No, this isn’t West Texas – it’s West, Texas
I have a reputation for using some seriously crazy excuses for getting behind the wheel for a long drive, a revelation that should be self-evident considering I recently drove from Dallas to Boston to catch a cruise to Bermuda. Such an excuse presented itself last week. Our office lost our regular donut vendor a couple of months ago, as its building was subsequently torn down to make way for an expansion of the Joule Hotel (see my separate post for a restaurant review of CBD Provisions at the Joule). A couple of our admins have been trading duties bringing donuts on Mondays and Fridays, but I’d been feeling a touch stir crazy lately, and I offered to bring a special treat this a couple of weeks ago – genuine Czech kolaches from the famed Little Czech Bakery in the little hamlet of West, Texas. The catch – it’s 102 miles from my house to West. That’s a long way to go for a box of kolaches. Just the kind of errand I’m crazy enough to volunteer for.
It was a picture perfect Sunday afternoon as we set out from home – sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-70s. That meant a near-perfect day for flying down the highway with the windows open to get some fresh air, and since getting there is half the fun, we decided to take a longer, scenic route to our destination. Soon after starting out, Central Expressway was backed up from LBJ Freeway almost all the way downtown due to construction, so we headed a mile east and took the historic, pre-freeway alignment of US 75 down Greenville Avenue. At the corner of Greenville and Mockingbird Lane is a remnant of one of Dallas’ most famous landmarks of years past, the Dr. Pepper headquarters building. The building was demolished in the 1990s and replaced with a Kroger, but the supermarket did keep a replica of the iconic “10-2-4” clock on its sign.
For those who are curious where “10-2-4” came from, it was derived from an old Dr. Pepper advertising slogan – “Drink a Bite to Eat at 10, 2, and 4”.
A few blocks down Greenville in the Lower Greenville restaurant/entertainment district is the Granada Theater, a movie house built in 1946. Today it still operates as a concert hall and private event space.
A little further south, the old alignment of US 75 bears right and follows Ross Avenue to downtown. As one of the city’s oldest thoroughfares, Ross has undergone dramatic transformations over the years. If you followed Ross into downtown around the turn of the 20th century, you would have seen a boulevard lined with magnificent mansions. After World War II, almost all of the mansions were torn down, replaced with used car lots and strip malls (only one mansion remains, the Belo Mansion, built by newspaper magnate A.H. Belo). The used car lots closest to what is now the east end of downtown were cleared to make way for office towers during the oil boom of the 1980s, though the remainder of the street remained rather derelict. Recently, however, Ross has been gradually gentrifying from west to east. You can see why here – the street does provide some fantastic views of the Dallas skyline as you drive west.
Dallas is a sprawling city, but as you head south, you actually enter semi-rural farming country pretty quickly. 28 miles south of Dallas down IH-35E is the town of Waxahachie, home of the magnificent red sandstone Ellis County Courthouse, completed in 1897 for the princely (at the time) sum of $175,000. The building is a contemporary of “Old Red” in downtown Dallas, and is a typical example of the rather over-the-top county buildings that were constructed in many a small Texas town in the late 19th century.
From Waxahachie, instead of taking the direct route to West via IH-35, we used a series of back roads to traverse the rolling farmland of Central Texas. Early fall is a beautiful time of year in this part of Texas, as the weather is pleasant, the landscape is still green, and the fields have just been harvested of cotton.
And a couple of hours later, we arrived at our destination, the little town of West, which bills itself the “Czech Point of Central Texas”. Officially founded in 1892, West was one of Texas’ largest Czech settlements (Ennis is the other, located approximately 50 miles to the northeast) that takes its Old World history seriously. It is best known for Westfest, a Czech heritage and polka festival held each Labor Day weekend, and its traditional Czech bakeries (four in all) serving up what we drove all this way for – kolaches. (Incidentally, West was also the site of the tragic fertilizer plant explosion in April, 2013, but the town has mostly recovered now.) Probably the best known of the bakeries, thanks to its location right on the service road of IH-35 at Exit 353, is the cleverly named Czech Stop. Some say the other bakeries make better kolaches, but I’m familiar with the Czech Stop, as are almost all of my coworkers, so that’s where we decided to pull in.
I should point out that calling the kolache place the “Czech Stop” is technically inaccurate. The actual bakery is the “Little Czech Bakery” on the right. The “Czech Stop” is the convenience store next door. That being said, the actual Czech Stop does sell the same bakery products available at the Little Czech Bakery, which will come as a major relief to those who happen upon West after the bakery is closed (usually around 8 P.M.).
Also, a quick primer on some Texas lingo. This is a kolache.
It’s a small pastry with either a fruit or cream center, though you can get one with a meat center, too, if you want something more substantial. What you will sometimes hear people refer to incorrectly as a kolache – those mini-hot dogs wrapped in bread – are known here as “pigs in a blanket”. Just make sure you know the difference; you’ll have to go elsewhere if a pig in a blanket is really what you’re after.
Also be aware, the Czech Stop is a popular stop along the interstate. VERY popular, as you can see from the line when we walked in.
It looks like a zoo inside, but they actually have line control down to a science. It only took about 20 minutes to get our kolaches and be on our way again. 18 kolaches set me back a little over $18, an incredible bargain if you think about it. Incidentally, you can buy more than just kolaches here; the bakery also has a selection of fresh sandwiches, wraps, dips, and cakes if you aren’t in the mood for a pastry. I’ve bought cookies a couple of times, and a red velvet cake and a chicken salad sandwich once – they’re all excellent, just like the kolaches.
There are no tables inside the Little Czech Bakery, though there are a few next door at the Czech Stop if you want to eat before hitting the road again. There is also a city park just across the street to the northeast where you can spread out a little, if the weather is nice. Or if you’re headed north to Dallas or Ft. Worth, there is a rest area with picnic tables about 6 miles north on IH-35.
If you’re concerned about the lines, bear in mind that the long lines are really on a problem on Sunday afternoons, when pretty much everyone traveling between Dallas and Austin, College Station, and Waco must get their mandatory kolache fix before proceeding. Personally, I think the kolaches are good enough to warrant a 20 minute wait, but if you’re the impatient type, just go next door to the Czech Stop, where as mentioned earlier, the same products are on sale. They won’t be quite as fresh, but still good. The larger issue you’re likely to face are traffic jams on IH-35, which is under continuous construction from Salado, about 55 miles north of Austin, to Abbott, a few miles north of West. The freeway is being widened to 6 lanes, but in the meantime, severe congestion can be a problem, especially on Sundays. I overheard a lady in line behind us saying that it took her almost 2 hours to get here from Salado, which is only about 70 miles to the south. You can actually drive along the frontage roads most of the way, but the best advice I can give is to check Google Maps and map out an alternate route using the many Farm-to-Market (FM) roads that roughly parallel the interstate, like we did. They are generally in pretty good shape, and can be quite scenic as they wind through the hilly farm country of Central Texas.
If you’ve made it with me this far, you might be wondering what my motivations are for this post, and the title in particular. One, of course, is to highlight the great little finds ready to discover in the small towns of Texas, and the fun you can have with a few short hours on a Sunday afternoon from Dallas. The second, though, is to satire a controversial proposal that’s been in the local news lately. Those who live in the Metroplex might get the title of this post, but for the benefit of those not from here, a short explanation is in order. A group of modern urban planners have been circulating a proposal to push the city to tear down one of downtown’s primary north-south freeways, and replace it with a low-speed boulevard. I’ll refrain from editorializing about the proposal here, but I’ll just say I’m highly skeptical and leave it at that. Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster is a teardown proponent and penned an editorial supporting the teardown, suggesting, rather Quixotically, that we’d all be better off lengthening our commutes so we could “stop for a quick coffee and a pastry” in the new neighborhood that would sprout up. No, Mr. Lamster, I’m not really interested in spending an extra 20 minutes getting to work so I can drop $10 on a piece of gluten-free cake and an organic soy milk latte at your pastry shop (not that any of this really makes a difference to me; I take the train to work). But by golly, I’ll sure as heck drive 204 miles round-trip for a 99 cent kolache.