By Lorie A. Woodward
Originally appeared in the November 2018 edition of the Round Top Register –Ed.
Jeff Wunderlich suggested I meet him at 3 p.m. at JW’s Steakhouse, the Carmine-based restaurant he co-owns with his wife Kristi. “It should be quiet then,” he said.
I arrived right on time. Although it was the lull between the lunch and dinner service, the restaurant was far from empty or quiet. Tables of patrons lingered over late lunches, obviously enjoying good food and the temporary escape from August’s oppressive heat. People popped in and out picking up to-go orders. Laughter spilled from one of the event rooms where locals had gathered for their weekly card game.
Everything about JW’s, from the rustic wood walls and casual décor to the friendly service (and the legendary homemade onion rings), invites people to “come as you are.” And they do.
Recipe for a Restaurant
JW’s Steakhouse was built on the cornerstones of community and family.
“Back in 2008, when my dad Larry Wunderlich designed and built the restaurant, Carmine didn’t have one,” Jeff said. “From the beginning, serving the community, by serving good food and supporting local causes, has been important to us.”
At the time, Jeff and Kristi were living in Huntsville. After graduating from Round Top-Carmine High School in 1992, Jeff had attended Sam Houston State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in Ag-Business and an MBA in 1999. Jeff was working as an accountant for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice as was Kristi, a native of East Texas, when they met and married.
“We got into the restaurant business because we were crazy—and because we were ready to come home,” Jeff said, laughing.
Coming back home gave the Wunderlichs a strong base of support.
“Kristi and I couldn’t have built this business without the help of our immediate and extended family, who, in the early years, did everything from working in the restaurant to babysitting our children, and our incredible staff, who go above and beyond for our customers every day,” Jeff said.
While Jeff brought a background in business to the table, the couple were restaurant novices. Jeff had briefly worked in one restaurant before stepping into JW’s.
“Our lack of experience was both good and bad,” said Jeff, noting his dad served as the restaurant’s consultant until his death in 2013. “Obviously, we had to learn as we went along, but we were much more apt to listen to people and take advice because we recognized that we didn’t know everything.”
He credits listening to customer feedback as one of the keys to JW’s ongoing success.
“Obviously, you can’t react to everything that everyone says, but if several people bring something to your attention, it is worth taking a hard look at,” Jeff said. “Our customers matter to us, so responsive, friendly customer service is something we work to deliver day in and day out.”
From the beginning, the Wunderlichs put people first.
“JW’s isn’t pretentious,” Jeff said. “We want people to come as they are, so it’s common to see people in work clothes sitting right next to people in suits.”
The friendly customer service and rustic country décor creates a welcoming atmosphere, where people can relax and enjoy the buzz-worthy, made-from-scratch American food. Everything on the extensive menu from the salad dressings to the cheeseburgers featuring hand-formed patties and the signature Certified Angus steaks is made in-house.
“All of the recipes we use came from my mom Colette, Kristi or our manager Michele Burrow,” said Jeff, whose mother did a lot of the cooking during the restaurant’s first year and still occasionally mans the kitchen when they’re in a pinch.
The menu includes starters such as homemade onion rings and fresh-made potato chips; house and Caesar salads with shrimp or chicken; hot sandwiches and Certified Angus burgers; seafood including catfish, salmon, shrimp and oysters; country favorites such as chicken fried steak, hamburger steak, grilled pork chops and stuffed baked potatoes; and a large selection of cooked-to-order mesquite-grilled Certified Angus steaks, including a newly added 18 oz. prime bone-in ribeye.
“We’re probably best known for our filets and ribeyes cooked over open mesquite, but our chicken fried steak is a big favorite, too,” Jeff said.
While the entrees are their signatures, the homemade onion rings are legendary. The secret?
“I’m not sure there is a secret, unless it’s the way that mom taught everyone how to batter them,” Jeff said. “And we strain our fryers twice a day, so the oil is fresh and clean. That’s the only way to ensure a crisp, golden crust.”
The restaurant also offers a selection of lunch entrees, daily lunch specials and kid’s menu. The dining experience is rounded out with desserts including homemade pies, specialty cheesecakes and chocolate lava eruption cake.
Soft drinks, iced tea and coffee are available. Diners can also choose beer on tap or in bottles as well as wine. JW’s earned the 2018 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.
“We strive to have something for everybody,” Jeff said. “We’re as happy to serve a memorable cheeseburger as an exceptional prime bone-in ribeye because delivering what our customers want is our goal.”
RTR: Who taught you how to cook?
JW: I don’t cook very often. My mother is the cook. Even now, when we need her, she is always there. We couldn’t do it without her.
RTR: What is the one thing the public doesn’t understand about running a restaurant?
JW: Most people don’t know how many hours it takes to run a restaurant. I’d call them extreme hours—we arrive at least two hours before we open and stay at least two hours after we close. Then, on Mondays, our day off, we’re here from about 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. getting ready for the week.
RTR: What’s the best advice you ever received about food or life?
JW: Mr. Jim Ellison, who owned Ellison’s Greenhouses in Brenham, once told me, “Jeff, you’ll never be able to make everybody happy no matter how hard you try, so you just do your best for everybody every day.”
RTR: Meat or potatoes?
JW: I’m German—I like both.
RTR: What will never cross your lips?
JW: Squash, not even fried. My mother force fed me squash when I was little and I’ve never recovered. When squash is on the menu here, everybody laughs and says, “Hey Jeff, we fixed this just for you.”
RTR: Do you have a favorite food memory?
JW: I used to love getting together with the whole Wunderlich family at my grandmother’s. One of my uncles would barbecue chicken and we’d just have a big time.
RTR: What’s the biggest challenge to running a restaurant?
JW: Finding enough employees in general and then knowing how to staff specifically. Even after 11 years, it’s almost impossible to know which days will be busy and which days will be slow.
RTR: What’s your favorite thing about the restaurant business?
JW: The people. I’ve met a lot of great customers who have become great friends.
122 S. Hauptstrasse St.
Carmine, TX 78932
11 a.m. – 9 p.m. (Tue. – Thurs.)
11 a.m. – 10 p.m. (Fri. – Sat.)
Closed Sun. & Mon.
(Also closed: New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, July 4, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve – Dec. 26.)
Eat in or take out.
Photos by Stacy Fitzmorris