best small towns texas

Tarpley, Texas

Don’t blink or you’ll miss it

That’s the way I felt driving through Tarpley, Texas on the way to Utopia. We were headed to the Lost Maples Cafe for an early dinner. (I mean, who doesn’t want to hurry up and get to Utopia already?!)

Upon the approach east to west on FM-470, a few houses suddenly appear along with a small restaurant (Mac and Ernie’s Roadside Eatery; a review HERE) to the right. After that, also on the right, is an iron fence with three sets of scores of empty glass bottles — clear, brown, green (ostensibly beer bottles without the labels — hanging there, catching the late afternoon sun from the west.

Mac and Ernie’s, by the way, calls itself a “Colorful, no-frills restaurant serving American classics with a modern twist, plus beer & wine.” By my standards, those appear to be frills enough to make me a happy diner. It also has received no small amount of media attention and was even featured on Food Networks’ “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” While we didn’t stop this time — my heart was set on Lost Maples — this is definitely on my To-Try list on Google Maps. You have to keep your eyes peeled for it on a relaxing Saturday afternoon drive.

Mac & Ernie's Roadside Eatery
Photo: Chris Bryant

Briefest of histories

Tarpley is an unincorporated community in Bandera County. It was originally a post office named Hondo Cañon and then, in 1899, was renamed Tarpley after the postmaster’s son. The population in 2000 was 30. No 2010 Census data is available, and the high water mark was 40 residents in 1984.

That’s probably all that’s needed to pack out Mac & Ernie’s on a Saturday night anyway.

From Tarpley to Utopia and back

Then on the left just after Williams Creek — like most of the Hill Country, watch for flash floods after a rainfall (like we had this week) — is Williams Creek Depot dancehall and live music venue. But you pass it so quickly accelerating up the hill that you tell yourself — and your wife — that you’ll stop there on the way back.

For now, and as you have been, you enjoy the winding and rolling up-and-down drive through the western Texas Hill Country.

Williams Creek Depot
Williams Creek Depot (dancehall and live music venue)

You have a good meal at Lost Maples Cafe. (Now we’re in Uvalde County.) Nothing especially to write home about, but the interior is so comfortable, and service so efficient, and value so good (!), that all in all it’s a win. Population of Utopia in 2010: 227. In fact, it’s a “census-designated place,” which the Federal Register defines as a, “statistical geographic entity representing closely settled, unincorporated communities that are locally recognized and identified by name.” It does not have legally defined boundaries.

“Onion rings…Mmm…”

In any event, the fried tilapia was lightly breaded and tasty; the onion rings were quite awesome. The side salad…that actually could end up in a letter home. It was a true mixture of greens, along with bits of diced red pepper, broccoli, green squash and yellow squash. The sweet tea came in a plastic cup that was almost too wide for these small, Northeastern hands to handle. And, as mentioned, service by a quick-stepping high school senior was quite efficient and friendly. He tried his best to sell us on pie. I think he knew I was the weak link of the pair, so he aimed his summary at me: apple, cherry, lemon meringue, chocolate-pecan. (Out of pecan, chocolate meringue and thankfully one or two more that I’d gladly sample had I lost all willpower and gained back the carefree stomach of a 20-something.)

Williams Creek Depot
Williams Creek Depot

The eagle

Karen and I weren’t sure, since we see so many buzzards (aka “turkey vultures”) and are therefore immune to their ubiquitous presence, but just before passing by Williams Creek Depot again, where I would stop to take the photos above, on the right shoulder we saw a similarly dark-feathered bird take off  and fly low and gracefully across the road. It lacked the tell-tale red head, had white tail feathers, and the same wide wing span. Perhaps an adolescent bald eagle, we thought.

We’d like to think.

We chose to think.


With that rare sight in mind — apparently only a few dozen (?) migrate to Texas each year — we drove back to Kerrville, passing through Bandera, “Cowboy Capital of the World” (Texans don’t tolerate the provincial nature of being only, “___ of the country”), and Camp Verde.

Later that night I kind of wished I’d got a slice of cherry pie to go.

That’s always a barometer of a good local restaurant, in my humble opinion.

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