Written by Jane Wu
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.
THâ€™s February issue features the western portion of the Big Bend region, which covers vast and remote areas where youâ€™d do well to plan on spending at least the better part of a week. So does this necessarily mean a shorter excursion is out of the question? Not if you have a general plan which includes more urbane pleasures such as exploring West Texas food and art, as well as with surrounding yourself with spectacular vistas.
My boyfriend David and I spent a little less than three days in Big Bend over the Christmas holiday, and the trip was well-paced and relaxing. Of course, we would have loved to spend more time, but prior commitments in Austin prevented us from doing so.
Alpine and Marfa were on our radar, plus Fort Davis and even a hike in Big Bend National Park if time allowed. We also wanted to begin our trip in Marathon, in time for dinner and stay at the Gage Hotel. The hotel was booked for the holiday, but the Gage recently acquired Captain Shepardâ€™s Inn, right behind the hotel, which had rooms available. We stayed in a warm and spacious room with a balcony.
Marathon is about an hour from just about everywhere on our itinerary, so the location made for easy planning, and an ideal home base. On our first full day, we drove to Alpine, and strolled down Holland Avenue. We stopped in Big Bend Arts Council Gallery and found an eclectic and affordable selection of paintings, pottery, sculpture, and jewelry created by local artists. Avram Dumitrescu, originally from Ireland, whose vibrant paintings of landscapes, food, and animals I admire, had pieces on display, and was also minding the gallery that morning. Later, we popped into Front Street Books, where I found a copy of a book Avram illustrated (and also signed), M.F.K. Fisher Among the Pots and Pans, by Joan Reardon. We also poked in the window of TONK (Things Ordinary Not Known) studio to admire the whimsical assemblages. The gallery sign said â€œClosed,â€ but owner/artist Rachel Anne Manera saw us and invited us in.
After a zesty, hearty tortilla soup lunch at Reata, we headed west to Marfa. Just a few businesses were open (we found many Marfaâ€™s shops, galleries, and restaurants typically open Wed.-Sat., and we were there on Monday). However, we did take a short jaunt along Highland Ave. and perused the one of the Paisano Hotelâ€™s gift shops, which has an impressive art book section.
Sadly, the Chinati Foundation was closed, but in search of more art, we proceeded onward to the Prada Marfa art installation, about 5 miles past Valentine on US 90. Built in 2005 by Berlin artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, the structure still attracts curious tourists like ourselves, and also a man from Germany who was just leaving as we arrived.
There was still enough daylight left that afternoon for a side trip to Fort Davis, which we took via Hwy. 166, a scenic drive with spectacular views of the Davis Mountains. We stopped at Fort Davis National Historic Site and took a short hike up to a vantage point of a sprawling overview of the fort. We then drove to Indian Lodge, and explored the grounds to consider for a future stay. Our last stop was in downtown Fort Davis, where on State St., we found charming shops, inns and cafÃ©s, such as the Fort Davis Drug Store and Old Texas Inn, which even has a soda fountain. On the way out, we were wowed by the classic architecture and distinctive clock tower of the Jeff Davis County Courthouse. Our West Texas wanderlust was sated for the day.
After touring three towns on Day One, a more relaxing agenda was in store for Day Two. After a leisurely breakfast at the Marathon Coffee Shop, we visited photographer, writer, and artist E. Dan Klepper (who is also a frequent TH contributor) at his Klepper Gallery. I have long appreciated E. Danâ€™s artful images and compelling words, but I was awestruck by his graceful, minimalistÂ assemblages of baling wire and various found objects.
It was finally time to explore the outdoors, so around noon we trekked toward Big Bend National Park. With the remaining time on our trip dwindling, we chose to hike the Window Trail. This popular trail is relatively short (5.6 mi.) and easy to navigate. However, we couldnâ€™t help but stop every so often to gaspâ€”not due to exertion but to admire the stunning mountain formations and surface textures. At the end of the trail, the Windowâ€™s ledge opens to a jaw-dropping, magnificent vista. On the way back, we spotted not only hawks, deer, and javelinas, but musician/artist David Byrne and a companion walking toward the Window. â€œOnce in a lifetime?â€ to quote one of his Talking Heads hits.
Due to the short time and full days, we had dinner at the Gage, either in 12 Gage restaurant or White Buffalo Bar. Despite the voracious appetite worked up from the hike, White Buffalo Barâ€˜s Venison Fajita Black Bean Nachos made for a sumptuous meal for both of us.
On our final day, Wednesday, before heading home, we drove back to Marfa in hope of touring the Chinati Foundation as it would be open, but our luck ran out when we found the tour had sold out for the morning. So we had a delightful Swiss-inspired breakfast of knackwurst with eggs at squeezemarfa, and walked across the street to the Presidio County Courthouse to climb the stairs to the courthouse tower. The tower boasts astounding panoramic views. I thought I could almost see clear to Alpine!
Before this trip, it had been many years since either of us had been to Big Bend. This somewhat whirlwind visit will set the stage for more (and longer) trips to come, hopefully sooner than later.
In 2008, I posted a blog of tips for attending Austin City Limits Music Festival that have made my experience more enjoyable. Much has changed in three years, and some tips bear repeating. As in '08, we can look forward to slightly cooler temperatures (albeit in the 90s) and an equally stellar lineup befitting ACL Fest's tenth anniversary. Foster the People, Coldplay, Kanye West, Fitz and the Tantrums, Stevie Wonder, My Morning Jacket, Fleet Foxes, and Arcade Fire are among the must-see acts on my list (though I realize I'll be forced to choose which headliner to see Friday-Saturday)! As with the PBS show, ACL Fest always features a wealth of talent to appeal to a variety of musical genres. So if you're going for one day or all three, here are some of my favorite tips. Also, the ACL Fest website and Austin360.com has helpful advice as well.
No smoking, no kidding: Thanks to the record-breaking drought and heat this summer, there s absolutely no smoking or any kind (for music fans of a certain age, the Bic lighter salute is now on an iPhone app!). Please heed the warning signs throughout the park and in the surrounding areas. Remember the Bastrop County wildfire and similar fires that have flared throughout the state, and give generously to fire-relief efforts you'll see in and around the park, and the city this weekend.
Eat well (and drink water) early and often: I've noticed that the long dinnertime lines form from 5-ish until just before the 8 p.m. headliners take the stage, so grab a late lunch/early dinner around 3-4 pm and go back for ice cream later. Besides fest favorite Hudson's on the Benda's Mighty Cone, there are plenty of sumptuous options from local fine-dining establishments, like Aquarelle, Bess, Garrido's, Mandola's, and Olivia. Aquarelle's steak frites sandwich, Wahoo's fish tacos, or Boomerang's pies (depending on which line is shorter, or what I'm craving) usually make for a tasty and satisfying meal for me. This year, I'm also looking forward to sampling Olivia's fried chicken and Odd Duck Farm to Trailer's grilled pork belly sliders.
Chair or no chair (or bag): I don't bring a chair because I like to move around, but if you prefer to have a seat, note that some stages have designated chair zones farther from the stage. And there's a chair and bag check-in area near the Lady Bird Lake entrance if you don't want to lug it around when you want to get closer to the music.
Getting there: Once again, due to the extremely dry ground conditions, parking on the grassy areas is strictly prohibited. Don't do it! The ACL Fest website has a full list of parking/drop-off suggestions, including the free parking shuttle from Republic Square. You can also bike there, or take a bus route that goes to or near the Lamar/Barton Springs Rd. intersection. From there, it's a 10-15 minute walk to the fest. Please note that Sunday night bus schedules for most routes end around 9 p.m., so you'll want to plan an alternate departure.
Hope these tips help enchance your ACL Fest experience. And I hope you'll comment to share some of your own tips, too!
While in Port Aransas recently, I drove to Aransas Pass looking for the Bakery CafÃ©, which is on the cover of the September issue and in the True, Texas feature, which had gone to press before I left for vacation. To my surprise, the distinctive turquoise faÃ§ade with the name in bright red letters had been painted tan with brown type.
I mentioned this to co-workers when I returned to the office, concerned we may get letters about the color scheme change. We had just received advance copies of the September issue. Lois Rodriguez, who wrote the Bakery Cafe text, e-mailed the cafÃ© owner to let him know they made the cover, and sent the cover image, noting that we thought the blue paint job looked nice. The owner called Lois to thank us for the magazine coverage, and to say that after they painted the exterior brown, one of his employees preferred the old color combo, but no one could remember how it looked. But thanks to our publication of the cafÃ© image, theyâ€™ll be able to use the issue as a guide if they decide to repaint the cafÃ© blue again. We hope so!
Next door to the Texas Prison Museum sits a noteworthy historical museum in its own right. The H.E.A.R.T.S. Veterans Museum (the acronym stands for Helping Every American Remember Through Serving) opened in 2009, and contains battle paraphernalia and personal mementos donated by veterans and their families, from the Civil War up to the current conflict in Afghanistan.
In addition to military gear, dress uniforms, flags, patches, and medals, the museum also displays letters written by soldiers to their loved ones, along with journals, and books written by military personnel documenting the horrors of war and bittersweet homecomings. I was impressed by the magnitude of the collection in a relatively small space. Both World War I and II displays seem extensive, even down to an unused schoolbook note pad from World War I. Womenâ€™s contributions in wartime, particularly World War II are represented with various W.A.C. uniforms and grooming accessories, and photos documenting factory work on the home front. Nearly as extensive is the section from the Vietnam War, which as a child I remember from TV news. Seeing the captured flags and other objects, among soldiersâ€™ memoirs as told through letters and books was quite compelling.
Viewing this memorabilia and reading the personal histories of these soldiers gives me pause, as I consider the enormous sacrifices these men and women have made, especially as we observe Memorial Day.
Upon hearing that Forbidden Gardens would be closing soon, I planned a stop on the way to Houston for a farewell visit to this distinctive attraction. I arrived on a windy, overcast afternoon to find the entrance locked and deserted, with a sign clamped to the gate about a weekend sale of their office furnishings and gift shop items.
Although I was unable to tour the grounds one last time, I still walked away with fond memories of the place. I had visited several times, mostly in the first few years of its opening, with my daughter Lucy, who was then around seven or eight years old. It gave me great pride, and some amusement, to show her some of Chinaâ€™s culture and history, in an outdoor museum in Katy. We oohed and ahhed over the magnitude of the terra-cotta army, and tried to pick out â€œrepeatâ€ soldiers, those with identical features. We marveled over the miniature Forbidden City, with its myriad courtyards and throngs of tiny people. The exhibit rooms filled with colorful period furnishings, clothing and a replica of the emperorâ€™s dining table also caught our attention, but our favorite of all was the half-man, half-dog statues seated at the entrance to one of the pagoda-topped structures. How Lucy loved climbing atop these creatures!
I snapped a few photos of what I could around the entrance. A forlorn-looking, slightly chipped gray horse stands on the hill overlooking the orange-tiled roofs. It felt somewhat like walking into a barren street where a grand parade had marched into town and left. One could still feel the presence of centuries of Chinese history on a remote patch of land in Katy.
In January 2010â€™s TH Taste, I wrote a brief mention of the Chinese New Year Feast hosted by cooking instructor Dorothy Huang, Martin Yan (of PBSâ€™ Yan Can Cook), and restaurant owner/chef Hoi Fung at his Fungâ€™s Kitchen in Houston. The event, held over two nights, was a sold-out success, and the team brought back this popular Lunar New Year banquet for 2011â€™s Year of the Rabbit. Luckily for me, I was able to attend this year, and it is truly a feast for the senses, as well as the appetite.
The evening opened with a trio of lion dancers, which snaked their way to and from every table, playfully wagging and begging for â€œlucky moneyâ€ from guests. Red envelopes were provided at each table for those wanting to contribute to the fun.
Following the lion dancers were several troupes of Asian girls ranging from five-year-olds to pre-teens performing traditional Chinese dances. Adorable and delightful!
We enjoyed a nine-course tasting immediately after the performances, with accompanying cooking demos of most of the dishes by Chef Fung, Martin Yan, and Dorothy Huang. Entrees included Chinese classics such as Peking duck (very succulent!), lobster in black pepper sauce, sweet-and-sour fish, and also Chinese style filet mignon, along with shrimp fried rice for good luck. After the sumptuous, scrumptious meal, our hosts greeted diners at each table and we toasted the Rabbit Year with red wine and cognacâ€”â€œganbei!â€ (cheers!).
Earlier in the day, I tried to visit the now-shuttered Forbidden Gardens, and mourned the passing of a Houston-area Chinese cultural treasure. Could Fungâ€™s Kitchen New Yearâ€™s Feast somehow mark the birth of another?
Hiding in Plain Sight, the Menil Collection feature in the December issue reveals one of my favorite â€œhideawaysâ€ from the holiday frenzy when I visit family in Houston. Luckily, my brother Louis lives within a short driving distance, making the Menil a frequent museum haunt, plus admission is free.
I look forward to strolling through the Surrealist and Modern Art sections, and also visiting some of my favorites in the collection, such as Jasper Johnsâ€™ Gray Alphabet (if youâ€™re not familiar with this work, the title says it all) and the Sumerian statue of Eannatum, Prince of Lagash in the Antiquities room, the piece I affectionately call â€œChauncey Gardnerâ€ as it bears a resemblance to the Peter Sellers character in the film Being There.
However, Iâ€™m a bit embarrassed to admit that there are areas of the Menil which Iâ€™ve never explored, such as the Cy Twombly or Dan Flavin galleries, vibrantly depicted in Decemberâ€™s feature. On my next visit, Iâ€™ll make time to experience it. And Iâ€™ll be sure to ride the red swing on the museum grounds, another â€œinstallationâ€ Iâ€™ve never noticed.
With the impending launch of Space Shuttle Discoveryâ€™s last voyage (and end of the Shuttle program in early 2011), it was about time that I finally explored Space Center Houston, if only for a couple of hours during a short visit to Bay Area Houston last week.
While I didnâ€™t have time for the in-depth NASA Tram Tour or Level 9 Tour, I was able to focus my attention on several areas of the complex: Starship Gallery, which follows the progression of the Space Race from the 1960s through Skylab, complete with some of the actual capsules and equipment; the Astronaut Gallery, a dazzling collection of spacesuits worn by men and women in space; the massive-beyond-words Saturn V spacecraft housed at Rocket Park, and even took in a â€œMeet the Astronautâ€ talk given by Michael J. Bloomfield of Shuttle Atlantis and Endeavor missions.
The vivid timelines that accompany the Starship Gallery and the Saturn V rocket brought back memories of seeing Apollo launches on (mostly black & white) televisions in elementary school. Peering into the Mercury capsule in the space-simulated display and imagining myself in that tiny crawl space gave me a claustrophobic chill. I also touched a moon rock and saw how moon artifacts were processed and analyzed. In the Astronaut Gallery, I marveled at the contrast between the enormous â€œMichelin Manâ€ bubble suit worn during the early days of the Gemini program, and the sleek blue jumpsuit worn on the Shuttle mission by Sally Ride.
Next time you find yourself in the Bay area, donâ€™t discount a trip to NASA for lack of time. Youâ€™ll be amazed at how much "space" can be compacted into two hours.
Little known tip: The humor and satire book events at the Texas Book Festival (this weekend, Oct. 16-17 at the Capitol) are as entertaining and hilarious as what youâ€™d expect at a comedy club minus the hefty cover charge, rude hecklers, and the two-drink minimum. And you donâ€™t even have to like books to enjoy the show.
In recent years attending the fest, Iâ€™ve been regaled with such performances from the editors of The Onion (presenting clips and quips from â€œOur Dumb World: Atlas of the Planet Earthâ€) and Amy Sedaris promoting her book (â€œI Like You: Hospitality Under the Influenceâ€) in the Cooking Tent.
I look forward to Saturdayâ€™s roster with such LOL luminaries as P.J. Oâ€™Rourke, The Onionâ€™s Jean Tisdale, and National Lampoon's Rick Meyerowitz. Thereâ€™s even a panel titled "Funny Business: Good Reads for Guys.â€
Preceding that, perhaps with equal parts style and satire, is â€œTrue Prep: Itâ€™s a Whole New Old World,â€ from the author of the '80s classic, â€œThe Official Preppy Handbook,â€ Lisa Birnbach, with noted book designer Chip Kidd.
If you go to the festival this weekend, bring your sense of humor, and maybe even a book bag. Even if youâ€™re not a book lover, you may still be overcome with laughter after hearing wild and crazy antics from the National Lampoon session.
P.S. Look for the Texas Highways booth at the festival's exhibitor tents. Some of our staff will be handing out free copies of the November issue, which includes a special subscription offer at our lowest rate. Also, Editor Charles Lohrmann will be moderating various panels, but alas, not National Lampoonâ€™s.