Monday, November 16, 2009

Beer Cheese

We brought this to the Beer-themed Food Bloggers' Potluck and served it again at Han's birthday party last week and both times it seemed to go over really well. At Han's birthday specifically, the whole bowl was gone before all the guests had arrived, and at both events, I had people asking me for the recipe.
Here's a secret though: I'm not really a good cook, and so to have anyone compliment me on something I made... I didn't really know how to handle it so I'm pretty sure I just muttered something.

So with football season in full swing and Thanksgiving just around the corner, I thought it's be good to just post the recipe here, in plain-text un-muttered print.

2 16-oz packages of cream cheese
1 packet ranch dressing mix
1/3 cup of dark or flavorful beer (I use Saint Arnold Lawnmower)
1 cup shredded cheese

Mix the cream cheese, ranch dressing, and beer together in a bowl. Once the cheese has softened and has mixed completely with the beer and cheese mix, mix in half of the shredded cheese,

(Optional: add some fresh rosemary or oregano for extra flavor, or add some crushed red pepper to make it a little spicier.)

Sprinkle the rest of the shredded cheese on top and serve!

This dip goes really well with mini pretzels, but we also discovered and recommend spreading it on a water cracker and top with a pepperoni.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Fortune Chinese Seafood

Located up in the North Lamar "Chinatown," Fortune Chinese Seafood has opened up to one of the bigger buzzes for an Austin-area Asian restaurant in recent memory.

We've gotten a couple of opportunities to check this place out, once for dinner and the other for dim sum. We liked what we had so far and will definitely be returning for further investigation.

Our first dinner trip followed a grocery trip to MT Supermarket. The Singapore Fried Vermicelli (yellow stir-fry rice noodles with onions and chicken) were pretty good, about as good as you'd expect from a decent Chinese restaurant. But the real rock star was the frog legs: a holy marriage between lemongrass and straight butter. Healthy eaters beware! You'll eat and eat these tender tasty morsels until all of a sudden you feel like you're sweating butter. And yes, they do taste like chicken.

We ended up also going back for a happy hour there where we got to try some of their dim sum dishes, which was also not a disappointment. I believe the dim sum restaurants should be rated like figure skating scores: you get a score for your fundamentals (dishes that all good dim sum restaurants should do and do well) and a score for your "style points" (more adventurous dishes that you would only find at a truly good dim sum restaurant).

The happy hour dim sum they served was an excellent showing of the restaurant's fundamentals: "shao mai" (pork and shrimp dumplings), "xia gou" or "ha gow" (shrimp wrapped in rice paper), and "cha shao bao" (BBQ pork buns). If you are a dim sum newbie, these are three popular dishes to order to get a good taste of what the concept is about.

And, perhaps the owners had a 6th sense for this, but they also served out egg custards, my favorite dim sum dessert from when I was a child. Also thumbs up.

We didn't get a chance to try any of their "style" dishes, but from the looks of their menu, there will be plenty to choose from the next time we go in. Among the ones I'm most looking forward to are the "xiao long bao" (soup-filled shrimp dumplings), chicken feet, and Han's favorite, the taro shrimp balls.

Not to be understated of all this, though, is that Fortune is a really nice restaurant inside with a full bar, and most of their dishes are $12.95 or under (unless you are ordering the shark fin soup), making them an excellent choice, especially if you are dining on a budget.

Fortune Chinese Seafood Restaurant
10901 N. Lamar Blvd, Suite A-1-501

Monday, October 5, 2009

Zoës Kitchen

Fresh off yet another exhausting ACL (the mud was only half of the issue for us...), we were happy that the folks from Zoë's Kitchen invited us for a preview of their food before the official grand opening.

This is the second member of the ever-expanding Washington corridor in Houston to make its way over to Austin (see Max's Wine Dive), but unlike Max's, Zoës Kitchen also has franchises all over the deep south.

The premise is pretty simple: inexpensive, "light" Mediterranean-style cooking in a casual setting. Will the Austin market ever be saturated with healthy restaurants with eco-friendly packaging? You guys tell us. But located up in the Arboretum, where the closest restaurant neighbors are T.G.I. Friday's and Macaroni Grill, I would say there's probably room for at least one more.

Out of what we had, we particularly enjoyed the Steak Roll-ups ($7.65, pictured left) which, by itself, was a bit like a quesadilla with steak and mushrooms, but is really put over the top with the dipping sauce that comes with it. Also delicious were the sides we had, especially the roasted vegetables and the pasta salad. In fact, if you truly wanted to eat inexpensively and healthy, ordering 3 side dishes ($1.99 per side) wouldn't be a bad way to go. The hummus was also incredibly fresh and tasty and heavily recommended ($4.45, pictured right, with the Greek salad). I only wish that the pita it came with tasted as fresh as the hummus.

We also had the Grilled Chicken Dinner ($8.95) which was also quite good, but wasn't necessarily unlike anything you would eat at home either. The Chicken and Orzo soup ($2.95 per bowl) was a savory, dressed-up version of a Campbell's chicken broth.

The only real downside to what we tried was the tomato bisque, which was far too salty for someone with high blood pressure like myself. Han ended up enjoying it more as condiment with the steak roll-ups.

The vibe is a little chain-y, but perfect for a healthy and inexpensive break from shopping, if you're in the area. It's also kid friendly, and in my opinion would be a great place to take a lunch date.

Zoës Kitchen
10000 Research Boulevard

Friday, August 28, 2009

Everything We Ate in Thailand

Has it seriously been over 2 months since our last update? Well I can safely say that for the first time since we moved here that the whirlwind of our lives is finally starting to die down, so hopefully we can finally start to be more consistent in our posting.

The wedding went fantastically and, almost immediately afterward, we left for Thailand for our 10-day honeymoon. I think we did about as much as humanly possible over that time, including riding an elephant through the jungle, snorkeling, getting massages, shopping, and of course eating!

Our trip went through three pretty diverse areas in Thailand-- Bangkok (the capital), Chiang Mai (the northern hill country), and Phuket (the southern beaches)-- which allowed us to get a taste of many of the different types of cuisines that Thailand has to offer. Like many of you, we were pretty familiar with what Thai food is like in America (pad thai, curry, maybe a little chuchee if feeling adventurous) so we were eager to see how it compares to what food is really like in Thailand. Here are some of the things we found:

We ate a lot of street food while in Bangkok. It was quick and easy (and cheap!) to get while we were out either shopping and looking at sights. Unsurprisingly, the most prominent street food concession was pad thai, and it was literally everywhere. This was no doubt to feed the hungry hordes of farang (foreigners) that were also everywhere. For 20 baht (about 60 cents) you got a cooked-to-order plate of noodles and egg and a pair of bamboo skewers to use as chopsticks. But in addition to the usual favorites (we also had plenty of satay sticks and banana pancakes - yum!), the street vendors also offered some other exotic fare as well, such as dried squid (pictured left). The street carts would have racks of whole squid for you to choose, and the cart owner would run the squid through a wringer to flatten it before grilling it over a charcoal grill.

Not to be outdone were all the fruit carts that also lined the streets of Bangkok. Our guide book warned us not to eat fruit that had already been cut, but we did have plenty of longans and ranbutans on our trip. The bananas in Thailand are smaller but sweeter than they are in America.

In Chinatown we had a meal of grilled river prawns (pictured right) which we thought were pretty impressive (until we got to Phuket anyways) but it was pretty delicious nonetheless.

Chiang Mai
Northern Thai food, as we understand is more influenced by the neighboring Laotian and Burmese cultures. Food here has less coconut milk and more spices, and everything is generally more sour, fermented, and dried.

We got a pretty good taste of it when we saw a kantoke show, which is a little bit like a Thai luau -- traditional northern Thai dinner with traditional northern Thai dancing. The dinner consisted of some curries, pickled vegetables, fried chicken (?), and something that tasted like pork rinds but looked like curly fries. Han asked if they were the pigs' tails. I told her no, but I'm not actually sure.

Chiang Mai was also where we got our first taste of som tam (pictured right). This is a dish that is very common in Thailand but seems to be less common in American Thai restaurants. It is a salad made with unripened papayas, carrots, and tomatoes. At first glance, it seems to be a cool refreshing pre-meal appetizer. In reality, it is hot as all hell, and one of the spiciest dishes you can order. We also tried a dish called larb, or lahb, which was ground pork that was also incredibly spicy. In the southern province, this dish is sometimes served in a hollowed out head of lettuce. At the place we ate it in Chiang Mai though, it just came accompanied by a side of sticky rice in a bamboo basket.

But the best part of Chiang Mai, and my favorite part about Thailand as a whole, was that we took a cooking class and learned how to cook some Thai dishes. It was a great experience and a lot of fun. We learned about all the different types of ingredients and how to pick them out. The dishes we learned to cook were: spring rolls, som tam, pad thai, tom yum soup, and green curry chicken. We were definitely surprised by how well they turned out and how good our dishes looked. Pictured to the left is Han displaying our spring rolls. Look how good they look! We'll hopefully have some posts up soon about the recipes we learned. They're not very difficult at all.

Phuket was probably our least favorite place to visit (too commercialized and expensive!) but it was beautiful and was our favorite food location. Every dish we ordered had giant pieces of seafood pulled fresh from the ocean. And though it was expensive we saw some of the most exotic (and delicious) shellfish we had ever seen. Here were some of our favorite:

Mantis Shrimp

Tiger Prawn

Thai Lobster - we calculated the guy on the left to cost over $120, and someone actually ordered him (or her)!

But wait there's more!
Before we end this post, I did want to share pictures of our most... peculiar... eating experience in Thailand. At the Sunday Walking Street market in Chiang Mai, there was a stand selling stir-fried insects, including grasshoppers, cicadas, silk worms, and somethin called a mackerel. Han decided to buy a bag, and for as much as she complained about how gross it was, she ate the entire bag!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Keep Houston Tasty: A Guide for Travelling Austinites

Well summer is in full swing, and I wanted to do a post like this for any of our readers who might be planning a road trip through Houston some time. And also on a more personal note, we're coming up on Han and my one year anniversary on moving to Austin. I know I speak for Han when I say that we couldn't have been more welcomed by the Austin community, especially the food bloggers, and maybe this is our chance to share something back with all of you.

I think the biggest difference between the food scenes in Houston and Austin is really representative of the two cities themselves. Houston is really into the places with big name recognition and posh interiors. Austin meanwhile prides itself on the mom-and-pop operations with cult followings. But Houston, too, is full of hidden gems, they just aren't as well publicized as the big guys. Sure if you're in town, you want to see and be seen, and you've got a ton of money to blow, you can always go to Hugo's, Da Marco, Pesce, or Cafe Annie. But Austinites looking for good deals with great food and a fun atmosphere will want to check out a few of these places.

Laredo Taqueria (915 Snover, in the Heights)
Honestly, I haven't gotten a chance to explore East Austin much outside of Juan in a Million and El Chilito (Taco Journalism would be the real expert on the subject), but when I think of breakfast tacos, this is how I picture them. Toss the egg and bacon, give me some chorizo and straight barbacoa (but pack some extra napkins). And if you're really adventurous, try the nopales or the picadillo. And don't forget to ask for extra sauce. The real kicker though is watching the morning breakfast crowd. Pull up to this hole-in-the-wall any time during rush hour and you will find a line wrapped around the building of full of day workers, college kids, and men in business suits. They're all waiting in line because the tacos are that good, and it's quite a sight to see. I also want to mention El Rey Taqueria (910 Shepherd) because it is Han's absolute favorite place for tortilla soup. When I make business trips into Houston, I will usually make a point to stop by and pick some up to take back with me. Their rotisserie chicken is also incredible.

Hobbit Cafe (2243 Richmond)
If you're a vegetarian (or just a huge nerd -- Austin is full of both), I would give the Hobbit Cafe a try. I know what you might be thinking, and no, it's not just a name. This cafe is completely modeled after the characters in 'Lord of the Rings,' complete with decorations and memorabilia that date back as far as the original release of the novels, not just the Peter Jackson movies. I recommend this place for lunch, with a seat on the patio if the Houston humidty hasn't gotten to you yet. The sandwiches (which are named "the Gandalf" and "the Fatty Lumpkin" among others) are delicious, mostly vegetarian (with vegan options), and are HEFTY. I would definitely get the slim version of any sandwich, unless you literally have a hobbit-sized appetite. Veggies may also want to try out Baba Yega (2607 Grant St) for their amazing brunch. LOTR nerds may also want to check out Treebeards (315 Travis) although they have less to do with the series other than the name. Their southern food is still quite excellent though!

Lankford Grocery (88 Denis St)
It's not quite the trailer park that Austinites may be used to, but they're still high on tastiness and charm. Lankford Grocery used to be an actual grocery store way back in the day before the massive HEBs existed and when you would stop in to pick up some milk, bread, and eggs and stay for a bite to eat and a milkshake. Now the place is a full time restaurant but the name has been retained. The burgers here are what make the place famous. Some say they are overrated, but I really think it just depends on how greasy you like your burgers. The service doesn't seem to have changed from the original either: usually warm and friendly, but I can't say you won't get yelled at if you step out of line.

Just Dinner (915 Dunlavy)
For those looking for a classy dinner with a personal touch, look no further than Just Dinner. Owner Andrew Rebori operates the restaurant out of his house and greets each guest personally as they come through the door. The food is Italian/New American and made mainly with local ingredients, some of which come from Andrew's garden in the back yard (which he would be happy to show you after dinner). Pretty much all of the food is good, but for the hungry I definitely recommend the Pot Roast. Did I mention it's also BYOB? The place is small, so reservations are recommended. And if you're lucky enough to get seated in Lila's section, tell her we sent you and she will be sure to take excellent care of you.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Perla's Seafood and Oyster Bar

Taking over the Mars location on S. Congress, this new seafood bar has prime real estate. We went for brunch on a Saturday during their opening week. Our friend, Lindsay, was visiting from Houston, so we took her with us, despite her clear dislike for most fare from the sea. Fortunately, Perla's had limited, but delicious non-seafood offerings on their menu, that suited even Lindsay's picky tastes.

We started off with delicious morning cocktails. They had a wide variety to choose from, including one called "The Minderaser" which has Bacardi 151 in it. What a way to start your morning! We weren't quite so brave. Justin had a bloody mary, I had their frozen concoction of the day, called "Peach Passion" and Lindsay went with a mimosa. The bloody mary was delicious, as was the mimosa. My Peach Passion was incredibly strong, even for my lush tastes. It was more suited for a starter drink before a night out on 6th street than a recovery drink on a Saturday morning. If that's their run-of-the-mill frozen drink, I can't even imagine what the minderaser must be like! I'm never one to complain about strong drinks though, I sure got my money's worth, and it made our post-brunch SoCo shopping a lot more fun!

Justin and I started with a sampler of 6 oysters on the halfshell. We each tried 3 oysters from different Northeast regions. Although the price was steep, ($3 each) they are pretty typical for non-gulf oysters around here. I love eating large plump gulf oysters when I am in the mood for beer, crawfish, and quantity. But when it comes to quality, there's something to be said for the small, zinc-y, briney goodness that only New England oysters can provide. They have a rotating menu with different fresh catch options each day. In addition to oysters, they always have a clam option as well, usually littleneck or cherrystone.

For our main course, I went with the breakfast bouillabaise (I just looked at the menu again, and I guess they changed the name to breakfast cioppino, I never could tell the difference between those two anyway. I know bouillabaise is french and cioppino is italian, but they're both tomato based seafood stews. But I digress...) It is basically a half portion of the dinner option, with two soft poached eggs nestled on top, complete with a crisp toasted piece of baguette. I am such a sucker for soft egg yolks, and these were perfect. Not too runny, but soft enough to mix with the saffron tomato broth for a delicious combination. I love eating my eggs with ketchup, and this was basically a gourmet version. The stew was full of a variety of seafood, including chunks of whitefish, clams, mussels, and calamari. A hearty breakfast for seafood lovers. Justin went with the lobster coddled farm eggs. Lobster chunks mixed in with soft baked eggs. Another highly recommended and delicious option. There was a considerable amount of lobster meat in such a small dish. The egg yolks were also the perfect soft consistency as my poached eggs. It was topped with fresh herbs (tarragon?) that gave a crisp bite to the dish. Lindsay decided to go with the basic wheat toast with eggs over-medium, with a side of fruit. No complaints here. She was also eyeing the buttermilk pancakes, which sounded really yummy, topped with fresh blueberries, whipped cream, and vermont syrup. It was nice to see typical brunch options on the menu, which appease to those who want a more traditional breakfast.

Overall, Perla's is a suitable replacement for Mars. I will miss the cocktails at Mars, but I think Perla's strong drinks will do just fine. I loved the overall environment of the resaturant. The decor was nautical and beachy, with a breezy atmosphere. The waiters looked like they stepped out of a J.Crew catalog (pink or light blue button down, khaki pants). Am I in Nantucket?? My one complaint is that Perla's is going through the new restaurant growing pains. Even on Saturday brunch, the restaurant was far from capacity. The waiter was not very knowledgeable about the menu, and appeared obviously green to the industry. However, everyone was very friendly and eager to please, which will carry them far. I can't wait to revisit Perla's again in a few months, perhaps for dinner this time.

Perla's Seafood & Oyster Bar
1400 S. Congress Ave. Austin, TX 78704
512 291 7300

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Max's Wine Dive

Max's Wine Dive was actually one of our favorite places to eat when we were living in Houston. I used to live about 5 minutes north of the Washington corridor where the original Max's still sits today. Needless to say I was delighted to find out that they were opening an Austin location. The tongue-in-cheek kitch of having an upscale "dive" bar will suit the Austin crowd just perfectly.

Named after the owner's six-year-old nephew, Max's Wine Dive prides itself on its unique pairing of fine wines and New American comfort food. (One of its many mottos is "Fried Chicken and Champagne?... why the hell not?") Most of the dishes are new takes of classic favorites such as pot roast (made with Kobe beef and braised in a red wine jus), a fried egg sandwich (tossed with truffle oil and served with organic gruyere), and ribs (with a glaze made from hoisin sauce).

I've had a good portion of the menu in my time. The hands-down favorite is the Kobe beef burger (you can add a side of kimchee or foie gras if you'd like) and the "haute" dog. I also really like their take on grilled cheese and tomato soup (served in a shot glass).

Of course the prices for this "dive" food are maybe the other half of the joke, but more on that later.

I was definitely pleased that the space in the Austin location is much more opened up. Whether you have single stamina and like working the room or you have couple's coma and are just looking to settle in with your ribs and shiraz, everyone here feels included. Max's Wine Dive also likes to push the party atmosphere -- at the Houston location there were often House DJ's spinning, even during dinner hours -- so don't go expecting a quiet dinner experience. The jukebox, I've heard, is pretty darn amazing.

And of course the other side of the coin is the bar's extensive wine selection. If you're like us and enjoy a good glass but have no idea how to pick one out, the bartenders are all very knowledgable and courteous.

Now if there's one thing to be aware of at Max's, it's that prices do add up. At most other bars, you'll order a few appetizers and a couple of drinks for you and your date and be just fine. At Max's if you aren't paying attention you could be walking out with a three digit bill easily. (And to be clear, their wine prices are actually quite reasonable, they just serve REALLY nice wine there.)

The good news is Max's features not only a happy hour from 4 to 7pm, but also the DOUBLY COOL "Reverse" happy hour from 12am to 2am on Fridays and Saturdays, with discounts on both food and wine.

All in all, I think the happy hours are going to be the time to go. Not just for the prices but for the atmosphere that really takes advantage of what Max's does best. Call it just a hunch, but I think Austin is going to have many a good time to come at Max's Wine Dive.

Max's Wine Dive
207 San Jacinto Blvd

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Austin Crawfish Retrospective

It all started when I was a kid growing up in Michigan. My mother would buy frozen crawfish from the seafood counter every once in a while. When I moved down to Houston, a.k.a. the Dirty South, I learned so much more about crawfish (not "crayfish").

The crawfish boil is a big excuse to hang out outdoors, get messy, eat delicious seafood, and drink a lot of beer. Gotta love the 3rd coast. Crawfish in its real form is a hot, juicy, steamy fresh miniature lobster tail. In fact, the chinese word for lobster is actually "crawfish."

Although Austin is a mere 2.5 hours from Houston, the available of good quality crawfish is like night and day. So I set upon a mission for the best crawfish in town, and this is what I found.

Quality Seafood
Already famous for their, well, quality seafood, we were delighted to find the freshest and the cheapest crawfish in town. Service is fast, you can see them weighing out the crawfish behind the counter so you know you're getting your money's worth. Seasoning is spicy but not too salty. And at $5.99 per pound, it sure beats $6.99, the rest Austin has to offer.

5621 Airport Blvd

Crawfish Shack & Oyster Bar
One of my favorite things about crawfish is that they're high in protein and low in fat. The perfect weight-loss food. Although Crawfish Shack & Oyster Bar, some of this was lost in the greasy boil they used. Butter was unnecessary with their recipe. However, they also had BBQ blue crabs. As you from my "Mama Ren's Blue Crab" post, they are my favorite. Nowhere else have I found such a fare.

2013 Wells Branch Pkwy # 106

Fish City Grill
This is the only place in town found that serves crawfish every night of the week. Delicious and convenient, I just wish "spicer" didn't just mean "saltier." At $6.99 per pound you pay for the convenience.

4616 Triangle Ave # 200
4200 S Lamar Blvd

Cypress Grill
Good if you are south of the river, however they only offer on Tuesdays. The crawfish was delicious, although on the light side of weight. Not sure if we got all 3 lbs that we ordered. At $15.99 per 3 lbs., even with the thumb on the scale this was a great deal.

4404 W William Cannon Dr # L

Shoal Creek Saloon

It's claim to fame was its cajun food, but the quality of their crawfish says otherwise. Seasoning was on the light side but the biggest disappointment was how many dead crawfish there were in the mix. Approximately half were dead or had crushed head. Not so appetizing. Maybe it was a bad day, but at $6.99 per pound it's not worth it even if it wasn't.

909 N Lamar Blvd

HEB Seafood Counter
It's hard to heat this up to the proper temperature but in a nostalgic way, this reminds me of my mother's crawfish. For the price of $2.49 per pound, this is certainly a good choice when you crave crawfish right now. After freezing the "wang" (crawfish innards) the mustard in the head comes out easier, yet freezing does something to change the quality. Not a bad choice for the price in a pinch.

Various Locations

Summary: Quality Seafood FTW, as it tends to be. Nothing yet compares to my favorite Houston crawfish joint. Mardi Gras Grill remains #1 in my heart forever.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Kentucky Grilled Chicken

Since moving to Austin, we've been trying to eat healthier and we've largely given up fast foods. But, old habits die hard, and ever the consummate consumer, I was pretty intrigued by KFC's new approach into the trend of healthy eating. 

The commercials certainly looked promising. The colonel's 11 tasty herbs and spices combined with the healthiness of grilled chicken instead of fried? Today I decided to give it a shot finally. 

The results were a bit of a mixed bag as you can probably imagine.  First of all, the pieces are not nearly as big or delicious-looking as the ads (I should have known better). Second of all, "Kentucky Grilled Chicken" is a pretty egregious misnomer-- the pieces are still fried in oil, just not with all the batter.  I have no idea where the "grill marks" are coming from. 

Still, no one can say it doesn't make a difference. A "grilled" drumstick is only 80 calories, as compared to the original recipe (110 calories) or the Extra Crispy (150 calories), and a grilled breast (180 calories) is a HUGE improvement over the original recipe (370 calories) and Extra Crispy (490 calories). 

As for the flavor, it wasn't bad.  Certainly not as tasty as the KFC you're used to, but the fact that it's actually friend instead of grilled was probably redeeming in this regard.  

What got me, though, in the end was the sides.  I haven't had KFC in forever, so I couldn't pass up the usual favorites: cole slaw and mashed potatoes.  Like any dining out experience for the health conscious, the sides can be just as dangerous as the main course, if not more.  Luckily, there are better options on the menu, including green beans, mean greens (whatever that is), and good old-fashioned corn on the cob. 

In the end, this new KGC will not and should not be considered healthy eating by anyone (no surprise there).  But for people with kids who are coerced into eating more fast food than they'd like, or recovering junk foodies like myself, it provides options, and for that KFC should be applauded.  

Now if you'll excuse me, Han and I are getting ready to go get chicken fried steak at Hoover's.  (Which way is the gym?)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Mighty Cone

Q: What are two things that don't go together at all?
A: Moving and running a food blog.

I know the updates have been few and far between these days.  Stress like this generally leads to stress eating, and I was pretty sure there wouldn't be any interest in reading an entry on the Mueller Center Papa John's.  

Anyways, I did get a chance the other day to try out the new Mighty Cone trailer in the rapidly-developing nouveau-South Austin Trailer Park on S. Congress. (What is it with Austinites and trailers anyways?) 

For those of you who don't know, Hudson's On the Bend has a booth every year at the Austin City Limits food court, and their cones are so popular, the line for the Hudson's booth is usually the longest in the food court by far.  So then some higher up, somewhere, said to herself, "Why not offer these cones up year round?" And hence, the Mighty Cone was born. 

The Mighty Cone trailer offers the same delicious cones that they sell at ACL: chicken, shrimp, or avocado fried in a mixture of corn flakes, nuts, and spices, wrapped in kind of a tortilla ($4.95, $5.45 for shrimp). You can also get deluxe cones that combine chicken and avocado ($5.95) or shrimp and avocado ($6.45). 

In addition, the Mighty Cone also has new sliders, both beef ($5.75) and veggie ($5.25) that come with a side of chili-dusted fries. 

There's limited seating available but if you're lucky to get a spot the tables come equipped with "cone holders," which I really appreciated. 

All in all, I think there's two ways to look at the Mighty Cone. One one hand, the food is, of course, delicious. And eating at the Mighty Cone is certainly friendlier on the wallet than dropping three digits at the real Hudson's. 

On the other hand though, the cones do run on the small side.  I may just be a fat Houstonian transplant but I'm pretty sure most people who want to eat "lunch" will have to order at least two cones.  The sliders, while delicious, only come one per order.  I've never known any place where you can order a single slider. So while the Mighty Cone might be "The Only Place You Can Eat Hudson's for under $10," you could also say it's the only place in town where you can pay $10 to eat out of a trailer. 

I also think that there's something else missing about not eating the cones at ACL that loses its appeal.  It's kind of like eating a hot dog at the ballpark, but if you were to eat that same hot dog in your own kitchen, it's a completely different experience. 

I think in the end I would have to say that the Mighty Cone is a delicious treat, but kind of a one-trick pony.  It's a good place to take an out-of-towner, or to get a periodic fix in between ACL festivals, but I'd have to say my preferred trailer-dining experience would definitely be Torchy's just one street over, where I can spend less and get a little bit more variety.
The Mighty Cone
S. Congress and Monroe (across from South Congress Cafe)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

JP's Java: The Best Cup of Coffee in Austin

About a month ago, I sent out a twitter/facebook request for coffee shop recommendations in town. (Big thanks to Laura Oleson and Kiara Alvarez for providing the bulk of the recommendations!) The idea was that Austin has coffee shops everywhere you look. Some have great live music, some are great places to read or study, and some have the best double-chocolate upside-down lattes you've ever tasted. But who has just the best straight up cup of coffee?

Well I'm ready to call off the search, and let me just say it wasn't even close.

But before I get to it, let me preface this by giving a little of my coffee background. I believe that coffee is like pretty much anything else in the world, and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so I think it's important to know where I'm coming from. I don't consider myself a coffee snob at all, but I do have distinct likes and dislikes. My preferred cup is brewed at home in a French press, and my favorite brand is HEB Taste of Texas: Houston blend. I do not like flavored creamers, but I do like flavored blends. I prefer a very full body but a taste that is smooth and not acidic. And the best cup of coffee I've ever had was on a sidewalk cafe in Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.

With all that being said, the Ethiopia Siddammo at JP's Java is pretty much as good as that Guatemalan cup, and possibly better. Their secret, of course, no secret at all. It's an $11,000 coffee machine called the Clover. I won't go into the science of how it works (you can read about it here) but from my perspective, it's worth every penny.

The resulting cup (though pricey) is the smoothest, most flavorful brew you can get from an instant machine. I rarely drink my coffee black, but you can easily get away with that here. I can't really describe it any better, you have to just try it for yourself.

After the Clover-brewed coffee, it's really hard for regular drip brews to compete, but the two I liked best as runners-up were of course the famous Jo's on South Congress and a place by my work on Bee Caves called Trianon. Jo's was a great light taste with almost no bitterness, and the Coconut Cream brew at Trianon was definitely the best flavored brew that I had. Definite coconut flavor but not sweet like candy like you might expect.

Upon further research, I found one blogger's take on how to replicate the Clover using your own French press at home. I'm a little skeptical but I may give it a shot. If anyone else out there gives it a try, be sure to let me know how it goes!

Well Austin? What do you think? Am I crazy? Is JP's the best out there or is there something you think I may have missed? Post below!

JP's Java
San Jacinto and Duval

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Austin360 Food and Wine Bloggers Bash

Well first off I wanted to once again thank Addie Broyles of Relish Austin for putting this whole event together and inviting us along for the ride!

Last night, Han and I were lucky enough to be invited to the Austin360 Food and Wine Bloggers Bash. It was an amazing time with great food and wine and we really enjoyed meeting our fellow food bloggers in the area.

The event was hosted in the culinary center of the Whole Foods flagship store, and the gorgeous weather made it difficult to decide between patio lounging and going inside where the actual event was taking place. Gourmet tastings were featured throughout the space, with the favorite dish being the carne asada skewers with chimichurri sauce, and the most divisive dish being the mushroom with goat cheese. From what I could tell people either fell in love with it or wanted nothing to do with it (I was part of the former group).

The event also featured the "Texas Two-Sip Tasting" which faced local Texas wines off against counterparts from Europe, California, and South America. I'm not a wine expert, but I definitely felt that the Texas wines held their own, with my favorite being the Llano Signature Melange ($9.99!).

And of course the main event of the night were demonstrations by Jesse Griffiths of the Dai Due Supper Club and Tyson Cole of Uchi. Chef Cole was kind enough to talk with us (see picture at right) before his demonstration. I was told I swooned a little bit.

Chef Griffiths prepared an herb-stuffed flounder that, to be honest, was a little bit much in terms of flavor. Chef Cole on the other hand prepared a fish-stuffed rice ball that I easily would have had seconds, thirds, or fourths had it not been the first time I'd be meeting many of my favorite Austin food bloggers.

All in all it was a fantastic time, and I can't wait until the next event!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Austin Restaurant Week: Driskill Grill

I know that I said I was going to make it a point to try to cover restaurants a little more off the Austin-beaten path, but in celebration of Austin Restaurant Week and the fact that we were so incredibly stoked to be eating a place like this, may I present to you our review of the Driskill Grill.

As you probably already know, the Driskill Grill sits in the lobby of the historic Driskill Hotel in downtown, and is known for its world-class cuisine, posh interior, and prices that match both. Now, admittedly, we were a bit ambivalent about going in. Obviously we were excited to eat at the Driskill, especially at a fraction of the normal cost, but our last foray into uber-fine dining like this left us with a sour taste. Specifically, we celebrated our 1 year anniversary at Da Marco in Houston, only to receive the worst service I've ever experienced. We were left unwaited for 20 minute stretches at a time, and the waiter even abandoned us in the middle of taking my order to go serve a different table. (Psst - the food isn't even that great!)

We were very happy to see that this was not the case at the Driskill Grill. The food was excellent and both our server and our sommelier could not have been more attentive.

Just to clarify, Han and I are by no means the type of people to normally give two hoots about the level of service of the sommelier. We just think that for that kind of money you should be getting the best dining experience imaginable!

In fact, another difference between the Driskill and Da Marco that we really appreciated was the atmosphere. The Driskill still had everything you'd come to expect -- white table cloths, men dressed in jackets, candlelight -- but the people there were actually lively and having an enjoyable time.

The tasting menu for Restaurant Week included three courses plus a dessert, all for $35. It did not disappoint. In situations like this, we tend to try to "split up" the menu and order as many different things as possible, so we can get a taste of everything, but on that night, our individual greed won out.

For the first course, we both opted for the lobster bisque over the salad (because seriously? a salad? not tonight), although it may have been the evening's only off-note. The presentation was impressive: the waiter brought out big bowls of crab salad, then poured the bisque in to the bowls from sort of a teapot right at the table. But the bisque itself was bit underwhelmed and underseasoned.

For the second course, we diverged. I ordered the beef carpaccio (raw beef, very thinly sliced) which I was very interested to try. I can't even begin to describe the taste. It was very flavorful but the paper-thin slices seemed to disappear immediately in my mouth. It was definitely good, but I will feely admit I was out-Whataburger'd by the Roasted Bandera Quail that Han ordered. The meat was smoky and tender and was served on some of the most delicious mashed potatoes I've ever had.

The third course ended up being the filet mignon for both of us. This was based on the heavy recommendation by our waiter, followed by a subsequent quarrell over who would get to order the filet and who would order something else. Upon first bite, it was pretty clear we made the right decision. I'm sure the other entrees on the menu were more than delicious, but the sight, smell, and taste of the filet surely would have sparked an uncontrollable rage and jealousy in the losing party.

The meal ended with a Chocolate Rasberry Gateau, which I'm pretty sure is French for "Pure Sin sent straight from the Devil himself."

All in all, I think it's safe to say we are big fans of both the Driskill Grill and Austin Restaurant Week. Although even at a fraction of the normal cost, they are still friendly to neither the wallet nor the wedding diet, we cannot wait until next year.

Monday, February 23, 2009

KG Sushi Train

Hello KAT fans! Sorry it's been so long. Han and I have both been preparing special investigative pieces (mine looking into the best cup of coffee in Austin, Han desperately trying to find good crawfish in this city), but above all that, we just bought a house! Hopefully as things settle down, and once we're able to complete our "research" (HA!) we'll have more posts up shortly.

Anyways, let's get back to the food. The KG Sushi Train is actually the latest in-house addition to one of our favorite restaurants, Korea Garden. It's based on a restaurant idea that is very popular over in Asia and parts of California.

The concept is pretty simple. Have you ever been at an airport carousel waiting for your luggage and thought to yourself, "Man, I'd like to take that home too?" Then the Sushi Train is just for you. They seat you at a high bar with a moving conveyor belt that brings by dishes of sushi. Whenever you see something you like, just pull it off the belt and enjoy!

The prices of the dish vary, but are easily decodeable with the color of the dish and the handy-dandy chart on the wall behind you. When you are finished you server will tally up your dishes. Pretty simple, and it's a fun and unique dining experience, although admittedly the gimmick is largely the main appeal.

Now a few things to keep in mind. And maybe this won't apply to you, if you eat with your stomach instead of your eyes, like Han and I do. First off, I would definitely recommend going in with a budget, as it is very easy to rack up a huge bill. Second of all, if you're going on, say, a first date, it is important to pace yourself in order to last for an entire meal. When Han and I went, we went through 13 dishes totalling over $50 in just under 15 minutes (pictured). Our drink orders weren't even back in time before we were finished!

The sushi itself is no different than how we previously reviewed it, and it can be hit or miss. I thought the escolar was excellent, and we went through about 3 dishes of the fried scallops, as they were not only one of the best dishes but one of the cheapest. Also, normally I'm somewhat snobby about California rolls, but the ones they have at KG Sushi Train have made me a believer. For everything else, just use your eyeballs. Everything we tried that looked good, was good.

KG Sushi Train
6519 N. Lamar

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Master Cleanser

Although this is a food blog, the holidays often leave us with such a food hangover that we resolve to lose weight and detox in the new year. With food comes diet and health, and here's one for the books! I decided to try an extreme version of a detox diet called "The Master Cleanser" by Stanley Burroughs. It's also known as "The Maple Syrup Diet" or "The Lemonade Diet." It's been around for over 60 years, and many people swear by it. In fact, Beyonce followed this for 14 days and lost 20 pounds for her role in Dreamgirls. Although weight loss is a nice perk, my primary goal was to clean out my body and give my digestive system a little rest. There's a ton of literature online about this cleanse, although my go-to resource was simply The prescribed amount of time for a beginner to follow is 10 days. I decided to be less ambitious and start at 5 days. I did this while I was still on winter break, and quite frankly, I'm not sure how people manage to have a normal life at all while doing this detox. There are claims that it boosts your energy levels and you can go about your life per usual, but that was not my personal experience.

To make this concoction, you combine purified water with 12 tablespoons fresh-queezed organic lemon juice (I cheated and used regular lemons... organic ones were $3 more per 2lbs!), 12 tablespoons organic grade B maple syrup (this comprises most of your day's caloric intake and nutrients), and as much cayenne pepper as you can bear (but at least half a teaspoon). That's about a bag of lemons and more than half a bottle of maple syrup per day. The mixture doesn't taste great, but it's not too bad, like spicy lemonade. I made two nalgene bottles full and carried them around with me everywhere, taking swigs whenever I felt hungry. The liquid diet part isn't all that bad, I felt hungry but it was bearable. It's the other part of this cleanse that makes it so miserable. Each night, you are supposed to do a "saltwater flush" which entails mixing a tablespoon of sea salt (not table salt) with a liter of water and chugging it. The first day, I did it with cold water, and I suffered indescribable chills after wards. I was so cold that my fingers were all numb, and even two coats and a down comforter couldn't warm me up. By the time my body finally felt warm again, the saltwater was starting its job. The purpose is to flush out your intestines and colon, and since you're not eating anything solid, this is essential for your digestive system to keep moving. The flush is unpleasant to say the least. After about an hour of drinking it, I was in the bathroom for the next hour. Each time I thought I was finished, my tummy would gurgle and it would start again. It wasn't painful, just the novel discomfort of essentially peeing from somewhere else. It's actually quite exhausting.

Day 1 went by without any major complications. I cheated and ate a few crackers late night (when I am most prone to snacking) but more for the flavor and texture of food, than because I felt so hungry as to need to eat. Day 2 was a different story. I had gotten tired of the spicy lemonade taste, and the act of squeezing 2lbs of lemons each morning and mixing your concoction takes about 30 minutes. I went through the day ok, but by the time I came home from work, I was exhausted. I had a pounding headache, felt extremely fatigued, and was just plain cranky. I yelled at Justin for having the audacity to eat anything within sight or smell range of me. I yelled at the dogs for smelling like dog food. I even wanted to yell at my fishtank. The combination of crankiness and fatigue made me dread the flush even more. But it had to be done. After it was over, I felt woozy and light-headed. I thought I might pass out. I finally caved and had a bowl of butternut squash soup. It made a world of difference, I felt SO much better. I awoke the next day with memories of my crankiness, fatigue and close knowledge of our bathroom, and decided that it just wasn't worth it! I quit after 2 days.

I think this detox cleanse would be easier for someone who doesn't love food as much as I do. Not eating takes such a joy away from your daily life. But that alone is bearable if it wasn't for the daily flush, that takes at least 2 hours each day where you cannot be far from the toilet (and I doubt you'd want to be near a public toilet). The upside is that I lost 4 pounds in those two days, and have managed to keep it off since with exercise and healthy eating. I wonder if a lot of the benefits people report are from placebo effect. Of course there aren't any empirical evidence to support this cleanse, and plenty of nutritionists recommend against it. From my own experience, I will second Beyonce when she says: "Unless you have to lose weight quickly for a movie, I wouldn't recommend this. There are other ways to lose weight."

Somnio's Cafe

Ok Austin. Up to this point it's been a cute little journey for us as newcomers to the city, recapping restaurants popular Austin restaurants from the eyes of an Austin newbie. Here's our attempt to cover a restaurant that (hopefully) isn't completely obvious, in the hopes that it will give something new to try for long-time Austinites.

Somnio's Cafe was recommended to us by my co-worker Susan. It follows one of the bigger trends in dining these days -- everything local, organic, and vegetarian-friendly -- and it follows it very well.

The restaurant is fairly easy to miss, located on South First, and I'll admit the atmosphere inside could use a little more work. It's not an expensive restaurant but the food is good enough to warrant dressing the place up a bit, or at least just adding a bit of personality. The decor is very friendly but a little on the bland side (although I did dig the chandeliers, pictured above). To me it just seems like they didn't put a lot of thought or effort into it, and when I see places like that I get worried they don't put a lot of thought into their food either.

Luckily this was not the case at all. All the ingredients, as I stated, are local and organic. The menu is somewhat Asian-influenced and the value is incredible. We started out with the Pan-Fried Shitake Dumplings ($7), and, trust me, coming from someone who is fairly picky about dumplings (especially if the restaurant is not actually Asian), these were pretty darn good.

As my entree side salad, I got the Sissy's salad, which contains apples, jalapenos, goat cheese (or avocados in the summer), cilantro, pecans, and a garlic vinaigrette. Very unique and very delicious. For my main course, I had the Crazy Crispy (Pork) Medallions ($11), which were breaded tastily with panko and served with buckwheat noodles.

Han got one of their main specialties, the "Make Your Own Rice Bowl" ($7). Yeah, it's pretty much your typical build-your-own deal: you choose a protein, some veggies, and a sauce/seasoning. Han built a chicken curry plate that was both delicious and huge (see her hand for scale), and after the above comment about "worrying about the effort" you have to smile a bit at the detail in the presentation.

For drinks, Somnio's is currently BYO with no corkage fee (ch-ching!) and we did have a carafe of their organic coffee made in a french press that was quite excellent and sent us off happy.

[On a side note: we usually opt not to have dessert as we did at Somnio's that night, but we've been pondering whether it's fair to review a restaurant without tasting such an important feature as the dessert. What are your thoughts everyone? At the very least, we've decided we will re-visit the idea after the wedding. :-)]

Somnio's Cafe
1807 South First Street

KAT Announcements: First off, we're hoping to add another contributor in the near future. Keep on the lookout for her first post.

Second of all, I'm preparing to "research" the best cup of coffee in Austin. If you've got any suggestions, please post them below.

Til next time folks!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mama Ren's famous blue crabs

As a child, this was one of my favorite dishes. I am a huge fan of all things aquatic, I enjoy keeping them, eating them, and collecting replicas of them. I especially love crustaceans, but more to eat than to keep as pets. My mom makes me this simple dish when I go home in the winter, during the prime blue crab season. Chinese people eat blue crab in the winter because that's when the female crabs have the most uh... reproductive goodies. We call it "wang." It's the yellow and orange rich and flavorful pieces found inside the shell, and nestled between the two body sections. Delicious!

Justin and I returned from a visit to Michigan, where sadly we did not eat blue crab. My mother had a hard time finding a fresh catch during our brief visit. Luckily for us, our trip to the Chinese Supermarket (on N. Lamar) yielded some live blue crabs! We have also found them live at Fiesta. There are several tricks to finding good crabs. First, make sure you pick the female ones, the male ones don't have the same "wang," and personally, I don't find their "wang" as good. Crabs are sexed by their flap on the bottom of their body. This is what a female crab looks like.

You also want to make sure that your crab is alive and kicking. Dead crabs lose the springy texture in their meat, and taste pasty and can also smell bad. Make sure that all your crabs are alive when they hit the pot. My mom also says to look for the crabs that are the dirtiest, I guess that means they have been around long enough to reach maturity, and are more likely to have "wang." In addition, make sure that each crab feels nice and heavy, which suggests dense succulent meat. Pick up a few crabs for comparison purposes.

After you bring your crabs home (I suggest 3 crabs per person), keep them in the refrigerator until about an hour before cooking, at which point, you can transfer them to the sink with a few inches of cold water. Soak them for about half an hour. Next, use a small brush and brush them under running water, make sure you get their undersides, that's where they are usually most dirty. Watch out for those pinchers!

While you are cleaning your crabs, boil an inch of water in a large but shallow pot with a few slices of fresh ginger. Once your water boils, you can transfer your crabs into the pot. Cover and turn the heat down to medium. Cook for 10-15 minutes. They should be nice and red when they are fully cooked.

Eating them is the tricky part! First you rip off the flap that covers their belly (the one that tells you they're female), then you carefully separate the shell from the rest of the body. If you are lucky, your crab will be bursting with delicious "wang" and should look like mine. But don't worry if your crab doesn't have "wang," it will still be delicious!

My family's traditional accompaniment is to dip the crab in a ginger vinegar sauce. You simmer about 1/3 cup balsamic (or chinese) vinegar with 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons sugar and diced ginger (about the size of a quarter). Be careful to not let your mixture boil, you just want to melt the sugar. I like to pour the sauce into the shell of my crab and use that as a built-in dipping bowl. Just snap the body of your crab in half, remove the legs, and use a toothpick to extract the meat. Enjoy!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Five EASY New Years Eating Resolutions

Now, never in a million years did I ever intend for this to become a diet blog, but good eating is always key. So in the spirit of New Year's, instead of the usual crash diet and "I swear I will go to the gym 4 times a week" resolutions, here are some very easy changes you can make that can actually make a big difference, whether you're trying to lose weight, live healthier, or even save some money.

1. Share the wealth
Do you have a spouse/SO/friend/dog? Take them with you to lunch. Whatever diet is hip at the time will tell you "Oh carbs are bad" or "No fats are bad" but really the fact of the matter is that what you eat is not nearly as important as how much you eat. Anywhere you go out to eat, the portion size will likely be bigger than you need it to be, so go ahead and split it. Whether it's a burrito or a steak dinner, sharing your meal with a friend (or at least just taking half home) can make any meal more reasonable.

2. Ditch the fries
You might think of fries as just a side dish, but in most cases a side of fries can have as many calories as the main dish, sometimes even more. Luckily, most places today, even fast food restaurants, are letting you switch out your fries for healthier options. At McDonalds, a Big Mac (no cheese) with a side salad and unsweetened iced tea or diet Coke is less than 600 calories.

3. Use smaller plates
Han read an article about the 9-inch diet in People (couldn't find the direct link, sorry), and although the exact details of the diet are a bit controversial, the idea behind it is pretty solid. The author of the diet, Alex Bogusky, got the idea when he moved into his new house, which was built in the 1940s. He found that none of his plates fit in the cabinets. After doing some research, he found that the plates that everyday Americans use have actually grown from 8.5 inches in diameter to 12. Needless to say, this corresponds almost identically to the rise in obesity rates. As a child we are always taught that we should finish everything on our plates because there are starving children in [insert Third World Country of your mother's choosing]. And I don't know about you guys, but a lot of times I end up eating things even if I'm full "just because it's there." The 9-inch diet basically states that you can eat whatever you want, but just make sure that it all fits on a 9-inch plate. I think even if you don't follow that exactly, even just getting in the mindset of preparing/ordering slightly less than what you think you want to eat can go a very long way. (See #1)

4. Eat at least one vegetable or fruit at each meal
Most of us do not eat three servings of fruit or vegetables a day, let alone the five that the USDA recommends. Remembering specifically to eat a banana or a side salad with every meal serves two purposes. One is that it will get you more of the vitamins and minerals that your body needs. Two, it will take up space in your stomach and take the place of other higher calorie side dishes.

5. Treat red meat like a luxury, not a necessity
I went over this briefly in my Austin Land and Cattle review. Back in the day, meat was usually only eaten during a celebration, usually by the wealthy. You always hear bible-era stories about "slaughtering a cow" whenever something awesome happened and they had to throw a party. Over time, modern farming techniques (which I won't even get started on) has made beef and other red meats much more affordable, and nowadays people are used to eating beef two or three times a day. But the fact of the matter is beef and pork have almost twice as many calories and saturated fat as chicken or fish for the same serving size. Not to mention the environmental impact each industry has. When it comes down to it, just because we can afford to eat something every day doesn't mean we should. We could all afford to eat a hot fudge sundae three times a day but we know not to do that. Of course, vegetarianism isn't for everybody (there's no way I could do it for very long), but if you want to save your gut and the planet some grief, do it like they did in the Bible days: wait until a special occasion to slaughter that cow.

Happy eating in 2009 everybody!