As we travelled through Oklahoma over spring break vacation with our family, we made the unpopular decision to head home early. Rumors were flying and uncertainty was in the air as COVID’s spread creeped into East Texas.
Our kids were disappointed but understanding. Little did any of us know the changes that were about to upend our daily routines.
We found ourselves doing things not-normal: Picking up our groceries from the store parking lot and having food delivered to our front door almost every day.
Living in a suburb of Tyler, the only restaurants that would deliver were chains. We quickly grew tired of the same old food and craved the special menu items and ambience of local eateries.
Fast forward six months. My wife and I returned to work in September, but dropped to four days a week. I jumped at the chance to have regular lunch dates with my wife while the kids were in school — especially at small businesses struggling since the shutdown.
And so, it began.
We searched Facebook for a group or page that might list some great local restaurants and came up empty. We decided to create our own page, East Texas Hole in the Wall Eatin’ Joints.
Neither of us were bloggers, but we felt we could make a platform that would help point others to great family or privately owned restaurants in East Texas.
We posted pictures from our first date and asked for suggestions of places to go. It exploded! We grew to over 1,000 followers in fewer than five days and were given over 100 suggestions of places to eat.
We finally decided to make a private map on Google and added these places. It turned into an amazing map dotted with small and big towns all over the area.
Our weekly lunch dates turned into much more. We ended up finding great food and amazing people who have a true passion for what they do. We decided early on that if we tried a restaurant and could not leave a good review, we would not post a negative one.
Our goal was not publicity or more followers, but to help give businesses more publicity and help people find these hidden gems.
Since September, we have crisscrossed East Texas and amassed some favorites. Here are seven recommendations, highlighting what we consider “best of the best.”
Best authentic Mexican food: Ruby’s
Our neighbor Brent raved to us about a lunch he recently enjoyed: Crazy good tacos that come with a homemade dipping sauce from heaven. That was enough for us to go try it the next day and truth be told, three more times that week.
We both ordered the # 1 doblados. They include fresh tortillas of your choice, melted gooey cheese, choice of meat, cilantro and onions; and come with a large cup of house made consommé for dipping. The flavors blend perfectly.
We tried their green and red sauce, and concluded you cannot go wrong. They have some amazing fruit juices as well, including pineapple, and it was on point.
We had an opportunity to meet the owner, Ruby, and you can tell she has a true passion for her restaurant. Visit Ruby’s Mexican Restaurant at 2021 E. Gentry Pkwy, Tyler, TX 75702, 903-617-6816 or their new second location at 813 Lindsey Lane in Tyler.
Best Italian: Roma’s Italian Kitchen
Roma’s is a family owned eatery serving scratch made Italian food. The downtown Longview location is decorated well and is extremely cozy with a nice bar and plenty of seating.
Roma’s has two locations — one in Longview and one in Shreveport, LA, with plans to open another in Tyler in early 2021. This is a family-owned eatery making scratch made Italian food.
They start with fresh bread, and a plate of Parmesan, oil and spices. So simple but so good.
We tried the mozzarella caprese. It was simple and fresh, with soft mozzarella, Roma tomatoes and fresh basil, with a spread of roasted red sweet peppers and olives.
The calamari was some of the best we have had — perfectly battered and fried. Made fresh, the batter stayed on perfectly and was not greasy at all. We were very impressed.
My main course was the rigatoni special: handmade meatballs, Italian sausage, mushrooms and basil in a spicy marinara.
Kelly had the pasta combo: portions of cannelloni, lasagna and manicotti. The fresh bread dipped in the marinara was heavenly.
For dessert, we enjoyed rich cannoli with a perfect crust and a perfectly sweet filling. Wow.
Visit Roma’s Italian Kitchen at 102 E Tyler St, Longview, TX 75601, 430-625-7240. Watch for their Tyler location coming in early 2021 at Paluxy and the Loop.
Best pub food: Pint and Barrel Drafthouse
This is the place that started it all for us. The second time around, we brought along our kids.
We had an opportunity to meet the owner, Chis Keller and head chef Scotty Mick. It was a pleasure hearing their passion for food and people. The staff were so friendly and helpful, and this place just had a great vibe.
We dug into the blue cheese fondue fries. If you like blue cheese — which we do — this is amazing. Uniquely cut fries were covered in a blue cheese fondue sauce, then topped with bacon and chives. So rich and so good.
I had the shepherd’s pie as recommended by our friend Sarah. Ground lamb and beef on the bottom with the typical vegetables, then covered in a homemade garlic mashed potato layer and topped off with a perfectly melted layer of cheese. This marked my first time to have shepherd’s pie in the U.S., and it beat any I had visiting he U.K. Clearly, love and time are spent on these dishes.
Kelly had the green grilled cheese, a concoction of an incredibly talented Pint and Barrel mad scientist chef, Chef Mick. He has an imagination that stretches food, but it works.
The sandwich featured garlic toasted bread, artichoke dip, cheese, purple onion and tomatoes and came with tomato soup and two fried, green tomatoes. Kelly described it as the ultimate, gooey, richest grilled cheese you can imagine.
Our boys both enjoyed the 1/2-pound hamburgers, perfectly cooked and gone before we knew it.
Our only daughter, aka “princess,” enjoyed the salted pretzel and fries. The cheese dip is awesome.
Visit Pint and Barrell Drafthouse at 302 E. Crawford St., Palestine, TX 75801 or pick up at 903-727-2711.
Best breakfast: Mama’s Restaurant
Mama’s has two locations, but we only have visited the one on Fifth Street in Tyler.
The first time we visited, I had huevos a la Mexicana and my wife had the migas. Both were so good, and our favorite of the two was the migas.
I would suggest getting the beans and rice on the side. The beans are super good, and it comes with spicy salsa. The tortillas were hot and fresh, and I am pretty sure they were house made. We have visited many times since and are never disappointed.
The staff was friendly and inviting. Our waitress, who has served us multiple times, never let our drinks get less than half full. Pretty impressive.
Visit Mama’s at 2105 East Fifth St, Tyler, TX 75701 or pick up at 903-526-7915.
Best unique restaurant: Culture ETX
Once again, I must give credit to my neighbor Brent, who bragged about a salad he had at Culture ETX. Once again, we took his advice and did not regret it.
This beautiful salad is not actually on their menu. Fresh, mixed greens are combined with their Wagyu beef and cheddar, black olives, cucumber slices, avocado slices and a patch of Enoki mushrooms. This salad looks like a scene from Alice in Wonderland and tastes amazing. Fresh high-quality ingredients make this one of our favorite salads ever.
Chef and owner Lance McWhorter is a sixth generation Texan and a veteran. He has an extensive cooking background, and it shows in his ever-changing menu.
Visit Culture ETX at 118 West Erwin Street, Tyler, TX 75702 or call for pick up at 903-787-5800.
Favorite diner: Harcat and Lou’s
This trip took the most distance and it was worth it, for sure. Elkhart is a small town, but the food is anything but small. The portions that Jamie McEnturff and her team cook at Harcat and Lou’s are the biggest I have ever seen. Once again, we took the whole family with us.
For an appetizer, we chose the loaded fries: hand cut fries with cheese, bacon and onion. Yummy!
Kelly tried The Big Bird, a one bowl mashed potatoes, cheese, corn, gravy crispy chicken bites mélange: The best of the south in one bowl. Kelly ordered a side of hand battered onion rings, a plate full cooked to perfection.
I had the hubcap-huge chicken fried steak: Fork tender with amazing gravy alongside huge portions of okra and hand cut fries, easily large enough for two to three people.
My son had the baked potato with cheese and butter only. He is a picky eater. The potato was huge, and he ate it all.
My daughter had the woodchuck grilled chicken sandwich on a sourdough bun with bacon. Great, juicy flavor, and not at all a small portion.
Chef McEnturff and her team have an amazing thing going on in this little town. It is places like this that make this all worth it.
Visit Harcat and Lou’s Diner at 102 W. Parker St., Elkhart, TX 75839, 903-448-7504.
Best dessert: Oxbow Bakery
This stop is the pinnacle of a family owned business. We visited with owner David Wolfe and his mother. This family has been making amazing pies for several years now. Their location is not only a bakery but has a general store theme.
Now for the pies!
Over the last few months, I admit we have tried almost every pie Oxbow makes, and every single one has been perfection. Here, I will highlight our personal favorites.
My ultimate Oxbow pie is banana blueberry. I immediately coined this the “Willy Wonka” pie, starting out with amazing blueberry flavor but ending with fresh banana, similar to what you would expect from a perfect banana pudding.
Kelly’s favorite: the pecan praline cream. This pie is heavenly with caramel and pecans. I do not know how it gets much better.
Our daughter loves the lemon icebox pie and our boys really like the chocolate icebox cake.
This bakery happens to be across the street from the Pint and Barrel Drafthouse. Together, they make a trip-worthy afternoon in Palestine.
Visit Oxbow Bakery at 215 E. Crawford St., Palestine, TX 75801, 903-723-5100.
Know about more East Texas hidden food gems that we must try? Reach out to us with your suggestions at East Texas Hole in the Wall Eatin’ Joints.
Jim Newberg is a graduate of Letourneau University and is the automation manager for Jasper Ventures in Whitehouse, TX. In addition to his full time job and blogging, he and his wife, Kelly, own HNK Logistics, Newwave Solutions, and Xtreme Laser Engraving. Together they have five children.
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