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Top Tables (Archive) (44)

Thursday, 26 February 2009 11:39

Top Tables: La Diosa Cellars

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Yucatan shrimp at La Diosa. (Photo by Michael Amador)On a perfect October evening in Lubbock, I sit enjoying a glass of viognier while watching members of Chris Crow and the Cat’s Pajamas lug amplifiers and instruments through the garage door at La Diosa Cellars, a romantic bistro-winery.


And yes, the front entrance of the restaurant is indeed a garage door. It doesn’t seem at all out of place at this former auto shop in Lubbock’s Depot District.


La Diosa owner and founder Sylvia McPherson suggests sardinas, a dish of broiled Spanish petite sardines in a roasted garlic-butter sauce, sprinkled with parsley, lemon juice and sherry. But, when it comes time to order, I chicken out, literally, and go with Rita chimichurri chicken, a recent addition to the menu.


I’d chosen La Diosa Cellars Viognier with chicken in mind. The wine’s crispness and hints of apple and pear intensified the peppery balsamic vinaigrette on my salad—a simple combination of spring greens and goat’s-milk feta cheese. In turn, slices of toasted French baguette after bites of salad ensure that the last sip of wine tastes as clean as the first.


The seating at La Diosa—tables of various sizes and shapes surrounded by an even wider assortment of stuffed chairs and sofas—may seem odd until you meet the owner and understand her menu and dining philosophy.
Born in Southern California to a father of Spanish heritage and a mother of Mexican heritage, Sylvia grew up in a food-loving family. “My father and many in his family were incredible cooks, so I learned quite young to appreciate a variety of good foods,” she says.


After college, Sylvia worked as a commercial and residential interior designer, but after 15 years on the job, she needed a new creative outlet. After a short sabbatical, she went into the landscaping business. “Working outside, I had a lot of time to reflect,” she continues. “I started to think about creating a little venue of some sort, maybe a funky gift store, possibly with some spirits.”


She was already looking at space in downtown Lubbock when her brother-in-law suggested that she start a winery. After all, she just happened to be married to one of the region’s best-known winemakers, Kim McPherson. Given her love of Spanish food and Southwestern and Latin American art, a combination bistro, winery, and art gallery seemed a perfect fit.


In January 2004, La Diosa Cellars opened with a one-page menu that reflected a blend of family cooking and recipes Sylvia had gathered on her travels through Europe and South America. The La Diosa menu has grown to four pages and now features a variety of salads, desserts, and, at lunchtime, Italian, Spanish, and American-style panini. But traditional tapas—small dishes that serve as appetizers or, combined, as a meal—are the restaurant’s mainstay. Small, but certainly not tiny.


After the salad and bread, I find my order of Rita chimichurri chicken the right size. I also find it excellent—a marinated mix of herbs, onions, and dried tomatoes on slices of roasted chicken. The condiments have a pleas-ant bite, but don’t overpower the meat.


Another advantage of small portions is that they leave room for dessert. La Diosa offers a variety of cakes served with berries on top or on the side and chocolate and coffee beverages. The “small portion” philosophy doesn’t apply here. A slice of New York-style cheesecake proves so filling that I reluctantly pass on port and coffee.


Adding to the eclectic environment, portraits of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo hang on the wall behind the bar. Along with great food and wine, Sylvia features a revolving exhibit of different artists’ work here. Also, special occasion baskets, including wine, food, and small gifts, are made to order.
Sylvia calls La Diosa Cellars a “virtual winery,” practically speaking, though her wines are quite real and are sold under the La Diosa label. From a front table, you can look out windows (or through an open garage door) across 17th Street at the former Coca-Cola bottling plant that now houses McPherson Cellars Winery, owned by Sylvia’s husband, Kim.  


In addition to the wines he produces for his own winery, Kim produces several to his wife’s specifications. La Diosa Cellars also carries wines from several other Texas wineries. Kim says that he founded McPherson Cellars to honor his father, Dr. Clint (Doc) McPherson, a retired Texas Tech professor widely regarded as one of the pioneers of the Texas wine industry.


After graduating from Texas Tech and completing the enology and viticulture pro--gram at the University of California at Davis, Kim worked for a while in Napa Valley. He returned to Lubbock in 1979 to serve as winemaker at his father’s Llano Estacado Winery. He later worked as winemaker at Cap Rock Winery before starting McPherson Cellars in 2000. His Texas wines have won numerous awards, including two Double Gold Medals at the San Francisco Wine Fair. Under the McPherson Cellars label, Kim produces viognier, grenache-mourvedre, a blend of carignan, syrah, and viognier called Tre Colore, cabernet sauvignon, and his personal favorite—and mine—a very smooth, fruity sangiovese.


“Dad was the first to plant sangiovese in Texas, and I’ve worked hard to get people to understand its potential,” Kim says. “It loves the High Plains sun.”
Sylvia says her bistro-winery and her husband’s winery celebrate the merging of families, traditions, and cultures. She chose the name La Diosa, which means “the goddess,” to honor the creative inspiration of her five sisters. Kim McPherson continues the High Plains winemaking tradition founded by his father. Fortunately for us, the McPhersons bring their extended families’ contributions to the culture of the Texas High Plains.

Thursday, 22 January 2009 10:17

Top Tables: Pesca on the River

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By Shermakaye Bass

Crispy cappeline, lotus root and mint adorn seared scalloops with coconut-sake sauce. (Photo by Michael Amador)San Antonio boasts a diverse culinary tradition, from the chili queens who began selling the iconic bowl of red here in the 1880s, to the debut of the Frito in the 1930s, after Frito-Lay founder Elmer Doolin purchased the recipe from a local café owner. The city is also proud home to Pace Picante Sauce, and, of course, has too many great steakhouses to enumerate. But who knew that along the banks of the River Walk dwells one of the region’s best seafood restaurants?
I’d heard that Pesca on the River, the Watermark Hotel & Spa’s signature restaurant, was extremely good, but the tip floated in one ear and out the other. Frankly, I’d never equated the Alamo City with fresh fish.

As we meandered along, I saw Pesca and remembered my friend’s suggestion. The line of diners waiting for a table seemed daunting, but the staff was so genuinely intent on making guests comfortable–grabbing drinks for a couple as they waited, ushering a family inside to the oyster bar–that we decided the 25-minute wait was a non-issue.  
Chatting with the affable general manager, I learned that Executive Chef John Brand had recently taken the helm at the Watermark and its sibling hotel, La Mansion. Brand is a stellar name in resort circles, and his presence at Pesca was a surprise that would make the evening even sweeter.
Within 20 minutes, we were seated on the riverfront patio, which I highly recommend for its people-watching and old-world charm. As night fell, flickering light from iron sconces cast a romantic glow across the building’s aged stone walls, evoking another century. In fact, the original 1900 structure was once home to a saddlery that made tack for Pancho Villa and Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Looking inside, I could see a handsome, paneled dining room with dozens of maple-hued tables and banquettes filled with happy, chattering diners.
Surveying the menu, we indeed saw very little beef. Yes! Better still, the selection of inventive fish and shellfish dishes was palatably priced: a Sonoran seafood cocktail (a blend of shrimp, jumbo lump crab, and calamari with lemon juice, red onion, cucumber, and tomato) for $10, as well as a baked-oysters appetizer that reminded me of Oysters Rockefeller gone Southwestern (plump, savory morsels blanketed with applewood-smoked bacon, baby spinach, and ancho hollandaise) for $12.
The scallops appetizer I chose was the first hint that something extraordinary was happening in the kitchen: Three seared, fleshy discs were delicately sauced with a mild coconut-sake broth that was infused with ginger, sweet Thai chilies and lotus root. A lover of scallops, but not of coconut, I was concerned the sweet milk might overpower the shellfish and asked our waiter’s advice. He assured me that it was perfectly balanced, with only a hint of the rich coconut. The dish was so divine that I considered ordering seconds.
Next came my entrée, pan-seared flounder, which challenged the scallops in terms of delicacy and temperament. The brown butter sauce with capers was rapturous–as delicate as fine lace, if lace had taste. The fish flaked perfectly, and the sides of griddled broccolini and fingerling potatoes were better than good. I just couldn’t pay them much attention, given their seafaring companions.
My father, who’s never met a lobster he didn’t love, ordered the Maine shellfish, steamed whole in the shell, then brushed with lemon and butter ($45, around market price at the time). This lobster he loved also, but I felt it was steamed just a smidgeon too long, and my father would have preferred it partially shelled. But if you don’t ask, they don’t crack. No matter. Alongside, he had a baked potato, but you can order other vegetables or grains such as quinoa or wehani rice.
Our finale was a traditional crème brûlée, dissolve-in-your-mouth smooth. If cotton candy had a custardy cousin, this might be it.
San Antonio may not be as well known for fresh seafood as Galveston, Corpus Christi or Houston, but Pesca is the kind of dining experience that can happen anywhere if a restaurant has the right chef, the right setting, the right vision, and the right intentions.

 

Thursday, 23 October 2008 15:43

Top Tables: Ahoy, Cap'n Roy's!

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Photo by J..Griffis Smith

By Helen Bryant

Lee Roy Summerlin has been a pool shark, a real estate salesman, a fishing guide, a pier manager, a poet, and a guitar picker. So when he had the chance to open a restaurant on South Padre Island a couple of years ago, he was game. “It ain’t brain surgery,” says Summerlin, the cap’n at Cap’n Roy’s.

Maybe not, but it’s far from easy keeping a restaurant alive on the island. Many an eatery has fallen victim to the tourist trade’s two dead zones: early fall, before the Winter Texans arrive from the Midwest, and late spring, after the college students and Easter vacationers leave. After two years of serving Veracruz-style seafood and Mexican food, Cap’n Roy’s looks like a keeper.

The fish tacos—grilled, fried, or blackened fish smothered in cabbage and mango-chipotle sauce and wrapped inside soft, locally made corn tortillas—are sublime. The spicy Veracruz-style shrimp also has a lot of fans, as does the Caldo Mariscos, a chile-infused stock full of fresh shrimp and fish.

But you don’t have to like seafood to enjoy Cap’n Roy’s: The chalupas are winners, too, as are the enchiladas, tacos, and carne guisada. Cap’n Roy’s menu also includes appetizers such as fried calamari and guacamole, as well as salads, sandwiches, and pastas.

“We have a nice, diverse menu, and it’s family-friendly,” he says. It’s a casual place, too, with blue tablecloths on the tables and the walls decorated with photos of customers and the fish they caught. Most of the entrées cost less than $10.

Summerlin, a native of Azle, came to the island in the ’70s on a lark. He’d been making a good bit of money playing pool, but he was in the mood for a change. He arrived on South Padre and “discovered surfing and the surfing lifestyle.” He never left.

In 2005, a friend came to Summerlin and said his barbecue business just wasn’t doing as well as he’d like. Would Summerlin like to take over the place and try seafood? Well, yes, he would.

At first, he says, the people who came by were mostly friends who dropped by to be nice. They came back for the food. Then the tourists discovered Cap’n Roy’s and kept coming back too.

Wednesday, 06 August 2008 10:56

Top Tables Essentials: Spoonbills

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Spoonbills Restaurant is at 773 Cypress Street in Matagorda.  Hours: Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. (lunch) and 5:30 p.m. – 9 p.m. (dinner); closed Wednesday – Thursday.  Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. Call 979/863-7766; www.spoonbillsrestaurant.com.

 

Wednesday, 06 August 2008 10:54

Top Tables: Spoonbills Satisfies

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Spoonbills' Fried Green Tomato Tower by Kevin VandivierBy Kevin Vandivier

 

In my 30-year career as a photojournalist, I’ve often had the opportunity to try new eateries during my travels. Recently, I hit the road to shoot a story and eat my way from Rockport to Crystal Beach.

  

When I reached Matagorda, I learned of a great new restaurant called Spoonbills. Though it was late, I headed on over to grab a meal. I arrived to a parking lot full of cars, and folks leaving with big smiles and doggie bags. Usually a good sign!

 

As soon as I stepped out of the car, my first thought was “Oh my goodness, what is that incredible aroma?!” I climbed the four wood stairs to the deck and opened the screen door where I was greeted by multiple smiles as people looked up from their plates. Not since my kids were young and had found the Christmas chocolate have I seen such smiles.

 

Only one table was open, and I was immediately seated with a menu in hand. The choices all looked so good … fried shrimp; marinated flat-iron steak; nut-crusted, pan-seared fish; and stuffed crab—my all-time favorite seafood dish.  For my starter, the waiter suggested the Fried Green Tomato Tower, a stack of perfectly cooked shrimp and crab claws layered with fried green tomatoes and a house-made remoulade sauce. Torn between that and the Mexican Shrimp Cocktail, I did what all true Texans do in this situation: I ordered both.

 

Spoonbills’ service is as outstanding as the food. My stuffed crab arrived, hand-delivered by chef Edie Pruitt, who is also one of the restaurant’s owners.  Edie and her sister, Maree Allen, opened Spoonbills in July 2007, and it was a success from day one. “Seafood just caught always tastes best,” effuses Edie. The chef meets the seafood boats at the docks to hand-pick her choices. She feels the same way about the restaurant’s fruits, vegetables, and other entrées (yes, Spoonbills serves steaks, chicken, and barbecue, too).

 

Before you go, check out these essentials!

Wednesday, 23 July 2008 13:53

The Laurel Tree Essentials

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The Laurel Tree is on TX 187, about 2 miles south of Utopia and 18 miles north of Sabinal. Open to the public for lunch and dinner on Sat. only. Five-course prix fixe dinner is $35; lunch is $15. Reservations required (the seating capacity is 60). The Laurel Tree is located in a “dry” precinct, but guests may bring their own wine. The party room may be reserved for groups, and the entire restaurant is available for private parties of 30 or more people any day or evening except Sat. Call 830/966-5444; www.utopiagourmet.com.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008 12:48

Top Tables: Utopia’s French Connection

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By Maxine Mayes

 

Two years ago, on a trip to the Hill Country community of Utopia, I was prowling the aisles of a shop that specializes in French country antiques and came upon a stash of old cookbooks in a back room. I bought two, and learned they had once belonged to Laurel Waters, chef-owner of The Laurel Tree, a restaurant just south of town. The cookbooks soon led me to visit the restaurant, which has French connections of its own.

 

The Laurel Tree sits amid the oak-covered hills that ring Sabinal Canyon in northwestern Uvalde County. Styled after a European “guest table”—a small establishment that emphasizes fresh ingredients and local specialties—The Laurel Tree opens for lunch and dinner only on Saturdays. The menu changes weekly, depending on the herbs and vegetables in season, but always includes a choice of two main courses, one featuring beef, pork, or poultry, the other, usually fish.

 

The ambiance is relaxed and intimate, in keeping with the restaurant’s Provençal inspiration. Antique French furniture and accents displayed throughout tempt diners to browse the rooms as if they were in a boutique. Vintage culinary collections adorn the walls: wooden cheese- and potato-graters, hand-forged chopping knives, and chocolate and butter molds in myriad shapes.

 

After meeting Laurel Waters, I understood The Laurel Tree’s “French connection.” As a fashion design major in college, Waters studied abroad at the Paris Fashion Institute. She says she “fell in love with Paris completely” and returned to France a few years later to focus on food instead of fashion, earning Le Grand Diplome in cuisine, pastry, and wine from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

 

“I would find wonderful hole-in-the-wall restaurants and taste their specialties,” recalls Waters. “Often I would be mistaken for a food critic when I was alone and writing in a notebook … .” She sketched appealing features of Provençal architecture as she planned the guest table she hoped to open someday back home in Utopia.

 

By all indications, she has succeeded.

 

Before you go, check out these essentials.

 

Tuesday, 17 June 2008 14:34

Essentials: Hacienda Flavor

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FONDASAN MIGUEL is at 2330 W. North Loop in Austin. Hours: Mon-Thu 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 5:30p.m.-10:30 p.m., Sun (for the brunch buffet) 11a.m.-2 p.m. (No Sun. buffet during August.) Reservations recommended. Bar opens Mon-Sat at 5 p.m. Call 512/459-4121; www.fondasanmiguel.com.

Fonda San Miguel: Thirty Years of Food andArt (Shearer Publishing, 2005), by Tom Gillilandand Miguel Ravago with writer Virginia B. Wood, is for sale ($34.95 list price) at the restaurant (details on the web site), and at www.amazon.com.

Thursday, 15 May 2008 10:55

Rib Run

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By Randy Mallory


When folks in the Piney Woods of northeast Texas crave smoked pork ribs, they make a beeline for a little place five miles west of Kilgore called the Country Tavern.

 

Over the past 30 years, I’ve made countless rib runs from my Tyler home to this legendary eatery where meat falls easily from the bone. Recently, I’d heard rumors of changes at the barbecue mecca, changes that made it less of a beer joint with food and more of a family restaurant with honky-tonk flair. As I open the front door of the Country Tavern, I aim to find out.

Hanging on the wall inside are the framed photos that have greeted me many times before—autographed pictures of such famous patrons as actors Larry Hagman and Robert Duvall, country musician Toby Keith, and former President George H.W. Bush. As on previous visits, a half-dozen young waitresses in blue jeans and polo shirts are shuttling trays of steaming-hot barbecue to 200 or so diners.

A pert young greeter gives me a warm “Howdy” and shows me to my seat in one of the red-vinyl booths that line two walls of the main room. At one end, there’s the familiar bar, swivel stools, and a pool table; at the other, a jukebox still blares country tunes, though the music is digital, not from vintage vinyl. In the middle of the room, tables are packed together, leaving only a hint of a dance floor. But something about the scene seems fresh and new—sort of like a historic photograph that’s been retouched.

Overhead, large, exposed air-conditioning ducts pipe in cool, fresh air, and gone is the once common honky-tonk haze (smoking is allowed only at the bar). New lighting brightens the space. Off to one corner there’s a new 60-seat banquet room—with a horseshoe-shaped bar—for private parties or overflow seating.

That’s all well and good, but what about the food? What about the legendary ribs and brisket and that sweet-spicy table sauce? My culinary angst subsides as I watch some people in the boisterous crowd lick their fingers and voraciously gnaw ribs to the bone. They seem like succulence-seekers on a pilgrimage to barbecue heaven.

Waitress Linda Stuart, who has worked here for nearly 20 years, appears out of nowhere to take my order. Country Tavern once offered only platters of pork ribs or beef brisket accompanied by mustard-laced potato salad, dill pickles, a round of onion, and slices of white bread. Those platters remain the house favorites by a long shot, but now you can also choose platters of smoked turkey or smokehouse sausage, or a mixed platter, with sides of coleslaw, beans, or chips.

My order soon arrives—my standard hot ribs and a cold beer—and my heart sings. It’s déjà vu all over again. My tried-and-true Tavern technique starts with devouring one or two of the ribs dry, without sauce. These loin-back pork beauties have been basted with a savory sauce (ketchup and vinegar, for the most part), then slow-cooked over hickory at around 230 degrees for more than four hours. The smoky, spicy flavors fire up my taste buds like a light brightens a dark room.

The remaining ribs I slather liberally with the Tavern’s signature table sauce (similar to the basting sauce, but thicker, with more spices), then I get down to business. Once the inevitable pile of picked-over bones reaches its apex, I transform a slice of white bread (the only time I eat the stuff) into a platter-cleaning device to sop up what’s left of the drippings and sauce. Mercifully, my waitress shows up with a moist, warm cloth for cleanup. She asks if I’d like homemade peach or blackberry cobbler topped with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream. My answer—despite a creeping sense of satiation—is an emphatic “Oh yeah! Gimme blackberry.”

This is my first visit to the Country Tavern since the untimely death several years ago of its beloved long-time proprietress, Lois Pilgrim Mason, who was known for greeting customers at the door with a smile and a hug. Her grandson Toby Pilgrim is now at the helm, so I talk with him to get the lowdown on the changes.

Pilgrim tells me that in 1939, Roger and Ivy Lee Sloan opened the original Country Tavern Café beside their liquor store (the building that once housed it still stands). Then and now, the property sits near several honky-tonks and liquor stores clustered at the Gregg County line, just across from “dry” Smith County.

The original Country Tavern burned down and was replaced with a similar structure in the early 1960s, shortly before Mason became a waitress here. A friendly, hard-working woman, she saved up her earnings and bought the place in 1972. By then, the Country Tavern had developed a following among barbecue fans.

Some came for more than the food. When Mason took over, there was still a mysterious door in the men’s restroom that led to a hidden parlor (now taken in by the new banquet room) where locals played clandestine hands of poker.

One of the Country Tavern cooks was Maxey Thomas Henry, a black man. During the days of segregation, the place was essentially two cafés with a common kitchen. Whites ate in the main room. Blacks came around back to a separate dining room, bar, and restrooms; many of them hung out by the open-air cooking pit with Henry, where he basted meat with a rag tied to the end of a broomstick. Also hanging out at the pit was Mason’s son, Garry Pilgrim, who was learning everything he could from Henry about cooking barbecue. Garry and his wife, Jeannie, perfected Country Tavern’s secret seasonings and sauce, but in 1992, Garry died. When Mason died in 2003, Jeannie carried on the family tradition. When she died six months later, the job of carrying on the barbecue dynasty fell to Mason’s grandson Toby Pilgrim.

“We went through some tough times, and business declined. I wanted to save the place by offering a more family-friendly atmosphere,” Pilgrim tells me when I mention the remodeling. Longtime customers might notice another change—smoke no longer rises from a hot pit behind the long, red building. Instead, the meat is perfected inside, in high-efficiency, automated cookers; hickory logs are added to the equation at just the right time. “The barbecue is as good today as it was when my dad cooked outside at the pit dressed in his overalls,” says Pilgrim.

Patrons must agree. Business has doubled since Pilgrim took over—now racking up weekly sales of 3,000 pounds of ribs, 1,000 pounds of brisket, and 450 pounds each of sausage and turkey. That kind of success allows Country Tavern regulars to carry on their own family traditions. I saunter over and join a jovial foursome knocking down some ribs and brisket. David Newman sits with his teenage son, John David, and two of his son’s friends, Evan Russell and John Denman, all of Dallas. “I’ve been coming here since I was a teenager,” explains the 51-year-old dad. “My parents had a lake house near Henderson, and when we came from Dallas on the weekends, we’d often stop at the Country Tavern for good barbecue.” Likewise, the group is on its way to that same lake house for a weekend of fishing and now eating that same “good barbecue.”

As I waddle back to the car, I feel comforted that—at least when it comes to food and family at the Country Tavern—the old adage holds true: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

Country Tavern Bar-B-Que is at the intersection of TX 31 at FM 2767 (1526 FM 2767), 5 miles west of Kilgore. Hours: Mon-Thu 11-9, Fri-Sat 11-10. For reservations or more information, call 903/984-9954.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008 05:10

Austin’s Urban Markets Get Fresh!

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By Kitty Crider

Call it the pull of just-picked peaches, juicy, homegrown tomatoes, or blackberries as big as your thumb. Such jewels of early summer have attracted flocks of food-lovers to farmers markets for generations, but these days, you can skip the drive to the country; some of the most exciting markets are in the city.

Take the Austin metro area, for example. Two urban farmers’ markets—Sunset Valley Farmers Market and Austin Farmers Market—flourish here, not only in summer, but year round. At both markets, fresh produce coexists with prepared foods (bento boxes to hummus), pies, soy candles, and feather earrings, not to mention ATMs. In true Austin style, both also offer live music, and nearly every weekend feature a special event—from a green chile fest to an “Iron Chef” cook-off between top Austin chefs.

While other Texas cities (notably Dallas and Houston) also have urban markets, these Austin-area markets have achieved national reputations. Sunset Valley Farmers Market, southwest of town, was ranked No. 5 by Eating Well magazine last summer, and the centrally located Austin Farmers’ Market made Greenlight digital magazine’s Top 10 last fall. They’re among heady company: The lists also include such premier markets as the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, and Santa Fe Farmers Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico. No other Texas markets made the cut.

For Kristi Hibler and her seven-year-old daughter, Amity, a weekly visit to the Sunset Valley Farmers Market is part of their Saturday routine. First, they stop at the Living Arts Bakery booth for a mixed-berry or Mexican-chocolate scone, and then they shop for a week’s supply of seasonal fruits and vegetables.

“We buy most of our food here,” says Hibler, a middle-school science teacher who likes the fact that consuming locally grown food reduces her ecological footprint. She also likes knowing where her food comes from. “I’ve been buying eggs and cheese from the same people for years,” she says. Tommye von Roeder and her husband, Carroll, have been going to this market every Saturday morning, rain or shine, for a decade. Early in the day, when the selection is best, they buy their eggs, basil, tomatoes, mushrooms, greens, and other produce from growers they know by name. Then they kick back with cups of iced coffee and listen to the tunes of local guitarist Jimmy Joe Natoli, who has a weekly gig here. The music is a key attraction for them. “Coming here is relaxing,” says von Roeder.

Sellers also cherish the Sunset Valley venue. “I love this market—the quality of the products, the number of vendors, the number of people drawn here. I think it can match California markets point for point,” says Austin native and former West Coast resident “Aunt Nita” Garcia, who owns Aunt Nita’s Home-style Foods in Leander.

Garcia sells jumbleberry crunch pies, packed with a mixture of berries, as well as coconut-almond-buttermilk pies, relishes, quiches, and a table full of other goods. She says when she began selling here years ago, she brought 10 bunches of beets she had grown. Didn’t sell a one. So she took them home, made 10 jars of pickled beets, came back the next week, and sold them all. Today, she makes a half-dozen different pickles, as well as salad dressings, casseroles, spreads, and dips, using her own produce and that of other local growers when she can.

About 80 percent of Sunset Valley’s products are grown organically or sustainably. Availability of specific items varies with the season, although several farmers have added hydroponics or greenhouses to their operations to provide tasty tomatoes even in January.

“Having homegrown tomatoes is a key to a year-round market,” says Pamela Boyar, who founded the market in 1997. Back then, it had only a dozen vendors at the peak of the season; today, there are more than 100 growers/vendors, and the market is located in the 17-acre parking lot of the Tony Burger Center, a sports arena about five miles south of downtown Austin. Boyar estimates that 160,000 people visited in 2007.

Boyar telecommutes from Hawaii now, but her partners—Salila Travers and Jim Moore—work hard to make the market more than a row of produce booths and pickup trucks. About once a month, they hold a festival, usually with a food theme (strawberry, pep-per, tomato, herb, pumpkin, blackberry, or melon, for example) and often offer kids’ activities. One Saturday last summer, pony rides were the order of the day, and by 9 a.m., there was already a line of eager kids. With the aromas of kettle corn and fresh-roasted peanuts, the market took on fair-like qualities.

And, like going to a fair or a festival, a visit to the Sunset Valley Farmers Market is not to be rushed. For one thing, there are hundreds, sometimes thousands of shoppers—both residents and tourists—a diversified lot in jeans, shorts, exercise gear, and saris. You’ll also want to take your time and savor all the sights, sounds, and tastes you won’t find at your local grocery store.

At the downtown Austin Farmers Market, in Republic Square, Saturday-morning shoppers include young singles, retired couples, parents with babies, software experts, financiers, writers, politicians, vegetarians, meat-lovers, film producers, and architects. They’re often on foot, having walked or run over from nearby lofts or the city’s popular hike-and-bike trail. They may even be carrying a fold-up scooter or pushing a stroller. They chat with the vendors and with each other, sharing food tips or opinions on politics, sports, or music. They mosey along, taking in a demo from one of Austin’s leading chefs or a lecture on organic gardening. Some eat breakfast at the market, buy groceries for the next week, pick up artisan breads or flowers for a party, or get local root beer on tap—even a pink drink made from prickly pear cactus.

A project of the local nonprofit Sustainable Food Center, the Austin Farmers’ Market features some 55 vendors, with 86 percent of the participating farmers and ranchers offering organic or sustainable products. According to Market Director Suzanne Santos, this venue attracted about 63,000 people last year. It also spawned a Wednesday-evening market in Triangle Park, a new development on Guadalupe Street. The sister market was an immediate hit, drawing 25,000 people in just 34 weeks. The atmosphere at the new venue is especially sociable: Parents take their children to play in the splash fountain, pick up empanadas or perhaps a fresh-roasted chicken, breads, peaches, and drinks, and then sit on the grass and listen to the music of various artists while the kids scamper around. “Sometimes people linger until dark and we’ve packed up the trailers,” says Santos.

Chefs and amateur cooks attuned to the eat-local movement love this midweek market, because it gives them a good source of fresh local products between Saturdays. And like the Saturday market, it offers more than produce. Fresh chicken, duck, pheasant, and rabbit abound, as well as frozen beef, pork, and bison, much of it natural or grass-fed.

Farmers like the midweek market, too, because they can sell in a pretty, grassy park in yet another area of the city. On Saturdays, most do not have the staff to be at more than one location.

All of these urban farmers’ markets offer local products that fall into the boutique category—artisan breads, mozzarella marinated with pesto, pasta salads, and spinach-feta spreads. These foods are a party or picnic waiting to happen. Shoppers, many of them non-cooks or microwave-literate only, snap them up. And that sums up the story of the modern-day farmers markets in the Lone Star capital: There’s something fresh and local for everyone.

All of Austin’s year-round produce markets offer free admission.

The Sunset Valley Farmers Market takes place about 5 miles south of downtown Austin in the parking lot of the Tony Burger Center, at 3200 Jones Rd. (on the eastbound access road of US 290 West between Brodie Ln. and Westgate Blvd.) in Sunset Valley. Opens Sat. 9-1. Call 512/443-0143; www.sunsetvalleyfarmersmarket.org.

The Saturday Austin Farmers Market takes place downtown at Republic Square, at 4th and Guadalupe streets. Opens 9 to 1. Free parking on the street and in the state parking garage at 3rd and San Antonio streets. Call 512/236-0074; www.austinfarmersmarket.org.

The Wednesday Austin Farmers Market takes place at Triangle Park, at 46th and Guadalupe streets. Opens 4 p.m.-8 p.m. (spring/summer hours). Free parking in the parking garage across the street.

The Sustainable Food Center will host “Farm to Plate,” a wine-and-food-tasting, at the Triangle Park market on May 7, from 5 p.m.-8 p.m. For tickets and details, visit www.sustainablefoodcenter.org.

Take-Alongs

A reusable shopping bag, for convenience and environmental responsibility.

A cooler for perishables if the weather is warm

More money than you think you’ll need, or an ATM card, for all the tasty temptations.

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