Monday, August 30, 2010

Cutie Pie Wagon

It was highly suggested I try some pies from the Cutie Pie Wagon, but it's not a decision I regret! (Except for my waistline....) 
We tried the white chocolate coconut, my favorite of the three we had; it's lightly sweet & creamy with toasted shredded coconut. Very different (in a very good way!) than coconut pies I've had before. The buttermilk pie was heavy on the nutmeg, which I liked, as to me, it balanced the egginess, but another taster friend was a bit turned off by its strength.  The third was the fudge brownie, which was as described! Fairly dense, not too dry; ours was plain, but it can be done with a peanut butter glaze -- next time! All the pies were on a very thin, almost waterwheel cracker-like crust; I would have preferred a bit more crust to my pie, but I am sure it is difficult at a 3 - 4" little pie.

The Cutie Pie Wagon is operated by self-proclaimed Pie Queen Jaynie, a former registered nurse with a knack for baking. Her recipes are adapted from pies her mother used to bake, and she has repertoire of 500 different recipes! The wagon is a tiny, eccentric pink hot spot, located on South Congress, between some of the bigger dawgs in the Austin food trailer world. And at $4 a pie, I am sure that's a lot of pies to pay the rent, though she does make big ones too.

The Pie Queen's next step? To become a contestant on the Food Network's The Great Food Truck Race. The top vote getters get a chance to compete in the next season of the show. I am all for tasty, cute pies, hot pink, and woman-owned businesses, so she gets my votes! (Click on the Food Network link above to vote!)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Rio's Brazilian

I first discovered Rio's Brazilian at the Downtown Farmer's Market last summer. I bought one of their salgadinhos (savory pastries, not unlike an empanada), and immediately fell in love with their spicy malagueta sauce, a spicy/tangy/mildly sweet concoction that's good on eggs, burgers, fries, you name it! That day at the farmer's market, Rio's co-owner Ben, told me a bit about their products and mentioned the sauce & cheesebreads were available at Whole Foods. So I've been buying this fabulous sauce there ever since! I had heard over the winter months that the restaurant had opened on Pleasant Valley and East 4th, and I knew eventually I'd have to check it out. 

So two friends and I trekked over on a Wednesday evening. It's a small building, and while there were some seats available inside, we decided to take advantage of the break in the recent 100 degree temperatures, and sit outside. As far as I could tell, there were 2 waitresses working the entire place, and ours was attentive and affable the entire time. The plethora of house flies though was an issue throughout the meal.

We started with a couple passion fruit juices as we studied the menu. Rarely do you find passion fruit juice with such great flavor, so that was a great treat to begin the meal. After some discussion over the menu, we each decided to order a Samba Combo, which offers a salgadinho of choice with your pick of a couple other items. That way, we could try a variety of the offerings. 

I chose the chicken risoli salgadinho, with the yuca fries (apim frito) & collard green soup with bacon, sausage & potato (caldo verde). Amongst us, we also had the hearts of palm empadao and the yuca bolhino from the salgadino menu, the copacabana salad, and the cheese bread trio. 

I liked the chicken salgadinho, though it's a very dense dough; it benefitted from the spicy malgueta sauce, that came with the fries, rather than the pineapple coconut one which was served with it. The yuca fries were really good, though the menu says they're sprinkled with parmesan, I couldn't really detect any. All of their fried items were fantastic in that they were warm, but not a hint of grease or oil -- someone's doing something right! The mug you see in the picture with the bread on it was the soup, which was very hearty; maybe not the best choice for really warm weather. Would love to try it again when it's 20 - 30 degrees cooler outside! A little bit of heat -- strong garlic or hot sauce (not sure the malagueta would work here, but maybe), would give it a bit more depth. 
The heart of palm "cupcake" as they describe it, pictured above was the winner in terms of the pastry dough. It was nice and light, and not nearly as dense as the others. The yuca one was similar to the chicken that I had, a very thick mass of dough. (They were out of the spinach ricotta one which sounded really good.) The salad was tasty, nice fresh spinach, candied walnuts, beets, little bit of apple. When I tasted it, I could have sworn I was getting a vanilla-like flavor from the dressing, and looking back now at the menu, it is a peach white wine vinaigrette I was tasting. The one main disappointment of the meal  however was their cheese bread; these were dense and had a very gummy texture. When I have had "pao de quejo" before, whether purchased frozen from Central Market then baked or at Fogo de Chao, they are light and airy, and completely addictive. I applaud the creativity in making basil & roasted red pepper flavored ones, but unfortunately none of us could really get past the texture, and couldn't discern the flavors.

I also appreciate that Rio's is making a lot of gluten-free items, and on their menu, they also state when their meat dishes can be made into vegetarian ones. We saw a couple of the "plates" at the table next to us, the chicken stroganoff and rice gnocchi, which both looked sizeable and good, and there's a torta/savory pie that sounds good for cooler weather. I will happily though, continue to buy the spicy malagueta sauce year-round, as it is very unique, and more importantly, tasty!

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Flying Carpet

If you've been in Austin at all in the past year, you know that food trailer parks are popping up all over the place. On South Congress & Gibson, in the heart of all the SoCo trendiness is one of two parks within a 2 block radius. (The other one is the probably more well known, with Hey Cupcake, The Mighty Cone, and others.) I had been dying to try The Flying Carpet, a new installation at the Gibson locale, as it brings Moroccan food to the masses. I was in Morocco not quite two years ago, and have wished for a local spot to bring all those fabulous flavors and spices to the Austin restaurant scene.

I was not disappointed!

Their Moroccan burgers are very tender, seasoned pieces of beef kefta (like a meatball, but shaped like a small, fat cigar), with a little bit of an aromatic tomato & onion sauce. You can tell it's good quality beef. It's placed inside a soft pita bread, with a fried egg. I initially asked for it without the fried egg, which I can't stand. They convinced me though, this wasn't like a typical fried egg with the runny yolk. And they were right -- it's more of a firm scrambled egg that's laid next to the meat. You can put some of their incredible l'Afrique sauce -- a creamy, lightly spicy concoction -- on it as well, and save some for the fries too!  The fries are fantastically crispy, without a hint of grease (they use canola oil) ; they're well seasoned with salt & pepper.
We also had a couple of their salads, one of which had a really nice lemon dressing on it; both salads were very fresh & crisp.
 I loved the little touches of Morocco -- the colorful lanterns, the flowers on the table that were in traditional mint tea glasses. Gives the place a warmth, and I am not just saying that because I was sitting in an asphalt parking lot on the evening of a 100 degree day!  As it was a slow evening, we were able to chat a bit with the owners, husband & wife team Abderrahim & Maria, who were very engaging & welcoming. They said they plan to move the trailer to under a tree in the same lot, but closer to Congress. They also have some ideas for future menu items that I can't wait to see!

I've heard their grilled eggplant is fantastic, and the owners were saying they're very cognizant of when someone orders a vegetarian or vegan to make sure the grill is well-cleaned before preparing it. I'd love to see more items on the menu, and can't wait to take another trip with the Flying Carpet!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Fortune Dim Sum

Sunday noon, made the trek WAY up north to the Chinatown complex to try the dim sum at Fortune. My previous trip up there resulted in slight disappointment when we got there to learn, no they don't have dim sum on weekend evenings, just daytime (I had misread their website). So another trip was warranted to see just how good their highly praised dim sum is. (See my June report on Fortune here.)

The "grand ballroom" as it were, is set up well for dim sum carts to maneuver. It's a huge hotel-like banquet room, with a ton of ornate chandeliers, and those stackable padded chairs. Right as we were sitting, a cart was passing, and we immediately jumped on it.
The crispy-battered, fried green beans were one of the best dishes of the entire meal. Clockwise from there, the pan-fried buns were something we had never seen before; they were a light breading that appeared to have been steamed then pan-fried, and had a good pork filling. From their menu online, these might be the "Shanghai steamed buns," an item not normally considered for traditional Chinese dim sum. The rectangular item above were contained shrimp and a cream cheese type filling; lightly breaded and fried, they were similar to crab rangoon. In the top left corner, was the pork belly with sweet and sour sauce. Unfortunately this was served room temperature, and thus very unappealing. While the sauce was good, this was one large miss. To its right, was the BBQ duck, which was quite good. The skin was crisp, not real fatty, and the meat had good flavor, including the use of Chinese five spice powder. On the right are taro dumplings, which were stuffed with pork & vegetables; I love the light & crispy nature of taro; these were good, but greasy on the bottom. 
I jumped at these steamed spinach & shrimp dumplings, because I have never seen them shaped like this. It almost looked like they had been made in a muffin tin; I think from their menu, this is one of their shaomai offerings with crab roe on top. Needed scallions or ginger in it. The oval shaped dumplings are the haam sui gau, a rice flour dumpling filled with pork & vegetables. These were tasty, though a little soy sauce & chile paste kicked things up. 
At the 3 o'clock position, we have the baked BBQ pork buns, or char siu bau; not bad, but not enough pork filling in them for my taste. My friend who eats dimsum at Chinatown (the restaurant) a lot thinks Chinatown's are better.  At 6pm, sesame balls, which were deceivingly still hot (temperature-wise) on the inside; these had a mung bean filling that I almost burned the roof of my mouth with. At 9 pm, pan-fried turnip cake (probably daikon), which I didn't totally love, but I was still fascinated by it's gelatinous texture. And at 12 o'clock, we have something the cart pusher described as an almond milk soup. It was different. It seemed like Pepperidge Farms puff pastry on top, and then a very strong almond-scented broth of almond milk, sugar, and raw almonds. We think they had a heavy hand with the almond extract in this one, as it was a bit off-putting. 
Our slightly less-adventurous eater was happy to see some salt & pepper shrimp and some meat (pork?) & spinach dumplings go by. At this point I was filling up, so I didn't try any of these last two, but he said they were good. As you can see these were the whole shrimp, heads, tails & feet still on! We didn't try any of the rice noodle rolls (filled with meat or shrimp), though I saw plenty of them, or the crispy squid, which I did not see, but it's listed on their menu; there was a bunch of crispy fish pieces going around though.

I have heard from two Chinese acquaintances that they think Fortune is the best dim sum in town. Don't know that I am thoroughly convinced. I need to get back to Shanghai (on Middle Fiskville Road), where I haven't been in almost 3 years, because I remember that being incredibly good. Looking back at my previous post on Fortune and with this dim sum meal fresh in my head, I find their food to be fresh, but bland overall (the almond extract being the exception); everything needs more garlic, ginger, scallion, chile, etc. So the jury's still out on the best dim sum spot in town!

Mother's Cafe & Garden and Galaxy Cafe

Most of my meals this past weekend were eaten out, and seeing how it took me two and a half weeks to get the Jack Allen post written, there's no time like the present!

Dinner Saturday night was at Mother's Cafe & Garden in Hyde Park. I probably haven't been there in 13 or 14 years, and my memories of the back room/enclosed patio (?) are it being fairly dark and jungle-like. Then they had a fire in 2007 that pretty much destroyed the place, and they were out of business for a number of months as they rebuilt. The facility now seems very spacious with high ceilings in the large back room. There are a number of plants, decorated with various types of lighting, and a xylophone/new age-ish music man playing. A very south Austin vibe (hippy, new age, keep Austin weird, what have you!) in north-central Austin, and remember it is a vegetarian place. 

I had looked at their menu online earlier in the day, and was torn between the spinach lasagna and the Jamaican stir fry. And I've heard so much about their famous cashew-tamari salad dressing, that I HAD to get a salad to try it! I was pretty much settled on a side salad and the lasagna, when the waiter informed us of the specials -- butternut squash ravioli with a lemon cream sauce. Sold! My friend, who eats there a good deal, suggested we split the side salad since it was good sized. So I got the special, she got the veggie burger, and we split the salad. 

The side salad is pretty generous, and I do see the fuss over the cashew-tamari dressing! I bet that would also make a good stir fry sauce for veggies. My ravioli were delicious! Lightly sweet from the butternut squash, a little zippy from the lemon, and rich, but not overpowering from the cream. I honestly don't know if the sauce was pure dairy cream or if they used some soy creamer or what (they make a lot of vegan items too), but it was tasty, and what appeared to be a side of whole grain bread was perfect for soaking up the sauce. And while I didn't try it, my friend really liked her veggie burger. 

No pictures taken at Mother's.... I forgot my camera, and I have since learned that the camera on the phone doesn't do well in low light. 

Ahh, but the night wasn't over yet, as we walked across the street to Dolce Vita, and got gelato -- peanut butter nutella for me, and Oreo for her. Oh yeah. And the place was hoppin'!

Sunday night, I met a friend at Galaxy Cafe in Clarksville before going to see Inception at the IMAX. Fortunately, at 6:15 on a Sunday, they weren't busy at all, so we had plenty of time to eat and get to the movie. Their menus on the wall are a little confusing. There's slots to pick a breakfast, lunch or dinner menu. So I picked up the dinner menu, which primarily had entrees on it, and their gluten free offerings on the back side. Where were the salads? Oh, they're on the lunch menu.... so a little unclear for the novice Galaxy-goer. (I've been to this Clarksville location once, like 3 years ago, and couple times to the Brodie & Slaughter; and they've got a newer once at the Triangle. Same owners have also opened Zocalo Cafe, in what used to be West Lynn Cafe years ago; menu looks good.)

Anyway, ordered the spinach salad with grilled chicken, and YUM! it comes loaded with candied walnuts, hearty bites of bacon, and a nice shallot vinaigrette. How come other people's salads always taste better than your own? This isn't anything real fancy... it's just good fresh, tasty ingredients. My friend got the chicken parmesan sandwich, with the pureed sweet potatoes (you get your choice of like 10 different sides!), and she thoroughly enjoyed it. The chocolate cake sitting on the counter, looked divine, but off to the movie we went!
So two good meals (three if you include the gelato) at locally owned institutions! No chain restaurants here!

Jack Allen's

Way tardy on writing this one up! (Twenty lashes with a wet noodle!) I had been to Jack Allen's for happy hour once before, where we had decent food, and fairly mediocre service. I've had a number of friends who have been, and all reported good things about the food, but spottiness regarding the service. So three of us met for a 4:30 pm happy hour on a Friday afternoon; I hoped that it wouldn't be too busy on a Friday at that hour, and it turned out to be just fine.

Our initial reception by the hostesses was mixed though. The two younger 20-somethings seemed very affable, but the other 40-something was more terse. Two of us were there, and the 3rd was 5 minutes out, so we said there would be 3 of us, and said the 3rd person wasn't there yet. The hostess replied a bit snidely, well then, I guess there's only 2 of you, and we don't seat incomplete parties. But then proceeded to lead us to a table. So I don't know if she was politely trying to say, hey, I know you're waiting for another person, and while we don't normally seat incomplete groups, we'll happily take care of you for now. It's all in the tone, and hers was not the most welcoming.

Fortunately, that was all about to change as our fabulous happy hour waiter, Seth, immediately greeted us, reminded us that appetizers were half price, and he'd give us a few minutes to look things over. He couldn't have been more friendly and efficient during our time there. A little after 5 pm, there was one of those brief, but very heavy Texas-afternoon downpours where the sun is still shining. The staff, including a manager rushed to shut the side flaps along the back side of the patio where we were sitting against; he got fairly wet doing it, but it kept us dry! Five minutes later, the deluge stopped, and the sun was back out in full force, and the flaps went back up.

We had the Red Chile Fries, which are lightly battered, fried, and sprinkled with cotija cheese. Perfectly crisp, and incredibly addicting with the garlic aioli!  The Blue Crab Gratin, with spinach & artichokes, and a nice ciabatta bread, it was softer, so the crust didn't tear up the roof of your mouth. I wouldn't say there was a ton of crab in the gratin, but it was incredibly tasty, and I am sure low fat! (Ha.)
We also had the Spinach Gorgonzola Ravioli...that walnut cream sauce was killer! And opted for the "Wedgies" Salad, their spin on the iceberg lettuce wedge with blue cheese. Very artful presentation on the salad! And, they are sourcing a local (well, Dallas-based, but still pretty local!) blue cheese as well. JA's seems to be making a killing on happy hour specials, as the apps are half price, and there are drink specials too. Cheers to them!

As our various dishes of food arrived, we also noticed that the table of ladies next to kept expanding. I think when we sat, there were 3 of them, and before too much longer, 2 tables were pushed together, and it was a group of 9 or 10 people. So really, they don't seat incomplete parties? Doesn't matter, because we had wonderful food, and great service from Seth. Jack Allen's obviously is doing well for themselves, and I think the curse of that location may finally be over (it's been a couple different things in the past few years). As we were leaving about 6:30 pm, the valet parking guys (yes, they do have valet parking!) were a little harried and backed up, and they said a group of about 65 had been arriving for a wedding rehearsal dinner. There's obviously a private room somewhere inside, and it's now my mission to get back for a "real" meal and not just happy hour. Hopefully, Seth will be my waiter!