Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bits and Bites -- Austin Food News!

-- I recently got to try some of the new menu items at Lucky Robot during a media tasting. The restaurant opened in November 2012, and from the press release: "This is the restaurant’s first major menu overhaul and it reflects a move toward using local and sustainable ingredients like Texas-raised Wagyu, showcasing new flavor combinations and featuring a more robust sushi selection using fish from Tsukiji Market in Japan."  Their menus also offer gluten-free and vegan options, and don't miss the daily happy hour from 4 - 6:30 pm. The green manalishi sake punch with it's cucumber, mint, and serrano was a great accompaniment to the foods we tried. Particularly loved the seared scallop! Lucky Robot's eclectic Harajuku-inspired decor is in step with the sights and sounds of South Congress Avenue.
  -- Sugar Mama's Bakeshop at 2406 Manor Road is now open, and it's next door neighbor Dai Due is in it's final soft opening stages. They will have a restaurant as well as their fresh meats for sale.
-- Kerbey Lane Cafe is opening at Bee Caves and 360 in the Village at Westlake.
-- Punch Bowl Social officially opens in the Domain, Saturday, August 23rd, 7 - 9pm, with a benefit for the Dell's Children's Medical Center; $10/person. 
-- The Hightower is now serving a prix fixe menu on Tuesday evenings -- appetizer, entree and dessert for only $19! Menu items will change from week to week.
-- Vince Young Steakhouse has a new happy hour menu, available Monday through Saturday from 5 - 7 pm for $10/item, including lobster rolls and Wagyu brisket burger.
-- Thunderbird Cafe and Tap Room is offering free espresso happy hour, every Tuesday morning from 10 - 11 am.  They also offer pastries, salads, sandwiches, along with their coffee drinks and beers on tap.
-- Jacoby's Austin, a family run restaurant and mercantile, will open shortly at 3235 East Caesar Chavez; food will be ranch-style and the mercantile will sell their jams, meats, and home goods.
-- San Luis Spirits, the parent company to Dripping Springs Vodka is also introducing Dripping Springs Gin, and will open their distillery doors for public tours beginning September 2nd by reservation.

-- Local non-profit Farmshare Austin has an Indiegogo fundraising campaign in progress through August 31st. Help them grow a new generation of farmers by providing funding for them to build their farm school!
-- The application period has now opened for the Austin Food and Wine Alliance's Culinary Grants program; they have a total of $30,000 to give in culinary grants.
-- Food vendors are needed for the annual Texas Book Festival; applications are due September 1st and the event is October 25-26.
-- The Edible Austin Third Annual Chef's Auction will be October 9th, and will benefit the Sustainable Food Center and Urban Roots. Tickets are $75/person.
-- Mandola's and Trattoria Lisina are hosting their 5th Annual Bocce Ball Tournament that will benefit the Burke Center for Youth in Driftwood. The competition will take place at Trattoria Lisina on October 25-26, with the grand prize being a trip for two to Italy.  Registration is $200 per team, but you can catch the early bird rate of $150 before September 15th.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

NM Green Chiles (aka No Such Thing as a Hatch Chile)

It's that time of year..... for 1) New Mexico green chiles (or Hatch chiles) to come into season, which leads to 2) my annual soapbox on the aforementioned topic. Let me please direct you to a blog post I wrote at this time three years ago. And if you don't want to click on the link (though you should!) here's the brief soapboxy synopsis: there's no such thing as a "Hatch" chile. They're all varieties of New Mexico green chiles -- Big Jim, NuMex 6-4, and Sandia to name a few -- each bred for different qualities.  The green chiles are grown in southern NM, in the rich agricultural region in Dona Ana County between Las Cruces and Hatch, 40 miles north. "Hatch chiles" is a marketing misnomer (though clearly it works), as there is no varietal called Hatch.
Yes, it's the same picture from the blog post I wrote three years ago which I took in 2005! 
That's Picacho Peak in the background, which is a landmark in northern Las Cruces. 
Why does this topic roast my peppers, so to speak? Because my mother's family is from Las Cruces and they farmed all kinds of produce (green chile, pecans, cotton, onions, lettuce....) for over 50 years. Additionally, the agricultural department at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces did chile research and cultivation of new varieties. My great uncle, Roy Nakayama, was one of the key horticulturists, and became known as Mr. ChileThe Chile Pepper Institute at NMSU is devoted to the research and education of different types of chile peppers. So there was a lot of my family's blood, sweat and tears involved in green chile production.

In New Mexico, they call them green chiles, because that's what they are. The term Hatch has become over-commercialized in my eyes, and people in New Mexico would probably look at you a bit strangely if you asked for Hatch chiles. Our local grocery stores here in Austin have all kinds of products with "Hatch chiles" in them -- popcorn, crackers, brownies, cookies, dips, pestos, chocolate bars -- and these are just the shelf-stable ones! Central Market (and I assume Whole Foods) has a whole array of their own freshly-prepared Hatch items, from baguettes to guacamole and queso to ready-to-eat enchiladas. Not that any of these products are bad (well, a couple of them are!), but they propagate the illusion that all the chiles are from the tiny town of Hatch (population 1600 +/-) when they are not.

A couple examples of New Mexican places using green chiles in their dishes (and calling them green chiles!). The Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio, NM boasts the #7 best green chile burger out there (it's huge, messy and delicious). And Caliche's, a frozen custard drive-though spot on North Valley Drive in Las Cruces, with their green chile custard. Not so crazy about the green chile custard.... I'll stick to more traditional flavors for my desserts! (All pictures of mine from 2012.)
Maybe I am just a purist, both in chile nomenclature and palate-wise; I just don't really care for most of the commercial products as the flavor is never quite right to me. I do catch a bit of green chile fever this time of year (August and September is when the chiles get ripe and are harvested, so that's why there's all the "Hatch festivals this time of year), so allow me to share what's pretty much a family green chile recipe. This is also called "Green Chile" though I suppose you could add the word "sauce" to the end, though we never do; I guess it's just implied.
See the difference in size? The two chiles on the left are long skinny pointy ones, quite possibly the Sandia variety (known for their heat), while the one on the right is big and fat, and not as hot. The varietal Big Jim is milder, and was developed for its thick walls and length to make them easier to stuff for chile rellenos.

Green Chile
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 cup white or yellow onion, diced
2 - 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup roasted New Mexico green chiles, heat level of your choice, roasted, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1/4 - 1/2 cup tomatoes, seeded and diced (can use canned)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, optional

-- In a skillet or sauce pan, heat the oil over medium/medium-low heat.
-- Add onion, saute 2 - 3 minutes.
-- Add garlic, saute a few more minutes until both onion are garlic are soft but not burned.
-- Add green chiles, tomatoes, cumin (if using) and 1/4 - 1/2 cup water (or tomato liquid if using canned).
-- Stir to combine and simmer gently about 10 minutes.
-- Use on pinto/charro beans, tamales, burgers, scrambled eggs... wherever you need a little extra kick!
-- Cool and store extra in sealed container in fridge for several days, or freeze for future use.

Thanks for letting me rant a little about green chiles. I hope you'll see them now as more than just a "Hatch chile"!  Happy New Mexico green chile season!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Chen Z Noodle House (Oak Hill)

I am SO excited that Chen Z Noodle House has opened in South Austin!  A little back story: the original Chen's is at Spicewood and 183, and it's a tiny hole in the wall. I don't go that often because it's so far for me (and because I have to decide between Chen's and Asia Market), however, after a doctor's appointment up north in early July, I stopped in for carry out. Behold, their amazing green onion pancake and the fermented black beans with the knife cut noodles! (I might have eaten most of the pancake while sitting in traffic on Mopac coming back south.)
Chen Z Noodle House
I love these noodles! You can kind of tell from the photo they are long and flat, with a nice doughiness about them. I believe in Chinese they're known as dao xiao mian, but there are multitudes of Chinese noodles! Anyhow, about a week after 4th of July, I heard that a Chen's had opened in Oak Hill. WHAT??!  A friend went for lunch and texted me a pic of the menu -- more options than the original location! Subsequently I heard from three people that the food was quite fine, including Mary Makes Dinner, who got take out from Chen's. She lived in China for several months, so she knows her noodles and dumplings!

Finally an opportunity came to check out this new Chen's for myself and with two other well-educated food lovers! The restaurant  is located in the strip center at William Cannon and Hwy 290, the former T + N Vietnamese, in the same shopping center where Flores Mexican is (which will move out soon for a new spot on William Cannon, and Via 313 Pizza will move in -- yay!). Construction abounds, however.

I've always thought Chen's made amazing green onion pancakes, and the new Chen's still delivers! Light and crisp, flaky and a touch chewy in the center with a very mild green onion taste....I could eat these for days.
Chen Z Noodle House
The first item on the menu board was spicy cold noodles which intrigued us. These fat noodles with cucumber had a lovely flavor of sesame (kind of like tahini) and a distinctive mustard taste. There was also a bit of chile heat to the dish, which I think is vegetarian (no pieces of meat, let's put it that way). And for $6, a steal.
Chen Z Noodle House
We got the spicy lamb buns and the black bean noodles. When I've had the lamb skewers (which they do have on the menu at the new location) at the original location, they've been nice chunks of meat with a decided szechuan peppercorn flavor (it's hard to miss the tingling sensation in the mouth that one often experiences with szechuan peppercorns). These had a cumin taste rather than the peppercorns (which are actually related to the citrus family, not an actual peppercorn!), and the meat was in smaller, more shredded pieces. Still good though!

If you are vegetarian, don't let the name "black bean noodles" fool you, as there is pork in the dish. It  normally comes with a different noodle (possibly the ones from the spicy cold noodle dish?), but we asked for them with the knife cut noodles, and they had no problem making the substitution. I love the savoriness of the sauce, with the ground pork and fermented black beans. (See why I posted the other picture of the knife cut noodles? You can't actually see the noodles in this one!) I really should try some of their other noodle dishes on my future visits, but I am kinda addicted to these.
Chen Z Noodle House
And the pan-fried dumplings, which I always prefer over steamed because I like how they get crispy on one side. This was a huge plate of them, though they're not very big. But the dough consistency was perfect, and really tasty with the dipping sauce. The chile paste/condiment on the table had sesame seeds in it too, and a little of that added to the dipping sauce (soy-based) kicked it up nicely.
Chen Z Noodle House
You can BYOB; we asked when we entered, and they said it was okay. You order at the counter, and the woman who took our order was very nice, as was the runner who brought out the dishes. Don't expect much from the decor at Chen Z's; I think it's entirely left over from the previous occupant. They could certainly stand to put some pictures on the walls or something. But it's the food that counts, and it's a winner, as are the prices. The three of us ate for a total of $39, and had some leftovers. Now since I was there, I've had one friend mention to me that she had a reaction to the MSG in the noodle soup, but I know she has a bit of a delicate system. I don't have reactions to it, but if it's not your thing, you may want to ask before ordering. I can't wait to go back and try other things on the menu!