Sometimes a sign is all that's needed to get me excited about a restaurant.
Don and I have passed this goofy sign, (north of Houston) about 20 times in the past 15 years. Last week we spotted the sign along I-10. This time we stopped and had a closer look.
Actually the cartoonish catfish sign isn't nearly as eye-catching as the restaurant.
The boat-shaped restaurant makes me grin, every time I see it!
Love a Gimmick
We've eaten in a few restaurants with unusual shapes over the years. I love a gimmick or a theme! Captain Tom's has both.
We parked and followed the walk towards the bow of the boat. It actually looked sort of eerie as we approached. What were we in for?
Then I was distracted by the oyster shells on the ground. I took that as a sign of a serious seafood restaurant.
I hoped to see some oyster shucking inside the boat. I wonder how many they shuck per day at Captain Tom's?
Follow the Locals
"There's the door, on the starboard side!" I told Don. It's important to use your boating terms when dining in a boat-shaped restaurant.
The other diners approaching the restaurant were not playing along with the nautical theme. They appeared to be locals, not travelers. My camera snapping made it clear, we were first-timers.
Lots of Counters
We stepped inside the noisy place and tried to figure it out. There were no tables, just counters. We joined a long line of people standing along the windows, waiting for seats. (This photo was taken later)
There was a system, but we hadn't figured it out yet.
The main part of the boat's bow, was taken up with a huge U-shaped counter. Guests could eat their seafood and watch the busy guys in red shirts.
One very nice guy in red, noticed me looking confused and pointed to some vacant stools near the window. He said all the people in line, were waiting for seats at the center bar.
In the U
It was hard to see into the special U, since the occupied stools were close together. I was able to peek through later, when a couple seats vacated.
I could see why it would be fun to sit at the main bar/counter. So many of people appeared to know one another. The noise level was loud and festive. The energy inside the U was high, as the red guys rushed around grabbing beers from the ice filled sinks and delivering plates of oysters and fried fish.
I walked around the U to see if I could find any better seats. The atmosphere was fun, but a little intimidating.
Don and I generally try to avoid super crowded places... with this endless pandemic. I was hopeful we'd find a couple of stools, that weren't right on top of other diners.
We lucked out. I grabbed 2 stools that seemed to have a little more space around them.
Then we jumped back up to read the hanging menu. Before we had time to ponder, one of the guys in red hollered to us from the U. I hollered back, "Large shrimp plate and a cup of gumbo!" Even though we hadn't fully decided.
I wish we'd had it in us, to go for the full raw oyster experience. Maybe if it had been less crowded and we'd felt less rushed.
Instead, we shared a cup of gumbo and a large order of fried shrimp. I was surprised at how quickly our piping hot order arrived.
There was an unusual corn batter on the shrimp. I think this is one of the things regulars love about the place, but it seemed a little odd to me. The fries were good and hot, but we couldn't find catsup. We used cocktail sauce.
By the time we finished up, the nearby guests had departed. I took a quick, (not so flattering) photo of Don. It shows our prize spot in the bow, with a view of the catfish sign.
Trip to the Stern
Before leaving, I made a trip to the restroom in the stern of the boat. I approved of the nautical tile colors and porthole. I tried to peek in the kitchen on the way back. I wanted to see where the shucking was happening. No luck spotting the action.
I made sure to get a photo of myself with the sign in the background. Chances are this won't become a regular stop on trips home from New Orleans. I seized the opportunity.
I took one last photo of Don, exiting on the starboard side.
I must give hime some credit for letting me check out Captain Tom's.
The Port Side
Don headed to the car and I dashed off quickly in hopes of getting a photo of the entire boat.
It was actually impossible. I walked all the way around and this was the best I could capture. It looks like the boat is sailing on a sea of Oleanders!
"Big John's Feed Lot by Brenda"
Last June, Don and I stopped for lunch at "Big John's B-B-Que"...
Or was it "Big John's Feed Lot by Brenda" ? That's the very odd name that was listed on the internet.
Tiny Red Shack
Even with Mapquest we got lost in the somewhat desolate outskirts of Big Spring. We flew right by little red diner.
The gravel parking lot was humongous, in comparison. By 11:30 it was practically full. Our Subararu looked very out of place with all the pickups.
The little building reminded me of a summer camp bunkhouse or maybe a little red school house.
The corrugated metal walls had been spiffed up with red paint and there was a potted plant, but I was a bit intimidated. Was this place even safe? There seemed to be some kind of swinging cage-door and a padlock. I hoped non-locals would be welcome.
I paused to let John Wayne greet me from a window. I admired the rustic wood accents and Uncle Sam popping up.
I wished I could peek in one of those windows to check the place out, but I couldn't see in. There was reflective silver foil, covering the glass. No peeking allowed.
Cozy and Welcoming
We headed for the door, which had a nifty spring on it. There were a number of people waiting to be seated and no room to step inside. I hope we didn't let in too many flies, since it took a minute before we could step all the way in.
But a busy place is a good sign and I didn't mind waiting. I studied the painted concrete floors and the rustic pillars that appeared to hold up the ceiling. Or was that the roof? The "ceiling" seemed to be a tricky combination of chickenwire and black plastic liner.
There were numerous servers bustling about. They all seemed in decent spirits. One led us to one of the 8 tables, in the front room. We were surrounded by rustic decor. Lots of John Wayne images!
There were lots of repurposed containers holding plants. I wondered how they could grow without window light.
Our server was friendly and very busy, waiting on lots of hungry workmen, a seated in our area. There seemed to be a lot of trucker hats, hunkering over Styrofoam plates, piled hight with BBQ. There was a lot of tea drinking going on.
I studied the menu for something that wasn't bbq. I also studied the title of the menu. Who was John and who was Brenda? And what was the deal with feed lot?
Hand Washing Time
After placing our order, it was hand washing time. Always a wise idea, but mostly it gave me a reason to check out the other dining room.
The big room was packed with diners and more John Wayne decor. On the wall, there were some cowboy hats and twinkly lights and I spotted the same curious ceiling .
I didn't have time to read all the signs, but the one next to the deer head stood out. "God Made... Jesus Saved... Texas Raised" Oh my.
Eventually I stepped through a drink station, to find the door to the single bathroom. As a raised my fist to knock, the door swung open and I was face to face with a tall man. Awkward. I stepped inside the airline sized space and accidentally let the spring loaded door slam. I let out a yelp of surprise and quickly washed my hands. I kept a distance from the toilet, with its plywood tank cover. Is that even okay? When I opened the door, I was greeted by a smiling man in a cowboy hat. My flipflop stumbled over a bump in the threshold, as I tried to get around the man. We both laughed and by the time I stepped back into the dining room, a table of ladies was hooting. They'd witnessed the amusing scene.
The laughing ladies were a fun bunch. We ended up chatting. One said she'd been coming to Big John's for 40 or 50 years... back when Big John owned it. I asked about Brenda and they pointed her out, coming towards us, in her glasses and tennis shoes. They said Brenda and her husband kept all the decor when they bought the place about 20 years ago.
Our food came pretty quickly. Don loves BBQ, so ordered a 2-meat plate for $14. Beans, slaw, pickle and Texas toast took up some of the plate.
His plate looks tiny in this photo, but it was more than he could eat. Or maybe he just wasn't thrilled with the brisket and overcooked ribs. He's kind of picky. Everyone around us was devouring food, so it might have been him.
Salad With Smoked Chicken
I hit the jackpot! My salad for $10. was pretty amazing and it came on a real plate. The chicken was moist and plentiful. There were rings of onion, a hardboiled egg, cheese, tomatoes and fried tortilla strips. Homemade thousand island was extra yummy.
While Don picked at his meal on Styrofoam, I gobbled my salad and also conversed with a diner or two. Everyone seemed to stare as if I were the first person who ever ordered a salad at Big John's. One woman with arms covered in tattoos stopped and begged to know what I was eating. I gushed about my delicious salad and she shook her head and smiled like she might just give it a try.
After we finished up, I grabbed a paper towel from the table and cleaned my hands. No more trips to the scary bathroom.
But then a surprise treat appeared. Our server wandered through the tables carrying a tray of small cups. Complimentary Oreo Chocolate Chip Pudding! A nice little end to our meal.
Don and Stan
We headed to the counter with our bill and got to meet Brenda's husband, Stan. He was a friendly guy who wanted to know where we were from and where we were headed. I asked if he had any idea how many John Wayne's were in the restaurant. "Too many!" he laughed. He said they didn't have room for any more, but people frequently try to add to the collection.
He introduced us to Brenda when she was dashing by with her hands full. They seemed like a good team. He was calm and chatty. She was quick and busy.
On Our Way
As we walked to the car, I spotted just a few men lingering in the lot. There had been so many more men chatting near trucks when we arrived.
Just an hour earlier, I'd been worried that we might be getting ourselves into a "why did we come here?" kind of dining adventure. I left feeling content and satisfied. Don maybe a little less so, but we were in good spirits. Colorado bound!
April in Jefferson
Last April, Don and I spent one night in this north Texas town.
Jefferson is a cute place, with lots of historic buildings and a lovely brick Main Street.
I really wanted to have a dining experience in the General Store.
We at least knew they had Jams and Jellies!
We stepped inside and I spotted the candy right away.
I could have dined on Bit-O-Honey and peanut brittle!
There actually was a cafe in the back!
More candy at the dining counter! I believe we could have ordered a microwaved hot dog, or something. But we gave it a pass.
Cowboys and Bikers
We browsed around the vintage store before heading off. We spotted some interesting people hanging out and walking along the sidewalks of Jefferson.
We headed across the street to check into our hotel. Who might hanging out there?
We knew the Jefferson Hotel was going to be an entertaining place. That's why we booked.
There were lots of dolls waiting for us in our guest room. We were amused by our bizarre hotel for a while, but then we needed a break.
We love eccentric hotels. We seek them out. But this was a little overwhelming after a while and there was nowhere to sit and relax. We needed an escape!
Just a block or two away, we found this charming little building with a cute patio and couple iron balconies.
The pre-Civil War structure seemed pretty isolated on the edge of town. But back in the 1850's, Dallas Street was lined with saloons and bustling with activity. Big Cypress Bayou was just steps away, with lots of riverboat activity.
Over the Years
James McGarity was one of the first owners of the building. He and his partner got into a little trouble with booze and gambling and sold the saloon in 1868. In 1916, the building became home to the Jefferson Masonic Lodge.
There were numerous other businesses in the building... a confederate hat factory and a brothel and some point. All the buildings on the street dealt with fires, but somehow this one survived. The most recent owners have done a nice job making the place feel welcoming to locals and tourists.
I didn't get a great photo of the impressive bar, which is really the focal point.
But the brick walls, high ceilings and spotless tables were inviting.
There were lots of nice little perks, like our complimentary basket of homemade potato chips. And a fresh carafe of water. And pretty dishes.
And packets of disinfectant wipes, along with our utensils. All very un-saloon-like!
Don ordered the Cali Grilled Chicken Sandwich, which was insanely good. The crazy huge chicken barely fit on the brioche bun. It was smothered in Swiss cheese, tomato, avocado and ranch!
Since I had big plans to eat half of Don's fries, I ordered a house salad which was pretty deluxe, with shaved Parmesan, avocado and cucumber. We soaked in the good flavors, while we enjoyed a nearby singer, performing on guitar. No saloon honky tonk at McGarity's.
This wasn't exactly a dining adventure, but it was a dining escape. There was something truly odd about our hotel stay (written in my 90 Nights blog) and we needed this little getaway, before we faced the night.
Just like our hotel, the saloon was full of knickknacks and treasures and oddities. But there was something absolutely okay about the moose and the buffalo watching us eat. We said good-bye to them and headed back to our hotel... where nearly 100 sets of doll eyes watched us sleep!
Last May, I was thrilled to have an excuse to experience this fun place in North Austin.
The 4-part sign itself, was worth a visit. At the bottom, I spotted important info, including...Curb Service! A little higher, I saw the word CHARCOAL, with little flames beneath! Further up, I'd admired colorful letters spelling, TOP NOTCH. They were surround by lightbulbs. All was topped with a burger! Too bad the burger wasn't spinning!
The reason we stopped, was actually to purchase a t-shirt and hat for our son. Scott lives in California now and misses his Austin days.
Words on the shirt reminded us, that Top Notch turned 50 last year. That is actually pretty darn young.
Beer & Burgers
If we hadn't needed to do some shopping, we could have enjoyed carhop services outside. But it was fun peek inside the homey place.
We ordered burgers off the illuminated menu and studied the Lone Star chandelier, above! Beer at a fast food place?
There was lots to look at and watch, as we waited on the order. We could enjoy the decor around the window. Longhorns and longhorn art!
We also could watch the cooking through the glass. Top Notch isn't your typical fast food joint. They cook on a charcoal grill, just like the sign said.
There were other decorated walls, with curious goodies to study. I'm sure there's a story behind the coach & horses, displayed on the shelf.
The display was too high up for me to get a good look. But it looked old and appealed to my love of antiques and miniature things. I wish I could have bought that instead of a t-shirt.
Dazed & Confused
There was a glass case dedicated to movies that have featured Top Notch. I guess the props are from the film, "Dazed and Confused"? Not sure. I'm confused. And maybe the term film, is too classy for the 1993 cult movie.
I'm afraid I have never seen the classic, starring Matthew McConaughey.
Actually, McConaughey didn't star in the movie. He was a film student at UT, when he landed a bit part.
I haven't seen the movie, but I've seen the classic clip, where M.M. pulls into Top Notch and speaks in his distinct voice, "Aright Alright Alright..."
This image from the scene amuses me. Matthew looks nothing like the Oscar winning actor we all know. He does however look very much like my hubby, Don... in the 1970's.
The celebrity I really wanted to meet was Mr. Mike Fresch. Here he is, grilling our burgers on the indoor charcoal grill, beneath an awesome set of giant utensils.
I spoke only briefly with Mr. Fresch and he was incredibly friendly and also very busy. He's been working over this grill for 27 years. He's earned lots of fans and respect. Mr. F. was given a trip to Vegas for his 20th anniversary!
The dining room looked like it hadn't changed much since Ray and Frances Stanish opened the place, in 1971.
I graduated from high school in 1975, so I know the Dazed and Confused/Top Notch Era, well.
But some parts of the restaurant felt even older. The photo booth may not have been 50 years old, but the idea of teens and photo booths, made me nostalgic.
The skinny little bathroom doors, looked like they could have gone back to the sixties. Very possible. Before Top Notch opened, there was another restaurant in this building. From 1963 to 1971, Burkhart's Motor Dining, was under this roof. I couldn't dig up any photos.
By the time Mike had finished our burgers, I had pondered enough to realize I'd failed to order all the proper things. I took the steaming bags happily, but wished that I'd ordered onion rings and fried pies... and fried chicken!
When I stepped outside, I saw a white van delivering poultry. Evidently fried chicken is one of the best foods served at Top Notch. Or was that van, just a customer getting curb service?
We raced home with our food and didn't waste a second, jumping in! Almost forgot to snap a photo.
This pic is hardly giving my burger meal the spotlight it deserves. But I loved the charcoal burger with all the cheese and fixings. My fries were not limp, even after the drive. And my cold soda tasted extra fine, in my waxy-woodgrain cup!
What a top notch fast food adventure!
Texas Diner in an Alsatian Town
In May, Don and I returned to our small town dining adventures. We found ourselves in the curious small town of Castroville. The community was established in 1844, by a few dozen European families that came from Alsace.
On this visit we didn't find any options for Alsatian dining. So, we went for Sammy's, with its busted sign.
Signs of the Past
Sammy's didn't look overly exciting, but it had good reviews and a good history. The same family has owned Sammy's for 3 generations, since 1948. I'm all for family owned restaurants.
Sammy's was a drive-in, at one time. And Sammy's brother Leon was also part of the biz, long ago. I prefer the retro look of the old Sammy's.
Weathering Pandemics and Tornadoes
When we arrived, we could hardly read the sign. The white letters on top, had been sucked right out by a tornado, that came through Castroville a couple weeks before.
We were greeted by another sign when we entered. It was kind of nice to see a sign encouraging masks, in small town Texas. Don and I are vaccinated, but the pandemic isn't really over. We're happy to wear masks a while longer.
Empty Counter Dining
I love the nostalgia of dining at the counter. This counter looked lonely. Were people avoiding the counter, out of covid caution? I'm guessing not.
These stools brought back some funny memories. I remember getting reprimanded by grandmother for spinning on a similar stool, while I enjoyed my malt in 1970.
The cocktail lounge was closed off, but I took a peek. I heard that this was the only place in Medina County with a full cocktail bar. The cushioned bar-top looked like it was designed for guests who might have had one too many, and needed a little nap.
In the far back of the lounge, I spotted a decorated fireplace. The cozy stone hearth looked like it belonged in a lodge somewhere. It seemed oddly out of place.
The main dining room was fairly busy.
No fireplace there, but I saw some golf on TV and some alcoves with flowers and plenty of tables, crowded with dishes. I had a feeling we were the only non locals at Sammy's. I also had a feeling that these local diners weren't just now coming back to inside dining like Don and me.
Fish in a Mask
Maybe Don and I looked like nervous diners, who are unsure about navigating the dining world in 2021. Maybe that's why she put us in a little side room, not far from a mounted fish head, on the wall.
The head of the 64-pound catfish, was wearing a face mask. The plaque seemed to give credit to Sammy and his brothers for the catch, in 1998. Sadly Sammy and Leon are no longer with us.
Our server was efficient and friendly. I told her I was going for the daily lunch special. She asked me lots of questions, because I had lots of choices.
I was pretty giddy when my feast arrived. I clearly chose the world's most unhealthy lunch.
A Better Look
You can catch a glimpse of Don's breakfast tacos. They were quite good. But my plate needed the real focus of this photo.
Fried shrimp, macaroni and cheese, onion rings, fried mushrooms, ambrosia salad and iced tea. I don't adore ambrosia, but I picked it because I wasn't sure whenever I'd see it on a menu again. Good choice! Coconut, juicy oranges, nuts! A tropical treat! The bread came from Haby's bakery across the street. Another treat!
Our simple dining adventure was just that. Simple and pretty tasty!
As we headed out, I noticed a few masks and it felt good to see others being cautious along with us. Tricky times, as we ease back to normal. I'm glad to have Sammy's as one of my 2021 back to dining adventures experiences.
The Dining Blog
This is a blog about Dining Adventures. Sometimes, I talk about food. Below, you can read how this started.
On July 4th 2011, I set a goal to try 50 culturally diverse restaurants in one year! (I knew that was possible, living in the Houston area) I spent the year pulling in friends and family to join me, on some unusual dining adventures. I met some curious people, tried some scary foods and explored places and cultures I never would have otherwise. Even though I met my goal, I learned too much to end my adventures in dining. I have continued blogging about memorable dining adventures of all kinds, near and far... and all the discoveries and funny things I've learned along the way!
Locations and types of dining adventures, are listed further down.