|On the road (but not in Texas)|
Note also that this is not meant to be all-inclusive. There are probably plenty of other great little joints off the interstates, which I just haven't bothered stopping at because I'd rather power for a couple more hours and get home.
Chuy'sTown: Van Horn
Where: IH-10, Exit 140B (121 miles east of El Paso; 172 miles west of Midland; 433 miles west of San Antonio)
What: Mexican food
No, this isn't the same Chuy's of Jenna Bush fame. That Chuy's is a chain with locations throughout Austin, Dallas, and Houston. This Chuy's is a dive-esque Mexican joint on the old Bankhead Highway in Van Horn. As you would expect this far west in West Texas, the Mexican here is more Santa Fe-style (think red chile or green chile sauce), as opposed to the standard Tex-Mex you find elsewhere in the state. Having grown up east of Dallas, I'm not particularly keen on New Mexico-style Mexican food, but this version is pretty good, and certainly miles better than eating at Subway, Applebee's, or the other junk you typically find off the freeway. I like the chicken enchiladas with green chile sauce and an egg on top. Chuy's was also made famous about 25 years ago when John Madden stopped in for a visit; there is now a special named after him on the menu. Believe it or not, you can actually reserve a table at Chuy's on Open Table. I wouldn't bother, though. The few times I've been here, I've not had a wait for a table.
NOTE: The next towns of significance past Van Horn are El Paso to the west (121 miles) or Pecos (77 miles) and Fort Stockton (118 miles) to the east. If you're feeling even a little bit peckish, you'd be well advised to stop here.
Luigi's Italian CafeTown: Mt. Pleasant
Where: IH-30, Exit 160 (114 miles east of Dallas; 63 miles west of Texarkana)
What: Italian - what else?
I stumbled a sign for this place from the freeway late one evening while driving back home from Memphis. It's about a mile and a half or so south of the freeway on Highway 271, but it turned out to be worth the slightly longer drive. Luigi's wasn't the best Italian restaurant I've ever been too, but it was solid, and certainly a far better option than the usual McDonald's. Good garlic rolls, and my wife had some seafood linguine, which she liked well enough to take the leftovers home. Avoid the cheese sticks, which were rubbery and didn't have much taste.
Czech StopTown: West
Where: IH-35, Exit 353 (18 miles north of Waco, 74 miles south of Dallas)
What: kolaches and deli sandwiches
The bakery half of the Czech Stop is officially known as The Little Czech Bakery, and is most famous for its kolaches (not a dough-wrapped hot dog or sausage that most people think of - more like a danish pastry). The kolaches are indeed delicious, and I would always make it a point to stop in and grab a box on my way home from client meetings in Austin or Waco. But the Little Czech Bakery also has a pretty wide selection of fresh baked breads and cookies, and the Czech Stop next door has a selection of made-to-order and prepackaged deli sandwiches. I tried a turkey and cheese sandwich there once, and while it would have been even better if I'd eaten it right away instead of taking it on the road, it was pretty good, and provides a good option if you're looking for a quick lunch or dinner (there are also a few tables in the Czech Stop if you prefer to dine in). Also, the attached Shell gas station is usually as cheap or cheaper than surrounding areas, so if you're like me and like to kill two birds with one stop, this is a good place to do it.
NOTE: don't be scared off by the lines. The Czech Stop has line management down to a science; the longest I've ever had to wait was 5-10 minutes. Also, the Little Czech Bakery closes at 7:00, but all bakery products are available at the Czech Stop next door 24/7.
The Elite Circle DinerTown: Waco
Where: IH-35, Exit 333A (at the La Salle Avenue traffic circle)
What: homestyle Texas cuisine
The Elite has been a Waco institution since the beginning of time, it seems. You can't miss the sign off to the east if you're heading down Interstate 35. The Elite specializes in homestyle Texas food; think chicken fried steak and King Ranch casserole. It was every bit as delicious as it sounds on my last visit a couple of years ago, particularly the chicken fried steak with white cream gravy. Beware, however - you will feel like a beached whale after eating (too much) here. A lunch stop here perhaps isn't a great idea, unless you have a backup driver that's sticking to the veggies. A better idea is probably a dinner stop, if you're stopping for the night in or near Waco, so you can sleep off the chicken fried steak coma afterwards. Also, The Elite isn't fast food, so if you're in a huge hurry to get somewhere, this probably isn't your place.
The Big Texan SteakhouseTown: Amarillo
Where: IH-40, Exit 74
What: steak, and lots of it
I don't recommend the Big Texan so much for the food. The steaks are OK, but you can do better elsewhere. It is, however, a unique, albeit cheesy, piece of Route 66 memorabilia, complete with a cheesy eating contest. What is the contest, you ask? Eat a 72-ounce steak, PLUS all the sides, in one hour or less, and you get the whole thing free, along with your picture on the wall. One of these days, I'm going to enter that contest, just for the laughs of a little Indian guy chowing down on a 72-ounce steak (hopefully at least a couple of you reading this get the irony in that statement). If you're not from Texas, and want an example of how everything here can be larger than life, this place is worth a visit. That and even though you can get a better steak, it still beats Burger King.