Thursday, April 26, 2012

Cuban Sandwich Cafe

North of the Mueller development, tucked away in a slightly obscure location, sits Cuban Sandwich Cafe, which is both a cafe and bakery. I've known of this place for a good 6 to 9 months now, but rarely make it to the northeast part of town (it's on Briarcliff, off of Berkman). A Saturday afternoon was a good time to avoid traffic issues, and to meet up with a friend who doesn't live too far from there. You walk into the cafe and immediately see their pastry case. I was having hard time getting a shot of the case, but then I realized, the front window reflects perfectly in the glass!
Ordering at the counter, my friend picked ropa vieja, one of her favorite dishes. She was extremely pleased with it, saying it was one of the best she's had in Austin. The stewed beef was tender and flavorful, as was the rice and black beans, which had a buttery-ness to them. The  yuca didn't do a whole lot for me, but it never has. Too starchy.
I figured, if I am eating at a place called Cuban Sandwich Cafe, I ought to order a Cuban sandwich, and I can never pass up maduros (sauteed plantains). Hearty portion, nicely pressed, ham and lechon (stewed pork). Maybe a bit heavy on the yellow mustard, but overall, a tasty sandwich. I can't say that I am an expert on Cuban sandwiches by any stretch, but I enjoyed it. The maduros could have used a touch of salt (this coming from me, *shocking*!), but were tender, and had the nice caramelized bits around the edges.
After eating, I took a good look back at the pastry counter. I got one of the cinnamon sugar twists, that you see in the bottom of the case, and a coconut macaroon to its right. The twist had sort of an odd sweetness to me...almost as if it had a fruit filling in it, but it didn't. I couldn't really place it, almost like pineapple. Fairly good flaky texture, but the taste somehow wasn't my favorite. The macaroon was better, nice and coconutty, but a bit dense.

If you're thinking of heading up there, you might want to call to see if they are open. Their website, Facebook page, and this sign on the door all list different hours; it would certainly help if they were all consistent! I guess I'd go with the door sign, Mon - Sat, 8:30 am - 7pm, closed on Sunday.
There was a woman in there eating tamal cubano, and I guess I will have to go back to find out how they differ from Mexican (or even NEW Mexican) tamales!

Bits and Bites

Events... in addition to the weekend-long Austin Food and Wine Festival.....
-- Today, Chef Michelle Bernstein will be doing a cooking demo with Chefs Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki of La Condesa, at Macy's (in conjunction with Macy's Culinary Council and the Austin Food and Wine Festival) at Barton Creek Square Mall. 6 pm. Free. I'll be there!
-- Joel Ozersky, a James Beard award-winning food writer will be at Lucy's Fried Chicken on Friday, April 27th from 2 - 5pm, signing copies of his new book, Colonel Sanders and the American Dream.
-- "Great Spring Revival" wine tasting event at Max's Wine Dive, Saturday, April 28, 1 - 4pm, $25
-- Jack Allen's Kitchen and Peligroso Tequila are doing a 5-course pairing dinner, Tuesday, May 1st at 7 pm, $65/person.
-- Cinco de Mayo and the Kentucky Derby fall on the same day this year (can you figure out the date?). Several spots holding their unique "Cinco de Derby" events, including: Peche, eleven plates, Paggi House, Lucy's Fried Chicken, and Swift's Attic.
-- Sustainable Food Center's annual Farm to Plate fundraiser, featuring an amazing lineup of local talent will be May 10th at 6:30pm at Barr Mansion. Tickets $125, and moving fast!
-- Mother's Day (Sunday, May 13) brunches at Sagra, Paggi House

-- New trailer on South 1st, Phatso's, doing Philly cheese steaks. They're by Wasota and SoCo to Go, just south of the School for the Deaf.
-- Further down South 1st, Sugar Mama's Bakeshop is now open Tues - Sat at 9 am for delicious breakfast goodies, like cinnamon rolls and muffins..... *waistline expanding!*
-- Newish spot Olive and June has tweaked their hours, and now also offering a Sunday supper, serving family style. See their website for details.
-- Driving into Sunset Valley the other day, I spied two things: the recently closed Estancia Churrascuria is becoming Royal India, and the closed and torn down Red Robin is yet another chain, Longhorn Steakhouse

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Bits and Bites

Newsy stuff this week:

-- One week until the Austin Food and Wine Festival events get started! There's even a handy app (iPhone and Android) that has the schedule, grounds map, talent (the CHEFS!), and Twitter feed all rolled into one.

-- Live Fire! a grilling extravaganza with sizzling local chefs takes place at the famed Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, Thursday, April 26th. Tickets still available; foodie friends who have been before say it's a blast!

-- If you don't want to make the scenic drive to Driftwood, head to Macy's at Barton Creek Mall, at 6 pm on April 26th as well. Nationally acclaimed Chef/Restaurateur Michelle Bernstein, and La Condesa Chef Rene Ortiz and Pastry Chef Laura Sawicki join up for a cooking demonstration of Grilled Asparagus with Romesco and Ricotta Gnocchi with Favabean Pesto  Michelle Bernstein is a member of Macy's Culinary Council, and will be signing copies of her new cookbook Cuisine a Latina: Fresh Tastes and a World of Flavors from Michy’s Miami Kitchen.

-- Chef Bryce Gilmore tells Eater Austin that his now-closed trailer, Odd Duck (the precursor to Barley Swine) will eventually make a comeback, in what he hopes is a 100-seat restaurant. Don't get excited yet, as he's still exploring all his options, no lease has been signed yet!

-- I am still mourning the closure of my beloved Artz Ribhouse, but Eater Austin reports today that former owner Art Blondin is taking over the kitchen at Jax Neighborhood Cafe, at 2828 Rio Grande.  Please let there be baby back ribs!

-- Trader Joe's will apparently be coming to Austin next year! They're going to open a spot at the soon-to-be renovated Seaholm Power plant, near Lamar and Cesar Chavez (and not far from Whole Foods). 

-- The South Lamar food trailer court, where my recently discovered delicious Bella Cucina lies (South Lamar at Panther, just south of Red's Porch) is getting a makeover and some new additions. Hopefully they'll all be open next week!

-- Olive and June is beginning a Sunday Night Supper Series, $35/person for five courses, starting April 22.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Bits and Bites

-- Fresas Chicken al Carbon opens Monday, and Swift's Attic has been holding soft openings (reservation only, I think) this week. 

-- Anderson Lane is getting revamped/revitalized with the recent addition of Chen's Noodle House (see my post here), and Tarka Indian and Hopdoddy Burgers any minute now.

-- This Sunday, April 15th, Sagra holds their Sunday Supper series, a 5-course prix fixe menu for $50/person. 

-- Crawfish Boil and Festival, Saturday, April 21st at Rough Hollow in Lakeway. Tickets $15 in advance, $20 at the door. More info on their website

-- Recently re-opened downtown restaurant Hickory Street has a revised menu that includes several "small bites" options; open seven days a week, and you get 10% off with the Go Local card!

-- Snap Kitchen, a prepared meal business with three locations, has many gluten-free and paleo diet options available, and jumping ahead a bit, May is Celiac Awareness Month!

-- The six-month old elevenplates restaurant in Davenport Village on 360 is announcing a new executive chef, Joe Anguiano, who comes most recently from Uchi, by way of Los Angeles, and working with Spanish Chef Jose Andres.

-- There's a new diet and fitness app/website, SlimKicker, that "turns your diet and weight loss goals into a winnable game."

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Lucy's Fried Chicken

Consistency is everything in the restaurant world. A patron who has good food at an establishment expects it to be that way (if not better) upon their return. Yes, there are occasional glitches, but for quality establishments, they are generally few and far between. In the four+ months Lucy's Fried Chicken has been open, I have heard various impressions through the foodie grapevine that swing in both directions. I finally had the opportunity to try it for myself.
Lucy's is located at the southern end of the trendy SoCo strip, actually on College Avenue, which juts off Congress and hits Oltorf. It is the site of a defunct Mexican spot, that the folks from Olivia snatched up and renovated, with seating both in and outside. We sat inside, and I started off with a 512 Wit on tap, and we worked our way through a lot of food!
I am generally not a raw oyster person, but these were delicious! Topped with hot sauce and wasabi tobiko (fish roe), the oysters were in very gnarly shells, and just had that sweet ocean flavor. The oysters were absolutely one of the best things we had.
The Chicks and Chips, chicken salad with homemade cayenne pepper potato chips was a mixed bag. I loved the crispiness of the thick-sliced chips, very crunchy and dark, but the cayenne pepper flavor was lacking on many of the chips. In fact, I tasted cumin more than I tasted cayenne. The chicken salad didn't have a whole lot of flavor, and they are using the dark meat. It could be so much more! A little celery, garlic, spicy mayo of some sort, SALT... it has the potential.
The South Austin Wedge Salad was also very good. Nice blue cheese dressing, certainly not from a bottle. The nuts were a nice twist to it.
Then there was the chicken itself -- we got the basket, which came with five pieces (great deal for $9)! (They also have a bucket of chicken that they say serves 4, but the grapevine says it feeds more like 6!) The chicken was very good -- thick, crisp skin, juicy and moist on the inside. For sides, cornbread stuffing and Mexican Coke sweet potatoes; unfortunately, neither proved to be very appealing. The sweet potatoes are just that --  SWEET.  If you're a big connoisseur of sweet pots with marshmallows on top, then this may be your thing. I love sweet potatoes, and I love sweet stuff, but this was too sickly sweet for it to really work as a savory side dish. The cornbread dressing also suffers from sweetness, as they're using a sweet corn bread instead of a savory. Just think what a buttery jalapeno cornbread with real corn in it could do here!
A friend of mine has eaten here frequently, and has had leftover pie, so I had previously had bites of the s'mores and shoofly pies, which were both really good. I'm always a sucker for key lime pie, so we had that and the sweet tea pie. I have always said a crust makes a pie. I like to bake, and I like making pie crusts from scratch (ideally with butter and leaf lard), so I appreciate the effort that goes into them. In both these cases, the fillings were fantastic, and the crusts were close to awful. The lime pie is described as having a coriander-wafer crust. What I tasted was an undercooked pie shell with way too much shortening in it, and apart from the shortening, no other flavor. It is nice that it has a whipped cream topping as opposed to a meringue, and again, the lime flavor was incredible. (I ended up just eating the filling, not the crust.) The crust on the sweet tea pie suffered from being way too thick, and also under baked. There wasn't a whole lot of flakiness to it because of the density. My friend swears she's had the lime pie when the crust has been delicious. I trust her food opinion completely, so again, where's the consistency? Who's making the pies?
Lucy's has had it's fair share of local media attention, and some national attention as well. There doesn't appear to be any shortage of customers, and from our recent visit, it's locals, people of all ages, and even out of towners who are catching on to the hip vibes. The negative feedback I had heard from people the past few months included burnt chicken (this came from two separate people, and one was told "that's how it's supposed to be" when they questioned it), to poor side dishes, to the pie crust issue. The positive feedback has been the chicken's great, as are the deep fried deviled eggs, and steak night (Tuesdays) was delicious. But not one person who I have heard feedback from said "everything we ate was fantastic," and don't you want to hear that in the restaurant business?

So the question is, does Lucy's have any interest in really improving the quality and consistency of their food across the board when they're seemingly cruising along as it is?

Friday, April 6, 2012


It's always good to reconnect with old friends, especially when they are food people too. And when they suggested trying Gusto for Austin Restaurant Week, I jumped at the chance to try a new place. Located in the old La Sombra & Sampaio's spot at 4800 Burnet, Gusto has both indoor and outdoor seating. I was the first of our party to arrive, and picked indoors; I was immediately struck by how light-filled the decor is. There are fun spray-painted stencils of Italian notables such as Sophia Loren, Mona Lisa, and Frank Sinatra on the walls and ceiling.
I ordered off the ARW menu, choosing the bellini (they make their own white peach puree), the frittata, and the olive oil cake.
The fritatta was quite good, could have used a little more goat cheese, but overall tasty. 
And my friends from the regular brunch menu, and we also asked for the polenta fries as an appetizer; the Breakfast Plate was completely devoured.
And the grits (ham and grits with eggs) were one of the best things we tried. Great, great flavor and creaminess to them.
The food did seem to take a bit of a long time to come from the kitchen, and they were only about half full. When our food came, we still hadn't received the polenta fries, and mentioned it to our waiter. He apologized, and took full responsibility for the error. They were delivered to the table a few minutes later by the manager, who immediately said they would be on the house. Good customer service! And you know what? The polenta fries were amazing! They pour the polenta in a thin layer on a sheet pan, and let cool. They're cut into french fry shape, lightly battered, and fried. Piping hot, but really a killer dish.
The olive oil cake was okay.... a bit dense and dry, and to me it just didn't have any great flavor to it. The people next to us had the chocolate crostata, which I regretted not getting.
All in all a good time was had by all, and I look forward to going back.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

BIts and Bites

What's new this week?

-- Backstage Grill, new trailer of fusion foods on Rainey Street
-- Workhorse Bar, at 100 E. North Loop, featuring over 50 beers on tap
-- Max's Wine Dive is debuting a new spring menu
-- Fonda San Miguel will be hosting a four course dinner paired with South African wines; April 25th, $75/person. The dinner will feature the head of Cape Classics, the largest importer of South African wines in the US.
-- A new website, Culinary Programs, designed to show where culinary schools nationwide are located. I tested it by entering my zip code, and while it does come up with local schools as well as online programs, it did not pull two local cooking schools that I know of here in Austin, one of which is in my zip code. I've emailed the creator of the site back, asking how the site pulls data. 
-- A number of local businesses & restaurants will be participating in Give 5 Day on April 21st, in honor of Earth Day, where they give 5% of proceeds to a collaboration of environmental organizations (Hill Country Conservancy, Texas Land Conservancy, Tree Folks, Sierra Club, Clean Water Fund, & Friends of Barton Springs Pool). Just a few of the restaurants in South Austin include: Bouldin Creek Cafe, Phil's Ice House, Red's Porch, and La Boite; see the full list. So go eat or shop at these places, and know that your money is going to a good cause!

The New Chen's Noodle House

It has finally opened! The second location of Chen's Noodle House, on Anderson Lane, by the Alamo Village theater. Or more precisely, facing Anderson, next to Cover 3 and Chipotle, not far from where the new Hopdoddy's is going in. The original spot is a hole in the wall in a strip center at the intersection of Spicewood Springs Road and 183. With mismatched tables and chairs, the whole place (kitchen included) can't be much more than 200 (150?) square feet, but there's a total charm about it, and the food always rocks, so I've had no problem going to far northwest Austin for good eats, especially when it involves Chen's hand cut noodles.

For the new location, Chen's clearly had some financial backers with ample resources, because this place is swank by comparison. Modern clean lines, nice wood tables and chairs, carts to transport hot noodle bowls, and waitstaff dressed in all black attire. Minimal decor, except for a few plants, and very low-lighting rounds it all out. (I did not use the flash on the camera, so some of these are a bit fuzzy.)
It's also an expanded menu, though I am still glad to see my favorites on there, like the lamb skewers. We didn't get them this time, but if you like lamb, they're amazing.

We started with an order of the green onion crepes (pancakes), which I could eat my weight in -- they're light and crispy, with just a touch of elasticity to them on the inside. I love these!
And something new for us, the sesame pockets, with soy-marinated pork inside, sort of a Chinese pita pocket sandwich. Bread was a little dense, but the meat was quite good.
This new spot is offering hot pots, and there's a large menu of available ingredients to put in your hot pot, from meat to tofu, and every veggie in between.
There's a choice of four different broths, and we opted for the spicy broth, with lamb, enoki mushrooms, and bok choy. It also comes with three dipping sauces, a hoisin, a garlickly oil, and I am not sure what the third was, possibly a fermented soy, as it had a very earthy, miso-like flavor. So they bring the food, and light the sterno underneath the pot. Within a minute, the broth is bubbling away. The lamb was cut into extremely thin slices, so it cooked in about 10 - 15 seconds. It's fun communal eating! The broth does get very hot though, and we finally asked our waitress to extinguish the flame; in the future, I might ask to keep the sterno lid at the table so we can do it ourselves when ready.
Our final dish was the spicy pork loin in broth. On the menu, it comes with rice vermicelli noodles. I asked if we could have it with the hand cut noodles instead. (At the original Chen's I have asked for noodle substitutions in the past, because the hand cut are SO good. More on those in a minute.) Our waitress explained that Mr. Chen was about to leave for the evening (it was around 8 pm), and he was the only one who knew how to make/cut those noodles. Excuse me? This is a restaurant with several menu items with the hand cut noodles, and only one person can do it?! She further explained they had purchased a machine to cut the noodles, but Mr. Chen wasn't happy with the quality. Without being argumentative or disrespectful, I re-stated what she had said "So if Mr. Chen isn't here, no one can have the hand cut noodles?" That's correct. I asked her about the original location, and apparently Mr. Chen's wife is there, making the noodles. Oh, and Mr. Chen is supposed to go on vacation in May; they better have their noodle situation figured out by then! I did ask her to pass along the feedback that I would be a very unhappy customer if I was coming here just to have the hand cut noodles, and was told they weren't available.

So we had the vermicelli bowl, the original way it was listed on the menu. The broth was incredibly hot (more so temperature than spiciness, but it certainly had a kick), and while tasty enough, I felt that the vermicelli noodles got overcooked from the heat of the broth, because they developed a soft, almost mushy texture, which becomes unappealing to me.
Back to the hand cut noodles, or dao xian mian. You don't find these just anywhere. The noodle master makes the dough that is shaped into a loaf, like bread dough. Holding the loaf, the noodles are masterfully cut with a special knife into a pot of simmering water or broth. The texture of the noodle is uneven, thin along the edges, and thicker along the middle, giving them a bit of a chewy consistency. Here's a brief video from YouTube. At the original Chen's you could see Mr. Chen from the order window shaving the noodles. This is a picture from 2010 at Chen's; look at the stir fry dish in the back, and you can sort of tell what the noodles look like. 
The new Chen's is extremely nice, and again, there's an expanded menu. However, for a few miles more, I think I may stick to the charm that is the tiny spot in the strip center. As long as I can get my hand cut noodles, I will be happy, so I really hope Mr. Chen shares the secrets of the noodles with a protege.