Bobs, Boots, and Beefsteak

8f759fa1-6142-48eb-81eb-937d955f2ce1 By Ted Gartner
 

Hunting wild quail in the Lone Star State is, or should be, on the bucket list of virtually every die-hard bird hunter – and for good reason. Stretching from early November to late February, the season is lengthy, and bird limits are liberal (currently 15 per hunter per day). That means when most other states have shut down their wingshooting seasons, Texas is still going strong.

What is it that makes a West Texas quail hunt so special? Certainly, 25-bird coveys found by rangy, muscular pointers are a big part of the equation. Witnessing vast, uninterrupted landscapes and jaw-dropping sunsets are part of it, too. But you can find similar experiences elsewhere. What makes a Lone Star quail hunt so… Texan?

A big part of it is what you’ll experience as you drive the western half of the state’s wide-open Farm to Market and Ranch to Market Roads. It’s the roadside cafes and small-town businesses that support the local economy, and most importantly – the people who inhabit them. West Texas road trips always reveal new places and stories – usually ones that are as memorable as the hunts themselves.

Begin the journey by heading west through the scenic Hill Country, then make a stop at J.E. Cauthen and Sons Fine Sporting Arms in the charming German town of Fredericksburg. Visitors will find a trove of western art – not just paintings and bronzes, but ornate spurs, walking canes, and rifles, six-shooters, and shotguns – some of which possess a decidedly Texan flair.

“So many guns are engraved with grouse or woodcock, and that’s fine,” explains store manager Charlie Parcus. “We do business with customers all around the world, but some of our Texas bird hunters want a gun that reflects their Texas surroundings.”

So Cauthen and Parcus were able to persuade a high-end producer to forego the forest birds and instead depict a covey rise amid cactus and thorny mesquite trees - European craftsmanship that’s uniquely Texan. It’s that proud sense of place that you simply don’t find elsewhere.

As the hills give way to the open plains, point your truck in the direction of Buffalo Gap, population 463. In spite of its size and relative remoteness, the town is home to Perini Ranch Steakhouse, an internationally-acclaimed James Beard Award-winning restaurant. Originally an old barn located on the family’s working ranch, Tom and Lisa Perini started their restaurant in 1983, after a decade as a chuckwagon-style caterer, and before that, a rancher.

“It’s not easy making money as a rancher, because so much is out of your control,” explains Tom Perini. “When I was contemplating making the jump into the restaurant business, a mentor told me that I could do more for the beef industry by cooking it than I could by raising it.”

He was right. Steaks, and burgers are certainly the order of the day here - but you’d be remiss if you didn't order up the quail legs to start things off – delicately fried in seasoned flour. Absolutely everything is delicious here, but the one thing that’s not on the menu is pretentiousness.

“When I put a plate down in front of you, I want you to recognize it. We prepare high quality food, simply,” says Perini. And that recipe has paid off. One in ten customers travel from out of state to visit the Perini Ranch, and the Perinis have cooked for presidents, movie stars, and plenty of hunters. “This is the Texas that people expect.”

Just up the road is Abilene, a regional hub that supports the checkerboard of ranches within a hundred miles or more. One such store is 5D Custom Hats and Leather, owned by the gregarious Damon Albus. On a recent cold and rainy afternoon, his store was buzzing with honest-to-god cowboys getting old hats reshaped, purchasing hand-tooled leather goods, and catching up on the local goings-on. 

“Our customers vary from the CEO to the banker to the hunter to the day hand,” says Albus. “We listen to our customers and help them design a custom hat or leather good that fits their style. But most of all, we want to give them something that does the job that it’s intended to do.”

Interestingly, the style of western hat can vary significantly by region in Texas.

“Hats, creases, colors, size of brim and crown are all very geographical,” says Albus. “We get guys coming in all the time and we can instantly recognize what part of Texas they’re from - and that style may vary just 30 miles down the road.”

Farther west down the road is Snyder, a dusty oil and ranch town. Just west of town lies the Ponderosa Restaurant and Motel, a compound that’s best described as un-ironically humble and rustic. Upon opening the tiny restaurant’s door, you’re warmly greeted by chef and owner Luis Contreras and his wife Lucia.

Contreras is a native of southern California, who toiled many years as a high-end chef in restaurants around Los Angeles. There he prepared American, French, and Italian food, and at home his family grew up eating traditional Latino cuisine. One day, he was thumbing through the classifieds and saw the Ponderosa for sale - which he eventually purchased for $100,000 sight unseen in 2002. Having never been outside of California, Contreras and his family packed their belongings and drove the 1,200 miles to Snyder.

HIs menu is a remarkable and eclectic mix of the food that Contreras has spent his life perfecting. But he describes it as only a “suggestion,” welcoming customers to request special dishes not found on the menu. He’ll even prepare freshly-harvested quail that hunters bring in to him. While Contreras enjoys the slower pace of his West Texas surroundings and friendliness of its people, some things remain the same. 

“When you cook, a kitchen is a kitchen. Customers are the same everywhere. They want good food and they deserve to have it prepared the way they want it,” says Contreras. But he concedes there are some differences between Los Angeles residents and those of his current home. “You hear people around here complaining about paying $10,000 for a house, but they don’t bat an eye about paying $70,000 for a truck.”

Another 30 miles west, at the intersection of Farm to Market Road 669 and Highway 180, you’ll find the tiny town of Gail, the county seat of Borden County. Most folks drive right on through on their way to somewhere else. And they’ll be missing one of the most big-hearted places in all of West Texas.

From the outside, the Coyote Store looks like any other small town convenience store. But once inside, you’re greeted by Becky Justice Ford, the store’s owner. Ford purchased the Coyote Store from Bertie Copeland, her legendarily cantankerous grandmother, in 2014.

“I grew up in this place, cooking and cleaning and doing whatever Bertie told me to do,” says Ford. “It’s been able to sustain the community. There’s a special relationship that exists between the community and the Coyote Store, having served families for generations.”

The store is part short-order cafe, part meeting place, and part honky tonk. For the past year, the Coyote Store has hosted once-a-month steak dinners that feature classic 1970s and 1980s country acts like Johnny Rodriguez, The Bellamy Brothers, and T. Graham Brown, all held in a lot out back.

“Back in 2017, we took a gamble on a cooler full of meat and Johnny Rodriguez,” Ford chuckles. “We’ve been fortunate to have most of the shows sell out at 1200 tickets. That’s pretty impressive I guess, since all of Borden County has just 600 residents. If you build it, they will come.”

The Coyote Store also holds dear to some traditions that were cast aside by most businesses a half-century ago. Locals can run a line of credit. Elementary-age kids can come in after school and are looked after and served a good meal while their parents are at work.

“That’s the heart of what we do. When you’re 30 miles away from the nearest bank, the nearest doctor, or really anything, a place like this is necessary and very precious,” says Ford. “But we’re just as excited when an out-of-town hunter stops by for lunch. We view it as an opportunity to make new friends. In the off-season, a lot of hunters will call us for weather reports or just to check in.”

When you visit this part of the country, it’s hard not to appreciate the genuine, and hardworking spirit of its people. Proud but not prideful, West Texans are as welcoming as they come. So make sure to schedule that bucket list trip to the Lone Star State someday. You’re bound to make memories that extend well beyond solid points and fast-flying birds.

This story originally appeared on the Spring 2019 issue of Quail Forever Journal, available only to members of Quail Forever. If you'd like to read more of the only magazine dedicated to quail conservation, quail hunting, and the exploration of our quail-hunting culture and traditions, join Quail Forever today.