Story by DANNY MOGLE // Photos by SCHUYLER WICK
In the kitchen of Hidden Lakes Hunting Resort, Executive Chef Cruz Minjarez carefully removes strips of membrane from thick pieces of red stag shipped from New Zealand.
“It’s a good cut of meat,” he says looking up from his task. “It cooks up very fast. I’ll sear it in a cast iron pan and salt and pepper it.”
Minjarez, who confesses a fondness for cooking wild game, is preparing the meat as the main course of a five-course, gourmet meal he’ll serve in a few hours.
Moments later, he scrapes seeds off roasted poblano peppers that he’ll blend into a creamy soup as the night’s second course.
“I hope you like a little heat,” the chef says of the soup.
For years, Hidden Lakes has been a destination for bird hunters, now, thanks to its new chef, it is also becoming known for delicious food.
Hidden Lakes was founded by Billy Burnett, a successful homebuilder who bought about 600 acres in rural Wood County in East Texas.
“With growing up being an avid bird hunter, I loved the site of a good bird dog pointing a covey of quail and the adrenaline rush of them scurrying up in front of me,” he shares on the resort’s website. “We lost wild quail here in East Texas close to 25 years ago and with quail leases out west being harder to find … me and my youngest son, Cord, decided to put in a bird hunting resort.”
They built a 12,500-foot, two-story lodge with guest rooms, a large meeting room, game room with pool and poker tables, covered patio and pavilion. A sporting clays shooting range is behind the lodge.
They began raising thousands of quails and pheasants in pens and large flight cages and releasing them into fields covered with ponds and natural grasses. To provide food and cover for the birds, they planted 18 miles of 30-foot wide strips of sorghum.
Guides take small groups into the fields and use hunting dogs to flush the birds out and retrieve them. The resort also offers guided fishing trips and books corporate retreats and special events.
Cord Burnett, who now runs the family resort, was on a fishing trip in Alaska a few years ago when he was blown away by the great food served in the lodge he was staying.
Burnett says that the lodge catered to the same type of high-end clients who frequent Hidden Lakes and have a taste for quality food.
It turns out that Minjarez was one of the chefs in the kitchen. Burnett convinced Minjarez to come to Hidden Lakes. A few months ago, he became the resort’s full-time, resident executive chef.
Minjarez says he was ready to come back to Texas to be closer to his family. He grew up in Corpus Christie and has been in the food industry since he was a teenager. Never formally trained, he mastered the art of combining flavors by working with chefs of many backgrounds and specialties.
Chef Minjarez says he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have full control of a kitchen and meal planning.
“I am able to do what I like,” says the chef. “It is just me in the kitchen. … I want to give people familiar flavors with Italian and French influences and Southern comfort food — a blend of both.”
His dinners feature beef tenderloin, salmon, halibut, ribeye, smoked brisket and quail. He serves fresh vegetables and fruits grown in a two-acre garden and orchard on the property. He prepares everything from scratch.
“Since he arrived, we’ve really been pushing our food,” Burnett says. “The word is just now getting out how good our food is.”
It is a Friday night at Hidden Lakes, which by choice accommodates only a small dinner crowd. On this night, 26 are seated including a large group of lodgers who have been hunting all day. The others, including myself and photographer Schuyler Wick, are here specifically for dinner.
Burnett taps on a glass to signal it is the start of dinner service. Chef Minjarez emerges from the kitchen to talk about the meal he is about to serve.
“To get you started, we have quail with an orange gastrique served with a carrot and sweet potato puree. … The second course is poblano soup. It has a little bit of spice but not too much.”
He notes that the third course will be a Caesar salad with grilled red onions, Parmesan cheese and sourdough croutons; that asparagus spears, a potato puree and bourbon jus will be served with the stag; and that dessert will be a chocolate torte.
“Does that sound okay with everyone?” asks the chef, before retreating back into the kitchen.
Moments later, Burnett and the wait staff emerge with the first course. The plate is beautiful and the small bird is moist and tasty. For the second course the poblano soup is indeed spicy. A garnish of roasted corn adds sweet and smoky flavors.
For the main course, the tender stag easily cuts with a knife. There is no hint of gaminess sometimes associated with venison. The chocolate dessert comes with a spoonful of almond nougat and diced strawberries.
After the meal Burnett comes to our table to see if we enjoyed our food.
“It was good, wasn’t it?” he asks. He doesn’t have to wait for a reply. He already knows the answer.