You’d be forgiven for not being able to rattle off even a single Czech culinary staple. Perogi? Polish. Goulash? Nope, Hungarian. Borscht? Ukrainian, sorry. Likewise, you’re probably never going to get judged for skipping past the “fresh” food for sale at a highway gas station. That’s what makes it so baffling that Czech Stop & Little Czech Bakery has somehow been serving up kolaches, kraut, and klobasniki (those Czech staples you’ve probably never heard of) to more than 600 hungry customers a day for 29 years now – all from a gas station on I-35 in West, Texas.
The seeds for my inevitable visit to Czech Stop were first planted during a month in Prague in 2016. While working from the backyard of a coworking space that had been converted from the stunning bones of the former Swedish embassy in Prague, I overheard a group of twenty-somethings planning their upcoming backpacking trip across the United States.
New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles were on the agenda for sure, but one obstinate pal insisted they make rural Texas their midpoint, instead of Chicago. Texas, he said, was home to one of the largest expat communities of Czechs in the world. Everyone had a good giggle over the thought of Czech cowboys.
I don’t know where the group ended up, but he was right about the number of Czechs in Texas. The 2000 U.S. census pegged the number at nearly 200,000 – the largest of any state in the union. Tiny West, Texas had somehow become something of a ground zero during the Czech-xodus from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century. To remain in Europe at the time meant having to adopt German as their public language, and many families chose to instead emigrate to preserve their culture.
Just under 3,000 people live within West, Texas’ city limits today, but more than 75% of the population identifies as Czech-American. The town’s ties to its European homeland can’t be overstated. In 2013, a fertilizer plant in West suffered a major explosion that, when all was said and done, would kill more than a dozen people and injure more than 200. The Czech ambassador to the US, Petr Gandalovič, traveled to Texas immediately to help. Karel Schwarzenberg, the Czech foreign minister, successfully petitioned Parliament to authorize a $200,000 donation to West.
The explosion was strong enough to shake the ceiling tiles across town at Czech Stop, but the bakery largely made it out unscathed. Not that it would have closed anyway. A man named Andy heard the blast while he was getting gas out front and looked up, his smartphone in hand. He posted the geotagged photo to Instagram, an enormous mushroom cloud punching through the sky above a Sonic Drive-in, with the Czech Stop marquee cut off on the right.
Andy’s photo would appear in national coverage of the explosion everywhere from Eater and Mother Jones to the LA Times and Huffington Post, dragging Czech Stop into national notoriety along with the mushroom cloud. Press mentions in the years following the explosion have included The New York Times, Saveur, and The Travel Channel. Tiny Czech Stop had overgrown even its Texas-sized reputation to become America’s Little Czech Bakery. It now has the overnight shipping capabilities to anywhere in the U.S. to prove it.
Czech Stop & Little Czech Bakery entice a clientele larger than a fifth of the size of the entire town on a daily basis, with glowing responses. The majority of its 750+ Yelp reviews are five stars. And the little bakery that could has been open 24/7/365 – for 29 years. You’ll see recognizable cookies and breads behind the bakery glass, but the most popular items on the menu are surely the kolaches. These fluffy pastries are stuffed with blueberries, apricots or sweet cream cheese. The klobasniki, sort of a kolachi cousin, are stuffed with tiny sausages and kraut. And because this is Texas, you can find jalapeño-stuffed klobasniki there on the pastry trays as well.
Because life is strange, I moved to Texas after my month in Prague. Ten months later, on a drive down to Austin from Dallas for a pal’s birthday, there it was on the side of an otherwise sleepy stretch of highway: Czech Stop, next exit.
A dozen kolaches set me back 15 dollars. A tank of Czech Stop’s top-selling product, “quality Shell gasoline,” cost about twice that. I had planned on showing up with breakfast for the next day, but ate most of them before I made it to Austin. Better luck next time.