Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Satay Restaurant

Yippeekai Thai one on

Website: www.satayusa.com

My heart was set on the Korean place, but my body was with The Woman in north Austin and it was rush hour. Common sense says to find a place nearby to wait out the traffic. And once you've been to Satay, good sense tells you to go back. So I did.

Even though the place is named after a very popular Thai appetizer, the first time around we tried something different, the Miang Khum appetizer: a leaf of spinach with bits of fresh ginger, garlic, whole lime, red onion, roasted peanuts and coconut piled like sawdust in the middle. The plate arrived with six. It left empty. These things are the coolest appetizers ever. Along with the coconut salsa, they are irresistible. Next time a plate each, I think. We also had the yam pancakes with Thai seasoning, topped with ginger plum sauce and green onion. They are also worth going back for.

The first time around I broke my normal initial-visit tradition and got the Tiger Cry -- slices of grilled flank steak, red onion, green onion, Thai Basil, Thai hot pepper, ground roasted rice kernel tossed in a Thai fish sauce-lime vinaigrette. Seriously good. The Woman got some seafood thing off the seasonal menu and I didn't take notes, so I can't tell you what was in it, but it was good eating.

The second visit I resorted to tradition and got curry. I went with the Gang-Dang, a hot red curry with bamboo shoots, zucchini and basil in coconut milk. It was just hot enough (which means too hot for most the folks I know) and tasted like I wished I knew how to make. The Woman kept with the seasonal menu again. She loved it, but like her previous selection, the actual name remains a mystery to this day.

The Satay Restaurant has been around for 20 years or so and Dr. Foo Swasdee, the creative force behind it, is a culinary luminary. (I’ve been waiting a long time to fit that into a review.) She used the restaurant as a proving ground for developing various Thai food products, some of which are available from the website. (Rumour has it that Drew Barrymore is enthusiastic about the Phuket Wonder, a healthier version of Pad Prik King. I think I'll try that next time.)

The only downside of the experience is that the portions are right-sized for a meal, so there tends to be no leftovers for lunch the next day. But the menu is full of stuff that sounds like it would be great, and since The Woman and I regularly find ourselves in north Austin around rush hour on Wednesdays, we should have plenty of chances to work our way through it. I’ll make the sacrifice for you. Or you can join us.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Buenos Aires Cafe

Gotta lotta empanada

Website: http://www.buenosairescafe.com/

Just when I'm making another attempt for the Korean place, a visitor shows up with an aversion to spicy food, so it's a quick dive into the files for some ideas. Texas Monthly comes to the rescue. (Note to self: thank double-in-laws for the subscription.)

My only previous experiences with Argentinan food were the emanadas the neighbors brought over for Thanksgiving (num-num) and those restaurants where faux gauchos wander around with skewers of meat and shave chunks off onto your plate. You know the ones, where they first lead you to the largest, most incredible and most diverse salad bar in the northern hemisphere in an attempt to maintain their profit margins by filling you up with low-cost veggies. I bet Atkins diet folks love those places! The meat just keeps on coming.

The Buenos Aires Cafe is not one of those places. It's a small building nestled between the GSM Lounge and Great American Pawn. In fact, failing to write down anything but "First and Oltorf," we completely missed it and had to call to find out where they were. The fact that it was night and a light was burned out on the sign didn't help. A less-than-auspicious location, perhaps, but brethern, I would not have you deceived, for the true gastronome looks not on the outward appearance, but upon the cuisine within. And boy, the cuisine that is within.

When I say within, I'm still not saying much. It contains 9 tables. We sat at the one in the back left corner under the round frame there in the picture. It was 7pm on a Tuesday night and about half the tables were occupied. Everyone looked very happy to be there. From the first bite there was no question why. We nibbled on some garlic bread until the empanadas came. These were great. For the uninitiated (which included me before Thanksgiving) an empanada is a flakey-crusted paramecium-shaped pastry about 4 inches long. What's inside depends on the kind of empanada. It could be meat, veggies, fruit or an iPod. (I'm just joking about the iPod.) We got two, the spinach and the chicken. Verrrrrr nice. A return trip to try the beef is indicated.

We opted for side salads. I went for the spinach, which included feta, black olives and spicy-sweet roasted pecans with sweet balsamic vinaigrette. Next time I might just do emapandas and salad, it's that good. The gals went for the house, which had hearts of palm. They didn't say much, their mouths being full most of the time, but the plates were practically licked clean, so you can draw your own conclusions.

For the entree we went family style with these three items:

  • PASTEL DE PAPAS: An Argentinean style Shepherd’s pie. A combination of ground beef, green onions, raisins, green olives, herbs, and spices topped with mashed potatoes and baked until golden brown.
  • POLLO AL HORNO: Half breast of chicken marinated and roasted with fresh herbs and spices, complimented by a humita (Argentinean tamale) and sautéed vegetables.
  • GNOCCHI OF THE DAY: Little Double-Bubble-sized nuggets of flavored pasta including jalapeno, pumpkin and two other flavors I don't recall along with some veggies and artichoke hearts. (As you may have guessed, this isn't the menu description. It was a special and was reeled off by the server. My memory is a little sketchy on the details.)

It was absolutely incredible. All of it. Slap-your-gramma good. I kept thinking, "I'm in this little joint off First and Oltorf, eating what looks and tastes like it could have come out of a multi-star nose-bleed restaurant. And all three of the entrees under $15 each.

We finished off by splitting a flan, which officially ruined my good boy status. But every day is a fresh start, or so I hear.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Consumer Alert

IF you happen to consume 5 cups of black coffee from 4pm to 10pm thinking that somehow you have become Superman in the last few hours and that in complete contradiction to all previous experience and the known laws of physiology you will drop right off to sleep because it’s been a long day and you pop into bed at 11:30pm and spend the next two hours lying very still with your eyes closed, certain that any second you will fall asleep while thinking about changing the oil in the car and your 401k plan and what time exactly did you say you would be at that meeting tomorrow and if you remembered to take that DVD back to Blockbuster and if it is too late to pick up the Wodehouse book you reserved at the library and work out the plot of three novels and then realize that if you’re going to do that much work on the novel, you might as well write it so you creep out of bed very carefully and shrug on your robe and go downstairs and crank up the laptop and read over the last few chapters and then write until 3:30am and then realize you have to paint the closet at 8am so it can be done before the 11am meeting and think that 4.5 hours of sleep will be plenty and so you set the alarm on your new Motorola V325 for 8am and use the default sound called “Harmonics” without checking it because it has a pleasant-sounding name and then crash in the guest bedroom and then about 90 seconds later it is 8am and the alarm goes off and the sound is not exactly like a train whistle screaming through your head and slamming you against a wall but close enough that a jury of your peers would award you mental anguish compensation and perhaps even punitive damages after deliberating only 5 seconds max . . .

THEN Verizon customer service will NOT . . . I repeat NOT . . . take anything off your bill or even give you a new phone or complimentary free minutes, even though this is a known problem with no workaround, documented extensively at www.KnownProblem.com, so caveat emptor.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Palestine, Texas

The land of red plastic glasses

This weekend I was looking forward to trying out the Korean place I've heard about but haven't seen. But at the last minute I decided to treat The Woman to a B&B weekend, complete with a ride on the Texas State Railroad train running from Rusk to Palestine. (Don't tell her, but the real motivation was research for my work-in-progress, which starts out in Palestine.)

Since we would be eating a few meals in Palestine and I'm always on the lookout for blog material, I googled the possibilities and came up with fast food chains and hotel restaurants. Then I remembered Texas Monthly, the diner's friend, and searched their database. One hit. One single hit for Palestine. Zero hits for Rusk. That's when I began to realize I might be travelling into the the gastronomic version of Mirkwood. Flashbacks of my previous dining experiences in Palestine burbled to the surface.

It was 2001. A visit to the newly weds and the double-in-laws. Dinner at a Tex-Mex restaurant where the salsa appeared to be ketchup and black pepper mixed with diced onions and tomatoes. When I asked the server for the "hot stuff" she said that was the hot stuff. That's when I knew I was in trouble. I'm sure there are some great places to eat in Palestine, but the internet doesn't seem to know about them.

The plan was to hit Giovanni's Italian (2027 Oak Street at Loop 256 and Highway 79) on the way in, and the Ranch House (305 E Crawford Street) on the way out. We got to Giovanni's at 6pm and were seated immediately. It was a fairly nice place with a decent menu. A glass of wine goes well with Italian and the end of a 3.5 hour drive, but it was not to be. Giovanni's is strictly BYOB.

And, evidently, if you want to drink out of an actual glass glass, you have to BYOB. The couple at the next table had their bottle decanted into nice wine glasses. We got to drink our water/tea out of giant red plastic Coca-Cola glasses. I asked a puzzled waitress for an empty coffee cup and poured my water into it so I could at least be drinking out of porcelain instead of plastic.

But when it came to the food, things began looking up. The bread was great, with an oil/vinegar/pepper dipping sauce that wins marks. The salad was acceptable. The appetizer, whose name I don't recall, was a great little stuffed eggplant with a bisque sauce that changed the tone of the evening. The Chicken Murphy was great. (Of course, with a name like that, I was thinking of all the things that could go wrong with it.) The Shrimp Giovanni was excellent, with lots of large butterfly shrimp with the same bisque sauce as the appetizer.

The moral of the story is that if you find yourself stuck in Palestine and languishing for decent fare, motor out west of town to Giovanni's.

We spent the evening in a nice B&B known as Almost HeavInn, a nice place with well-done, if somewhat cheesy, decor leaning heavily toward the angel motif. Jeff and Heidi just acquired the place, which has been there for years, and have plans to expand it with lots more amenities and options. We splurged for the Eastlake room, with a whirlpool tub and our own private balcony, larger than the bedroom, even! I wanted a peek into the Kincade room, ("decorated with art and borders from Thomas Kinkade") to assess the cheese factor, but it was occupied. We had a great evening relaxing and reading on the veranda (which you can do in Texas in mid-December) and a nice breakfast before we set out for the train.

Second moral of the story: if you're in the area overnight, Almost HeavInn is a great option.

After the train ride and some shopping, we located the Ranch House, only to discover it isn't open for dinner on Saturday. !?!?!? Can I just say, wow? My gaster was flabbered. So we headed west, figuring to snag some place to ingest some calories before the nighttime drive home. At Spring and Oak, where 84 and 287 split, we spotted a Mexican place that was under new management. It had the look of a joint were nobody spoke English very well, which can be a good thing. It was such a place, and it was a good thing. Except for the screaming kid halfway across the room. What is it with Tex-Mex places and screaming kids?

Unfortunately, I didn't make note of the name of the place, but when I saw quail on the menu, I knew I had to try it. Especially since it came with charro beans. Picture getting fajitas with all the fixings, only instead of strips of beef, there are two quail, butterflied open like two big Xs on the plate. Everything was copacetic and I ingested one and brought the other home for lunch tomorrow.

Third moral: Dining in small-town Texas can be dicey, but sometimes you just get lucky. Spotting the subtle clues can increase your luck potential.

Oh, and the Mexican place. Yep. Red plastic Coca-Cola glasses. Must be a city ordinance or something.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Trudy's

Freedom and migas for all

Website: www.trudys.com

I had my heart set on trying the Korean place I just heard about. For 8 months I've been trying to find a Korean joint in this town. The closest I came was a place I'd heard rumours about near the doctor's office. But when I checked it out, I discovered it was really a Chinese place that happened to have bulgogi on the menu. Not gonna happen for this buckaroo. It's gotta be the all-Korean-all-the-time station or I don't tune in. I want 15 little bowls scattered around the table with half-a-dozen kinds of kimchee and things I don't recognize and can't pronounce. I want kalbi cut the right way sizzling right in front of me with whole garlic cloves. I want to be the only guy in the place with a last name longer than one syllable.

But The Woman insisted that The House Guest should experience authentic Tex-Mex, which, unlike Korean, is not in ready supply in Honolulu. We'd already done Cajun at The Cypress Grill and steaks at the Texas Roadhouse and they had both shopped and dropped at the outlet malls in San Marcos. Now they were tired and hungry and, as usual, when it came time to declare a destination, everybody looked at me. Fortunately, The Good Daughter had tipped me off about Trudy's, so I made an executive decision. I preferred the original location by UT, what with the palms and all, but it was cold outside (a tragic state of events for a native of Honolulu) so we motored to the south Austin location, which was closer.

We got there before 7pm on a Monday evening and were seated immediately, very nice. Right next to a booth with loud, squirmy kids, not so nice. But they were done and left before we ordered, nice. But they were replaced by a couple with an even louder, squirmier kid, decidedly not nice. (For those keeping score at home, that's two nices and two naughties. And the second naughty stayed for the rest of the meal, so he's off the Xmas list this year.)

We started off with the guacamole and chips. This usually means a small mound of guacamole that you discover is mainly pico de gallo with a veneer of green stuff and everybody ends up wanting more. At Trudy's this means 4 generous scoops of quacamole, all the way through. It was almost enough to offset the curtain climber in the next booth. Almost.

The House Guest couldn't resist the green salsa, even though she's not really into the hot stuff. I have to admit it was pretty good, and hot enough to suit my taste, which means it's pretty spunky. Mixed with a big glop of guac, it was great.

I'm a chicken enchilada kind of guy, but I never even got to the enchiladas. There were too many interesting things on the menu. I went for the migas. We're talking sautéed corn tortilla strips, tomatoes, onions, jalapeño peppers, eggs and a three cheese blend. I chose the whole wheat tortilla and substituted the spicy black beans instead of the refried beans that came with it.

Gentle Reader, I have seen the light. I have learned the error of my ways. When they asked, "Which shall you order, the chicken or the egg?" I always answered, "The chicken." Wrong answer. Sure, sour-cream chicken enchiladas are good, but for full-flavored tasty goodness, the migas are absolutely unbeatable. Talk about a broad palette for the palate, there's just so much going on in there and that three-cheese blend pulls it all together into a creamy wonderfulness that almost relegates bouncing, screaming munchkins to oblivion. Almost.

In fact, as I'm typing I'm thinking, "I wonder if I can talk The Woman into Trudy's for dinner?" So what if the kids are coming over? We'll leave the door open and they can hang out until we get back. Well, maybe that won't work. I need to change the subject; those migas are getting to me.

The also came with hash browns or roasted red potatoes. I'm avoiding carbs with a high glycemic index (white bread, white rice, potatoes) so I got the hash browns for The Woman and The House Guest to share. But I did taste them before I passed them on. Mmmmm, good.

In order to experience true Tex-Mex, The House Guest got the combo plate -- an enchilada (dealer's choice of filling and sauce), with a crispy corn taco. And rice and beans, of course. The Woman got the Ciro's Special -- diced, marinated chicken fajita meat smothered in mushrooms, cilantro, onions and anahiem peppers, topped with queso, spinach, tomatoes and avocado. Dang! (She brought some home and I ate the leftovers the next day before she knew what was going on. It's definintely snooze=lose when it comes to Trudy's leftovers.)

If you're in the area, try a Trudy's, any location. I'm wondering if they're open for Christmas. Nothing like some migas to bring peace and goodwill to men, I say.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Texas Roadhouse

A highly conflicted reviewer comes clean.

Website: www.texasroadhouse.com

I was going to pass this review off as another attempt to give my gentle readers a chance to try out what I review. After all, with 230+ locations in 40+ states, chances are there's a Texas Roadhouse near you. That was how I was going to justify reviewing a chain, since we all know I have a prejudice against chains. Just driving to the joint we passed two other chains that looked like they could be the same place, only with a different sign on the door.

I mean, how can you take place seriously when it has an Ozzie and Harriet picture like this on its website? But the truth is we ended up at the Texas Roadhouse because we have a house guest from Hawaii and the collective unconscious determined that she should have some Texas eatin'. However, how Texan can a chain be that was started in Clarksdale, Indiana? Turns out we really don't care what the answer is because the food is pretty darn good. And they're obsessive about their service, so it's also pretty darn good. Mainly fresh-scrubbed, wholesome-looking young girls who looked like they've never done anything worse than skip a day of school to get their hair done for the prom. And if they have, I don't want to know about it. I like to keep my illusions intact as long as possible.

The thing that makes the difference at the Texas Roadhouse is the thing that always makes the difference, fresh food made from scratch. No pre-packaged economies-of-scale here. The founder had "a vision of great steaks, killer ribs and ice-cold beer at a price that families across America could afford." Sounds similar to the vision for the Kerbey Lane Cafe, only with steaks and ribs instead of a highly eclectic menu. And a couple hundred more locations. But who's counting?

You get a bucket of peanuts to munch on when you come in, and you barely have the cushion warmed up when they bring you rolls and honey cinnamon butter. It looked great, but since I'm cutting down on the white carbs, I stuck with the peanuts. Dry roasted, not salted.

Everybody else ordered the steaks, but I stuck with my good-boy routine and ordered the smothered chicken: a grilled marinated chicken breast with sauteed onions and mushrooms. It also comes with gravy or jack cheese. It was good, but I peeled off most of the cheese. (Who would ruin a nice grilled chicken breast by slopping gravy on it?) You also get two sides. I went with the salad and baked sweet potato. Dang, that potato was great! No fixin's on it other than some butter. Sometimes being good is fun.

I ate the salad, half the chicken, most of the potato and took the rest home. I'll finish it up tomorrow. Not bad for $10. The other folks all split steaks between two people and most of it ended up on the number-one son-in-law's plate, who wasn't complaining.

I've been there before, since the double-in-laws are hearty Texans who favor down-home food in large portions, and got the oven roasted chicken. Quite nice, also. Everybody said the steaks were very tender and they certainly looked great, although they were ordered a bit done for my taste. I like 'em still complaining a little when I spear 'em with a fork.

Some folks like taking the risk out of eating in a strange city, hence the popularity of chains. I can understand the logic, although I lament the homoginzation of American culture. Once nice thing about the Texas Roadhouse is that there appears to be some attempt at localization. I skimmed through a few menus for other states and saw some slight differences.

Of course, I couldn't finish without mentioning that they teamed up with Willie Nelson in 2003, a fact that was hard to miss since it said "Willie Nelson, Owner" right over the door. So, you can get your Willie groove on with merchandise, if you like. Or not.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Kerbey Lane Pancakes

Because it's too good not to share.

I have received feedback that it would be nice on occasion for readers to be able to try out the eating places I blog about. Seems there's not a business case for everyone to drive to Austin (or the other places featured here) to try out the great eateries. So, now here's your chance.

The Kerbey Lane Cafe has an online store, so you, too, can enjoy the Kerbey Lane pancakes made famous by their "Round the Clock Breakfast" menu. Whilst I was toiling away at the old keyboard, The Woman motored over to the KLC location convenient to us and bought a year's supply of pancake mix. It being Thanksgiving and all, we opened the Pumpkin Pancakes first.

I can't imagine an easier way to make pancakes. As you may have suspected, I'm no expert in the kitchen. (I've been forced to drink warm Dr Pepper ever since I lost the ice recipe.) So I've never actually made pancakes, but I observed the preparations. Toss some of the mix into water along with an egg and beat the stuffing out of it. Then drop it in a skillet and a few minutes later it's time to crack open the syrup.

While all that was going on, I brewed up some fair-trade coffee, also from Kerbey Lane Cafe. When I opened the bag I discovered they were beans, so there was a slight delay while I located the grinder. Then, with some boiling water and a French press, I was in business.

I've never been a fan of pumpkin pie, but I must say the pumpkin pancakes are great. I had 3 very large ones. We also got buttermilk, gingerbread and apple. Like I said, it's a year's supply as near as I can figure. Maybe I'll try the gingerbread next week.

So, get online, get some pancakes and let me know how you like 'em.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Kerbey Lane Cafe

The restaurant you wish you had opened.

Website: www.kerbeylanecafe.com

If your spouse is the kind of person who sometimes says, "Wouldn't it be cool to open a restaurant?" and you're the kind of person who says, "Are you crazy?" then avoid the Kerbey Lane Cafe. Cause even folks who have never thought of opening a restaurant can get the urge after a meal at Kerbey Lane.

That's kind of how it got started in the first place. In the words of the owners, "We were finishing undergraduate degrees, looking at grad school and thinking about how difficult it was to find an affordable, casual place to eat healthy food. And, being young with lots of time ahead of us, we decided to try opening the kind of restaurant we wanted."

The thing at Kerbey Lane is the ingredients. The pesticide-free, vine-ripened tomatoes, squash, okra, spinach, strawberries, field greens and more are locally grown at the Lamar farm, picked fresh and then taken for a short drive to the cafe. By the time you eat then, they are still quivering from the shock of being separated from the parent plant and are wondering where they are. And, as anyone who eats really fresh veggies knows, that makes all the difference.

The first thing you notice when you arrive at the original location on Kerbey Lane, after the ordeal by parking, is that you're eating in a funky old house. Restaurants converted from houses seem to have a voice whispering, "See? You could do this. How hard can it be?"

Then you look at the menu and realize how hard it can be. Moving some walls around and bunging in some tables and chairs isn't that hard. Coming up with startlingly creative and compelling recipes is something else entirely. In most joints you flip through the pages listlessly, struggling to find something that isn't the culinary equivalent of summer reruns.1 After all, how many times can you have the chicken alfredo or the top sirloin or the Caesar salad or the patty melt before you start wondering if anyone will notice if you tie together the table cloths and escape out the window?

At Kerbey Lane, you turn the menu pages slowly and realize you'll have to return about 53 times to try everything that you can't leave without having right now. Then you look at the prices and realize that with entrees ranging from $7-$12, coming back 53 times isn't totally out of the question, either.

As we were on a kid/grandkid outing, we had the mandatory Kerbey Queso, which is a white cheese dip with guacamole, pico de gallo and salsa. This dip has become such an obsession that I am forced to provide links to the ultimate reference page, which has nothing to do with Kerbey Lane.

After despairing of making a choice, I chose something at random on the menu, the Stuffed Poblano ($8). So, you're thinking a poblano pepper stuffed with some kind of meat and smothered in cheese, right? Try this: a lightly battered poblano pepper, stuffed with seasonal squash and Feta cheese, topped with tangy verde sauce. Served with black beans, cheese-filled silver dollar corn cakes and avocado salad.

See what I mean? I bet now you're thinking, "Dang! Where can I get one of those?" Well the whole menu is like that. For our second visit I tried the Squash Flauta: Three corn tortillas stuffed with acorn squash and feta cheese, served with our own Pineapple Mango Pico de Verano, guacamole salad, Mexican rice and chipotle cream sauce.

OK, so it seems I'm on a squash and feta fetish, but I assure you it was unintentional. The visits were several months apart. This time we were at the south Austin location, which is in an old diner. We were headed to the drafthouse to see "Stranger than Fiction" but all showings of all movies were sold out, so we tooled down the road a few miles to Kerbey Lane for dinner and caught the movie at the late showing somewhere else. I would describe the stuff the other folks ordered but the items aren't on the web menu and when I grabbed a to-go menu on the way out I discovered I had snagged a kid's menu, complete with a set of 4 crayons nestled in a nice little folded pocket. No wonder the hostess gave me a funny look.

If the items I ordered sounded good, you should surf the website to see other items on the menu and read more about the place. The other two locations sound interesting, as well. I'll have to check them out as I tool around the metropolis on my urgent and important business of which I have so much of. As far as menu items go, it's 2 down, 52 to go. Check ya on the flip side.

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1. Do they still have summer reruns? I quit watching TV about 30 years ago, so half my readers might not even know what summer reruns are.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Firestone Grill

It's entirely possible that someday I will write a review of the Firestone Grill in SLO.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Tortilla Flats Cafe

Big eats in small town Texas.

Website: www.tortillaflatscafe.com

It started with a layoff. Funny how a layoff can get you thinking about what you really want to do as opposed to what you've endured for too many years. Fortunately for me, I didn't have this dream deferred of starting a restaurant, cause I hear how much of a pain that can be and my philosophy is "No pain, no pain." So my layoff didn't result in a restaurant.

Also fortunately for me, Brenda did have such a desire, so when she got laid off last November she talked her poor husband into the scheme and thus was born Tortilla Flats Cafe in Roanoke. Texas, that is, not Virginia. It's up there north of Fort Worth a bit. I don't normally hang out in Roanoke, but it just so happened that my hyperactive CPA1 suggested I head up north for some pre-tax-season triage to see just how bad it's gonna be in April, so I was in the area. Strong coffee and heavy number crunching left us with an appetite. We zoomed up 377, got confused in Keller and arrived in Roanoke around noon.

There was a line out the door, a good sign. We squeezed in and I snagged a table before the previous diners even had all their stuff off it while The Woman and the CPA placed the order. We got the brisket tacos (smoked and tasty!), chile verde tacos (just the right amount of kick!) and the chicken avocado wrap (oh man, moist grilled chicken, jasmine rice, sliced avocado, tomatoes, lettuce, ranch dressing).

In a recent Ft Worth Star-Telegram review Brenda said the wraps are like Mexican food for gringos. If that's true, I'm proud to be a gringo cause that wrap made me wish I had the capacity to try all the other wraps in one sitting. I especially cast a lustful eye over the Applicious: applewood smoked turkey, granny smith apples, cranberries, walnuts, feta cheese, romaine lettuce and raspberry vinaigrette dressing. Holy Toledo, bandito! I might have to get more tax consultations than I had planned!

I washed it all down with a Jarritos Tamarind soda. If you haven't tried one of these babies, you need to stop what you're doing and try one out. They also have a collection of pastries that will make your head spin like a rotisserie chicken. There are so many reasons to go to this place that I'm surprised you're not already there.

If you're within 50 miles of Ft Worth, you need to zoom over to Tortilla Flats for lunch. Seriously. It's worth it. It's just that good. If you're farther out, print out this review and keep it in your glove box. One day you'll find yourself in the Metroplex area. Say you have a 4 hour layover at DFW. Perfect! A 10 mile drive north on 114 from the airport gets you to Roanoke. What could be easier? Just do it.

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1. For those interested in FredBook trivia, it was after listening to tall tales as related by said hyperactive CPA over a kung pao chicken lunch almost 20 years ago that Jolene Culpepper was conceived.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Alamo Drafthouse

When aliens invade, remember the Alamo.

Website: www.drafthouse.com

Following our long-standing Halloween tradition, when the darkness descended with an ominous silence and small voracious creatures crawled from their lairs with masks and bags, The Woman and I turned off all the lights, locked the door and headed to the movies.1 The Woman is an Xmas-aholic but I am thankful she has no love for Halloween. I don’t think I could endure the incessant ringing of the doorbell and kids screeching “Trick or Treat!” as I labor over my next attempt at the great American novel. (Coming to stores near you in a year or two.)

It’s enough to drive a teetotaler to drink. Which is why we headed to the Alamo Drafthouse. Now this is the way to watch a movie. The only thing that could make it better would be if you could pause the show for a bio break.

You buy your ticket out front like any other movie theatre, but when you walk in, the first thing you notice is that the concession stand, like the curious incident of the dog barking in the night, is conspicuous by its absence. It’s the first movie theatre I’ve entered that has no smell of popcorn.

If you cross a movie theatre with a microbrewery restaurant, you get the Alamo Drafthouse. First run movies with a full menu. Appetizers like red pepper hummus, falfel, pork, spinach and shrimp quesadillas, fried pickles and more. Or you can choose from 8 salads, 13 sandwiches, 11 pizzas, pasta, fish tacos or chicken enchiladas. Plus 24 beers on tap, 33 bottled 16 red wines, 12 white wines, soda and tea. You can even get regular movie candy and popcorn if you really want it.

Here’s how it works. Each row of seats has a shallow bar in front of it with menus, blank paper and pencils. You write your order on the paper and stick it in the metal strip lining the front edge of the bar. The waiter comes by occasionally (Ours came in a Darth Vader helmet without the mask. Probably for Halloween. I don’t think that is a regular occurrence.) and grabs the paper, verifies it with you and disappears. After a while he comes back with your stuff and you scarf it down while watching the show. If you want more, you stick, another paper in and it all happens again. (I’m thinking of training the grandkids to do this trick so I can have the same convenience in the comfort of my own home. The helmet will be optional. I’d even be willing to tip.)

As might be expected, the Alamo Drafthouse is a strictly Texas phenomenon. There are four locations in Austin, one in San Antonio, one in Houston and one in Katy (west of Houston). In addition to first-run movies they do other things, like silent movies with live orchestra, the John Lennon sing-along (shoot me now!), the old school and golden age hip hop rap-along (shoot me yesterday!!), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and all-you-can-eat pizza (do I still have a pulse?) and the Lord of the Rings Feast. (Uh oh, I think I know what I’m doing for Thanksgiving. Seriously, you have to check this one out. Twelve hours of entertainment, including 9+ hours of movie and a six-course feast, including Smeagol’s course: Atlantic Cod Sashimi, Tuna Sashimi, and eel in a maple-sesame glaze.)

While you’re on the site, check out the “Blast Off with David Hasslehoff” event. This is something you could only show in a place where they serve alcohol. And even that may not be enough.

OK, I know you’re wondering what we saw. I was partial to “The Science of Sleep" but The Woman is allergic to weird movies. (I had to see “Being John Malkovich” on a business trip to Albuquerque.) So we compromised on “Man of the Year.” I’d give it a miss if I were you.

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1. You may be wondering how a Halloween review made it on October 29. It’s a combination of the miracle of modern technology, the Internet, and Blogger allowing you to back-date posts.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Gender Confusion at Red Lobster

How are you ladies doing?

[Ed: OK, before you start wondering if I have gone off my gourd, reviewing Red Lobster, you must know that this is not a review of Red Lobster. At least, not the food. For the record, I only went there to appease The Woman, who was suffering from a shrimp-vitamin deficiency and decided the most cost-effective way to address it was the "all the shrimp we can shovel out of the back of our truck prepared in 6 different ways for a dollar two ninety-eight" special. And, as might be expected, most of the options were at best regrettable. Now that we have that out of the way . . . ]

Back when I got my hair cut every other year, I got used to the occasional "ma'am" on the off years when addressed from behind. (Nobody made that mistake from the front, so I guess I should count my blessings.) Particularly in Texas, where those with a penchant for long hair tend to combine knee-length beards with waist-length pony tails. (Cause everybody's crazy 'bout a sharp dressed man!) But then I got a real job and started cutting my hair every 3 or 4 months and those days were behind me. Or so I thought.

So imagine my surprise when I was sitting with The Woman at Red Lobster the other night and the waitress comes up saying, "How are you ladies tonight?" as she rounds the corner. OK, perhaps I should have worn a less flamboyant aloha shirt and, yes, the locks were getting a bit knappy, but is it really a foregone conclusion that when you see something like this from behind, you know it will be a lady? Hmmm? Wouldn't you actually get a look before you started talking? You might, but she didn't.

So you can imagine her shock when she did round the corner and saw my rustic mug staring at her with a less-than-amused expression. She did some serious backpedalling that would have moved even Ray Blackston to comment. I didn't go to great pains to relieve her discomfort, if you must know. I was hoping to get a free appetizer or some such by way of apology, but it is a chain after all. I became even less amused when the other girl came along (It seems that you have to have one person to take the order and refill your glasses and another person entirely to bring your actual food, which means that the food bearer has no idea who gets which dish and more often than not hands the wrong thing to you.) and as she rounds the corner says, "Here you go, ladies." I kid you not. Two for two. And not even a free dessert.

Let this be a lesson to you. Don't eat at chains! And avoid loud shirts if you're overdue for your shearing.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

F.McClintocks

Where dead animal heads watch you eat.

Website: www.mclintocks.com

When it comes to this family, you can count on weirdness in general. So it shouldn't come as any surprise that there was a gig the night before the wedding and the bachelor party happened the night before the first anniversary. Yep.

It started with dinner at McClintocks. Right on 101/PCH overlooking Shell Beach and Pismo Beach and just a 5 minute walk from the love nest.

As you can see from the menu, McClintocks is about steak, ranging from $24 for the 10 oz sirloin to $35 for the 24 oz Porterhouse. Probably some of the best steaks you've ever got yourself outside of. (I went with the filet. You only have a belated bachelor party once, you know!) You can also avail yourself of ribs, lobster, pork chops, calamari, salmon, halibut, shrimp, swordfish, chicken and burgers. It's pretty much a carnivore extravaganza.

The nice thing is that with every dinner you also get Onion Rings, Salsa, Salad (Fresh Spinach, Tossed Green, or Caesar), Trail Camp Beans, Garlic Bread, Ranch Fried Potatoes and After Dinner Liqueur or Sherbert or Ice Cream thrown in. Makes it easy to order. Once you narrow it down to which dead animal you want to eat, that is. And no matter what you order, there's no danger of walking away hungry -- you get refills on the rings, beans, bread and taters.

The waiters walk around, refilling your water glass while holding the pitcher about a foot above your head. The good ones don't even get a drop on the table cloth. It was a great evening, a dozen young turks and two old geezers chomping down on stellar viands, followed by cigars and scotch and a lie-swapping contest at the home of one of the turks.

And that would have been enough, by its own self, but it wasn't all. Because we're Americans and don't know when to stop, we also did breakfast at the San Luis Obispo location. And that's when you really run into a dilemma. The variety and quantity of options available make you wish you had studied the menu the night before. Although that wouldn't have helped you because in addition to the menu, there were specials on the chalk board and other specials on wooden plaques on various walls between the dead animal heads. You really had to be alert to catch it all. I will resist listing all the interesting items, but there are half-a-dozen specialties and about a dozen omlettes to choose from, plus typical combos of eggs, toast, bacon, ham and sausage. Not to mention the hot cakes, biscuits and gravy (I hated to miss those, but a man can eat only so much), french toast and belgian waffles. The coffee is nothing to write home about, but it is servicable.

I'm thinking perhaps there should be an annual bachelor party. Doncha think?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Strickland's / McBee's

You never hear the one that gets you.

Strickland's
Location: 1918 South Highway 281, Falfurrias, TX 78355
Phone: 361-325-5222

McBee's
Location:
309 2nd St, Pleasanton, TX 78064
Phone: 830-569-2602

If you ever find yourself dove hunting in south Texas . . .

Not a phrase I would normally say, but sure enough last weekend I found myself on a dove-hunting trip near Ramirez, about equidistant from the Gulf (Corpus Christi) and the Border (Zapata). Not that this description helps you much, but you get the idea that it's out where the buses don't run.

As a result, when it comes to dining out, as it does after you drive half the day to get there and then run out before sundown to try to snag a few birds, your choices are limited. Which is not a problem if you have places like Strickland's around.

Strickland's Famous Restaurant is in Falfulrrias, the closest town with a traffic light and a restaurant mentioned in Texas Monthly in the category of "Cool Places To Eat That Are In Towns Where You'll Probably Never Go Unless You Work For The Border Patrol." It's a category with a long title, but then again, it's a long border. (In case you were wondering, the US-Mexico border is 1,951 miles long and about 2/3 of that is in Texas.)

If you want to get a real taste of Texas, you have to eschew the Applebees and Chilis and Ruby Tuesdays and hit the authentic joints. When you step into Strickland's, you know you're in Texas. It's a local hangout and on a Friday night the locals are out in force. The tables are covered in plastic table cloths and the iced tea comes in red plastic glasses with advertising on them.

PeeWee Herman would like the life-sized cutouts on the wall of John Wayne, the Lone Ranger, Tonto, Roy Rogers and Trigger, [pictures to come when Blogger decides to cooperate] but if he stepped in and hollered, "The stars at night are big and bright," they would either ignore him or toss him out on his ear.

Strickland's has the usual BBQ, burgers, chicken-fried steak, etc. but it's the Mexican food that gets the attention of most diners. Unlike the places I've reviewed that serve Tex-Mex with a twist, Strickland's plays it straight. Enchiladas, tacos, chalupas with the standard beef-chicken-cheese options. But it's good, solid stuff. No need to get fancy when you do the basics right. The guacamole was excellent. It went great with the chips and salsa.

At the end of the weekend we stopped at McBee's BBQ in Pleasanton. It's the first place I've ever seen a pork chop sandwich on the menu. The lunch plate came with a gigantic pickled jalepeno that was just the right amount of hot. Like any good BBQ, the meat was excellent without the sauce. In fact, I didn't even try the sauce, so I don't know if it was good, but I suspect it was. My companions all placed the dove-hunter-seal-of-approval on the place and then we waddled out to the cars to return to civilization. On the way to I-37 we passed a Bill Miller's BBQ place and one guy said he didn't even consider it to be real BBQ. So, as we can see, the religious BBQ wars are still in full swing.

Now I know that some gentle readers are wondering if my presence on a dove-hunting trip is just another in a long line of signs that the world is rapidly approaching a catastrophic end. Please keep calm, keep your arms and legs inside the windows and put your fears to rest. It is true that in the past I have actually shot at doves. There was the famed hunt during a tornado when, to Holcomb's great amazement, I brought down a dove with a flight pattern like a dot-com stock-price chart. However, on this occasion I spent most of my time in the lodge reading Wodehouse, which is as relaxing a way to spend a weekend as I can think of. But I did venture out one day to do some target shooting. I won't brag, but let's just say that I haven't lost the eagle eye of legend and song from my Fred, Texas, days, doll.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Pho Cong Ly

Pho, not a long, long way to run.

Pho Cong Ly

Location: 3601 W William Cannon Dr, Austin, TX 78749

Phone: (512) 891-7870

Over the years, many rules regarding eating have emerged from the Universal Mind:

  • Never eat anything bigger than your head. -Miss Piggy
  • Never eat anything that moves. -Robert Bender
  • Never eat anything older than your grandmother. -Love Lab
  • Never eat anything that still has a face on it. -Anonymous

We could add another: Never eat anything you can't pronounce. But then only those who can speak Vietnamese would enjoy the wonders of pho. (Which, as you can see from the sign, has a letter O with enhancements not common to typical written English. Those things give you a clue on how to pronounce it, if you know what you're doing. Which I don't.)

My education on pho, both as a food and as a difficult word to pronounce, began in Honolulu at Hale Vietnam. The first thing you learn is that it's not pronounced like "foe." I listened intently as my companions attempted to educate me and got the impression it was pronounced "fa", as if I were singing along to the Sound of Music. However, my companions were Japanese, Chinese and Korean, so one must take it with a soupcon of salt. Remembering that Google is your friend, I did some research and got conflicting reports. It might be pronounced like "fuh" or or maybe like "fur" with an upward inflection.

Me, I just say, "I'll take a #5 and tea."

No matter how you get it, the thing is to get it. If it appears to be a glorified bowl of soup, that's because it is a glorified bowl of soup. But oh the glory of the glorification. This is not your grandmother's chicken soup. (Unless your grandmother is Vietnamese. Then it might be. Check your local listings.)

It's really all about the broth. I don't know what they put in it to make it taste so good, but that's fine as long as they keep putting it in there. Then there's all the other stuff they put with it, some in the bowl, like noodles and meat, and some on the side, like bean sprouts, mint, cilantro, basil. And other things. According to Richard L. Chase, pho appears to be the soup equivalent of barbecue. (And we've already seen what that's all about.) He says that every pho cook has his or her own rules of what can and cannot go into the bowl, and even how it should go into the bowl.

That's fine. I'll take it however they bring it out. Perhaps I'm just not sophisticated enough to discriminate, but I've never been served a bowl of pho yet that didn't taste great, including the one I got at Pho Cong Ly last week when my favorite son-in-law lured me from my grindstone for a quick lunch, something he hasn't done for a few months.

Pho Cong Ly is one of his favorite grab-a-quick-lunch-while-slaving-away-in-the-hot-sun places. This location is in a strip mall (there are other locations, but each is individually owned and operated) and has all the ambiance of a middle school cafeteria, only without the middle schoolers in it. There are even a few rows of tables placed end to end, cafeteria style, where you can dine next to 20 other folks. Might be a good way to meet people if the tables were full, but they weren't.

I didn't talk him into pho, but he did switch from his usual order to try the lemongrass chicken and gave it a thumbs up. There are several other things I want to try, so a return trip is definitely indicated.

In the meantime, if anybody knows of a Korean restaurant in Austin, let me know!

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Thai Tara

When it comes to Thai, Tara wins.

Website: www.thaitara.com

Although you might not be able to tell from the reviews so far, Thai food is my favorite cuisine. (Indian comes second.) So, you might ask, where are all the Thai restaurant reviews? Good question.

My policy is to review places where I like to eat. Since my return to Texas I've tried four Thai restaurants, some forgettable, some regrettable. Only one makes the cut. I've been there twice and tried four entrees. This place rocks.

I always get Panang curry the first time I hit a Thai place. It's funny how different the Panang curry recipies are. At some places they are all about the peanut sauce. Other places don't have a hint of peanut, but have long green beans and sweet onions. Some have all three. I don't care how they decide to spin it, as long as the curry is front and center. And hot if I don't have to share. Just enough to put the glow in the cheeks and that patina of sweat on the brow.

Thai Tara does curry right. I can also recommend the Gang Dang curry. Even better, I think. (Note: servings big enough to take home leftovers. Num!) Oh man, I'm thinking maybe I should crack open the leftovers in the fridge and get another taste. Steady, old bean!

There might be other good Thai places in town, but I haven't found them, yet. Perhaps I'll have to look up north.

For you more timid souls, there's always McDonalds. Just kidding, there are some less volcanic dishes on the menu. The Pad Thai is decent. The Cashew Chicken tastes great and is mild enough for my mother, who only has to look at a red pepper to break out in a sweat.

Speaking of which, if you're not a lover of hot peppers, you might wonder why some people just love eating those spicy dishes. It's all about the buzz. As Graeme's website points out:

An alkaloid substance called Capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide) that causes the heat of chiles and peppers is a flavourless, odourless chemical concentrated in the veins of chiles and peppers. When eaten, capsaicin stimulates the brain to release a neurotransmitter called substance P, which lets the brain know something painful is going on. The brain, 'thinking' that the body is in big trouble, mistakenly responds by turning on the waterworks to douse the flames. The mouth starts to salivate, the nose starts to run, the eyes might start to water and the face breaks into a sweat. The heart beats faster and the natural painkiller endorphin is secreted.

In other words, peppers make you feel good. You might be saying, "How can I feel good if my mouth is on fire?" The answer is that you can take a lot more than you think you can. Many is the time I've ordered a hot dish, taken one bite and thought my head was going to bounce off the ceiling tiles. But, after a wait of a few minutes for the next bite, I discovered that you can actually condition yourself to move your threshhold. Like Graeme says, "Capsaicin does not actually burn, instead it stimulates nerve endings in your mouth, giving the sensation of burning."

So, who is going to be in control? You or your nerve endings? You have trained yourself not to become a slave to your body in other areas. (Haven't you? Of course you have.) Why should you let the nerve endings in your tongue call the shots? Join the fun and grab a nice helping of Evil Jungle Prince!

Well, they don't actually do Evil Jungle Prince, which was invented at Keo's in Honolulu and has been copied by other Thai places. (I got it once at a great Thai place in Denver. Dang it was hot!) But they do have something called Party with a Mermaid. (Cellophane noodles simmered in a clay pot with shrimp, scallops, squid, green mussels, onions, shiitake mushrooms, garlic and ginger with our special homemade-style sauce.)

Next time I'm going to try the Corn & Yam (Chef special’s corn and yam patties, flash-fried, and served with sweet and sour sauce) and the Tsunami (Shrimp, squid, green mussels and scallops stir fried with fresh basil, onion, mushrooms, bell peppers and Thai chili, and served on a sizzling plate). Wow.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Bill Miller BBQ

Put that in your pit and smoke it.

Website: www.billmillerbbq.com

OK, here's the thing.1

BBQ is like music. If you go to the rock section of a music store, you will find everything from The Beatles to Black Sabbath. How can one category accommodate Sonny and Cher, David Bowie, Tom Waits, U2, Chicago and Barry Manilow? And don't even get me started on jazz. There's Dixieland, Big Band, bebop, cool, acid, smooth . . . When you can have Kenny G and John Coltrane in the same section you realize that the category has become meaningless.

And so it is with BBQ. As a native Texan, I knew that other states made spurious claims to create things they called BBQ. (Provide some examples here.) But when I moved to Honolulu I discovered things had really gotten out of hand. You say BBQ there and you might get Korean BBQ (kalbi and bulgoghi) or Mongolian BBQ (stir-fry everything in sight).

So, when I returned to Texas, it was time to find some real BBQ. But there was lots to do on the house and little time for cooking or roving the terrain for eateries. One afternoon I was deeply involved in watching Andrew replace the bathroom faucets when The Woman returned with some BBQ. I told Andrew to come on down when he was through and went to investigate.

Before we go further, it must be noted that the debate on what constitutes good BBQ is just as subjective and sometimes acrimonious as similar debates over music. I've seen blog posts dissing the quality of Bill Miller's BBQ and others praising it. This kind of thing won't end until Pat Metheny kisses and makes up with Kenny G. All one can do is eat it and speak the truth as one finds it. Your mileage may vary.

For me, good BBQ isn’t just about the meat. Of course the meat has to be good. I should be so good that you can eat it without smothering it in sauce. Tender, not dry, and full of that wonderful smokey flavor that is a Texan’s birthright. And Bill Miller has been doing that right for over half a century. They use hill-country mesquite wood to cook all their meat. It soaks right through so the chicken is great even without the skin.

But good meat is table stakes for good BBQ. To go from good to great, it’s all about the beans. This is where many places fall down. They make a good start with the meat, but they neglect the beans. Make this your motto in life and you will find success: Never neglect the beans. And this is where Miller gets it right in spades, not overcooked and swimming in a nice gravy.

Of course they have everything else, including some great sweet tea. I still haven't actually seen the place, but maybe one day I'll get down there and eat the stuff in its natural habitat.

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1. ® Chris Reneau.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Taco XPress

Keeping Austin weird with tacos.

Website: www.tacoxpress.com

Although I've reviewed two chains so far1, as a rule I avoid eating at chains when I can. When it comes to eating out, I prefer authenticity and adventure. I don't mind the risk of a bad experience as much as the risk of no experience beyond the mundane and predictable.

So of course when I read John Kelso's piece on Friday Aug 11 about the Taco XPress Demolition Party, I knew where we would have lunch that day. I dragged The Woman out there in 99F weather for the experience. Due to a communication breakdown, we ended up with pollo guisado and cheese enchiladas. They were great. The inside was packed so we went outside and ate on the dirt patio on rough wooden tables under the blast of an industrial-strength fan. I looked at the stage and thought, "Next time we do tacos and live music."

On Sunday, Aug 13, they had the demolition party. [Check out the News 8 story/video and this photo gallery of the event.] Taco Xpress started in a trailer in 1997 and has become a South Austin icon. The links tell the history better, so I'll leave that to them.

On Friday, Sep 1 we went back. The new place is about 4 times bigger than the old one and tons more parking. Still, it was hard to find a parking spot. The artifacts have been transferred and I assume more have been added. It's tough to maintain a true funky-old-joint vibe in a new building, but they've done a good job of it.

We got the tacos this time. I got the spicy chicken; The Woman got the regular chicken. I recommend you stick with the spicy. The regular don't cut it. It was the first weekend with live music in the new place. Outside Leanne Atherton was dishing out a decent version of Me and Bobby McGee, but we had an entourage of munchkins, so SpyMan and I just hung on the fringes of the outdoor area, full of picnic tables on gravel. It was obvious that Taco Xpress has many devoted regulars. Looked like a good place to sample a few brews and soak up the down-home tunes. But you'll have to get there early if you want to sit down.

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1. Schlotzskys and Taco Cabana

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Nutty Brown Cafe

When you see the neon cowboy, you're here!

Location:

12225 Highway 290 West Austin, Texas 78737
Phone:512-301-4648
Hours:Sun-Wed 11a-10p Thu-Fri 11a-midnite Sat 11a-1a
Website:www.nuttybrown.com

I guess I didnt' get out enough last time I lived in Texas. Or something happened in the last ten years. I don't know which it is, but now it seems that you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a down-home-cooking place with a twist. Everybody is taking the cliché menu items and de-cliché-ing them, like Sting writing a pop song. (Think about it.) That wouldn't be a problem if they weren't all so dang good!

The day we returned to Texas, my double-in-laws1 took us to the Nutty Brown Cafe. As a 10-year ex-pat, I immediately ordered fried catfish, black-eyed peas and fried okra with a big glass of iced tea. It was so-good-it-makes-you-want-to-slap-your-grandma eating. There were two grandmas handy, but one was The Woman and the other was my double-in-law, so I was on my best behavior and refrained from slapping. Others had classics such as chicken-fried steak or burgers. Nobody left disappointed.

Last week we decided on a Hill Country road trip and kicked it off with Sunday lunch at the Nutty Brown. I branched out with the Valley Ranch Fajita Sandwich, which is beef fajita, pico de gallo, chili con queso on toasted focaccia bread. Now tell me that doesn't make you want to stop what you're doing right now and take a big ole messy bite!

Let me skip over the usual items and jump to some choice selections that will have me coming back to check them out:

  • Nutty Shrimp Wontons: jumbo shrimp, bacon, cheese and jalapeno in a crispy wonton.
  • Southwestern Eggrolls: sautéd chicken and veggies in flour tortillas.
  • Sourdough Stack: sliced turkey breast, Swiss, grilled onions, marinated cabbage on toasted sourdough.
  • Check out these sides: lima beans (when was the last time you saw these on a menu?) and jalapeno hush puppies (how did I miss these the last two times?)
  • Alissa's Cheesecake Chimichanga: what more do you need to know?
So, here's the thing.2 We got there at the tail-end of the Sunday Brunch, which runs from 10a-2p for $12. The menu was incredible and they had $2 Mimosas and Bloody Marys. I've never had a Mimosa but it sounds decadent in a Southern way. (Never had a Bloody Mary, either, but it doesn't sound so good to me. Your mileage may vary.) The menu and mimosa wouldn't be enough to make me skip church to come early, but I caught the last 30 minutes of Java Jazz, the band for the brunch. They were doing an arrangement of Pretzel Logic when we arrived and continued on with Coltrane and Bird and many other wonderful tunes. Even though we were sitting at the back end of the opposite end of the bar, we could still hear the music just fine.

I had to go back to do the brunch, so today I slept in and then The Woman and SpyMan, our house guest, set out for the brunch. We got seated in a booth along the back windows. We could hear OK but we couldn't see the band, which is half the fun of live music. The inside is laid out like this:

TablesFront Entrance Back Bar
BoothsTables

The buffet is along the center wall in the bar, which is mainly glass, so I noticed some open tables in the section closer to the band. The Woman got us re-located while I went through the buffet line. In addition to the breakfast stuff (bacon, sausage, hash browns, migas, french toast, fruit, bicuits with white gravy) they had Monte Cristo sandwiches, quiche, baked tilapia, beef tenderloin with zuchinni, bacon-wrapped chicken breast, chicken enchilada with white cheese, chicken salad wrap, honey-glazed pork chops and some deserts. Good stuff, Maynard.

When we got back to the table we discovered that the glass keeps out a lot more of the sound from the band than we expected. But we could hear OK. I don't think there's a seat in the place where you can't hear. Even so, the volume is not overpowering. It's still possible to have a normal conversation. (Or abnormal conversation, if you're at our table.) The music and the food were both great. We were there for an hour and a half and as we were leaving they started up Preztel Logic. I felt like the guy who went to the Buddhist hot dog vendor.3

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1. What else can you call your kid's spouse's parents?

2. ® Chris Reneau.

3. He said, "Make me one with everything."

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Indiana Tex-Mex

Tex-Mex food prepared exactly as you would expect to find in Bloomington, Indiana

Location: Paris, France.

The Indiana Tex-Mex Café of Paris, France. Therein lies a story.

Once upon a time on May 17, 2002 I was in Paris on business. I came prepared. Between the two great wars, Paris became the home for many American ex-patriots and as a result a healthy jazz community developed and thrived. After years of sampling jazz clubs across North America, I assayed to ascertain for myself the state of jazz in Paris in the new millennium.

Weeks before the trip I scoured the Internet and found a cluster of promising clubs in the 1st Arrondissement, half-a-mile north of Notre Dame on Rue des Lombards. After several days of business, a day of freedom emerged and I hopped the metro to do some reconnaissance. I found Le Baiser Salé easily enough. The door was open, so I stepped in and found somebody who spoke enough English to tell me when the music started. I walked a block west and found Le Sunset, which was closed. I couldn’t find any signs in English among the riot of paper taped all over the door and windows. I looked around and noticed a woman sitting on a chair under the awning of the adjacent building.

I presented the only phrase I knew in French, “Parlez vous anglais?” No, she didn’t. At that point, I lamely commented, in English, of course, that I was just wondering when they started the music at Le Sunset. She said several things, in French, of course. We stood there for a few minutes, foolishly speaking at each other in tongues. Eventually I was able to interpret from her hand gestures, body language and use of the one word I did recognize, “amore,” that she was inviting me for a toss in the hay in exchange for some unknown number of Euros. I declined awkwardly, effusively and definitively, in English, of course, and wandered the neighborhood until I located a Thai restaurant just a few blocks over.

Thus armed with intelligence promising a night of great jazz (and a sincere hope that the lady was covering the afternoon shift and wouldn’t be there when I returned) I attempted to interest my co-workers in dinner and jazz on the town. They were all exhausted from touring the Louvre and rejected my offer.

And so it was that in the evening I set out for the metro alone. I was in a pleasant frame of mind. The weather was ideal and I smiled in anticipation of my favorite cuisine - Thai. I was not troubled by the lack of companions. I had a Graham Greene book in the pocket of my tweed jacket for dinner company and I knew I would be able to enjoy jazz as far into the night as I desired without annoying gestures at watches interrupting the music.

And as I foresaw, so it was. The dinner was excellent. Afterward I dropped Greene back into my pocket and strolled to Le Baiser Salé, paid the cover and listened to a set of excellent straight-up jazz. However, it was standing room only and after an hour I was ready to find a seat. I proceeded to Le Sunset, noticed with relief that my friend from the afternoon was not in evidence, paid the cover and went upstairs where I found a table and some incredible jazz. I stayed, heedless of the time, until 1am when they blew the last note and crashed the last cymbal and snapped the last latch on the case.

That was when I discovered that the Metro closes at midnight. “No problem,” I thought. “I’ll take a taxi.” My lack of French wasn’t an issue. The hotel was near the Eiffel Tower and I had no doubt I could communicate at least that much. That was when I discovered that the line at the taxi stand was 30 feet long.

I checked my map. It appeared to be about 5km to the hotel, somewhere around 3 miles. If I walked around 3mph, a nice brisk pace, I would be there in an hour. It was a nice night and I had a Cuban cigar, so I set out on foot. However, about ten minutes into the walk, along Boulevard Saint-Germain I became acutely aware that I would have to make use of the facilities long before I arrived at the hotel. I began to scout around for an open bar.

That was when I spotted the Indiana Tex-Mex Café. (You thought I had forgotten what I was writing about, didn’t you?)

It was a welcome, if somewhat astonishing and mystifying apparition. Tex-Mex? In Paris? A waitress was dragging chairs from the sidewalk, closing up. I begged leave to visit the WC, and when I emerged I studied the menu closely. Sure enough, it showed enchiladas, tacos, tortillas, fajitas, everything you would expect. It also had burgers, steaks and other items familiar to Americans. I looked around. It looked like a Bennigan’s or Applebee's, lots of wood and framed pictures and trendy light fixtures. What would a chicken enchilada taste like in the land of haute cuisine? At that moment I purposed in my heart to return the next day for lunch.

I arrived at the hotel at 3:30am and soaked my aching feet in the tub for 15 minutes before going to bed.

The following day I joined the gang in some shopping and sightseeing in the 18th Arrondissement. When it came time for lunch I announced my intention of testing out the French version of my native cuisine. Most declined but Ryan and Bobby decided to join me. We took the metro and in a few minutes we were seated in the Indiana Tex-Mex Café. I ordered the chicken enchilada, which is my usual choice the first time I try a Tex-Mex place. Bobby followed suit. Ryan ordered ribs. Go figure. He also snapped a picture. (You can find pics of the restaurants here and here and here and here and here.)

We spent the time trying to figure out why Parisians thought Indiana was the fountain head of Tex-Mex. Surely they have US maps in France. Can't they figure out that Indiana is over 1,000 miles from Mexico and is practically in Canada?

The food was passable. I later learned through some internet research (because not much later I had a lot of time on my hands) that in the 90s a Tex-Mex craze swept through France. Still haven't figured that one out. In 2002 when I was researching the place, little could be found. In the past 4 years several people have posted info about it. Regarding the food, Chris and Alice Hodapp described it as “Tex-Mex grub that is like Mexican food that was seen from outer space and copied from that vantage point alone.” WikiTravel had the most clever comment. “Of note also is the truth in advertising: this is Tex-Mex food prepared exactly as you would expect to find in say Bloomington, Indiana.” And most interesting of all, we missed David Sadegh's reluctantly Indian Tex-Mex experience by one mile and one month.

We had a decent lunch and that was that. Until 3 days later. By that time I was back in Honolulu, so the sudden necessity to spend 3/4 of every hour on the toilet was not as inconvenient as it might have been on the 9 hour flight to NY or the 6 hour flight to LAX or the 6 hour flight to HI. A visit to the doctor confirmed that I had food poisoning, specifically a very high concetration of Campylobacter jejuni, which evidently is present on almost half of the chickens sold in the US. Cooking kills it, but if you touch the cooked meat with the same utensil used to handle the raw meet, you transfer live organisms right over.

The bacteria has an incubation period of 2-5 days, has symptoms lasting 7-10 days, is sometimes fatal and results in Guillain-Barré syndrome (in which the nerves that join the spinal cord and brain to the rest of the body are damaged, sometimes permanently) in some individuals. You'll be relieved to know that this development happens in less than 1 in 1,000 cases. As I sat in bed during the brief respites from the WC and read those odds, you can be assured I was not reassured. If the lottery had odds like that, there would be 300,000 winners in the US!

During the week I missed work I spent my spare time trying to figure out where I got it. Was it the raw seafood at the Eiffel Tower or the crab at the Dragon Elysees or the rare steak at the hotel? As I queried other diners I discovered that Bobby had fallen victim to the same fate and the mystery was solved. We both missed a week of work.

A year later, on the anniversary of our lunch, we ate at Jose's in Kaimuki. This time with no adverse side effects. So, if you got to Indiana Tex-Mex, get the ribs. Seriously.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Mongolian Grille

If anybody Khan, Gengis Khan.

Location: 117 San Jacinto Blvd, Austin, TX 78701 GoogleMaps
Phone: 512-476-3938
Hours: Sun-Thu 11a-10p, Fri-Sat 11a-11p
Website: www.mongoliangrille.com

Other locations:
12636 Research (Northbrooke Plaza) 512-335-8888
115 Sundance Parkway, #420, Round Rock, Texas 78681(La Frontera Village) 512-716-1900

A Wikipedia entry claims (without any reference) that Monogolian BBQ originated in Taiwan in the mid to late 20th century, contradicting the story I've heard many times over that the style originates from the 12th century Mongol armies of Genghis Khan, who evidently ate their way through Asia and Europe like a termite through your back deck. Legend says that the army fed itself by pillaging and scavenging what ingredients they could find and then cooking the mixture on their shields over open fires.

Regardless of its origin, it's fun to eat. You grab a bowl and pile it to overflowing with veggies and meat, then hand it over to a guy to cook on his shield. Actually it's a giant round grill, but who's counting?

A few details of importance:

  1. Be sure to pile it to overflowing because once it's cooked it takes up less than half of the space it took while raw. If you try to be polite and just pack a reasonable level bowl, you're not going to have much to eat when they bring the cooked bowl to you. I pack mine so full that when I stop at the sauce table, I'm constantly having to put stuff back in that fell out.

  2. Speaking of the sauce table, that's your next stop, where you pour different sauces over the pile. You can follow one of the recipies or create your own combination. The sauces include light soy, dark soy, garlic, hoisin, sate, orange, pineapple, sweet and sour, hot, rice vinegar, rice wine, madras curry, green curry and sesame oil.
  3. You also get white rice and sesame bread.
  4. It's pretty healthy eating. Fresh veggies and a light spray of unsaturated vegetable oil cooked quickly at high-heat so the nutrients and vitamins aren't cooked out.

My favorite Mongolian place in Honolulu is no longer in business. They used to age the tomatoes until they were just on the verge of spoiling. The first few times it freaked me out, but it became an acquired taste and now when I eat Mongolian I find myself wishing for almost-rotten tomatoes to mix in. (In case you're wondering, the tomatoes at the Mongolian Grille are fresh.)

If you're not near Austin, look for a place that does Mongolian BBQ in your area. It's an experience you don't want to miss.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Schlotzsky's

Funny Name. Serious Sandwich.

Website: www.schlotzskys.com [See website for locations and hours]

Delis are a dime a dozen and they all pretty much do the same thing. Or they did until the 1971 when Schlotzsky’s opened a store in Austin, TX. The first time I had a Schlotzsky’s sandwich was the late 70s. We were playing a gig in Dallas. While we were setting up, the guy who booked us asked if we’d like something to eat. Of course we did and he came back with Schlotzsky’s sandwiches, the original. I was skeptical, but I reserved judgment and took a bite.

Before that moment, I would have laughed at the thought of sending out for sandwiches. “Heck, we can make sandwiches. If you’re going through the trouble, get some real food,” I would have said. After that moment, I no longer regarded sandwiches with such a cavalier insouciance. It was a watershed experience in my understanding of the nature of sandwiches and their place in the culinary and gastronomic universe.

First you must understand that they make their own bread. From scratch. Every day. And of course we al realize that the bread is the foundation of the sandwich. A sandwich cannot achieve greatness with indifferent bread anymore than a Motown band can achieve greatness with a marginal rhythm section. To that wonderful sourdough bread add lean smoked ham, Genoa and cotto salamis, and melted cheddar, mozzarella, and parmesan cheeses layered with black olives, red onion, lettuce, tomato, mustard and their signature dressing. (If this sounds familiar to faithful readers of Eating Fred, Texas, note that when designing the sandwich many years ago, they based it on the muffaletta.) The way to go is the meal deal, with their own brand chips (plain, don’t want to sully the palate with chemicals attempting to taste like something else) and iced tea.

In the 30 years since I first bit into a Schlotzsky’s sandwich I have eaten them all over the place, including in Honolulu, where they had a store in the Ala Moana Food Court up until 2003 or so. The menu has expanded to include all other manner of sandwiches, divers pizza and sundry soups and salads. I’m sure they are all excellent. I wouldn’t know. Why eat pizza when I can have The Original?

OK, if that wasn’t enough to send you straight to the website looking for a location, be advised that they provide free WiFi internet access in many of their stores. You know I’m all over that. And why the heck not, I’d like to know. If I can still recall a specific sandwich experience 30 years later, you know it is a consummation devoutly to be wished. So do more than wish. Find one. Consume it. Be the sandwich.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant

Big quality Mexican cooking in small-town Texas.

Location: 494 Hwy. 71 West, Suite 180, Bastrop, TX 78602 [For other locations check their website]
Phone: 512-321-3002
Hours: Mon-Thu 11am to 10pm, Fri-Sun 11am to 11pm
Website: www.guadalajaramr.com

In Texas, TexMex is the old reliable. You can’t swing a dead gato without hitting half a dozen joints. TexMex has the virtue of simplicity; it’s hard to screw up a taco or enchilada. (Although I have seen it done.)

The Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant in Bastrop, TX is TexMex done right with fresh ingredients, but also goes beyond the standard taco/enchilada/burrito formula with items like the spinach enchilada, seafood enchilada and deep-fried stuffed avocado, plus steaks, ribs and pork chops. Plus, it has a fajita buffet for a great price.

And, since you know you’re going to fill up on chips and salsa, despite the fact that every time you leave a TexMex joint you promise yourself that next time you’ll exercise more restraint so you don’t leave wishing you had brought your wheelbarrow along, you’ll be pleased to hear that the chips are thick and crispy without being too greasy and the salsa is chunky and tasty enough to satisfy those who might wish it were a bit spicier.

The Morelia tacos and chipotle enchiladas hit the spot, particularly since they came with a side of guacamole and the charro beans instead of refried. The service was prompt and friendly. We met some old college friends there and talked for almost two hours. Even thought it was the Sunday lunch rush, they kept trying to bring us more chips and tea long after the plates were cleared.

Bastrop is growing and there are a lot of options, but you can do worse than stop at the Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Cypress Grill

Putting the you back in bayou.

Location: 4404 West William Cannon, Suite L, Austin, Texas 78749 GoogleMaps
Phone: 512-358-7474
Hours: Mon-Thu 11a-10p, Fri 11a-11p, Sat-Sun 8:30a-10p
Website: cypressgrill.net

How can you resist a place with The Spanky Special on the menu? (A fried egg sandwich on toasted oat nut bread with 3 pieces of bacon, melted American cheese, mayo, lettuce, tomato and red onion.)

With a Cajun uncle, I grew up eating the real stuff. For Thanksgiving dinner I would regularly bypass the turkey to score a bowl of shrimp gumbo. I've sampled Cajun restauraunts all over the US, finding some pretty good bayou eatin' in unlikely locations like Albuquerque (Cajun Kitchen), Phoenix (Baby Kay's) and even Kailua, Hawaii (Kevin's Two Boots).

So, when my favorite son-in-law called me up and offered to take me to lunch at the Cypress Grill to celebrate my layoff, my response time could be measured in nanoseconds. He had a coupon for a free appetizer and after a quick skim the choice was obvious: crawfish eggrolls. Not that I had experience with crawfish eggrolls before this week, but who can resist that? I say skip the ranch sauce and just eat them straight. Don't want anything to get in the way of that great flavor, I guar-own-tee!

On my first visit to a Cajun place (and if I have anything to do with it, there will be more than one visit) I order shrimp gumbo. It's the standard by which I rate the place. (The second visit is required to sample the red beans and rice.) I was suprised to see that the only gumbo was chicken and andouille sausage. But gumbo, if done right, is worth eating, no matter what has been tossed in. However, tradition must not overwhelm all other considerations. I read the whole menu before I ordered.

That was when I discovered that my Cajun cuisine education had been sorely neglected. The s. i. l. mentioned that he had the muffaletta on his first visit. When I read the menu description (lean ham, Genoa salami, mortadella, Swiss cheese, and homemade olive dressing stacked high on half round of Italian bread) I was faced with a dilemma. I simply had to experience this sandwich, but what of the gumbo tradition? The next menu item solved the problem for me. It was the Cajun equivalent of the soup-and-half-sandwich, titled "Troy's Favorite Lunch."

And no wonder! This is one great sandwich! And the gumbo was perfect. A nice dark roux with just the right amout of pepper and whatever else they throw in those things. For those of you who, like me, thought the po-boy was the only sandwich export of Lousiana, you can learn more of the origins of the muffaletta here. And I hear the Central Grocery is open for business, so book your tickets now.

The Cypress Grill menu is loaded with a ton of other great sounding stuff: Cajun crab cakes, crawfish linguine, rattlesnake pasta, Atchafalaya catfish, and of course etouffe, po-boys, and even an Abita rootbeer float! And Community coffee, of course. (The only disturbing omission was boudin. But it's an acquired taste.)

Although I'm not much of a cocktail fan, they have some interesting sounding cocktails, like the Louisiana Bloody Mary (served with pickled okra and an olive in a pint glass) and the Cypress Tini (light rum, fresh mint and lime with a shot of melon liqueur, served Mexican martini-style with a sugar rim). They also have 11 wines and an impressive variety of beer, including the Louisana brews Abita Amber and Turbo Dog.

The nice thing for me is that this joint is less than 2 miles from my house, right around the corner from Starbucks. I've already signed up for the VIP birthday club.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Little India

It's like a carnival in your mouth

Location: Denver, CO Website: www.ufeedme.com/littleindia

Van Orman is crazy about Indian food. When he was searching for a way to describe the joy of Indian cuisine he settled on the phrase: It's like a carnival in your mouth. Of course, there is Indian food and then there is Indian food. Rest assured, at Little India, you're getting the former. Or was it the latter? I lose track of these things if they're not written down. Either way, have no fear. At Little India it's not just a carnival, it's Mardi Gras. Or maybe I should say it's Diwali.

It's best to take a crowd to eat Indian. There's always so much to try and you need at least one person per entree unless you brought your little red wagon to take home the leftovers. I was there with two other folks, so we were limited. We decided on the old reliable, chicken tikka masala. Rather than do a curry this time we opted for a korma. (I was leaning toward lamb but he-who-shall-remain-unnamed announced he despises lamb and nobody wanted seafood so chicken korma it was.)

My final choice was bhindi masala. A word of advice: if you've never tried an okra dish at an Indian place, you're missing out. They usually have great flavor without the heavy sauce. Search the menu for the word "bhindi" next time. If you don't see it, ask about it. You won't regret it. Especially if they have bhindi bhaji. Num!

Basmati rice and naan completed the order and we had more than we could finish. Unfortunately the hotel had no fridge or microwave, so we had to leave the leftovers behind.

Little India has an extensive menu -- tandoori, curries, masalas, kormas, saags, vindalos, bhuna, biryanis and specialities -- all sounding extremely wonderful. It also has a lunch buffet, which is one way to address the I-want-to-try-everything issue without conscripting your extended family and acquaintances for your visit.

We ate early, which is probably a good idea. I expect this place fills up quickly. One clue (as if the menu and quality of the food weren't enough) was the presence of excess servers lurking around. They had the air of those nervously marking time during the calm before the storm.

There are three locations. I highly recommend the place. I tried the 6th Street location. I expect the others are just as good. Don't miss it if you can.