Contributor Jennifer Bain visits Fredericksburg, Texas, exploring its culinary, wine, and cultural treasures.
Fredericksburg is deep in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, not far from where President Lyndon B. Johnson sometimes ran the country from the “Texas White House” on his cattle ranch.
I came to this Texan-German town in December to see why it’s such a popular weekend getaway for people from Austin and San Antonio (both just over an hour away) and attracts visitors from afar.
I also wanted to explore the second busiest wine tourism destination in America after Napa Valley.
But I found plenty of reasons to love Fredericksburg.
Falling for green chili grits
I would go back to Fredericksburg for a second helping of Caliche Coffee Bar & Roastery’s grits, the deeply delicious bowl of grits that I tasted at the coffee shop on Main Street.
Instead of being thickened with heaps of butter, cheese and cream, these grits are flavored with chicken stock, roasted poblanos, onions and garlic. Shredded chicken and sliced avocados provide heft, while toasted pepitas bring the crunch and chives add a finishing touch.
Served for breakfast and lunch, this grits bowl was created by a former employee. Caliche’s owners, John and Evelyn Washburne, kept the popular and gluten-free menu item because they love clean, local food.
They’re also quick to praise “the really amazing collective” that brings this coffee shop on Main Street to life.
The intrigue of Main Street
Speaking of Main Street, it has been years since I enjoyed shopping but I hadn’t visited a historic downtown like the one in Fredericksburg that boasts block after block of independently owned and operated stores.
Chains aren’t welcome. Instead, there are 150-plus stores, boutiques and art galleries including Gypsies & Cowgirls (for clothes), Quintessential Chocolates (for wine-filled chocolate) and Piccolina (for small batch Italian ice with Hill Country ingredients).
Pairing wine with treats
With more than 60 wineries, vineyards and tasting rooms in Gillespie County, I kicked things off with a tour and tasting at Pedernales Cellars with co-founder/CEO Julie Kuhlken. When I moved on to the Texas Wine Collective, I was surprised to see five desserts (supermarket level) alongside five wine glasses.
With guidance from Caroline Eidson, I nibbled Mexican wedding cookies and sipped Texas Wanderer Sparkling Rosé. I devoured a Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cake that came with McPherson Cellars’ Roussanne. I dismembered a Little Debbie gingerbread man while trying Lost Oak Winery Holiday Red, and enjoyed a Christmas Cherry Cordial cookie with Brennan Vineyards Tempranillo. Finally, there was a pairing of fruitcake — from Walmart — with Lost Oak Winery Dolce Rouge.
How fun is that?
“One of the fundamental rules is that wine tastes sweeter with food,” points out Eidson, the collective’s business development manager. “We just break that rule.” Being Canadian, I’m new to the cult of Little Debbie but consider the whole “treats and wine” pairing a brilliant idea.
(One caveat — despite more than two decades as a food writer, and two cookbooks to my name, I’m not much of a drinker.)
Succumbing to the tasty state vegetable
Also brilliant are the Texas-size onion rings at Hill & Vine. They’re hand-breaded, panko crusted and served with adobo lime ketchup and chimichurri ranch dipping sauce.
Owner Jesse Barter shares a lovely backstory. His grandmother Darlene Barter championed specialty crops in the Rio Grande Valley while working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1960s. She was the first female marketing manager for the government agency and one of her signature products was 1015 onions.
The Texas sweet onion — the official state vegetable — is named for the fact that this crop is typically planted on Oct. 15 each year. “We serve these massive rings in honor of my grandmother’s legacy,” explains Barter.
Hill & Vine opened in 2021 with the slogan “The Farm and Ranch Show” above the open kitchen. Other standout dishes are the Smoked Carnitas Nachos and a trio of toasts (tomato burrata, avocado and local mushrooms). Half of the wine menu is Texan. Also worth noting is the way the menu starts with “Willkommen Y’all” — a bilingual greeting you’ll also see while shopping along Main Street.
The rich history & heritage of Fredericksburg
Established on May 8, 1846, Fredericksburg was the second German town in Texas founded by the Adelsverein, better known as the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants. John O. Meusebach named the settlement Friedrichsburg (later changed to Fredericksburg) to honor Prince Frederick of Prussia.
On March 1, 1847, Meusebach met with several Comanche tribes to negotiate a treaty between them and the town. The Meusebach–Comanche Treaty is considered one of the few American pacts that was never broken, and J. Hester’s bronze monument Lasting Friendship in the town’s Pioneer Memorial Garden depicts the friendly negotiations.
Fredericksburg is now home to about 11,000 people — a number that doubles and triples with weekend visitors — and proudly mixes German heritage with Texan hospitality.
From late November until early January, look for the 30-foot Christmas tree and a German Christmas pyramid in the Marketplatz (Market Square). As part of Fredericksburg’s Christmas Nights of Lights, at 6 p.m. each night, a 10-minute audio presentation features the German heritage story, carols and a countdown to the lighting of the whole square.
To get the lay of the land, I hopped on a trolley with Fredericksburg Tours that left from the Fredericksburg Visitor Information Center. “I always like to say that when you’re in Fredericksburg, the past is present,” driver/historian David D. Schafer said, adding that this town “has a Texan heart but a German soul.”
The town is proud of its National Museum of the Pacific War, which is a Smithsonian Affiliate and boasts more than 55,000 square feet of exhibit space spread over three galleries on six acres. You’ll hear all about hometown hero Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander-in-chief of Allied Forces, Pacific Ocean Area.
Origins of the Sunday Houses
Schafer regaled us with stories about a local architectural oddity known as Sunday Houses. The original German settlers were given 10 acres of farmland plus a lot in town where they built small houses. They wound up living on their farms and coming to town only on weekends to rest, eat, trade and go to church.
Sunday Houses are still sprinkled throughout Fredericksburg and you can see one at the Pioneer Museum, a collection of structures preserved from the 19th century German pioneer days.
Legacies of the ‘Texas White House’
Another big draw a half hour from town is the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, which tells the cradle-to-grave story of America’s 36th president. It promises to be an American hotspot on Apr. 8, 2024 when it’s slated to experience four minutes and 14 seconds of darkness starting at 1:33 p.m. during the total solar eclipse.
Since Johnson worked so much from home back between 1963 and 1969, some feel he really drew the first tourists to the region. Combine the national park (which is divided over two districts) with a visit to the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park & Historic Site and its Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm. Between the two parks, you’ll see unusual “LBJ” horn brands on Hereford cattle that are descended from the president’s herd, and may spot bison and Texas longhorns.
A conservation park worth visiting
But the most unusual animals I saw in Texas were much more exotic.
Four reticulated giraffes (Kafele, Betty, Tana and Kili Rose) and three white rhinos (Fred, Barney and Justin) born in accredited U.S. zoos now call Longneck Manor home.
Owner/director Rick Barongi worked in zoological parks for decades and took dozens of trips to Africa before creating this haven to offer “conservation adventures” that inspire people to help save animals in the wild. You can sleep in luxury villas, or a “Giraffe Suite” in the barn, or just take a 75-minute tour. That’s how, under the watchful eyes of two animal care specialists, I got to pat Barney and feed lettuce to the sweet baby giraffe Kili (short for Kilimanjaro).
Fredericksburg: Where nobody goes hungry or thirsty
Texas fed me well, that’s for sure. At the Fredericksburg Inn & Suites breakfast buffet, I made Texas-shaped waffles. At Leroy’s Tex Mex BBQ, I loved the Hot Cheetos dust that was sprinkled over corn, crema, cotija cheese, cilantro and lime in the elote cup.
Before lunch at the Hill Country Herb Garden, I toured the culinary garden and peeked into its cottages while sipping on a blackberry bliss mocktail.
The drinks continued at Dietz Distillery. It was started by Dietz Fischer who was raised in a family of entrepreneurs that bought 60 acres of land and planted a peach orchard in 1928, and then launched Fischer & Wieser Specialty Foods in 1969.
The distillery is on the same property as the family’s country store, Das Peach Haus, which is packed with more than 150 jams, jellies, sauces and other products.
My private dinner experience included pumpkin and hatch chile soup and sticky cranberry gingerbread.
One more stop: Nearby Luckenbach
I made the most of three nights in Fredericksburg. There was even time for a pilgrimage to Luckenbach, a place that has long intrigued and confused me.
It turns out that writer/humorist John Russell (Hondo) Crouch bought the land near Fredericksburg in 1971, turned it into a make-believe town and anointed himself mayor. His musician pal, Jerry Jeff Walker, soon recorded Viva Terlingua live at the Luckenbach Dancehall and helped usher in the age of outlaw country subgenre of country music.
Then Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson cemented this quirky spot’s place on musical bucket lists by recording “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love).”
As John Bardy put on a free afternoon show in the Pickers Circle, I posed by the “Luckenbach Pop. 3” sign. I bought t-shirts and sweatshirts with the slogan “Everybody’s Somebody in Luckenbach” and earned a wooden nickel that was good for one beverage in the bar.
This being Texas wine country, I ignored the beer, combined my nickel and a friend’s nickel and got a half bottle of Basics of Love Rosé made just for Luckenbach by Becker Vineyards.
Jennifer Bain is an award-winning freelance travel writer and the Canada editor for US-based National Parks Traveler. She has written three travel books and two cookbooks.
All photo credits: Jennifer Bain
Disclosure: The author was hosted by Visit Fredericksburg but any opinions expressed in this post are her own.
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