Old Coupland Inn & Dance Hall
Hours: Restaurant 5:30-10pm Fri-Sat. Dancehall 7pm-midnight Fri, 7pm-1am Saturday.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Mesquite’s a demon weed, toxic when it’s green, armed with punishing thorns and a sour disposition somewhere between kerosene and passive aggression. Some people choose mesquite for barbecue on purpose. But it was mesquite that chose the Old Coupland Inn. By accident, as the best of these kinds of stories always go.
“We had a guy that worked for us, he liked to drink a little bit,” Barbara Worthy said. She owns the inn with her husband, Tim. “And Tim told him one day to put the wood on the pit.” He did what he was told. But something was different, better. An offbeat taste that fit like a dovetail joint with their spice rub. In the fog of war, their man had picked from a pile of mesquite instead of the oak stacked next to it. And that was that.
Before that had come the small task of learning to cook barbecue in the first place. Tim Worthy said that when they bought the hundred-year-old building in 1990, the old pits were in no condition for barbecue. “Barbara asked me, ‘Have you ever done any barbecue?’ “ he said. “And I said no, I thought you did.” She knew potato salad, baked beans and cole slaw. They called a friend in Tennessee for help, and he shipped them a Southern Pride smoker that takes up a city block of kitchen space to this day, a gas-and-wood-belching leviathan as big as a Chicago bank vault.
The smoker tones down the mesquite, letting it roll over the meat with a gentle twang like the country music drifting in from the dancehall next door. The moist end of the brisket wears its fat like a baby mohawk, a chubby-cheeked rebel having its first smoke. The bark is as pliant as a weathered leather jacket, seasoned with salt, pepper and spices from the powdery red side of the rack.
Cooking grates have branded the pork ribs with criss-crossed stripes standing in black relief against their dark red skins. The dense meat inside has closed ranks around the bones, leaving white dots of cartilage at the tips where the most tender meat lies. They’re a barbecuer’s Goldilocks: not too smoky, not too plain, not too tender, not too tough. Just right. It’s the same with sausage and pulled pork, right down the middle. The right pepper and snap in the sausage. Moonlight petals of pulled pork with pink stems like they’d been plucked from a pork shoulder daisy.
Barbecue plates start at $10.95 for one meat on up to $16.95 for four with beans, potato salad, cole slaw and a basket of Texas toast. Like so much at the Old Coupland Inn, even the sides bear the homestyle mark. Served in a tiny iron kettle, the beans are baked sweet and thick with pulled pork and brisket, and cole slaw draws sweetness and crunch from raisins and apples. The barbecue sauce — a thick, sweet-ketchup red with bacon suspended like aspic — is a recipe from the late Jack Sutton, who made barbecue there stretching back to the ‘70s.
But the experience is so much more than barbecue and beans. It’s also the best chicken-fried steak I’ve ever eaten, better than memories of Manley’s Truck Stop in Boise and better than any I’ve had at Threadgill's, Shady Grove, Jim’s, the Stallion, Hill's Café, Hyde Park Bar & Grill, Hoover's, Patsy's Café, the Broken Spoke and more. None of them had the crunch, the steak, the gravity or the gravy of Old Coupland.
For Tim Worthy, it’s not complicated: “The first thing is, start with a steak. The key word in chicken-fried steak: Steak.” He starts with sirloin, sliced thin and pounded wide until it spans a dinner plate ($13.95 regular/$15.95 large). Breading ripples across it, not a detachable shell but a crackling second skin over meat that can be cut with a fork. With stewed green beans, a scoop of mashed potatoes and cream gravy the color of peppered limestone, it’s an engraving you might find next to an antique almanac entry on Texas cooking.
The buildings that house the Old Coupland Inn & Dance Hall have been doing business as something or other since 1906. Drugstore, newspaper office, grocery, doctor’s practice. The Worthys stepped in on Good Friday in 1990 and ran the place until 2004. They sold it about the same time they sold another place they owned, the River Palace in Johnson City. “We decided retirement wouldn’t be so bad after all,” Barbara Worthy said. They held onto the mortgage in Coupland, and the place went through two owners after that. Then it closed in July 2011. The Worthys stepped back in at Christmastime that year and saved it from a forever of yesterdays.
The place is only open on Fridays and Saturdays, but sometimes it feels like a nine-day week to the Worthys (pictured above, in the Dance Hall). There’s the restaurant, plus the honky-tonk as big as a parking garage with country bands every weekend, plus the saloon-style bed-and-breakfast that hosted a wedding party this month. Starting June 27, they’ll hold teen dances on Thursday nights, and they’ve donated the dancehall for a party June 9 honoring high school seniors. Barbara keeps the books and schedules and hugs the customers. She used to do all the cooking herself. Tim does the beer ordering, cooks the steaks and works security when he has to. In the kitchen, he answers to Johnny Peak, a former drill sergeant who runs the restaurant tick-tock. His wife, Eve, works the register.
And then there’s Donna Connell (left), a waitress who’s hung on through three owners, four if you count the Worthys twice. Barbara Worthy hired her 18 years ago, when Connell was a newly divorced mom. “She asked me if I had any waitress experience, and I said no,” Connell said. “She said, ‘Do you have a family?’ I said yes, I have three children. She said, ‘Well, you have waitress experience.’ “
Old Coupland’s customer base isn’t as much local as it is Austin, Bastrop, Temple, Georgetown, Cedar Park, Connell said. From the front steps of the Capitol, Coupland is about a 45-minute trip. The drive east on U.S. 290 to Elgin then north on Texas 95 is a pastoral thing, passing hayfields and wheat, hawks and horses. The Google Satellite view is a mosaic patchwork, a country collage in green and tan.
Connell wishes more people would make the trip. She’s Old Coupland’s No. 1 fan and ambassador, hanging on and coming back even though she has a fulltime day job as court administrator for the 368th Judicial District Court in Williamson County. She’s also a helluva waitress, the kind who learns your children’s names and remembers little details, like how they brought their own coloring books the last time you were here.
“I never left because I could not stand to walk away from it,” she said. “It was almost like me abandoning a puppy on the side of the road knowing somebody may or may not take care of it when I wasn’t there.” Some of those puppies are all grown up. “I have customers I’ve waited on who brought their children in in carriers, and now those kids are graduating this year.”
Last but not least, she met her second husband here. Rick Connell was a drummer in the house band, another of life’s adventures she credits to Barbara Worthy. Laster but not leaster, Connell has naming rights on a dessert: Donna’s Brownie. Double-chocolate brownies go on top and bottom, with chocolate bars and toffee pieces in the middle, finished with Blue Bell ice cream, a drizzle of chocolate and caramel and pecans she gathered from her grandmother’s farm in Granger. It’s a goodbye hug as real as the one you’ll get from its namesake.
Before the brownie, though, comes more mesquite, because Tim Worthy fires his grill with it, too. Salmon, chicken, sirloin, rib-eye, strip steak. The steaks that he buys from O’Brien Meats in Taylor are full-fat quarters that he cuts to order, leaving the marbled edges alone. “I tell people if they don’t like the fat, that’s why we put a knife on the plate,” he said.
The rib-eye fills a plate from end-to-end for $23.95, cooked a proper medium-rare with a side of crisp roasted red potato halves and a salad like a farmers’ market bouquet. The mesquite’s high heat gives the meat a chuckwagon sear suited to its thin build. Add four fried shrimp for $4 to get a sense of how well the restaurant handles fried catfish, onion rings and one of the best appetizers in all of Greater Austin: brisket poppers. These hand-breaded torpedos wrap thick golden breading around strips of fresh jalapeños and chopped Coupland brisket for the giveaway price of four for $5.95. Chiles rellenos with the beating heart of barbecue.
I’ve had more elaborate food in Austin, been swayed by bleeding-edge design and charismatic chefs. But for stepping back to a time when small towns were more than stops on a Sysco sales route, the Old Coupland Inn isn’t just one of the best restaurants in Central Texas. It’ll make your accent thicker.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
For a tour of barbecue in Austin,
see Fed Man Walking’s