Deep in the heart of West, Texas

Published May 12, 2002|Updated Sept. 3, 2005

The aptly named Joy Powers sits back into the contour of a bright orange, hard-plastic booth at Czech Stop, her place of employ for the past 14 years. In a gravelly voice edged in the promise of a chuckle, the general manager says it's cliche-but-true: What she loves about her work is the people.

Good thing, given the constant flow of customers who flock into this 24-hour gas station/bakery/novelty shop/deli/candy factory on Interstate 35 at exit 353.

Owner Bill Polk opened the Czech Stop 18 years ago and hasn't locked the doors since. He simultaneously opened an adjacent liquor store but when, as Joy explains, it became apparent that people were not lining up for liquor the way they were for baked goods, that space became the Little Czech Bakery. It's still there.

Describing Czech Stop to the uninitiated begins with a sort of "Who's on First?" exchange. First, you need to explain that it's West COMMA Texas, not, as people usually hear, "West Texas," that vast expanse way over yonder to the left on a map.

West, Texas, population just more than 2,500, is roughly 100 miles from Austin in one direction and the same distance from Dallas in the other. (Hence, the proclamation on the store's T-shirts: "If you made it here, you're halfway there.")

The town of West bills itself dually as "Czech Heritage Capital of Texas" and "Home of the official kolache of the Texas State Legislature."

Kolaches are tasty little Czech pastries with fillings; the word is often spelled kolace. Whichever way, the pastries are king at Czech Stop, the key to the store's legendary popularity among locals and travelers.

Joy Powers estimates that more than 2-million kolaches sail out the door annually. Last Thanksgiving eve was a record-breaker, with 800 dozen sold that day.

The vast kitchen is crowded with rolling racks of industrial baking trays, enormous stainless-steel bowls overflowing with warm, yeasty, kolache dough, two mixers big enough together to put out 250 pounds of dough per batch, and an army of workers busy making the popular treats as well as countless other tasty items. (With 74 employees, Czech Stop is West's biggest employer.)

Evelyn Cepak, the head of bakery production, has been on board for 16 years. She developed the secret recipe for kolaches using her mother-in-law's take on the traditional cake and refining it with another recipe she liked.

Cepak describes the distinctive flavor of kolache dough: "Salty sweet. It's not as dry as a cinnamon roll. It's not cake dough. It's not a bread. It's in between. It's egg-based. It's a soft product."

See, it's tricky. Your best bet is to plunk down some silver (most kolaches cost less than a buck) and let your taste buds mull it over.

The variety of kolache choices can be daunting. But the dough is the same for all of them, and the fillings are divided, more or less, into sweet or salty categories.

Along the lines of sweet, taste the cherry, cherry cream cheese, strawberry, pineapple, blueberry cream cheese, poppy seed, cottage cheese, prune, apricot and peach.

For those who love salt and eat meat, combinations include pork and beef puffs, smoked sausage klobasniks, sausage and kraut puffs, and spicy-hot chubbies. Unlike their fruity counterparts, these pastries have their filling on the inside, not up top and visible.

Two big deli cases are full of the doughy delights plus piles of freshly made sandwiches. But you could spend an hour or more perusing the decor and the "stuff" ("stuff" being the official term for all those things you didn't know you needed that can be purchased mainly at convenience stores).

The walls here are lined with 8- by 10-inch, black-and-white photos of entertainers who have stopped at Czech Stop, no doubt during their road tours.

Joy says this tradition started by accident when a band happened to leave behind a picture. Now, there are too many to count. Among the ranks are those who were not famous when they first came through but are now. (These are outnumbered only by pictures of performers who were not famous then and still aren't.)

Among the former are Brave Combo, Southern Culture on the Skids, and Asleep at the Wheel.

And over here, just past the orange booths and right before the FONES (as the sign says), the flier for Red's Custom Hay Baling Service, and the Texas lottery-ticket machines, is a picture (on the left) of one Sparky Sparks. The grinning Sparky, sporting a straw cowboy hat and clutching an armadillo, has taken the time to scrawl, "Czech Stop's the only reason ole Speedbump here is willing to get on the road. Thanks, Sparky."

Due east of Sparky is another classic: a picture of Jackie Bibby Snakeman. He has four rattlers hanging out of his mouth but strongly implies with his endorsement that he would be willing to spit out those snakes in a heartbeat in favor of some Czech Stop goodies.

There's even a comforting sound to the place, a cacophony of small-town familiarity. In the distance, country music wafts from speakers. Lead vocals come courtesy of the counter workers such as Sherry, who on this chilly day also is teasing the UPS man for wearing shorts and sharing details of a friend's recent C-section.

As for the Stuff, stock is ever-changing to reflect the times. These days, for a penny under $20, you can score a shellacked wooden wall clock featuring a collage of Old Glory, the World Trade Center towers, and Psalm 23.

Or how about a fleecy sweatshirt emblazoned "God Bless America"?

Of course, there will always be the standbys. Hillbilly luxuries such as back scratchers made from twigs and dried corncobs? Czech.

Postcards of jackalopes? Czech.

Wooden plaques featuring the "distressed" look and catchy slogans such as, "Grow Your Own Dope, Plant a Man"? Czech.

Shelves burst with made-on-the-premises candy such as peanut brittle and rocky road. There are odd plastic toys, the kind kids' car-trip dreams are made of. Little straw hats embroidered "TEXAS" and made in Mexico.

And not one, not two, but three West-originated books offering recipes and, in one case, history and memories of the town settled in the mid 1800s by the ancestors of many of those who still live here.

In the West Heritage Cookbook, on a shelf in an aisle over by the hot deli, you will find Agnes Marak's Kolache Recipe. At the end is a Czech proverb: Bez prace nejsou kolace.

Translation: Without work there are no kolaches.

Spike Gillespie is a freelance writer living in Austin.