Monday, July 23, 2012

Texas Taters n’ More

144 7th Street
Hillsboro, MO.

On Wednesday night I attended  my first meeting of  the Campaign Committee for the Hillsboro District Branch of the Jefferson County Library.  I became interested in this effort as a result of a newspaper article in the Leader, the Jefferson County weekly paper that said that the committee had successfully petitioned the County Council to include the initiative on the November ballot.
Okay, enough of the soapbox, (see more about it below) but it is actually integral to this review.
At the meeting, I was quaintly and grass-root-ly putting stickers on piles of pamphlets. The lady next to me, also there for the first time, started chatting with me. Normally I am averse to this sort of social interaction, but she seemed relatively harmless, and I knew I could get up and walk away at any time.
Renee, as I came to know her, while also sticking stickers on piles of pamphlets, told me a little about herself and more later in the formal introductions and mentioned she was going to start book readings for kids at this new Hillsboro restaurant, Texas Taters N’ More. She was offering to accept donations and contribute them to the Library committee.
I was fascinated, beside myself with glee. There was a new restaurant in Hillsboro that I was not aware of. So the hook was in. I knew from that instant that it would be the target of my next review.
The Place:
The place used to be Rich’s Frozen Custard, a joint I reviewed a year or so back. Restaurants are fickle businesses; it’s unfortunate, but not at all unusual to have one open for only a year or so, or less.
The building sports an auto parts store underneath. It’s a bit off the road and the new, modest signage is a little hard to see from Main Street.
Entering the doors I was instantly reminded of my Rich’s experience. A wide room, perhaps fifty feet or more square, and a high open ceiling. The walls were now painted blue which worked well with the bright, white, polished tile floors. On the walls were signs and kitschy objet d’ Texas.
There were several sparsely located tables and booths, the booth tables had been topped with buckaroo and ten gallon hat printed laminated coverings. The cavernous interior echoed, which I had remarked on back in Rich’s time, and can’t quite ignore now. It cuts down on any possibility of intimacy or private conversation, but if you like big, open, family style atmosphere this is just fine. Short of dropping a ceiling and installing partitions and such, I don’t see another remedy for this. This was once a hardware store if I recall correctly.
But that is of only minor concern compared to the service, the food and the overall quality of the experience.
The Food:
The menu on the wall made it clear, if the name of the place didn’t already give it away. They serve baked potatoes. I knew this ahead of time though since I tend to spend tens of minutes, more or less, usually much less, painstakingly researching every place we plan to review.
Adam and I scanned the menu, both pre-planned 'chuckwagon combos' as well as a ‘build your own’ list of toppings. A hand printed fluorescent marker board indicated that the special was  the chicken-fried steak and gravy potato.
I knew that if Angel were with us that this would be her choice.
Did I mention that Angel wasn’t there?
Buckaroo tablecloth
She’d abandoned us on Friday, something about a granddaughter’s birthday party in Springfield or something trivial like that. She was due back Saturday evening, or so she had said. I’m never quite convinced  that when she leaves us all alone like that if she will actually ever return, so I treat every one of her road trips like it’s permanent. I’m sure that’s just the way she’d want it.
So Adam and I, lonely and abandoned, stared almost helplessly at the menu. No guidance or suggestions from Angel, who is usually good for just that sort of thing, if nothing else. But she was gone now, perhaps never to return.
I saw one combo listed that stood out as a potato as I’d make for myself, the 'All American'. Cheddar cheese, sour cream, chives and bacon. Adam succumbed to the temptation of the chicken fried steak and gravy. One of the two attending ladies, the owners as it turned out, greeted us. “The potatoes are over a pound each before we even start, I hope you brought an appetite.”
All American
It made sense, this was a Texas themed joint, and Texas claims to do everything bigger, it’s a Freudian compensation thing I’m pretty sure, so naturally the potatoes would be ridiculously large. I took this into mathematical consideration. When you see a burger billed as a quarter pound or half pound burger, that is pre-cooked weight. As burgers and steaks are cooked the rendering off of the 20% or so of fat content drops that weight a dramatic amount. Not so with a fat-free potato, the post-cooked weight is pretty close to the pre-cooked weight. In other words, a one pound potato, with added toppings is pretty close if not more than a pound of food.
We ordered, adding a take-out potato for Angel, should she defy the odds and expectations and actually return home. Our drinks, tea for me, Coke for Adam and  a Diet Coke for Angel’s, or whomever’s, takeout. The lady attendant, the co-potato-chef, mentioned that the place would also deliver lunch orders.
CF Steak and gravy
Adam and I wandered around the place, we were at  the time the only customers. It was early though, around five p.m. and also this was a brand new place having opened only a week before. Word of mouth had not quite kicked in yet. PLUS the Jefferson County fair was in full swing and the temptations of funnel cake and bizarre and mysterious fried things on a stick probably were sucking away some potential patronage.
We situated ourselves in a booth/table in the middle. It was only a few minutes before the food arrived. Red plastic baskets lined with bright blue and white gingham paper held the massive spuds. The presentation was excellent. Bright crisp green chives, scoops of bright white sour cream and thick brown crispy chunks of bacon, and a generous handful of shredded cheddar. Adam’s gravy-coated tuber held golden chunks of breaded steak popping through. The plating/presentation was above and beyond what I expected.
The drinks were served in Styrofoam cups, the plastic tableware was a little feeble, but adequate. I’m not a big fan of plastic or Styrofoam, but as this is a local startup, I have to give them a little slack. It’s not like I would be dismantling a sirloin.
Adam and I chopped and stirred around the massive tater, mixing the toppings generously. The first bites, as well as the last were warm and greatly satisfying.
Potatoes are not a very fussy food. It’s pretty basic. Cook it right and it’s a hit. The toppings, chosen to personal preference, only need to be fresh and generous. TTn'M got it all right, the texture of the taters was spot on, not dried out, not starchy or under-cooked.
Neither Adam or I were able to finish completely.
“I’m full, but not in a bad way.” He told me. The look on his face told me he'd really enjoyed it. 
I knew what he meant. Calorically speaking a loaded potato might not be any less deadly than a burger, but without the animal fat and the frying oils a baked potato simply doesn’t feel as greasy and sinful as a burger and fries. I too was full, in a good way.
The price was equivalent to a burger joint, three meals and drinks for twenty two dollars and change. The preparation was spot-on, these ladies know how to cook a big spud. The toppings seemed fresh and crisp, the service was beyond personable, and the wait time was minimal. This is a fresh new start-up in our little town, so it needs support to help it thrive. I encourage all those in the area, including folks that might only be passing through on the way back to St. Louis from Old Mines** looking for new places to check out, to give this new place a shot. They do a good job and provide a refreshing  alternative to the greasy fast food joints in town. Angel was surprisingly home by the time we got there, much earlier than the 'never' that I'd expected. She'd done it right though, stopping at the Canton Inn in Springfield on the way back. I expect that by the time you read this I will have packed on a couple or twelve extra pounds.

* Hillsboro is the seat of the sixth most populous county in Missouri. The residents of Hillsboro do not have free access to any library in the county, nor is there a library branch in the town. I’ve always thought this was odd, at best, and absurd, to be perfectly honest. So I decided to help out as much as able to get this silly situation rectified. Certainly Hillsboro is not a huge metropolis, but the people there surely deserve the same access to a library as every other place I’ve ever lived in my life.  Though it involves a property tax increase, a very modest one, a public library is among the basic services, like a school, a post office, sidewalks and water treatment plants that every small town usually demands. Even the right-wing utopian model of rural America, Mayberry, had a tax-funded public library.

** Passing through.  This is a cheap, gratuitous reach-out to Alanna Kellogg, the lady behind the St. Louis Food Blog group, a network for those of us who write blogs about food and eating establishments in the St. Louis area. Alanna recently recognized my brilliance and dazzling contributions to the St. Louis gastronomic community and accepted this little blog into the group. There’s a link at the upper right hand corner of this page.

Texas Taters N More on Urbanspoon

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