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