Thursday, December 30, 2010


The new, swank W Hotel, just opened the beginning of December. Their fine dining restaurant is Trace, and a basic website has just made it up in the past couple days. If you enter through the main lobby of the hotel, it's a little bit of a maze to get to the restaurant -- narrow passageways and dark curtains. The bar/hostess area also had a darkish feel to it, and then walking into the main dining room, you're met by a pop of neutral colors (silver and white) and mirrored walls. There's a combo of comfy looking booths, a long deep bench with tables up against it, and tables also by the windows. I can see how breakfast in there could be a light-filled experience with the window facing east, and the sun reflecting off the mirrors and white chairs.

Trace has someone on staff whose job is to locate local foods.  And I finally get it, the name *Trace,* as they can trace the origins of all of their foods. They have trained their staff extremely well, as our waiter, Scott, was extremely good at describing dishes and answering off the cuff questions. Like, yes, that is Texas Olive Ranch olive oil at the table with the bread.

The occasion was actually dinner on Christmas night. My family was in town, and I wanted to go to a place that wasn't $65/person for a buffet (Four Seasons, Driskill). Fortunately, my family are adventurous eaters, and we all studied the menu for quite some time. I should have kept a copy of the menu, as now, five days after the meal, my brain is slightly sketchy on some of the dishes, and what's posted online at present differs wildly from what we had. (Sorry!)

We started with the charcuterie plate, which featured prosciutto, sopressata, chorizo, two pates, pork rilettes (lightly breaded and fried; not pictured), pickled daikon and cabbage, and three mustards. I believe the sopressata and chorizo were from local salumi maker Salt and Time, who I have posted about before; not sure if the prosciutto was theirs too. Overall, an incredibly tasty assortment of meats, particularly the country pate and rilettes. The pickled veggies and particularly the molasses mustard were great accompaniments. 
I opted for a couple smaller sized plates, starting with the winter greens salad with hazelnut vinaigrette and baby roasted beets; for a salad, it was fine. Could have used a bit more hazelnut input. I chose the braised pork belly and a side dish of mashed potatoes. The pork was outstanding. The piece was a great combo of caramelized meatiness and melting, rendering squishy fat. The dish was also made interesting by the addition of caramelized bananas and pineapple pieces, and the pork was served on a lemongrass spear. I could have eaten a lot more of that pork! (It was a small serving!) The mashed taters were slightly chunky, which to me, is a good thing.
Also at the table was a plate of creamy grits with wild mushroom ragu and a two-hour sous vide poached egg; a grilled sea trout dish, skin on, with root veggies and I believe sumac; poached octopus  and chorizo....too salty on the octopus (though tender), and the texture of the chorizo links seemed a bit off -- not firm enough, and I am forgetting a dish.... a soup? Apart from the octopus dish, everything else was well-consumed. We weren't stuffed to the gills, but not still hungry either. We split one dessert amongst the four of us; I was rather tempted by the chocolate covered peppermint ice cream (described as their take on a Klondike bar), but we settled for the apple cobbler with huckleberries and lemon and thyme (?). It was an extremely deep bowl; the cobbler topping seemed a bit underdone. I think from the description, we thought the lemon and herbs would be mixed in with the apples, but it was actually a sorbetto or ice cream on the side.

Overall, it was a very nice experience with all of the staff very friendly and welcoming, and solid plates of food. So, solid, but I am not sure how memorable in the long run.

Pre-holiday Eats

So now Christmas is past, and my relatives have returned to their homes. Exercise? Take down decorations? Nah! Time to get a little caught up on food posts!

Two weeks before Christmas, I had lunch with a friend at Ichiban, a place I hadn't been to in years. My friend has a newborn, so we avoided the lunch rush, and were able to get one of the traditional tables where you remove your shoes and sit on the floor, as there was a lot more room for the baby carrier. Ichiban has combo of Japanese and Korean foods, along with a sushi bar. We both got bento boxes, and my friend got some extra sashimi that she couldn't eat while pregnant, which she said were decent, but not outstanding. For just under $10, you get plenty of food with the bento. It starts with the miso soup and a salad. I got the bento with the Korean spicy pork bul gogi, which didn't really taste spicy, and it did have the feel of something that was cooked earlier in the day. Accompanying the pork were several pieces of nicely fried tempura vegetables, 4 pieces of a California roll, 2 pieces of sushi, 2 dumplings, and rice. The tempura was probably the best thing on the plate. The rest of it wasn't bad, it just wasn't memorable in any sense, except for the amount of food and the price.
What does intrigue me about Ichiban is their online menu. Their website is incredibly rough, claims to be a temporary site, but what's fascinating about it to me is you can text your lunch order to them, and they'll deliver within a 5 mile radius. It tells you how to order by item code; my pork bul gogi would have been "LB3". And if I wanted 2 of them, plus another dish, text: 2LB3, LK11. I've never seen this style of ordering, but something tells me this is common throughout Japan.

The week before Christmas, while out running errands, I stopped at the new Soup Peddler to go outlet at South Lamar and Manchaca in the new *Austinville* enclave. Cute buildings, I thought one one be for the soup and the other for Juicebox, but no, the larger building houses both food establishments, and the smaller one is the loo. They had been open about a week when I visited. It was one of those blustery December days, which was unfortunately a bit exacerbated by the wind tunnel that's created between the two buildings. They've got a chalkboard up with your choices....and what, you ask is a Bouktouf? Well, I don't really know either. As a restauranteur, wouldn't you want to have a menu that explains what things are to the customer? Especially for those customers who aren't familiar with your product? Vegan chili or Frito pie? Does that mean you can either have your chili in soup form or frito pie form? This form of menu, with little to no explanation, leaves me lacking.
And disappointingly, what was also lacking was flavor from my caldo de pollo soup. It did have a nice grease slick on top. Large chunks of potato and carrot, some chicken, but there wasn't much to the broth. If you go digging into Soup Peddler's website, the caldo apparently has cumin, cayenne, cilantro, jalapeno and lime juice as it's flavorings. I got exactly zero of that. The other problem I experienced is that if the person in front of you orders two smoothies, there was only one person making things. So I had to wait several minutes to get a Styrofoam cup of soup handed to me. This was during lunch hour, and hopefully by now, they've worked out the kinks in that one, as there were others standing around waiting. (I took the soup home and poured it into a bowl for it's picture....see the oil on top?) The young woman working the register was perky, and when asked, did explain that bouktouf is an Algerian soup with squash and lemon.
The week of Christmas, another friend and I had dinner at Tandoori Bistro, a new Indian restaurant, housed in an old Mexican one (JoJo's?), next to the La Quinta Hotel at IH-35 and Oltorf (SE corner). I had heard (on Yelp?) that the woman who owns the place does a lot of Indian catering and needed a larger commercial kitchen, so she decided to open the restaurant. They specialize in Punjabi and Gujarati cuisine, both provinces in the northwest, bordering Pakistan. The place has been there about a month, and still has the feel of the previous occupant. It's a pretty large space, and it wasn't that busy on a Tuesday night. There are 3 large flat screen tv's on the walls and I think a neon beer sign, giving the place a little bit of a sports bar feel.

Arriving just before 7 pm, we took advantage of their half-price appetizers (5 - 7pm), and got the bataka vada, or fried potato fritters. The waitress also brought papadums with two sauces, mint and tamarind chutnies, both different from what I have had in the past. The tamarind was more watery, and didn't really have the distinctive sweet and twangy taste that I love. The potato fritters were a bit dried out, and I guess not surprisingly, since they are potatoes, a bit devoid of taste.  Our waitress was very friendly, and when asked for main dish recommendations, she happily pointed out a couple items, and even saying she had recently returned from a several year stint as a vegetarian, and was enjoying the lamb dishes. I picked the lamb biryani and my friend the chicken tikka masala. 
Essentially biryani is sauteed or stir fried basmati rice with various spices, vegetables, and meat/paneer. This was a decent sized portion, but just didn't have a deep flavor base. The lamb, cut into small cubes, was right on the border between tender and a bit chewy. I had a couple little bites of the tikka, which I thought was way too sweet, and almost had a canned flavor.... canned tomatoes, maybe? So kind of underwhelmed, unfortunately.

My family is from New Mexico, so our traditional Christmas Eve dinner is tamales, pinto beans and pecan pie. I got tamales from a co-worker who made them (quite good, especially when steamed, not done in the microwave), and made the beans with a ham hock, and the pie with Dai Due (should be, but currently doesn't seem to be working) leaf lard in the crust. Christmas morning, we had croissants and morning buns from La Patisserie (along with bacon and fruit salad), and we went to Trace at the new W Hotel for dinner, which I will post later.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Foreign & Domestic

From the get go, I have heard nothing but high, high praise for the new eatery Foreign and Domestic up on 53rd (North Loop) and Avenue H. (Also named newcomer of the year by the Statesman.) I've tried to go once or twice before, but the plans fell through. Finally, the stars aligned! The plan was to met a friend there at 5 pm, right as they opened for service. I arrived a hair before, and discovered she was already there, and while not officially opened, they graciously welcomed both of us in and sat us. The place has a homey, but stylish, diner feel. It's not a very large space, I am thinking back now, about seating for 40, plus some at the counter. The wide open kitchen is straight ahead, and the chef's activities are the focal point of the room.

I will certainly need to go back and try an entree (and as luck would have it, I should be there next week for dinner with a BFF!), but I was beyond thrilled with all of the appetizers we had. Furthermore, their wine list is very decently priced, so we got a bottle of Vino Herminia, a tempranillo/grenache blend. Foodwise, we started with the Gruyere popovers, which come two per order, and are about as big as your head! They come hot, with a fine shaving of Gruyere on top; nice and crusty on the bottom where they sat in the pan, and light and eggy inside.
Now, while the little quilted canning jar and rye bread may not look like much, it was a thing of beauty! If I remember correctly, the waiter said it's about 70% foie gras with the remaining 30% chicken liver mousse combined together to make a velvety spread, with a port gelee and a "crust" of toasted hazelnuts. I don't know if the chicken livers were already in mousse form when blended with the foie, or if the liver + liver = incredibly smooth, succulent, tasty concoction, but THIS is how I'll eat liver! The sweetness from the port gelee plays off the richness of the foie, and combined with the hazelnut crunchies (they called it hazelnut crumble, not sure what it was combined with, but it worked), the texture, mouth feel and not to forget flavor, was truly fantastic. But darn if I had to share it!

Next were what looked like tater tots sleeping under blanket of ham.What they were, were squash fritters. What kind of squash, I am not sure, as it wasn't named on the menu, but I'd guess butternut in this case. So a puree of squash and ricotta salata (an aged, lightly smoked cow's milk cheese), made into tater tot form and fried, sitting on an apple cider reduction with Speck ham on top. The menu mentioned dried shrimp, which I didn't detect, either in the squash or on the plate, but it could have just been there to give more depth and umami-like qualities to the fritters, as opposed to a shrimpy flavor. Nicely fried, good contrast of flavors with the natural sweetness of the squash, the saltiness from the ricotta salata (and perhaps the dried shrimp) with the savoriness and saltiness from the Speck and finally the sweetness from the cider.
And of course, there is always room for dessert! And when bacon is featured, chances are pretty high that I will go for it! So a chocolate root beer float with bits of bacon in it, a chocolate-covered strip of bacon as your garnish, and a fried pork rind on top. That's right, you read it correctly. And it was heaven. Thick and creamy. Nice pieces of bacon in it (tasted like a good quality smoked bacon, not unlike Nueske's, but something tells me F & D probably smokes their own). Not too sweet. Very unusual and very delicious.
Our waiter Ben was very attentive.  Granted we did get there early, and were the only ones in there for the first 15 minutes, but even as things picked up, he would come peer over my companion's shoulder every few minutes to see if any beverages needed refreshing or plates removed. F & D's menu sometimes leaves you guessing at the complete descriptions of the dishes (case in point, the foie gras & squash fritter dishes), which I think is probably intentional on their part. Gives the dishes some mystique. But use your waiter to your advantage -- I asked about the foie dish, and he told me how it was prepared, and the ratio of foie to chicken liver, and I should have asked what kind of squash the fritters were made from. Regardless, everything was delicious. Maybe for dinner, we'll sit at the counter and watch them cook. Either way, I know the future meals will also be fantastic.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

La Patisserie

Earlier this fall, I heard a new French bakery would be opening. And then I found out it would be just blocks from my house! I found La Patisserie on both Facebook & Twitter, and anxiously awaited news of their grand opening. So I was thrilled last night to see that they would in fact be up and running this morning. They open at 7 am, and I walked over around 8 am, and was immediately greeted by a trio of friendly women behind the counter, including pastry chef and owner, Soraiya Nagree.

Located on Annie Street, just off South 1st, La Patisserie is in a converted old house, most recently a chiropractic office. The front two rooms are set up cozily with seating areas, an enclosed play area for the babies, and some commercial sweets & treats as well. The light-filled back room is the bakery counter, with work space off to the left. (They do the actual baking in their commercial kitchen space in East Austin they said.) Coffee, espresso, hot chocolate, and tea are all available too.
Everything looked good enough to eat! Ha ha ha.... Seriously though, I had a hard time deciding WHAT to get. I asked what the "morning buns" were, and Soraiya told me they were one of her favorites. It's like the French version of a cinnamon roll. Yes, please! And an almond croissant, and a mini-palmier, and 3 different macaroons, and she threw in a cookie that I would have called a madeleine, except it doesn't have the ridges... I can't remember what she called it, but I do remember she said brown butter. So she put everything in a box, and I headed back home.
I dove right into the morning bun. I don't think I've ever had anything quite like it! It is like a cinnamon roll in that the dough is covered with cinnamon & sugar, and rolled up though not as tightly as a traditional cinnamon roll. These appear to be baked in large-sized muffin tin, and there's a little bit of a hollow space created by the loose rolling. It's lightly crunchy on the outside from the caramelized sugar, and as you peel back the layers, you see the multitude of them, though not flaky like a croissant. As you get towards the center, it's that squishy, tender just-barely-baked dough core. The whole thing is a wonderful contrast in textures, and you don't come across this kind of flavor by using margarine. There will most certainly be more morning buns in my future.

Almost four hours later, I am still full from my morning bun, but I have managed to nibble on the some of the others for the sake of getting this blog post done! The palmier -- nicely flaky and very light. All three of the macaroons have really distinct (in a good way!) flavor to them: the peppermint chocolate, cardamom orange honey, and caramel fleur de sel. The cardamom probably surprised me the most; I absolutely love the flavor of cardamom, and am usually disappointed because I find the flavor isn't prominent enough in things like this. Not in this case. It took a moment, but the cardamom really pops through. The brown sugar thingy is barely crisp on the outside, with a solid, yet tender crumb. It would be a great tea cookie. I only nibbled on the end of the almond croissant, but it's nice and crunchy on those outer tips, and there seems to be a multitude of almond paste inside! Hopefully, I can save it for breakfast tomorrow.

And there's a multitude of things to go back and try! Opera cakes, madeleine, brioche rolls, eclairs....This is going to be very, very bad, so close to my house! Congratulations to La Patisserie on their opening today, and here's to years of sweet success!

A closer look at some of the sweets:

East Side Pies

As with (dessert) pies, a crust can make or break the deal. Pizza pies of course can be your deep-dish Chicago-style, your more average "regular" crust, or a thin crust, often very hard to do right. East Side Pies has perfected the art of the thin crust pizza. It's practically wafer thin, and it stays crispy all the way through, from the edge of the crust to the center point of your slice. And it stays crispy through the duration of your eating an entire pie. My fourth (and final) slice of the evening was just as crisp as the first one that I slightly burned the roof of my mouth on. Go figure.
The place could best be described as a dive. There's a door with an opening, and yes, you're inside the shop, but only about 3 or 4 people can fit in the space. The counter/case to your left has pizza by the slice for sale, and it's where you place your order for whole pies. Not like the other guys in the shop couldn't hear your order, because I don't think the whole interior is much bigger than 150 square feet, with the big oven taking up much of the wall opposite the doorway. There's seating out on the patio, where a window opposite the above-mentioned counter is stationed to hand out the re-warmed slices.

There's a lot of pizza options. Either build your own, or their creations. Now, they have some things that I just don't think belong on a pizza, such as hummus and spinach curry, but I guess don't knock it til you've tried it. We got the Lu' -- with pineapple, bacon, ham, & jalapenos, and we added feta cheese. We sat at a table under the covered patio, listening to the buses on Rosewood whiz by, and the brief stoppage of one lady, trying to beg off some food. I was amused by all the posters & fliers that were up on the walls. Most were for past/upcoming music shows, but then there was the dichotomy of a poster for a lecture by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and a show called "Spanksgiving". We'll just say one looked a bit more clean cut than the other!

The pizza pie itself was quite lovely. Again, a wonderfully thin crust (my father would approve), an appropriate amount of tomato sauce, that did have some flavor, but did not overpower, and our toppings of choice. I realized that since the crust was so thin, I could eat four pieces, as I wasn't filling up on bread dough. My friend swears by the Moontower Pie, their white pizza with ricotta, mozzarella, romano, feta & goat cheeses.

A lot of their business is carryout. It was a nice November evening to sit outside, but in chillier or hotter weather, it may not be the best spot. I asked, and they crank the oven to 575 - 600 degrees; I'd imagine it takes about as long to build the pizza as it does to sear it in the oven. East Side Pies did just open up a location on Airport Blvd. & 53rd Streets, but a south location would be fantastic. And it's another spot where you can use your Go Local card for a free drink. So if you need to experience the perfection of a thin crust pizza, head east.

Trailer Travels -- Holy Cacao

A high school friend I had not seen in 20 years was in town over Thanksgiving, and I wanted to show him a bit of our food trailer scene. We met at the Torchy's Trailer Park on South 1st, where I devoured the Turkey Mole (taco of the month) and the Trailer Park tacos. It was a beautiful crisp, sunny afternoon, and as we finished the tacos, our attention turned to Holy Cacao, one of Austin's original cake ball establishments.

Holy Cacao has a variety of cake balls, coffee, hot chocolate, and chocolate shakes. Still being a bit stuffed from the tacos, I got three cake balls to eat for later. They are $2 each, or 3 for $5, and since I am a proud Go Local cardholder, my three were $4.50. Yeah, Go Local!!!
My selections:
  • Brass Cake Ball -- peanut butter cookie dough dipped in more peanut butter, and coated in chocolate & crushed peanuts. This was my favorite; I really liked the consistency of the ball & it had great peanut flavor.
  • Rabbit Cake Ball -- carrot cake with cream cheese dipped in white chocolate & crushed walnuts. Mmmm, walnuts!
  • Diablo Cake Ball -- chocolate cake mixed with ancho/cayenne cream cheese frosting, dipped in dark chocolate and topped with cayenne & cocoa toasted walnuts. You definitely taste the cayenne!
Tasty little treats!!!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Miscellany... as in, I'm behind in posting

About 10 days ago, I had lunch at Cafe Josie, the Caribbean-inspired place on West 6th, just past Sweetish Hill, that's been around for years. My BFF and I split the lobster cakes, calamari, and each had our own small spinach salad.

The lobster cakes were delicious (in the back of the picture) -- a concoction of mostly lobster, and not too many breadcrumbs. And served with their incredible chipotle aioli (which I have bought jars for years at Central Market). The calamari was good, larger rings, maybe not quite as tender as those at Enoteca, one of my gold-standard places for calamari in town. 
The salad was tasty, with an ample amount of candied walnuts, and a nice passionfruit vinaigrette. The only odd thing was the manchego cheese, which was very finely shredded on top of the salad; seems like you loose the flavor of it that way.  Good meal though. And nice to see that earlier that week, Cafe Josie had received a very nice write up in the Statesman.\

Onto my trailer food quest! I knew I would be headed to East Austin last Saturday to check out some of the artist studios that were part of the E.A.S.T. tours. I've been DYING to try the Coolhaus ice cream truck, and was hoping they'd be on the east side as well. As luck would have it, they were! Checking out their Twitter feed, I found out they were leaving their spot near UT (football/game day crowds) and headed to a spot on Cesar Chavez, which is where I found them. When I got there, there was one small group in front of me, and the truck was still being set up. Their concept is simple (yet genius!) -- you pick your ice cream and your cookie, and they make you an incredible custom ice cream sandwich. 

Of COURSE I've been dying to try their candied bacon & brown sugar ice cream, and it was completely worth the wait. It was heaven.  Oh, and I had it on a good ol' chocolate chip cookie. And they're big!  I was also tempted by the balsamic fig & mascarpone as well as the mint chip, so future plans must be made!
The driver/scooper, Amelia, was telling me their truck is a retrofitted old mail truck.... the steering wheel is on the right hand side, and they've put a deep coffin cooler inside for the ice cream.  The pictures of the cookie & ice cream flavors on the side of the truck are all magnets. So like my new favorite the Peached Tortilla, Coolhaus is a roving truck -- best to keep up with them via Twitter or their websites.

Finally, Thanksgiving. I was invited to a friend's house, and was asked to bring bread/rolls. In the November issue of Saveur magazine, was Tom Colicchio's Parker House Rolls recipe, and I do love the white flour and carbs! ;) I made two double batches, one Wednesday evening, and the other, I made the dough Wednesday night, and let it do it's first rise in the fridge overnight. The recipe calls for barley malt syrup (which is preferred) or dark corn syrup. It uses such a scant amount (one teaspoon per batch), that I opted for the less expensive corn syrup, and I think it was perfectly fine. 

If you make this recipe, bake them at 375, not the 325 as stated in the recipe, especially if using cast iron. I don't know if they will ever brown properly at 325. After almost 25 minutes in the oven at 325, I cranked it to 400 and they browned pretty quick, though a little crusty on the bottoms. For the second batch, I just did them at 375 the whole way through, and they were done in about 27 minutes. 
Above pic, after the first rise & rest; dough portioned out into 1 oz. balls, a little bit smaller than the recipe called for. (I wanted to make sure I'd have plenty!)
 About 2 hours later, the second rise.
And out of the oven and cooling. You  brush melted butter on them before they go in the oven, and immediately when they come out, more butter and a sprinkling of sea salt. 

If you look at the comments for this recipe on Saveur's website, a lot of people didn't have positive experiences. I followed the recipe to the "T", except for the oven temp, and I thought they came out fabulously. Don't be deterred! 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Chicken Pastilla

This past week marks my two year anniversary on my trip to Morocco. Since I was with a tour group, while all the food we ate their was authentically Moroccan, much of it was made for the tourist trade -- as in, probably dumbed down a bit.  By far, the best meal of the two and a half weeks was when we were invited to the home of our Moroccan guide while in Fez. His wife cooked for probably two days to feed our group of over 20. My favorite item, the chicken pastilla (or b'stilla, bestilla, etc.), a savory meat mixed with sweet ground almonds, cinnamon and sugar, wrapped in sheets or warka or phyllo dough. (Here's my post from Nov 5, 2008 on it.)

I've seen different recipes for it over the past couple of years, and then recently, through Twitter, chatted with Maroc Mama, and she passed along her pastilla recipe from her blog. I really liked the simplicity of the techniques she used for making this dish; some of the other recipes I've seen involve straining part of the mixture, something I didn't really want to do. I followed most of what she had done, using boneless chicken thighs and tenders, so they cooked pretty quickly.  Otherwise, instead of using saffron threads (not my most favorite flavor), I used about 1 1/2 teaspoons of ras al hanout, a spice blend that is to Northern Africa as curry powder and garam masala are to Indian cooking. They're all blends, and every cook/ family will have a different version; the one I used is a mix of nutmeg, sea salt, black pepper, ginger, cardamom, mace, cinnamon, ground allspice, turmeric and saffron.
Typically, one large, round pastilla is made for all the diners to eat from; Maroc Mama had suggested making individual sized portions, and also had a link to another blogger who made appetizer-sized triangles out of them. And she said they freeze well! I used my mini pie pans, and a few triangles too.
And for final presentation, the pastilla are dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon; I completed the meal with couscous and potatoes & sweet potatoes roasted with olive oil and some of the ras al hanout.
The taste took me back! I am really pleased with how this came out, and in fact, I am going to go eat one now. Thanks again to Maroc Mama for her recipe!

The Peached Tortilla

For the past couple months, I have seen a lot of Twitter chatter about a new mobile food truck, The Peached Tortilla, and their delicious offerings. It was one of the main trailers I really wanted to try at the Gypsy Trailer Picnic last weekend, but after watching the Twitter posts stream in on it, I realized the picnic was waaaay, waaay too crowded to try and go. So I missed out. But then told myself, okay, time to (attempt to) try one new trailer a week for a while to see what I am missing. And thus, I made the Peached Tortilla my first item on my  new "mission". 

It was a sunny/cloudy/spotty rainy day in Austin, not totally unusual for the fall-time. Found out the Peached Tortilla would be at 3rd & Colorado for lunch, opening at 11:15 am. I think I got there at 11:16. I could hear them inside the trailer as they were finishing up their prep. Eric, the owner came out and saw me waiting, and said they'd be ready in just a minute or two. After repositioning the truck slightly, he came out and we chatted for a couple of minutes. He said that Gypsy had been totally crazy for them; they were told to expect to serve 1,000 units of food over a nine hour period. They sold out in three hours.  He kinda sounded like they were still recovering!
I told Eric I had particularly heard about his pork belly, and asked his recommendation, the taco or the slider. He suggested the slider, as they're done on sweet Hawaiian rolls, you get more of the sweet/savory contrast. Works for me! I ordered a slider & a chicken satay taco. He also mentioned their pork belly is fatty, not meaty, and said some people don't really *get it.* Come ON people! Fat = flavor! So I was all kinds of good with fattier pork belly. Right as I got my order, the rain started up again, and I made haste for the car.  It rained heavily for about 3 minutes, so glad I was "indoors"! 
Yes, the picture of the food is taken on the front seat of the car.  On the left is the pork belly, or as they call it, their bahn mi sandwich. In addition to the lovely pork belly, there's a carrot & pickled daikon slaw and sriracha mayo on it. That pork was damn good! And a very generous serving! I don't know if that's because Eric knew my affinity for pork belly, or if that's their normal serving size. Nicely braised, a bit of crispiness on the outside, and the soft succulent fat... up there with the pork belly I had at Uchiko, for a fraction of the price! Speaking of prices, I hope they are staying afloat, because their prices are ridiculously cheap for what they are offering.

So I could eat about ten of those sliders.  The chicken satay taco was good, but really, after pork belly THAT good, almost anything would pale in comparison. The menu says the chicken is ginger-soy and peach marinated, flavors I failed to detect. Very moist chicken, though, not overdone. The coconut red curry peanut sauce was tasty, but for me, it could have had a little more peanut influence; all very fresh though.

Very curious about their Belgian fries, not to mention the catfish taco, which I've also heard a good deal about through Twitter. As their website says: peached = flavor smitten. Call me peached, indeed.

Friday, November 5, 2010

24 Diner

"Chef-inspired comfort food whenever you want it." Now who's to argue with that concept? That is the tag line on 24 Diner's website, as well as just a darn good plan. A more upscale entry into Austin's 24 hour a day eateries, it's been open in the former spot of Waterloo Icehouse at 6th & Lamar for about a year.

The interior has a modern yet "still a diner" feel; there are booths, some tall tables as if you were at a counter, and then the counter/open kitchen. My back was to the kitchen, so I couldn't really read the boards they have posted above with specials & desserts.  There are also a couple booths in the back, on the way to the restroom, and some tables outside, along the north side of the building.

Scanning the menu, I couldn't decide what I was in the mood for.... breakfast? Dinner? Salad? Okay, we ruled out the salad option pretty quick with all this REAL comfort food to pick from, but they sounded decent. I was leaning towards the chicken & waffles, and then one of my dining companions spotted a half-order of it that's available on their Monday thru Friday only menu. So I got that and a side of their homemade sausage patties. I also like how they state on their menu they are sourcing local products as much as possible.
Definitely glad I had the half order! The waffle was extremely yeasty, in a very fermented way. The chicken was well-fried, no grease whatsoever, but a little on the dry side, so I wonder if it got fried earlier in the day and was sitting in the hot box. Didn't really get a taste of the brown sugar butter (not much on there), but the real maple syrup certainly helped things out. The sausage patties were fat & delicious! A smidge spicy, and all around just very flavorful. 

One friend had the 24 Hash, a concoction of skillet fries, sausage, jalapenos, cheese... I didn't try it, but it sure looks good, and he practically licked the plate clean. My other friend had the Caesar salad with chicken, which she liked, but said the croutons were too spicy.
Side note(s): The silverware was of nice design & weight. My chicken & waffles were a little hard to cut because the plate was sliding around on the slick melamine tabletop. Such is life.  Saw several other diners with burgers, which on a nice big (and shiny) Challah bun, they looked good... and large. Our waitress was attentive & polite, the hostess very friendly. Did comfort food ever really go out of style? I think not.


I stopped for lunch the other day at Papalote, the new taco house with an emphasis on Mexican street foods, from the creators of Azul Tequila. I can't find a website, but here's the menu.  It's a tiny spot, with 5 or 6 small tables; you order at the counter, and you can see the full kitchen right in front of you. (The size & layout of the place reminds me of Chen's Noodle House.) I told the cashier it was my first time in, and asked for some recommendations. He was quick to point out 4 different ones from the "los guisados" menu: the pollo, pescado, puerco en mole & coliflor (cauliflower); I went with the pollo & puerco.
The pollo a la parilla is achiote-rubbed grilled chicken with poblano rajas (roasted pepper strips), cabbage, avocado & queso fresca. Everything was very fresh; I thought the chicken needed a touch of salt, and it was grilled nicely, still moist. The puerco en mole pipian is shredded pork loin, mole pipian (pumpkin seed), avocado & queso fresca. Also fresh & tasty, but I don't know that it was memorable. For $3.25 each, you get a good amount of protein stuffed into a tortilla.

Looking now, a bit more thoroughly at their menu, I certainly will have to try their traditional mole poblano, and I have heard raves about their coliflor/cauliflower tacos. I do wish the menu was a bit more explanatory for those of us who aren't totally familiar with some of the street food terms. But everything was fresh, the service was friendly, helpful & efficient. They are also conveniently located for me, and I am intrigued by the Austinville development they are in on South Lamar. (From the owner's of Amy's Ice Creams....this little strip of businesses are all locally owned -- gotta like that!) Next time, one of their masa cakes and some mole!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Cafe Express

I don't get to Houston or Dallas much (okay, except for the State Fair!), so I was unfamiliar with Cafe Express when I received an invitation to the soft opening of their first Austin location, and 18th overall. Located in the old La Madeline spot at 35th and Lamar, Cafe Express has completely transformed the spot from it's French bistro origins into a modern establishment enrobed in glass windows. Their website says "Cafe Express has always been distinguished by its 'made-from-scratch' philosophy. Every day we chop our own vegetables, and we make our own chunky chocolate brownies from scratch." That's a fairly impressive statement, and I would hope not to find any pre-chopped food service bags of vegetables in their walk-in cooler! 

A little after 7 pm on a Friday, my friends and I were warmly welcomed, and told to order whatever we wish and to enjoy the evening. So for three of us, we did order a good amount of food (though one in our party is pregnant!). Here's the rundown of what we ate and how it fared:
Shrimp Campeche with Avocado & Chipotle Sauce -- A bit too sweet for my tastes. The tomato-based sauce tasted like it was made from Heinz Sweet Chile Sauce. 
Fresh Guacamole, Chipotle Salsa & Chips -- The guac had good texture, consistency and taste, and I am not a big avocado eater. The salsa was a bit flat, though it did have a nice roasted, smokey flavor.
Creamy New Potato Soup -- Great flavor, we pretty much licked this bowl clean, but a little thin in the consistency department; chunks of potato in the bowl were nice too.
Caesar Salad (on the left in photo) -- This was the one main disappointment of the meal. Very fresh, but what typifies a Caesar salad is the bit of anchovy (or anchovy paste) in the dressing. This had none of it, no depth. I don't know if I would have known it was supposed to be a Caesar dressing if I hadn't been the one who ordered it.  It seemed like a Caesar dressing you'd get with your salad at Wendy's; bummer, 'cause I love a good Caesar.
Veggie Chef Salad  -- This almost made up for the Caesar! Here's the description of the salad: "fresh romaine & spring mix lettuce with avocado, glazed pecans, fennel, grape tomatoes, jicama, croutons, pickled carrots & onions with creamy parmesan dressing." Yum! This was great, and we unanimously agreed on that. Lots of "goodies" in the salad, a good tasting dressing. You can add shrimp or chicken to it. It also had the appropriate amount of dressing on it -- it wasn't drowning in it. I almost always ask for my salads with the dressing on the side (even Caesars sometimes) because restaurants generally put way too much for my taste. I thought about asking for it on the side when I was ordering, but I decided against it, as I wanted to see if they could pass the test, and they did. With flying colors. 
Danish Blue Cheese and Smoked Bacon Burger --  This was a large burger. Grilled nicely, so still very slightly pink inside. Nice crisp bacon, blue cheese didn't overpower. Very tasty. Fries were good too. Next time, I'd like to try their sweet potato fries.  Side note: any of the burgers listed on the menu can be a beef patty, ground turkey, chicken breast or veggie burger. 
Mediterranean Salmon (top left in photo) -- A grilled salmon fillet on French green beans, with spicy lemon parsley sauce and artichoke hearts. I am generally not a fan of restaurant salmon unless it's wild caught, but this was fairly decent -- moist and not overcooked. I commend them for not over cooking the green beans, as it would have been an easy thing to do, especially since they place the hot salmon on top of them. I didn't get any spice to speak of in their parsley sauce, and my friend had already squeezed lemon juice on top of the dish when I tried it, but it did all taste fresh.
Spanish Chicken Romesco (bottom left) -- Grilled chicken breast with rosemary garlic butter & Spanish-style Romesco sauce (puree of roasted red peppers, almonds & garlic), with garlic mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach. This was pretty delicious. I love Romesco sauces, and my friends weren't familiar with it so I got to explain what it was. It was a huge chicken breast (you can't really tell from the picture, but it was thick; I wonder if this will be the normal portion size) that was grilled perfectly, still moist inside, and when I ate my leftovers the next day, it was still good. The mashed potatoes were very smooth and flavorful; the spinach certainly benefited from some salt & pepper.
Fresh Limeade -- good and tart, and not too sweet.

Chunky Chocolate Brownie -- had espresso in it, which was a nice touch.
Dreambar -- their version of a seven-layer bar, tasty, but not outstanding. Crust a bit too crumbly.
Chocolate Lava Cake -- OMG! We all about died! This cupcake is soooo rich with it's chocolate ganache, and then you dig into it, and it's got a cream cheese filling in the middle. There's no way I could eat that thing on my own! The only downside, I needed a glass of milk!

They also have a super variety of condiments available; you don't often see these in a restaurant that's a step up from fast-food.
Overall, it was a great evening, and from the moment we walked in, the entire staff couldn't have been nicer. Everyone was friendly and accommodating, and apart from what appeared to be a little glitch in the computer system when we ordered, it seemed that things went smoothly.

Eeek! Here's the ironies of ironies. I was just verifying on the internet that the company (Schiller Del Grande) is Texas-based (they are, based in Houston), and found a 2004 article on their site. They have sold a 70% interest in Cafe Express to Wendy's International. I had no idea when I wrote that previous statement about the Caesar dressing, but NOW it really makes me wonder! It also makes me wonder if they really are chopping all of their own vegetables on a daily basis. I may never know for sure, but I will return with the hopes that the employee friendliness, freshness of the food, and portion size is still intact. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

State Fair of Texas

Ahhhh, the State Fair up in Dallas, and all the fried goodness it brings! Three friends and I made a Wednesday pilgrimage to the fried food mecca..... complete with our own supply of digestive enzymes & Tums! After a donut stop in Salado at Roy T's on the journey north, here are the fried highlights.

It was about 11:30 am when we arrived, so the first thing on the agenda was the original Fletcher's Corn Dog! Yum! It should be noted that we each bought our own corn dogs, and then everything else we split four ways so we could maximize the effectiveness of trying as many fried items as possible.
Next was Fried Lemonade....I think I'd describe it more as tasty lemon cakes with lemony syrup. They were pretty tasty. 
Fried Grilled Cheese, complete with a little cup of tomato soup & potato sticks, had potential, but it was incredibly greasy on the crusts. On the right are the Fried Peaches & Cream, which was pretty darn good! It was canned peach slices, battered & fried, with whipped cream and a cup of cream on the side.
Hard to go wrong with a Tater Tornado! The only thing I semi-regret not getting this year, was the sweet potato done in similar fashion, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. Had it last year, and it was great!

Wow! This was the only fruit we saw (well, saw some chocolate dipped bananas....); as in the only thing with any nutritional value what so ever, and melons are mostly water. This was a booth in the Midway with gorgeous cut melons, and they had aguas frescas. The pineapple was absolutely fantastic! REAL fruit! No corn syrup and totally refreshing. Had a sip of the lemonade one too, and it was great. 
The Fried Frito Pie won this year's award for Best Tasting new item. And you know what? It was pretty good! They take large Frito chips, top them with homemade chili (that, according to the order taker), somehow batter & deep fry them, and then serve them with  side packets of sour cream & salsa.
Then there was the Fried Beer, this year's winner for Most Creative. Well, people, take note, creative does not equal tasty. And one word for these raviolis filled with Shiner Bock beer: DISGUSTING. About the most foul thing any of us have ever tasted. Flat, stale, warm beer comes oozing out when you take a bite. They were so bitter tasting.... and the dough was like cardboard. And not sure about the "queso" they were served with. Bleah. Each of us took one bite each and were immediately revolted. But we had to try them.... Does Shiner really know their product is being used completely inappropriately??
After the beer debacle, we found the Fried Black Eyed Peas, which were just like soy nuts. Bit of an earthy, dirty taste to them. Sort of fun to eat because they were nice & crunchy, but something I'd go back for. 
 Fried Lattes were next up. This is sort of a misnomer.... there's some sort of pastry dough that's lightly fried, and then an espresso ice cream  on top, with whipped cream and a syrup. The ice cream part had nice strong coffee flavor to it, but the fried dough was.... meh.
 And with our stomachs in various stages of disarray, and with only a few food tickets left, we searched in vain for the Fried Moon Pie stand we had spotted earlier, but couldn't find it, so we settled on the classic Funnel Cake. Unfortunately, this funnel cake was a touch on the soggy side.... it had been sitting around for a bit. I don't think it really mattered, because at this point, we were all feeling dirty and greasy.
In between the various rounds of food, we saw various other fair attractions, some which warranted pictures (baby animals!) and some that did not (the auto show....sorry).

There's the annual butter sculpture. Yes, those two football players (OU & UT) are made completely out of butter. That's a refrigerated case, and during the beginning part of the fair, the artist is inside there, making butter come to life! (I am just now noticing the sign; this artist is from NY. There's no one from TX who can do this?)
And the greenhouse area with HUGE carved pumpkins!

The petting zoo is always full of ADORABLE critters! I took more pictures of them than I am posting! This little lamb was so cute.
Two joeys. The mama (or at least I am assuming the mama) was also hopping around the pen.
 I loved this camel's eyelashes.
Baby alpacas, with unfortunate hair cuts.
 Pot bellied pig!
This breed of sheep have 4 horns each! 
Mama sow and her piglets.
Of course, I couldn't help thinking that suckling pig is very, very tasty....

We stopped in West for kolaches on the way back. And after a sausage one today (the day after the fried food bonanza), I will be sticking to fresh fruits and veggies the next several days!