveling near US Armed Forces Installations.  The area consists of two campgrounds on the shores of Canyon Lake as well as full facilities including store, laundry, showers, and a very nice day park area.  This is a secure gated area with regular patrols by USAF Security Police.  We decided to 'throw caution to the wind' traveling down I-35 right through the heart of Austin rather than take the 130 Toll Road for $26.  Some traffic slowdowns, but no real delays.  Salado to Canyon Lake, 144 miles 3 hours towing at 12.9 mpg. 

NOTE:  I HAD SEVERAL ISSUES WITH THE FORT SAM HOUSTON SIDE OF THE RECREATION AREA.  FIRST I TOOK A PROPANE BOTTLE TO THE STORE TO BE FILLED.  YOU HAVE TO DROP IT OFF AND PICK IT UP WHEN THEY CALL.  WHEN I RETURNED TO PICK UP MY BOTTLE THE CHARGE WAS ONLY FOR 3 GALLONS WHICH THEY SAID WAS ALL IT WOULD TAKE.  WHEN I PICKED UP THE BOTTLE I COULD IMMEDIATELY TELL THE BOTTLE WAS ONLY ABOUT HALF FULL.  I WENT BACK IN TO TALK TO THE LAD WHO FILLED IT AND HE SAID IT WOULDN'T TAKE ANY MORE GAS.  I ASKED IF HE USED THE PRESSURE RELIEF VALVE SCREW TO ALLOW THE OXYGEN AND EMPTY SPACE TO BLEED OFF......HE HAD NO IDEA WHAT I WAS TALKING ABOUT.  ADDITIONALLY, WE DID HAVE TO FILTER THE CANYON LAKE RECREATION AREA WATER SUPPLY DUE TO A SILTY APPEARANCE NO MATTER HOW LONG YOU RAN IT.  WHEN WE REPORTED THIS TO THE OFFICE THEY KNEW ABOUT IT, STATING THAT IT HAPPENS SOMETIMES.......HMMM.
Joint Base San Antonio Canyon Lake Recreation Area @ Canyon Lake
      Texas Hill Country is prime real estate, but can be equally pricey as well.  This was our next area of interest.  Rolling hills, canyons, lakes, rivers, and recreation.  This area is located in the South Central part of the state just west and southwest of Austin, including such towns as New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Kerrville, and Boerne to name a few.  Also located only about 10-30 miles north of San Antonio you are always within easy range of whatever services, VA hospitals, and culture you desire.  There is also a VA Hospital in Kerrville, no more than 100 miles from Austin.  Our search included 12 communities.
      Our first couple of days we explored the New Braunfels, Gruene, Boerne, Canyon City areas.  It was quite the culture/economic shock as the average building lot was $50K and the average price per acre in the county was $36K when you bought at least 70 acres!  In fact the closer you got to Canyon Lake 5 acres was priced at around $255K.  We moved on, QUICKLY.  On a side note, the villages of Gruene and Wimberley are beautiful little picturesque German style settings with a myriad of shops, stores, and restaurants.
       For our next stop we set up camp at Blanco State Park for 2 weeks as our base of operations. This is another of  Texas' great system of state parks with reasonable prices with a TX State Parks Pass.  There aren't many opportunities for 'boondocking' in Texas other than Wal Mart or truck stop overnights so these parks are our next best opportunity.  $275 for 14 days.......full hookups w/WiFi......fair price.  Nice large sites with live oaks and close bathroom/showers on a beautiful trout filled river......all within walking distance of town.  YES, WALKING DISTANCE.  They also sell firewood that the camp host will deliver for $5/bundle.  It is also the ONLY state park in Texas that allows you to book a year in advance to reserve spots for a 4 month continuous stay.  Cost:  $437/month.....very reasonable.
      Unfortunately, most of our investigations into the Hill Country yielded the same results.  So, after considerable discussion, both among ourselves and several realtors we have decided to continue our search, but changed our goal.  Depending on where you look in the 'Hill Country' land prices can vary quite a bit.  We changed our plan to look for a minimum of 5 acres that we will develop by putting in water, electric, and septic.  We did learn that if property is restricted you can not place a mobile home or RV pad on the property unless a house already exists so we will ensure anything we are interested is far enough out to be unrestricted.  Also, in this area of Texas you have to have at least 5 acres to put in a septic system at all.  We will build a pad for complete RV accommodations where we can still travel to and enjoy during the winters.  This will allow us the freedom to travel during the winters yet having a fairly central base of operations.  When we decide to sell the house and property in NW Michigan we will then have a place to live while we have our 'Final Retirement Ranchette' built.  In addition we have ruled out the Big Piney Woods area of East Texas at this time.  The feasibility of the 'Hill Country' is yet to be decided. 
      Perhaps part of this blog chapter should have been titled "BBQ Along the Way".  There is no such thing as too much BBQ in Texas especially when you are on the road doing research.  One of the days exploring the area near Johnson City, Marble Falls, and Llano we stopped in for BBQ at one of the finest places I have ever dined, Coopers Old Time Pit BBQ in Llano, TX.  They are a 4 star (out of 5) rated eatery. 
      They offer all the usual fare including a 2" thick smoked pork chop, but the brisket was the best I have ever eaten, BAR NONE!  Moist, tender, tasty, and a beautiful black bark with a pepper finish.  They claim the difference is that they smoke with a mix of mesquite wood and charcoal rather than the traditional oak or hickory.  Fine by me.  I was one happy puppy that even enjoyed a nice little nap upon return to camp as well.  You can order online also at:  https://www.coopersbbq.com/  The staff is prompt and friendly ensuring you know all the sides and desserts that come with the meal. 
This is the 'serving pit'.  There are 6 other cooking pits located just to the side of this one. 

        One day we stopped for lunch in Driftwood at the famous Salt Lick BBQ.  They are rated 3 out of 5 stars, rightly so.  We waited in the pager line for only about 15 minutes before we were seated in one of the many dining areas.  This is a BYOB area so a stop in the bar area for a Shiner Bock is a must.  That's the good news.  Barb and both found the food to be 'just OK'.......brisket, ribs, and sausage were on our plates with sides of coleslaw, beans, and terrible potato salad.  This was also accompanied by a mini loaf of bread and a plate of pickles and onions.  When we got the bill our one and only visit was complete.  We were charged $5 for two ice teas and the bread, pickles, and onions were not free!  The menu did say on request.  Total for lunch.......$37.61   One day we also ate at Bill Miller's BBQ in Bulverde, TX.  Another pass.  One day we ate at Buzzee's in Kerrville.  This place is rated 4 out of 5 stars, but I'm not on that train.  Good brisket, but that's all.  Texas is world renown for outstanding BBQ and has some of the very best.  We discovered hidden gems at Coopers in Llano and San Marcos BBQ in San Marcos this trip.  They had the best brisket I have ever eaten.  WARNING......Lockhart, TX looms in the not too distant future.   Been there, done that.......but I'm gonna DO IT AGAIN!

      On the days we explored the Fredericksburg area we also stopped in to see the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park and also Luckenbach, TX.  Centerpiece of several country songs this SMALL town has a population of 3.  But, the entire town is one big party area, several stages, restrooms, parking and dry camping areas, several large fire pits and 'pickers circles', and of course many food and beverage vendors.  When I asked about coming festivals I was simply informed that there is music every night of the week and a show each and every weekend.  Many of these are big recording artists.  It has to be seen to be believed.  http://www.luckenbachtexas.com/
Luckenbach, TX store
Luckenbach, TX Main Stage Area

LBJ's Ranch:  The Texas White House

Lyndon B. Johnson Ranch Nat'l Park Drive
     
      One day we took a trip up to Canyon Ranches NW of Austin to check out some 9 acre parcels that include power and a 'Barndominium' installed at your choice of locations.  Price:  $124K  http://ranchesatcanyoncreek.com/sale/index.html  Restrictions here are minimal, and even so the building solves that problem.  Wells would be 400-700 feet deep, costing an average of $12,000 to install.  Septic runs around $9,000.  We're probably not buying this trip, but just testing the market. 

Our findings for 5 acres of land (without utilities) average:
(Taxes are per $100K)

Blanco Area:  $78.9K   Taxes:  $1170
Johnson City/Llano Area:  $75.1K   Taxes:  $990
Fredericksburg, Luckenbach Area:  $143.5K   Taxes:  $1160
Marble Falls/Dripping Springs:  $132.9K   Taxes:  $1400
Kerrville:  $191K  Taxes:  $1330
Bandera: $109.9K    Taxes:  $1170
Leakey:   $109K  Taxes:  $1390
Bertram:  $124K  Taxes:  $1390
      Meals prepared in camp included Gator Cakes, Shrimp w/Tasso Gravy over Cornbread, German Crockpot Rabbit, Hawkeye Stuffed Quail, and Chorizo Quesadillas to name just a few.
Hawkeye Stuffed Quail w/Sweet Taters
Shrimp & Tasso w/Roux Gravy Over Cornbread

Smoked Brisket Stuffed Baked Tater with Sour Cream and Chives
      I also wanted to include a picture and recipe for a casserole I had experimented with last year while in Salado with our friends, yet they wanted again.  There are several recipes online for Reuben Casserole, but I highly recommend this one.  It is quite simple to prepare.  I used deli sliced Pastrami rather than lunchmeat.  If you like a good Reuben Sandwich, this casserole is it;  quite tasty.                                    http://12tomatoes.com/reuben-casserole/

Reuben Casserole

      Our trip wound up with another 10 day stop at the Fam Camp at Canyon Lake prior to our departure from the Hill Country.  The Air Force side was much nicer with campsites tucked away in cedars, clean water, and quiet.  Can't beat those reasonable prices, in fact this side was cheaper, only $180 for 10 days.   In all we spent 4 weeks in the Hill Country researching real estate values and property tax issues.  Restriction covenants really cramp our style, but it was an educational experience to say the least.  We do have one more area to look at, but.....the Hill Country has our hearts.  Whether our wallet can support it remains to be seen.  Average diesel prices for this month ranged $2.35-$2.43.


"Twenty years from now you'll be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do"
                                                                       Mark Twain


WiFi courtesy of Texas Department of Parks & Wildlife

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Chess Club Cafe, Blanco, TX

      While staying in Blanco during our real estate escapade one cannot help but notice (and count) there are 21 eateries in a town of about 1800.  That seems to me to be a pretty steep ratio to plan on staying in business for long.  From Old 300 BBQ to Redbud Café to Blanco River Pizza to Bean n Biscuit to Blanco Bowling Club to Josie's Kitchen to Oak Creek Café just to name a few they've pretty much got it all covered.  Of course there is always Sonic, Dairy Queen, Subway, and Chicken Express.  I have to attribute this to being a high tourist area along the scenic Blanco River for the folks in Austin, New Braunfels, Waco, and San Antonio.  Summers here are a hive of activity. 
      When asking the locals the best place to eat lunch the response is nearly unanimous, The Chess Club Café.  Barely noticeable on the south side of town, it resembles a small house between Dollar General and Sonic.  The café is only open 8 a.m. till 2 p.m. Tuesday thru Sunday.  I was forewarned to arrive early enough for lunch or I would be parking along the US 281 highway.  Rated 4.5 out of 5 stars I would soon find out why. 
      Head Chef Steve Becker offers a very wide repertoire with his menu.  The lunch salad menu alone offers 12 choices.  There are Quesadillas, 2 types of Quiche, 11 types of hot and cold sandwiches, and 6 types of wraps.  There is also the Soup du jour (Creole Gumbo) w/half a sandwich for just $5.95.  There were 3 Daily Specials the day we dined there.  The breakfast menu is just too darned big to list.  http://www.menupix.com/menudirectory/menu.php?id=380143608  I hear the Meat Lovers Quiche is delicious for any meal. 
      Barb and I put our daily real estate sojourn on hold this day so that we could arrive early enough to enjoy our lunch.  Parking concerns are legitimate as the entire gravel lot may accommodate 15 vehicles tops, maybe less if some of the those vehicles are the local ranchers big Ford farm trucks. 
It doesn't take long to discover the source of this cafe's anonymity.  It is a converted house, each room one of the originals complete with orginal wood floors and it's own charms while representing the new motif.  The main room also has French Doors so that you may dine outside on the patio if you choose when the weather permits. 
 
      We were seated immediately, in fact there were only about 8 other people when we arrived.  The main room has a 'homey' feel and we chose seats near the far large window.  After perusing the menu we both chose what we had originally come for, The Dagwood Sandwich.  When prepared right, it is one our favorites.   
     This sandwich certainly qualifies.  It comes on homemade, thick cut, still warm Texas Toast with layers of roast beef, ham, turkey, grilled peppers and onions, melted Swiss, Cheddar, and Provolone cheese.  It comes on a plate served with a side of warm tortilla chips and homemade Pico de Gallo, which is a local preference and a nice change of pace.  You may substitute fruit for the side.  This monster stands 3-4" thick still fitting even in my large mouth when attacked. 
      We both thoroughly enjoyed our lunch although Barb still needed a 'to go' box to save for later tonight after I am sacked out I'm sure.   Our total tab was $18.  The Chess Club Café serves a very good menu and I'm told that the Checkmate Sandwich is the best item on it.  The Soup du jour with Chicken or Tuna Salad Sandwiches are popular as well.  Service is very good as we were visited several times by two different servers and the chef to refill ice tea and answer any more questions that I inevitably had.  Chef Steve Becker said he is enjoying the cooler February weather as he has lived in nearly every state in the south and never gets used to the warm winters.  By the time we left the café was full.
      The café does not have a web presence, but they are a part of the Facebook Family and Yelp has an impressive array of other photos and numerous reviews to help prolong the drooling in your taste buds.  https://www.yelp.com/biz/chess-club-cafe-blanco  The Chess Club Café, definitely worth the visit. 

                                     "You don't have to be rich to travel well"
                                                                                Eugene Fodor

WiFi courtesy of Texas Department of Parks & Wildlife

Thursday, February 2, 2017

On The Road: German Style Crockpot Rabbit


      Barb and I picked up a couple pounds of rabbit this trip to Louisiana.  Rabbit is still considered a specialty item in much of America, but is a common staple in several places, especially Europe.  It had been 40 years ago stationed in Germany since we'd enjoyed this delicious meal.  It's no secret I love to cook and am always looking to broaden our horizons; Joie de Vivre.  I found a couple of intriguing recipes online and this one came the closest to how I remembered it prepared in 'Der Bundesrepublik'. 
      German recipes for meat are often pretty easy......braise it, add seasonings (in this case caraway, brown sugar, and bread crumbs) and any vegetables you want and slow cook it into submission for hours, then served with crusty bread and gravy.  I modified mine by finishing the cooking process in a crockpot, the Holy Grail of RV Haute Cuisine.  Although ours is a modest 2 quart model, recipes are easily modified to suit our needs. 
      We purchased our rabbit from a Cajun Butchers Market so we move to the braising process.   First I put one pound sliced pork sausage (flavor of your choice) in a cast iron skillet with a tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and heated it to medium.  I always use, and prefer, cast iron.  Once stirred and browned I covered it with 1/2 cup beer and reducing the heat to med-low simmered for 30 minutes. Braising involves partially submersing  the meat in a flavorful liquid. You can braise rabbit in chicken stock, hard or soft cider, beer and either white or red wine. For this recipe it was beer.  It does not have to be dark beer, any pilsner of your liking will do.  I used Shiner Bock, a local Texas Bock-Style beer. 

  

      Then remove the sausage from skillet and drain.  Place rabbit pieces into skillet, adding more beer as needed.  Add 4 Tblsp cider vinegar, 1 cup browned bread crumbs, 1 tsp caraway seeds, 1/2 grated lemon peel, and 1 tsp brown sugar.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Turn once halfway through.
      Transfer rabbit and all the pan ingredients to the crockpot as well as the sausages.    You can add chicken stock to this as needed to your preference.  6 pieces of rabbit, sausage, and broth FILLED the crockpot to the top.  Cover and cook over low heat for 4 hours.
     After about 3 hours occasionally test your rabbit 'doneness' with a fork.  When done transfer rabbit to serving plate, adding your choice of vegetable and crusty bread as it works well here to sop up the inevitably created savory gravy.  I resisted the urge to add German Dumplings or Taters.  Delicious nonetheless. 

From the RV kitchen of Rich & Barb Hilts....Bon Appetit 


                            "Life begins at the end of your comfort zone"
                                                          Neale Donald Walsch 

WiFi courtesy of Verizon MiFi