Friday, February 26, 2010

Austin Restaurant Week

Well duh. I posted it on Twitter, but neglected to do so here.

Austin Restaurant Week starts on Sunday!

This taken straight from their website:
The Spring 2010 installment of Austin Restaurant Week will run from February 28th - March 3rd and March 7th - 10th, and is hosted by Rare Media. The event will allow participants to dine at the finest establishments throughout the city for fixed prices, ranging from $10 - $15 for lunch and $25 - $35 for dinner. Peruse this site to find the stellar list of restaurants, and start making your plans for Austin Restaurant Week today!

Eat local!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Tasty Up Trailer Tour

Food trailer tour that is.

The first ever (formal) Tasty Up Trailer Tour was organized by the Statesman's food writer Addie Broyles and local Tasty Touring blogger Jodi Bart. They assembled a collection of local food trailers, most of them new to the food scene, and spread the good word via Facebook about the tour; many trailers offered specials or reduced prices on their food stuffs.

In preparation, my friend and I stocked up on $1 bills, bottles of water, some Pepto (just in case!), fresh camera batteries, and a healthy appetite for what presumably would be a day of tasty, but not necessarily healthy food. There were two official "starting points," where we could get nametags identifying us as members of the tour. We picked La Boite, on South Lamar, a coffee & pastry shop to begin our day of eating. This little European gem is fashioned out of an old shipping container, and prides themselves on featuring local ingredients in an environmentally friendly setting. After several days of rain here, we fortunately had a completely cloudless day for our day of outdoor eating. The only downside to that was it occasionally interfered with picture taking; so for better pics of their converted container, see their website. They graciously offered complimentary cups of coffee to tour participants, and very smartly made smaller sized versions of their pastries, as they realized people would be eating throughout the day. I got an almond croissant, chocolate croissant, and salted caramel macaroon. All I can say is YUM! This was a great start to the day. The macaroons were an airy sandwich cookie with a fantastic salty caramel in between, and the croissants nice and flaky. It occurs to me now.... I assume they bake their own pastries, but I am not 100% certain, and their website doesn't say specifically either. Regardless, they are delicious!

So on the same large patch of (muddy) grass as La Boite, is Texas Cuban; I have been intensely curious about this spot, as I have always enjoyed the food at Havana. As we ate our pastries, we could see a long line forming at Texas Cuban, and finally walked 50 feet downhill to join it. Things were a bit slow...once we ordered, it took a good 30 - 40 minutes for our order, and during that time, it became evident they were woefully under-prepared for the crowds. They ran out of propane (really, on a weekend? especially a special event weekend?), so half their menu became obsolete, and they had to refund people. For the tour, they offered a small Cuban sandwich, papa rellenos & croquettas; other menu items available, but these were their featured items. We ended up with the sandwich (grilled pork tenderloin, ham, swiss & provolone in a pressed sandwich) which was good, but I don't know that it was anything to write home about. I will go back another time, and attempt to have a "real" meal there. My friend had gone to check on the status of our order, and while they were friendly and explaining the situation, she overheard them say they only expected about 20 people. Well, there were easily 50 milling around while we were there...

The upside to not eating as much at Texas Cuban, was it left room for other foods! We decided to bypass Gourdough's Big Fat Donuts (we've both been before), Brevita Coffee, & Odd Duck Trailer (have heard great things about this place, but I want to go on a night when I can really enjoy the full experience), and as we drove past on Lamar, there was a large crowd there. We decided to go to the northernmost option, Sushi A-Go-Go, at 40th & Medical Parkway. It's really cute (though in a gas station parking lot)! And it wasn't crowded! We ordered one of the day's specials, a Texas Surf & Turf roll, with ribeye, shrimp tempura, candied jalapenos, avocado, and a green sauce on top, along with shrimp shu mai dumplings. We sat & chatted with the one other tour participant who was there (see her blog, Epicuriosities), as we messily ate our roll! It was very good, but it was large pieces that sort of fell apart because you couldn't eat them in one bite. Very fresh, nice texture contrasts with the tempura. The shu mai didn't terribly excite me, but they weren't bad either. As my friend commented later, it seemed sort of odd to be eating sushi outdoors; it wasn't the most refined of settings. Although one of the points their website makes is sushi is considered a "fancy" food, and with their trailer, they hope more people will try different types of sushi rolls. The people running it were extremely nice!

Next up, BBQ. Barely a hair east of IH-35 at Concordia (just south of 38th St) is Franklin BBQ, just behind Owl Tree Coffee Roasters. They've got a couple little trailers, several tables, and some nice kitchsy yard art in the way of flamingos and gnomes. And an extensive BBQ menu. Fortunately, they were offering sample plates. And even more fortunately for us, as we got in line, we were greeted by tour organizer Addie Broyles, who asked if we wanted to split a sampler plate. As she chatted with owner Aaron, he pulled what he said was their last brisket of the day out; they smoke them for about 18 hours. He gave us little bites of the nice charred exterior to whet our palates as he assembled the carnage. Mmmmm.

On the tray, we had a sausage link pulled pork, brisket, and little bites of their cole slaw & tater salad. They also make 4 different sauces -- hot, sweet, pork & espresso -- for your dining pleasure. The pulled pork (with the pork sauce of course) was my favorite. Moist, tender, and in general, just porkalicious. The brisket was a bit fatty, but very flavorful, and the espresso sauce, with it's deep, slightly bitter coffee tones went beautifully with it. The sausage and the sides didn't impress, I am sorry to say. Addie was the hostess with the mostest, making sure all participants had nametags, and in general, making us all feel welcome.

Continuing on the BBQ trail, we then hit Old School BBQ, housed in an old bus, which moves around town. They've only been open about 7 weeks, said the affable Danny, son of the pit master; they have a spot they like along MLK, but today we found them at Cesar Chavez & Pleasant Valley. I think the bus is a fantastic idea; they've got their smoker in back, and it will be great when UT football starts again for tailgating parties. He told us they've got plans for future expansion, with pizza & burgers on the horizon. We had heard their fries were good, and they were offering specials on a brisket sandwich & the fries, and we also went for the mac & cheese wedge. The brisket was nice, not as fatty as the previous, and apparently they smoke them for a minimum of 22 hours. Apparently dad gets up every 2 hours to check the meats. They had one sauce, which was sweet at first, and then had a touch of tartness & spice. I liked the sauces at Franklin better, but it's a toss up on the brisket! The Belgian-style fries were much to my liking too; russets with the skin-on. Some of the longer pieces could have been fried a little longer, but there was sufficient salt on them. Unfortunately, neither my friend nor I cared for the the mac & cheese (sorry!). Danny said they use fontina, asiago, white cheddar, and he thought there was something else. Maybe it was the fontina (I wonder if there was Swiss in it), but there was a rather astringent taste to it. Can you see the license plate of the bus? "BBQ BUS"

Reaching our limits, we decided on G'Raj Mahal (not much in the way of a website or Facebook page as of now), as our final stop in the newly trendy Rainey Street area. It's Indian food, and of the places we went, certainly the most restaurant-like, as they have a large covered carport with tables and ceiling fans. They invite you sit, and the host brings a menu, takes your order, and brings your food. It's a large lot, with the trailer, carport, and a few other small buildings sharing the space with recycled bicycles that make up the Austin Bike Zoo. Anyway, we both opted for chai tea, a cardamom kulfi (like ice cream) to split, and some items to go. The chai was nice, though a bit heavy on the black tea for my taste, and not enough of the spiciness -- ginger, cardamom, clove, etc, that I really like in my chai. The kulfi was like a vanilla ice milk, with ground cardamom powder sprinkled on top, with golden raisins and I think pistachios on it too. More cardamom please! To go, I got a samosa, and the spicy tomato soup, which was supposed to be served with the crispy papadams, but none got put into the bag with our order. Bummer. My friend got the chicken tikka masala, which I think was a half-portion sized special because of the tour. At this writing, I have had a bite of each the soup & tikka, and they seem to have a nice kick & depth. Haven't eaten the samosa or the rest of the soup as I am still too full. They've got a nice looking full menu, though the prices on the curries & other dishes would be about the equivalent at a full-service indoor restaurant.

Boy this has been a long post. Overall, we had a lot of fun checking places out, and thank god for good weather after a week of rain. All the proprietors we encountered were super friendly, and happy to chat about their food stuffs. There are a number of places on the tour we didn't get to, and a ton more that have popped up around town; Austin Food Carts is a great site to keep up with the trailers as they come & go. Many thanks to my traveling companion of the day, and fortunately, we didn't need the Pepto!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Hill's Cafe

I have always had good meals at Hill's Cafe. I've been for dinner a number of times over the years, but hadn't been in a good long while (like a year), and had never been for lunch that I can recall. I was talking to a co-worker a few days ago, and I mentioned Hill's as one of my favorite spots for a burger. He immediately said that his wife had heard horrible things about the place, and she wouldn't eat there. Then another co-workers chimed in and said she had heard from two people in the past several months that it wasn't up to snuff. I stuck to my guns though, and convinced co-worker #1 to meet me there for lunch. I prayed that this would be a good meal. And doggone it, I was right!

The place is owned by local personality Bob Cole. The entire place is fairly heavily decorated with all kinds of stuff....hard to describe, but think Bevo heads, neon beer signs, local musicans/politicans, etc.
We had the unparalleled joy of sitting in the Rick & Anita Perry booth, so we had Governor Good Hair himself staring at us throughout the meal. (Look closely at the signatures.... they're the same handwriting.)We got an appetizer of the "World Famous Mexican White Wings", which are small chicken strips, wrapped with a serrano pepper (their wording, jalapeno peppers said my chile-head friend) and bacon, then fried, and tossed in a cayenne pepper sauce (as in tabasco-style sauce) with a side of ranch. Tasty, but not sure I'd call them world famous. These looked like they may have been under the heat lamp for a little bit. We were barely halfway through them, when another waiter brought our burgers -- the Old Fashioned for me, and the Fat Bob for my friend. The guy who brought them made a pleasant comment about how the kitchen has been doing fast work lately, and how it hasn't been real busy.

My burger was just a plain one, no cheese, no toppings; one of the things I've always liked about the burger is the bun, a kolache bun, so it's a bit sweeter than normal buns. It did come with the requisite lettuce, onion, & tomato, and I asked for sweet potato fried instead of the regular ones. I requested it medium rare, and it pretty much was that. It was great. Nice grill marks, great charred flavor. A half-pound of beefy goodness. My friend's Fat Bob burger had bacon, cheese AND a fried egg on it, and he was mighty pleased with his too, and polished the whole thing off. I am surprised that ate almost the entire thing! It's certainly more than what I normally have for lunch, and need a cleanse of fruit & veggies now.
So I feel vindicated. Hill's has come through yet again. The burgers were fabulous. Next time, I'll get the chicken fried steak, which has always been good too. Meanwhile, I should have left some Farouk Shami paraphernalia for Rick Perry to enjoy...


Some friends suggested going to Jalisco's on far South Congress Ave last week since they had a gift certificate to use. Sure! Why not! I looked briefly online for info, reviews, a website, etc. and from the info posted on Yelp, I discerned that the service at this Tex Mex spot should be quite good, and the food good, but not outstanding. And you know what? That's pretty much exactly right.

So on a slightly damp Thursday, I headed south on Congress, almost to William Cannon, and discovered a pretty new building with ample parking. Inside, it's quite spacious, with booths lining the outer perimeter, a large bar against the back wall, and a lot of tables in between. My friends were already there, munching on guacamole, and perusing the menu. A very affable younger waiter (late teens/early 20s?) immediately came to get my drink order. After a few minutes studying the menu, I settled on the Clement's plate: beef skirt steak, chicken, and pork al pastor with beans & rice.
It was a sizeable plate for $11.95. In the picture, underneath that beef was the chicken & pastor. The beef alone probably would have been enough food (and it ended up being lunch the next day). The steak & pastor were tasty; the pastor was particularly good & tender. The chicken had little flavor to it, and neither did the beans nor rice. In fact, I think the rice had more flavor than the beans. Certainly more color. The real kicker though came when we got dessert. My friends had heard through another that the fried ice cream was great, and what's not to like about fried goodness? Take a close look at the picture. This isn't fried ice cream in the typical definition of FRIED ICE CREAM, as in battered and deep fried. This is a large chunk of ice cream (it was huge) that has been rolled in rice krispies to simulate the crunchy, fried outer shell. I could pretty much tell after the first bite, and while it wasn't bad (and certainly not nearly as caloric), it was a touch disappointing.
Our waiter though, was great. He kept coming back and checking on us. He did however bring the check on assumption, before we had a chance to order dessert. (Maybe it was because we asked for 2 to-go boxes.) And, a mariachi band was playing! There's a banner outside saying "mariachi music", but I didn't ever catch what the name of the group was. Most of the members were younger, which made me wonder if they are a local high school group. Their primary male & female singers were really good! If I lived closer to Jalisco's I'd go back for Happy Hour, because I think they had some decent drink specials, and while the service was great, there are plenty of other Tex Mex spots in this town for much better food. Maybe some real fried ice cream too.