Friday, May 22, 2009

Good eats in Phoenix & Denver

Spent a couple days in Phoenix, where fortunately, the weather cooled down to the mid 90s after 2 days at 105 & 106 degrees. Ate at a place in Scotsdale called Blanco, part of the Fox Restaurant Group, which is prevalent in AZ & CO. It's a modern Tex-Mex place; nice atmosphere, friendly staff. Was it the best Tex-Mex I've ever had? No, but it was decent. I had the Chicken Mole dish, and what I expected was a plate with chicken and mole sauce over it. What arrived was a very arty looking bowl with all kinds of stuff mounded on top -- shredded lettuce, pumpkin seeds, pico de gallo, corn, and underneath, was some chicken, a bit of rice, and a fairly thin mole sauce. It had decent flavor -- lightly sweet & savory at the same time, but not a lot of depth or substance to it. They fry their own tortilla chips, from what I am guessing are the day-old corn tortillas. They were really good -- thick, not greasy, and just enough salt on them, and the fire-roasted salsa accompanying them was quite tasty too. My friend got the beef enchiladas, and thought that my chicken was better seasoned than her beef (I didn't try hers though).

Arrived in Denver to lovely upper 50s and cloudy. Had dinner the first night at a little French place called Le Central. I guess you can call it a bistro; it's an old house near downtown, and they pride themselves on being affordable and non-snooty French food. All three of us started with a cup of the French Onion Soup....nice melty Gruyere on top, but not a ton going on with the broth. Le Central is well-known for their mussel bowls; their menu has over 10 different "sauce" options, from straight up white wine & garlic to infused with olives or bacon. Always being a sucker for bacon, I had the "Moules a la Moutarde" or mussels with shallots, white wine, garlic, dijon, bacon & cream. This isn't just a bowl of mussels. It's a BOWL -- about 35 - 40 mussels, with this lovely pool of sauciness at the bottom, just begging for some French bread to sop it up with. And, each mussel bowl comes with thinly cut pomme frites. Really lovely. And only $9.95.

I've never been the biggest mussel lover, but I've gotten more into them in recent times. These were really nice. The sauce was extremely tasty, though if I were to go again, I may just opt for a simpler sauce like shallots, garlic & wine. The bacon sort of got lost in translation.... a little too non-crisp after swimming in the cream & wine. Thursday night is also souffle night, and we got a chocolate souffle for dessert, as well as strawberry crepes. We agreed the strawberry goo with the crepes was too sweet, and quite possibly not made from scratch. I really liked the souffle. It was quite tall and puffy (as it should be!) when it arrived at the table. It had a nice airy consistency, and a light chocolate flavor. They're obviously not using a really high quality cocoa powder like the French Valhrona, but it was tasty.

Friday dinner was at a place in the LoDo district called Vesta. I had heard about this place after seeing some website that local chefs were naming their favorite spots. A couple of them mentioned Vesta, and a couple noted their housemade charcuterie plate. It didn't disappoint! I think the selection varies by night, and on our night, the plate had duck foie gras on toast points, bresaola, and pork sausage with sage.

Now, what Vesta is known for is their "schtick" is a huge menu of sauces. You order your salmon or beef or whatnot, and it comes with a couple of sides, and on the menu, it gives 3 suggestions for what sauces they think would go well with it, but you're welcome to choose your own. So I had a fig-glazed Colorado lamb loin, with goat cheese pasta and a cucumber raita. I picked two of the three suggested sauces, pistachio mint & dried berry chutney, and substituted the bacon aioli for the rose yogurt, knowing full well that I do not care for floral flavors in my foods. The lamb was grilled to a perfect medium rare, and had a touch of sweetness from the fig glaze. The pistaschio mint was my favorite of the sauces; the pieces of nut were chopped, so still big enough to figure out what they were, and the mint flavor not too overpowering. The chutney was also a nice choice, but the bacon aioli was a bit of a miss. Not really much, if any, bacon to speak of. (Helllo?? No bacon???) My friends both had the beef tenderloin, which I tasted with the black pepper aioli, which was a good choice. Really good meal!

For those who are Top Chef fans, you know that this year's winner was Hosea Rosenberg of Jax in Boulder. For a place that's no where near an ocean, it does a nice job. Thank god we had reservations, because even at 6 pm on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, the place was hopping. It's a long narrow restaurant, with poor acoustics, so it was fairly loud, and they pack the tables close together. We made it in just before the end of happy hour, and along with a local beer, we rewarded ourselves with pork belly sliders and cheese fries. We then got an appetizer of calamari. This was nice lime aioli and a spicy mango chile sauce on the side. Both very nice accompaniments.

For my main, I had the cedar plank grilled steelhead trout, which was glazed with apricot preserves, and served with a goat cheese chile relleno and chorizo. The trout was cooked perfectly, still moist inside, with some dried apricots on top, for a nice flavor contrast. The relleno was underseasoned (probably the only "miss" of the whole meal), but fried nicely, and not greasy. The chorizo was nice, but at this point, I couldn't tell you much about it! Dessert for me was key lime pie, that's almost as good as mine, the exception being my crust is better! Theirs had a really nice tartness, and I am sure they are using real key limes, because there was no preservative taste that you ocassionnally get when using bottled juice. Friends had the banana beignets and the molten chocolate lava thing, both tasty. Service was outstanding. And as for Hosea, we of course had to ask. He apparently does still work there, 3 to 4 days a week, but was in New Orleans for a food event.

Again the place was crowded and loud, with lots of people both at the bar, which is right at the door, and waiting inside and out for a table. Tables are placed VERY close together, and we could hear all of our neighbors conversation, both with each other, and their extensive conversation with the sommalier/manager; fortunately, we were in a corner, so we didn't have to contend too much with the noise. Or as much. For those who like raw oysters, they had several varieties available; our neighbors had some, and the plate looked really nice. There is a Jax in Denver, and I wonder if the atmosphere is the same. Our waiter, who has worked at both locations, says the menu is different, but they are working to streamline the two operations. So even though they are a seafood joint nowhere near the sea, they do have very good quality product.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Biscuits on the brain!

My penchant for biscuits seems to have been turned up a notch or two this week.

On Wednesday, I had breakfast with a friend at Arkie's, a good ol' Austin institution. Known for their breakfast and lunch specials (like turkey & dressing every Thursday), Arkie's has been about at the end of Cesar Chavez (once the middle of nowhere) since 1948. Chatting with our waitress, she's "only" been there 14 years. The head cook, for 46, one of the other cooks, only for 18. The waitress was saying when the head cook goes (he's 70-something now), that's it. He's got all the recipes up in his head. Never takes a day off. That's some dedication.

Their biscuits and gravy were tasty, though maybe not quite as good as those at the Frisco. You can tell they're using shortening, but they were big and fluffy. I also had a side of hash browns. This is how I like 'em -- really browned & crisp. Would love to go back for one of their lunches, like chicken & dumplings. Comfort food at it's finest!

And with biscuits in mind, I made a batch of flaky biscuits this morning to take to work so they won't forget me next week when I am on vacation!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Baby Greens

I love that at the end of what is known as "the Tex Mex Mile" along S. First street (from El Mercado to Little Mexico, just north of Oltorf))is a salad place. And not just any salad place, but a drive through, right across from Popeye's. Baby Greens has been holding it's own at the end of the Tex Mex Mile for five years.

I love that you can approach the drive through from either eastbound on Oltorf or southbound on S. First; whichever way you come from, there's an ordering station on either side of the building. They offer salads, wraps, and soups, and tofu, chicken or steak can be added to the salads or wraps. There are a lot of salad dressing choices, chips, and they're currently offering "happy hour" with a free lemonade or ice tea with a salad or wrap purchase after 4 pm.

I love that everything is always fresh, and relatively healthy. Today I have just gotten the plain ol' spinach salad with blue cheese dressing, as I have chicken in my fridge I need to cook up. But I am particularly fond of their cobb salad. Never had a wrap there before.

I love (that's their website.... Maybe you'll come to love it too. Or at least experience a different kind of fast food.

Dong Nai

For a relatively non-descript place in a strip shopping center, Dong Nai was a pleasant surprise. It's in a shared building in the parking lot across from the Target at Ben White & Lamar; I think you have to be looking for it to really notice it. I met friends there for dinner a bit past 7 pm on Saturday night. There were 2 other tables with customers, not the greatest sign, but both of my dinner companions have been eating there recently and assured me the food was worthy. Dong Nai has both Vietnamese and Chinese foods, and while I haven't yet tried their Chinese offerings, I would venture to guess that it's the Vietnamese foods that are the standout ones.

We ordered the Vietnamese egg rolls as an app (#3C on the menu). It's ground pork with some cabbage, deep fried, and served with lettuce leaves, cucumber slices, and a tangy sweet & sour fish sauce with shredded carrots. You wrap the lettuce around the egg roll, add sauce, and eat. It's rather messy, but it was tasty. Wish the sauce had a little more contrast to it, and a little bit of sriracha always helps. For my main dish, I ordered #2D, the vermicelli noodle bowl with char grilled pork. My friends each ordered different beef pho bowls. The portions are large! The pork on mine was incredibly tasty, great flavor to it, though it had more bbq sauce on it than I am accustomed to seeing with grilled pork dishes. The bowl had cucumber strips, bean sprouts, and a huge nest of vermicelli noodles. The broth on the pho was divine. As soon as it arrived at the table, you could smell the star anise in it. It is one of the best smelling and tasting pho's I've ever had.

The place is also very inexpensive. All of the main dishes were about $6 each. The service was friendly and prompt. There were various people coming in and out of the kitchen, including a couple of kids. The family was sitting and eating, as it wasn't real busy. The waitress chatted with us for a few, the family is Vietnamese, and I think she said she was from Saigon, but has also lived in China. Definitely worth a trip back to Dong Nai for pork and pho.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Brunch at Olivia

** Editor's note: the restaurant group that owns Olivia decided to close it in the Fall of 2016. They repurposed it as Lucy's On The Fly, a fried chicken carry out spot. **

I just returned from Sunday brunch at Olivia, one of the first places I wrote about on this here blog. I am a brunch lover, and don't often get to eat it, so this was a real treat! Arriving a little before noon with no reservation didn't pose any problems. The restaurant was probably at two-thirds capacity, and we got seated right away. I must say, it's a building that's very architecturally interesting, with high ceilings, modern lines, and in the daytime, nice light pouring in. Dining sections are divided a bit by.... well, built in wall dividers, that held vases with tropicals. We were seated in pretty much the exact spot where I sat before, which is the bench across from the kitchen. Unfortunately, my back was to the kitchen, where you could tell they were keeping busy.

We both started with bellinis, and sipped on them while checking out the brunch menu. Always a sucker for sweet and salty, I ordered the brioche French toast with a side of sausage. The waitress asked me what kind of syrup would I like, the vanilla or lemon ginger, so I asked her what her preference was, and she said "I'll bring you both, choices are fun!". Perfect! My friend ordered 2 eggs, poached medium, bacon, and asked to substitute the fries with the smoked gouda grits, which was no problem. My plate was three thick pieces of bread, egg soaked, and grilled off, with some slices of pear on top. The FT was nice, maybe not the tenderest, eggiest brioche that I've ever had, but quite tasty; unfortunately the pears were very underripe. The syrups were a nice twist from a typical maple syrup; the vanilla infused was particularly good, the lemon ginger had nice flavor, but was a bit overly sweet, even for me. The housemade sausage, however, was delicious -- a medium grind pork sausage with whole fennel seeds, red pepper flakes, and I think some sage and/or thyme. The grits were a little coarse, but had really good flavor from the smoked gouda, and the house-cured bacon was crisp, with I think a light smoky flavor. My friend was thrilled her poached eggs were cooked to a perfect medium; we did have to ask for salt & pepper though, and a small piece of bread would have been nice on the plate to sop up the yolk.

Service was friendly all around, and attentive but not obtrusive from our main waitress. When we got up to leave, the line chefs looked up and like all said "Bye, thanks!" Kinda nice. I am really glad to see that in a poorer economy, a newer place like Olivia appears to be doing well. As we left, we were admiring the plants in their landscaping around the patio area, and noticed a garden towards the back. We walked over, and saw banana peppers, mesclun, basil, thyme, oregano, tomatoes, and possibly green beans (no tag on them, but they have built a trellis). There's no fence around it, so so hopefully the critters stay out! I should add that Olivia's is dedicated to buying locally as much as possible, and they list their local farms and purveyors on their menu, which is always nice to see.


There's been this little Mexican place not far from me that I've heard really good things about for a couple of years, and somehow, just never managed to get there. Went for dinner last night with a couple of girlfriends, and there's a consensus that we've discovered a new neighborhood gem.

Habanero is one block east of the Oltorf and S. 1st intersection in a older house. At a little past 7:30 on Friday night, they had a few diners, but it wasn't full. Our waitress was very friendly, and we spoke with her in a combo of English and Spanish throughout the evening. After ordering cervezas, and munching on the chips and fresh-made salsa that arrived with the beers, we settled on an appetizer of "Nacho Supreme", which was a huge plate of tortilla chips with seasoned ground beef and covered in good white cheese. Not sure which cheese it was, but it melted super well, had nice mellow flavor, and wasn't a greasy pool. Their tortilla chips are really nice also, a nice thickness, and enought corn flavor to them. Don't know if they make them there or not.

I ordered the gorditas, which according to their menu is one of their specialities. Described by them as "a Mexican hamburger," our waitress suggested it with the beef fajita. It's a large plate! The corn cake part was really good -- crispy on the outer part, and slightly softer in the middle. The beef fajita meat had a nice grilled flavor, and the meat was fairly tender. It came with refried beans, rice, guacamole, lettuce & tomatoes.

My friends split the beef fajita platter for two; they each got their own plate of charro beans, guacamole, and tortillas (one ordered flour, the other corn, and without even asking who ordered what, our waitress placed the right tortillas in front of the right person). While I didn't taste their meat because I assume it was the same as in my gordita, I did try the charro beans (pintos) which were fantastic. A light bit of smokiness, and good pork flavor. When I go back, I would substitute the charros for the refrieds.

We were too stuffed for dessert, but they have sopaipillas on the menu, which I would bet are great. Overall, it was a great evening -- all the food was fresh and tasty, and the service friendly and very efficient. I am excited to have a casual place that's nearby and not a trendy spot like some of the others around here!

Friday, May 1, 2009


Yes, as I have been delinquent about writing lately, here are two tasty photos of things I have eaten in the past few weeks.

The lovely fluffy biscuit and gravy, with the fried eggs in the back, courtesy of the Frisco Nighthawk up on Burnet. Those were darn good fluffy biscuits! Would love to go back for more, just wish it wasn't so far north! Things of amusement: we ordered 8 biscuits to go, and didn't get charged for them, their coffee was good diner coffee (and I don't drink coffee! but she brought me coffee by mistake instead of tea, and I didn't feel like buggin' her about it), saw a woman with a "100% Bitch" tattoo. Oh yeah...

The taco is from Izzoz, a new trailer over on S. 1st, close to home! It's the "Slowrider" -- braised machaca beef, cotija cheese, caramelized onions & cilantro. And for $3, it was delicious! Izzoz sits in the same lot at Holy Cacao, a "cake ball" purveyor... think cookie dough on a stick with icing!