Monday, April 29, 2013


A good foodie friend of mine lives in Dripping Springs, and has always lamented the lack of quality restaurants in her area. Well, things are a changin'. Pieous, a pizza spot, has opened on Hwy. 290 just before the Nutty Brown Cafe if you're coming from Austin. And while it's not actually in Dripping, it's close enough that my friend has now been several times, and invited me to go with her last Sunday.

It's a cute red building and a big dirt lot in front with plenty of parking. When you walk inside, it's a nice open room with a mix of communal seating, counter seating, regular tables and even a patio.
You go to the back corner to study the menu and order. Now they've only been open about two months, but there were no paper/printed menus to hold in-hand and look at, as all the menu items are listed on the chalkboard. I think if I hadn't been there with friends who had been a number of times, I would have been a bit overwhelmed! I hope they will consider adding some printed menus because it got crowded up at the counter, and if you're a few people deep in line, you can't read the board. Now I swear I didn't notice this before on their Facebook page, but there is a link to their menu items.
Here's the pizza menu and your choice of toppings.
We ordered the Fat Queen, which has sopressata, pepperoni, and sausage, and as you can see, nice amount of toppings. The pizzas are probably about 12" (maybe a bit bigger?) in diameter. One pizza and a salad would probably be good for two people. (But we were three hungry people, and not afraid of leftovers.) The pizzas cook very quickly in their wood-fired oven. The outer crust is lightly crisp and nice an chewy. You can taste the yeastiness of the crust. I would have liked the bottom crust to have been a bit crisper, but this is still extremely good pizza.
And we had the Bacon Bleu, with bacon marmalade, gorgonzola and mozzarella cheeses, and arugula. As you can see, there was plenty of arugula, but not quite enough bacon marmalade. Being the bacon lover, I wanted more bacony goodness distributed more evenly across the crust. But when you did get a bite of the sweet and salty bacon jam, the lightly bitter arugula, and the pungency of the bleu cheese, you had a near-perfect mouthful of food.
Pieous occupies the old Cartwright's BBQ spot, and when they went out of business, they also left their smoker.  Pieous realized they couldn't just leave it there unattended, so they are smoking some beef and making pastrami. And not just any pastrami, really good, moist pastrami, that's almost like a brisket.  I've never really been a pastrami eater, but my friends insisted that we get the pastrami plate! I think I am now a pastrami convert! Very moist, tender pastrami, lightly pickled onions, a couple of mustards, and some sourdough bread. It's also generous portion of meat for under $11. 
The husband and wife owners also came around to check on their customers and to make sure everything was to your liking. They have three young children, so it's a very child-friendly place. So much so, that one whole section of their beautiful chalk art decorated interior is a corner for kids to draw on. I loved all the chalk art, but more importantly, it also tells a story about their food.
They also offer a variety of desserts. See the cookie under the middle dome? It completely filled a standard white paper plate! Tasted like it was made with butter too.
So take a little drive just west of town. Pieous has a different style of pizza than the "other" popular places in Austin; it's not cracker-crust thin, or uniformly crispy throughout, or huge slices that you fold in half to eat. These are special creations. And as you would expect with a small family-owned artisinal business, you can see and taste the pride that went into making your food. And yes, Pieous pizza does make you happy.

Monday, April 22, 2013


Parkside was the first of Shawn Cirkiel's three restaurants to open (in 2008), and yet somehow, I am just now finding my way there though I have been to the other two (The Backspace and Olive + June). I met a friend for happy hour last Sunday evening; she, a fellow foodie who has been on numerous occasions. I will still need to get back for a full-on meal, but happy hour was certainly a good start.

I started with a cocktail , the Germain Twist -- Cava, St. Germain, and a little splash of cranberry juice, with a twist of lemon. As I like my bubblies and whites on the sweeter side, this was perfect for me, and I think I need to purchase some St. Germain to recreate this at home.
As you can see below, Parkside offers happy hour daily from 5 - 6:30 pm, and there are plenty of food options that average out to $5 - 6/plate. We picked four different items to share, and told our waiter to just have the kitchen space their arrivals a bit.
The first out was the calamari, dusted with paprika and served with aioli. They were good, but honestly could have been fried just a touch longer to make them more golden and a bit crisper.
The second dish was absolutely the star of the evening -- blonde pate, with strawberry relish and toast points. While the menu didn't say (and more about menu descriptions in a moment), surely this was made from chicken livers...with a whole bunch of butter, cream, and probably some other cholesterol-boosting agents. I know that pates are not for everyone; I have only been a convert in the recent years. This was so creamy and smooth, and devoid of any real liver flavor, that you forgot you were eating liver. I know you can't really see them, but the strawberries were so finely diced and they contained just enough acid to cut the fattiness and richness of the pate to round out the dish. The bread was extremely light, possibly yesterday's brioche that's been very thinly sliced and lightly toasted. The pate would make a lovely sandwich spread, like for a grilled pork bahn mi. I am still swooning over the pate!
This next one is pork rillettes with potato croquettes and strawberry compote. Strawberries again? Well, they are in season in Central Texas, and they were nice and fresh. My dining companion thought the pork wasn't the freshest; it didn't taste off to me, but it did not have a whole lot of flavor. Now the surrounding elements on the plate did -- the strawberries and what tasted like a cranberry compote on the bottom of the plate; the potato croquettes were ok, but apart from not being greasy, there wasn't too much else to them. Unfortunately next to the blonde pate, these really paled in flavor-profile comparison.
Our last appetizer were the crab fritters, that were served with a ravigote sauce, which was a new culinary term for me. In fancy French terms, it's a derivation from a veloute sauce (one of the French mother sauces, made from stock and a blond roux); ravigote adds herbs and acid, and in this example, in the form of lemon zest and juice. Really a lovely sauce. The crab were good, but largely made so by the pop from the sauce.
And then, on to dessert!

Here is the blackberry + hazelnuts which my companion ordered; I had a little bite which I liked, and overall she was happy with it.
And this the coffee doughnuts, which was recommended by our server Eric, over the chocolate three ways. The chicory coffee ice cream was incredible! Such a strong coffee flavor, it made me wonder if the caffeine would keep me awake that night (it didn't). The doughnuts were a little on the chewy side, like the dough got a bit overworked, but the surrounding crumble and tart cherries on the plate were great accompaniments.
My one real critique of the Parkside family of restaurants is the minimal amount of information put forward on the menu about each dish. I am the kind that wants as much menu information as possible so I don't have to ask the server a ton of questions. Looking at the dinner menu, I would want to know how a dish is prepared (fried, steamed, poached, braised, seared, etc.) and you don't always get that info from the menu. Apart from that (and being located on 6th Street), Parkside was a solid experience, and our service was great. While not every dish shined, you can taste the potential, and you see why Shawn Cirkiel is one of the top chefs in Austin.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Trio of Trailers -- Pretty Thai For A White Guy, Sambet's, Taste

I have been to three different food trailers in the past week, so here's the low down! (Spoiler -- all were GOOD!)

Pretty Thai For A White Guy is one of two trailers-in-residence at the Moontower Saloon on Manchaca, just a little south of Slaughter. Moontower is a mostly-outdoor bar on a couple of wooded acres, similar to Contigo off of Airport, but serving drinks only. That's where the trailers come in. Pretty Thai is run by a trio of non-Asian chefs out of a converted school bus. They've got a nice Thai-inspired menu that includes things like curries, pad thai, and sweet potato fries with sriracha.
When I went up to the trailer, I scanned the menu board, and was disappointed to see they were out both pork dishes for the evening. I asked the person working (who I think was Kristen, one of the owners) for a recommendation, and she said they had just made the green curry paste, so she certainly recommended the green curry. I ordered that with the beef sirloin. When she delivered it to our table a few minutes later, it did not disappoint. It's a nice hearty bowl with beef,and fresh veggies -- eggplant, green beans, tomatoes and rice underneath. The curry had good flavors in it -- lemongrass, chile, coconut milk -- it had a bit of a kick, but not overpowering.
My friend ordered the Thai cornbread and nachos which were also quite good. Not sure I got all of the ginger compound butter flavor with the cornbread, but it was a good sized piece. The nachos are with shredded chicken, smoked gouda, caramelized onions, and sriracha, so a bit on the spicy side, but the gouda added a nice creaminess to it, and the tortilla chips were nice thick ones, so they really stood up to the weight and moisture from the toppings. And in a nice touch, Kristen came back by our table after a little bit to see how we liked the food. I thought the curry could have used a touch of salt to bring out the flavors, but I told her I AM partial to salt! (And carry my own. Yup.)
Moontower is a comfortable venue this time of year. They only opened in November, so who knows what it will be like out there in the heat of the summer, though there are a lot of trees. Apparently the parking lot can get filled up quick, especially on nights when they have live music playing, but they have recently bought the adjacent lot and will be expanding the parking. I look forward to going back for beers and more Thai food!

Sambet's Cajun Roadside Cafe at 4801 Burnet Road next to Pinthouse Pizza, is the trailer version of the former restaurant at 183 and Spicewood, that burned in a fried turkey accident two Thanksgivings ago. While trailer owner Doug did ramble on a bit about what the ex-wife got in their divorce in regards to the restaurant, he did say that he's been looking for a place to reopen the restaurant.  For now though, Cajun fans should be pretty happy with the food he's producing.

My friend and I split an original muffaletta sandwich and side of seafood gumbo. The sandwich was ham, salami, and provolone cheese; now while I liked the bread, it seemed more like a po-boy sandwich bread than a muffaletta bread. I am NO Cajun expert, but I thought that muff bread was round, and more focaccia-like. The fillings were good, though it wasn't exactly heaping with them. The gumbo was a nice dark one, and fortunately not made from a burned roux like some are. This had some sausage and crawdads in it, and I could see in his Louisiana-shaped condiment container a jar of "Slap Your Mama's" seasoning, and I wonder if that's the spice mix I tasted in it. Too bad Sambet's isn't doing any desserts, because beignets would have been fantastic!

Taste -- Urban Pub Food, is located in the back of The Local bar on Guadalupe, next door to Kerbey Lane. Not being intimately familiar with the campus area, it took us a little while to figure out how to get to "the back." Tip: go west on 27th and then into the lot past the Taos Co-op, who WILL tow! Next tip: once in the parking lot, inhale at your own risk; we immediately smelled pot when we got out of the car.
Owner Scot works at Central Market at North Lamar, and I have taken a few cooking classes from him over the years. His partner is Alejandro Duran of Malaga downtown. They know what it takes to operate a successful business! Their menu aims to be seasonal and locally sourced when possible. Taste has not quite been open for a month now, but I'd say it's a nice variety of pub-inspired foods at a very affordable price point.
Frito Pie immediately called my friend's name, and as you can see, it's a really fun presentation. Lots of good flavors from the ancho chile, roasted onions and poblano peppers, and it's the perfect comfort food.
I was drawn to the lamb sliders, which come with a oregano and parsley chimichurri sauce. Now looking back at the menu, it also mentions a pimento aioli sauce, which I am not sure I really tasted, but the lamb and the chimichurri were fantastic. If you're a fan of lamb, GO and try these!
We also had a tossed salad with mixed greens, tomatoes, chopped hard-boiled egg,  and a bit of shredded cheese. It was one of the most perfectly dressed and seasoned salads I've had anywhere.
Next time, I am going for the Chaffle -- chicken strips, dipped in waffle batter, and fried! And Scot said the portobello fries are hugely popular too. Don't mind the fact that' it's on the Drag, there seemed to be a variety of clientele at the Local on Saturday.

So go show these trailers some love! They're working in small little tin boxes without A/C and cranking out some great-tasting foods!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Bits and Bites -- Food News!

                                                      Events -- Mark Your Calendars

-- Now in it's fourth year, the Austin Give 5% campaign is back for Earth Day. On Monday, April 22nd, participating businesses will donate 5% of their gross sales to seven area environmentally friendly non-profit organizations; last year's event raised $60,000. There are a ton of restaurants on here so go eat!

-- Lustre Pearl is hosting the Earth Day Happy Hour Benefit Concert on Friday, April 19th from 5 - 9 pm, which will benefit the Rainforest Partnership, that works to protect tropical forests in Ecuador and Peru. $50/person

-- The Tanger Outlets in San Marcos are hosting A Taste and Style Experience, on Saturday, April 20th, and Australian chef Curtis Stone will be there at 2 pm signing books; a variety of area food trucks will be on hand too.

-- Lambert's is presenting Vaca y Vino, a cow-roast, inspired by Argentinean beef traditions, on April 21st. Tickets are $100 or $120, including transportation from downtown to the event site, which is just outside of Austin. Chefs Larry McGuire and Lou Lambert will be at the helm (or horns?), Argentine wines and other Argentine foods will be available. Proceeds will benefit the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance. 

-- The Austin Food and Wine Festival is April 27-28 at Butler Park (adjacent to Auditorium Shores)!

-- Top Chef Fan Favorite Chef Fabio Viviani will be in Austin at BookPeople on April 30th at 7 pm signing copies of his latest book, Fabio's Italian Kitchen, which will be released on the 23rd.

-- La Condesa is having a Cinco de Mayo block party on May 5th from 1 - 9 pm, with free food, music and entertainment. More info is on their Facebook page for the event. 
 -- Jack Allen's Kitchen in Oak Hill will host a Spanish wine pairing dinner on May 7th, $95/person, five courses.  

Exciting News! 
-- Our very own Sugar Mama's Bakeshop WON their Cupcake Wars battle against three other bakeries! Super congrats to owner Olivia O'Neal and her head decorator Andrea Leck, as they created cupcakes to please Weird Al Yankovic. See their Facebook page for updates, they're currently offering one winning cupcake flavor a week (call ahead to reserve!), and I am hoping to interview Olivia in the near future about their experiences!

-- Austin Cake Ball has rebranded their Domain location into Copper Restaurant and Dessert Lounge. I've been invited to try it out, and will report back! 

-- Baker Street Pub on South Lamar is happy to announce their outdoor patio is dog-friendly. 

-- Speakeasy, the 1920s lounge downtown, has remodeled their mezzanine space giving guests a better look at the stage. Also note that the entrance has moved from 412 Congress to the alley, in typical speakeasy style.

-- Oh yeah, I almost forgot! The Austin Food Blogger Alliance (of which I am a member) has produced it's first community cookbook! I am super-excited, as two recipes of mine are included in it, and I helped with some of the editing. Our official book release party is actually tonight, and see the link above to find out how you can purchase a copy!  

-- Lucy's Fried Chicken will open a second location at 5408 Burnet Road, the former Austin Diner space. Michael Hsu will redesign the space, and look for a fall opening.

-- Zo√ęs Kitchen, a branch of a national Mediterranean chain, is opening in Sunset Valley, 5601 Brodie Lane.

-- Teji's Indian, opening at 2100 Guadalupe, the second from the Round Rock restaurant and grocery.

-- Fran's on South Congress at Mary. The family-owned restaurant decided not to renew their lease (I can only imagine what the rent was). I went for a final burger and onion rings lunch on Saturday, April 6th, and wrote a brief obituary you can see here.

-- It's OFFICIAL. The South Congress food trailers have to be out from the lot May 25, as we prepare for a hotel. :(

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Daruma Ramen

I recently attended a soft opening at Daruma Ramen, Austin's latest ramen shop, brought to you from the owners of Kome up on Airport Blvd. They've had ramen on their menu at Kome, but I am sure after seeing how popular Ramen Tatsu-ya and Michi Ramen have been, they decided to venture into the land of noodles as well. 
There are a number of things that set Daruma apart from the others.
-- It's located downtown, on 6th Street (yup), on the north side of the street, between Sabine and Red River Streets.
-- It's a tiny little spot, with at very most, seating for 30, and that would be pushing it! And while I love the decor at Ramen Tatsu-ya (I still haven't been to Michi), I really enjoyed the cherry blossom wall paper, and very minimal, clean lines of Daruma.
-- They're using a chicken-based broth, as opposed to the more traditional pork (tonkatsu) broth, and they have a vegan ramen bowl too, so these broths aren't quite as rich.
There were four of us (and you can read Mad Betty's take on Daruma here), and there were four ramen bowl options, so we got one of each, and passed them around the narrow table.

Shio -- certainly the lightest and cleanest, you can taste the chicken in the broth (which also takes hours to make). This would be the perfect "chicken noodle soup" when you are under the weather. The same noodles are used in all the bowls; I thought they had a nice texture and give to them, but more on the noodles in a minute.
Shoyu -- very similar to the Shio, but with the addition of dashi (made from fish and kombu seaweed) broth, which gives it a little more depth. Also characterized by the fish cake, or naruto, the white and pink-swirled piece next to the soft-boiled egg.
Miso -- this seemed to be the consensus favorite at our table! The addition of miso to the chicken broth really brought the umami sensation to your palate. Plus you have shredded chicken, the saffron threads, and a bit of chili oil.
Vegan -- talk about eating the rainbow, this was a gorgeous bowl! This vegan broth also takes an extremely long time to produce, which also makes it a touch more expensive than the other ones. Apparently in the broth is made primarily from Japanese sweet potato and I believe pineapple. At first I didn't really get the fruit influences in the broth, but I was gradually able to taste a light sweetness with almost tropical undertones I didn't see any sesame seeds (as listed on the menu) nor really taste the ginger in this bowl, but it will surely be popular with the vegetarians and vegans!
As we were eating, owner Kayo came over to talk with us. She had seen we were taking pictures of everything, and asked how the food was. She also told us about the noodles. They had just met with the noodle man from Los Angeles, and after sampling lots of different noodles, they decided to change the noodle slightly from what were currently eating. I was happy with the ones we had, but I believe the new ones will have a touch more bite to them. 

So on your next venture to 6th Street, go check Daruma out, but just remember, this is a lighter style of ramen than the other shops in town. The friendly staff also told us what "daruma" meant -- it's the little creature depicted on their bowls that serves as their icon, that's known as a talisman of luck to the Japanese. Good daruma, indeed.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

RIP Fran's

Sadly, the Fran's on South Congress at Mary Street has lost their lease and they will close on Sunday. I went with friends G + M today to pay our respects. M grew up on South 2nd Street, and went to Fulmore Middle School which is catty-corner to Fran's. He said he'd been going there since he could barely see over the counter. As we were eating, he said: "You know the thing about Fran's? The burgers always taste the same. Just like I remember them." I am sure they've been using the same flat-top grill since they were Fran's + Dan's, many moons ago.
The two ladies working at the counter today confirmed the rumors; the one on the left said she grew up there, as her parents had worked there before her. They said there were no current plans for relocation, but the spot on Cameron Road remains open. There's various memorabilia lining the walls, from the license plates to photos, including a Friday Night Lights poster. Several of the diner scenes used in the tv series were filmed here.

We'll miss ya, Fran! 

And we'll pray that this corner doesn't become a new high-end condo project. We still need some character in South Austin.

Update, 4/7/2013
According to an article in today's Austin American-Statesman, Fran's chose not to renew their lease.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Bits and Bites -- Food News

-- Austin Restaurant Week runs April 7-10 and 14-17, with this year's proceeds benefiting Meals on Wheels; check out their website for the listing of participating restaurants. Lots of options for prix fixe lunches and dinners!

-- Monday, April 8, Easy Tiger is hosting an 8-course tasting dinner with the brewmaster from Avery Brewing, $100/person.

-- Songkran, the Thai New Year celebration is coming up.
    -- Sway is offering a special menu from April 15 - 21, including duck laksa, Singapore clams, and larp moo, with wild boar, coconut cream, and cashews. Plus, they are now offering valet parking in the evenings.
    -- The Buddhist temple out in Del Valle, Wat Buddhananachat, hosts a big Songkran festival each year (April 20 this year), with TONS of Thai streets foods available. I always love going, even though I don't know what half the foods are!

-- April 25 is the Austin Food and Wine Alliance's annual Live Fire event at the Salt Lick Pavilion. An impressive listing of area chefs are participating in this year's event! Check out their website for tickets ($75) and to see the who's who.

-- Tuesday nights are all you can eat mussels at Sagra, including $4 sangria specials. 

-- Johnny Carino's are supporting autism awareness throughout the month of April. From their press release: "Guests who post to Instagram with the hashtag #carinosblue will join the Johnny Carino’s campaign; the restaurant is hoping to receive 30,000 hashtags to match the $30,000 being donated by Johnny Carino’s."

-- If you're itching to get into the food trailer business, come up with a business plan and prepare your best dish on May 4th at the Historic Scoot Inn, for your chance to win a six month contract operating the Zorro food truck, the latest entity from ATX Brands owner Doug Guller. If you want more details, email me and I'll send you the press release.

-- Benji's Cantina at 716 W. 6th Street at West Avenue

-- Umami Mia Pizzeria (in the old Romeo's on Barton Springs) is shooting for a May opening. The eatery will seat close to 200 total, and in addition to pizza, will feature sandwiches and salads, all of which highlight the umami taste sensation -- savory, rich, and mouthwatering!

-- Also in late May, Daniel Olivella's new Barlata Tapas will open at 1500 S. Lamar.
-- The Brew Exchange has over 100 beers on tap, and their prices are constantly fluctuating depending on demand; their motto "buy low and drink up". They are also offering beer cocktails, which seem to have fixed prices.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

China Dynasty

I am still lamenting the loss of Suzi's Chinese on South Lamar. Yeah, I know, it was Americanized Chinese food, but to me, their sesame chicken was gold medal material. South Austin clearly lacks for Asian food, particularly Chinese, Korean, and to an extent, Vietnamese. So it was with excitement that friends told me about their discovery of China Dynasty, in the HEB strip mall at Slaughter and Manchaca. (They don't have a website.)

We went on a recent Saturday evening, and at about 7:30pm, there were only a couple other tables occupied. Our waitress was friendly, though as a non-Asian, we weren't totally sure how much she really knew about the food, but she did put forth a good effort. We started with their spicy dumplings, which were really not spicy, but the sauce that's over them was really delicious. I think they were more like steamed pork wontons with a very lightly spicy, thin brown sauce poured over them; that sauce would have been good on a lot of things!
Then our main dishes came. In terms of eating the rainbow, we were not very successful, especially since you usually don't see brown in a rainbow! Fortunately, their sesame chicken dish was quite good; I'd give it a bronze or maybe even a silver medal. In comparison to Suzi's, I would reduce points for the size of the chicken pieces (these were cut fairly small), it was perhaps a bit sweeter than I recall Suzi's being, and then simply for location. This is way far south, even for me, whereas Suzi's was about a mile away from my house; it's not a quick, convenient trip if I suddenly get a sesame chicken craving.
We had spied a couple of duck items on the menu, and asked the waitress what "Eight-jeweled Duck" was, so she went to the kitchen to find out. The primary difference between it and the other duck dishes was that it's boneless, and comes with a sauce. We tried it. It's an extremely heavy breading, which once you get past that, does lead you to some meat. But I'll be honest, it could have been dark meat turkey for all I know; I am not 100% convinced we ate duck that night. The sauce was a notch or two up from your standard Chinese brown sauce, and it was very well-fried, as it did not appear greasy, but boy, that was some thick breading.
Egg Foo Young is not something you see on many Chinese menus, and my friends had tried it here before and liked it. If you're not familiar, EFY is an egg dish, like an omelet with stuff in it; in this case, I think there was cabbage, onion, and pork. It was a little hard to tell what all was in there, but you had your choice of meats, and I know we said pork. Sometimes EFY is prepared flat, like a disk, here, they were molded, so I imagine they were cooked in some sort of domed vessel, plated, and doused in more brown sauce. It's a fairly dense, hearty dish, and we couldn't finish it all. I think what gives it the "Chinese" feel is the sauce.
Overall, I'd say that China Dynasty had decent food, but not exceptional. It did scratch my sesame chicken itch for the time being, but didn't think about things when we ordered, and had too much brown sauce!

Next South Austin stop in my quest for good sesame chicken -- Hunan Lion, where I haven't been in years!