Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Blue Frog Grill - Guest Review

Things are hopping in Marshall

by Jeanne Damoff author of You and Me, Sister

On the corner of West Austin and North Washington, in the heart of Marshall, Texas, a jaunty blue frog in tuxedo and top hat grins at passersby. He has every reason to be happy. He stands guard over a treasure.

Innovation isn’t easy in a small town, where everyone knows everyone, and no one minds stating his mind. It takes a brave soul to venture out, introduce old ideas in a new way, and patiently explain what and why, while trying to attract clientele. But when it works, everyone wins.

Among the visionaries helping bring downtown Marshall back to life, Shawne Somerford has to be one of the most energetic, creative, and fun. The Blue Frog Grill makes the fourth restaurant she’s launched within a two-block area, all of them occupying old buildings and incorporating original architecture into the design. Shiny hard-wood floors, ancient brick, and elaborate crown mold set a back drop for modern elements like shiny chrome lights, wi-fi, and—best of all—a fabulous menu emphasizing ingredients from local farmers and sustainability.

Brown paper table-cloths allow patrons to leave messages or artwork behind. One large round table near the front window is called “the community table”—reserved for people who come in alone but would prefer to enjoy conversation with their meal.

George, Jacob, and I dropped in for lunch today. We’ve lived here for fifteen years—new-comers compared to the royal families who’ve been around since before the civil war, but long enough to know we’d see familiar faces. Sure enough, Rebekah, the hostess who greeted us, grew up with our kids. Our waitress, Olivia, attends our church. Her father, Nate, plays with me in the praise band, and will be performing jazz piano at the Blue Frog on News Years Eve.

That’s another cool thing. Live music. Often it’s provided by Grady Lee, local Texas folk singer-songwriter and owner of a nearby B&B, High Cotton Inn. Today, however, a regular table occupied the small corner stage to best accommodate the lunch crowd. As I made my way around the restaurant taking photographs, I stopped at that table to visit with Frank Strauss, chairman of the Twelve-Way Foundation, and his wife, Bonnie, a lovely woman who works tirelessly for the Michelson Museum of Art a few blocks away. I also chatted with Chrys, a friend from church, and her daughter, Ginni, who were seated near the counter where wait staff picked up orders, and where I snagged some shots of the executive chef at work.

Chef Brett Spivy apprenticed under Giuseppe Brucia, a chef in Shreveport, Louisiana, which explains the Cajun slant to some of the recipes. Which brings me to the food. Which is amazing.

George ordered the special: BBQ brisket, creamy potatoes, and green beans. I asked him to describe the sauce, and he had a hard time finding the right words—only managing between healthy bites to say it wasn’t like anything off a grocery-store shelf and that it was very good. So I was forced to try a bite. (The sacrifices we make for journalism.) He was right. Delicious. Different. Slightly indescribable. Later when the chef made rounds of the tables, we found out why.

Jacob ordered “Dogs on the Grill,” a ¼ lb. kosher beef hot dog loaded with chili, bacon, “krispy kraut,” cheese, mustard, slaw, and/or peppers. I didn’t taste it, but Jacob gave it thumbs up. (It’s not polite to talk with your mouth full.)

I ordered the Rueben. I’m actually a bit of a Rueben snob, and this one didn’t let me down. But, as much as I love a good Rueben, I have to say the russet fries stole my heart. When Chef Spivy came by our table, I asked him why they’re so tasty. For starters, they use real potatoes, sliced fresh in their own kitchen. Then they dip them in a mixture of flour, garlic powder, cayenne, fresh cracked pepper, and kosher salt. I’m about as anti-junk-food as a girl can get, and I couldn’t stop eating those fries. (Next time, though, I think I’m going to go for the sweet potato fries. Olivia said they’re her favorite item on the whole menu.)

As an environmental biologist, George was particularly interested in the philosophy of sustainability, so he asked Chef Spivy about their methods. They begin by buying as much as possible from local farmers and vendors within a 30-mile range. This cuts down on energy used for transport, ensures freshness, and also supports the local economy. They buy their dairy products from a farmer in Gladewater, and a lot of their produce comes from an organic, hydroponics farmer in Winnsboro. Less than 12% of their supplies come from farther than 90 miles away, and that’s usually tropical fruit or other items that can’t be grown in this region.

When George asked what they do with potato peels or other organic refuse, we learned the secret of the BBQ sauce. Spivy uses beef bones and vegetable matter to make demi-glace that is reduced to stock for making brown sauces. Long simmering of combined flavors produces fabulous sauces while conserving resources. Any excess food is donated to places like the HiWay 80 Mission in Longview or the Twelve-Way Foundation.

We also visited with Shawne, the general manager, and she explained that they buy organic foods as much as possible and use environmentally friendly cleaning products. It’s all part of their over-all vision – hearkening to life in these parts decades ago, a way of life that has passed from public consciousness in this era where the reach of mega farms and the international shipping of foods extends even to small-town East Texas. But she says it’s worth the extra work and expense to remain true to the vision and to help educate others in sustainability. She’s even started a blog in her “spare” time to promote the restaurant and its philosophy.

The Blue Frog Grill just opened in September, so you could say it’s still in its tadpole stage. They’ve recently begun serving a Saturday morning, New Orleans-style brunch, complete with Eggs Benedict, Omelets, Sweet Cream Waffles, Smoked Salmon, Garlic Cheese Grits, House-made Sweets, and more. After the New Year, Chef Spivy plans to start cooking classes, and the pastry chef, Deon, will offer lessons as well.

After we paid our bill, Olivia brought us the customary complimentary cookies, hot from the oven. Chopped candy bars and nuts, baked into chewy dough. Mmmm. Shawne was so encouraged by our interest, she gave us a fresh, hot loaf of Chef Deon’s sourdough bread. It’s sitting beside me on the table right now, and I can smell the fabulous aroma even through the wrapper. As full as I am from lunch, I’m thinking a slice of warm, crusty sourdough with a cup of coffee might be just the right reward for typing up this review.

If you’re ever in Marshall, give me a call and we’ll do lunch. I know the perfect place, and I’ll be looking for every excuse to go back.

Jeanne's Blue Frog Grill Photos


Note: Two Eating Fred, Texas reviewers have novels set in Marshall, TX. Escape from Fred by the blog host is set in Marshall in the mid 1970s. Finding Hollywood Nobody by guest reviewer Lisa Samson is set in present-day Marshall, TX.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Lamberts Redux

Late-breaking update: When The Woman headed south after work for an orgy of shopping at the outlet malls with The Good Daughter, I threaded my way down Lamar to Lamberts to see GloverTango. I was in for a rare night. It was like stepping into a parallel universe. You may not realize that there is a Tango Underground lurking in Austin. Well, wake up and smell the bandoneón. Tango enthusiasts descend on Lamberts every Thursday night and it is well worth the time and expense to experience it at least once. I pulled out my journal and scribbled down some notes:

I have stumbled onto the Austin Tango Underground. In the bar upstairs from the gourmet BBQ joint (there's an oxymoron) a slender man with a peg-leg, wearing shorts(!), a black turtleneck sweater with the sleeves pushed up to reveal a second skin of tattoos solid to the wrist, hair slicked back, sits at a piano with his back to us. A blonde woman in black jacket, slacks and boots plays violin. They play classic tango.

Couples of every age dance in slow, deliberate and impassioned movements the foreordained steps of the tango. Some are obviously celebrities for their apparent skill and grace, regarded reverentially by other dancers as they command the floor. An older man, dark hair and mustache (dyed?) dances with an impossibly tall, slender and lithesome woman less than half his age. She seems to posses the grace of a gazelle and the stature of a giraffe. She could rest her chin on the top of his head, but she defers.

The first clue that the game was afoot revealed itself in a small thing. The elderly man next to me (who looked like Chris Elliot's much older brother) pulled a pair of beige stiletto heels from a black bag and gave them to his wife, who removed the black sensible heels that matched her dress, and exchanged them. He also changed his shoes. The moment the music began, they were on the dance floor.

When I read that GloverTango performed the music of Argentina and then saw the man on stage, my mind filled with visions of the grandson of Third Reich henchmen on the lam from rogue Nazi hunters. The truth is more prosaic, but the music and the crowd are unforgettable.

This time around I got the BBQ platter, brisket. It was exceptionally nice and the brisket was lean and smoky. I also tried the wild boar ribs. Small, but phenomenal.

Do you have enough reasons to go to Lamberts, now? Sheesh, just pick a night. Something cool is bound to be going down.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Austin Java - Podcast

It's good all over

Ian and The Wunderfool lounge on the back deck of the original Austin Java location and chase multiple conversational rabbits, attempting, with moderate success, to link them back to Austin Java.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

EdibleAustin.com

Website: EdibleAustin.com

A century ago, eating local was pretty much the only choice you had. Now it is a conscious decision. If you don't deliberately eat local, you're eating stuff from everywhere but local. And I don't mean just from a highly-automated industrial megafarm in another state. I mean from another hemisphere.

You may remember Lisa's review of Al's Bar, or Will's review of Stella's Kentucky Deli where he said:

The average food item travels 1,546 miles to get to your grocery store. The average food item at Stella's travels about 15 miles. And you can taste the difference.

or my reviews of places like Kerbey Lane where I mentioned:

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 them, 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.

Edible Austin, a community-based quarterly publication that promotes the abundance of local foods, season by season, is launching Eat Local Week, not only to promote local food producers, but to benefit Urban Roots, an organization that uses sustainable agriculture as a means to effect lasting change for youth participants, and to nourish East Austin residents who currently have limited access to healthy foods.

Yes, little Jimmy, this is how you can become a online foodie blogger. Cut and paste text from other websites to create a 60+ word sentence that sounds like it came from a Dilbert mission statement generator.

The nice thing is that a ton of Austin restaurants are participating, including many that have been reviewed here, like the Alamo Drafthouse, Iron Cactus, NXNW, the Satay Restaurant and, yes, Kerbey Lane. And also places I've been but haven't had time to review, yet, like Guero's Taco Bar, Z'Tejas and Teo. And places I've tried to go, but didn't have time for the wait, like the Eastside Cafe. They all have specials featuring locally grown ingredients. I'm going to do my best to hit several, if I can fit them in among all the holiday hilarity going down at Casa Wunderfool.

Also, a dozen markets, farmers and otherwise, are participating. I know whereof I speak regarding farmers markets, as back in the day as a youth in Fred, Texas, I worked on a truck farm, picking all manner of fresh produce, including corn, okra, watermelon, tomatoes (Which often disintegrated into tomato fights when we discovered rotten ones. My strategy was to stockpile the rotten ones as I found them. Then, when the inevitable first strike came from one of my companions, I could respond with overwhelming fire power.), purple hull and silver hull crowders, and butter beans (which paid by the hour, not the usual $0.05/pound rate for picking, since they were so small). I did my share of reaching down into the plants and brushing up against a bull nettle hidden in the rows. Wikipedia talks about various anti-itch treatments, but they don't mention the one commonly advocated in the fields in Fred, that of urinating on the affected area. I never tried it myself, preferring to just tough it out.

But, back to the farmers market. Sometimes we would accompany the farmer's family to the market in Beaumont and help sell the stuff we'd picked all week. Lots of interesting things to see (and eat) at a farmers market!

So, if you're in the area this week, check it out and tell me how it went. If not, check out a farmer's market in your area, or a restaurant that features locally grown food. They're not that hard to find. They are becoming more popular by the minute because fresh veggies just plain taste better.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Lamberts

BBQ and Jams, baby!

Website: LambertsAustin.com

I'd made a few trips to Lamberts before to get my porterdavis fix, but that was for the 10:30 set. (Which around here means after 11:00.) Consequently I had only sampled the beers on tap. Then I had occasion to email Dick Gimble about a songwriting project and he mentioned that his daughter, Emily, was in Austin, rocking the citizens in a jazz combo called the Jitterbug Vipers for the Tuesday night 6:30 set at Lamberts. I got the email on a Tuesday (rush hour date night), so I picked up The Woman after work and we slithered through the traffic-clogged metropolis along Lamar, cutting over to Guadalupe on MLK when the going got rough.

We were settled on the second floor of Lamberts by 6:15. I wasn't shocked to see the stage completely bare. If the band showed up before 6:40 for the 6:30 set, they would probably be arrested for disturbing the peace. True to form for this town, they began trickling in about the time we ordered our appetizer and started playing about the time we got our entree, close to 7:30. That's no reflection on the band. It's just the rule.

But we'll get to the band later. Let's talk about the food.

When you think BBQ, you probably think pricier than a burger or TexMex, but cheaper than a steak house. You'll have to re-think your parameters for Lamberts. First off, there's a full menu, with appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts. That's the first clue you're not in a typical BBQ joint. Well, actually, the first clue should hit about the time you step into the 130+ year old building, restored at the turn of the millennium to its 1873 splendor. The second clue is when you discover three chefs are running the place.

The appetizers run $6 to $16, salads $8 to $12, and entrees $10 to $28. Since we were there for the music, we were restricted to the bar menu, which includes the appetizers, Frito Pie, the Hanger Steak, two sandwiches, and a BBQ plate, ranging from $6 to $16.

We decided to declare a celebration for The Woman's promotion and threw caution out the barred windows. We ordered the high-end appetizer, House Made Charcuteries and Local Artisan Cheeses at $16. What arrived was a work of art: a Lincoln-log house of grilled sourdough surrounded by four cheeses and four types of pate - foie gras, pork, salmon and rabbit. It was accompanied by honey, a mustard mixture, pickles, olives and capers. It was a new experience for both of us and we experimented with various combinations, probably violating every epicurean rule in existence. It was great and I'd get it again in a minute, but it was a lot of appetizer for two people. I'd like to see a cheese-only option on the menu.

The Woman followed with the Smoked Natural Beef Salpicon, which is basically the fanciest soft tacos you'll ever eat. They were incredible, worth every penny of the $11. I went for the Oak Grilled Harris Ranch Natural Hanger Steak. It looked like a shake roof after a hurricane and tasted great. It came with Fried Egg in the Hole, which was a donut-shaped piece of Texas Toast with a fried egg in the center, grilled onions, half an avocado and sliced tomato. The combination suited me down to the ground.

We took our time and grooved out to the music when we were done, leaving plenty of time to get to dessert. The Jitterbug Vipers were cranking out the tunes like a well-oiled machine, mainly jazz classics. Emily's voice struck me as all the good parts of Billie Holiday meets Nora Jones. Her piano playing was effortless and sublime. Francie was on upright bass, grinning behind opaque shades, barefoot and rocking from one foot to the other on the beat. Slim Richey on guitar reminded me of Robert Crumb's Mr. Natural cartoon from the 60s. In straw hat, Blues Brother shades, Hawaiian shirt and what looked like Rockport spats, he won the natty dresser award for 2007. He's one mean picker. Jon played some soulful sax. I could have listened all night, but The Woman was going to turn into a pumpkin, so we ordered dessert.

She got the Fried Blackberry Pie with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. It didn't look that impressive, but the first bite removed all doubt. It was excellent. We fought over each bite, I snagged a Viper's CD for $10 and we hit the road.

We didn't even touch the main menu. Another day, although with the attraction of live music on the second floor, I don't know if I'll ever want to stay downstairs to try it out, even thought it's bound to be wonderful. This is high-star-count dining, folks, regardless of the BBQ designation. Plan on going, soon.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

CR Gibbs American Grille - Guest Review

Best food in Redding!

Website: CRGibbs.com

by Cindy Martinusen author of The Salt Garden

Last summer there was a banner claiming Voted Best Food in Redding Again. I'll sign me up to do such eating and judging, even though I'd find it hard to settle on a Number 1 when it comes to food.

“Best Food in Redding” or not, there are weeks when I must get myself to C.R. Gibbs American Grille for their fish tacos and a pint of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Though the restaurant has a menu full of excellent dishes, gourmet creations that make the mouth water, it’s these fish tacos that mostly call me back. It’s usually during moments of intense writing, when I’m wrestling or strangling in a story, but it also happens when I’m just plain hungry.

The location isn’t some funky hole-in-the-wall – which tend to be my usual favorites. Attached to the Best Western Hotel, C.R. Gibbs American Grille is located on a main street of Redding among a strip of hotels, restaurants, shops and further down, the lone mall in the city.

There are three choices of seating: dining area, the center bar and the outside patio. The main dining room, divided by the bar in the center, can be noisy for such culinary savoring. But if I sit at one of the tall little tables in the bar area, the noise is somehow expected and desired, why, I’m not sure. But the best dining is outside, ah, the outside patio.

All summer long – and we have long hot summers in Redding (mid-May to mid-October) -- the patio area is open for dining. On Friday and Saturday nights, live music from jazz to swing fills the nights, and sitting there with someone I love (husband, kids, family, friends), while savoring food and drink, well, maybe I’m getting more simple as I head toward my forties, but such moments rank among some of my happiest.

The service has its inconsistencies - one waitress, nice as she may be, never fails to look panicked if we want separate bills – even if there’s two of us.

So what’s so special about the fish tacos and pale ale? It’s a somewhat basic choice considering the comparison to a mélange of dishes that tempt me:

  • Pecan Porkloin with Sweet Carmel Onions
  • Almond Encrusted Halibut with Apricot-Horseradish
  • Seared Ahi Tuna
  • Spit-Roasted Chicken in a Honey Citrus Glaze
  • For kids (and adults too), there’s an appetizer called Crunchy Chicken Strips with a secret special “crunchy” ingredient. They roll the chicken in Corn Flakes -- my sleuthing skills revealed that mystery, or rather my friend Becci who once knew a waitress who worked there (thanks Becci).

Those are just the beginning of the choices. So you see my quandary.

But now to the tacos.

Grilled cod, shredded purple cabbage, some special spicy ranch sauce wrapped in a grilled corn tortilla and overloaded with provolone cheese. It’s served with black beans and a delicious, light and aromatic rice with a cup of fresh salsa. So okay, even with that description, they’re just tacos. But somehow, it blends with the taste of beer to be as perfect a meal as can be found most anywhere.

A little message about beer. I was a late bloomer to liking it, and I still don’t care for most kinds. But beer can be very much like a good wine. It can compliment the meal, accentuate the flavor, and add something essential sort of like butter and salt add to a dish (I’m not exaggerating here). When I have pasta and red meat, I want a red wine. When it’s tacos, pizza, and a few other dishes, I want my beer.

Sierra Nevada is my favorite brewery with their Pale Ale never failing to satisfy (it’s a nearby brewery that’s gained national attention – I’ll write more about it some time). But during different seasons, the pale ale is rivaled by the even bolder Celebration Ale, Harvest Ale or the newly released Anniversary Ale. It you like a milder beer, they offer a golden and wheat as well.

But back to the restaurant.

January and February are free shrimp bowl months. For every entrée ordered, you get a dozen plump peel-n-eat shrimp arriving on a bed of ice to keep them babies cold. Let’s just say, I keep it marked on my mental calendar every year.

Before the entrée arrives, a small loaf of sourdough bread arrives with a dipping sauce of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and crushed pistachios poured over the top. It’s bread and dipping sauce that tempts me to gorge myself right here and ask for a takeout box when my meal arrives.

A few weeks ago, my sister and I decided to share a meal. It was painful to be there, sitting at one of the tall bar tables with a Celebration Ale and to not order the fish tacos. Since she’s having marital troubles, I let her order what she wanted, and that was the Tomato-Pesto Shrimp Pizza. Here’s the description: “A thin crust pizza with pesto sauce, fresh Mozzarella cheese, grilled shrimp, fresh spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and red onion. Finished with pine nuts and Parmesan cheese.” Can you guess that I quickly got over my disappointment? It was the kind of excellence you think about for days afterwards.

But then days after that, I started thinking about the fish tacos, so I easily convinced my husband to take me last week.

The best arrangement is to go with someone who is willing to share two entrees and who wants one of those to be the tacos. My husband was willing – I knew I married a good one. Corey was our waiter and gave us great service (as usual – I’ve had him before) and told us the restaurant has been there since the early 80’s.

We ordered my usual and then the chef special of swordfish and mahi-mahi with mushroom caps, wild rice and some kind of yummy flavored butter with lime rind – I think. Whatever it was, this arrangement was the best. I should note that my husband’s favorite beer is Lost Coast’s Great White (a very good beer from a nice brewery on the California coast).

The city of Redding, with a population of 80,000+ is the largest city north of Sacramento in Northern California. It’s a different kind of California up here with our quaint culture, the volcanoes, lake sports, hiking, wilderness areas and other summer and winter recreational and outdoor activities. Many small towns dot the mountains and valleys and thankfully some fine cuisine can be found even though we’re far from the famous restaurants of San Francisco, the Bay Area, and Sacramento.

If you’re driving on Interstate 5 going north to Oregon and Washington or south to Sac, the Bay or down to L.A., plan a stop in Redding and C.R. Gibbs American Grille. You won’t be disappointed, and maybe I’ll be there as well.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Banderas - A Texas Bistrot

Urban Vaquero Coastal Tejano Germanic Cajun cuisine! Who knew?

Where: 9721 Arboretum Blvd (in Rennaisance Hotel)

We stopped by the Arboretum Barnes and Noble for a technical book. The Renaissance Hotel is only a short walk through the trees and is home to Banderas, which bills itself as a Texas bistrot. We weren't sure what that was, but it sounded interesting and it was close.

Banderas is the high-end restaurant at the Renaissance. There is also a deli, a nightclub and the lobby bar. Per usual for a rush hour date night, the place was practically deserted at 6pm. However, a table of Tivoli conference trainers were at the far end of the room, proving their prowess as presenters by having a conversation that was fully discernable from 50 feet away. As a result, not only can I tell you about Banderas, I can also give you some pointers on the national seminar presentation racket.

Tip #1: Never pick up the tab.

Oblivious to the Texas Tapas theme emblazoned at the top, we browsed the whole menu and constructed an order exploiting their signature items. Hey, if I don't like the stuff they think they do best, no need to come back and try the rest. Here’s what we got. We split everything.

  • BBQ swordfish
  • Spinach salad with strawberry, bleu cheese, candied pecans, balsamic fig vinaigrette dressing
  • Roasted sweet potatoes
  • Angus bleu cheese burger with applewood smoked bacon on a jalapeno cheddar roll
  • Peach streusel cheesecake with cinnamon ice cream

How can you not dig these options? The swordfish was surprising, a thin plank of fish drizzled with BBQ sauce and served with tomatoes and olives and some other stuff. Not bad. The salad rocked, especially the dressing. Taters, good. The burger was fantastic, as was the cheesecake.

Tip #2: Drink hot tea with lemon to keep your voice from fading.

However, in addition to having a great selection of entrees, Banderas features a slate of Texas-oriented tapas. For the uninitiated, I should explain that tapas are basically small appetizers that go far beyond the typical options of calamari sticks, chips/dip, fried mushrooms or jalapeno poppers. You order several to go along with your drinks. If you want to know more than that, read the Wikipedia entry.

Banderas has created a selection of tapas based on five different Texas cuisine influences. As their literature says:

  • Urban Vaquero. The Vaquero or cowboy is a historical figure that has attained romantic features and near-mythic stature. The urban vaquero is creative southwestern big city cooking using classic campfire cuisine techniques.
  • Coastal Epicurean. From Port Arthur to Brownsville the shoreline of Texas stretches over 372 miles. The Gulf coast is known for its abundance of fresh and flavorful seafood and fish.
  • Tejano. The term Tejano encompasses the influence of Texas on Mexico and vice versa in culture, language, literature, art, music and cuisine. This unique style of cooking and enjoyment of foods stems from cantinas and taquerias of Texas and Mexico.
  • Germanic Hill Country. The proximity of the Hill Country with its European descendants has given us a wide variety of artesian cheeses, fresh produce, honey and game to choose from.
  • Texas Cajun Country. We are still pure Texas, with our Bayou roots, a combination of two colorful cultures. Key towns like Marshall, Beaumont, Port Arthur and Houston in close proximity to the Louisiana border have contributed to the Cajun influence in our cooking. [Note: Fred, Texas is right between Marshall and Beaumont.]

The menu I found online is evidently out of date, although the tapas listed there sound great and I would love to try them. On our second visit we decided to do the tapas. We walked through the throng of the Society for Petrophysicists and Well Log Analysts (say that three times fast) and got a table immediately, as the SPWLA were on their way to a cocktail hour followed by getting on three large cruise buses to go eat somewhere. (I wonder why they allow only well log analysts. If you get sick, is your membership revoked?) There were six tapas alternatives on the menu and we had them all:

  • Quesadilla, beef or chicken with salsa, guacamole and sour cream
  • BBQ swordfish
  • Lump crab cake with avocado and tomato salsa and a Bloody Mary vinaigrette dressing
  • Salt and pepper calamari with a sweet chili sauce
  • Seasoned jumbo scallops with a 5-spice citrus salad and scarlet orange vinaigrette dressing
  • Chili glazed shrimp with manogo crema, chili oil and cilantro scallion oil

The total damage for the lot was $58, but any four of them would have been plenty for two people, which is not a bad price for two peoples in a classy joint like Banderas. We resorted to the little red wagon to drag away what we couldn’t finish. Let’s just say I’m going to have some interesting scallop wraps for lunch tomorrow, and I won’t be crying about it.

Tip #3: You’re always auditioning for your next gig, so never let your hair down or let them see you sweat.

At first I thought we could skip the quesadilla. After all, what can you really do with a quesadilla? Here’s what, load it with nice chunks of juicy steak. Holy tamale, Batman! They were luscious. Typically I squirt some lemon juice on crab cakes, and this one came with lemon but we took one bite and realized it was perfect just like it was. However, that didn’t stop us from scarffing down the salsa along with it. The calamari was cut into half-inch rings and was very tender. They were slightly spicy and were great with or without the sauce. The scallops were huge, tender and rich. The shrimp was large, meaty and very spicy. The Woman, a shrimp lover, quit after one, but I, a capsaicin addict, ate the remaining ones for her.

I asked the server if they saw many locals and he said they didn’t. After all, how often do you think, I’ll just head down to my local hotel and grab an incredibly superb meal? That’s fine with me, as it means it won’t be crowded the next time I go. It also means a lot of locals are missing out on a really good thing. But I can live with that.

Tip #4: Learn to hide the hat.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Clay Pit

Capitol Indian fare.

Website: ClayPit.com

Most novelists, even published ones, have a day job. My day jobs have been all over the court, including janitor, math teacher, field hand, computer programmer, brickyard worker, editor, resident Gentile in a Conservative synagogue, IT director, weed-cutter, and a number of influential positions in less notable professions. My current day job is freelance technical writer. Pursuant to said job, I found myself in Addison, TX, at a conference hosted by the Lone Star STC chapter, accompanied by The Woman, because who can resist the lure of Addison?

While partaking of the pleasures of Addison, we found an Indian restaurant a few blocks from the hotel. It was the highlight of the trip, right up there with getting a new jacket from the Men's Wearhouse. Later we stumbled across the original location right here in Austin, TX, (original Clay Pit, I mean, not the original Men's Wearhouse) in the historic Bertram building (no relation to Bertram Wooster) on Guadalupe.

The Clay Pit puts a contemporary spin on Indian cuisine, and that suits me right down to the ground. Keep 'em coming, I say. After three visits, I still haven't had enough. There's plenty more for me to taste before I work through the whole menu, and I intend to do just that. And why not, with entries like the house specialities:

  • Kabuli Chicken: Boneless chicken cooked in our korma sauce from the curry house & infused with a paste made from pureed nuts, raisins & cherries
  • Goat Curry (Halal): Bone-in Goat marinated in yogurt, ginger, garlic, cumin & coriander, cooked in a tangy tomato & onion gravy with a touch of nutmeg
  • Sauteed Baby Eggplant: Eggplant & peas sauteed with crackled mustard seeds & spices
  • Khuroos-E-Tursh: Medallions of chicken breast stuffed with seasoned spinach, mushrooms, onions & cheese, simmered in a rich cashew-almond cream sauce with a hint of sweetness
  • Kothmir Salmon: Fresh salmon rubbed with garlic & ginger, pan-seared in a marinade of mint chutney, paprika, lemon juice & olive oil

I could go on listing menu items and causing you to drool all over your keyboard, but, honestly, what's the point? You already wish you were there right now, soaking up the tikka masala and a Kingfisher. So let me give you a sense of the two locations. The Addison spot is the the great urban sprawl known as DFW, in the D portion of the metroplex on Belt Line Road. It's a nice, contemporary restaurant with a classy jazz bar feel to it.

The Austin spot is in a 150-year-old limestone building downtown. You get the feeling that Stephen F himself, or perhaps David Bowie or Daniel Boone, might stroll in and order a whiskey alongside the functionaries and interns from the capitol who are squeezing every last drop possible from the happy hour, rolling past the 6pm cutoff into one full-priced drink in the hope that the traffic on MoPac will fade, thereby trading a few hours in a bar to cut their commute by 30 minutes.

But you are in the main dining area, free from the worries of homeward commutes and state politics, enjoying the pre-prandial papadum and chutneys as you tackle the challenging task of selecting just one item from the panoply of tempting dishes to enjoy with the bride of your youth. Life is good and Indian food is better.

You really need to get down to the Clay Pit. I'm thinking about jumping in the car and heading down, and it's 2am, for crying out loud. You can see how addicting this place can become.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Al's Bar - Guest review

Cheap Eats Along Limestone in Lexington, KY

by Lisa Samson author of Hollywood Nobody

Now, I admit, north Lexington isn't what anybody would call a posh section of town. You'll find small grocery stores more interested in selling lottery tickets and Doritos than fresh vegetables. In fact, for his rural sociology class at University of Kentucky, Will and some classmates conducted a food access study of the area. Not one fresh vegetable could be found in these stores. Not a single apple. Not an orange. The closest you could get was a bag of potatoes. And those were rare. You can get checks cashed as well.

Al's Bar and Grlll sits at the corner of Fifth and Limestone amid forlorn surroundings: a pool hall, a hot wings joint and a barber shop so old and decrepit it's a wonder anybody risks life and limb for a haircut. Al's is pretty forlorn itself, to be honest. The first time I entered Al's I did so because I heard it was for sale. Immediately, I began to dream. Homemade soups each day, my friend Claudia and I talking with the neighbors as we served up steaming cups of coffee and homemade food. The price was right at $199,000.00 certainly, but my life was already filled.

But somebody bought Al's. A surprise to us all because it sat with that For Sale sign on it for close to a year. The owners of Stella's Deli, another downtown establishment, but down near Second Street, and that makes all the difference in the world if you know Lexington, bought Al's and not long after a sign hung across the brick facade.

Lunch Special: Burger, Fries and a Draft Beer, $5.00.

Well, well! The owners are people committed to using as much local foods as possible, especially grass fed, organic beef.

Recently, I went with two friends to sample the special. The waiter, who I suspect is one of the owners, came and took our order. Lea ordered a Diet Coke, Amy a water, and yes, I got the beer. Budweiser on tap. Oh well, it was almost a hundred degrees that day, and they served it in a mug frosted a quarter inch thick. Baby, it was the best Bud I'd ever had!

Our burger came with a choice of fries or sweet potato fries. We all ordered the sweet potato fries. Having chatted for less than ten minutes, we soon lifted those organic burgers to our mouths. They weren't huge affairs, just quarter pound, hand formed patties. But the meat was moist and tasty and still piping hot. The grilled buns added a pleasant, crispy texture along with lettuce and a slice of ripe tomato. It was nothing less than what I expected from the owners of Stella's.

But the most pleasant of surprises came with the sweet potato fries. Skins still clinging to the perfectly fried, bright orange meat, seasoned with a blend I didn't recognize from the grocery store, I bit into a little bit of heaven. All three of us agreed, these were the best sweet potato fries we'd ever eaten. If you'd like to order them a la carte, the price is right as well at $1.50 a serving. I swear I'm going to go back, get a double order and call it a meal.

As an author, I know you can't tell a book by its cover. As someone who loves local dives, I know you can't always tell what kind of food you're going to get in a restaurant that may not look so tony on the outside. Or the inside for that matter.

If you have trouble looking beyond atmosphere, Al's may not be the place for you. A set of green naughahyde booths line the left side of the joint, just across from the bar where colorful, city locals gather. A pool table haunts one of the back rooms, the bulk of the establishment rarely used during the daylight hours. On the way out, we had a lovely conversation with the woman who works in the lunchroom at the local elementary school. She said, "Have a good day, baby," to me on the way out.

That was even nicer than those fries!

Down Fifth you'll find Stella Mae's SRO, quite possibly the smallest sit-down restaurant you'll ever go to. Wait until you hear about Stella Mae's apple cobbler. But that's for another day.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sunflower

Great Vietnamese food any day but Tuesday

Where: 8557 Research Boulevard Ste 146, Austin, TX, 78758
Phone: 512-339-7860
Hours: Wed-Mon 10a-10p

As you gentle readers know from a previous installment, we were thwarted in our first attempt to infest the Sunflower when The Kiwi Doglover failed to mention that they were closed on Tuesday. I rectified the situation by rescheduling my weekly foray into civilization to land on a Wednesday and we descended on the Sunflower with a keen sense of expectation.

The first thing to strike us upon entry was the surprising number of diners already digging in with gusto at such an early hour. Here was a whole crowd of rush hour daters! We sent the server off immediately for a brace of fresh spring rolls (The Woman prefers fried, but I rule with an Iron Fist!) and then spent the next half-hour digesting the menu. Well, maybe not an actual half hour, but near enough. Sort of. You get the idea. There's lots on there and it all sounds good.

On the advice of The Kiwi Doglover, we ordered the Calamari Salad (strips of tender calamari tossed in a cabbage salad with fresh mint leaves, scallions and a tangy dressing) and the Seafood Clay Pot (lots of good stuff which I can't describe because it's not listed on the takeout menu, served in a clay pot). The Woman saw another table devouring something which our server said was the Crispy Tamarind Halibut (fried halibut cubes in a tempura batter, drizzled with tangy tamarind sauce, pictured here in a photo I stole from a newspaper review), but ruling with the Iron Fist in the Velvet Glove, I directed her attention to the (non-fried) Sunflower Special Steamed Sea Bass Fillet (California sea bass steamed with ginger, scallions and topped with a black bean soy sauce), reasoning that if it's their speciality, it's bound to be good. (And who can argue with such flawless reasoning? Don't answer that.)

By the way, did you know that Chilean sea bass isn't really sea bass? It's a very ugly fish discovered 30 years ago, with the unappealing name of the Patagonian toothfish, but nobody would buy it with that name, so they renamed it to improve their marketing. It worked so well that now the fish is in danger of extinction. Really.

The calamari salad was very nice. Tender chunks of squid. Num. The fish was very interesting, flaky white fish and the scallions were the perfect complement to the black bean soy sauce. The clay pot was good, too, with all kinds of things crawling around in side. Well, not really crawling. Floating would be more like it. We toddled out satisfied and walked it off at the Hong Kong Supermarket where The Woman picked up more tea infuser cups for her co-workers. (She really is too nice for this world.)

But one visit wasn't enough. We returned for another pair of fresh spring rolls and the Sunflower Salad (marinated jellyfish, pork and shrimp, tossed with lotus shoots, fresh mint, basil, scallions and cabbage in a tangy vinaigrette). This time I relented and we tried the Crispy Fried Halibut. The spring rolls were tasty and healthy, as usual. The salad was great, although after sampling a small portion The Woman generously suggested I eat the rest. The halibut was good, served on some very fresh, tender lettuce, with red onions and fresh mint and doused with a very sweet sauce. But I'm no fan of fried and there was too much sugar for my taste. The Woman suggested that next time she will ask for the sauce on the side. I suggested that it be on the other side of town at least.

This time we trolled through the neighboring Target to walk it off and discovered a table that almost fit what we've looked through dozens of stores, catalogs and websites to find. It's not exact, but on clearance it was as close as we're likely to find, so we snatched it up and I got the rest of my exercise getting it out of the car.

Which of course has nothing to do with the Sunflower. I have yet to try the kinds of dishes I usually associate with Vietnamese restaurants, like pho and lemongrass chicken. Guess we'll have to go back again. I won't be complaining.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

El Sol y La Luna - Podcast

Website: ElSolyLaLunaAustin.com

SpyMan and the Wunderfool hit a SoCo icon for breakfast and lunch. Top notch TexMex with a South Congress twist.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Coco's Cafe

It's bubbleiscous

Location: 8557 Research Blvd # 118, Austin, TX
Phone:512-833-6588

Location: 1910 Guadalupe St, Austin, TX
Phone:512-236-9398

On a hot tip from the Kiwi doglover, we directed our rush hour date toward a Vietnamese place off 183, only to discover it is closed on Tuesday. Bummer, since we don't get up into north Austin much at other times. We consoled ourselves with a visit to the Hong Kong Supermarket. There's nothing quite like a stroll through an Asian supermarket. Sometimes you even see a label in English, although sometimes even that doesn't help. I found a gzillion things I'd like to try, but with the pantry already full of things I haven't cooked in months, it would be crazy to buy more. I did get some fried taro sticks for a snack and we picked up some cool tea cups, the kind with a lid and an infuser. [Ours are a very cool blue, but I could only find red on the Internet, so use your imagination.]

We had time on our hands, so we loitered around the strip mall, browsing here and there. We did a speedwalk pass through a furniture store, outrunning the sales guy, and ended up outside a place called Coco's Cafe. The sign in front mentioned some of their awards from the Austin Chronicle:

  • 2006 Readers Other Oriental/Asian
  • 2004 Readers Original Recipe
  • 2004 Readers Chicken Dish
  • 2004 Readers Other Oriental/Asian
  • 2004 Readers Favorites
  • 2003 Readers Favorites
  • 2003 Readers Other Oriental/Asian
  • 2002 Readers Favorites
  • 2001 Readers New Restaurant
  • 2001 Readers Other Restaurant Worth Noting
  • 2001 Readers Other Oriental/Asian
With all those awards, it didn't look like a high-risk option. The clincher was the big sign advertising their bubble drinks.

The Woman has few weak spots. When we moved to Hawaii we went three years without Blue Bell ice cream. Then somebody sent us four half-gallons of Blue Bell. The normally generous-to-a-fault Woman assumed the demeanor of a tigress guarding her cubs. The transformation was astounding. At that point I made a note to self -- never get between The Woman and her Mint Chocolate Chip Blue Bell!

Bubble drinks are another of The Woman's passions. I don't get it, myself. If I get a drink, I don't want lumps in it. Some like lumps, I guess.

At Coco's, you go to the counter, order, get a number, help yourself to the soup and various condiments and grab a table. The menu was full of interesting things. We narrowed it down to Peppercorn Chicken for The Woman and Eel Steak for me. We also wanted to get [insert name of item that really sounded good but I forgot the name of and couldn't look up because they don't have a website here] but they were out, so we opted for the green onion pie.

The soup was egg drop. Milly put cilantro in hers, I put a dark hot sauce in mine and it was spicy enough, even for me. Our green onion pie arrived, which turned out to be a big green onion pancake with a soy chili pepper sauce on the side. It was a nice appetizer, although these things always taste a little under done to me. But that's just me. That's how they're supposed to taste.

The entres arrived. The peppercorn chicken was deep-fried chicken chunks with peppercorn batter, jalapeno garlic mixture on the side with rice and spicy cabbage. The eel steak was a big unagi filet in a bowl of rice with spicy cabbage and a pickled squash slice. It was just like something you would get in Japan for lunch. I got flashbacks from my Asian travels. Both were good. It's not surprising Coco's gets awards. They have good solid food, decent prices, simple but tasteful decor. What's not to like? I'm going to check out the other location first chance I get.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mi Pueblo - Guest review

Mexican food up north. Scary!

Location: 1379 N. Cass St, Wabash, Indiana

Phone: 260-563-0843

Hours: Sun-Thu: 11a-10p, Fri-Sat: 11m-10:30p

by Colleen Coble, author of Abomination

I’m a sucker for good Mexican food. I scout it out whenever I travel, but so far I haven’t found another restaurant that beats my own little hometown place, Mi Pueblo. It’s in a location that no other restaurant has made successful—at the end of a strip mall in Wabash, Indiana. They’ve not only made it successful, they had to expand into the space next to them to accommodate the crowds!

It’s not much on the outside, just a typical storefront. The inside is decorated in earthen colors with uneven saltillo tile. Little snippets of Mexican culture decorate the walls. But its main draw isn’t the décor—it’s the FOOD! Have you ever noticed that Mexican restaurants know service? The minute we’re seated, a smiling waiter brings over chips and salsa before even taking our water order. And they keep the basket filled to overflowing. The salsa is made fresh daily—and the heat depends on how hot the peppers were that day!

Your birthday is a good day to come here. The waiters bring a big straw sombrero, put it on the head of the hapless birthday person, then sing Happy Birthday in Spanish. They also bring him/her a sopapilla and ice cream. If you’re shy, don’t speak up!

Mi Pueblo is the fastest place I’ve ever seen. We barely dig into our chips before the food is brought. My favorite is arroz con pollo which is just chicken and rice with a spicy cheese sauce, but oh my, you haven’t lived until you’ve tasted it. It’s much tastier than it sounds. Their enchiladas rancheros is fabulous as well. I always get the chicken ones. I’m not one for Mexican food that’s so hot it makes you sweat. But my brothers are. So they generally ask for the hot stuff to be brought to their table. And the waiters are happy to oblige!

I’m not a drinker, but I hear the margueritas are really good. Their con queso dip is terrific as well. On Sundays the crowd is so large they turn the smoking room into a non smoking one. But they’re so fast, that even if there’s a line when you arrive, you’ll be seated within fifteen minutes.

If you’re in Indiana, look them up. There are also Mi Pueblo restaurants in North Manchester and Marion. And if you stop by on Wednesdays, you just might find me there digging into my dinner. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Fredericksburg - Part 4: Torre di Pietra

Website: TexasHillCountryWine.com

For starters, I must confess I am not a wine guy. Perhaps a whine guy, but that’s for others to say. I could never go for a drink that practically requires a degree to be qualified to drink. Not to mention learning an entire vocabulary. Ah yes, it’s forward, not to say precocious, almost tough, with thin legs and a rather big and pretentious nose, though lacking body, but the bite is promising. What? The wine? No, I was talking about my nephew.

But when one is in Texas wine country, one must make the effort, mustn’t one? Being a tyro, I searched for some method of filtering out the options to a single selection. I settled on the old reliable: live music. I found a few with music and narrowed it down to the one with lunches available as well - Torre di Pietra. I figured we could make a day of it.

We got there around noon, purchased the $13 box lunch immediately (being advised that they sometimes run out) and then bellied up to the bar for the tasting. For $5 you get to taste 5 wines. The Woman opted for whites; I opted for reds. The guy did his best to educate us, but, alas, about the best we could do was say, “Yeah, I really like that one,” or, “No, it didn’t do much for me.” That mission accomplished, we each got a glass of what we liked best and headed out to the pavilion to scarf our lunches and listen to some live music.

The lunches were excellent. (Mine was Roast Beef & Cheddar on Sourdough with Chipotle Mayonnaise, Red Potato Salad vinaigrette, Cookies. The Woman’s was Smoked Ham & Camembert on a Croissant with Mango Chutney, Garden Salad, Cookie.) The wine was good. (As far as we could tell, but what do we know?) The music, Billy F Dee, was pure D country. I was thinking, “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

But then I listened closer. These guys were very good pickers. The original tunes were clever. (When the Vow Breaks Teardrops Will Fall, Not Tonight I’ve Got a Heartache, Heart Don’t Fail Me Now, May Your Heart Rest in Pieces) Billy Dee plays bass and sings. And plays bass very well. Clean and solid, better than I could do, even if I wasn’t singing. You could have set your watch by this guy. Mussolini could have used him to time the trains. Jim Lutz, on guitar, was really a jazz player slumming in a country band. And the drummer wasn’t a slouch, either. If you have to listen to country (And who says you do? But, IF you do), you could do a lot worse than Billy Dee.

All things considered, a good time was had by all. If you’re making the trek to Fredericksburg, give the wineries a shot. You could even do the Texas Wine Trail in December and have your own Texas Sideways adventure. After all, Thomas Hayden Church lives around here somewhere.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Fredericksburg - Part 3: Hondo's on Main - Podcast

Get on in here!

Website: HondosOnMain.com

Read the account of our first visit to Hondo's below. Then listen to the group podcast recorded live inside Hondo's on our second visit.

Our initial attraction to Hondo's was the live music, particularly porterdavis, the only non-country option available to us that Friday night. I snagged a table near the stage while The Woman retrieved some beverages and chips and queso. As I perused the menu, I realized we had missed out on a treat and would be returning to FBurg as soon as the schedule would permit.

The burgers are donut burgers: "One-half pound of thick juicy Certified Angus Beef, formed into a donut, and grilled on our open flame mesquite wood grill. Served on a toasted sourdough bun with crisp shredded lettuce, a slice of tomato, red onions, pickles, and our mustard-mayonnaise mix on the side. We use egg as a binder in all our burgers, just like Mom." It is available in multiple variations: Bacon Cheddar, Chili Cheese, BBQ Bacon, TexMex, Lip Burning ("Spicy chipotle chilies and green onions mixed in, topped with roasted green chilies. Slightly dangerous.") and Death ("Lip Burnin topped with a layer of chopped fresh jalapeno chilies. Really, really dangerous.")

That's just the burgers. Check the menu for details, but here are some nice-sounding options:

  • Sandwiches: Hot Chick, Reuben Gone South Sandwich
  • A series of Good Ol Boy Sandwiches (Hondo's variation of the Po-Boy)
  • A variety of stacked enchilada's including steak
  • Salads: Baked Goat Cheese, Slob Cobb, Supa Chalupa
  • Nacho Construction Kit: build it yourself at your table
  • The Mayor's Moonlight Menu: 7 items for carnivores that might even convert vegans

You might be wondering, Who is this Hondo guy? His bio can solve that little puzzle for you. Fans of Texas songwriters know him as the mayor of Luckenbach, as popularized by the Waylon song. Here are some details from the bio:

In 1971 he bought Luckenbach, a small community established as an Indian trading post by German immigrant Albert Luckenbach in 1849. There Crouch presided as mayor over a population of three plus a single parking meter. As "clown prince" he brought to life the town's motto, "Everybody's Somebody in Luckenbach."

We only made it inside to order, but it looks cool in there, too. We spent our time outside, soaking up the jams from porterdavis. Following the rule in Texas, they were still setting up when we got there a little after the posted starting time. I chatted them up a bit and during the break Simon Wallace, the awarding-winning harp player from the UK, visited with us at the table for 20 minutes or so. All the guys were 'just folks' and the gig was a great experience, families all around, 2-year-old kids dancing in front of the stage. (I snagged the gazebo picture above from the porterdavis website. Then I remembered Simon was running around with a camera, so I looked closer and sure enough, there are The Woman and The Wunderfool down in front.)

We picked up a CD at the gig and it became the soundtrack for our weekend. Since then I've caught them at Lambert's a few times and bought a few more CDs to pass around. If you don't have one, yet, check their website. You can hear a few tunes and buy it there. "Penny Candy" is highly addictive. It's got the perfect hook: something original that sounds so simple you'd swear you've heard it before, but with a groove that makes you hit the button to hear it again. Wish I could understand the lyrics. Who knows what I'm listening to! (Could be like the time I fell in love with a moving, soulful Springsteen tune, only to discover months later that it was a shockingly explicit story about a hooker. Or not.) Next time I see them, I'll try to remember to ask about the lyrics. In the meantime, I'm jamming out. Get you some now. Highly recommended.

Join Ian, The Wunderfool, The Woman and The Yankees on a return visit to Hondo's for a post-prandial chat about Hondo's and Fredericksburg, recorded in the Hondo's dining room.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Fredericksburg - Part 2: Der Lindenbaum

Website: DerLindenbaum.com

If you’re spending any time at all in Fredericksburg, there’s a state law that says you have to eat at Der Lindenbaum. It’s as authentic German cuisine as you can get without using your passport. Ingrid Hohmann graduated from the Hotel and Restaurant School at Maria Laach, a fancy, hotshot cooking school in Europe, before creating Der Lindenbaum. The website doesn’t say why she relocated to the hill country to replicate dishes from the fatherland like Konigsberger Klopse (beef and pork meatballs in a caper sauce) and Rheinischer Sauerbraten (a roast, marinated for a week in a sweet/sour sauce). Perhaps she was fleeing a dark and troubled past or was a leader in a schnitzel smuggling syndicate. Speculation notwithstanding, once she got here, she done herself proud. Der Lindenbaum has been featured in Gourmet Magazine, Southern Living, Texas Monthly, the Houston Chronicle and Austin Magazine.

It is no surprise to those who stayed awake all the way through Schultze Gets the Blues that Texas has a rich history of central European immigration, from the Czecks and Slavs (who brought us kolaches and polka) to the Germans (who brought us carbohydrates and cholesterol).

The special was a pan-fried smoked pork chop with sauerkraut and potato salad. Well, everything comes with sauerkraut and potato salad and spicy mustard, so that goes without saying. We both wanted the special, but if everybody gets the special, then how can we sample other things? We got into a wrestling match over the other option. It came down to choice between a steak and the sausage sampler. But you can get steak anywhere, and this is Der Lindenbaum. We got the sausage. It had bratwurst, knackwurst and something else we didn’t get the name of but that we liked the best. Nice and spicy. Went well with the Bitburger lager on tap.

I was surprised by the pork chop, which was pink like a slice of ham, instead of the typical brown chop I used to seeing. At a half inch thick, it was tender and tasty and went well with or without the mustard. But, for my money, the best thing on the plate was the combination of the sauerkraut and the potato salad, which was sweet. Take a dab of each along with your meat, and it is strangely reminiscent of sweet cornbread. Go figure.

Der Lindenbaum has a large selection of desserts, not surprising since Ingrid started off with a bakery before she expanded to a full menu. However, not wishing to waddle out like the burgermeister and his wife, we refrained and instead toodled down from 312 E Main to 312 W Main and Hondo's to catch Porter Davis.

Next week: Hondo's on Main

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Fredericksburg - Part 1: Brigid's Cottage

After a year in Austin and thirty years of marriage, it seemed like a good idea to get away for the weekend.http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gif Fredericksburg beckoned. The one in Texas, not the one in Virginia.

Fredericksburg was founded in 1846 by folks that took 16 days to travel the 90 miles from New Braunfels. (I had a car like that once.) It has long been a destination for those who adore kitschy little shops where you can buy things like antique gasoline station signs, or vintage Coca Cola glasses, or handmade anything, from furniture to jewelry to clothes to kites. It has more recently experienced a renaissance of sorts, with a multitude of galleries and studios, theaters, museums, spas, vineyards and wineries.

Fredericksburg has approximately 327.5 billion bed and breakfast options with which to confuse the hopeful traveler. Well, not really, but it seems that way. After a while, even this place looked good. After all, how can you beat $40 a night? I ask you!

The Woman put the kibosh on that line of thought and used her extensive network of undercover operatives to pinpoint a base of operations for the weekend – Brigid’s Cottage.

One thing you notice about Brigid’s before you even enter the house – it has been decorated in the style I like to call Terminal Cuteness. This is the style that makes women go “awww” and makes all other right-thinking citizens go into diabetic shock. Take this photo, for instance. What you can’t tell is that in the corner below the lamp there is a miniature tea party attended by teddy bears. Enough said. During the playback of the photojournalistic style of our videoed entry to the cottage, you can hear the “awwws” from The Woman being drowned out by my comments, such as, “Oh, no.” or “You’re kidding me.” or “You’re not going to believe this one.”

After a short period of attitude adjustment, I was allowed to catalog the many nice features: it is a stand-alone cottage, not a B&B, for the ultimate in privacy. Since it is 600 square feet, space is very efficiently utilized. (This was once a house. Imagine that, 600 sq ft to live in. Wow.) The microscopic kitchen has a microwave, coffee maker, toaster, and a small fridge stocked with water, juice, beer and wine. The living room has a TV and game console. The bedroom has a TV with DVD player and a decent selection of DVDs. But the highlights are the private hot tub in the back yard and wireless internet.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re on vacation. Forget the internet and just chill. Ha! Think again, buckwheat. One advantage of booking a cottage with wireless internet is the ability to check out details on local happenings, such as live music options, before you make your evening plans. Used wisely, internet access increases the quality of your chill time by allowing you to make informed choices.

There were a dozen options for dinner with live music but most were too country for our tastes. A scan of relevant My Space pages narrowed it down to a few likely options and we settled on Porter Davis. But first we had to sample some authentic German cuisine.

Next week: Der Lindenbaum

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Stella's Kentucky Deli - Guest Review

Where you can eat the lamb next door

Website: StellasKentuckyDeli.com

by Will Samson, author of Justice in the Burbs

The average food item travels 1,546 miles to get to your grocery store. The average food item at Stella's travels about 15 miles. And you can taste the difference.

There is a growing movement toward restaurants that serve local food. Perhaps the most famous is Chez Panisse founded by Alice Waters in the 1970's. Waters began serving local food simply because the taste was better and the ingredients fresher. Since the advent of her establishment, the Slow Food Movement and the concept of food routes has inspired many more restaurants to look around their area and ask how they can bring local food to the table. Stella's Kentucky Deli, launched in 2006 on Jefferson Street in Lexington, Kentucky, is part of this movement.

Walk into Stella's and you might think this was any other neighborhood diner. The tables are cozy. The glass showcase reveals delicious pies. The drink machine highlights Ale-8, a Kentucky version of ginger ale that is required serving for all respectable Lexington restaurants. And, the plastic menus already have been worn to a comfortable diner level.

But open those menus and you know you have left diner land. You might choose a lamb burger of premium local lamb, topped with Kenny's local cheese, one of the best quality cheeses I have ever tasted, local or not. Or, try the Big D, which is a local, organic braut. My personal favorite is the Apple and Kentucky Bleu Cheese, which the menu describes as "Grilled Apples and Kentucky Bleu Cheese on 7-Grain or French With Toasted Walnuts & Balsamic Mayo." One bite would have made a local food convert out of me. Not that you are confined only to local ingredients. They serve The Elvis, a grilled peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich on french bread which I have never tried but the woman at the table next to me on my last visit raved about.

If you are coming to Stella's for lunch, expect a crowd. This is a small restaurant and, with the quality of the food, is packed during peak hours. You might consider Stella's for breakfast, which, with the good amount of local bacon and sausage available around Lexington, makes their breakfast dishes to die for. Combine that with a bottomless cup of fair trade coffee and you will leave Stella's happy.

The owners of Stella's are committed to the local area, with long ties to the community. They recently purchased Al's Bar at the corner of Sixth and Limestone, a less genteel section of town, in the hopes of offering healthy food to the bar crowd. Al's has a lunch special of a local burger, sweet potato fries and your choice of a beer or coke, all for five dollars.

Stella's Kentucky Deli is open during the week from 8:30 am to 4:00 pm and serve a Saturday brunch from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm. They are located at 143 Jefferson Street, Lexington, KY. Their phone number is 859-255-DELI. Bon appétit.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Alborz Persian Cuisine

You'll come for the belly dancers but you'll stay for the food

Website: AlborzPersianCuisine.com

Actually, I can't vouch for the belly dancers, since they only dance on Fri-Sat and this was a rush hour date, but if belly dancers are your thing, you can inspect the photos on their website. Personally, I can do without dancers, belly or otherwise, but once you've had a taste of the goods at Alborz, it will be hard to do without Persian food, even if you have to endure a belly dancer to experience it.

A somewhat Perisan co-worker of The Woman hipped us to this hip joint. Oddly enough, it's right across the parking lot from Satay, which as you remember, is one killer Thai joint. If you were to position me in the middle of the parking lot, exactly halfway between Satay and Alborz, I might become like the fabled donkey that starved because it was placed equidistant between two equally desirable bales of hay and couldn't make up its mind.

(I once spent an entire dinner arguing with my college roommate, Fred, about whether this was possible or not. Yes, not only did I grow up in Fred, Texas, but my roommate was named Fred, too. It made things confusing in college, since people called me Fred because I was from Fred and they called him Fred because he, well, he WAS Fred. That might explain why I didn't finish college. Well, not at that school, anyway. Actually, it doesn't explain it at all, but there's only so much time for one blog post, isn't there?)
Getting back to the point at hand (and you thought I forgot) the food at Alborz is exceedingly good. You may be wondering what Persian food is like. It's kinda like a cross between Greek and Indian. And just think how good both of those are!

The thing about going to these places with lots of wonderful things to pick from is that you can't try everything because a feller can only eat so much at one sitting. But you have to try. And there's always the doggie bag. Or the lunch buffet. So we ordered an appetizer recommended by the server, Kashk-o-Bademjan. I mean the appetizer was called Kashk-o-Bademjan, not the server. It's baked eggplant with a topping of kashk (dry yogurt), mint, sauteed onions, walnuts and garlic. I was leaning toward the Borani, a mixture of sautéed spinach, onions and spices with homemade yogurt, which I'd still like to try, but perhaps we'll save that for the belly dancers. I can tell you the Kask-o-Bademjan was a winner. It seems a strange combination, but it works.

For the main deal, we let the server talk us into a beef stew, something I would not normally get on a first visit. But she didn't steer us wrong. (Heh, heh.) It was the Khoresh Gormeh Sabzi: fresh green herbs sautéed and stewed with kidney beans, dried lemon and tender chunks of beef. The flavors elevated it far beyond any stew I have experienced. To call it stew seems to undersell it, like calling a Porsche a motor vehicle. We also got the lamb kabob, with juicy, tender lamb. It was served with lima beans, which seemed odd and wasn't The Woman's favorite.

We don't usually have room for dessert, especially after having an appetizer, but I felt like having some coffee, so I ordered coffee and baghlava, a pastry made with walnuts and almond paste. She gave me the option of American or Turkish coffee, so I went with the Turkish. It was a tiny cup of strong coffee, basically espresso. It was exactly like the coffee in France and brought back some memories of the days of world travel on the company nickel. While I like to try new things, after a few weeks of knocking around on little sleep and strange cuisine, it's nice to get a decent sized cup of coffee that's not quite so bitter, so I would eventually locate a Starbucks and order an Americano, which is about as close to American brewed coffee as you can get over there.

Alborz has been there 7 years but the guys at the table next to us had never heard of it, so it might be one of those well-kept secrets. In which case, you should sneak on over and try it out and get the world-traveller vibe going for yourself. And tell the dancers I said hi.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Treehouse - Podcast

Explore the pastabilities

Website: TreeHouseGrill.com

SpyMan and The Wunderfool go highbrow, sampling the snails at a ritzy Italian joint.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Chon Som

Thai me at the crossroads when I die

Website: ChonSom.com

It's been way too long since I had a fix of Thai, something I've been wanting to address, especially since I read this article about how capsaicin puts the smackdown on cancer. Research shows it actually binds to proteins in cancer cell mitochondria, triggering cellular death without harming healthy cells. And of course, as discussed in a previous Thai review, a capsaicin buzz is a nice healthy way to experience better living through chemistry.

So, having this whole subconscious Thai obsession as a simmering undercurrent in my little pea brain, when I hit the snooze button for the third time and heard a spot for Chon Som on the morning drive-in show, I woke up long enough to note the name. Then I dozed off as they listed all the backed up traffic I didn't have to drive through on my way downstairs to my desk. Yes, I am rubbing it in, cause life is suh-weeet.

Once at the desk and ready to grease the wheels of commerce, I discovered that Chon Som is way up north, past Parmer, so it was moved from the weekend plans and to the top of the rush hour date night queue. (Yep, I have a backlog. I wonder if I could get folks to offer me incentives to move them up the list. Hmmm.) They just opened last August and I can't believe it took me this long to find out about them. Especially when I found the following:

  1. They have sushi in addition to Thai cuisine
  2. The happy hour includes $1 nigiri sushi
  3. The happy hour includes $1 off the maki sushi rolls
  4. They have a coupon on the website that gets you a free appetizer if you get $15 of other stuff

Finally, the day I have to actually care about traffic arrived. The Woman picked me up and we took the almost deserted north lane on Mopac to Chon Som. We beat the crowd, as usual. The place looks nice, even though it has a concrete floor. There's a sushi bar just as you come in, and then table and booth seating to the sides. The tables have an interesting design on them, as you can see in the photos on their website. The walls are decorated with canvases from some local artist who paints musical instruments in unusual colors. (I didn't inspect the cards to find out who the artist is.)

The Woman picked the free appetizer. There was a choice of Vegetable Spring Rolls, Thai Tofu, Age Tofu and Hiayako (also tofu). We went with the Thai Tofu: Tofu served with sweet garlic sauce topped with herbs and crunchy peanuts. Not a real fan of tofu. I found it interesting, if not compelling. I was saving myself for some dollar raw fish.

In case you're not a sushi afficionado, here's the lowdown birds-eye on this caper. Nigiri sushi is the kind where a hunk of something sits on top of a nugget of rice. Maki sushi is the round stuff with rice (and maybe a layer of seaweed) on the outside and the good stuff on the inside, like a California roll. It's made as a long roll and then cut into slices. See Wikipedia for more detail.

Of course, nigiri is the best, cause you get that big ole slab of raw fish right there on top, like in the wiki photo. Since I was mainly there for the Thai, I decided to skip the maki and go straight for the good stuff. The $1 stuff was limited to shrimp, octopus, squid and various kinds of fish. I went with an even half-dozen fish sampler.

  • bincho (albacore tuna)
  • maguro (tuna)
  • sake (salmon)
  • suzuki (sea bass)
  • tai (snapper)
  • saba (mackerel)
Where else are you going to get 6 generous nigiri sushi for $6? These suckers had half an inch of fish touching the platter on both ends. The tuna and salmon I recognized. I couldn't tell the rest apart. The salmon was the best I've had outside of Japan. The tuna was good. I've had better, but I wouldn't turn down seconds, I assure you.

But the main attraction was the Thai menu. The Woman staged a mini celebration in our booth when she saw larb on the menu. (Romaine boats filled with minced beef, tossed with lime vinaigrette and served with red onions, green ontions and mint.) She became a fan of larb in Hawaii, where we would drive over the Pali to the windward side to our favorite Thai place in Kaneohe, Chao Praya. If you're going low carb, larb is the way to go, cause it's greens and meat, no rice.

I stuck with the old reliable, red curry: Spicy curry blended with red Thai chilies and bamboo shoots and basil. She asked for medium; I asked for hot. I should have looked a the menu because when I heard the folks behind us order, I discovered that the ratings are hot, very hot and Thai hot. And the chef mentioned there's the next, unwritten level, Chef Hot.

I thought the larb came out hotter than the curry, but The Woman wasn't sure. They both tasted great. The curry was nice and thick, with red and green peppers not mentioned on the menu as a bonus. We ordered so much food that we couldn't eat it all, so we signaled for the little red wagon and took some home. (I'm going to sneak the leftovers for lunch tomorrow when The Woman's not looking.)

Rather than go on about the rest of the menu, I'll let you check it out on the site. It looks great. We spent $25 and took food with us, which is rare for a Thai place, where prices tend to get steep. Also, it was the friendliest Thai place I've ever been. They treated us like regulars, even though it was our first visit. These folks are serious about showing you a good time and some great food. I'd say it's worth the drive, even from south Austin. Dang, all this writing is making me hungry. I wonder if it's too late for a snack?

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Eating While Shopping

This month we take a look at cafes tucked away in places you might not expect, like computer/appliance stores, furniture stores, grocery stores, and museums. If you have a favorite non-traditional eating spot, let us know.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

IKEA Cafe and Restaurant - Guest Review

The first thing one notices about the IKEA store in Round Rock, Texas is its all-encompassing blueness and its abnormal hugeness. And that's saying something for a place in Texas. I think IKEA is Swedish for "I Keep Estimating Area," as you spend most of your semi-aimless wandering through the labyrinthine store wondering how many square feet the place actually covers. You might guess something in the vicinity of the Louisiana Purchase, but you'd be wrong, although the bargains to be had at IKEA are comparable. After getting over the sheer size of the place, as this was my first visit, I was glad to see white arrows on the floor and large blue signs every few feet directing traffic, faithfully leading me to the Café. (Yes, that's my finger - I'm still getting used to my new phone, and I wasn't sure what the Swedes would think of me taking pictures inside). Of course, these Swedish furniture makers are smart and make you walk through half the store to get to the Café, but this also builds a healthy appetite. Waves of relief coursed over my parched lips upon sight of the oasis they call the IKEA Restaurant and Café. Unsurprisingly, the Café is a spacious, well-lit, and strikingly colorful dining area. Ordering your food is akin to the process at Luby's. Pick up a tray, look at all the lovely food hiding behind the glass, then tell the nice lady (Helga) what you'd like to eat. It's a fairly painless process, unless you piss off Helga. Take my advice and just don't piss off Helga. The glass is not actually a sneeze-shield, it’s Helga-proofing. My appetite was pre-whetted for the Swedish Meatball plate. My wife ordered chicken enchiladas, a daring selection for a Mexican restaurant connoisseur at a Swedish restaurant in Central Texas. The enchiladas came with rice and steamed vegetables, but she had to order macaroni and cheese as they were out of steamed vegetables, likely due to the throngs of people both in the store and in the Café. The meatball plate also came with mac and cheese. We rounded off the meal with a piece of chocolate pie and a piece of apple cake. I was hoping to find a menu online. The best I could do was this PDF for an IKEA Café in Bolingbrook. The link from IKEA’s website for the Round Rock store was not working as of this writing. Our total price was under $15. The plates were cheap and they go to great extent to let people know they have to bus their own tables, thus allowing IKEA to sell plates on the cheap. I wish more places would do that. The wife's enchiladas were edible - not great, but not bad for a Swedish Café in Texas. The side dishes were likewise; something above the quality of your typical high school cafeteria, but nothing to write home about. The twelve bite-size meatballs were covered in the right amount of gravy. Unfortunately, or so I thought, there was a smattering of red lingonberry sauce making a none too subtle approach towards the meatballs. This was my first ever encounter with this creeping, invasive Swedish sauce, so I was dubious of its intentions. But, in the name of journalistic integrity, I forced my taste buds to refute their xenophobic tendencies. I was pleasantly surprised. Fruity sauces should never be mixed with gravy, but this combination somehow worked, giving the meatballs a subtle and quick sweet taste. Our dessert was quickly consumed, although I failed to finish my chocolate pie. In other words, the food portions would make Goldilocks happy; they were just right. The meal met my expectations, which were not all that high. It was an edible, quick, cheap meal that filled the void created by the effort needed to get to the Café. The meatballs tasted like something you could have bought in a supermarket, so I was not surprised (after another mile walk to get out of the place) to see the Swedish meatballs for purchase near most of the checkout counters. It’s a great place to eat if you’re lost in IKEA, or, more likely, your spouse is buying half the store and you’ve spent six hours there, but I wouldn’t go there intentionally – I’d just buy the meatballs.