Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mai Thai

Finally had a chance to go to Mai Thai the other night, after a couple previous failed attempts (on my end, not theirs). It's a new Thai restaurant on San Jacinto between 2nd and 3rd, or more specifically, between Max's Wine Dive and Piranha Killer Sushi. The interior has nice clean lines, rich red walls, and some cool looking light fixtures hanging from the ceiling. (They don't really seem like "chandeliers".) I didn't take any pictures of the decor, but there are a few to be viewed on their well-designed web site. There was only one host/server, but it wasn't busy, and he did a great job of refreshing water glasses, and checking in on us throughout the meal.

We started with mee krob, an old favorite of mine that I don't often see. It's vermicelli rice noodles that are deep fried til crispy, and tossed with a tamarind sauce. The one I had growing up in Washington, DC had a really great sweet twangy sauce that was drizzled over, as opposed to tossed all together like this one. I liked the egg strips and little tofu cubes, as it cut back a bit on the sweetness.
Next was somtum, or better known as green papaya salad. What a great summertime dish! Well, really an anytime dish, but there's something about being hot outside and eating a hot but refreshingly cool salad. Along with the green papaya, this had carrots, tomatoes, peanuts, and some cabbage on the side.  I would have liked a touch more fish sauce to really bring out the intensity of the different Thai tastes, but it was a very nice, fresh, presentation.
Followed by lard nar, stir fried wide rice noodles (which you can't see) with a brown soy bean paste gravy and Chinese broccoli. I am a sucker for the fresh rice noodles.... they're made in sheets and then cut into strips for various dishes. While Mai Thai doesn't use MSG, I think there was a lot of sodium in this one. It didn't seem like it at the time, but when I woke up in the morning, my fingers were definitely swollen.
And to finish it off, sweet rice with mango. I was pleasantly surprised by the strong coconut milk flavor in the rice.
Everything was fresh, and the dishes came out from the kitchen well-timed. There are many other dishes on the menu, particularly on the special dish section that I would love to try. They've also got some more mainstream Chinese-influenced dishes, I am sure to keep some of the non-Thai enthusiasts at bay. I should try their pad thai, as it's often a go-to dish when I try a new Thai place, sort of my measure of their abilities. It was a pleasant atmosphere, and I hope the place will succeed; it seems like a good location for an Asian restaurant that's NOT a national chain (PF Chang's is around the block). They've been active in social media, and offer happy hour specials. If you're looking for a new Thai spot, give Mai Thai a try.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Bits and Bites

Last week was not a good one for several area restaurants. Right after I published last week's installment of B & B, the info started spreading via Twitter and Facebook of some unforeseen closures.

-- El Arbol, near 38th and Jefferson
-- The Belmont, on 8th between Lavaca and Guadalupe
-- Hickory Street Bar & Grill, at 8th and Congress 
-- Graze, on E. 6th, near Chicon

In better news:
-- Eater Austin reports that a smallish chain called Noodles and Company is expanding into the Austin area. Carbs = good! 
-- Expanding her Rainey Street empire, Bridget Dunlap has opened Bar Ilegal, adjacent to Clive, a mezcal-only watering hole. (No website of their own, as of yet; the above link takes you to Clive.)

-- Saturday, at SEVEN locations around town will be Austin Bakes for Bastrop, a bake-sale fundraiser for the Bastrop community that was devastated by fires a couple weeks ago. If you'd like to get involved as a baker or to assist at a bake sale location, or to make a financial donation, go to their website.  I will be making biscuits for sale (all sales are on a donation basis) for the Hotel San Jose location on South Congress. Bring your own gravy.
-- This weekend is the 7th Annual Texas Fall Fest and Wine Auction in Marble Falls.
-- 24 Diner will hold a beer pairing dinner with Real Ale on October 5th, tickets are $60/person. The five course menu sounds amazing; I can forward it to you if you'd like. And speaking of 24 Diner, it was officially announced that Chef Drew Curren is one of the Top Chef contestants this upcoming season along with the long-rumored Uchi/Uchiko sous, Paul Qui. Congrats guys! How awesome to see Austin represent! New season begins in November!

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Friday night, tickets to Erasure (yes, I still love them after 20-something years!) at Austin City Limits Moody Theater. Needed an easy place to meet my friends for dinner, and thus we hatched a plan: park at City Hall (at only $5, it's a bargain downtown), walk across the street and eat at Taverna, and walk across the street once more to ACL. It worked perfectly!

We arrived just after 6:30 pm, and Taverna had seating availability on their covered front patio. Our table was right by one of the misters, and it was a pleasant atmosphere to people watch. It was sort of like being a tourist in our own town, as we saw the mild hustle and bustle of what's become downtown Austin -- there were concert goers in their Erasure t-shirts, (actual) tourists, people walking their dogs, a group of young women ALL in short black dresses and one in white (bachlorette party?) to watch.

Food-wise, we started with the bruschetta and frito mixto plates. Warning: the photos were taken with my cell phone, as you can't take real cameras into ACL; everything's got a blue tinge to it....The bruschetta was very vibrant, and wasn't over-dressed. The frito mixto had calamari and shrimp, as well as shoestring carrots and zucchini; very well-fried, not greasy, though maybe a touch over-salted for some (not me!).
I had the risotto al vin santo, with asparagus, prosciutto, and pecorino cheese on top. This photo completely washes the dish out, and it tasted much better than it looks! Could have used a hint of acid, perhaps from some white wine, but I ate the entire bowl.

This is the pear and gorgonzola fiocchi (tortellini), with walnuts, arugula, and a cream sauce. It was rather sweet from the pear, but it all went together nicely.
And, linguine pasta with chicken, mushrooms, truffle oil in a cream sauce, very rich!
All of us cleaned our plates, and then went to the concert to dance it off! I had been to Taverna in early spring for drinks and appetizers with friend, but it had been a long time since I had a full meal there. They seem to be doing quite nicely for themselves, and from their website, I learned they have locations in the DFW area, and appear to be part of a larger Italian restaurant family. They do seem to know what they are doing, and they're  positioned in prime real estate downtown to attract whomever is walking by.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bits and Bites

-- Today, Hopdoddy is donating 100% of their proceeds to the Bastrop fire victims.
-- Cannoli's Joe's is hosting a cooking demo with wine pairings, the Friday, September 23rd, at 6:30 pm, $45 a person, and includes a recipe book.
-- On September 25th, Odd Duck Farm to Trailer will also host a benefit for the Bastrop community; Black Sheep Lodge and Jack Allen's will also be providing food. For a minimum $30 donation, it's all you can eat, between 12 - 4pm.
-- September 25th is also the first day of Austin Restaurant Week! Sept 25 - 28, and Oct 2 - 5.
-- Click here to see the locations that will be hosts for the Austin Bakes for Bastrop community bake sale on Saturday, October 1st.  They will be in seven spots all over town, so please consider baking and donating your goods or purchasing for a great cause.
-- Sagra will celebrate their 4th anniversary (and overcoming this year's fire) on October 8th with dinner discounts of 20 - 100%! Each table will receive a sealed envelope  to be opened at the end of their meal, with a surprise discount inside. Neat concept! Darn, I will be out of town for that one....

-- While sadly, Somnio's on South First has recently closed, there will be an exciting new tenant -- Todd Duplechan, of the Four Season's Trio, and his wife Jessica Maher, have announced they will be taking over the space, to be called Lenoir.
-- I can also report of much construction at the old Bouldin Creek Coffee House, site of the incoming Elizabeth Street Cafe, an upscale Vietnamese spot. The building on the north side of Elizabeth Street, which has sat vacant as long as I can recall has been rumored to also be a new restaurant, and as I drove past there yesterday, noticed the presence of small bulldozers clearing land, perhaps for a parking lot?
-- Kohana Coffee has bottled their cold brew, and it will soon be available at Central Market! I am not really much of a coffee drinker, but I've had this stuff and it is SMOOTH!
-- The iconic gay bar, Charlie's closes on October 3rd, after 27 years.


And a newly released poem by one of my favorites, Shel Silverstein:

Italian Food
Oh, how I love Italian food.
I eat it all the time,
Not just 'cause how good it tastes
But 'cause how good it rhymes.
Minestrone, cannelloni,
Macaroni, rigatoni,
Spaghettini, scallopini,
Escarole, braciole,
Insalata, cremolata, manicotti,
Marinara, carbonara,
Shrimp francese, Bolognese,
Ravioli, mostaccioli,
Mozzarella, tagliatelle,
Fried zucchini, rollatini,
Fettuccine, green linguine,
Tortellini, Tetrazzini,
Oops—I think I split my jeani.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Live Oak BBQ

My friend Squidley lives near E. 2nd and Pleasant Valley, and had alerted me this spring to the opening of Live Oak BBQ. He had given me good reports on the meats, and now it was time for me to see for myself. Walking in around 6pm on a Saturday, I felt like I was opening the door to a total dive (which it was...the former Mis Amigos beer joint), but the smell of the smoker immediately made me happy.

Squidley had recommended the pork steak, and you know me, pork makes me happy. But pork steak? I asked the guys working there about it, and they said it's a shoulder cut that is smoked, and he likened it to a smokey pancetta. Umm... yes please!  So we got some of that (the back left in the picture) and some brisket, along with potato salad, slaw, and of course some pickles.
So I am now definitely a convert to this pork steak creation! It was juicy and tender, meaty and a bit fatty.... oh yeah, and smokey! The brisket was good, but not as juicy as Franklin's, and the sides were okay. Live Oak does some meat specials on the weekends, but unfortunately, we missed out on the Korean short ribs that day. Their bbq sauce was different too -- in a good way. It's dark and vinegary looking, but it doesn't have the strong bite that vinegar does. I can't figure out what's in it.... secret's in the sauce, I guess!

Here's a close up of some leftover pork I ate the the next day; you can really see the pink smoke ring! Yes, as good as it looks. And as their painted fence and website say: eat meat!


Sometimes your choices of where to eat are pretty much made for you, like when you have an expiring coupon. Such was the case for last week's lunch trip to Garrido's, on the street level of the 360 Building at 3rd and Nueces. While the choice was *made* for us, it proved to be worthwhile!

Even though it was a hot day, we decided to sit on their patio; it was quite comfortable out there! It was partially covered, and overlooks the Shoal Creek trail (I think that's what that's called....). When we arrived around 11:45 am, we were some of the first diners there for lunch, and the place was at least half full when we left. We started with the lamb pops, served with plantain chips and an ancho sauce. While they had a very strong grilled flavor, they were delicious! Off to a good start!
Garrido's had some nice $12  lunch specials: pick an app, main course, and a dessert, and while the choices were from an abbreviated menu, it was still a good deal.  There were three of us, and three appetizer choices, so we got one of each the guacamole, salsa, and a mushroom and corn quesadilla.The guac could have used a bit of lime, and the salsa was a touch flat, but the quesadilla was tasty.
I ordered the tilapia fish tacos, which was a decent sized portion, and very nicely breaded and fried. The rice had a slight greenish cast to it, and I asked the waiter what was in it, and he said they put in a touch of tomatillo sauce. Neither the beans nor rice were particularly special, but the fish made up for it.
One friend had the pork carnitas tacos, with nice pineapple chunks; she chose a salad rather than beans and rice. The pork was tasty.
And the other originally ordered the brisket tacos, but the server came back to say they were out of brisket, so he picked the beef picadillo relleno. He enjoyed it. Looking back at the picture now, they shoulda wiped that plate down! ;)
There were two dessert choices, creme brulee, with mango habanero honey, and a chocolate truffle on top of a chocolate mousse, and buttery cookie. Both were really really delicious! The topping on the creme brulee was a nice twist on the standard, and the flavors really popped. Would love to try their chocolate tres leches next time.
We were very pleased with the food, and I would happily go back, even with no coupon/groupon to dictate the necessity. As it should, the food speaks for itself. Oh, and the guava and watermelon margaritas would be nice to go back for as well!

Monday, September 12, 2011

El Greco -- an update

I had a great dinner at El Greco about two months ago; you can read that previous post here. A couple of weeks ago, El Greco participated in Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares show on FOX, where the rather belligerent Ramsay comes to "rescue" a failing restaurant. He spends time in the restaurant, yells a bunch, makes some changes, and leaves -- all in the name of television ratings, I am sure. Or at least so I am told that's how it goes, as I have never watched the show. (I couldn't take all the yelling and insults he hurls on Hell's Kitchen.)

My dining companion wanted some good healthy Mediterranean food for lunch, so it was off to El Greco. Apparently we were the first diners for Saturday lunch, arriving a bit past 11:30 am.  We were immediately greeted and told to sit wherever we wished. As we sat, I could hear some yelling in the kitchen; something about "put the meat in the oven" and I could hear the word "dumbass" but don't know the exact context. I could hear the overtones of yelling or some sort of grumbling at least one other time during our meal. (I am fairly certain these were coming from the chef.)

Our greeter/server came right over, welcomed us, and introduced himself as Dustin. We started chatting about the newly designed menu, and he gave us a few tidbits about their experience. He said it was grueling, but he felt worth it in the end. The owner and chef, Jake, had actually applied to the show over 3 years ago on a whim, but didn't hear anything until 8 months ago. FOX sent a camera crew out, and they took a bit of test footage of the kitchen, and then back to what I presume would be the show's producers. Once El Greco was officially chosen for the makeover, each person who works for the restaurant had to fill out a 14 page questionnaire. The restaurant also had to sign a contract agreeing to abide by the new menu items. Previous customer favorites, like dolmas, were removed, and can no longer be served, and I believe he said they used to do catering, which currently they cannot do. No word on how long these freezes are in effect.

I really like the new look of the menus, very streamlined and clean; the previous was a bit cluttered. (At this writing, the old menu is still up on their website.)
The interior decor doesn't seem all that different, though there are now Greek statue head profiles painted on the walls, and everything is in white and blue. 
I ordered the lamb pita sandwich, and my friend the Greek salad with grilled shrimp. Unfortunately, Dustin came back to say the lamb wasn't ready yet. So I went with the gyro.
Once you got past the shrimp, there wasn't a whole lot to the salad. My friend, who has watched the show, said that Gordon is all about downsizing the portions and that seemed pretty evident with her salad. Also, she asked for no onions, and it did come with them, My gyro was okay...the meat a bit dry, and a little more bread than meat. When Dustin came to clear our plates, he asked how things were, and I told him it was on the dry side. He did apologize (again) for the lamb not being ready, as that was one of his favorites.

Overall, the menu looks decent, not that different than the old, with the exception of two new hummus appetizers, a chipotle and Hatch (New Mexico green) chile.  We were told they were proving to be very popular, but the thought of a green chile hummus in a Greek restaurant makes me cringe, sorry! Our server was great, but I'd say the jury's still out on the food changes at El Greco. The show is supposed to air in October.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bits and Bites

Of note: 

-- In my August 30th posting, I wrote of an upcoming benefit dinner hosted by A Torrid Affair on September 26th. Proceeds will benefit the Dell Children's Medical Center, and here's a link to the menu, with thanks to Michael Menley of A Torrid Affair for passing it along in weblink form! :)
-- Do you really really like coffee, or are just starting to get into your morning java, and want to learn more? Houndstooth Coffee  will be offering a class, beginning Sunday, September 25th for 3 sessions. 
-- Austin Restaurant Week  is coming, Sept 25 - 28 and Oct 2 - 5. Sixty-four of Austin's finest will offer prie fix (and affordable) menus, with two-course offerings at lunch, and three-course at dinner. Eat up!

-- eleven plates and wine will be opening in Davenport Village on 360 on September 25th. They'll be open for lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch. Owners Mike and Kelly Swartz own the Austin Melting Pot restaurants, and they consider their new venture to be "upscale casual".
-- Juiceland  is the new name for the Daily Juice and Juice Box juice joints. There's an expanded menu too, with more salads, cleanses, detoxifiers, and of course juice and smoothies.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

El Alma

I attended a media tasting last night of the new El Alma (the former El Chile) at Barton Springs and Dawson Road, headed up by Executive Chef Alma Alcocer. We were seated in the upstairs terrace patio area, which, given the late summer heat, was still quite comfortable, and you don't really hear the noise from the street. The white-washed walls and how it's built into the hillside evoke an image of Greece!

It started with the Guacamole al Chipotle, on the right, and the Ceviche on the left. I really liked the sunflower seeds on the guac, and while ceviche isn't usually my first love, this was done with black drum, and was nicely prepared with pickled onion, and not at all "overcooked."
Next was Sopecitos with beef, which was delicious! It's not a regular menu item, but it's worth getting if you see it on their specials. The masa cake was nicely done, not overly dry or heavy.
Then the Gringas quesadillas with mushrooms and caramelized onions, with a nice sauce, that if memory serves, I think was chipotle.
Followed by the crab cakes, also a non-regular menu item. They were pure crab with whole corn kernels on the inside (no filler!), with a heavy tortilla breading on the outside, served with remoulade and pickled onions.
And a pork taco al pastor that had nice flavor.
Finishing with a bite of Tequila Lemon Cream Cake!
I have it on good authority that the duck relleno is fantastic, so I know what I will be ordering from the entree menu when I return! Nice to have another quality establishment in the neighborhood!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Recent Eats

So here are a couple places that I've eaten recently, and clearly haven't made the time to write full posts!  

Had lunch at the Whip In, the combo Indian food/bar/convenience store spot on the southbound frontage road of IH-35 between Woodland and Oltorf. I seem to remember it from years ago when it was still mostly convenience store. Now, when you walk in, you're immediately faced with a somewhat jumbled chalkboard menu. As you keep walking straight back, you have some bar stools at the counter, and the store merchandise and refrigerated cases behind you when sitting.
After studying the board, and hearing they were out of samosas (problem with the fryer, I think), I picked the Travis Heights sandwich -- samosa-style potatoes, peas, carrots, cilantro chutney, and provolone cheese grilled in naan bread, and my friend had the curried ratatouille.
All in all, not bad. Mine could have used more of the chutney, or something to jazz it up a bit. Would be interested to try some of their meat dishes. They do get creativity points for their menu, a fusion of Indian and American cuisines, with things from biryanis to South Asian Frito Pie. And they source locally! 

A last minute meet-up with a friend found us at Red House Pizzeria on a Friday night. We walked in through the bar area, which was packed, but across the covered patio and into the restaurant portion found no waiting. GREAT happy hour specials, which were available in the restaurant -- a few different drinks at half or reduced price, and the appetizers were half price. 

We both started with the house punch cocktail, and then shared the garlic bread, meatballs, Greek salad, and Gorgonzola and bacon pizza. The meatball description says they have a touch of truffle oil, which I couldn't taste at all.
The pizza was a little underdone for my liking. I had one leftover piece that I ate for lunch the next day, which I heated it in the toaster oven, and the crust did get nice and crispy.
Certainly decent food, great happy hour prices, and a very friendly, efficient waiter, named Ross. Would I go back though? 

And then brunch this weekend at the very popular 24 Diner. Fortunately, it was only about a 15 minute wait (after being told 45 min), and we were seated in the back room, which was a hair quieter than the main room. 

Three of us split the heirloom tomato salad, which was delicious.
I had the French toast with vanilla cream and blueberries, with sides of egg and sausage. Yum! 
One friend had the ham and Gruyere frittata, and the other the hash, all very tasty. We had wanted to split a milkshake for dessert, but were too full! 

Bits and Bites

-- The Next Food Network Star will be holding a casting THIS Saturday, at the Hyatt Regency at 208 Barton Springs Road, from 9a - 1p. Could this be YOU? See the link for application and requirements.

-- On Thursday, September 8, dine at Tarka and a portion of the proceeds benefits Dine Out for the Cure, and on September 13, it will benefit Dining for Life.

-- The Blanton Museum of Art will be hosting a talk by cookbook author Patricia Quintana, "Moles: The Aromas and Flavors of Mexico" on September 13th at 6 pm.

-- Savory Spice Shop is opening a second location in Austin on September 15th, this one in the Arboretum, next to Con Olio (the olive oil shop). More info to be had on their Facebook page.

-- J Mueller BBQ will open their new trailer on September 26th at 1502 S. 1st Street. At present, their webpage doesn't have any info on it, but hopefully, the menu will soon appear! Very excited for this one, as it will be close to my house!