Destination Dining: These Two Chefs Are Elevating Hill Country Cuisine

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hill country cuisine
The Hye Market Restaurant offers local wares, in addition to some mighty fine cooking by chef Matt Church (Photo: Bethany Erickson)

While mentions of the Texas Hill Country are often coupled with discussions of all things wine, two chefs in the Fredericksburg area are making sure that food also enters the conversation.

From our first night at Boot Ranch, who graciously hosted our editorial retreat Sept. 15-17, we were immediately put on notice — some remarkable food is coming out of Hill Country kitchens.

Most of us had the crab cakes that night, which was paired with a corn salad that could’ve only been fresher if we shucked it ourselves. Huge chunks of crab studded what had to be the textbook example of everything the dish should be — crisp and crunchy on the outside, pillowy and savory on the inside.

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Boot Ranch Chef Casey McQueen

Breakfasts were even more revelatory. From the brisket-stuffed omelet to the delicate orange-infused yogurt to the hearty breakfast sandwiches, Boot Ranch chef Casey McQueen and sous chef Lana Black regularly make sure club members and guests leave with happy — and full — stomachs.

McQueen started his career apprenticing under James Beard award-winning chef Ann Cashion, using fresh, seasonal ingredients every day. With stints at Jax Kitchen in Tucson and The Stone Canyon Club, McQueen made his way to the Boot Ranch Clubhouse, where he found himself working with fellow Stone Canyon alums Todd Huizinga (club operations director) and Tara Osborne (food and beverage director).

It is there that he creates what McQueen terms an “approachable” gourmet menu that changes often. He and Black, who went from prep cook to executive chef at Nordstrom Cafe Bistro in San Antonio in two years — also plan themed dinners, cooking classes, wine-paired dinners, and various events and weddings as well.

“For me, food is about the experience, and I’m part of the experience,” McQueen said.

hill country cuisine

And that experience includes some of the best of Hill Country views from the clubhouse. Watching the gorgeous sunsets while dining al fresco at the clubhouse was the cherry atop a wonderful gustatory experience.

The Clubhouse also boasts a robust wine cellar and terrace off the wine cellar where the club — or guests — can host wine tastings.

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Boot Ranch’s wine tasting room boasts an amazing cellar and the opportunity for an intimate tasting experience (Photo courtesy Boot Ranch).

But we would also be remiss if we didn’t mention the other spectacular meal we had in the neighboring town of Hye. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it small burg nestled between vineyards and ranches along State Highway 290, Hye couples small-town charm with some amazing food — and the best of the best is at Hye Market Restaurant and Tasting Room.

The brainchild of Jason Cook and William Chris co-owner Chris Brundrett, Hye Market is housed in a 1904 building that was home to the town’s general store and post office (which still functions for two hours six days a week).

In fact, local lore has it that back in the day, President Lyndon Baines Johnson mailed his first letter at age four from that very post office.

Plans to renovate and reopen the old dance hall across the highway are also afoot, Cook told us.

But holy cow, the food. While chef Matt Church crafts amazing gourmet sandwiches daily, we were treated to a dinner that pretty much knocked us goofy.

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From an opening course of a delicately-dressed salad and amazing focaccia rounds topped with vegetables and cheese, to the ridiculous main course featuring lamb chops, wild boar chops, a potato salad that is still the topic of wistful conversations, and garden-fresh vegetables simply sauteed in olive oil, we were masters in gluttony that night.

hill country cuisine

And the desserts were just as sumptuous — including an unexpected pairing of peaches and chipotle peppers to create a sweet tart with a warm backnote that lasted long after the last scoop of Vogel Orchards’ ice cream melted and melded with the warm tart.

Church told us that everything is local, too. Produce comes from the market’s garden, and fruits and vegetables also come from area farmers. Cheeses and other dairy products are also local. Bread and desserts come from a local, family-owned bakery, and the meats come from Opa’s — a Fredericksburg butcher.

The store also offers growlers and growler fills, and Cook was kind enough to help several of us choose new Texas beers and wines to take home.

The market also is home to pretty much every kind of Texas beer and many wines (they hold tastings, too), as well as preserves and other wares from local businesses, making it the perfect place to stop for a bite and some gift shopping for your favorite foodies (seriously, we’re regretting not picking up a vat of the chipotle peach butter).