As a food editor and writer, I’m of course interested in the culinary scene, but I don’t have high hopes for it. I have good memories of a couple of decent Tex-Mex joints, but I’ve been disappointed on recent returns to some of my favorite steakhouses. And amid a sea of national chains, I haven’t found new independent restaurants good enough to draw me back. But I’m determined to keep an open mind.
I find what I’m looking for at Cork and Pig Tavern, where the pizza has a nice char from the wood-fired oven (something I never expected in San Angelo) and an appropriately Texan touch in the green chilies on top. But it’s not long before I get a hankering for something more old-school, so I suss out the steakhouse situation once again.
Ironically, for all the beef on the menus, San Angelo is better known as sheep country, as anyone who was around back in the Miss Wool pageant days can tell you. The city’s Producers Livestock Auction is the nation’s largest for sheep and lambs, and yet lamb doesn’t really show up on the plate, in my experience.
When I was growing up, my favorite steakhouse was Margaret Heinen’s Western Sky, where the German-born Heinen instructed her cooks to rub the steaks with garlic, a little flour and a lot of salt, and grill them over mesquite. They were divine. Western Sky has been around since 1967, just a couple of years after I was born, but Heinen sold the place in the 1990s, and things haven’t been the same since. The last time I was there . . . well, let’s just say that it will remain the last time. Same goes for Zentner’s Daughter, another childhood favorite that’s probably the most-talked-about steakhouse in town.
I decide to revisit one of the oldest restaurants around. Twin Mountain Steakhouse, a few miles outside town, is five years older than Western Sky, but it hasn’t changed much at all. Deer heads and stuffed turkeys take their place on the dark walls, and the waitresses serve what the place is known for: “scraps,” or big chunks of tenderloin pieces, plus family-style platters of sirloin. I prefer the latter because it still has a little chew to it, in a good way, but both styles of meat are expertly grilled (if slightly overcooked), generously seasoned and full of flavor. And the onion rings are textbook-perfect.
The only thing that seems different is the requisite baked potato — or more specifically, what comes with it. These days at Twin Mountain, rather than a side dish of toppings, a sad little squeeze packet of Daisy sour cream sits on the plate, and you have to rip it open yourself.
Of course, the best thing about Twin Mountain might be the prices: That plate of “scraps” — enough to feed four — is just $31.99. I find amazing deals in other places, too. When I take my mother and stepfather to the weekly farmers market to see what crops could possibly be managing in this drought, it’s like a trip to the dollar store. Four small eggplants? A dollar. A medium butternut squash? A dollar. A quart of baby peppers? Guess.
The nearby fine arts museum, which we hit on my last morning in town, is also a bargain. Most days it’s just $2 to enter this limestone building, but it’s National Museum Day, so even that is waived. We poke around in the permanent pottery display, where Chicken Farm founder Allen’s work is prominent, and then edge our way around the first-floor gallery, a crowded embarrassment of riches. I’m fascinated by a montage of photos, each of a rainbow, arranged so that they connect and spiral. As my mother rests on a bench, I make my way upstairs, taking in the abstract expressionist works by the late Zanne Hochberg (a Texan) and then going out onto the terrace, where workers are setting up for a wedding.
I gaze out over the San Angelo skyline: the Concho River in the foreground and the mostly squat group of buildings behind it. Above it all, of course, is that sky, on this day a deep blue with wisps of clouds here and there. It’s as stunning as ever. But now I know that the next time I come, there’s so much more to see.