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Best dang food joint in Texas

By Wayne Drash, CNN
  • The Hotel Coffee Shop has been serving locally raised food for over 100 years
  • The restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch in the town of Blessing
  • "If you go away hungry, it's your fault," owner Helen Feldhousen says
  • Message from town founder on wall: "May God Bless the world and have mercy on sinful men"

Blessing, Texas (CNN) -- Reading glasses sit at the community table in the corner of The Hotel Coffee Shop. It's for the men too stubborn to bring their own.

Nearby, coffee drips into a pot. Serve yourself: It's done on the honor system. "Will trade coffee for gossip," a message says on the wall.

The coffee -- and stories -- begin flowing at 5:30 a.m. when a resident of Blessing (population 850) strolls in and flips on the machine. Breakfast isn't ready until 7 a.m. but that doesn't stop the locals from congregating.

Owner Helen Feldhousen dubs the community gossip table "the Blessing News." The town "news" begins here and spreads like kudzu. Two topics are off-limits: church and politics, because "too many people, ya' know, get upset over it."

The trend in the nation's urban kitchens is to grow as locally as possible. These yuppified purveyors of perfection get fruit, vegetables and meat from nearby farmers, and they wax poetically about how chic they are.

"They're in for a surprise when they come to Blessing," Feldhousen says.

She laughs because her joint -- said to be one of the oldest in Texas -- began serving mouth-watering, locally grown food long before it was cool. The cafe has been doing it for more than 100 years.

Her family raised cows, chickens and sheep. Any animal that didn't win a prize at local fairs "got ate." One resident grows his own vegetables -- and gives them to Feldhousen to cook at the cafe for everyone else.

I hope I'll last forever. I ain't got no thinking about quittin' yet.
--Helen Feldhousen

Against a back wall, her work is on display atop two wood-burning stoves converted into steam tables. It's a heaping helping of grandma's home cooking: Fried chicken "as big as a turkey" that brings tears to your eyes; tender roast beef that melts in your mouth. Then there are the slow-cooked green beans and mashed potatoes.

Help yourself. Eat as much as you want. Go back for seconds. "If you go away hungry, it's your fault."

Her secret ingredient, she says, is love.

In a nation filled with food-joint gems, The Hotel, as locals simply call it, stands out as one of the best. In my travels as a CNN journalist, it's the best dang food joint I've stumbled upon in Texas. It's well worth getting off the beaten path and taking the 1½-hour drive from Houston.

And unlike fancy city restaurants, you won't go broke here. Lunch costs $8.50. Sunday, the all-you-can-eat buffet is $9. Christmas is the only day of the year the restaurant is closed.

The ambiance is almost as good as the food.

The chairs and tables here are as old as the restaurant, 103 years old to be exact. One hexagonal table and its six chairs are made, not from trees, but from brush cleared to make way for this restaurant and hotel, which opened when Teddy Roosevelt was president.

The only thing that's really changed over the past century is that diners used to go straight into the kitchen to help themselves, but the Health Department banned that in 1981.

The Hotel Coffee Shop is located about 100 miles southwest of Houston, in the back of the historic Hotel Blessing, where a room costs $25 a night or $35 for a room with a bathroom.

Jonathan E. Pierce founded the town around the turn of the 20th century. He initially wanted to name the community "Thank God" -- as in, Thank God he had a place to ship his cattle.

"The postal department wouldn't let him do that," Feldhousen says. "He said, 'What about Blessing?'"

A message from the town founder, etched into a windowpane with his diamond ring, still looms in the restaurant. "Forever shall my memory live in the heart of my people," Pierce wrote. "May God Bless the world and have mercy on sinful men."

The cafe has been going nonstop since it opened December 1, 1907. It's open for breakfast, beginning at 7 a.m., and lunch, closing at 2 p.m. It's not open for supper.

Patrons from all 50 states and 17 countries have signed the guest book. Many of the customers come from the nearby South Texas Nuclear Power Plant.

Feldhousen first began working here in 1969. A housewife, she started in the kitchen. She cooked, she cleaned, she did chores.

By September 1, 1977, Feldhousen took over the whole restaurant. Her favorite dish is country fried steak and fried chicken; dessert is peach cobbler.

Now a great-grandmother, Feldhousen has no plans to retire.

"I hope I'll last forever. I ain't got no thinking about quittin' yet."

When you taste the food, you may find yourself, like the town founder, saying, "Thank God." As in, thank God this place exists.