After a week of baseball games, practices, scrimmages—not to mention driver’s ed classes every day for the son and a really lousy week of subpar food items at GM’s house because of all this (“Mom, do you realize I had donuts for breakfast [“hey, they were Krispy Kreme”], nachos for lunch [“hey, I browned the meat myself for that taco meat topping”], and now pizza for dinner” [“now wait a minute…that was a superb thin crust on the Napoletana-style pizza at Salvation Pizza”]--it is now the weekend again. And that means a baseball tournament—in Houston.
I love a road trip to Houston. Far better than road trips to Dallas, which are a living hell because of just the way I-35 is all the way from Dallas to San Antonio.
People are divided on the best route from Austin to Houston. Some people swear by taking 290 through Giddings and Brenham. Others would go no way but by Highway 71 through Bastrop and catching I-10 at Columbus. I’m a 71/I-10 person. I would rather stick a needle in my eye than wade through all those stoplights in Giddings, Brenham, etc. taking 290.
But the best part of the 71/I-10 route is a small stretch of road on Highway 71 between Columbus and La Grange where the speed limit drops suddenly to 55 mph. It has to drop down precipitously because you need to slow down to take the left turn (coming from Austin) into Hruska’s. And you need to slow down also to deal with all the traffic of folks just finishing their own stop at Hruska’s and getting back on the road to Austin or Houston.
I’ve been stopping at Hruska’s as my Austin/Houston rest stop for close to a decade now. It is a Chevron station, yes, and therefore a very good strategic stopping point to get gas before hitting the racetrack that is I-10. And it has always been a good potty break. But there are a couple of other gas stations nearby – such as a Shell, which I don’t know how it stays in business with Hruska’s next door. I think it only gets business when Hruska’s is jam packed and not a single parking place is left.
Which does happen.
Hruska’s was a super quirky place back then, and by back then I mean just a few years ago, but it was founded in 1947 actually. It was a little dark in there, as in low, low-end lighting. Seating to stay and eat some sandwiches you could pick up there was maybe nothing more than picnic tables. It was a great bathroom stop, even then. But it also had this crazy good bakery inside with insanely good kolaches – far better than tough doughy outsides and icky sweet insides I typically think of when I think kolache (leaving aside for the moment the bacon kolache).
But the really crazy part is that it also had a home furnishings and scrapbooking section back in the back. Even more crazy is that they had some really great stuff. I should know. I bought a lot of it.
There was a time when I could not escape Hruska’s without getting a new set of lamps. You could get a really darling little lamp for like $40 or far less. I have in my bedroom some cute black lamps with black and white polka-dot shades. I have this verdigris one that should be in the living room. And the two little lamps on the buffet in my dining room are from Hruska’s.
In addition to the kolaches, homemade bread, homemade egg noodles, and of course University of Texas Longhorn and Texas A&M paraphernalia and ample kitsch and camo and “gone-fishin’ themed koozies, there were a few other specialty food items – some interesting sauces to pour over cream cheese to which you could add a few crackers and voila –instant tasty appetizer—and maybe some candles. And of course the array of off-brand country western CDs up near the register and some cookbooks from the local ladies guild of one sort or another.
Hruska’s back then also had what were then (and now) the highlight of my visit there: their specialty cookies. They were packaged in a tidy little stack of 5 in plastic, tied with a twist tie, and labeled and piled high in square baskets – all along the top of the counter for self-serve purposes: Ranger Cookies, Coconut Pecan Cookies, Chocolate Chip Cookies, Peanut Butter Cookies, etc.
One day several years ago – during the weekly Houston-Austin treks with the son to check on house-building progress in Austin – the son, way young then, happened to pick out the Ranger Cookies. I had never heard of them, but they quickly became addicting. I noticed the ingredients: corn flakes, coconut, brown sugar, pecans – and that combo alone says something. And they also must use my secret baking tip of extra vanilla. Whatever it is, they became a staple and a ritual for me – for years –to stop at Hruska’s and get Ranger Cookies for the son. I don’t know if he cares anymore, but the cookies still manage to disappear after I get them home.
A few weeks ago I had to get to Houston - World Malbec Day at the Houston Polo Fields! - and it had been way too long since I had had a Hruska’s fix. This time the traffic was insane coming up on Hruska’s– cars pulling in and out, into the middle lane to head east to Houston, pulling into traffic to head west to Austin. Every gas pump had a car at it. The parking lot was full and parking could be had only all along the curb and way down the street. What on earth??
Well, Hruska’s was being renovated and expanded. This I knew from the signage I’d been seeing during the past year. But now, wow. Hruska’s is on steroids. It is all tricked out. There are more and more specialty food items: preserves and sauces and marmalades, candies, chocolate covered blueberries and coffee beans, gourmet coffees, and an express lane for cookies – for those wanting to just grab and go, those not waiting in the long line, to get a kolache or 5 or 10 and get them all warmed up to golden buttery goodness such that the tang of the cream cheese (for example) contrasts even more dramatically and deliciously with the warm tender buttery outside part… And there are rows upon rows of check-out lanes and lines of people – at all of them!
I’m happy for the entrepreneurial spirit at work here, and love especially the mural they’ve done to warm up what is now a cavernous space, all light and bright now.
But I miss the old Hruska’s. The people who work there are just as nice and efficient, but the quirky charm is gone. As is the oddly good lamp selection from years past. But, yea, I still stopped and got the Ranger Cookies today.
In case you've been living under a rock as I had been, as I had never heard of these cookies until the son picked them out of the line up, there are recipes galore out there for Ranger Cookies -- but a recipe with corn flakes would be more true to the Hruska’s version and give it that funky texture of crunchy chewy.
I would never, ever try to make these myself. Just no point in ruining a good thing of picking up a warm stack of Ranger Cookies during a road trip to Houston. And I'm pretty sure they are a better heart-healthy option than a stack of warm cream cheese kolaches.