Sunday, June 24, 2007

National Museum of the American Indian - Guest Review

Brother Bison, Sister Corn


by Mihnea Nemes

It is a fine spring day in America. People from across the nation walk this long dusty path lined with blooming trees and bushes, stopping to admire the sights, looking at each other with furtive curiosity, pausing to smell the perfume of flowers. After the Grand Canyon, this is my favorite power place in North America. We walk past a slow-flowing creek, in which you see the essence of the mighty Colorado. Further downstream, these calm waters drop suddenly in a circular pit, and this reminds me of Niagara. We look up and see stone in undulating waves, lit by the hard, mid-day sun, and we could be in New Mexico. People line up to go inside this giant adobe dwelling.

It is noon in Washington, D.C., and this is the line to the National Museum of the American Indian. Many of the knowing individuals lining up at the entrance are already salivating in anticipation for lunch in the museum café.

There aren’t many places to eat on the National Mall. In fact, I believe that from the Lincoln Monument to the Capitol Building, “Mitsitam”, which in the Delaware and Piscataway languages means “Let’s Eat”, is a singular opportunity to enjoy healthy, nourishing, and good-tasting foods. In their native intelligence, the original people of America were also the original gourmet chefs.

Once in the café, despite our hunger, we can’t rush to a decision. We have to stop at each food counter and weigh the options. Having to decide what to get is in fact the worst part of eating here. Should we eat from South America, Mezzoamerica, The Northern Woodlands, The Great Plains, or the Northwest Coast? Each food counter features traditional and contemporary dishes, made with ingredients specific to the region. The only exception, perhaps, would be the mango in the Blue Corn Mango Salad of the Northwest Coast.

In the end, we decided on the Blue Corn Mango Salad (crunchy!), the Fiddle Fern Salsify Salad with fennel (fragrant!), the Anasazi and Canelli Bean and Fried Squash Blossom Soup (hearty!), the Squash Bulb and Mushroom Salad (earthy!) and the Indian Fry Bread with cinnamon and honey (sweet!). We accompanied all these wonderful creations with a glass of Guanabana (Soursop) juice. This light but filling lunch cost two persons 21 bucks.

This kitchen can satisfy any appetite, big or small, vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian or carnivore. From the Great Plains, you can have buffalo burgers and buffalo fry bread; from Mezzo America, pork, chicken and beef hard-shell tacos; From the Northwest, grilled salmon and tilapia, baked oysters and crab cakes. For a Thanksgiving feast in the middle of spring, try the roasted turkey, baked potatoes and cranberry wild-rice salad. For deserts, you can indulge in the Plantain Tamales with vanilla sauce, one of the various fruit tarts, or simply a Mayan Hot Chocolate with chili peppers.

One of the added bonuses of the cafeteria-style eating is that, once we are full and satisfied, we don’t need to worry about the bill or the tip. We linger a few more minutes with our guanabana drink, looking through the glass wall at the peaceful flow of water outside.

Before we return to the dusty path on the mall, we remain in this Native American microcosm for an hour more, to explore the exhibits and learn about the native’s rich past, and a present pulsating with life, stronger than ever.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Reed's Jazz & Supper Club

Uh oh, I might never leave


I have a confession. I have the larvae of a barfly buried deep inside. Nature and nurture squelched it until reality firmly entrenched me into stolid respectability and here I remain after five decades of breathing. No matter what happens the night before, I get up and go to the 9-to-5 on the morning after. It has always been thus, even when the night before brought disaster and the morning after brought a horror that life-as-we-know-it had come to an end. But some moments the worm turns and reminds me of the dissipation that might have been.

Rabbit Trail: In October 1988, Bird arrived in theaters. The life of Charlie Parker, godfather of bebop. I saw it in the paper and purposed in my heart to go, but the first weekend I was busy. The next weekend it was gone. In 1989, it won the Oscar for Best Sound and a Waco theater brought it back. As soon as I saw it in the paper, I went to the theater. I went directly to the theater; I didn't pass Go; I didn't collect $200. I paid my $4 (hey, it was 1989) got my popcorn and proceded to an empty auditorium where I picked the center seat about 10 rows from the front. I sat through the previews and when the movie started, I was the only guy in the joint. I felt like Elvis. About 20 minutes in, I heard a noise and looked back. There was one other guy about 5 rows back on my left. Nobody else came in. Charlie Parker was the poster child for dissipated jazz genius. I was born exactly one year to the day after he died. On the other hand, I was born on my maternal father's birthday, and I'm pretty sure he never heard of Charlie Parker.

Live jazz in a bar makes the worm spin like a rotisserie chicken on acid. I ordered a gin martini to make it feel at home.

Reed's Jazz and Supper Club is a great experience, even for those with no internal rotating barfly larvae. Heck, even The Woman liked it.

We both had a good-sized lunch, so we opted for an array of appetizers. We got there in time for happy hour, which includes half price on calamari, fried oysters, Thai chicken wraps, crab cakes and New Orleans BBQ shrimp. We started off with the calamari and shrimp.

Most places you go, the calamari is almost popcorn calamari - a pile of breaded, deep-fried, chewey tentacles the thickness of shoelace at best. Not at Reed's. These things were chunky, tender, finger-sized strips lightly breaded with a peppery batter reminiscent of catfish batter. Great with lemon. The sauce that came with it was a highly atypical sauce that was a close cousin of Lousiana hot sauce. Even better with lemon and the sauce. The other plate sported 4 jumbo shrimp and 2 crunchy bread slices. Taken with the BBQ sauce, they were so rich I felt like I was eating lobster. There was plenty of sauce left over and the waitress brought extra bread for dipping. Oh yeah.

We still had half-an-hour of happiness left, so we ordered the chicken and crab. The crab cakes comprised 2 large, deep-fried balls. Decent, but couldn't compare to the calamari and shrimp. The Thai chicken wraps were slices of chicken, carrot and other stuff on two large lettuce leaves with some sauce. The chicken tasted more of chicken salad than Thai, and the sauce was mainly oil and hot spice. An interesting angle, but our first two choices were the most satisfying. We didn't try the oysters, since The Woman is not a fan and I am ambivalent at best.

The appetizers carried us through the happy hour and the first set of Denia Ridley and Marc Devine. We were sated but not surfeited. A vanilla bean creme brulee topped it off nicely. It was everything a creme brulee should be, crunchy on the top, custardy on the bottom, with a nice flavor. The whole bill, 4 appetizers, 2 drinks and dessert was $33. Not bad for a classy night out.

The regular prices are somewhat steeper, ($17-24) so your mileage may vary. I'm thinking about switching my day-to-venture-into-the-world-at-large to Wednesday next week, so I can experience the Marc Devine trio, straight-up piano trio jazz. The worm is calling for a night of it. I don't know if The Woman is trained up for such a marathon. Might have to make alternate plans. Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Artz Rib House - Podcast

Iconic ribs, live music, south Austin vibe. Come on down from Tarrytown.


IanR and the Wunderfool ventured forth in hunter-gatherer mode to corner some dead pigs at a corner table. Hilarity ensues. Vegans enter at your own risk.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Iron Cactus Mexican Grill & Margarita Bar

Tequila = to kill ya. (but you didn't hear it from me)


On our last rush hour date night we were pulling out of the NXNW parking lot and saw the Iron Cactus sign. Mexican Grill & Margarita Bar. I shrugged. You can't swing a gato muerto in this town without hitting half-a-dozen Mexican joints and I have no use for a margarita bar. Because, as you know, tequila is bottled evil.

Rabbit Trail: Thanks to Drzymala, I've had a sip or two from a $130 bottle of Patron that rivalled a good Scotch, but I've never heard stories of any drink rivalling tequila for inducing regrettable behavior. It seems to hit a part of the brain that other drinks ignore, and for good reason. And then there's the whole idea of trying to disguise alcohol as something more benign. The way I see it, if you're going to drink something as powerful as alcohol, you should do it with full knowledge and intent, not with plausible deniability. Just take it straight, like a man, the nastier the better. Mixed drinks are all about the spoonful of sugar in the medicine. A martini is all about full disclosure. It says, "Hey, I taste like lighter fluid because I'm about as dangerous as a two-year-old with a can of lighter fluid around a flaming BBQ grill, so be careful." It's an honest drink, not some froofy drink that acts all warm and fuzzy and friendly and then, just when you turn your back to triangulate on the bathroom, outs with a circus mallet and beans you on the head.

Anyway, I didn't give the Iron Cactus much more thought until I stumbled across their website a few days later. This is not your father's Buick. Or his Mexican Grill, either. Sure, you can get the old standbys if you absolutely insist, but why would you after you've plowed through the first 4 pages of the menu and seen things like:

Appetizers & Salads

  • Pecan Crusted Jalapeno Crab Cakes: Spicy gulf coast crab cakes with Texas pecan crust, served with chipotle aiole, fresh lime and cilantro
  • Lobster Tacos: Three mini tortillas filled with sauteed lobster, Monterrey jack cheese, sweet red pepper coulis and tomatillo pico
  • Ahi Tuna Ceviche: Tequila lime marinated Ahi Tuna with fresh tomatoes and avacados
  • Peppa’s Steak & Papaya Salad: Iron Cactus baby greens with grilled Iron Steak, sweet roasted peppers, queso cotija, Mexican papaya salsa and tequila lime dressing
  • Roasted Poblano Caesar Salad: Fresh romaine lettuce in our signature poblano Caesar dressing, crumbled cotija cheese and our own red chile and garlic croutons


  • Camarones a la Parilla: Five jumbo shrimp, stuffed with jalapeno pepper and Chihuahua cheese, wrapped in brown sugar cured bacon
  • 40 Creek Tenderloin: 8 oz. choice filet of beef, seasoned with Iron Cactus steak seasoning, grilled and served with 40 Creek whiskey buttered pecan sauce, asparagus spears and loaded mashed potatoes
  • Tequila Ginger Glazed Breast of Chicken: Iron Cactus tequila ginger glaze marinated chicken breast with fresh mango salsa, asparagus spears and cilantro lime rice
  • Pollo Relleno: Tender breast of chicken with Iron Cactus corn bread and cheddar cheese stuffing over Mexican rice, topped with our delicious jalapeno cream sauce
  • Yucatan Fish Tacos: Tequila marinated whitefish grilled with lemon pepper in soft white corn tortillas, served with a lime butter sauce, fresh spinach, papaya salsa, rice and honey lime jicama slaw
  • Red Fish Relleno: Oven roasted red fish stuffed with Texas blue crab, topped with creamy roasted corn Serrano chile sauce and served with Mexican rice and asparagus spears

OK, OK, I can't list everything that sounds worth a taste because I have to leave room for:


  • White Chocolate Strawberry Margarita Tres Leches: A traditional Mexican cake soaked in three milks with the added enjoyment of strawberries and white chocolate
  • Rollo de Canela: Iron Cactus version of cheesecake wrapped in a crispy cinnamon tortilla. Served with Mexican vanilla sauce, cajeta and Ibarra chocolate sauce
  • Chocolate Raspberry Diablo: Chocolate cake prepared in the style of classic tres leches, three milks all chocolate, topped with fresh raspberries

Just to mention a few. We stopped by InStep to get some beeswax for the new shoes (amazing how fast a guy who never actually goes anywhere can scuff up a pair of shoes) and then across Capitol of Texas Highway to the Iron Cactus. It's a hip, trendy kind of joint with free wireless Internet, so you know I'm down with it. It took a long time to study the menu and narrow it down to something we could actually eat in the available time and geography. Since we had The Other Son present, we went for an appetizer, the Pecan Crusted Jalapeno Crab Cakes.

Rabbit Trail: Many moons ago when the buffalo roamed the hills and there was no rap music, the #1 Son brought home This Kid. As time passed it became apparent that This Kid was more like me than the #1 Son was. In fact, he was more like me than I was. If it hadn't been for the fact that he was 9'5", I might have suspected one of those switched-at-birth scenarios. The years rolled on, The Other Son married, moved to Georgetown and saw Jesus in a tortilla. Then he joined us for dinner at the Iron Cactus where we feasted and talked of novels, writing, humane Naugahyde traps and moss-covered, three-handled family credenzas.

But, as I was saying, the crab cakes were pretty darn good, as demonstrated by The Other Son saying he didn't like pecans and then eating a goodly portion. Which was fine because I was saving room for the Pollo Relleno, having been warned by Mario, possibly the best waiter north of Town Lake, that nobody has ever eaten the whole thing. It turned out to be two softball sized globes of chicken breast wrapped around all the stuff mentioned in the menu, along with everything else mentioned, too. I immediately notified the establishment that I would be requiring a little red wagon to take the balance home. Then I split a softball with The Woman and The Other Son, thereby scoring one of the bacon-wrapped jumbo shrimp from The Woman. The Other Son, on the other hand, took one bite of the Yucatan Fish Tacos and didn't relinquish any tastes to the general public. But he is a growing boy, after all.

Due to circustances beyond my control we ended up eating the White Chocolate Strawberry Margarita Tres Leches cake, which was very tall and very good. But I'm wondering just what that cinnamon tortillia cheescake thing tastes like. It's really mean to tease a guy with something like that, don't you think?

Everything I tasted was worth another trip just to eat it again, but it seems just downright wrong to repeat anything until you've worked your way through the whole list, doesn't it? Who knows, they might talk me into sampling one of their 80+ varieties of tequila before I'm done.