Sunday, August 25, 2013

Trip Report: Garner State Park...

On Monday, Roxanne starts back to school so she decided that we all needed to get away for the day and take a little drive to Garner State Park for a picnic.  If you have never been, Garner is located about an hour and a half west of San Antonio, north of the town of Uvalde.  Eva's family went to GSP her entire childhood, and we took our kids several times a year as they were growing up.  I suspect the tradition will continue with their kids too.  We don't camp anymore (I prefer an air conditioned hotel over a tent, thanks), but we do like to go for the day.
 The drive between Sabinal and Concan is a windy stretch of road through farm and ranch land.  If you can't get in a plane and see how big and wide open Texas is, this drive will remind you that there is a whole lot of wide open space out here.  The last part of the drive into Concan is where the road begins to curve and the hills start to grow.  In the olden days, radio stations would fade and when we got our first cell phone (a brick like device) service would be lost).  Now, clear signals and 4 bars have been introduce to the middle of nowhere.

 One of the things that I have noticed over the last few years is the the growth around the small town of Concan.  It used to be Neal's Lodge was the only place and maybe a few small stores sprinkled right at the intersection of Hwy 127 (from Sabinal) and Hwy 83 (from Uvalde).  Now, as you approach Concan, there are a dozen little cabins and lodges and signs for golf courses that have sprung up. I guess this is what you'd expect as the area has grown more popular.
And Garner itself has spruced up quite a bit.  serious flash floods over the years have changed the look of the park as we have known it years ago.  Some bathrooms and a concession stand were swept away in a flood some time ago.  Across the Frio river, you can see RV's and cabins have been built along the edge providing these folks with the access that park goers pay $7.00 a day for.
We didn't get there until about 9:30 and there was already a line of cars backed up to get in.  I will say that one of the things that has not changed in the 28 years I have been going to GSP is the bureaucratic process of paying fees.  Years ago, people would have to stand outside of the park headquarters and wait to be called in to pay for a campsite.  I always felt like there should be a more efficient way.  With the introduction of computers, you'd have thought the process would improve.  Well, it has to an extent.  There is now an air conditioned waiting room and you take a number to wait.  But once inside, they seem to need so much information.  If I was a conspiracy theorist, I'd be concerned that the state of Texas knows everything about me and my pattern of visiting state parks and the vehicle I drive.  If you think that you can just anonymously go camping, guess again.  Of course, if you don't have anything to don't see the black helicopters hovering overhead.

We made our drive into the park proper and slowly drove through the campsites and shelters, pointing out spots we have stayed at in the past.  We noticed new signs pointing the way to various trails and caves and such.  Garner used to have the standard brown wooden plank with yellow paint to identify a certain trail.  Now, thanks to The Friends of Garner, there are colorful descriptive signs with historical information. 

We drove well beyond where we used to set-up as the early birds had taken all the parking, all the fixed picnic tables and covered most the rocky river edge.  Instead, we continued down the road getting closer to the park's famous pavilion where you can buy T-shirts and souvenirs, where Saturday night, the juke box blasts country favorites and campers dance the night away on the huge patio, and where on Sunday's an all denomination church service is held.
We located a tree and some open space just off the last parking lot near the river, and set up our little day camp.  Of course, corn hole boards, a pop-up shelter and lots of ice chests are required.  Roxanne brought Panda who enjoyed herself quite a bit.   The boys spent most the afternoon in their corn hole tournament, and thankfully, the occasional clouds and a slight breeze made the heat less of a factor.

As we settled in, there was a visible lifting of a weight off of Eva's shoulders.  So many wonderful childhood, really a lifetime of memories from Garner, or has her family has always called it, Gardner.  When they were kids, her family would take a week's worth of groceries, load up the station wagon and perhaps throw in a few neighbor kids and that was the family vacation.  When there is something about a place that can send all your worries away, you ought to spend more time there.
I spent the majority of my time sitting on my ass in the comfort of a lawn chair reading a book (on my iPhone), and occasionally getting up to take pictures of the river and the scenic views.  I did have occasion to visit the pavilion where, Eva had informed me was a vacant restroom.  All I can say is, finding a private stall in a crowded place is sort of like winning the lottery.
I'll never forget my first reaction to GSP back when we were first married.  My big complaint about Texas rest stops and state parks was the lack of privacy in the mens' rooms.  Seriously, does it cost that much more to build a full wall instead of a half wall.  I have no interest in holding a face to face conversation with a man sitting on the crapper 18 inches from me.  Thankfully, over the years and the floods, new restrooms have come and a bit of modesty has prevailed.
Roxanne and Tyler brought a small fire pit that we used as a cook grill.  By lunch time, everyone was starving and I must say, our burgers turned into a near-gourmet affair.  My kids have always enjoyed my famous Jalapeno pie, and Roxanne created thin versions of these little jewels so we could use them as cheese squares on the burgers.  Add to that some bacon, mushrooms, onions, pickles, avocado and now you're talkin'!

Panda did enjoy her little swimming episode in the Frio, but when we brought her back to the campsite, she promptly chose to dry herself by rolling around in the dirt. 
Good doggy!
 There was something I spotted in a campsite across the street from where we were set-up.  I have concluded that, in Texas, this is the only way to tent camp in the summer. Yes, people have placed window units on a small platform and air conditioned their tents.  Brilliant!
As we left, we stopped by probably one of the most well known spots in the park.  For decades, people have stood at this scenic lookout to have photos snapped of themselves for the memories of the good time they had.  And of course, we would have memories from this day, and I'm sure, more with our grandchildren in the years to come.

Friday, August 23, 2013

My Daily Deer: The First Rule...

The first rule of Deer Fight Club is... do not talk about Deer Fight Club.
The second rule of Deer Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Deer Fight Club!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Lunch Report: The Granary at The Pearl Brewery...

We try to get down to the Pearl Brewery complex at least every few months to see what new and exciting things are happening.  I am a huge fan of redeveloping areas into new businesses, and this place has been moving right along for a few years now.
We caught the very end of the Farmer's Market that takes place on weekends at The Pearl, and then focused our energy on the important thing - getting something good to eat.  There are several well-reviewed restaurants in and around Pearl, but Eva had a hankerin' for some Barbecue.  This made the choice easy:  The Granary Cue and Brew located on Avenue A.
 The Granary is in a really well restored house with a beautiful porch and outdoor seating area.
Inside, the place is solid wood from the floors, walls, ceiling and the tables with bench style seating.  This is not some 2 X 4's nailed together for an out backyard set-up.  It may be barbecue, but the class is obvious.  We walked into the main hallway which leads to the drink and food order area.  With four beers brewed there at the restaurant on tap, we eventually ordered a flight just to try them all (more on that in a bit), plus some iced tea that was just out of this world good.  After the drink orders, we moved down to the cashier who took our food order and our money.  From there, we found a seat and waited very briefly for the order.

I had a Brown Ale which, as I passed it around the table, got a universal thumbs down.  Don't let that stop you - in honesty, I am a fan of beers like Newcastle Brown, but not a real Guinness drinker.  I think we all agreed - and not like that is scientific, that there was a weird after taste.  There was an Irish Red that we all agreed was very good.  Likewise, the Rye Saisan we all found very doable.  The IPA was not bad but for a few at our table, it was very hoppy.  I think maybe we should just stick to the beers they sell at HEB, but again, I don't want to give the impression that there was anything wrong.  In fact, they have a much wider selection of beers, we just wanted to try the house brews.
More importantly, the vittles!  Our group ordered several two-meat plates.  Between us all, we had brisket, turkey, sausage, and pulled pork.  On the table, a house sauce was made available and it was very good, but honestly, not needed.
Each of these meats stand on their own.  The brisket was especially good.  Very tender and not too smokey.  The pulled pork was quite good, though I'm sure I've had better, but this was certainly worth a try.  The bread stacked on the plate is made there in the kitchen.  I ended up piling on some pulled pork, some pickles and a bit of the sauce, and wow - it was excellent.
The sides are very much worth mentioning.  The baked beans are cooked out on the grill with the meats, and there are generous chunks of brisket mixed in the beans.  We aren't the classiest people to show up at The Granary, but we weren't the only ones licking the bowls clean, either.  And the potato salad was a solid choice as well.  These are the little red potatoes with a nice blend of creamy goodness.
My daughter was not a fan of the texture of the sausage - it is that style that sort of breaks up when you bite into it - but there is no questioning the taste.  Again, unless you are put off by the innards crumbling when you cut a slice, you'll enjoy it.  I know, I did.

We also had a plate with turkey and the Cole slaw as a side.  We agreed that the slaw might have been a little more creamy, but nobody was willing to say it was bad.  Just good.  My son claimed the turkey was better than Rudy's and just not as peppery.  Very moist, and easy to cut.  Good stuff.

If you skip the beer, and you really shouldn't,  I think you can get out of there with your wallet in tact.  The prices are no more than what you'd pay at Rudy's or Augie's.  We were there for lunch but in talking with one of the friendly staff, I learned that dinner is an entirely different concept/presentation than lunch.  I think it would be worth a visit because it all looks and smells so good.
With each trip down to The Pearl, we find more new and interesting things to check out.  Given that they offer free parking and so many free activities, you owe it to yourself to make the short trip.  And believe me, you will smell the delicious goodness coming from The Granary; follow your nose and find yourself some interesting brew and some wonderful 'cue.  I think you'll agree, it's a Tasty Treat!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Discovering Dinosaurs Exhibit

On Saturday, we tagged along with the little one to see an exhibit at the Freeman Coliseum exposition center called, Discovering Dinosaurs.  If you listened to any radio or TV this past week, you heard the advertisements.
So here's the deal.  They set up a bunch of displays of these Chuck E. Cheese style animatronic dinosaurs, and you walk through each section so you can let the kids push the buttons that make the animals come to life.  Come to life equates to moving the head or maybe wagging a tail.
My Favorite: Biggus Dorkus
Let me say that I made a real amateur mistake of using the flash on my camera, so you can actually see how fake and plastic these dinosaurs are.  Not that I expected them to be, you know, the real dinosaurs.  But anyway, in fairness, it did look a lot better in person.
 Anyway, our little girl was not all that excited at first.  In fact, we made it through half the exhibit before she decided she liked the dinosaurs. 
The end of the exhibit culminates in a gift shop (of course) and then an area where you can pay extra to get on a bounce thing with a bunch of other little germ infested kids.  No thanks, we have our own bounce thing at home.

I don't mean to complain, but for what they charge to go into these places (and this does not include the extra cost for the bouncy things), about $60 for the 4 of us, it really is pretty lame.  I recall visiting Disney World back when I was a kid in the 70's, and the animatronics were far superior to this display.  Granted, this is a transportable show, but still, in 35 years we haven't gotten better?  This was a $5 ride, at best.

And it is now official: I am a cranky old man.  Get off of my grass, you kids!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Lunch Report: Little Gretel in Boerne...

For my last Furlough Friday, Eva had wanted to do something adventurous - more adventurous than me making Adirondack chairs, cleaning out the garage or building Cornhole boards, so we decided to take a little ride up I-10 to the small hill country town of Boerne.   I'm not sure that qualifies as adventurous, given that Boerne is really a small, hip, fancy town of antique shops and wine bars.  I don't mean to make the place sound uppity at all, just saying, you aren't likely to encounter any wild animals or outlaws crossing the street.
Boerne is a place where, if I had the money, I could see retiring in an old restored place, spending mornings enjoying $5.00 coffee and a $7.00 pastry reading the paper and watching tourists wander up and down the street.  But, financially speaking, I think we made the right choice moving south west to Natalia!
Don't let my description sour you on Boerne.  If you have the chance, seriously, it is a nice place and you won't be disappointed in spending an afternoon walking up and down the Main street and enjoying the shops.  In fact, we went into a store called Calamity Jane's, and just fell in love with so many of the beautiful pieces in there.  And if I ever win the lottery...
We didn't do an extensive tour of the entire town, given the nature of my bum knee, but we did stop in several interesting shops including a hardware store that was half, normal hardware store and half, old style antique shop. 
One shop we really wanted to go into but didn't because they seemed to be closed for lunch was a place called Flashback.  It was loaded (from what we could see through the doorway) with all the old signs and statues from yesteryear.  Imagine watching American Pickers or American Restoration, and you get the idea.  This place would be worth a trip back just to see inside.
After our walk, we had built up an appetite and to be honest, I was prepared to go back for another visit to The Dodging Duck, a place we ate at a few years ago.  Instead, we ended up a few doors down at an excellent Czech place called, Little Gretel's Biergarten.  A great choice!
I'm sure we could have dined outside, but we chose the air conditioned comfort of the indoor dining room and got great seats next to the bar where we could chat with one of the co-owners.   Okay, my pictures don't do the place justice.  Just go to the web page and you can see how it really looks.
I did try the Pilsner Urquell which is one of the four beers on tap. Not bad at all.
When we saw that Reubens were on the menu, Tyler and I needed look no further.  Tyler had a salad instead of fries (since he is dedicated like that).  The funny thing was, they still gave him a full size plate which made the Uncle Reuben's Reuben look quite petite.  In spite of the smallish portion, it was a mouth watering, wonderful sandwich.
This is what it looks like if you have the fries. 

Eva and Roxanne decided to split their plates, so one ordered an avocado burger and the other got the club sandwich.  Both were great choices.
This club was very nicely done, and of course, I had to have a bite or two just to be sure they weren't kidding.  Outstanding.
Easily, the big surprise and awesome treat was the avocado bacon burger.  Seriously, you'd think that you would want to go back for some schnitzel or something Tex-Czech, but this burger stands on its own as a reason for a return.  The soft sourdough bun was wonderful.
When we were done stuffing our faces, our waiter very nicely persuaded the girls into a dessert.  The German chocolate cake, was, I am told, to die for.  The presentation certainly was fantastic.
 I think Boerne is one of those towns like many other Hill Country villages that make for an enjoyable visit during the week.  It doesn't cost anything to park and walk the shops, enjoying the nice atmosphere.  We still would like to spend a night and just walk the entire town, but even if that isn't your thing, you ought to go just for a nice meal.
If you take a drive down River Road in Boerne, right next to the big sculpture garden, you'll find Little Gretel, and I promise, you'll be in for a Tasty Treat.