In 1972 in Pflugerville, Texas, Charlie Parker flung the doors open on a little roadside steak house in the middle of nowhere and prayed that business would come.
And it did. But now, 40 years later, Central Texas has lost one of its iconic restaurants; Charlie’s Steakhouse has shuttered.
A great pounding sound rings from the kitchen moments after I order my chicken fried steak. Perhaps veteran cook Yank, with 20 years under his belt at Charlie’s is wielding his mallet to prepare my meal.
How did you get the name Yank?
“I come from north of Dallas”.
Yep, anybody from that part of Texas is rightly considered a yankee and viewed differently than if they were from Bell or perhaps Guadalupe County.
Reckon another restaurateur will come in here and set up shop? “Naw, it’d be too expensive. We got the grandaddy clause on everything in here, a new man come in and he’d go broke trying to get it up to code”.
I nod and look about the room. It’s a curiosity shop of Texana. A stuffed wildcat prepares to vault off one wall, while further along a javelina looks dangerously alive in spite of his dusty fur. An enormous map of the state of Texas stands sentry over near the kitchen, while beams of late afternoon light shoot in from the western windows, falling on a row of empty bar stools.
Charlie’s Steakhouse is a dying breed. Little homespun joints like this one are shuttering all over Texas and the rest of the USA. On the ride up from Austin recently I noted the parking lot of a nearby Chili’s.
Yet Charlie’s is quiet.
Jim has been coming here for 20 years. We sit at the bar discussing the affairs of the day and he offers an explanation. “Parents today ain’t raising their kids right. They don’t care about the country cooking or whether their money stays in the community. They want a jungle gym, some fancy soft serve ice cream and a waitress in a damn leotard. That’s what done Charlie’s in.”
Sounds like as reasonable an explanation as any. When my sister and I were kids we’d beg to go to McDonald’s. We were young and dumb. Thankfully, daddy was an old school chowhound who almost never relented no matter how hard we’d beg. We’d end up driving down some county road in the middle of nowhere cause he heard that there was a shanty selling fried catfish and ice box pies.
Now we’re grown-ups, yet we still seek out under the radar joints that are doing things the old-fashioned way.
Bob has worked at Charlie’s for 39 years. He’s been here through the good times and the bad times. We talk about the heyday when there was a line to get in in the evening, and how during the day, the Dell computer folks from down the road would keep the joint jumping. He drives in from Taylor everyday to go to work and has done so for decades.
What does the future hold?
“I just don’t know”.
I tuck into my chicken fried steak. In true Texas tradition it’s the size of a hubcap and utterly delicious. A waitress walks by; “What are you going to do now that Charlie’s is closing?”
“Honey, I just had a kid six months ago, I’m going to take a little break and just be a mom”
Life goes on.
It’s the last night of the Steakhouse and I’ve rode up from Austin to sit a spell at the end of the bar and soak in the atmosphere of one of Travis County’s most legendary restaurants.
The mood swings from jubilant to pensive as it slowly settles in that Charlie’s is about to be gone for good. It’s a reunion of sorts as former workers from all over central Texas have driven to Pflugerville for the last night of operation.
I hold down my spot at the end of the bar, pounding Coor’s and talking to all the friendly strangers. The common thread of conversation being that owner Charlie Palmer is a giant among men. He’s employed hundreds of people and through his restaurant; raised countless families, paid off numerous mortgages, bought shiny new automobiles, put dozens of kids through college and provided living wages for hundreds of men and women in North Travis county.
How many Chili’s have done that?