Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Satay Restaurant

Yippeekai Thai one on


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


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, 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


Freedom and migas for all


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.


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.