Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Uncle Julio's

While I prefer local, independent restaurants, I do not totally eschew chain establishments. And in the case of the recently opened Uncle Julio's, I am happy to see they are Dallas-based, and with the Austin addition, have 17 locations in six states. I had been invited to the media preview back in mid-July, but couldn't make it at the time, so Uncle Julio's was gracious to invite me back for a meal. A friend and I met downtown for lunch on Monday, and had a really good experience. Disclosure: I was invited to try their foods in exchange for a blog post on my meal; I was not monetarily compensated.

The decor is all-around gorgeous -- tall archways, big wooden doors, Mexican tile and pottery, big light fixtures, and pops of color everywhere. My smart phone photos of the interior don't do it justice.
Every single person who worked at the restaurant that we encountered was welcoming, gracious, and proud of their products (several managers from front and back of the house stopped by our table to greet us). Our server was Laura, who was terrific from the get go. She took the time to explain how the menu was laid out, pointing out certain dishes, and directing us particularly to the mixed grill portion of the menu, saying these were the items they were known for and they prepared them particularly well. She also talked about the alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, and we started with mango passion fruit lemonade (non-alcoholic) and a guava rita, which is apparently under 130 calories! Loved both of these! I could actually taste passion fruit in the drink.Towards the end of our meal, she brought The Swirl, a frozen margarita/sangria combo, which they are known for; Laura said it was made with brandy and everclear, and it tasted like pure alcohol! This would be a great drink if you're staying in one of the nearby hotels or in town for a convention, but not if you have to drive anytime soon. We each took one sip and that was plenty.
Laura got us started with a couple of appetizers, the pineapple bacon guacamole and the honey-jalapeno glazed bacon-wrapped shrimps. While the bacon on the shrimps was a bit flabby and needed crisping, the glaze had a really nice late heat kick to it, that got both of us sweating just a bit! The guac needed a little more acid and salt, but was certainly decent. And the house salsa, a dark roasted tomato concoction was excellent. Good flavors to it, a little touch of heat, and it was served just barely warm. Laura said that the salsa and guacamoles are made fresh continuously throughout the day.
For our main courses, we took Laura's advice and both stuck to the Mixed Grill menu. My friend had the Jalisco plate with butterflied shrimp and chicken fajitas. She said the shrimp were tasty, but not quite as exciting as the ones we had in the appetizer. I tried the chicken, which was nice and moist, and took the grill flavors well, but the texture seemed a little bit different; probably not a hormone + anti-biotic free, free-range chicken. And also a little unusual in texture but absolutely delicious was the foamy garlic butter. This would be good on SO MANY things!
I had the Juarez plate, with pork ribs and beef fajitas; and while not pictured, both plates came with beans, rice, cheese, sour cream, and freshly made flour tortillas. And both plates came out sizzling hot, with steam still rising. It was nice to see a little bit of pink still on the beef; they too had good flavor, and I think fared better than the chicken as fajita meat. The ribs were REALLY good; as I went to cut the ribs apart, the meat practically fell off the bone. They're a dry-style, as in, not slathered with sauce while cooking, and they really didn't even need the sauce that was on the plate. My small bowl of beans was more tomatoes and onions than actual beans, so I can't really give a fair critique there; the rice was rather bland, unfortunately. Needless to say, there was plenty of food without these two elements, and we both had leftovers to take home.
While we didn't need dessert, Laura brought us two of the house specialties, and boy, we were glad she did! The coconut flan will make a flan-lover out of you! It was so smooth and velvety, and the toasted coconut just balanced it perfectly, along with the Kahlua whipped cream; the flan wasn't overly rich, though I probably couldn't eat a whole one myself. And while less photogenic, the Cajeta -- a fried scoop of vanilla ice cream (I think she did say they use Blue Bell), smothered in cajeta, a decadent caramel sauce that also went well with the flan. Both of these were stellar.
Freshness certainly prevails at Uncle Julio's, as does a friendly, outgoing staff. It is a huge space, but they seem to be doing fairly brisk business. I can certainly see how happy hour would be a fun time there, and even returning just for dessert would be warranted. I hope the genuine friendliness and quality foods extends to all patrons, not just a local food blogger on the quest for good eats.

* One thing to note, their address is listed on their website and Facebook page as 301 Brazos Street, #150, which to me implies the entrance is ON Brazos Street. Not the case. They are situated at the northwest corner of 3rd and San Jacinto, one block east of Brazos. Would love to see a note added to their pages about WHERE to enter!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Recent Eats, Part Two

(See my last post for Part One!)

I attended the soft opening of Arro with some food blogger friends. The week before their official opening, they offered meals at half price, so we happily took advantage. Arro is the latest from Chef Drew Cullen of 24 Diner/Easy Tiger, and his pasty chef wife, Mary Catherine, and is located in the old Haddington's on West 6th Street and Nueces.

We started with the Chef's bread board, with an assortment of fresh breads, regular and anchovy butter, a nice piece of French cheese, pickled veg, and an incredibly creamy and velvety pork mousse. We followed this with mussels and frites, which had a nice broth with it.
For the main courses, there was a mix up with mine; instead of the lamb and sweetbreads dish I ordered, I was given the grilled antelope (with figs, cherries and endive), which was very tasty, but not the lamb I had been anticipating.
Croque monsieur
Steak frites
Desserts, from 12 o'clock: a chocolate creme brulee cake, chocolate pot de creme, walnut napoleon, and lemon goat cheese tart. The pot de creme was the hands down winner, given its fudge-like quality and the sheer smoothness of it.
The interior decor is gorgeous, and the staff was working very hard throughout the evening. Arro is also offering a $25 three course menu, which will be a great value, plus they serve late, Sunday through Wednesday until midnight, and until 2 am Thursday through Saturday.

Mueller HEB
A group of us foodie-types went to check out the new HEB grocery store in the Mueller development a week after their grand opening. The building itself is stunning, and is the largest eco-friendly building HEB has built. And given the summer heat, the mostly-covered patio felt very nice at one in the afternoon.
The cafe menu is a bit all over the place, from Texas BBQ to pizza to Asian bowls to salads and sandwiches. It is certainly trying to please a broad range of palates. Unfortunately, the only thing that they really did well was the brisket, and while it was good brisket, it's not Franklin or Snow's quality by a long shot. The chicken in the Asian chicken salad tasted like it was previously frozen, the egg roll was dripping in grease, the Brussels sprouts were good, but very salty, whereas the Asian rice bowl was under seasoned. And all of the sauces and dressings taste like bottled ones, not freshly made. One of the cafe chefs did come by asking people how the food was, and we gave her some feedback. Again, first week, and when you look at the fact this is a grocery store, they've done a good job. I don't think they will have any problem attracting customers, even if the food doesn't improve.

Cafe Bistro at Nordstrom (Barton Creek Mall)
I met a friend at the mall to go walking (beats the outdoor heat!), and we ended up also having lunch at Nordstrom. I had never eaten there before, and actually left fairly impressed for what it is. According to their menu, they are using local and organic whenever possible and my Warm Asian-glazed Chicken Salad was just the right size and more to the point, tasted great.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Recent Eats, Part One

Oh, there are a few places I've eaten in the past couple months that probably deserve their own individual write up, but somehow that's just not gonna happen. Here is part one of the abbreviated version.

Via 313
I went to the Via 313 trailer location near Slaughter and South Congress back towards the end of June, but they have just moved this one to Rainey Street (boo!). This Detroit-style square pizza with a thick crust was great! Really liked it a lot. I had the Hawaiian with deli ham, bacon, pineapple, and feta cheese; I ended up taking half of it home for lunch the next day, and in the toaster oven, the underside of the crust got really nice and extra crisp. My friends were equally happy with their pizzas as well. Via 313 also has a truck on E. 6th Street.

Michi Ramen
Michi Ramen started out as a food trailer, but then graduated this past winter to a brick and mortar operation. They are on North Lamar, directly across from the Yellow Rose (and whether you've been to there or not, EVERYONE seems to know where the Yellow Rose is located!). A friend and I went for dinner on a Saturday night in July; I had no idea if it would be super-crowded or not. Fortunately, when we got there, the place was only about half full.

We got the seaweed salad and the "burnt ends" of the chasu pork to start with. It was a bit odd, because the waitress said it takes a little extra time for the chasu, was that ok? We said sure. But in less than 5 minutes, both dishes arrived at the table. The seaweed was good, but it didn't really seem any different from what you'd get at Central Market. And the pork really wasn't burnt at all, and to me had a bit of a spongy texture, and it was also extremely salty from the shoyu marinade.
Our ramen bowls came quickly too. We had the Sapporo with  mayu oil (blackened garlic oil) and pickled ginger added and the Jungle with added chives, sprouts and cabbage (both of us had the "regular" strength broth; here you can get light, regular or stout). Both had nice flavor to the tonkatsu (pork) broths, but to me not as hearty or flavorful as what I had at Ramen Tatsu-ya. Also the Jungle bowl (pictured top) is described as a lemongrass tonkatsu broth, and neither of us could taste lemongrass. The consistency of the noodles is very nice, just enough bite to them.  All in all, it was good, but maybe not the best ramen I've had in Austin.

Also transitioning from food trailers to actual sit down restaurants is Verts, a Berlin-style kebap place that now has a few branches open, including a new one on South Lamar. Kebaps are said to be the favorite street food of Berliners, and the German owners missed this type of food while studying at UT, so they set out to create their own.
At the counter, you have your choice between the bread (which I would most closely associate with a focaccia) tortilla, or plain bowl, and then your choice of meats and toppings. I opted for the traditional Doner Kebap, on the bread with the beef/lamb meat mixture (like gyro meat). It's a good hearty sandwich, and the flavors were good. The bread however is really too porous, and doesn't hold up well to the task at hand. They are a convenient location to me though, I would go back, though I don't know that I'd have the bread again.

Stay tuned for Part Two later this week!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Bits and Bites

-- La Condesa's final tequila dinner for the summer is August 6th, tickets are $100, and can be purchased here.  

-- Crabbie's Ginger Beer, the UK's best selling alcoholic ginger beer has finally made it's way to Texas. To celebrate, Fado's will have a launch party on August 8th, beginning around 8 pm. The first 50 people get a free Crabbie's drink!  Full disclosure: their PR people contacted me, asking if I would mention on my blog, and sent me samples. I had never heard of Crabbie's before, but I am completely hooked! Serve over ice, with a twist of lime, and it's a perfect refreshing drink for this hot summer weather! Central Market Westgate has started carrying it as well. 

--  Pay It Forward with Daniel Curtis Benefit will be August 8th, 7 - 10 pm, $75/person at the AT + T Conference Center. The event benefits the Lone Star Paralysis Foundation, and has an amazing lineup of area chefs donating their time and talents.

-- Olivia will hold their 5 year anniversary dinner on August 8th, $125/person, TEN courses with drink pairings! Email for reservations:

-- Houndstooth Coffee is holding a Japanese Iced Coffee brewing class at their downtown location at 401 Congress, on August 10th at 4 pm, $30/person. Tickets can be purchased at either Houndstooth location. 

-- Starting August 11th, if you sign up for Austin Cake Ball's e-newsletter, you will receive a $5 off coupon to use online, and another $5 to use at either of their shops (5310 Burnet Road or at the Domain). 

-- Summer Sparkler Dinner benefiting the Sustainable Food Center, August 13th at Parkside, 5+ courses with sparkling drinks to match, $100/person, buy tickets here.

-- Independence Brewing tasting dinner at Olive + June, August 15th, 4+ courses, $60/person, buy tickets here

-- The Carnivores Ball, "the ultimate Texas Hill Country BBQ Party" will be September 15th at Ceres Park Ranch, featuring the barbeque of John Mueller, banana bourbon salted caramel pudding from Sugar Mama's Bakeshop, beer from St. Arnold, and live music. Tickets are $44/person.

-- Plinio Sandalio, pastry chef at The Carillon restaurant at the AT + T Conference Center, has unveiled some new lighter summertime desserts and digestif pairings, such as corn fritters with salted butter ice cream, spiced lime curd and cotija crumbles served with bacon moonshine!

-- There's a Kickstarter underway for a digital thermometer called Range that hooks into your iPhone or iPad, making your smart device into a smart thermometer.  Developed by an Austin company called Supermechanical.

-- Planet Sub, a sub and salad shop has opened in the Brodie Oaks shopping center on South Lamar (by Sprouts); from their website, another location is in the works for downtown at 9th and Congress.

-- Smashburger opens its second location on August 14th at 14028 N. Highway 183 (Cedar Park), with plans to open a third location in the Mueller development in late 2013. 

-- Mighty Bird, a new rotisserie chicken concept restaurant will open two spots, one at 2900 Anderson Lane and the other at 12200 N. Highway 183.

-- Royer's Pie Haven will open in the old Toy Joy at 29th and Guadalupe.

-- New food trucks I've seen in South ATX: Snap Foods (healthy!) at South Lamar and Bluebonnet and Potato.A (poutine) at South Lamar and Mary (behind Corner Bar). 

-- The new HEB at Mueller opened last week. Went to check it out with a few other foodies. The building is stunning, gorgeous architecture, and even sitting on the covered patio for lunch (close to 100 degrees out) wasn't bad at all. Gotta be honest though, the cafe food was mediocre (brisket and fried Brussels were decent) but other items were unexciting (egg rolls drowning in grease, chicken with strange texture in Asian chicken salad {probably previously frozen}, under seasoned salmon bowl). And the rest of the store is just like a regular HEB (though a nice one, like at Escarpment or 360/Bee Caves). Been there, done that.

-- To my major dismay, SPIN Modern Thai closed last week. I only ate there once, about 6 weeks ago, and it was one of the best meals I've had in a long time. A very informative interview with the owners ran in the Austin Chronicle; basically, they made some bad financial decisions coupled with major repairs that they couldn't recover from. One of the chefs says he will be assisting his sister get Titaya's back open later this fall.

-- East Side King trailer at the Grackle Bar has closed. (Bring it south, though there has been steady construction on ESK's brick and mortar spot on South Lamar!)

-- I had the pleasure of meeting former Top Chef contestant and Italian restaurateur Fabio Viviani at a food blogger meet-and-greet just prior to his book signing at BookPeople on April 30th. He oozes charm, talked non-stop, and was excited to meet a group of dedicated food bloggers. He asked for our cards, and said he was always looking for guest bloggers for his online magazine. Well, sure enough, about a week later, I was contacted by his PR team, asking if I'd like to write a guest post on lasagna, for National Lasagna Week. So if you saw my Summer Skillet Lasagna post from 2 weeks ago, that's the recipe I created for Fabio! You can see the entire issue here, and my lasagna is on page 12!

-- And now on Instagram! @southaustinfoodie