December 19, 2015
Considered something of a staple to Austin's vast and culturally rich offering of Mexican cuisine, Julio's Cafe proved its worth on a bizarre morning of Friday the 13th. Having endured the tongue lashing of a deranged lunatic at the bus stop on my way to a work meeting, I skipped the meeting and fabricated justification for a spontaneous but well deserved second breakfast.
My meal began with the ever-intimidating ritual of face-to face, counter ordering from a cash-only establishment. I considered the breakfast tacos but finally settled on the back bone of any Mexican restaurant; Huevos Rancheros($7.25).
The lady who took my order had her framed picture on the wall; it was taken with and signed by a man who was well dressed and seemed groomed for the spotlight. Another signed photo, this of Mack Brown, was also next to the register. I figured I had landed in good company. In return for my cash I was handed a plastic table number, a ceramic mug and free reign on a sun-lit dining area.
Self-serve drip coffee, complete with pot warmers, was found along the main wall and I couldn't help but admire the concept. What a way to ensure that you get the most of your $2. After all, there's nothing worse than a meal, particularly breakfast, succeeding on all levels except for your single refill of coffee.
Busy studying my company, I was surprised by a plate of food which suddenly arrived in front of my face. The restaurant layout and business model seemed to make more sense now. Focus on the labor that matters most and don't bother complicating the matter with employing servers.
Ultimately for me, texture and taste trump aesthetics, so I minced the dish until seemingly destroying the three-plus minutes of intensive labor by the cooks, who I knew only by the sounds of scraping spatulas and hurried, hushed conversations.
One of the initial flavors I tasted was reminiscent of a tomato stew, the type that comes from a day of slow cooking with a variety of vegetables and seasoning. Carrots, onions, and a hint of jalapeno were most noticeable in the ranchero sauce. However, it was a bit thin and runny. I was expecting a little more pop from the sauce, but ultimately deemed the underwhelming nature less of a failure and perhaps more of a tribute to family recipe.
After my second self-refill of coffee, I spotted a casually clothed man gliding around the dining room with one of the glass pots in hand. He filled the cups of a table of four business women who were enlightened by the gesture.
"The first time I came here, I saw someone do this," he said. "I thought it was a nice idea."
He made a quick stop at my table, though I politely denied and returned focus to my plate.
The side portions were generous, and I was able to construct two plump tacos with much to spare. Initially cooked as cubes, the potatoes came clumped together and were difficult to separate. A whole avocado, normally a sizable up-charge, was split and pitted for garnish.
My bacon, on the other hand, was curled sharply like the ears on a pig and took the effort of two hands to tear apart. Yet, the bacon became peculiarly porous when added to the dish and seemed to soften from the flavors of egg yolk and ranchero sauce. In the end the plate took a little longer to scrape clean than it did to arrive.
For arriving with less of an appetite and more of a desire to avoid human interaction, I was quite satisfied and left without that sort of unsettling way that some greasy diners can claim once you are forced to walk afterwards. Next time I stop I will dine somewhere in the realm of hungry and perhaps step up to the plate when it comes to being the one to offer coffee service.
Ate: Huevos Rancheros
4230 Duval St, Austin, TX 78751
Rating: 3 Over Easy Eggs (out of Four)
December 20, 2015
With how hot the tacos come out at Tacos Guerrero, one has ample time to sketch. For an honest Abe (that's $5, without tip) you can land two tacos and a water, which is often enough to satisfy even a midmorning hunger. Even in the thick of an Austin summer, a woman in the burnt orange food truck is out preparing an assortment of authentic Mexican dishes. Among the treasures are house made tortillas and salsa, the latter of which rests in a stone bowl outside the service window. From inside the truck, a sizzle of meat and carried scent of rendered fat drifts over the shaded picnic benches, while a roar of engines and rattling wheel bearings is cast over from the nearby Ceasar Chavez Ave. In a mere ten minutes, your order is called out and handed to you on a piping hot styrafoam plate.
Like most good, authentic Mexican restaurants, it starts with the home made tortillas. Here they have a touch of crispiness, while the freshness of the dough leaves it soft enough to tear into small portions and enjoy on its own.
Let's start with the Carnitas ($2). Simple ingredients; onions, cilantro, and moist carnitas meat. The initial burst of flavor was strong with spice, not so much as to overpower the blend of flavor from the sweet onions and earthy cilantro, but the punch was significant and might have been overbearing without proper hydration. Across from me, my eating partner wiped his brow and made a remark. "It's crazy how the heat of the food is making me sweat more."
True, the humidity and afternoon sun made for a more difficult task in enjoying piping-hot, spicy food. However, each bite promised a new sensation of flavor and it went without saying that we were in for the haul.
On to the Picadillo ($2); a traditional staple to Spain, Latin American countries, and the Philippines, with different variations by region, but best resembling hash. A concoction of ground beef, stewed tomatoes, onions, and salsa verde arrived in a heap on my tortilla. In the first few bites, I was offered a much different experience than the Carnitas, in that the intense flavor had a much more delayed reaction in my mouth, and the spice resembled more of a tomato and beef stew. Once the spice kicked in, it was reminiscent of a full bodied red wine in that the flavor was round and reached all the parts of my mouth.
For this, I admired the dish more than the Carnitas, though in most instances I would order the latter a second or third time. In all, the pair of tacos and water was a healthy dose which satisfied and was free of a greasy gut feeling or the unfriendly sensation of torched taste buds. Price, taste and mobility all considered, this truck deserves a second visit.
Ate: Carnitas taco, Picadillo taco
96 Pleasant Valley Rd Austin, TX 78702
Rating: Four Tomatoes (out of 5)
December 25, 2015
Between the architecture and decor, Hyde Park Bar & Grill radiates a familiar feeling of a water-side, cabana style restaurant, without the water. Warm colors, retro signs and an open dining area are all features of the interior, leaving it nostalgic and inviting.
After being seated almost immediately, my eating partner and I were guided to a cozy table-booth along one of the further walls in one of the many dining rooms. We started with mimosas and coffee before putting in an order of tamales to truly whet the appetite. Having recently been brought tamales from 'The Valley', I did my best to temper expectations for the dish and, ultimately, was only moderately impressed. Described with the words 'fresh corn masa, sweet corn, cheese,' the consistency of these Sweet Corn Tamales ($5.99) was discerning in that it was, well, inconsistent. Parts of the tamale were dry while others were moist and fell apart at the touch of the fork. Overall the flavors were announced in their own respect, but the hickory tomato salsa was entirely necessary for any degree of satisfaction or flavor.
In the time that it took us to seat, order and receive entrees, our server was as non-existent as possible without him actually being fake. However, the server assistants were kind enough to come with coffee refills, ask how the meal was and clear any plates. Our entrees; Eggs Benedict ($9.99) and an omelette, were aesthetically pleasing upon first glance. Upon diving into my benedict, though, I was greatly disappointed to discover the sheer lack of yolk in the egg. To regard the eggs as over cooked would be an understatement, as they flaunted with being hard boiled. Outside of the hollandaise sauce (which itself was sparse and uninspiring in this case), the execution of the poached egg is vital in any variation of a benedict. Additionally, the accompanying lettuce was wilted and limp, leaving no room for any added texture.
Fortunately, the 'Waltons english muffin' was serviceable. As for the side of potatoes, they were decent in that some were cooked well while others were flimsy and soggy. To take matters further, our server was not even around to hear any of these concerns.
Maybe we came on an off day. Maybe brunch isn't all it's cracked up to be at this location. Or maybe the location and decor sells the restaurant enough for people to return. In any case, with Austin's plethora of options for food, there's no hurry to dine here for brunch.
Ate: Sweet Corn Tamales, Eggs Benedict
4206 Duval St, Austin, TX 78751
Rating: 2 Hard Boiled Eggs (out of Five)
December 28, 2015
From the outside, the Yellow Jacket Social Club (YJSC) shows as a time capsule; its architecture is southwestern but still true to Texas. The frame and exterior lighting help make for a distinguishable land piece on Austin's east 5th street, while the interior provides an open, unpretentious feel.
Greeting folks at the gate, the doorman was a grizzly fellow with a thick handlebar mustache, sleeveless leather vest and cap, while a line of sparkling choppers were parked near the lot's fence. Considering the timeliness of this instance, one was left to wonder if this gathering was merely a carry over from the previous night's Halloween festivities, or instead a representation of the crowd at hand.
On first greetings with the staff there was an identifiable stiffness in their demeanor, and it was unclear if they were bothered or simply exhausted. Perhaps both. All our ordering was done at the dimmed bar, where drip coffee was self serviceable, and mimosas were made with fresh ingredients.
The outside seating offered a handful of picnic tables, though the one we chose was made home to an unclaimed pup who was tied up to a leg of the table. Other dogs and their owners passed by, hardly engaging our confused party of three. In the time it took for the dog to warm up to us, he was retrieved (he was actually a lab) by his owner and our food had arrived. This would also be the last time we would be attended to by human or animal until check was due.
My idea of a southern helping of shrimp and grits, however, greatly differed from what was brought to me - ($11) Shrimp and Grits. Rather than a piping bowl of rich, creamy grits, I was brought a plate of spinach, shrimp, and grilled onions which had been manicured onto a flat bed of grits. With as much shrimp as lettuce, I felt slighted in having received more of a salad than anything. As I studied the interactions among the crowd around us and worked further into the dish, however, I began to realize that there was more thought put into this dish, the service, and these people (dogs, too), than was lead on. This was an establishment proud of its grit.
Contrary to popular belief, moderation is important. It can be as effective as execution. Grits can quickly act as an abyss, and this modest portion was suggestive to that notion. These were buttery, creamy with still enough resistance. The seasoning was well integrated; no heavy hands in this kitchen. The onions were grilled to keep texture but flavor changed with a good char; the contrasting texture was distinguishable. Despite fear of post-brunch hunger when the plate was finished, the dish proved to be just the right portion for one to live without much regrit (verb: the regret from over-consumption of grits).
If to expect exceptional service or to even have anything refilled, one might be disappointed. However, if you're seeking the sort of place that has the lure of becoming routine to your time, with comfortable food and a low vibe, the Yellow Jacket Social Club should deliver.
Ate: Shrimp and Grits
1704 E 5th St, Austin, TX 78702
Rating: 3 & 1/2 shrimp (out of Five)
January 9, 2016
During the 1920's, Hillside Drugstore was owned and operated by Doc Young, the first African American pharmacist in Austin, Texas. The building, complete with a pea green paint job and crowned by its black and white striped awning, is now home to one of the trendier spots on Austin's already trendy East side: Hillside Farmacy. Maintaining and preserving history from the inside out, Hillside Farmacy's unique atmosphere is enhanced with its original cabinetry and display of antique pharmacy-esque decor; which includes pearl white wall tiles, shiny copper tables, an abundance of glass cases to display knickknacks and snacks, as well tall sheets of glass for displaying menu options.
Also a slick white, the inside floor tiling proved to be affected by the heavy foot traffic on this damp Sunday morning. Brunch, being popular enough already, ushered a dense crowd and it was to no surprise that we were offered a 30-minute wait. In actuality it proved to be closer to 15-minutes before my eating partner and I were seated at a table near the edge of the dining room.
Within a few moments, our server appeared with a smile and rapid fire of questions such as 'how are you?' and 'can I get you started with a drink?' without much space in between for a response. Understandable, considering the volume of tables in the small vicinity, but the experience suddenly seemed rushed. With our coffee order in, we glanced over the menu as well as the support staff. A pair of bartenders stood under a set of hanging industrial lights, manning the front counter and tight with buttoned down overalls and red neck ties; all together upping the 50's feel.
Shortly after menu decisions were made, two heavy plates were brought to us and it became immediately apparent that we were not supposed to walk away hungry. On my plate sat the Ham Steaks & Parmesan Cheese Grits ($12); a slab of ham, heap of creamy grits, two poached eggs and mound of crisp arugula. Across from me, my partner carved up the massive Seasonal Omelette ($10).
It should be noted that, while ordering my grits, our server assumed I wanted scrambled eggs (though the menu described fried eggs), but I modified the dish to come with poached instead. In cutting into the first of my poached eggs, it appeared tough at the surface and proved to be closer to hard boiled than poached. Perhaps the dish was meant to have scrambled eggs and I was being difficult for making the modification. Or perhaps I'm simply cursed in my recent search for properly poached eggs in the city. Disappointing, no less.
However, the second egg was properly poached and hope was restored. The textures and flavors from the ham, egg yolk, creamy grits and arugula blended together quite well and each forkful offered something different; whether it be the smokey nature of the meat, peppery seasoning of the grits, or simply the crunch of arugula. All together, the dish was essentially what I egg-spected (expected, ha-ha).
While the grits set a savory tone for the meal, it was hard for the omelette to match such an array of flavor with its simple ingredients. However, the execution was on point and highlights of the omelette dish were the roasted red bell peppers and mushrooms. A side of potato medallions also offered a nice contrast in saltiness and texture, as they too were well executed and easily consumable.
As we ate, the dining room thinned out significantly but still only one refill of coffee was offered. Moreover, our plates were cleared and a check was dropped without any offering of additional items or follow up from the meal. Luckily for our server, I had a hankering for espresso and ordered one partly out of principle for her negligence.
All in all, though, the experience was mostly satisfying and we left with a box of left over grits just so we could feel ashamed of ourselves twice in a single day.
Ate: Ham Steaks & Parmesan Grits, Seasonal Omelette
Drank: Coffee, Espresso
1209 E 11th St, Austin, TX 78702
Rating: 3 & 1/2 poached eggs (out of Five)
January 18, 2016
Launderette, as the name may hint, is a converted laundromat on Austin's east side, where the art of share plates and chic decor are instrumental to its identity. The menu, while diverse in its offerings, is relatively straight forward, offering an introduction of 'snacky bites' and 'toasts' before giving way to heartier course options on the wood grill and other specialties.
The decor, in cohesion with the menu, is trendy and welcoming. An L-shaped bar is the focal point of an otherwise open dining space, while a partially visible kitchen and sea blue flooring are other noteworthy aesthetics. Since I'm sure you're wondering, there was no lingering smell of old socks. As the weather allowed, my eating partner and I elected for outdoor seating on the patio, which featured sleek wooden benches and overhead heaters (for those frigid Austin winter nights).
Our server, a cordial and soft spoken young lady, provided suggestive navigation of the menu before taking our drink order. We contemplated the large spread over a pair of wine glasses; I chose a Nebbiolo (Damilano Langhe Marghe, Italy 2013 - $13), while my partner had a Cotes Du Rhone (Pierre Arnadieu, Roulepierre, France 2012 - $11). On the softer side, the Nebbiolo had a pleasantly floral nose, while the palate offered expressions of cherries and spice, and well integrated tannins.
The wine served a worthy companion to our first food choice; Sticky Brussels Sprouts ($9), which came served as a heaping mound and dusted with pecorino cheese. Sticky they were, the sprouts were dressed with an apple-bacon marmalade and also featured crushed almonds and diced jalapeno. Hints of fish sauce lingered throughout, which kept the marmalade unique and complimentary to the crispy vegetables. Also impressive was the execution of the brussels sprouts; most every bulb boasted a crispy shell but soft and chewy inside.
We fought over the last of the brussels while awaiting our Beef Carpaccio ($16). Having once worked at a restaurant that served this classic dish - that version utilizing an aioli recipe straight from the very bar in Sicily where the dish was born - I naturally felt compelled to put this one to the test. However, in the first few bites, I felt admittedly overwhelmed by the potency of the dish's cornichon-caper vinaigrette. Bright acid from the lemon doubled over into the capers and the cornichon (a pickled cucumber), yet the delicacy of beef failed to assert itself. Strengths of the dish were the celery leaves and crispy shallots (appearing as mini onion-rings), which offered texture to compliment the soft, thin beef shavings. To take extremes to the extreme, we discovered diced jalapeno scattered throughout. Though notes of pepper and spice found in Rhone wines can be friendly to spicy dishes, the dominating nature of the peppers made it difficult to navigate and enjoy some of the intricacies of the dish, and the wine for that matter.
While the close proximity of our seating offered an intimate setting, it consequently put our server to the test when it came to her menu spiel. Mild overlap did occur, but she was quick enough on her feet with questions and kept the suggestions different between tables - signs of both an experienced server and one trustworthy menu. In moments of indecision on our final course (between the Bucatini, Aleppo Prawns, and Brick Chicken), she steered us with confidence to the Chicken Thighs ($16). A caution of spice, but we were sold.
In a few moments the dish was brought out; its neat presentation and rising scents of charred meat briefly clouded my judgement. Sure, chicken dishes can be partially cooked ahead of time for speed and accuracy purposes, but this dish seemed to have been merely warmed up. Furthermore, the described 'moderate spice' turned out to be an all-out fire fight with delicate taste buds. An overwhelming sensation of spice, coupled with a strong saltiness from the meat, left the dish to be highly unsatisfying. Even worse, more jalapenos were found.
That makes three out of three dishes that featured some trace of these hot peppers. Was this mere coincidence? With all of the 'innovation' behind this concept, does such redundancy show more of a lack of originality, and perhaps laziness, than anything else? Curious, nonetheless.
With the dessert options neatly presented on half menus, it seemed necessary to both cleanse the palate and provide an opportunity for redemption. Our choice, Ambrosia, featured a pistachio semifreddo, candied grapefruit, whipped mascarpone, and tangerine sorbet. With a simple host of ingredients and clean presentation, the dish offered a light fare and worked well with an espresso shot that was brought out on a shiny platter (bonus points).
All said and done, the meal totaled $100, but this did not quite seem reasonable for the experience. Yet, considering the high points of the meal, and conversations nearby which touted Launderette as one of Austin's finest, it seems fair to chalk up the inaccuracies and certain redundancies as a fluke. Adequately sized portions and the depth of this menu help to conclude that Launderette is still deserving of a second spin cycle.
Ate - Sticky Brussels Sprouts, Beef Carpaccio, Chicken Thighs, Ambrosia
Drank - Pierre Arnadieu (Rhone), Damilano Langhe Marghe (Nebbiolo), Espresso
Launderette - 2115 Holly St, Austin, TX 78702
Rating - 6 and a half jalapenos (out of ten)
The idea of a 'snack bar' was put to full practice as my eating partner and I sought a comfortable place to grab a bite to eat late on a Thursday evening. Snack Bar, located on South Congress Avenue in Austin, TX, radiates the charm of old-Austin with a thoughtfully decorated inside dining space, as well as a sprawling outdoor patio complete with a roaring fire. While the interior space seems comparatively small, it is in fact well utilized with its vintage decor and staggered seating arrangements.
A waiting area in the center of the lobby shows more as a living room retold from the likes of a fashionably equipped Baby Boomer and is accentuated by an irregularly shaped sofa and set of black leather chairs. Paved over with a smooth gravel floor, the space gives way to a sleek L-shaped bar and oval stools, as well as a separated dining area that shows other guests from the shoulders up.
Though in no particular rush, and understanding of the fact that the night was clearly winding down, it was admittedly unsettling to watch a host of staff bustle around us without much acknowledgement or offer of service, especially considering we were the only guests at the bar. Fortunately, as we waited, keenly selected tunes from the likes of Jimi Hendrix and The Doors were playing over a muted casting of Back To The Future on a wall near the bar, which all together provided a feeling of placement in an entirely separate era.
Factoring in brisk conditions and our tame appetites, we elected to split a pot of Turkish Spice Mint Tea ($4), a cup ofCauliflower & Leek Soup (Soup Du Jour - $5) and a bowl of Brussels Sprouts ($7). Coupling both the fact that brussels sprouts are rumored as something of an Austin staple and that my mother once fixed a mean cauliflower soup, the selections seemed appropriate.
Though varying in consistency; the childhood recipe being cream based, this version was hearty, a little rich, but impressive in its balance. The leeks, while naturally subtle in flavor, offered a distinguishable sweetness and proved complimentary to the cauliflower. A tinge of black pepper and underlying buttery flavor showed through as well, all together making the soup a relatively complex and filling dish.
Meanwhile, as Marty McFly quarreled with Biff, my tea steeped and developed a strong sweetness that I assume to be the result of steeping the leaves in stevia. With varying opinions on the herb, this could mean different things for different people. Otherwise soothing and layered, the tea was an adequate pairing for the food.
Our brussels sprouts, advertised as flash fried, carried on the outer shells a light and crispy texture. Offering a pleasant crunch from the outside, nearly each sprout was cooked through and remained firm but still chewy at the center. Accompanying the sprouts was an herb aioli which, when combined with sprouts, brought out a stiff and almost unpleasant saltiness in the mouth feel. Overall, though, the dish was a fresh and savory representation of how brussels sprouts can taste if executed well.
All together, the portions proved too much to conquer and we were forced to give up midway through each dish. Once again, a handful of staff floated in our vicinity without acknowledging us, or the forfeited portions, and what was intended as a brief stop for snacks turned out to be nearly an hour ordeal.
In considering the retreat and comfort found in the atmosphere and food, this experience was mostly memorable. Perhaps on the next visit it would be wise to arrive early and with a larger appetite.
Ate - Soup Du Jour, Brussels Sprouts
Drank - Turkish Spice Mint Tea
1224 S Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78704
Rating - 8 Brussels Sprouts (out of ten)
Note: Snack Bar officially closed its doors on Sunday, October 30, 2016. It will be missed.
February 13, 2016
The name Odd Duck adequately encompasses an Austin establishment which prides itself on doing things a little differently. Not only doing things differently, such as sourcing components of their rotating menu from local farms and making the place look like it could be an extension of an actual farm, but doing them well. Sure, the designation of 'farm-to-table' has seemingly become a trendy handcuff to the new and obscure restaurants, but perhaps no establishment in the city executes this practice as well as Odd Duck.
Displaying this farm fresh concept even down to the bones of the restaurant, Odd Duck boasts an arrangement of rustic recycled objects that might be found on an old farmhouse. Above one table, a cut down ladder hangs to hoist a handful of lights with colorful light fixtures lamp. Above another table hangs a pair of massive lights, their shades made of burlap sacks which still feature the original trade emblems. Mason jars mount the tables, each playing host to a bundle of wild flowers. Floor to ceiling glass walls line the restaurant, leaving no element unexposed, yet offering a fresco feel in the dead of what is supposed to be winter in Texas.
At 5:15 sharp, a rolling black shade crawls to the floor to dim the pitch of the setting sun and provide a more comfortable tone. I arrived at the start of happy hour and, having to wait for two others to arrive, ordered a glass of wine from Bourgone, the motherland of pinot noir (Domaine Michel & Marc Rossignol 2013 - $11). Soft and seductive as Burgundy ought to be, this wine had a pleasant nose with hints of tart cherry and leather. The mouth feel offered bright fruit, which made a strong push midway before finishing clean with dark fruit and hints of spice.
As the horseshoe bar began to fill up, and my table remained otherwise empty, the server was friendly and not intrusive, returning only a few times to primarily highlight the happy hour portion of the menu. Yet, he refrained entirely from suggesting items or even explaining the restaurant's small plate concept, both of which may have enhanced this type of dining experience. So out of good faith for the kitchen, my selections came spontaneously and included the Braised Goat($12) and Rye Toast (originally $12 - 1/2 off during happy hour).
The main components of the Braised Goat ($12) was a bed of masa, clumps of lime mayo, fresh cilantro, and most importantly a heap of shredded goat. In just slicing into the dish, we were previewed on how it would taste; soft, rich and layered. Its subtle seasoning, paired with the gaminess of the goat and texture of toasted masa, offered a full array of crisp and savory flavors. Particularly in addition to the floral and bright fruit characteristics of the pinot noir, this dish fired on all cylinders. Soft tannins in the wine aided in cleaning up some of the richness from the goat.
In contrast, the Rye Toast offered a rich and creamy texture which reminded more of a potato salad but with a twist. By including watermelon radish and cold shrimp, the dish had some snap to it, while the avocado salad offered a soft base and fine contrast in texture. Standout flavors also included a sweet bite from the mustard seed and hints of spice from the grilled rye bread.
Time restraints forced us out before we could tempt dessert or another glass of wine, but all together the staff remained attentive and efficient in funneling us in and out within an hour. Two separate staffers grazed our table, one to pick up the check and the other to refill our water, which lead to the assumption that some degree of team service is in practice here. I've come to believe that the practice of team service is both conducive to and indicative of the staff moral. It's fair to assume that with the restaurant's location and its appealing constant carousel of menu items, this staff is content enough to pitch a hand to create a positive experience for the customer.
With no true hiccups aside from the lack of menu guidance from our server, it's difficult to find flaws in this Austin gem.
Drank - Domaine Michel & Marc Rossignol 2013
Ate - Rye Toast, Braised Goat
1201 S Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78704
Rating: 4 & 1/2 Avocados (out of five)
February 21, 2016
Enter through the sliding wooden door and you will find a dimly lit, serenely scented establishment that is both a convenience store and fully operational restaurant/bar by the name of Whip in. Touted as a hangout spot with its sprawling patio, house-brewed beer and south-Asian fare with an innovative twist, Whip in features one of the quirkier brunch experiences in Austin.
Brunch opens at 10 am, and by 10:15 a slow trickle of bodies had already formed a line at the first bar counter. After taking an order we proceeded to navigate the retail side of the shop for the all-admirable, bottomless self-serve coffee.
In one corner of the dining room resides a wooden stage and projection screen, and if you go on the right day and you might catch a muted Kung Fu flick synced up to some 70's funk or soul jams. The bar, accentuated with sheets of corrugated metal and wooden planks, acts as a divider to a dining room which is otherwise lined with cold beer, wine and snacks. Streams of colorful tapestries mark the walls and drape the ceilings above each booth, together offering both mystique and privacy. Collectively, the furnishings and structural quirks fade forward to construct a decor with ethnic character and comfort while you await the food.
The coffee, an instrumental component to any waiting period, was ripe and rich while remaining well balanced. In a short time, a staff member arrived with two plates; one containing the special, a Goat Chorizo Feta Cheese Omelette and Potato Hash ($13), and the other being a Potato Masala and Gouda Quiche ($12).
Each portion was hefty and induced groans of satisfaction within the first few bites. In disassembling the quiche, I found it's texture to be fluffy and chewy, yet crisp around the edges. Strings of smoked gouda cheese ran over the top, adding a creamy compliment to the creeping spice of a tomato chutney concoction that was also slathered over. A slew of caramelized onions offered a bit of sweetness to balance the slow kick of heat, but mostly contributed to the richness of the dish. A rather uninspiring side salad initially seemed out of place on the plate, but once the flavors of the quiche unfolded it became clear that the greens were included to help tame heat and offer a contrast in texture. Also offered to help cleanse the palate was a side cup of mint fruit salad, which both cut down on heat and offered a twist to the usual fruit companion.
As for the omelette, this dish was pretty straight forward with pronounced flavors from the house-made goat chorizo, which was moderately gamey, and feta cheese. Relatively simple with its selection of ingredients, the omelette delivered salty and savory flavors, yet managed to not go overboard. Perhaps most memorable, though, was the potato hash which brought a richness to the table with its toasted texture and unmistakable element of sweetness.
Our groans of delectation slowed to a halt and the bottom-less coffee seemingly lost its luster as we neared the end. A closer, in the form of espresso and foam, seemed only appropriate (macchiato $3). With an adequate ratio of foam to espresso, this particular version was well executed and added a feeling of completeness to the meal. Versatility among staff is valuable in such a place.
With a level of ambience that matches the layered and eccentricity of satisfying food, Whip in remains near the top of the list for brunch spots worthy of a second or third visit. If nothing else, consider it next time you're on a beer run or a Kung-Fu kick.
Drank: Coffee, Macchiato
Ate: Potato Masala and Gouda Quiche, Goat Chorizo Feta Cheese Omelette and Potato Hash
1950 South Interstate Highway 35, Austin, TX 78704
Rating: 3 eggs (out of Four)
March 11, 2016
Head east on 11th street past the Texas state capital and you will encounter a pocket rich in establishments to fix your hunger, particularly the kind that strikes in the morning hours. Yet, while doing a double take on the names like Hillside Farmacy or Quickie Pickie, you may very well miss the new kid on the block: Paperboy.
This shiny black food truck, which rolled into its gravel lot last November, offers yet another destination for seasonally inspired, locally sourced fare in Austin. Its cursive baby blue lettering punctuates the traditional Saturday morning vibes of comics and tabloid newspapers that one might be longing for in this whirlwind they call the 21st century. To take literal matters further, the truck offers a rack full of crisp editions of the Austin American-Statesman and New York Times for your reading enjoyment.
As for the food, Paperboy offers a menu that's concise and straight forward, highlighting classics such as Steak & Egg, Oatmeal, and B.E.C (Bacon Egg and Cheese), with a twist. Though the prices all float under $10 and seem modest (with the exception of your $4 glass of Orange Juice), the temptation to try multiple sides and fair portion sizes make it easy to rack up a bill fairly quick. This truth was evident as soon as we sat down next to a girl on her phone, which happened to be at the only picnic table in the lot with space. Hearing her say, "this is like, my $15 breakfast…or something. There you go Mom," as she snapped a photo of her food, admittedly helped to build excitement for ours while also serving as a reminder that this was no ordinary breakfast.
By the time one of the roaming staffers found us, with a pair of cardboard boats in his hand, our picnic table had reached capacity and we were well into the fresh squeezed orange juice and Coffee ($2.50).
My Hash Bowl ($7) arrived as a bed of roasted sweet potatoes hoisting a poached egg, while hiding shreds of braised pork belly. A drizzle of coffee mayo was placed for visual effect, but lost its ability to shine among the dense and rich flavors of egg yolk and sweet potatoes. In light of recent disappointments regarding poached eggs (see Hillside Farmacyand Hyde Park B&G), I was relieved to find that the execution of this particular egg was flawless. A firm, almost gritty outside lead to an explosive and rather runny interior, making the dish an instant hit. Sweetness from the potatoes almost overmatched a subtle gaminess of the pork belly entirely, but played quite well with the yolk to create a balance and provide an experience was far from your typical meat and potato dish.
For conscious relief, to some degree, the Savory Toast ($7) offered a combination of both fresh and greasy ingredients while acting as a rendition of eggs and toast. While the inclusion of sweet broccoli and strawberries could be lauded for creative contrast in texture and flavor, the unshakable level of butter from the toast and saltiness from the eggs nearly dominated the dish. Moreover, the menu advertised goat chorizo as one of the ingredients, but yet we were unable to find a single trace of the meat in our dish. Mistakes happen, ingredients are forgotten from time to time, but this was one of the selling points of the dish and was rather disappointing. Worth noting, however, was the addition of a purple (pickled?) broccoli which had a tanginess that helped cut the saltiness and stood out among everything else going on in the dish.
As our food digested, we sat in the bustling lot and listened to others talk about their food, while contemplating our own. Conversations were made and most noticeable was a feeling of unsettlement as others, too, wondered if there was more to be desired for the other menu items. Perhaps it's due to the portions we've grown up on and become accustomed to, but our desire for just a little bit more food seemed to be justified.
Considering everything positive about the truck; its location, relaxing vibes and original concept, it's fair to say that the shortcomings can be chalked up to growing pains as a new establishment. A second visit would surely be on the table, and if so then other menu choices would be made.
Drank: Orange Juice, Coffee
Ate: Savory Toast, Hash Bowl
203 E 11th St, Austin, TX 78702
Rating: 3Pork Bellies (out of five)
March 21, 2016
Don't let the name fool you.Foolish Craig's in Boulder, Co., has earned its way over the last two decades as a peculiar and quaint cafe/bar that services fine food and sanctuary from the bustle of Pearl Street. Its colorful logo, which features a carless looking fellow (presumably Craig), could be considered the first introduction to what is a welcoming and vibrant establishment. An eclectic mix of quirky decor and the overall layout pay tribute to the cafe origins, while the red brick interior and its tight bar seemed like somewhere that would attract regulars.
I gravitated toward a table that was the furthest from any other patrons and glanced over the vast menu. Looking up some time later, I was pleased to discover myself sitting next to a tall poster signed by Guy Fieri. His scribbles of black ink were lauding the cafe; something about the crepes. A few other posters in the vicinity caught my eye, particularly one toting a New Orleans Jazz Fest circa 1998. I would later come to find out that this year also marked the birth of Craig (the cafe, that is). Crepes were indeed also one of the cafe's signature dishes. Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives had also done their due on the restaurant.
Traditional cafe options were available, as well as tantalizing dishes to the dietary restricted and otherwise health conscious people of Boulder (this is where I mention that a party at the nearest table was particularly vocal with their inquires and demands for the organic selections). I was less particular and kept it simple by rather channeling my inner Tex-Mex and selecting The Foolish Huevos ($9.50); a rendition on the classic huevos rancheros dish which instead used the famous in-house crepes as a serving bed.
In just the first few bites, I was pleasantly surprised by the showing of vegetables in the dish. In similarly situated kitchen-sink offerings, it can be easy to mask inattention to detail for the minor ingredients by being heavy handed with rich sauces or proteins. Here there was a melody of veggies, specifically the broccoli and bell peppers, which were alive amidst the thick slab of eggs and underlying crepe. The black beans and potatoes, as well, were easily identifiable on their own as I progressed through the dish. While I wasn't blown away by any single flavor, the ranchero sauce was above average, meanwhile the crepes were unable to separate themselves. Still, I kept coming back to the fact that I was able to taste the varying textures of vegetables on their own. Even the onions broke down to single leaves, crisp and charred around the edges.
What was impressive was that my portion would have sufficed for a party of three; the server was mindful and was not pushy with her check-backs; and the atmosphere had a dual personality. Had I arrived with company or in a better state, (altitude change can do mean things to one's appetite) I would have surely experienced something different. Next time I'm in Boulder, Foolish Craig chills near the top of my list.
Ate: The Foolish Huevos
1611 Pearl St, Boulder, CO 80302
Rating: 4 & 1/2 Crepes (Out of Five)
March 29, 2016
In all that Austin's food scene has to offer, from its wide array of places to get too comfortable in comfort food to the limitless combinations of what can be fit into a tortilla, it seems that less overt are selections for tasting and experiencing European culture and cuisine. Certainly there are the kings and queens (Justine's, Fabi + Rosi, and Chez Nous, to name a few) but not every occasion calls for that caliber of service or financial commitment, for that matter.
Residing amongst a handful of other chic restaurants on East 11th street, Blue Dahlia Bistro is a seemingly flawless replication of a cafe one might come across in Europe. First intrigued by its swaying blue sign, we enter what is a quaint space that is toned with rustic walls, which are a shade lighter than terra cotta in color, and slip into a line that is stretched to the door. Our timing proves to be not so poor after all, though, as we are able to catch the tail end of a charming solo performance by an elderly woman on her accordion. Swaying from side to side, she leads the eyes to wander to a nearby wooden rack hoisting freshly baked loafs and baguettes. It's beginning to feel like France.
While seating accommodations for larger parties are sprinkled throughout the inside dining area, most of the restaurants offerings begin to seem best fit for two. While we wait for our server, who was awarded a kind buffer of "being busy" from the hostess, a few other showings of the restaurant's personality become evident, such as the widely shallow coffee mugs and each table's complete spread of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, brown sugar and wooden grinders for fresh black pepper.
Though in fact rather busy, our server does not appear flustered or off-balance on initial contact nor while covering specials and taking drink orders. A calm server, no matter the internal chaos, is often the gateway to a properly paced meal. While set up primarily as a host of a la carte offerings, the menu also includes larger meat and cheese boards (as suggested options for two). After much debate we opt for one of the specials, a Veggie Frittata ($9.50), as well as the Belgian Waffles ($6.95) and a bowl of fruit ($5).
Despite the consistent turning of tables, our spread of food arrives all together and relatively quickly. While passing the initial presentation test, the waffles become increasingly enticing as scents of vanilla are pronounced so to nearly induce an onslaught of saliva. In texture the waffles are airy and crispy without leaning toward dry or stiff. Though flavorful enough to require not more than a sliver of fruit, a touch of maple syrup goes a long way in producing a sweet, but balanced array of flavors. Furthermore, the notes of maple and vanilla pair quite well with the coffee, which carries a rich density and bright fruit on the finish.
To combat our sweet selection, the veggie frittata delivers a rather assertive saltiness, which could be accredited to the liberal usage of feta cheese. Also scattered throughout are bits of spinach and grilled leeks. The frittata itself is well layered with a consistency that is firm and doesn't crumble at the drive of a fork like some do. Furthermore, a plain pile of greens soon becomes useful in adding a crispness which helps cut some of the richness and provide textural balance to the dish. Accompanying the frittata is a ramekin filled with pesto, which pairs well with the feta and late blooming leeks. Regarding the leeks, only at the conclusion of the frittata do they announce themselves, which is a disappointment. If dispersed properly throughout, their rich caramelized quality could have taken the dish to the next level.
Though not entirely necessary in sufficing our appetites, the bowl of fruit (a concoction of mangoes, melons and berries) offers up a bright melody of flavors and serves well as a palate cleanser.
On not so busy of a day (if such a thing exists for Blue Dahlia), go sit out on the lush patio that is shaded by an overhead trellis, or take a little extra time exploring the Water Closets (now that's art). With much regard to the level of volume and service, this particular afternoon delivered a charming brunch with enough incentive to return.
Ate: Fruit Bowl, Belgian Waffles, Veggie Frittata
1115 E. 11th Street, Austin, Texas 78702
Rating: 8 & 1/2 Baguettes (out of Ten)
April 14, 2016
Once a stop-and-go drive-thru pick up spot for film, Fresa's Chicken in Austin TX, specializes in, well, you guessed it, chicken. Pasture raised, local chickens get sent to this brightly painted, two story brick building to be roasted (after being marinated in achiote and other spices, mind you) and then wrapped in deli paper and served out of a sliding glass window. Since it opened in 2012, the establishment has made its claim by specializing in chicken, yet offerings range from organic eggs for breakfast tacos, house-made corn tortillas, beef brisket and roasted pork shoulder, as well as salads, pazole, tortas, and hand-spun ice cream. Oh yeah, they also sell margarita kits and cold beer to go. If you think of anything else, there's probably a suggestion box somewhere along the drive-thru.
Depending on what time of day, their drive-up window can be most sensible, especially considering the limited parking spots available and beast that is Lamar Avenue. However, being on foot can have its benefits, particularly for those looking to dine elsewhere, since the space to eat on site is rather limited. In that case, an abundance of scenic dining options exist, from the ever-changing spectacle of Austin's graffiti art wall just blocks away, to the low winding paths of Duncan Park that essentially reside in Fresa's backyard.
As we arrived at a lull, our wait time was considerably quick and in no time we were saddled up on the drive-thru curb with a bag full of tacos and Topo Chicos. My first choice (the?) El Presidente ($4.25) featured slabs of Fajita chicken, pickled carrot, cucumber, avocado and jalapeno. First and foremost, the sear marks and moisture of the chicken took charge, while a slow spice crept in as the meal progressed. Not overly saturated, the marinade showed hints of lime and pepper, and the method of shaving skins from the cucumber was effective; their crisp texture added a contrasting snap. Additionally, the carrots and cilantro devised a bit of a Vietnamese feel, which may not have been the intention but was welcomed. Mostly satisfying and rather filling, though, El Presidente seemed to be a worthy representation of the simple expressions Fresa's is aiming for in their tacos.
My El Rey ($4.25), on the other hand, failed to reach the bar set by its counterpart. Considering the prevalence of Texas BBQ and the execution on their grilled chicken, I had built up reasonable expectations. Yet, maybe I'm the one to blame for ordering BBQ at a place with a rotating chicken as its sign in the first place. Either way, the 'slow-cooked beef brisket' was noticeably dry, a tick above room temperature and otherwise lacked resiliency. Though the pickled jalapeno offered a nice kick of sweet spiciness, it seemed that when combined with the other ingredients most of the flavors seemed to mend to a singular spice, while the brisket was all but lost. Not to mention the noticeable fat streaks on the brisket. Overall, the taco was fairly sufficient and proved to be filling, yet it would seem difficult to justify ordering again at that price.
The whole experience was one of the cooler ones to date in Austin, mostly in regards to the mixed bag of menu options and nearby outdoor dining locations, so it would not be fair to write Fresa's off for one mediocre taco. After all, you don't go to Red Lobster (hopefully ever) and expect their mac and cheese to be memorable. Perhaps next time I'll test the breakfast tacos or man up to the full chicken spread. I'll go back, but not before trying other taco stands around town.
Ate: El Presidente, El Rey
915 N Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78703
Rating: 3 Pasture Range Chickens (out of five)
June 5, 2016
For as competitive as the food scene is, it seems only appropriate that an establishment would take proper measures in selecting an adequate name, one that stands out and represents its food as well as its level of service. With a name like Picnik, one might expect grab-and-go, perhaps even simple fare that is nostalgic if not comforting. Considering the heightened interest in farm-to-table sourcing at restaurants in cities such as Austin, one might even go as far to assume that carefully curated, fresh ingredients would also come into play here; especially if prices hover around $10 per dish.
The South Congress location of Austin's paleo friendly food truck, Picnik, only partially succeeded in delivering on the aforementioned themes that its name suggests. Butter coffee, as well as a 100% gluten free and paleo friendly menu are the offerings most identifiable at Picnik, yet the emphasis on food seemed to be severely lacking. Ultimately, it appeared as if the establishment might be at a conceptual cross roads.
Admittedly, my trip was the first time in recent memory that I can recall feeling ashamed of what transpired at a restaurant. Had I not sought out Picnik for a review, there is little doubt that I would have slid my plastic container of food back across the counter and asked for a refund or at least an exchange in product.
It's worth mentioning that Picnik proclaims their butter coffee as being famous, which I'm sure is an experience worthy of changing perspective on coffee for the better, but on this visit I elected to steer away from the $6 (and up) cup and devote my time to eating. The Carnitas Tacos ($10.75) seemed to be a fun paleo rendition of the classic dish, primarily for its usage of Siete's Almond Flour tortillas and local pastured pork. After receiving a cold plastic to-go box containing two feeble tortillas, however, I decided to remain nearby to see what sort of guest interactions I might encounter, as if perhaps my portion and exchange was an anomaly. No dice. For what was some time, I sat and thought about what just happened, meanwhile casually separating and then rearranging my tacos as I thought they ought to have been presented (the drawings reflect the initial deliverance). The portions of meat on both tacos wound up hardly stretching the length of the tortilla, while the advertised pickled onions were scarce to say the least. I did find a couple leafs of cilantro, though. Before long, the tacos warmed to the sun, yet I was stumped over why an $11 dish should require both manicuring and reheating in the first place.
Upon picking up the first taco, I found it incredibly difficult to do so without it crumbling between my fingers. Sure, the consistency of these particular tortillas (Siete's Almond Flour) can be tricky, especially if heated to too high of a temperature and then cooled. I have had them crumble on me at home before. Such an occurrence, however, seems inexcusable considering the circumstances at hand. If a location decides to use a certain ingredient, it should have a firm grasp of how to properly use and deliver that item in a way that maximizes the experience for the customer. Furthermore, if the product is susceptible to fault, why use it? There are alternatives, such as Siete's Cassava and Coconut tortillas, that surely would have sufficed.
Once I managed to break the taco into four squares, which ultimately became finger food, the outcome of flavor was pleasant and surprising. A richness from the pork combined with the nuttiness from the tortilla to create a creamy, almost decadent experience. Hints of lime and citrus also tied well with the avocado puree to ensure a variety of flavors one might anticipate from 'true' carnitas tacos. Enduring this constant struggle to keep just a single taco together, however, only dampened the minor victories that this dish was achieving. Furthermore, my search for the pickled onions yielded only one limp strand on each taco, neither of which announced themselves in any distinguishable way.
The whole experience, in the end, provided some needed reflection. As I sat, staring at my plastic box of cold, lazily assembled tacos, two questions ultimately surfaced: who deemed this portion as respectable, and when were these tacos prepared? Initially I felt like I had been hustled. Yet, after I was through eating, I wasn't expecting a noble answer or compensation for being slighted. After all, my patronage had contributed to what was happening, not only at Picnik, but seemingly all around the city, and perhaps in similarly suited culinary boom towns.
This experience ultimately put to question the relationship between the patron and the establishment, specifically regarding those which boast the designation of 'farm-to-table' as a selling point. At what point does the standard for this fresh, innovative fare succumb to its demand and ultimately suffer to mediocrity? How much cushion should be afforded, after all, to these establishments when they pump out sub-par products? Ultimately, where is the pride for the 'locally sourced' products of use, and the local patrons themselves?
Perhaps there's no true answer or justification for what seems to be occurring around us. It surely is not the first time that I, and likely others, have felt slighted from their experience at a similarly regarded establishment. The siege of 'locally sourced' 'farm fresh' fare is upon us, but does that leave us to simply comply if we wish to keep the trend alive? Sure, one patron boycotting an establishment means little to the grand picture, but we deserve to reexamine our dining experiences and hold establishments to a higher standard when we are paying good money for it.
Ate: Carnitas Tacos
1700 South Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78704
Rating: 1 Pickled Onion (Out of Five)
June 25, 2016
As the name might suggest, everything at Raw Goods is prepared raw. Featuring proteins with fins and gills for entrees, the menu also encourages fruit and vegetable exploration through the makings of raw smoothies and bowls; examples being health-driven foods as buckwheat, avocado and and spiraling. For a caffeine kick, honey brined coffee is also available for purchase.
On a Sunday afternoon in mid-June, Aztec Food Trailer park on Cesar Chavez on Austin's east side played host to a steady crowd out to celebrate the commencement of summer vacation with the traditional party favors of ice cream and beer floats. Sprawling picnic tables along its gravel lot were occupied primarily by large groups, with the exception of a few families and couples out for a date. Among the trailers feeding the troops were La BBQ, Dee Dee, Super Burrito, and Raw Goods. The latter, with its wildly vibrant spray paint job that is nostalgic to a Fruit Stripe gum package (I kept thinking zebras), is the subject of this review.
When I peered in through the truck's tiny window I found the space to be devoid of human activity, with only the subtle movement of hanging knives and tree fruit strung in nets along the back wall. Moments later, a man walked by me on his way into the truck and asked for my order.
"The Tuna ($12)," I said, to which he retorted, "Tuna. Classic."
Taking a seat near the trailer, out of the heat and under the shade of a towering oak tree which filled the center of the picnic table like a candle wick, I took to study the details of the trailer and its surroundings. Appearing messy from afar, the squiggly splatters of spray paint took on a more calculated arrangement to pattern the truck in a warm, tropical way. To the same effect as the netted produce inside, a pair of elevated planting beds at the wheel base gave home to herbs like mint and basil, paying homage to using what is on hand. All the while the steady chopping of a knife gave rhythm like the sea, with the only cause for interruption coming from the drifting scents of spilled beer, smoked meat and Thai spices.
Moments later my chef called out tuna with my name on it, handing over a paper boat of leafy greens and a small cardboard ramekin filled with sliced pears which were dressed with purple flowers and an effervescent foam. With passionate ease he rattled off specs of the dish, identifying the type of tuna as Saku from Japan and detailed ingredients to the pear blossom; the foam being concocted from coconut fat and dehydrated vegetables.
"If the tuna gets too hot, tone it down with the blossom," he suggested. As the foam began to dissipate from the outside temperature, I ultimately dumped the contents into the bed of greens to preserve its integrity and enjoyed the ingredients as one.
By selecting rainbow chard as the base, the fillings (a generous layering of alfalfa sprouts and tuna), were well supported and received a textural contrast. The first bite started with a snap while the make-shift taco gradually delivered an array of precise flavors; slow heat from hidden ginger and habanero pepper, true yet not overbearing tuna flavors which carried an almost creamy consistency, and even hints of violet and fresh mint from the blossom. Remaining consistent throughout, the dish delivered the sort of fresh, tropical attitude set by the truck's aesthetics.
To replicate the experience of a true taco by utilizing only plants and fish is a feat in itself. Delivering such a product without flaw or reasonable argument on the price, much less, makes this truck worth revisiting. Perhaps including other raw vegetables like bell pepper, chives, or tomatoes could enhance the dish from a variety standpoint, but otherwise the execution, presentation and mood set at Raw Goods is laudable.
1906 E Cesar Chavez St., Austin, TX 78702
Rating: 4 Fins (Out of Five)
August 23, 2016
To the late Ann Sather,
I'm writing to express my gratitude for your restaurant hosting me for breakfast during my visit to Chicago. It was not as windy as they say, but the city was not short on excitement. The day was spent in Wrigleyville, where the sin tax is as merciless as the bus drivers (though not many other places will you see a group of college students nonchalantly attempt to load a recliner onto a city bus), and it began with a good old fashioned sit down breakfast at your Broadway location. Had I known of its existence, a more serious attempt would have been made to dine at your original Belmont location to see where the magic all started.
Nonetheless, your attempt at luring a hungry passerby in from the street with wafting scents of baked cinnamon and melted sugar was successful - the infamous sticky buns and cinnamon rolls were undoubtedly the largest I've encountered thus far.
While I'll admit I've always been a sucker for diners, your restaurant has charm - paper menus, crammed tables, murals painted with warm colors and a glass case stacked with the aforementioned sweets - and on that morning it had the quiet hum of clanking dishes and private conversations which added a certain comfort to the experience. The service was straightforward; almost too straight forward at times, but still commendable considering our server put a stop to his round in order to engage with the toddler from a neighboring table, addressing her by name. I couldn't help but feel that this was the type of joint that would seduce you into becoming a weekend regular and then be the reason for your new diet in six months.
The staff was cordial and swift at first. Shortly following the initial water deliverance came our coffee ($2.25); a brew that flowed with a rich density like all bottomless drip should, but this would be the climax of attention from our server. After delivering our plates - for myself the Chicken Fajita Omelet ($11.95) and for my eating partner a Denver Omelet - our server seemingly disappeared without making a reappearance for even a single refill of coffee. It must be pointed out that while a casual outing such as this does not rely on highly attentive service, excuses were in short due to the dining room being otherwise nearly empty.
No less, the dish and it's two sides, a bowl of fruit and mound of potatoes, was a portion large enough to compensate for the lagging service. With its careful assortment of varying colors, the side fruit was so intense and commanding in size and flavor that I might have guessed it to be genetically modified (even if it is, I won't tell anyone). Sour peaches, ripe cherries and juicy watermelon were among the prime components, all of which helped curb the seemingly insatiable sweet craving created by your pastries.
Though listed as hash browns, my potatoes arrived as a heap of quartered and halved potatoes that were tender and rich with oil and salt. Before even approaching the omelet I began to feel full. Though, once I did cut into the omelet - which was filled to the brim with a generous portion of bell peppers, onions, tomatoes and chicken - I found it difficult to stop. Outside of maintaining its composure, the actual omelet faltered with flavor and remained uninspiring. Not even the side of 'homemade salsa' could do much to restore balance, ultimately leaving the seared edges of fajita chicken and roast bell peppers to assert the few interesting flavors.
Though unexciting, the meal was satisfying as it hit on a number of standard tasting points while providing the sort of warm atmosphere one seeks on an early morning in unfamiliar territory. Had the service been more attentive (a line cook came to clear our plates), I may mark your operation as one essential for revisit, but it's difficult to ignore negligence in favor of above-average food. If I'm to return, it will only be for copious amounts of sticky buns and cinnamon rolls.
Ate: Chicken Fajita Omelet
3415 N Broadway St, Chicago, IL 60657
Rating: 6 & 1/2 Sour Peaches (out of Ten)
September 29, 2016
Luz translates to light, and casa seems to be as much a part of the English vocabulary as it is of the Spanish language. This restaurant is not just a house of light, in fact it's more of a retreat from the bustle with the addition of whole, unprocessed food. Citing macrobiotics, the Taoist principles of balance through diet by way of pure prepared foods, Casa De Luz focuses on serving all-organic foods based from whole grains, plants, beans vegetables and soups made from scratch; all of which is prepared completely gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian, naturally.
While the trend of healthy alternatives for the dietary conscious is well documented and perhaps over emphasized in some cases, Casa De Luz is unique in its approach; the mission statement simply supports the concept of healthy offerings as a genuine response to the imbalances of modern eating and living. This holistic, all-natural attitude was put to action when the restaurant opened over two decades ago and is a reflection of what one experiences here, from the tranquil, zen setting right down to the pre-soaked grains and beans. Casa De Luz is a breathe of fresh air, a slice of serenity among the bustle of Barton Springs Road, but mostly it's an example of what can be achieved with simple ingredients and a genuine approach toward food and the community.
From the point of entry, one is engulfed by lush greenery and led down a winding walkway paved with brick and shaded by twisted vines and overhanging greens, which feeds to an outdoor dining area that covers a raised deck and string of umbrella covered tables to create ample shading opportunities. Inside is an open kitchen crossed with a vast dining area, as well as a tucked away shopping area which contains anything from books on microbitioics and nutrition to bulk beans and various coffees and teas. The way the tables are set and how people group together makes it feel like a bit like a school cafeteria.
Once you pay the flat fee ($9 for breakfast), all portions and presentation are in your control, as everything is self serve. Coffee is replaced by Kukicha - a Japanese tea with alkalizing and digestive properties but low in caffeine - while filtered water free of fluoride is included as part of the meal. Dessert, if you can manage to save room, is worth the extra money.
The spread on this particular morning suggested one start with the soup and move on to the steamed vegetables, beans, sauce and homemade corn tortillas to devise fixings for tacos (at least that is how I naturally approach most meals). Following the nutritional bulk of the meal, a tall pot of porridge awaits, with the additions of granola and raisins to round out the meal and satisfy a sweet tooth or two.
Composed of mixed greens, carrots and onions, the soup had a heartiness to it that was still tolerable in hot weather, though the base stock was a touch too salty. On their own, the pile of leafy greens - cabbage, kale and collard greens - were about as inspiring as any blanched vegetables could be, but a dollop of tahini sauce went a long way in adding a little zest. Unless refried, black beans don't often vary in consistency or presentation, and these fell in line with the standard as they held shape while remaining soft and mushy to the touch.
These individual parts, however, were much greater as a sum when combined and stuffed into the crisp, freshly constructed corn tortillas. Hints of cumin and other spices from the tahini sauce successfully recreated the feeling of devouring a real taco, while the beans added weight and the vegetables structure. Having to reluctantly abandon a half-eaten spread from my seat on the patio in order to run inside for another tortilla, I was fortunate to have avoided a siege of grackles and came back to find my plate intact.
As a base, the amaranth provided a gooey filler that was, on its own, bland. When added, however, the granola, raisins and a heavy dose of cinnamon spiked the flavor to create a balance of sweet and nuttiness that served as retribution for all of the greens consumed. Yet, out of sheer curiosity for the true desserts offered (advertised as vegan and gluten-free), I fell victim to a helping of Carob pudding ($4) to conclude.
With a consistency that was wet and sponge-like, much like true pudding, the carob - a naturally sweet plant that resembles chocolate - added the finishing touches on a hearty meal. As the pudding began to disappear, notes of anise and clove began to reveal themselves.
Casa De Luz provides not only whole, nutritional meals but also represents the type of mindset that thrives in this city. From the signs in the bathrooms that suggest voluntary clean-up, to the vast offering of cook books and various health resources, this establishment is certainly unique and worth visiting, if not frequenting.
Ate: Breakfast buffet, Carob Pudding
1701 Toomey Rd, Austin, TX 78704
Rating: 5 Green Beans (out of Five)
Stepping foot into Joe's Bakery is like entering something of a time capsule, its faded yellow paint and Miami Dolphins' blue trim coat the walls and hoist framed black and white photos decorating family and military members alike, as well as the occasional snapshot of a politician such as Joe Biden or Bill Clinton; former Texas Governor Rick Perry's letter wishing Joe a happy birthday is also hidden amidst. Yet, with the exception of its decals and large sign clearly displaying the words Joe's Bakery, the bones of the building might suggest it as a meat market or convenience store rather than a restaurant.
While the Avila family business dates back to the mid-1930's, Joe's Bakery was not established until 1962, but in that time the bakery has built a reputation on serving up traditional Mexican cuisine, and the added sweet temptation of homemade deserts leaves one to contemplate more than just a conclusive cup of coffee (notice how I didn't say Joe). Austin's landscape, especially the east side, has undergone considerable changes in that time span but Joe's remains a stalwart.
My meal took place on a quiet Thursday morning - one buffered by an overcast sky and the conclusion of a breakfast rush, all of which led to a pace of service that was like a slow exhale. Having chosen to sit at the back bar counter, my view of the kitchen was essentially unobstructed and gave way to the playful banter among staff, spinning sounds of the circular ticket taker and the occasional ding from the appointed 'to-go' bell. With my back faced the dining room, a quick survey would reveal that I was one of the few younger inhabitants - a trend that went from patrons to staff. Framed art, family photos and food drawings washed over the sweet-corn yellow walls while a steady stream of trumpets and violas pumped through the juke box. It seems not much has changed since 62'.
My server, while cordial, was hardly ardent in extending herself no further than the basics of coffee, water and which type of form I was to have my eggs, beans, tortillas and rice. After considering the chorizo, I selected Barbacoa in hopes it would lead to the unraveling of some treasured family recipe. I was to be disappointed in that regard.
Rising steadily, the pace of service fell in line with the approaching noon hour, though the time it took for my food to arrive in the service window across from me was rather short. With a presentation that seemed very uniform, my dish was brought out with utensils, two corn tortillas, and a side dish of salsa verde. Uniform seems like an appropriate connotation in that the set way of preparing the dish likely makes for a fast turnaround on ticket times and, after all, consistency is key in this business. To that point, there was nothing sexy about the division of stiff eggs, lumped meat, sprawled out beans and limp potatoes - but I wasn't going for sexy. I wanted truth.
With the first few bites - a mangled mixture of the fixings before being stuffed into a tortilla - I was rather unimpressed. The meat lacked a sizzle, much less a texture or spice that could distinguish it from any other Barbacoa in Austin, while the eggs were scrambled to a choppy consistency that hovered toward being overdone. Though beans will be beans, the soggy consistency of the potatoes rounded out an all together underwhelming assortment of ingredients.
I have still yet to be convinced that there is a combination of sides that are not better when wrapped up in a tortilla, and this proved to be no different. When piled together, the ingredients offered an array of rich flavors that were creamy, salty and a little spicy, making it a complete breakfast taco. Texture seemed to be lacking, and I was left to wonder if the dish couldn't have taken new heights with even a small portion of diced tomatoes or shredded lettuce.
The only check back that was made by the server was to inquire if more tortillas were needed. Certainly they were, but the food was good, too…thanks. After eyeing the case of jeweled desserts for the duration of my meal, I caved and bought an oatmeal raisin cookie (best 50 cents I ever spent).
If you are to dine at Joe's Bakery, come early (they close at 3pm) and without the expectation of server spiels or exotic culinary concoctions, but trust that you'll at least be getting a share of what the restaurant was founded on: classic Mexican cuisine with a relaxed atmosphere and rich family history.
Ate: Barbacoa plate
2305 E 7th St, Austin, TX 78702
Rating: Six & 1/2 soggy potatoes (out of ten)
October 28, 2016
Operating as the oldest BBQ pit in the capital city of Texas is a feat, one not easily maintained when considering the competitive culinary scene in Austin, but House Park Bar-B-Q still remains a stalwart after more than 70 years. Situated in central Austin, right off of Lamar Blvd and 12th street - which is within walking distance of both the Capitol and Austin Community College but also far enough from the bustle of downtown - this BBQ joint opens shop with a condensed operating schedule (Monday-Friday 11:00 am - 2:30 pm). It has all of the charm of a classic, Texan BBQ house; the BYOB signs placed throughout basically ask you to wrap up a Loney and settle in for a hefty portion of meat before resuming responsibilities elsewhere.
During that window of service, one might encounter a mix of young academics on their exhale and white-collared men in their business suits and meeting books. They all come for one reason: meat so tender it practically melts before reaching your mouth. Word on the street is that the pit tender arrives at House Park during the dark hours of the morning to keep the fire going (and ensure the place doesn't burn down). While such a practice is not unheard of within the BBQ world, the resulting product here helps to put this joint into an elite class.
Visible on the interior, years of accumulated smoke effectively creates a tinge of yellow that acts almost as a filter on the photographs of vintage cars and other decor, which collectively feels like an assortment of furnishings displaced from a lake cottage. Such a mystique was certainly evident while dining, but even more so once exiting to the crisp air and piercing sunlight following our meal.
Having arrived a little after noon on a Wednesday, the tone was set with a stream of country radio (even a fine rendition of the National Anthem made an appearance), as men of all ages quietly dissected mounds of meat. Such a pacific ritual seemed to be contagious, and it was no sooner that my eating partner and I had begun putting more effort into our own food than conversation. Before us were identical plates - the Brisket plate ($9.75) was on special that day - and each featured single scoops of potato salad, slops of brown beans, shavings of cabbage in the form of slaw, as well as generous slabs of beef brisket.
Earning true to the sign out front which reads "Need No Teef To Eat My Beef", this brisket was, to memory, some of the most tender and moist meat I have had the pleasure of consuming. Soft enough to be severed by a swift maneuver of the fork, the meat was accompanied by a small pool of grease on its surrounding perimeters; however, the consistency was not soggy or overly ridden with fat. There was balance here, and in the flavor as well. All of this coming, no less, from a novel approach to tending the meat: simply smoke. Word has it that the man behind the meat relies only on the wood and seasoning of his above-ground brick smoker (which is said to be one of the few spots in Austin allowed to use such a pit) for flavor. He stays away from spices entirely. When added, the liquid BBQ sauce provided a notable zing; the boost in flavor came with a tangy and slightly spicy profile.
Moving through the sides, the beans stood out with notes of brown sugar and a hint of smoke, while a hump of potato salad filled in admirably and the shredded coleslaw gave the meal a sweet balance - though the latter two showed unspectacular in comparison to the other portions. Most importantly, the meat delivered satisfaction with a seemingly effortless attempt and the portion proved to be too much for one sitting. It's worth noting that when I did finish the remaining meat sometime later, (after being in the fridge) it remained considerably moist and rich in flavor. Also worth mentioning is how the effect of less than an hour exposure to the smokey building proved to be lasting as the scent of campfire remained integrated in my hair for the next few days (and I even shower regularly).
The food resonated as much as the atmosphere, and the prices are affordable enough to make this a place one can frequent. For a true, unpretentious Texas BBQ experience, without the lines or glamor, House Park Bar-B-Que should be high on the list for any meat connoisseur.
Ate: Brisket Plate
W 12th St, Austin, TX 78703
Rating: 4 & 1/2 Brisket slabs (out of Five)
November 29, 2016
It may be the best taco truck you'll never remember, or at the very least be able to pronounce, depending on which time of the day and under which circumstances you choose to dine. Working in its favor are the seemingly endless hours of operation (7:30 am - 2:30 am on Thursday, Friday and Saturdays) and a location that is sandwiched (well, but like with tacos) between the hip side and the dirty side of Austin's 6th street. In any case, the name can be a mouthful.
If you're not a part of the bar crowd that Pueblo Viejo feeds on a nightly basis, you may as well have no trouble with either recalling the name or spelling out any of the ingredients in your dish. Like most any food dispensary, they keep it fairly simple and straight forward here. Breakfast or street taco? Gordita or Quesadilla? These are grave decisions we face.
Similarly suited for the casual cuisine is an assortment of makeshift seating: folding chairs, deep bottomed seats made of rigid plastic like those from the grade school days, long metal benches, and round wooden spools turned to tables are among some of the prime options for one to prop their elbows and spread out. A stout tree is centered in the lot, set across from the long, white taco-slinging trailer and effectively shading nearly the entire seating area. Parked alongside the trailer is an abandoned yellow short bus with the words Pueblo Viejo painted in white, perhaps paying homage to the former base of operations. Collectively, it feels like a cross between an outing and the junk yard and a picnic in the park.
After some consideration for the approaching lunch hour, I opted to split the difference and chose one breakfast taco (Tico Taco - $2.50) and one specialty taco (Guaca Taco - $3.90), and one Topo Chico to wash it down.
"That'll be $1," she said from behind the window. "Someone here payed in advanced." She waved her hand over the crowd of strangers behind me, I looked for someone to nod or wave in assurance. Blank stares were sent my way. Resisting the temptation to add a third taco, or perhaps two more to go, I thanked her and wandered off to find something to sit on.
As I crouched, still waiting for the anonymous gift donor to reveal themselves, I became less interested in the food to come and more intrigued by the chain of reactions that were to follow when others ordered. I was half expecting word to have leaked out, via some form of social media or some funny meme, in enough time for a sudden flood of strangers to max out the open card for post-lunch grub. Aside from a pair of ladies who contemplated the menu before walking away foolishly empty handed, nothing out of the ordinary went down.
The food came with a minimal wait and bountifully it came. Each taco was filled to the brim. Now, there is an unspoken verdict among food critics (okay maybe just some of us) that a taco truck is measured by the quality and array of salsas offered. Both orange and red salsas were deployed for this meal.
Potatoes in the Tica Taco were soft, lacking any fried firmness, while a slop of creamy beans added texture but no single lasting flavor. Even still, there is only so far you can take potatoes, avocado and beans. An orange salsa helped kick up the flavor and leave a lasting impression - so lasting that my lips needed a moment to rebuild receptors - but otherwise the concoction only moderately sufficed..
Reaching the Guaca Taco was a relief of sorts, in that the array of ingredients was more interesting in both its spread and offering of individual flavors. Grilled chicken, seasoned with a red pepper spice, and seared onions were amply stuffed onto a bed of spinach and guacamole, which all together worked as a balancing act in both texture and flavor. Effectively displayed was the meaty flavor from the seared chicken. Bits of crisp spinach and grilled onion were secondary as softening elements, with the latter providing hints of sweetness.
As the afternoon wore on at Pueblo Viejo, I sat reflecting on the pair of tacos (and how sometimes there is in fact such a thing as a free lunch) while going over the practice of enunciating its name for my eventual retelling (Puh-way-blo Vee-Ay-Ho). Ideal for a pit stop on lunch break, or perhaps even more suitable for quenching a late hunger inflated from a night on the town, Pueblo Viejo's versatile menu and generous portions help propel it into the conversation as one of the finer mobile (but actually stationary) taco dispensaries in Austin.
Ate: Tica Taco, Guaca Taco
New location : 2000 E Cesar Chavez, 78702 Austin, TX (at Craftsman Bar)
Rating - 3 & 1/2 Avocados (out of five)
January 2, 2017
"Here's what I made, I hope you like it." In a nutshell, this is the business model of The Hightower, as told by our bartender. Just beyond where the interstate carves into East 7th st., in Austin, The Hightower is something of a neighborhood spot that delivers creative, yet simple food and possesses a bar program that holds its own weight. For that, it is considered a well-kept secret by those familiar.
The space is open, its walls doused in an olive green and cast with dim light. When walking through the front doors, one is given a direct view into the kitchen. A long bar occupies one side of the building; its giant mirror acting like a vanity for an etched vintage look, while a host of tables wrap the opposite wall and are sprinkled throughout.
Having arrived shortly after the break of happy hour, my eating partner and I had free reign over what was a relatively sparse dining area but chose the bar. This also meant an opportunity for conversation and nearly undivided attention from our bartender. The bartender's first quip was one that tied his name to Batman, as the sidekick; a choice of words that built into a double meaning as we compared his strengths with those of his counterpart, the kitchen.
After starting us out with a pair of cocktails, one O.M.D. ($7) and one Kinaloupe ($7), Robin ran through the high points of the menu, suggesting items like the daily Bar Snack ($5), Smoked Catfish Spread ($6.50) and the Salmon Crudo ($8). We bit on all three. (Prices listed reflect happy hour).
The Kinaloupe uses vodka and (take a wild guess) cantaloupe, as well as the herbal aperitif Kina. Sporting a summer freshness, the cocktail was filled with round fruit flavors and a touch of cucumber from the garnish; it felt like a drink that required sun screen and flip flops. We were told to stir the O.M.D., which in fact enhanced the profile as the bitter elements from the Campari and gin were able to fuse with the serene subtleties of the clementine. Robin shared his motif behind the O.M.D., claiming that the scent and taste of a clementine is believed to evoke happiness. You couldn't buy a frown for this corner of the bar.
A leisurely pace for the kitchen lead to quick times for our dishes, while Robin was strategic with his staggering. First up was the Bar Snack, a surprisingly light dish composed of fried balls of pork rillette, with pickles and cheddar wedges on the side. Next to that was the Salmon Crudo; a cut of raw salmon over a sea of gazpacho verde (a tomatillo base) and topped with an herb remedy and crushed cashews. By this time we were also both equipped with one version of each cocktail.
Pronounced notes of cantaloupe effectively cut into the brightness of the salmon, while notes of dill and lime each worked themselves into the herbal complexity offered from the Kina. Of the bunch, this was the best pairing.
While more aggressive in nature, the O.M.D. was still refreshing and crisp, which helped to balance out the sensory overload of meat and smoke that was to come. The Smoked Catfish Spread was served with rye hushpuppies and a smear of caper jam along the rim; the combination ushering in memories of Friday fish dinners. Though in combining just one spoonful of the salty, smoked spread with a hunk of fried dough and dollop of jam made for an even more peculiar flavor association: the taste of hot dogs.
If I had in fact tasted this dish blind, I may have guessed Oscar Mayer (United States, 2016). That's no disrespect to hot dogs, or my deductive reasoning skills, but this unshakable parallel ultimately left a peculiarly modest ceiling on the catfish spread.
To our surprise, a bowl of Brussels Sprouts ($5.50) arrived; a courteous gesture by our bartender which came tied with the distinction of 'must try' (a nod from our bar neighbor). Dressed with house-made peanut butter sauce - the honey added to what was a liquid consistency - and topped with nuts, these sprouts were unlike anything else. Honey toned the blaze of chili and spritz of lemon, while a nutty punch hummed along to bring to life the flavors of roasted vegetables. For less than $6, this dish drives a hard bargain as one of the better happy hour snacks around town.
Approachable and unpretentious, the food and service put out that same neighborhood vibe that was felt walking in the door. It did seem like a place where "you can come for happy hour on Tuesday and still afford to come back for dinner on Friday," as Robin claimed.
Proving to be the worth the wait, our Pork Jowl ($16) concluded the meal. Suggested for its place in the identity of the The Hightower, we soon found out why. The black bowl of heaping rice laid bed to a mound of pickled onions, a halved avocado with slight char, sliced cucumbers, hunks of seared pork jowl (pig cheeks), and a cooked egg yolk nestled in place with micro-greens; at that juncture they were just showing off. The idea was to stir everything together: allow the yolk and avocado to form a creamy base and let the pig sing. Slabs of jowl, their seared edges and graceful lines of fat, made each bite a salty sensation, while influence from the fresh herbs and cucumber kept the palate amused.
Before the meal was through, we were offered by our bar neighbor a share of dessert (by now we figure he's a regular). S'more Fried Pie (not pictured), this is one item that shouldn't need much explanation. It was simple and decadent, while its resistance from going too far in one direction was impressive. As with any dish that truly resonates beyond the next time you get hungry again, this dessert struck a sense of place; fond memories of gooey snacks over the campfire were rekindled. An added touch of Maldon salt, moreover, was key in making the flavors in this transportive dish truly pop.
In a town saturated with sleek, modern restaurants that deploy innovative small plates and as equally of sophisticated cocktail programs, The Hightower provides a comparable experience at an affordable rate. Their take on Texan cuisine and choice to locally source their ingredients makes them worth revisiting, and perhaps even frequenting.
Ate: Bar Snacks, Smoked Catfish Spread, Brussels Sprouts, Salmon Crudo, Pork Jowl
Drank: Kinaloupe, O.M.D.
1209 E 7th St, Austin, TX 78702
Rating: 8 & 1/2 Pork Jowl (Out of Ten)
Febraury 15, 2017
Far east on 6th street in Austin, Texas, there sits a magical secret garden (the sign actually gives it away) that is drawn with shade by lush trees and wide, colorful umbrellas. The garden is cool, but most people remember this space for the tamales served from the adjoining building. To set it straight now, these are the only two reasons to come back to the Original Tamale House.
With its white interior walls, Spanish tile roof, and open flow of air through the dining room, the layout of the restaurant brought me back to a taqueria I stopped through a few years back while in Los Angeles. At that point, and on this occasion, I had never felt closer to Mexico in my life (well...except for that one time in Tijuana).
After ordering we explored the second dining area and eventually made our way to the garden. Blooming flowers and vibrant lizards made of ceramic clung to the walls of the patio surrounding the open space; the degrees of shade from the sun and forms of seating varying throughout. We chose a picnic table in the sun and, together with the surrounding wind chimes, potted plants and colorful yard fixtures, one felt secluded from the tall, dense city of Austin.
Discovered by our table number, the server/runner dropped off an order of loaded queso for the table ($8), as well as two bean, cheese and jalapeno tamales ($3 each), a Tostada (not pictured) and a mole taco ($4.25) for the both of us. He also promised me a fork on his return.
Slightly runny as a base, our queso was an upgraded edition of the dish which came with extra toppings. Three chunks of avocado effectively devised a guacamole, while beans and tomatoes were easy, hefty fillers. Yet, nothing really stood out about it, and at $8 it was hard to justify as fulfilling - this seemed to be a rather remiss upgrade to a bowl of melted cheese that would have normally been seven dollars.
Also, my fork never came.
Forever dedicated to finding a mole recipe that challenges the gold standard set by Wapo's (in Boulder, Colorado, of all places), the decision to bypass more tamales, or to go the enchilada route, was an easy one. I thought by taking a chance on this mole sauce that I would be rewarded with another treasured family recipe, but my efforts were refuted with what was an underwhelming dish.
Yet, uncommon are truly flavorful and texturally correct corn tortillas; these were precise in both respects, but for that there were consequences. That signature tang and heat from the smoked peppers had seemingly fallen second to the flavors of the meat and its shell.
After years of research, I have concluded that the dignity of one is measured by its consistency and its composure. This particular masa dough had personality, it was soft and smooth, almost like cake, but still dense. Both the cheese and jalapeno peppers caught a wave in the midst of a sea of creamy red beans. In every phase possible this tamale delivered, but that shouldn't garner any surprise or much applause for the dish that has branded itself into this kitchen's reputation. Tamales are the identity of this establishment for a reason; sometimes it just doesn't pay off to be adventurous.
At the end of the day, there are enough places on any side of town to enjoy tacos in the sun or relax on a comfortable patio, but eating fresh, homemade tamales on the east side in a place that has stood longer than most of its fellow residents, well, that is worth experiencing at least once. If you do follow my path to the magical secret garden, just stick to what's in the name.
Ate: loaded queso, mole taco, one bean, cheese & jalapeno tamale
1707 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702
Rating: Six tamales (out of ten)
February 24, 2015
The concept of comfort food is rather straight forward, its purpose lies within the name: food that provides consolation or well being. Heavy starches, rich sauces or sugar beds are often the driving force behind this comfort - sometimes all three at once. Memories of home or adolescence are to be elicited, though the placement of such food is perhaps most important during times of duress.
One summer morning a handful of years back, my father broke to me the news that my grandfather had passed; this was a man who I had gotten very close with over the last couple years. My dad's first instinct was to take me to breakfast, and he chose a diner known for its slow food, particularly their balloon-sized pancakes. In an odd, yet very candid way, that fluffy stack of cakes and bottomless coffee at the long, sleek service counter had fueled something of a healing process for me. I could have chosen anything on that menu and been awarded the same experience, and from that point on I haven't looked at this sort of food the same way.
While under no such circumstances on my recent visit to Counter Cafe, in Austin, TX, I was, in fact, served a dish that evoked memories of that morning. The vessel in this instance being a heap of crab cakes and poached eggs over toast, with a side of coffee.
To detail the business; it is as the name suggests - a cafe focused around one long strip of counter that hugs a wide open kitchen. The focal dining surface employs only a short glass wall to divide guest from kitchen host. Activity on the other side of the counter becomes part of the experience; at any given time four or five skillets could be tossed over open flames, flapjacks the size of your head might be carefully flipped over the griddle, and all the while sheet pans of freshly baked biscuits are likely to be traded out intermittently by someone in an apron.
About a half dozen tables trail the opposite wall, while a quaint server station is crowned with chalkboard specials. For an added touch, a colorful chalk drawing of Guy FIeri's face is plastered near the menu (I just can't get away from this guy). Hours are condensed and fit for a breakfast crowd: open 7:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. daily. Otherwise the menu deploys organic and locally sourced ingredients. It's been this way since 2006, and this is where it all started (Counter Cafe now has a second location on the east side).
Despite it being a busy morning, the coffee and water service was swift; my server makes two attempts before putting in an order of Crab Cakes ($12). Next to me a woman clears an empty plate, only after leaning over the glass to ask the head cook if he is doing alright. They shake hands and he nods calmly, a trio of skillets sizzling behind him. Looking near the chalk board again, I recognize her face as the one in a framed magazine spread of Texas Monthly: she is Debbie Davis, the owner of this restaurant.
Meanwhile, the flow of service and pace in the kitchen allows me to track the progress of my dish, and in a short time that same cook hands me a plate. A first dip into each of the sauces offers a preview of what is to come: the curry peanut's creamy base hides a slow spice that is marked with hints of citrus, while garlic from the lemon aioli shows strong. Each egg was poached to perfection (a rarity, it seems, in these days), while the bed of toast had soft centers with crisp crust.
At various points of the meal the different flavor elements announce themselves with singularity; here a kick of curry, there a potent fishy flavor from the crab, add in a creamy yolk base and hints of cajun seasoning salt and you have yourself a dish that is simply constructed, yet broad in the shoulders.
The menu itself contained other intriguing options. Whether your fancy is biscuits and gravy (their biscuit and eggs Early Bird Special is only $7.50), massive short stacks, Texas Quail, or simple breakfast tacos, the menu is relatively expansive while still staying true to the classics. You also don't need to be reeling from a divorce or lost pet to fully enjoy the comfort aspect of it. While this may be a little pricey your everyday breakfast joint ($20 all said and done), it is certainly a good place to pull up a morning paper and treat yourself.
Ate: Crab Cakes
626 N Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78703
Rating: 4 Poached Eggs (out of Five)
March 3, 2017
In a town that prides itself on sustainable living, healthy lifestyles and a relaxed pace, a place like Turley's Kitchen seems to be a combined model of those mantras. A third generation family restaurant in Boulder, CO, Turley's deploys an extensive menu that caters to all types of eating desires. Filtered drinking and cooking water are just as much of kitchen staples as are locally sourced, organic produce, and that includes smart meat (antibiotic and hormone free). Turley's also touts themselves as a Boulder Community Leader in Recycling and Composting, which, if you're not from there, is seemingly as engrained a routine as brushing your teeth.
The building itself is relatively large and its elements of decor make it feel welcoming and look alive. Potted plants and bright coffee urns are among the detailed furnishings, while the walls are laid in brick and trimmed with wood. Depending on where you sit, wide windows can give way to a view of the mountain's foothills.
For being a walk-in six top on a Saturday morning, our wait time was considerably short considering that on our walk to the table it was tough to spot an empty table. Our server was spot on from the get go. He didn't even take the time to scribble a single order on his hand, everything was recorded in his head. Now, such a feat can only be regarded as such so long as the service remains flawless (spoiler alert: it was). A few people ordered Bloody Marys ($2.70) which were thick, adequately spiced and well worth the money (weekend price).
With one exception, each person at our table ordered something different. The detailed menu allowed for this to happen without communication occurring until decisions were seemingly made. A friend next to me claimed without shame that he would come back each day of the vacation (this being our first) for the House Mac (n' Cheese). Meanwhile, my father greedily put down a full order of Strawberry Rhubarb French Toast to himself. From the challah bread slices that were like pillows on a plate to the bold maple whip cream, this dish stole the show and was the envy of everyone's eyes. Aside from the over-poached eggs on my brother's Salmon Benedict, each dish was regarded as more than satisfactory.
As for my own good fortune, the Strawberry Rhubarb Oatmeal ($6.50) was the sort of enveloping comfort food I was seeking. Light in comparison to the adjacent Biscuits and Gravy and aforementioned dishes, the tangy strawberry rhubarb compote covering the oatmeal packed in flavors of jammed fruit while the rhubarb gave it a slight tartness. Reminiscent of the mornings when I would go to school still tasting my mother's strawberry rhubarb pie, this dish turned classic oatmeal into a home-run.
As we dined, our server continued to be effortlessly swift, professional and pin-point with his memory. No one is perfect, though, and his only slip up came on a coffee refill in which he poured a full cup worth into my half-empty cup. Coffee spilled everywhere; he laughed and so did we. By that point it was almost comedic relief after watching him put on a flawless performance.
Graced with the good fortune of a local's recommendation, we agreed that this was one of the best dining experiences to memory. It would be a topic of conversation throughout the day. For everything that Turley's Kitchen stands for, and delivers, it deserves high praise.
Ate: Strawberry Rhubarb Oatmeal
Crossroad Commons, 2805 Pearl St, Boulder, CO 80301
Rating: 5 strawberries (out of five)
March 13, 2017
"Friends, I'll be right with you." "Friends, thanks for coming in. See you next time." These were among the first few sights and sounds encountered when stepping into Cafe Josie and saddling up to the bar.
This neighborhood joint operates in what is an unsuspecting, yet charming space that features both an outdoor patio as well as a dual dining area that is outlined with white walls, framed by french doors and laid over a weathered brick floor that is so ingrained into the earth that it feels like one solid surface. White table clothes cover roughly 18 tables inside; their proximity and arrangement suggesting that if the walls and ceiling were removed, not much would change.
Though Cafe Josie has been 'badass since '97', it's the 'all you can eat' option - which features free reign over a dinner menu that is broken into smaller portions and continuously served until you tap out - that makes this establishment unique to Austin's fine-dining offerings. They call it 'The Experience', and it's $45 per guest.
Texas limestone lays surface to the bar where I sit across from the bar manager, Nathan Etheredge, who chats with me about the spirits that stack the wall behind him and occasionaly tosses out greetings and good-byes to passing guests. He fixes me a Coup ($10) - noting how it is one of the less traveled cocktails on the menu. In glancing over the wine list - an adventurous string of samples from around the world that seem equipped to pair with a range of food - I was unsurprised by this comment.
Out of the coup, though, I was unable to get beyond a powerful barrage of syrupy sweetness brought on by the absinthe and curacao. Gin based, the drink had elements of a Negroni but seemed to need something to cut the body or dial down what was a noticeably hot finish.
Indeed peculiar, absinthe is potent and can be deterring for both cocktail mixers and consumers alike. The other server assisting with my meal lauded my selection but added that, due to myths of absinthe and the common misunderstanding on the effects of wormwood (found in absinthe), people are naturally hesitant to call for a Coup. "I've actually had the conversation where someone says they don't want one (a Coup) because they don't want to trip out," he said. Well, it is called The Experience...
(To clarify, you would die of alcohol poisoning before reaching any state of hallucination on absinthe.)
As for me, I knew exactly what I was signing up for: The Experience ($45). Bread and a house-made garlic butter were brought out before the cup of Blue Crab Chowder arrived. Chili flakes helped jazz up the butter, while the soup was rich and creamy. Hunks of blue crab were flavorful and in no shortage, as were the cubes of toasted bread which helped give the soup a variance in texture.
Following the soup came a rendition of Brussels Sprouts which deployed a mustard glaze and teased with sweetness before rounding out with a sharp declaration of dijon. Edges of the sprouts were crispy but firm enough inside to maintain the integrity of the vegetable, and the texture was complimented by garnishes of rum cherries and glazed pecans. Seconds could be had here.
My curiosity about a Sicilian Rosso ($12 - Peloro "Le Casematte 2014") on their glass pour list led to Nathan fixing up a two-sip sample of the wine - he too was intrigued by the landscapes of the island and the ever elusive Nerello Mascalese grape. On the palate, bright cherries blew through a bed of calcareous soils and, with stirring acidity, the wine exhibited qualities that called for food.
Presented like hors d'ouerves at a cocktail party, the pair of crostini smeared with Smoked Beef Brisket were one of the more thought provoking items ordered. Similarly signature in flavor to a hot dog in a bun, this dish was one dimensional and all together difficult to distinguish (you're not alone Hightower). To take this strange association further, these meaty bites were complimented by a side of poblano mustard and miniature pickles. It must be that underlying hot dog complex unresolved from childhood...
In a much more elevated way, the Beer Battered Shrimp was complex and dual in personality. The dish was dressed like a Texan, with its blue collar pearl-snap and bolo tie, but underneath that it wore a prideful red, white and green stripped shirt. Light in batter - mimicking a texture like tempura - but ample in flavor, the shrimp stood out to pair well with crisp, clean notes of cilantro; all while the chunks of fresh tomato balanced the dish with bright acidity. Sifting through more layers revealed a creamy aioli and soft bed of masa that folded in elements of a tamale dressed in queso. It was curiously layered and each flavor seemed to compound and challenge one another.
By this time Nathan had shared with me another one of his cocktail creations - a barrel aged Aviation that had enough redeeming qualities to make one consider never drinking a standard Aviation again. The dimension was altered in that the influence of wood toned down but did not mask the bright, floral nature of the drink; it was given shoulders instead. Soon to hit the menu, this drink should become a staple in no time.
To round out what was shaping up to be a weird, but imaginative, series of dishes I put in for an order of Grilled Okra. As much of an aesthetic piece as it was a playground for one's senses, this dish delivered a series of pinpoint flavors, from the sweet and slow spice of pickled fresno peppers to the remarkable essence of charred tomato skins that rose from the aioli.
Elevated fare is not for every occasion, and it comes with a price, but anyone that's been out to a place like this knows how easy it can be to pad a check with a handful of small-to-medium sized plates that are moderately filling. Maybe each course is deserving, but maybe you only hit on two of the four or five you ordered. Here, if you go 'The Experience' route, keep in mind that you have to eat what's on your plate before they bring you more. But that's the beauty of it, they keep bringing you more.
Go in a good sized group or with one hungry date and try to get through everything on the menu, or maybe just eat beer battered shrimp and brussels sprouts all night. At the very least, ask for that Barrel Aged Aviation.
Ate: Brussels Sprouts, Blue Crab Chowder, Smoked Brisket Rillette, Grilled Okra, Beer Battered Shrimp
1200 W 6th St, Austin, TX 78703
Four and a half shrimp (out of five)
From a silver Airstream trailer, a man with a thin mustache and thick accent calls orders out over the paved black parking lot of Spider House Cafe/Ballroom. Among other food trailers in the lot, Syriano Shawarma dispenses large doses of Mediterranean food at modest prices. Surrounding the truck are murals of half skeleton pigs and unicorn rhinoceros' in a rainbow of colors; its ominous and somehow uplifting at the same time. The truck itself has what appears to be a max occupancy of three large adults, and the speciality here is Shawarma - a Levantine meat method where some form of meat is put on a spit and grilled for a long time.
The menu essentially goes one of two ways - would you like that in a wrap or over a bed of rice? - and leans on staples like Baba Ghanoush and Hummus to support heavy lifters like chicken, beef and falafel. It also seems to operate under every waking hour of the day (11:00 am - 2:00 am), so the fact that this rich fare is served within a stone's throw of a bar is no coincidence.
After I submit an order for the 'All Natural Chicken Shawarma Plate' (thanks for keeping it au naturel), the man turns off a fan inside the truck and soon the area is quiet, immersed in slow moving scents of frier grease and skillet contact. It suddenly seems too early in the day to be indulging in such a meal.
Less than half my estimated wait time passes (he says ten) and I'm handed a large to-go box full of food, then the fan goes back on. A nearby picnic table offers shade for the meal and meanwhile conversations from the Spider house patio carry over, suggesting the Friday happy hour is on its way.
Portions here are generous, with the maze of rice and chicken dominating. All parts quickly became one, but one particular standout was the copious amounts of tahini in the hummus. Consequently the sauce danced more along the lines of peanut butter and seemingly absent were the crucial balancing elements of lemon and garlic. Marinated in a citrus, pomegranate sauce, the green peppers and cucumbers in the fatuous salad added minimal brightness, but still not enough to overcome the cloying nature of the hummus.
Unraveling the pita from its paper led to the discovery of bread that grew more stale by the second - this side ultimately became useless halfway through the meal. Most of the chicken maintained its integrity but beef seems to have been the better choice, and for as decorative as the white sauce was, it too seemingly became lost in the barrage of bland starch and meat.
As the meal wore on, my hunger was fed by the inadequacies at hand and finishing it became more about need than want. Though this rendition of chicken shawarma proved to be adequately filling, it otherwise fell flat and missed out on the signature spices found in this type of cuisine.
Stripped down, one could argue that such shortcomings could be expected - these are styrofoam boxes of meat and rice/wrap that are sold out of a trailer in the parking lot of an iconic music hangout, after all. Sure, the late-night crowds induced into apathy may only contribute to the importance of this trailer, but there was no excuse for not trying harder on a slow afternoon with no other business. Add a little spice, measure the ingredients on your hummus twice, and, at the very least, make sure the pita is edible.
Ate: All natural Chicken Shawarma plate
2908 Fruth St, Austin, TX 78705
Rating: 2 stale pita (out of five)
From the rush of Oltorf Avenue it's easy to overlook the single black sign signifying Tarbouch, but the discrete nature of the business is mirrored by a relaxed pace and simple, authentic renditions of Lebanese and Mediterranean food. One might be more attracted to the tall, wooden sign painted in bright colors with a tribal figure and the words 'South Austin' on it, or perhaps to the opposite sign soliciting credit, but sandwiched on a lot in between the two is Tarbouch - a quality hangout spot with beer, wine, casual food and hookahs.
A shaded patio strung with colorful lights is the entryway for what is a relatively compact dining space; small portraits of warm landscapes help to give it an expansive quality. Trusty Yelp reviews, among other notable write-ups, are placed next to a standalone register, meanwhile a television casts a muted episode of Portlandia and vibrant Indian tunes resound from overhead.
At the register I catch the attention of a server who is cordial when taking my order but goes on to tell me with slight irritation to 'sit down, this is a restaurant' - half the fun of the ritual now appears to have been usurped by my blunder. I land a spot on the patio, where two separate clouds of smoke arise from nearby tables and a man with a dog at his side hammers away at his laptop; the vibe of this South Austin joint is set for more than just food. No one seems to be in a particular hurry, it's the type of afternoon to make you wonder what people in this town do for a living.
An echo of traffic pushes on as those around me pack up their belongings and finish the food in front of them. I'm only alone for a short time, however, as a stocky man in kitchen attire walks to a nearby table and sets down a hookah as smoke billows out of his nose. My food hasn't arrived yet and the concern is slowly supplanting hunger. Less than a minute later, though, the server arrives with a full plate of food. Another cook would later join the first man and the two would hang out for the duration of my meal.
OK, so this is what those Yelpers mean by 'no fuss'.
Set in front of me was the Tarbouch Chicken Plate ($12.99) - a trifecta spread of hummus, rice and marinated chicken - while a side contraption held four soft slices of pita bread. Fresh herbs and a splash of oil in the hummus helped to deter from the slight overuse of tahini, but otherwise the dip remained mostly true to its intention. Forward with spices like paprika and red pepper, and a hint of lemon, the chicken was tender and without much fat; it brought the most zest and variance in texture to the dish. The rice was uniform and adequately cooked - presumably prepared in a rice cooker - but it was the side packet of butter which aided in loosening up the rigid grains.
Everything on the plate wound up being minced and mixed, and then stuffed gracefully into the pita bread, as this maximized the flavor offerings. The addition of a halved tomato that was peeled and charred brought a sweet smokiness and meaty consistency, while diced parsley lent sharp flavors and a fresh balance. The dish was hefty, yet still clean; the preparation suggested a more healthy alternative to what can otherwise be a greasy, slop of rich and salty flavors. It reminded of dishes my mother prepared for us as kids, though those held less ethnic integrity and drove more toward nourishment.
Even though the place had long emptied out, service continued to lag. Along with a bathroom that required nose plugs, these were only a few flaws that surfaced, but the draw of Tarbouch's authenticity and low-key nature is deserving enough for a second visit.
Ate: Tarbouch Chicken Plate
534 E Oltorf St, Austin, TX 78704
Rating: 4 pita (out of five)
There is BBQ, and then there is such a thing as ‘upscale bar-b-que’. But how many ways, might you ask, can you dress a pig? Well, it starts with the intricacies: house-made and bottled sauces for each table, miniature cornbread muffins in place of bread service, and then something they call ‘white BBQ sauce’. Now, these bells and whistles may not all be worth their weight - and it’s sure to cost you - but few can make that pig (and other various animals) as sexy as they do at Lambert’s.
Situated in the historic Schneider Brother’s Building (built in 1873), this Austin establishment is in the handful of restaurants under the reign of the McGuire-Moorman Hospitality group, meaning upscale is their middle name.
For one with a lofty appetite but modest budget, such a place is not always on the radar. However, a few acquaintances of mine wanted to pay greetings to their friend, who just so happened to be the chef de cuisine, so I gracefully accepted their invitation.
By arriving ten or so minutes into the dinner hour, we figured to catch happy hour at the bar but discovered no empty seats (happy hour is limited to the bar). Our server wasted no time in greeting and watering the table; on his coat tail was a silent assistant with those tiny muffins of delight.
As the table transformed before us, our server worked through the menu, swiftly hitting high points and tackling specials. Done so swiftly, in fact, that when he left there was uncertainty as to which specs matched up with which dish. ‘Did he say they smoke the chicken, or the ribs the longest?’ No, that was the Ribeye; 24 hours to be exact. While the latter was ‘hands down’ his favorite dish, it also happened to cost the prettiest penny. Wait, so did his second and third favorites. Hmm...
It was like this guy was trying to round third before even warming up in the bullpen. Even so, he was not fooling three (one former) industry vets.
We started with Green Chili Queso ($10) and Wild Boar Ribs ($15). During his second spiel, some guidance was given on the menu layout - ‘you should be able to put down a few apps and an entree, but you also don’t have to go crazy’ - yet the only words that resonated with my companions were ‘go crazy’.
Brussels sprouts ($8), Mac & 3 Cheeses ($8), Chicken Fried Oysters ($16), and Mashed Potatoes ($8) for the table. Scallops ($32) for one guy, Half Local Chicken ($19) for the other. I put in my obligatory order for Natural Pulled Pork ($17) just to not look like a total cheapskate.
You might be challenging the notion that three people consumed that much food in one sitting. All but part of the chicken was spared, and that was hardly out of good conscience.
The rest of our food arrived quickly and was properly spaced. Off the bat the Queso was unadventurous and runny, but adding all the sides and allowing it to build resistance brought out the intention of the dish. Hunks of avocado and a snappy chili melody gave the dip new dimensions - rich in texture and potent with a smokey spice - while a single, large tortilla came in handy when the chips ran out.
As something of a showpiece, the boar ribs were thin, neatly stacked bones clinging with narrow strips of mea and set in a sea of creamy blue cheese. Slightly challenging to eat, but engaging, the exchange of flavor compared to a tango: one funky fella and a sweet, smokin’ dame. These finger snacks were the most memorable of the bunch.
Our oysters, meanwhile, hit like fancy popcorn shrimp and were lifted by hints of habanero and citrus in the side tartar sauce. Laid on a bed of airy, buttery Texas Toast, the fried nature of the food didn’t overwhelm. The Brussels sprouts were more soft and chewy than crispy and charred; the sauce added slightly sweet notes but didn’t stray much further. Our bowl of taters otherwise provided a comforting creaminess, but bits of bacon piqued the most interest among us.
Before the siege began, I ordered a glass of Riesling ($10 - Selbach-Oster, Mosel) in anticipation of a barrage of rich foods. It seems that ordering wine has become reactionary, as if it is always imperative to elevating a dining experience. Sharp and bright, but not racing with acid, the wine drew notes of honeydew and myer lemon. Yet, the glass (a short, thick cylinder) holding the wine made it feel sort of clumsy and dumbed down. In any case, it wasn’t enticing enough to keep up with the feast on our table and proved to be rather wasteful after all.
Around us, service continued to flow with an aggressively calculated pace. Plates were traded out as they were finished, while glasses were refilled before getting too low. These employees knew the name of the game was speed - keep them eating or get them out (but be nice about it). No matter what, the pig was sexy and our money was green. It was to no surprise that 45 minutes into first seating the joint was popping.
“This reminds me of Thanksgiving,” one friend commented. Sure, but it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without copious amounts of meat. A point of emphasis deserves to be made on the white BBQ sauce accompanying the Half Chicken; creamy, salty and a little spicy, the sauce was as cunning as it was mysterious. A close second would be the execution on the Scallops - any less time and they might have been mistaken as raw, but these were seared with dangerous perfection. Of the two, the former incidentally awoke the Texan in me, while the latter proved that this kitchen could nail a dish that didn’t require a beak or a snout.
My Pulled Pork plate ($17) happened to be the least expensive entree, and likely the simplest on the menu. A side of butter pickles gave the meat a tangy sidekick, while the cue-ball sized roll made the portion seem slightly more civilized. Dressed with a slightly sweet orange sauce, the meat was mostly moist enough to be easily severed, though a few dry patches emerged. The dish wasn’t revolutionary, but it didn’t have to be. It’s pulled pork. Was it worth $17? Not exactly.
With enough collective eyes on the table, our server kept his check-backs periodic and brief, though it did stick out how his first inquiry was made in regard to drink and not for the food on the table. As if I wanted more wine…
The sheer detail of the architecture and interior lay out - industrial globe lights, large mirrors above the banquets, and an open kitchen - makes this location a spectacle before the food hits the table. With the reputation that McGuire-Moorman holds, it’s to no surprise that the food was thoughtful and had depth. All said and done, my dates were not cheap. But boy was it worth it to act rich for a night.
Had the server been a little more discreet with his up-selling agenda, the night would have been without flaw.
Ate: Queso, Mashed Potatoes, Brussels Sprouts, Mac n’Cheese, Wild Boar Ribs, Pulled Pork Plate
2nd Street District, 401 W 2nd St, Austin, TX 78701
Rating: 4 & 1/2 Pigs (Out of five)