THE DELICIOUS SIDE OF WIMBERLEY
City’s eateries, farm give reasons to stay for day
Editors Note: This is the first in an occasional series about the Central Texas food scene outside of Austin.
WimBerLeY — the rich, viscous voice — like Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla drizzled with local honey — tempted me with fried chicken. Ken Kimmons was making one of his regular loudspeaker announcements from the deli at Brookshire Brothers in wimberley. i attempted to tune him out as i pingponged through the fluorescent-lighted produce section. the best fried chicken in town would have to wait for another visit. i needed arugula.
A decade ago, a request for the bitter, spicy greens might have been met with quizzical stares. on this day, however, i got more than a shrug of the shoulders. when apprised of my hunt, one of Brookshire’s produce section employees told me the grocer was fresh out. then, with a glimmer of knowing excitement in his eyes, he asked, “do you know Kathleen over at eieio farms?”
So, with the sun in quick descent, we made our way down the meandering Green Acres drive before pulling to the side of the road to make the call. After a
few rings, a breathless but cheerful voice answered.
“This might seem like a weird request,” I said tentatively, “but I was told you may have some arugula to sell.”
Kathleen Mooney could see me from her porch, she told me, and then directed me to turn around and head up her driveway.
The effervescent Mooney, hands caked with dirt from the day’s work, greeted us warmly like old friends and showed us to her row of arugula while happily offering answers to all the questions I had and some I hadn’t.
Mooney explained how her desire to provide her young son, Max, a healthy and sustainable upbringing landed them in this “little patch of heaven called Wimberley” after stints managing Esther’s Follies and later owning the MillerCrockett House Bed & Breakfast in Austin.
Now, in her fourth season, Mooney — who admits to being blessed with the help of friends and neighbors — has three goats, 75 chickens, a slew of organic vegetables and recently planted four Asian pear trees, three apple trees and more than four dozen blackberry bushes to go with her growing selection of fruits. Central Texans can buy weekly baskets from Mooney that contain her seasonal produce and eggs; go to www.eieiofarm.wordpress.com for more.
“People want to know where their food comes from,” said Mooney, who takes great pride in her role of educator. “And Wimberley has just been tremendously supportive.”
As the glow of a full moon outlined the twilight, we began to pluck our evening’s salad from her field and Kathleen and Max finally left for their own dinner. They were 90 minutes late and headed just down the road to The Leaning Pear Café & Eatery, an occasional customer of Mooney’s and another community advocate for fresh and local foods. Set on an 11-acre piece of property that hugs Cypress Creek, just a few canoe paddle strokes from the village square, The Leaning Pear looks like an old Tuscan farmhouse, fitting for owners Rachel and Matthew Buchanan, who met while studying near Florence, Italy.
The couple returned to savor the flavors of Italy for a year before Matthew Buchanan attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Upon graduating, the Buchanans worked at the Inn Above Onion Creek in Kyle (where they were married), with Matthew Buchanan working in the kitchen and Rachel Buchanan helping on the operational end. Their time at the Inn reaffirmed their desire to open a restaurant, and the pair moved to Wimberley.
Despite the burgeoning restaurant scene in nearby Austin, they wanted to be in the Hill Country. “Our heartstrings just continued to pull us in this direction,” Rachel Buchanan said.
The Buchanans opened The Leaning Pear — the name playing off the two of them and their love of fresh food — in March 2007 in the renovated 19th-century building that had been in Rachel’s family for several decades.
The couple focuses on providing farmers-market-driven soups, salads and daily specials with an emphasis on fresh, seasonal and local food. “We try and expand people’s expectations of what a soup and sandwich place should be,” Matthew said.
A peach and arugula salad ($8.25) offered recently is indicative of the couple’s mission. Fredericksburg peaches with ripe, crackling skin were served atop verdant and flavorful greens that offered surprises in each bite, with cilantro, basil and mint all mixing together to provide bursts of their unique flavors.
The Buchanans have not been hesitant to introduce new flavors to their loyal customers. A chilled potato soup ($4) with a perfect balance of cream punctuated by bright fresh dill and the crunch of chopped chives was likely not seen in Wimberley before the Pear opened.
“The education is part of the fun,” Matthew Buchanan said. “It’s fun to share new things with our customers when we can.”
None of which is to say that this upscale rustic restaurant shies away from more traditional fare — the corned beef Reuben ($8) is a Texas twist on a New York standard with house-cured brisket topped with pungent sauerkraut, smothered in Swiss cheese and served on a hearty marbled rye that you can hear crunch from the other side of the small restaurant.
Because of its size, The Leaning Pear has mainly focused on lunch, with dinner being served on Fridays and Saturdays (they are closed Tuesdays). That might change in the coming months. The Buchanans hope to break ground within the next year on a bigger restaurant on their property. The larger space would allow them to add their daily specials to an expanded entrée menu, extend their hours to include lunch and dinner and continue to celebrate local flavors.
“We serve honest food,” Rachel Buchanan said. “Wimberley is a diverse little hamlet with some sophisticated palates out there, yet is also a place where a simple lifestyle and genuine hospitality are appreciated. Our goal is to cater to our fellow villagers; anybody else that wants to come and dine with us is icing.” Though the Buchanans might be new faces of the local food movement in town, they follow in the steps of the self-taught Linda Allen, who was a trailblazer in bringing fresh flavors to Wimberley. Allen understands the special history of Wimberley and its people, and holds dear to her heart the town that is woven together by rivers and streams.
Growing up primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area, Allen visited Wimberley, where her family has owned property since 1919, every summer for as long as she can remember.
“Wimberley has always been a consistent memory,” Allen said recently.
Following graduate school for creative writing, Allen permanently moved to the sleepy Texas town in 1980, and a decade later she began a catering business. After 15 years of serving food to every local civic club imaginable and for every kind of occasion, Allen and her partner Jimmy Ash decided to expand their business to include a prepared-foods sit-down restaurant that also offers take-away service (the eatery is closed Sundays).
Located in an old house set beneath a massive, sweeping oak tree, Linda’s Fine Foods serves as the extended dining room for the Wimberley community. The hodgepodge of mismatched tables and chairs, along with the food served on a collection of dishes accumulated through the years, lend the restaurant the feel of an extended family meal during the holidays.
That communal vibe is provided a soundtrack on weekends by bands booked by Ash (a talented musician in his own right) performing on the restaurant’s front porch. After demands for a repeat performance of Linda’s Cajun cooking skills, the restaurant also decided to celebrate Mardi Gras year round, with the second Tuesday of each month taking on a New Orleans vibe with zydeco music, crawfish pie and what Ash calls “the best gumbo this side of the Mississippi.”
With a menu that changes weekly, excepting a few standard items, Allen says she is always dreaming up new recipes to add to her growing collection of personalized comfort food.
“We like to try and keep it creative and challenging. We make fresh food with real ingredients and try and buy locally when we can,” said Allen, who speaks with a preternatural calmness, slowly choosing her words, as one would expect from a poet and writer.
On any given week the menu will boast an eclectic range of dishes from traditional country flavors to Asian-inspired dishes. A deep pink, sweet mustard-glazed wild sockeye salmon ($9.99) is moist, meaty and carries subtle notes of sweetness that are tempered by the coarsegrained mustard. The refreshing shrimp salad ($7.99) features moist, plump shrimp in a light citrus-dill dressing wrapped in a textural patchwork that is at once crunchy and soft thanks to celery, red onions and hard-boiled eggs. The expertly executed King Ranch chicken ($6.75) leaves no doubt that Allen’s curious spirit is rooted in Texas soil, and the incomparable carrot cake, made from her mother’s recipe, embodies the heart she puts into her cooking that extends from the kitchen to her relationship with her customers in the town that she says always has felt like home.
“Wimberley is a real eclectic community and it’s growing and so is its interest in food,” Allen said. “We get a real cross-section of the community — from construction workers to retired doctors — and I really enjoy making friends with my customers.”
A visit to this authentic town of down-toearth people that moves at the pace of a Willie Nelson ballad reinforces the understanding that we are all connected to the land, and that a love of food and community is as pure and natural as the Blanco River.
Peach and arugula herb salad ($8.25) from the Leaning Pear is made with Fredericksburg peaches, greens, cilantro, basil and mint. The restaurant is just one of the dining options in Wimberley.
Kathleen Mooney sells eggs from her chickens and vegetables she grows at her EIEIO farm. People can buy a weekly basket from her.
The Leaning Pear specializes in soups, salads and daily specials that feature locally grown foods.
At Linda’s Fine Foods, a Vietnamese noodle salad is one of Linda Allen’s Asian-inspired offerings. She also does Cajun and down-home style food.
Sweet mustard-glazed salmon ($9.99) mixes the sweetness of the meat with spice of coarse-grained mustard at Linda’s Fine Food.
Linda’s Fine Foods is a comfortable spot to eat with outdoor dining on picnic tables. Inside the décor is an eclectic mix of tables and chairs. Allen has been a caterer in Wimberley since the 1990s. The restaurant came 15 years into her catering business.
The corned beef Reuben ($8) from the Leaning Pear blends the idea of a New York Reuben with Texas flavor of brisket. Owners Rachel and Matthew Buchanan opened the restaurant in March 2007 in a farmhouse that has been in her family for decades.