Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Bits and Bites -- Austin Food News!

-- Incredibly saddened to hear of the sudden passing of Art Blondin, founder of Artz Ribhouse, and pit master of the best baby back ribs anywhere. RIP to one of the good guys.

-- Olive + June hosts a Tasca d'Almerita wine dinner, September 3, $80/person, tickets here.
-- The upcoming Sunday Supper at Swift's Attic is a benefit for owner CK Chin's birthday; $10 or a donation of gently used business attire will benefit Dress for Success; more info here
-- Jack Allen's Kitchen (Oak Hill) and Hops + Grain Brewery are having a five course beer dinner, September 9th, $55/person, email banquets@jackallenskitchen.com for tickets.
-- Food, Fun + Fore! Golf Tournament  will benefit the Austin Food and Wine Alliance's culinary scholarships, September 19th at Falconhead Golf Course.
-- Russian House will host a vodka fair, September 25th, $10/person.
-- The Texas Craft Brewers Festival is September 27th at Fiesta Gardens, $10 and up.
-- Springdale Farm Aid will be September 28th at Springdale Farms, $50/person, tickets here.  This sip and stroll fundraiser event will feature many local chefs!

-- New prepared foods spot, Independence Fine Foods has opened at 1807 Slaughter Lane.
-- New trailer, Chico + the Fox has opened at 1311 South Lamar, specializing in pulled pork.
-- After much anticipation, Olamaie has opened (in the old Sagra/Mars spot on San Antonio St.), featuring modern southern foods.
-- Jacoby's Restaurant + Mercantile has opened on East Cesar Chavez.
-- aRoma Italian is now open for lunch, 11am - 4pm M-F, and 12 - 4pm on Saturdays; happy hour 3 - 6pm Mon - Sat.
-- The Parish Underground now offers a 25 cent martini with lunch, Mon - Fri, 11am - 2pm. 
-- The Kebabalicious trailer is joining The Picnic food trailer park on Barton Springs.
-- The Smokey Denmark BBQ trailer has a new pit master, formerly of John Mueller's.

And with that folks, I am off to Ireland for 12 days! Slainte!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bits and Bites -- Austin Food News!

-- I recently got to try some of the new menu items at Lucky Robot during a media tasting. The restaurant opened in November 2012, and from the press release: "This is the restaurant’s first major menu overhaul and it reflects a move toward using local and sustainable ingredients like Texas-raised Wagyu, showcasing new flavor combinations and featuring a more robust sushi selection using fish from Tsukiji Market in Japan."  Their menus also offer gluten-free and vegan options, and don't miss the daily happy hour from 4 - 6:30 pm. The green manalishi sake punch with it's cucumber, mint, and serrano was a great accompaniment to the foods we tried. Particularly loved the seared scallop! Lucky Robot's eclectic Harajuku-inspired decor is in step with the sights and sounds of South Congress Avenue.
  -- Sugar Mama's Bakeshop at 2406 Manor Road is now open, and it's next door neighbor Dai Due is in it's final soft opening stages. They will have a restaurant as well as their fresh meats for sale.
-- Kerbey Lane Cafe is opening at Bee Caves and 360 in the Village at Westlake.
-- Punch Bowl Social officially opens in the Domain, Saturday, August 23rd, 7 - 9pm, with a benefit for the Dell's Children's Medical Center; $10/person. 
-- The Hightower is now serving a prix fixe menu on Tuesday evenings -- appetizer, entree and dessert for only $19! Menu items will change from week to week.
-- Vince Young Steakhouse has a new happy hour menu, available Monday through Saturday from 5 - 7 pm for $10/item, including lobster rolls and Wagyu brisket burger.
-- Thunderbird Cafe and Tap Room is offering free espresso happy hour, every Tuesday morning from 10 - 11 am.  They also offer pastries, salads, sandwiches, along with their coffee drinks and beers on tap.
-- Jacoby's Austin, a family run restaurant and mercantile, will open shortly at 3235 East Caesar Chavez; food will be ranch-style and the mercantile will sell their jams, meats, and home goods.
-- San Luis Spirits, the parent company to Dripping Springs Vodka is also introducing Dripping Springs Gin, and will open their distillery doors for public tours beginning September 2nd by reservation.

-- Local non-profit Farmshare Austin has an Indiegogo fundraising campaign in progress through August 31st. Help them grow a new generation of farmers by providing funding for them to build their farm school!
-- The application period has now opened for the Austin Food and Wine Alliance's Culinary Grants program; they have a total of $30,000 to give in culinary grants.
-- Food vendors are needed for the annual Texas Book Festival; applications are due September 1st and the event is October 25-26.
-- The Edible Austin Third Annual Chef's Auction will be October 9th, and will benefit the Sustainable Food Center and Urban Roots. Tickets are $75/person.
-- Mandola's and Trattoria Lisina are hosting their 5th Annual Bocce Ball Tournament that will benefit the Burke Center for Youth in Driftwood. The competition will take place at Trattoria Lisina on October 25-26, with the grand prize being a trip for two to Italy.  Registration is $200 per team, but you can catch the early bird rate of $150 before September 15th.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

NM Green Chiles (aka No Such Thing as a Hatch Chile)

It's that time of year..... for 1) New Mexico green chiles (or Hatch chiles) to come into season, which leads to 2) my annual soapbox on the aforementioned topic. Let me please direct you to a blog post I wrote at this time three years ago. And if you don't want to click on the link (though you should!) here's the brief soapboxy synopsis: there's no such thing as a "Hatch" chile. They're all varieties of New Mexico green chiles -- Big Jim, NuMex 6-4, and Sandia to name a few -- each bred for different qualities.  The green chiles are grown in southern NM, in the rich agricultural region in Dona Ana County between Las Cruces and Hatch, 40 miles north. "Hatch chiles" is a marketing misnomer (though clearly it works), as there is no varietal called Hatch.
Yes, it's the same picture from the blog post I wrote three years ago which I took in 2005! 
That's Picacho Peak in the background, which is a landmark in northern Las Cruces. 
Why does this topic roast my peppers, so to speak? Because my mother's family is from Las Cruces and they farmed all kinds of produce (green chile, pecans, cotton, onions, lettuce....) for over 50 years. Additionally, the agricultural department at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces did chile research and cultivation of new varieties. My great uncle, Roy Nakayama, was one of the key horticulturists, and became known as Mr. ChileThe Chile Pepper Institute at NMSU is devoted to the research and education of different types of chile peppers. So there was a lot of my family's blood, sweat and tears involved in green chile production.

In New Mexico, they call them green chiles, because that's what they are. The term Hatch has become over-commercialized in my eyes, and people in New Mexico would probably look at you a bit strangely if you asked for Hatch chiles. Our local grocery stores here in Austin have all kinds of products with "Hatch chiles" in them -- popcorn, crackers, brownies, cookies, dips, pestos, chocolate bars -- and these are just the shelf-stable ones! Central Market (and I assume Whole Foods) has a whole array of their own freshly-prepared Hatch items, from baguettes to guacamole and queso to ready-to-eat enchiladas. Not that any of these products are bad (well, a couple of them are!), but they propagate the illusion that all the chiles are from the tiny town of Hatch (population 1600 +/-) when they are not.

A couple examples of New Mexican places using green chiles in their dishes (and calling them green chiles!). The Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio, NM boasts the #7 best green chile burger out there (it's huge, messy and delicious). And Caliche's, a frozen custard drive-though spot on North Valley Drive in Las Cruces, with their green chile custard. Not so crazy about the green chile custard.... I'll stick to more traditional flavors for my desserts! (All pictures of mine from 2012.)
Maybe I am just a purist, both in chile nomenclature and palate-wise; I just don't really care for most of the commercial products as the flavor is never quite right to me. I do catch a bit of green chile fever this time of year (August and September is when the chiles get ripe and are harvested, so that's why there's all the "Hatch festivals this time of year), so allow me to share what's pretty much a family green chile recipe. This is also called "Green Chile" though I suppose you could add the word "sauce" to the end, though we never do; I guess it's just implied.
See the difference in size? The two chiles on the left are long skinny pointy ones, quite possibly the Sandia variety (known for their heat), while the one on the right is big and fat, and not as hot. The varietal Big Jim is milder, and was developed for its thick walls and length to make them easier to stuff for chile rellenos.

Green Chile
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 cup white or yellow onion, diced
2 - 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup roasted New Mexico green chiles, heat level of your choice, roasted, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1/4 - 1/2 cup tomatoes, seeded and diced (can use canned)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, optional

-- In a skillet or sauce pan, heat the oil over medium/medium-low heat.
-- Add onion, saute 2 - 3 minutes.
-- Add garlic, saute a few more minutes until both onion are garlic are soft but not burned.
-- Add green chiles, tomatoes, cumin (if using) and 1/4 - 1/2 cup water (or tomato liquid if using canned).
-- Stir to combine and simmer gently about 10 minutes.
-- Use on pinto/charro beans, tamales, burgers, scrambled eggs... wherever you need a little extra kick!
-- Cool and store extra in sealed container in fridge for several days, or freeze for future use.

Thanks for letting me rant a little about green chiles. I hope you'll see them now as more than just a "Hatch chile"!  Happy New Mexico green chile season!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Chen Z Noodle House (Oak Hill)

I am SO excited that Chen Z Noodle House has opened in South Austin!  A little back story: the original Chen's is at Spicewood and 183, and it's a tiny hole in the wall. I don't go that often because it's so far for me (and because I have to decide between Chen's and Asia Market), however, after a doctor's appointment up north in early July, I stopped in for carry out. Behold, their amazing green onion pancake and the fermented black beans with the knife cut noodles! (I might have eaten most of the pancake while sitting in traffic on Mopac coming back south.)
I love these noodles! You can kind of tell from the photo they are long and flat, with a nice doughiness about them. I believe in Chinese they're known as dao xiao mian, but there are multitudes of Chinese noodles! Anyhow, about a week after 4th of July, I heard that a Chen's had opened in Oak Hill. WHAT??!  A friend went for lunch and texted me a pic of the menu -- more options than the original location! Subsequently I heard from three people that the food was quite fine, including Mary Makes Dinner, who got take out from Chen's. She lived in China for several months, so she knows her noodles and dumplings!

Finally an opportunity came to check out this new Chen's for myself and with two other well-educated food lovers! The restaurant  is located in the strip center at William Cannon and Hwy 290, the former T + N Vietnamese, in the same shopping center where Flores Mexican is (which will move out soon for a new spot on William Cannon, and Via 313 Pizza will move in -- yay!). Construction abounds, however.

I've always thought Chen's made amazing green onion pancakes, and the new Chen's still delivers! Light and crisp, flaky and a touch chewy in the center with a very mild green onion taste....I could eat these for days.
The first item on the menu board was spicy cold noodles which intrigued us. These fat noodles with cucumber had a lovely flavor of sesame (kind of like tahini) and a distinctive mustard taste. There was also a bit of chile heat to the dish, which I think is vegetarian (no pieces of meat, let's put it that way). And for $6, a steal.
We got the spicy lamb buns and the black bean noodles. When I've had the lamb skewers (which they do have on the menu at the new location) at the original location, they've been nice chunks of meat with a decided szechuan peppercorn flavor (it's hard to miss the tingling sensation in the mouth that one often experiences with szechuan peppercorns). These had a cumin taste rather than the peppercorns (which are actually related to the citrus family, not an actual peppercorn!), and the meat was in smaller, more shredded pieces. Still good though!

If you are vegetarian, don't let the name "black bean noodles" fool you, as there is pork in the dish. It  normally comes with a different noodle (possibly the ones from the spicy cold noodle dish?), but we asked for them with the knife cut noodles, and they had no problem making the substitution. I love the savoriness of the sauce, with the ground pork and fermented black beans. (See why I posted the other picture of the knife cut noodles? You can't actually see the noodles in this one!) I really should try some of their other noodle dishes on my future visits, but I am kinda addicted to these.
And the pan-fried dumplings, which I always prefer over steamed because I like how they get crispy on one side. This was a huge plate of them, though they're not very big. But the dough consistency was perfect, and really tasty with the dipping sauce. The chile paste/condiment on the table had sesame seeds in it too, and a little of that added to the dipping sauce (soy-based) kicked it up nicely.
You can BYOB; we asked when we entered, and they said it was okay. You order at the counter, and the woman who took our order was very nice, as was the runner who brought out the dishes. Don't expect much from the decor at Chen Z's; I think it's entirely left over from the previous occupant. They could certainly stand to put some pictures on the walls or something. But it's the food that counts, and it's a winner, as are the prices. The three of us ate for a total of $39, and had some leftovers. Now since I was there, I've had one friend mention to me that she had a reaction to the MSG in the noodle soup, but I know she has a bit of a delicate system. I don't have reactions to it, but if it's not your thing, you may want to ask before ordering. I can't wait to go back and try other things on the menu!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Bits and Bites

-- Mettle has a lovely new summer menu; they recently had a media tasting which I attended. The items from Chef Andrew Francisco that we tasted are: (top row) Scallop Crudo with watermelon, cucumbers, tomato water, salmon roe;  Strawberry Basil Press; Tomato Salad with cheddar, balsamic and jalapeno puree; (bottom row) Grilled Beets with white chocolate, cashews, mascarpone, seaweed; Parisenne Gnocchi with grilled carrots, chevre, black sesame; Shrimp Gratin with Thai-infused flavors and Easy Tiger bread.
-- Hotel San Jose is partnering with Fresa's, by bringing in some of their prepared foods (salsa, guac, quesadillas, grilled Brussels, chicken skewers) for patrons.
-- The Austin Chronicle has announced that longtime food editor Virginia Wood is stepping down; Brandon Watson takes the reins.
-- Chavez is now open for Sunday brunch, 10:30 am - 2:30 pm, $32/adults, $12/kids with $2 mimosas and aguas frescas.
-- Walton's Fancy + Staple is teaming up with Dolce Neve Gelato to make ice cream (well, gelato!) sandwiches!

-- Every Monday at Little Barrel and Brown is now Country Picnic Day, with a $25 all you can eat buffet including items like fried chicken, pulled pork and other country favorites. 6 pm and onward. $2 Lone Stars.
-- Tickets for the 5th Annual Texas Monthly BBQ Fest (September 14th) go on sale on July 29th. Guaranteed to sell out!
-- Josephine House is hosting a guest chef series; July 29th will feature Bufalina chef and owner Stephen Dilley with a four course meal for $50 or $80 with wine pairings; for reservations: reservations@ josephineofustin.com
 -- Eat Out for Good, August 3 - 13; a number of local restaurants will participating with special menu items, and donating 10% to a charitable organization of their choice. Restaurants and their charities are listed on the website. 
-- Swift's Attic is hosting an Alaska Seafood dinner, August 3rd, 6 pm and 8 pm seatings, $50/person with a suggested $25 donation to benefit Operation Turkey, which provides Thanksgiving meals to those in need.
-- August 6th, 5 - 10 pm, The Hightower is hosting the kickoff of the Austin ColorCancer Network; a $5 donation gets you a flight of  local beers. 
-- Pay it Forward for Daniel Curtis is August 7th at the AT+T Conference Center; tickets $75-$125, benefiting the Lone Star Paralysis Foundation.
-- Wine and Dine with David Bull, August 13th, $175/person, benefiting the Austin Food and Wine Alliance Culinary Grant Program; tickets here.
-- Hotel San Jose will feature Reggae Night on August 17th, 3:30 - 6:30 pm.
-- Fun Fun Fun Fest is now taking food vendor applications.
-- This spring, Austin American-Statesman launched their #Austin360Eats hashtag, for anyone to tag their social media pictures of meals out on the town.  This past week, they've added #Austin360Cooks for all those creating home-cooked meals! So if you're posting on Instagram and Twitter, be sure to appropriately tag your photos. Besides, you never know.... you could end up with #photooftheweek like I did this past week for my Instagram photo of a salad at Galaxy Cafe recently! Here's the Statesman's link.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Dang Banh Mi

Dang Banh Mi held a soft opening/media preview just prior to their official opening on July 21st. I was invited to attend, but have not been paid for my opinion. Located in the strip center at the southwest corner of 183 and Burnet Road, DBM is part of the Plucker's family. The owners (three non-Asian Texans) have long been fascinated with Vietnam, and over the course of several trips, found what they considered to be the best banh mi in the country, and its proprietor, Phuong, was willing to impart her culinary secrets. They are definitely trying to make authentic Vietnamese food.

Love the whimsy and color scheme of the interior, as well as the light fixtures, but it doesn't scream "Vietnam" to me.
The menu board.
We started with a spring roll and som tum (green papaya salad), which is more of a Thai item, but is also eaten in Vietnam. Really loved the peanut sauce (almost as good as my own, so I am picky!) ;)
DBM was overly generous with their portions for this tasting! First off was a sampling of three of the banh mi: chicken, the original with four types of pork (belly, tenderloin, ground, and housemade pate), and oxtail.
A big beefy bowl of pho; I missed a star anise aroma to the broth.
A huge bowl of pork bun, which a delicious nuoc cham sauce (fish sauce, typically with added lime juice, sugar, chile, and shredded carrot).
What I felt that DBM did best were the sauces: peanut, their Dang sauce (sriracha/chile sauce), and the nuoc cham. All three were excellent. They are bottling and selling the sriracha and also a hoisin sauce, which I did not try.

I would be curious to know why they've decided to open a banh mi shop in North Austin, in very close proximity to places like Tam Deli and Thanh Nhi, which are authentic Vietnamese restaurants that have banh mi for about half the price (though smaller portions too). I wonder if they should have opened up along someplace like South Lamar or Sunset Valley where there are no other banh mi offerings. (Not to neglect my beloved Lulu B's trailer on South Lamar and Oltorf; love their food, just wish they had longer hours.) And who is the target audience? If they're trying to reach people who are too intimidated to go to an authentic ethnic restaurant, then they may have succeeded. Time will tell.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Liberty Tavern

For a restaurant/bar located inside a corporate downtown Austin hotel, Liberty Tavern  has done a nice job of representing Texas.  Located on the ground level of the Hilton, Chef Carlos Cruz has redesigned the menu to feature "classic pub fare with a Tex-Mex twist," including a number of Texas beers on tap. I was recently invited to come and sample some of the new breakfast items on the menu; I was not paid for my opinions.
The kitchen selected dishes for my brunch companion and I to try. We started with the Texas Short Rib Benedict, a 72-hour short rib on toasted sourdough bread topped with caramelized onions, poached eggs and chipotle hollandaise. Tasty short rib!!
Next up was the Heavenly Hash, with jalapeƱo smoked sausage from Fredricksburg, red potatoes, onions, Serrano peppers, and  topped with a panko-crusted poached egg. Nice big pieces of potato with medallions of sausage, all under a runny egg.
A HUGE plate of  Texas Oatmeal Pancakes, with toffee sauce and candied Texas pecans. I have to say, I generally prefer the little silver dollar pancakes with the crispy edges, but these were nice and fluffy, and the toffee sauce instead of syrup was a great twist! And the generous sprinkling candied pecans made each bite a great textural combination of soft and crunchy.
And as if we weren't already full, the chef sent out the Caprese Salad from the lunch menu for us to try as well. You can also see in this picture the beautiful dishware Liberty Tavern is using; the Benedict was served on this same oblong plate, and the hash was served on a similar round dish. (I really wanted to stick this plate in my purse, but I swear I didn't!)
Many thanks to the staff at Liberty Tavern for welcoming us and feeding us extremely well. They are open daily from 6 am - 11 pm, with a reverse happy hour from 9 - 11 pm, daily. If you find yourself downtown and are in need of a little (or big!) pick me up, Liberty Tavern is a great place to find it. Their street entrance is on the south side of the Hilton on 4th Street, just across from the light rail station and the Convention Center.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Bits and Bites

What's happening in and around the ATX food scene?!

-- Thursday, July 10th, Salvation Pizza is holding a fundraiser for Camp Glimmer (part of the Glimmer of Hope Foundation), 6 - 9 pm.

-- Roll on Sushi Diner celebrates their 3rd anniversary with new group seating, updated menu items, and a revamped drink list; in-house specials July 11-13.

-- Greenhouse Craft Food in Round Rock is having a St. Arnold beer pairing dinner on July 13th, $45/person; to reserve tickets, email: info@greenhousecraftfood.com

-- On July 13th, Swift's Attic is holding their first Sunday Supper event, benefiting the Austin Food and Wine Alliance. Tickets $150/person and available at the door or by calling 512/482-8200.

-- Mulberry is hosting a Bastille Day Dinner, July 14th, $25/person, tickets here.

-- PayPal is getting excited for National Ice Cream Day on July 20th. Leave your wallet at home, and just "check in" on the PayPal app to pay for your cool treats from: Coolhaus, Cow Tipping Creamery, Dolce Neve, Froyoyo, and Hey Cupcake (Barton Springs location).

-- July 25th, Russia House is holding their Black and White Old Hollywood Party, $10, with music by Snorky's.

-- Sunday, July 27th, Dishcrawl is holding their first ever Brunchcrawl, $45/person. Participants aren't told of the restaurants they will visit in advance -- it's a secret -- but will travel to three locations to eat!

-- Saturday, August 2nd, the 2nd Street District hosts White Linen, which will feature bites from some of 2ND Street District’s favorite restaurants, along with wine pairings from local and popular vineyards. This year the event benefits the Austin Food and Wine Alliance. Tickets are $25.

-- Thursday, August 7th is the annual Pay it Forward with Daniel Curtis, a benefit for the Lone Star Paralysis Foundation. Hosted by the AT+T Conference Center, a number of local chefs will donate their talents in making dishes for the event.  $75/general admission, $125/VIP

-- The Austin Ice Cream Festival is Saturday, August 9th at Fiesta Gardens; $10/person. 

-- A local company, Supermechanical, has a Kickstarter in place to raise funding for Range Oven Intelligence, a "brain for your oven" that connects to your smartphone. Check them out (or heck, fund them!) here.

-- Foodways Texas annual Camp Brisket will be January 9-10, 2015 in College Station. If you want to learn absolutely everything about smoking brisket, this is the place to be! I believe it always sells out, even at $495-$550/person!

Openings, Updates, etc.
-- Upstairs on Trinity is now open for Sunday brunch, 12 - 4 pm.

-- Pleasant Storage Room is now open for lunches, Tuesday - Friday.

-- We Olive and Wine Bar officially opens July 18th at the Hill Country Galleria.

-- Perry's Steakhouse is celebrating their 35th anniversary, with their 4444 special through July and August. That's 4 courses for $44 after 4 pm !

-- Chen Z has opened at William Cannon and 290/71 in Oak Hill. No website or Facebook page that I can find, but here's the Yelp link.

-- Sagra now has some vegan options, and can also make their entire menu gluten-free if needed.

-- Dock and Roll Diner has new menu selections, including crab and scallop rolls.

-- Peche is introducing Tiki Sundays with $10 tiki cocktails all day.

-- LA Barbecue is moving from their East 6th location to the Good Life Food Park, near IH-35 and Cesar Chavez.

-- Regal Ravioli moved into LA Barbecue's old spot on South First, across from Elizabeth Street Cafe.

-- Dai Due is very close to opening their new butcher shop at 2406 Manor Road. Their next door neighbor will be a second location of Sugar Mama's Bakeshop, with a dessert and wine emphasis.

-- Mandola's at the Triangle has an updated weekend brunch menu, including new pastries and frittatas; 9 am - 1 pm. Both Mandola's locations as well as Trattoria Lisina also have special summer gelato flavors, including peach and black cherry.

Monday, July 7, 2014

aRoma Italian Kitchen and Bar

I drive up and down South Lamar Blvd. everyday, and have watched with curiosity over the past 1.5 years as the mixed retail project surrounding the Broken Spoke takes place. The first two food establishments that have gone in are national chains -- Boardwalk Burger + Fries and Bruegger's Bagel's. {Sidenote: I tried Boardwalk about a month ago; great friendly service, and I loved the fries, but the burger was meh.} So I was thrilled to see a locally-owned place -- aRoma Italian Kitchen and Bar --  take center stage (literally) next to the Spoke. You can't tell from the picture, but aRoma's patio seating is practically in the Spoke's parking lot.
I was invited to aRoma for a media tasting a couple weeks back, and this was my first look and taste. (No money exchanged hands, and I was not paid for my opinion.) Owner Dave Whitney was a head honcho at Threadgill's for over a decade, but always had a love for Neapolitan-style pizza. He found Chef Jason Garcia in San Antonio, who shared his love for classic Italian. Dave is also related to the owners of Mockingbird Domestics, the homegoods store a little further north on SoLa, who helped with the decor of aRoma.

We were started off with a salumi and formaggi plate ($12), with mostarda and castelvetrano olives.
Next was a modern take on a beet salad ($9) with goat cheese, farro, pine nuts, and onion rings. Beets and goat cheese are always a good thing in my book!
The classic Margherita pizza ($12); their pizzas cook for 60-90 seconds in a 900 degree wood fired brick oven! Hot!
And the arugula prosciutto pizza ($16), which I loved! The arugula is very gently tossed in truffle oil, but it's extremely subtle, and oh so good!
The fettucine gamberetto ($12) is tossed in a lightly smoked tomato cream, that imparted some very nice flavor to the dish, and didn't make it too heavy. We also had the brasato al vino ($21), or wine-braised short rib, though I did not get a worthy photo.
aRoma is absolutely a welcome addition to the changing face of South Lamar. Check them out for happy happy hour, from 4 - 7 pm, with half-price pizzas; full dinner service starts at 5 pm and they are open seven days a week. Free parking onsite as well. Benvenuto!

Monday, June 23, 2014

A-OK Chinese

I visited A-OK Chinese on South Lamar last month. They opened in mid-March after several months of permit delays, and they are the only Chinese place I know of run by a couple of white guys. But guys with a long history of local restaurant connections. Chef John Bullington is an acquaintance of mine; he's the former executive chef of Mars (if you've been in ATX long enough, you'll remember Mars) and the Alamo Drafthouse. His business partner Jerry Reid has years of wine background and front of the house management. Their mission statement is clearly on the wall: to create American-style Chinese food. And what that generally means is breaded and fried pieces of cheap cuts of meat with a cloying, thick, bright orange twangy sauce. And fortunately, that's not the case here.
The quality of A-OK's ingredients is super; very fresh veggies and nice cuts of juicy meat. Where things lacked though, was in the flavor. My friend and I split the pu pu platter; the shrimp toast was good and the five-spice pork ribs were REALLY good (good flavor, good tenderness; they have these on the menu as a dish, and I'd definitely eat them again). But the wontons and dumplings seemed to suffer from dough that was chewy and too thick, and the eggroll's vegetable filling (not pictured) was a bit soggy and didn't have a lot going on.
My friend ordered the garlic pork bowl, which could have used at least three times more garlic. I had the kung pao chicken; the dinner bowl is a very nice large portion, and again everything was very fresh. Kung pao is typically characterized by peanuts and spice from chile; this dish had the peanuts, but I would have liked more of the chile flavor. It does employ some szechuan peppercorns, which can give a tingly, mouth-numbing feel when lots are used, but not in this case. The brown sauce lightly coated everything, but was not too thick or gloppy. I ate part of the bowl there, and then took the rest home for dinner, where the chile flavors did  come out a little bit more.
Aesthetically, I liked the look and feel of the space. And at mid-day, there was great natural light for taking photos! They are really good about updating their Facebook page with their daily specials, and some of the dishes have looked gorgeous. I really want this place to succeed, especially since it's in my area of town. I just think there might be some new restaurant jitters that are still being worked through, and I am hoping they can punch up the flavor components and things will iron themselves out.   As South Lamar (and all of Austin) continues to grow, we need these local small businesses to succeed.