"We have Divine Reserve number 9," the bartender at Cedar Creek Cafe said when I asked which Saint Arnold's beers he had on tap. I was shocked. It was December 1, the day that the latest Divine Reserve, as Saint Arnold's limited edition beers are known, was released.
At Spec's downtown location, the line of people eager to buy the beer had started forming an hour and a half before the store opened that Tuesday morning. All day long, I had been watching Twitter reports about which stores still had six-packs of DR#9 available. As one of the most popular new beer bars in town, Cedar Creek Cafe was deemed worthy to receive a precious keg of the Divine elixir. And I had the good sense to eat dinner there that night.
"It won't last long; a lot of people are calling to see if we still have any left," the bartender told me. I ordered a DR#9 for me and an Amber Ale for my dining companion, who doesn't care much for big, black beers.
1034 W. 20th St., 713-808-9623.
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Mondays through Wednesdays;11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays; 7 a.m. to midnight Sundays.
Catfish and grits: $9
Biscuit Benedict: $9
Texas Frito Pie: $6
Shrimp BLTA: $10
"It smells like cough syrup," she said, sniffing the pumpkin-flavored Imperial stout in my pint glass.
"That's the pumpkin pie spices," I told her. The black-colored beer wasn't as sweet as it smelled. The throaty brew had lots of pumpkin pie notes mixed in with the deep malt and hops flavors. It was a beer you want to chew — more like a dessert than a beverage.
You order at the bar and take a number back to your table. For an appetizer, we got what the menu called a Texas Frito Pie, which included sour cream and jalapeños along with the chips, cheese and chili con carne. It came in a bowl rather than a bag and there were a lot of chips, but not that much chili.
For dinner we split the sexy-sounding shrimp BLTA, an oversize sandwich with fried jumbo shrimp, bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado. The shrimp were excellent, as was the bacon. It's not exactly tomato season, but that's okay. I do wish the toasted healthy bread the shrimp and bacon came on wasn't sliced quite so thick. It threw off the bread-to-filling ratio.
We also split a Hill Country Burger, Cedar Creek's most basic burger choice. Like most of the burgers on the menu, it was made with a half-pound, fresh-ground Hereford beef patty. The burger came on a toasted whole wheat bun that was sprinkled on the outside with some whole grains that looked like oatmeal. It arrived open-faced — you had to unite the halves yourself.
The bottom bun was spread with mustard and topped with two lengthwise pickle slices, red onion and the burger meat. The crown bun was spread with mayo and topped with lettuce and tomato. When it was all put together, it was a very good burger, though not a world-class burger.
"The burger meat is too dense," my tablemate observed. Though the burger patty was cooked perfectly until the interior was pink, the firmly compressed meat wasn't as juicy as it might have been.
Last January, when I reviewed Cedar Creek's sister restaurant, Dry Creek Cafe, I erroneously reported that the burger patty was previously frozen. I was contacted by the manager, who explained that the "Creek Group" restaurants all use fresh-ground beef.
The reason I thought the Dry Creek burger patty was frozen is because Dry Creek, like Cedar Creek, shapes their fresh-ground meat with a patty machine. The mechanical meat compactor gives the meat a uniform shape and makes it easier to handle, but it packs the meat too tight. Six months after I reviewed Dry Creek, the restaurant's burger was ranked number 35 in the Texas Monthly list of the state's top burgers, so obviously other people like their burgers this way.
Cedar Creek's menu lists ten hamburger variations, including The Cowboy, with a fried egg, bacon, cheese and avocado salsa; The Duke, with Fritos, chili and cheese; the Laredo, with jalapeños and guacamole; and a bison burger. There are also three chicken burgers and three meatless burgers.
With 30 beers on tap and 16 burgers on the menu, I think it's fair to call Cedar Creek Cafe a beer-and-burger joint.
Cedar Creek Cafe calls itself a Hill Country Cafe. There are little signs with the names of Hill Country towns like Blanco and San Saba hanging randomly around the outside of the place. The "Creek Group" now includes three Central Texas-themed restaurants. Of the three, I like Cedar Creek Cafe the best.
The first of the bunch, Onion Creek Cafe on White Oak Boulevard, is trying too hard to be a hip Austin coffeehouse. Dry Creek Cafe is a trendy burger-and-salad joint that suffers from the lack of alcohol, despite the fact that its namesake is an eccentric beer bar in Austin. By comparison, Cedar Creek Cafe has a fun-loving, unpretentious vibe.
There's a fireplace near the front door and several sofas where you can hang out and take advantage of the free Wi-Fi. The house java is supplied by Katz Coffee. And the breakfasts are excellent, although the restaurant doesn't open until 11 on weekdays.
Cedar Creek Cafe's outdoor dining area was voted Best Patio in this year's Houston Press Best of Houston® issue. There are lots of tables overlooking a grassy creekbed that runs right alongside the restaurant. It's all very scenic. But sadly, it was while I attempted to eat on the patio that I encountered the restaurant's biggest problem.
It was a sunny Sunday morning and the temperature was in the mid-70s. Three of us sat on the patio and ordered breakfast. The best dish I sampled was Southern Biscuit Benedict, a split biscuit topped with bacon, lightly cooked spinach, thick slices of tomato and poached eggs, with serrano hollandaise on the side.
I also liked the fried catfish and cheese grits with fried eggs. The catfish was coated with cornmeal and fried crispy on the outside, with lots of moist meat inside — it was superb. The eggs came over easy, though I ordered them sunny-side up. And the cheese grits were boring, nothing but grits and cheddar. They needed some onions and peppers or something.
A friend got the Mama's Plate with two scrambled eggs, sausage, home fries and a short stack of pancakes. He wolfed the sausage before I got a chance to taste any, but he seemed to like it. The eggs were nicely cooked too. He complained that the cubes of potato in homefries should be sautéed rather than deep-fried. But it was a minor quibble. He couldn't finish his pancakes.
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When we first sat down, we swatted at a few pesky flies. Toward the middle of our breakfast, the flies increased to an alarming swarm. And by the time we were almost finished, the flies were crawling all over the food. They seemed particularly fond of the syrupy pancakes.
Gary Mosley, the owner of the Creek Group of restaurants, hired a pest control company to take care of the problem. But as you might imagine, the Austin-themed restaurant insisted on organic remedies.
"We have tried everything," Mosley told me. "We put in cedar mulch, sprayed cedar spray, hung up plastic bags full of water, set out fly baits, bought bug lights, set up big fans — you name it."
Despite the problem, Cedar Creek Cafe is currently the most successful restaurant in the Creek Group chain. Mosley is hoping that a few good freezes this winter will take care of the patio's unwelcome guests.