Sunday, September 24, 2006

Thai Tara

When it comes to Thai, Tara wins.


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.


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.


1. ® Chris Reneau.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Taco XPress

Keeping Austin weird with tacos.


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.


1. Schlotzskys and Taco Cabana

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Nutty Brown Cafe

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


12225 Highway 290 West Austin, Texas 78737
Hours:Sun-Wed 11a-10p Thu-Fri 11a-midnite Sat 11a-1a

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

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


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

2. ® Chris Reneau.

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