For the August 2013 print issue of Texas Highways, I wrote about a Madeira tasting, held at Austin's Red Room speakeasy, which featured the wines of Haak Vineyards in Galveston County. Haak is the only Texas winery that makes Madeira a richly flavored fortified wine that is usually produced on the Portuguese islands of Madeira.
The nightlife scene continues to heat up on Austin's Rainey Street, a former residential byway in the shadow of downtown. Transformed in recent years with bars, restaurants, and food trucks, Rainey Street draws crowds interested in craft cocktails, local beers, and food ranging from authentic Oaxacan fare (at El Naranjo) to Indian (at Raj Mahal). And now, Rainey Street boasts Austin's first food truck devoted to Southeast Asian Noodles, DFG Noodles.
Now that Texas Highways' July story on Austin has hit the stands, I'm reminded that one of my favorite â€˜restaurant rowsâ€™ in town is an admittedly unattractive stretch ofÂ Lamar Boulevard north of 183, where you can find dozens of interesting restaurants serving Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Pakistani, and Indian fare.
Brazilâ€”the fifth largest country in the world and the host country of 2014â€™s World Cup and the 2016 OlympicsÂâ€“has been making headlines this year, as media outlets as varied as CondÃ© Nast Traveller, the International Business Times, and the New York Times rave about its wines, beaches, music, cultural diversity, and food. The countryâ€™s culinary offeringsâ€” a literal melting pot simmered from Portuguese, African, Italian, German, Arab, and Japanese influencesâ€”extend far beyond the grilled meats most people think of when they think of Brazilian food. Imagine savory pies made of chicken, sausage, cheese, herbs, olives, and eggs; chewy, fudgy candies known as Brigadeiros, the national dessert of Brazil; or Cocada de Forno, a buttery cake made with coconut, sweetened condensed milk, and rum. Â Iâ€™ll add my personal favorite new obsession to the list: Goiabada com Queijio, a classic Brazilian pairing of mild, fresh cheese and jewel-like slices of guava paste.
Here's another example of the enduring appeal of "retro." There's a new drive-in movie theater scheduled to open adjacent to downtown Fort Worth this spring.
The Coyote Drive-In is building a 20-acre complex in the Trinity Uptown neighborhood, across the river from downtown. Two of the three screens will be six stories tall (that's relatively big), and the complex will accommodate up to 1,300 cars. Audio will be broadcast on an FM radio signal.
For Chinese New Year, Year of the Dragon 2012, my daughter Lucy, my boyfriend David and I celebrated with dinner at Asia Cafe in Austin. Â Asia Cafe serves Sichuan (or Szechuan) Chinese cuisine, known for its hot and spicy seasonings.Â The Chinese food here is by far the most authentic Iâ€™ve had in Austinâ€”both in taste and presentation.
Asia Cafe is simple and casual: walk up to the counter, grab a menu and place your order. The number of items listed start at 115 and go through the 800s!Â Luckily, I had a few dishes in mind: Whole Fish with Spicy Bean Sauce (which I had on a previous visit: succulent and flavorfully spicy), House Special Green Beans (Chinese long beans), and Sesame Tofu.Â The entrÃ©e portions are generous, in keeping with the Chinese tradition of serving dishes family-style, so for the three of us, this was plenty.Â Drinks (water, tea and soda only) and utensils are self-serve, along with small bowlsâ€”not platesâ€”for sharing (another touch of authenticity: in Chinese households, meals are typically eaten from bowls).
As it turned out, the Whole Fish with Spicy Bean Sauce had already sold out, as this dish is considered â€œluckyâ€ to eat for the New Year. So we went with a similar entrÃ©e on the specials board, House Whole Fish with Garlic and Peppers. When our meal was ready to be picked up at the counter, the fish arrived on an enormous platter, ringed with copious amounts of soft garlic cloves (the mild taste and texture reminded me of miniature new potatoes) and tiny cherry peppers in a piquant peppercorn sauce.Â The tasty long beans had that just-right crunchy-yet-tender texture, and the delicately-seasoned sesame tofu was firm, with a crispy coating.
As expected, Asia Cafe was buzzing on this New Yearâ€™s night. A couple of private rooms off to the side hosted festive gatherings (and brought their own wine), and the line at the counter was continuous but quick. Â As in most â€œauthenticâ€ Asian restaurants, groups of Chinese diners were in attendance, but I also saw many non-Asians, possibly those from other cities whoâ€™ve had a taste of China and craving the real deal.
Asia CafÃ© is a bit of a trek from my home in south Austin, but well worth it.Â Next time I wonâ€™t wait until Lunar New Year (2013 is Year of the Snake) to get my Chinese food fix.
My sister Joan was in Austin last weekend visiting from Dallas, and we decided to forgo the usual big-city haunts and spend an afternoon in Smithville. I had written about Smithville's movie-town status in November TH, and Joan wanted to explore downtown Smithville.
We began with lunch at Comfort Café, just off Main St., where I dined on one of my research trips but regrettably didn't have room to include in my story. (I was pleased to see in the January issue, Bob McClure had written a Reader Recommendation on the chicken salad at the café.) I have had the chicken-curry salad and it was sweetly refreshing. Since I hadn't eaten breakfast yet, I chose the Sammy Bennie, one of three Eggs Benedict dishes on the extensive breakfast/lunch menu. Generously topped with hollandaise sauce over two fluffy poached eggs, salmon and English muffins, the dish was satisfying yet didn't make me feel overstuffed. Joan opted for a freshly-made Potato Florentine Soup with a side of field greens. Open for breakfast and lunch, Comfort Café will also begin serving on Friday nights, 6-9 p.m. starting Feb. 3.
We strolled down Main St. and stopped at Tom-Kat Paper Dolls, as Joan has fond memories of playing with and collecting paper dolls growing up in Hong Kong. As I mentioned in the November story, I continue to be amazed at the range and scope of sartorial themes played out in illustrator/shop owner Tom Tierney's paper-doll books. Some of the newest ones depict the royal newlyweds William and Kate and the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen. Joan bought a book of designer fashions from the 1950s-90s, and we marveled at and recalled some of the trends of those times.
As with many small-town downtowns, Smithville's Main Street has antiques stores galore. But we discovered a new and somewhat different type of shop, Sacs on Main Resale Boutique, which opened two weeks ago and swarming with customers. Sacs is much like Buffalo Exchange's trendy and youthful resale womens apparel but without the cramped racks. There are also new, handcrafted accessories in the mix, such as headbands topped with fabric flowers and jewelry from next door neighbor Scattered Light. Be sure to check out the back room of the store, everything is $1, and I saw some great buys, like a tailored vintage black brocade cape, and a slim brown floral 60s-inspired sheath dress.
It was a relaxing yet not unfamiliar change of pace from our usual Austin jaunts.
Like a lot of women in Central Texas, I imagine, I once dated a soldier stationed at Fort Hood, the lifeblood of the military city of Killeen. On most weekends during our short courtship, he'd visit me in Austin, where we'd frequent the live-music venues on Sixth Street and along Guadalupe, the road that parallels the UT campus. On a few occasions, though, I made the one-hour trip to the base. This was a few years before Operation Desert Storm and many years before 9-11, and security concerns weren't the same as they are now. So on one night when he had guard duty at one of the post's motor pools, I accompanied him. I assume this was allowed but can't be certain. Regardless, no one stopped us. And so I have a rather surreal and oddly romantic memory of a warm night curled up on an armored tank, watching the stars.
A few years ago, I had the good fortune to participate in one of Houstonâ€™s first â€œWhere the Chefs Eatâ€ Culinary Tours, a collaboration between some of the cityâ€™s most adventuresome chefs and the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureauâ€”both groups who sought to elevate the cityâ€™s reputation as a world-class food town. Instead of visiting some of Houstonâ€™s many well-regarded â€œfine diningâ€ spots, we explored a half-dozen or so casual and/or family-owned joints that the chefs frequent when theyâ€™re not cooking in their own restaurants. We toured the kitchens, met the owners, traded recipes and stories, and generally had a blastâ€”feasting on veritable banquets of barbecue, Thai entrees, Indian dishes, and interior Mexican specialtiesâ€”with professional chefs to guide us in our exploration of new cuisines, ingredients, and preparations.
The only downside to the tours? Theyâ€™re so popular that they sell out quickly. So I was excited to receive the 2012 tour schedule and to learn that the three-year-old program has grown to encompass more tours, more chefs, and more restaurants. Another interesting element: Proceeds from the 2012 tours will benefit the new Foodways Texas organization (www.foodwaystexas.com ), which opens to public membership in 2012 and whose mission is to â€œpreserve, promote, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas.â€
Tickets for the first tourâ€”January 22â€™s â€œChinese New Year with Chefs Chris Shepherd and Justin Yuâ€ â€”go on sale December 1, followed by opportunities to join tours such as â€œLate night Bars and Bites with Chefs Seth Siegel-Gardener, Terrence Gallivan, and Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd,â€ â€œOysters with Chefs Mark Holley and Jonathan Jones,â€ and many others. New additions for 2012 include farm tours, explorations of coffee and dessert, and a look-see at citywide Day of the Dead celebrations; popular â€œrepeatsâ€ include explorations of barbecue, street food, Southern comfort food, and Vietnamese cuisine. See www.houstonculinarytours.com for a full run-down.
Iâ€™m learning to love wine. A few years ago, a friend organized a series of wine-tasting parties based on recommendations from Master Sommelier (and SMU graduate) Andrea Immer Robinsonâ€™s book Great Wine Made Simple. As we progressed through the first chaptersâ€”learning to differentiate between light-bodied and full-bodied styles, identifying characteristics of â€œThe Big Six Grapesâ€ (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz), and building a vocabulary of â€œflavor wordsâ€ like tannic and oakyâ€”I began to think about how the pleasures of drinking wine encompasses not only taste, but also tradition, history, agriculture, geography, chemistry, geology, and travel. Robinson, now one of fewer than 20 women in the world who have been made Master Sommeliers by the Court of Master Sommeliers, makes the wine world approachable and fun. After all, her own education began while she was a college student in Dallas, when she took a wine-tasting class at The Grape, a popular restaurant on Greenville Avenue.
Last night, I had the opportunity to attend a wine-tasting event at Austinâ€™s Barr Mansion and Artisan Ballroom, a beautiful event site in northeast Austin that is the nationâ€™s only certified organic event facility. A two-story clapboard Victorian home anchors the site of a former farmstead, and past a series of native-plant gardens and sprawling oak trees (a Certified Wildlife Habitat), a modern, glass-and-cedar ballroom (recently rebuilt after being destroyed by fire last year) hosts events for up to 600 people.
This particular tasting, hosted by the Loire Valley Wine Bureau, offered opportunities to sample an array of delicious varietals from Franceâ€™s Loire Valley, which benefits from the temperature-moderating influence of the Atlantic Ocean. There are some 65 appellations (wine-growing regions) in the Loire Valley, and the primary grapes used include Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, and a grape called Melon de Bourgogne, which lends itself to crisp, dry whites.
Since one of my favorite varietals is Sauvignon Blancâ€”a grape used in Texas wines produced by Fall Creek Vineyards, Spicewood Vineyards, and other Texas producersâ€”I was particularly interested in exploring the differences in style between French versions (often made in the Sancerre appellations) compare. This, I learned, is a classic â€œOld World/New Worldâ€ comparison.
Seems to me that Texas Sauvignon Blancs, like their New World siblings from Australia and New Zealand, seem slightly effervescent and bright, while the French Sancerres seemed creamier, with an expressive floral nose and a still-spritely mouthfeel.
I enjoyed chatting with an aspiring sommelier named Justine Langston, who currently buys wine for the small wine-bar chain CrÃº and will be sitting for her Sommelier Certification exam in October. Langston told me that in Europe, wine-drinking is rarely intimidating, and is in fact transcends all classes of society. The days of snooty sommeliers in America is over, she assured me.
In a room filled with so many outstanding French winesâ€”some from vineyards that date back hundreds of yearsâ€”I couldnâ€™t help but wonder how the young Texas wine industry compares. One vendor told me that the difference wasnâ€™t necessarily a difference in quality, even as he acknowledged the challenges of growing certain varietals in Texas simply because it gets so dang hot here. So we grow the ones that DO perform well here, he saidâ€”much as vineyards do the world over. The difference, this fellow told me, is more a result of scale. Texan growers simply cannot produce as much wine as large vineyards in France, Italy, Chile, and Spain, for exampleâ€”and so in general, a high-quality Texan wine costs more than a comparable bottle from more-established wine-producing regions. Any thoughts on this, wine folks out there?
I donâ€™t mind paying a few extra dollars to support a local industry. But I still like to experience how a style is made in other parts of the worldâ€”to compare, contrast, and become more knowledgeable. Itâ€™s a fun endeavor, and one of the few educational paths where repeating a lesson is encouraged. Cheers.