OAKVILLE – Live Oak County is blessed with a number of good barbecue restaurants, and for those who enjoy dining on the Lone Star State’s unofficial state food (chili was proclaimed the official state food in the 1970s), Van’s Country Bar-B-Q is a prime stop off Interstate 37 in historic Oakville, the original county seat.
Van’s began serving its brand of seasoned beef, pork, chicken and turkey in 1985, and established itself as a county institution.
At one time, there were locations in both Oakville and Three Rivers, but the Van Dorn family that owned the restaurants scaled back to one location — in Oakville.
Ona Wright Van Dorn and her husband, Doug, owned and operated the restaurant for decades before selling the establishment to Hardip Singh and Baljit Kaur in November 2015.
What the Van Dorns worked to establish, Singh and Kaur lovingly continue, and judging from the full parking lot and packed tables at Van’s on a regular basis, their efforts are appreciated by both locals and out-of-town visitors who frequent the restaurant.
Singh has a long history in the restaurant business, and previously worked for an Indian restaurant in San Antonio. He began working in restaurants in America in 1992 after moving here from Punjab, India, first in Austin and then in San Antonio.
He met Kaur, whose family owned a convenience store, and the two blended their love of great food and exemplary service into a business of their own when they purchased Van’s.
The restaurant is currently open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week, also serving hearty breakfasts, but these hours will soon change. A convenience store is expected to open on site by the end of the year. While the store will be open 24 hours, Singh said the restaurant will expand its hours to 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. when the store opens.
Singh purchased the restaurant from the Van Dorn family after a longtime friend of Singh’s — Valdo Pena — who has worked as a chef at Van’s for about 17 years — told him that the establishment was for sale.
Singh and Kaur are from San Antonio, so what would prompt them to leave the big city and operate a beloved restaurant in a small community?
“I had heard a lot of good things about the restaurant (which was once cited by Texas Monthly for delicious barbecue) and we also loved the location. There is great access to the interstate and it was a good opportunity.”
Singh and Kaur were already used to cooking for 250 people each Sunday after church in San Antonio, so having the opportunity to serve barbecue to hungry travelers in Live Oak County seemed like a natural transition.
What do they enjoy most about the restaurant business?
“He loves cooking and eating food,” Kaur said of Singh. For Kaur, visiting with customers is the highlight of her job.
“I love talking to all the people who come in and getting to know them,” she said, adding that she appreciates when people tell her how much they enjoy the food.
Singh and Kaur also envisioned a beautiful place for customers to enjoy the food, and built Van’s new building, which opened in 2017.
“The old building was falling apart, but people loved it,” Kaur said. “We wanted to build something people could enjoy.”
Singh and Kaur have three children — Jay, 24, Simran, 17, and Gagan, 15, and each of them sometimes works at the restaurant and helped to pick the new building’s decor.
Brisket, sausage, beef and pork ribs, chicken and turkey are prominent on the menu, and the restaurant also sells a lot of po boy sandwiches.
For dessert, there is pecan pie or peach cobbler, as well as ice cream.
Traditional breakfast items include pancakes, sausage, bacon and eggs.
Singh said ribs are his favorite item on the menu, while Kaur prefers the burgers.
The restaurant also has a meeting room available that can seat 30 to 40 people.
While fast food is prevalent in American society, Singh said the approach to cooking that he learned working in Indian restaurants also serves him well in the barbecue business.
“With Indian food, everything is made from scratch, there is no processed food that is served,” he said. “With barbecue, it’s the same. We make everything fresh — from scratch.”
Jeff Osborne is the editor of The Progress. He can be reached at 361-786-3022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.