Thursday, January 28, 2010

Flip Happy Crepes

Flip Happy Crepes is probably one of Austin's original trailer food stands, apart from the roving taco trucks. They've been around Austin for 3 or 4 years now (longer?), and have even survived an episode with the slightly obnoxious Bobby Flay on his "Throwdown" show. (I am sure the national exposure was fantastic for business though!) So after starting out in the lot where Olivia's is now located, just north of the Lamar & Oltorf intersection, they moved their Avion trailer to a lot about 2 blocks north of Barton Springs and 1 block west of Lamar, on Jessie Street. Plenty of parking, both in the lot and on the street. Picnic tables and folding chairs fill out their space.On the downside, somehow, I ONLY manage to go to FHC when inclement weather is looming. And it's with the same friend too! This is the second, though possibly third time we've been there, and the weather was not conducive to eating outdoors. I think this is the third time, once it was raining, and we ate in the car, and another time it was just hot out. Well today has been overcast all day. We're supposed to get some rain. And of course as we met there, and look at the menu board, the wind picks up. And a few rain drops start falling. Great.
And it takes a fairly long while for the crepes to be ready, like 15 - 20 minutes. They do have a very polite sign up saying everything is made from scratch, it takes time, yada, yada, yada, but when it's windy and rainy, it's hard to be patient! But, as your mother says: good things come to those who wait. Ahhh, my little crepes! (Or not so little, as the case is.) We ordered the Roast Chicken (with caramelized onions, goat cheese & garlic cream), the Three Cheese (with gruyere, goat, & cheddar), and the Peanut Butter Chocolate for dessert, and decided to split all three items. Though we had asked for the meal to go, we ultimately decided to just brave the wind and eat at the picnic table. The savory crepes came wrapped up in paper, and given the climate conditions, it was not conducive to take a photo of it, especially since I would have had to cut it in half and prop one side up, etc. I am not a food stylist! But, they were delicious! The chicken one had a lot of goat cheese, which if there had been any garlic cream on there, it was overwhelmed by the goat. The cheese one also had fresh spinach and tomato in it. While they're not fat crepes, they are a good 6 - 7" long, and I am still full, after eating the equivalent of one.

Oh yeah, and dessert. We asked for the peanut butter crepe to be prepared without bananas, but when it came in it's environmentally better-than-styrofoam container, it did have them. No biggie, because it too was fantastic. A great blend of flavors and texture -- a pillowly PB & cream cheese mixture, stuffed inside a crepe, with dark chocolate drizzles, and chopped almonds. Not entirely sure what the chantilly cream in the description refers to. And if you look real close, you can see the raindrops on the table.
So hopefully my next trip back will be on a nice sunny, spring day, where I can sit outside and enjoy my meal without the weather being a pain in the ass. I think I need one of each item on the menu, please.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

El Chile

The owners of El Chile are creating a empire, now with three locations of El Chile, a couple of baby El Chilito taco bars, and a pizza joint. An El Chilito had opened up (this past summer?) at the corner of Dawson (aka S. 5th St.) & Barton Springs Road (across from the Palmer Events Center), and about 10 days ago, the owners decided to shake things up by switching the locations of the El Chile downtown with the El Chilito. According to the press release on their website, they listened to their downtown customers, who preferred the idea of quick tacos for breakfast & lunch, and thereby relocating the more leisurely restaurant and it's liquor license to the Barton Springs locale.

And speaking of that liquor license, as all good things with the TABC take time, so they are currently offering free drinks (with the purchase of food, limit two per person, I believe) at the BS spot. Their sign board outside is advertising it too, and at a hair before 7 pm on a Wednesday night, I wonder how many people were there just for the freebies or what. We had to wait just a couple minutes before getting seated, but it gave me a moment to take the place in. In all the years I have lived in the neighborhood, I have never been to any of the restaurants (and there have been a number.... Gypsy, some sandwich place before it, and I can't remember what else!) that have inhabited that corner. While the lighting inside is dim, the walls are painted in bright colors -- avocado green, tangerine, bright yellow -- and contain nice bold & colorful paintings. The back wall is actually built into the existing cliff/rock wall, and there's an intriguing spiral staircase that must lead to storage, as I saw of of the staff go up and return with napkins.

Anyway, we were seated, and our waiter came by and told us about the free drinks; we each got a frozen margarita with a sangria floater. I think they taste better when they're free! They do half price appetizers until 7 pm, and unfortunately, by the time we got seated, we just missed that mark. I ordered the Enchiladas de Mole Rojo, and my friend the veggie puffy tacos. We devoured our initial bowl of chips and really tasty, very dark, very smooth salsa (no clue what's in it!), and the next round of chips had just arrived when the food did. (Also judging by the diners around us, all the food was coming out of the kitchen fast.)

I am pretty much always a sucker for mole. It's that savory-sweet, spicy, chocolately thing that it's got going on that I just love. These was corn tortillas stuffed with tender & moist pulled pork, covered in the mole, with rice & black beans. While I'd say the beans were rather underseasoned, the mole was great. It hit the aforementioned notes, with enough depth to the sauce, and just enough spice to leave your lips just a touch warm. The white rice had finely chopped carrots, corn, and I think cilantro in it (it was something green & leafy), not overly exciting, but a good foil to the sauce. I almost licked the plate clean. While I didn't try any of them, the puffy tacos looked good, though not terribly puffy. Still a bit hungry from my lack of a discernible lunch today, I asked for a dessert menu. The waiter said they didn't have a menu, but told us they had tres leches, flan, and a margarita key lime pie. I asked his opinion, and he suggested the tres leches. Upon tasting it, pretty certain that one of the milks is coconut. Gave it a nice flavor, but otherwise, not the most memorable ... I think they use shortening in the frosting, as I had a bit of a greasy feel to my lips.The only drawback of El Chile was the noise level. The place was packed, and it was LOUD. And the speakers were playing music. I noticed there was foam under the tables, assumably to help with the noise, but..... It was a varied crowed, mostly people in their 20s & 30s it appeared; one older (50s?) couple was leaving as we walked in, there were a couple of families with kids, a couple rocker-looking musicians. But it pretty much stayed at capacity while we were there, and the food was frankly better than I remember it at the Manor Road location. The neighborhood can always use some decently priced and well-executed eateries, and hopefully this one, with it's known success, will keep the southeast corner of Dawson & BS Road occupied for years to come. And I would happily return.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Two Hot Mama's Grill

I have always enjoyed the Two Hot Mama's product line: salsas (rojo, verde, and a combo one called mambo combo), the creamy cilantro dip, and particularly the roasted almond chimichurri -- great for chip & dip, as a salad dressing, in tacos, on get the idea! They have always won awards at the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, amongst others. Now one of the Hot Mamas has branched out to her own eatery, the Two Hot Mama's Grill in Lakeway. (Geeez, wasn't I just in Lakeway right before Christmas?!)

So it's really only about 15 miles from my 'hood in South Austin, and on this warm, cloudy January day, it was actually an easy drive.....but I wouldn't want to do it in rush hour! Located at 620 at Lohmann's Crossing, it's just behind the Compass Bank building, which is easily visible from 620 when headed northbound. The place is painted with nice bright colors, a couple of flat screen tv's, and free wifi.

From the menu, you choose whether you want a burrito, tacos, tostado, etc. and on what type of tortilla. Then you pick your meat and 4 toppings, plus salsa. It's a lot of picking! I settled on a beef fajita burrito on a whole wheat tortilla with black beans, rice, cheese, black bean & corn salsa (okay, I got a little redundant with the black beans), and my favorite roasted almond chimichurri sauce. Everything tasted very fresh, the meat was nice & tender, and I ate all of it, except a bit of the tortilla. My friend got the soup of the day (which they post on their Facebook page; so far no website), which was chilled avocado & cilantro, and soft tacos, one with pulled pork and the other with veggies. All of it was delicious! The soup was VERY thick & creamy, but had a great flavor -- you could taste the cilantro, but it wasn't overpowering, like cilantro can be. It was thick enough that I think it would be great on grilled chicken or fish, or even as a cole slaw dressing.
I wish it was closer to Austin, as I would certainly go back with regularity. It's a family run business, and owner Genevieve was refilling customer's glasses with tea, and chatting with people as they came in. It's in a great location, right on the edge of the shopping center's driveway, so it has great visibility. Screw the national chain restaurants, and give some good local businesses your business!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Chez Zee

Chez Zee is one of those Austin restaurants that seemingly has been around forever. I remember hearing about it not long after I moved here in 1994, as it was (and presumably still is) known for it's huge desserts. The last time I was there was almost 4 years ago for Easter brunch when my parents were in town; I remember it being jammed packed, and while I think my memory of the food was favorable, I have no idea what we ate. So tonight I met one of my best friends and her two elementary school aged boys for an earlyish dinner.

At about 5:50 pm, there were maybe two tables seated, and a trio of ladies at the bar. We asked for a table with a bench seating, as was easier with the kids. The host asked our preference on seats, and upon hearing it didn't matter to us, he escorted us to the table against the back wall. And while the boys were extremely well behaved, we might not have always been the quietest of tables, so the back was probably a good plan. I returned from the restroom to find the lights had dimmed. Great! Mood lighting with children. My friend asked if I wanted to split the "Zee Best of Platter", and I agreed, and I also ordered a side Caesar salad, asking for light dressing. The boys were getting grilled cheese and mini-cheeseburgers.

Now what follows here is cut and pasted directly from their website. While it will give you the description of our meal, please take note of the typos within it, again, straight from their website.
ZEE BEST OF PLATTER Hand Cut center cut Filet Mignon (4.oz) served on a bed of creamed spinach, One Grilled Lambchop, One ‘Southen’ Maryland Crabcake. Served with Sweet potato pudding, jalapeno cornbread stuffing, grilled asperagus and garic mashed potatoes. Served with a side of black cherry dipping sauce. 28.95
Now my friends and co-workers know that I am totally anal about proofreading and editing (so I better edit this submission well!). It is taking ALL that I have not to print their entire online menu, circle the errors in red, and mail it to them. I would be embarrassed if I were the management at Chez Zee.

Okay, back to the food. If the salad had "light" dressing on it, I'd hate to see what the regular amount is. I didn't detect any anchovy flavor, in what they describe as their "unique" Caesar dressing. I guess I should ask if it is supposed to have anchovy in it, but their fat free version is described as being without anchovy or oil, would think the regular version has it. Though it occurs to me now, maybe the waiter thought I was asking for the light/fat free version, as opposed to a light amount of dressing on my salad. The romaine was fresh, the croutons crispy, but I miss the typical Caesar flavor. We asked for an extra plate when we ordered so we could divvy the Platter up ourselves. It is quite a medley of food, and while eating it, it kinda reminded me of Thanksgiving, with a little of this and a little of that (plus the sides were all Thanksgiving-y). The filet was wrapped in a piece of fatty bacon, and cooked on the medium side of medium-rare; fairly good. The lamb chop was medium rare, and quite tasty (probably the best thing on the plate). The black cherry dipping sauce was heavy on the horseradish though. The crab cake was more breading than crab. Sweet potatoes seemed more mashed than pudding style; the mashed potatoes were very pureed, and there was jalapeno in that stuffing? That was stuffing? The very fat asparagus were cooked nicely, not overdone. And there was another sauce that came with it too, something between regular mayo and an aioli. The french fries that came with the grilled cheese were lightly seasoned and nice and crisp, not greasy, and apparently they also make their own potato chips which came with the burger.

In the interest of watching our post-holiday waistlines, the adults passed on dessert (though the cakes looked yummy in the case, they didn't look nearly as tall and imposing as I remember), and we got vanilla ice cream for the boys. Well, what arrived wasn't vanilla, and the boys wouldn't eat it. We both tried it, and it had a familiar herbaceous quality to it. When the waiter came by to get the check, we mentioned it to him, and his response was "well, we only have one kind of ice cream." Well, it turns out they DO have two. He apparently scooped from the wrong container, as it turned out to be cardamom (not like cardamom I've tasted, and I love cardamom!), but he did bring the actual vanilla, and all was well.

Leaving about 7pm, the place, in all it's garish holiday decor (life-sized Nutcracker still outside, gaudy glittery stuff inside, heart ornaments hanging above their piano....), was about half full, which I'd say is not bad for a Tuesday in January. It looked like a mix of couples, families, and happy hour ladies. I am wondering if I should have just skipped dinner and just had dessert. That answer is yes. Next time.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Asia Cafe

Another good authentic Chinese spot is Asia Cafe, formerly inside of Asia Market at 183 and Spicewood Springs. Sometime last summer they moved the restaurant into the space next door to the grocery store. I had been to the old location, I think twice, but not for probably close to two years. I remember the pea shoots and crispy whole flounder as being fantastic.

So I met two friends up there for lunch yesterday. Both foodies, and both much more into the organ meats than I. One ordered stir fried beef intestines (though I don't see it on the menu... somewhere in the #787-790 range, though those are all pork, I thought he ordered beef), and another dish that I don't see listed online, which was essentially pieces of coagulated beef blood; both dishes done Szechuan style, with lots of Szechuan peppercorns & chiles. I did try them both, and honestly, they weren't bad, but I am not sure I could eat a whole bowl of them. It was sort of amusing, because after about 2 bites, both my companions looked at the intestine dish and said "that's not tripe that's tongue." Where there was a brief break in the line to order, he asked the order taker, who went to check it out with the kitchen. She came back to our table and said they were out of tripe, so they substituted tongue, probably thinking the Caucasian dude wouldn't notice, but of course he did. He still ate it all.
My other friend ordered what I believe is #699, Combination Seafood Pot with Pork Intestines. It was a HUGE pot. Think mixing bowl. There were a few stares from both Asian & Caucasian people who were waiting in line to order. There was cabbage and broth in the bottom, and just covered with tripe and nicely battered and fried pieces of white fish throughout. Also lots of peppercorns & chiles, but very flavorful. We shared the #129, Zhong dumplings, which are probably some of the best I have ever had. They made their own dough for them, and once steamed, it comes out to be a really soft, tender, lightly chewy dough, that is perfect with the pork filling. They come bathed in a garlicy soy sauce, which is I think what makes them "zhong". I really love pan-fried dumplings, so on my next visit, that's what I want to try, assuming they are also done with the homemade dough.
We also got #675, the salt & pepper fried squid. A great light batter (rice flour?) around slightly thicker pieces of squid tubes, they kind of looked like gnocchi/fried cauliflower, and were delicious. Would have been nice if they came with a little sauce to dunk them in, but there were plenty of broths & oils on the table to do so. I ordered #568, spicy & sour sweet potato noodle, which turned out to be one of my least favorite items. It was okay....a broth of mostly chile oil, with the cellophane sweet potato noodles, a bit of ground beef, and fresh water spinach leaves. Hard to eat (at least politely), and the broth didn't have the depth of flavor that like the seafood pot or even the intestine/tongue dish had. But I could have eaten a plate of those dumplings!

A couple of notes: we got there at 11:30am, and by about11:50am there was a line at the register where you order that pretty much didn't stop. They give you a number when you order, and then call it out when the food arrives. Sometimes difficult to understand the man calling out numbers & dishes. Also, if you're not accustomed to Szechuan peppercorns, don't be alarmed if your mouth and/or tongue goes numb while eating and everything tastes a bit different than normal. It goes away once you're done eating. Finally, there's a cupcake place down to the right of the restaurant.... what's the name? Begins with a "C"... anyway, I got one cupcake to go (quite tasty, but no Sugar Mama's), which was packaged in what looks like to be an inverted sundae container. It seems to be the perfect way to contain one cupcake, rather than risking it tipping over in a paper bag. Kudos!

Asia Cafe is in the same shopping center as Chen's Noodle House. Both places are supposed to have killer lamb dishes... need to do a taste test and find out for myself!