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Written by Jane Wu

Inspired by a comment on my last post on dining in McKinney (thanks, Shelly from This Eclectic Life), I paid a visit to Cafe Malaga Mediterranean Tapas Bar for dinner on a weekday evening, after arriving from Austin to help my daughter pack after completing her freshman year at Austin College in Sherman.

Originated in Spain, tapas are "small plates"—mini meals of vegetables, meat, seafood or a combination.  I counted 28 of these on the menu, and among the items our group had were artichoke tapenade (kalamata olive & artichoke spread w/pita bread), smoked salmon crostini, roasted potatoes with roasted garlic aioli, chicken piri piri (hot pepper marinated grilled chicken breasts) and Spanish tortilla (a classic potato and egg dish).   All were excellent, and we especially loved the smoked salmon for the smooth texture and subtle smoked flavor.  We also indulged in dessert—chocolate-covered almond cake was my favorite.  My daughter had what looked like a coffee martini, served chilled with a mint garnish.

The next evening, on our way home to Austin, we returned to McKinney for an early dinner and found La Misha, which also serves Mediterranean-inspired cuisine in an sophisticated-yet-inviting atmosphere.  We started our meal with the smoothest, most flavorful hummus I've ever tasted, served with light, delicate slices of pita bread.  I inquired about the flavored iced tea on the menu, and was offered a box of six different tealeaf samplings which to select (and sniff) from—I chose the pomegranate-infused blend, which was exceptional, and even more so with refills!

For entrées, we had crab cakes with saffron sauce, oven-baked chicken in apricot sauce and tilapia in creamy dill sauce.  The crab cake was meaty and flaky, and the chicken was the right balance of slightly dry-to-moist that I prefer.  There were some luscious cakes available for dessert in the display case in back and we split some carrot cake, moist and just sweet enough not to overpower.  Once again, McKinney mesmerizes me with its culinary gems!

I just want to express thanks to everyone who stopped by the Visitors Gallery at the LBJ Wildflower Center this weekend to meet Rick Tolar and check out his incredible flower close-ups on canvas.  It was also a great pleasure meeting current and future fans of TH, and to see the faces behind the readership.  May y’all keep on reading and traveling about Texas!

Rick Tolar (seated) chats with visitors at his Flowers of Observation exhibit at LBJ Wildflower Center.  Managing Editor Jill Lawless is standing at left.Rick Tolar (seated) chats with visitors at his Flowers of Observation exhibit at LBJ Wildflower Center. Managing Editor Jill Lawless is standing at left.

16d-ora-46-300x2781The April issue marks my 14th year designing (and selecting images for) our signature Wildflower feature.  I occasionally get asked if I have a favorite wildflower. Gaillardia pulchella, more commonly known as Indian blanket or Firewheel, has long been one of my favorites.  According to the folks at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Gaillardia is found throughout Texas and is one of the easiest wildflowers to grow.  I like to think of it as one of the unsung heroes in the Big Bluebonnet Show. Sure, it’s fairly common, but to me the accessibility is part of its beauty.  (For instance, Austin’s Lady Bird Lake Hike-and-Bike Trail has patches of them along the north side)   Gaillardia’s symmetric, daisy-like appearance and bursts of vibrant, distinctive color also appeal to my design sensibilities—instant art direction in the palm of your hand!

Do you have a favorite wildflower—besides the iconic bluebonnet?   Tell us—and include a snapshot, too!

Last weekend a friend and I attended the opening of Vietnam to Austin: Restoring Community, the first Asian-Amercian exhibit at the Austin History Center. The exhibit, with the help of the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation, documents the struggles and accomplishments of Austin's largest Asian community, and their contributions as Americans.

When my sister and I visited my daughter at Austin College in Sherman, we took the opportunity to explore nearby McKinney and have lunch at The Pantry Restaurant, in the historic downtown area. The spacious yet cozy cafe serves a variety of sandwiches, salads, soups, and other entrees, and also has a wide selection of creamy pies. I wish I could say I sampled one, and I really should have, but the tortilla soup/salad/cornbread combo was plenty for me as was the stuffed baked potato/soup combo was for my sister. My daughter, also full from her sandwich/salad combo, ordered a slice of chocolate-chip cream pie to take back to the dorm.

Visits to the Houston Museum of Natural Science on Christmas Eve have become a holiday tradition for my family. The museum's not very crowded and exhibits are open until 8 p.m. We recently saw Body Worlds 2 & the Brain, and having seen the first Body Worlds exhibit there two years ago, I've gotta say this latest collection of plastinated human bodies is just as jaw-dropping and informative.

The December issue's Top Tables article on old-school Tex-Mex restaurants—"Candy or Sherbet?"—makes my taste buds crave that extra cheesy enchilada dinner with carne sauce (double rice, no beans, please) every time I read it.

My reliable neighborhood full-service Mobil gas station/garage is no more. Left in its place, in the parking lot, is a delightful, delectable pizza and pasta trailer called Giovanni Pizza Stand, at the southwest corner of S. Lamar and Barton Skyway in Austin. I've only had two of the pizzas so far—the Margarita and the Greek—but they're heavenly if you're a fan of thin crust. Wafer-crisp, just the right ratio of toppings to dough (for me it's 2/3 topping, 1/3 dough), very flavorful, and seemingly light on the oil. Not a speck of grease graced the container when I finished. I've since been tempted to reuse the box to package gifts! I've heard that the owner/chef at Giovanni used to be a chef at the former Mezzaluna downtown, which explains that not-your-average-pizza-stand subtlety in taste. Comparable in price and a lot tastier than fast-food pizza, Giovanni offers a few tables and chairs for dining alfresco in the evening shade as well as takeout.

This is my third year to attend the Austin City Limits Music Festival, now in its seventh year, and I am looking forward to the predicted slightly cooler temps, as well as a stellar lineup. The always-eclectic collection of musical talent (from Vampire Weekend to Gnarls Barkley to Robert Plant & Alison Krauss to Manu Chao) suits my far-and-wide-ranging tastes. If you're going for one day or all three, here's some of my favorite tips to enhance your enjoyment and comfort. The ACL Fest site covers the basics and Austin360.com has helpful advice as well.

On a recent visit to Houston, I had dim sum with my daughter and my siblings at Yum Yum Cha Cafe in Rice Village. Dim sum, sometimes called "Chinese tapas," are bite-size dumplings, buns or tofu filled with meat, seafood or vegetables. Houston's Chinese food aficionados know that most of the city's dim sum restaurants are clustered in the southwest area's Chinatown, so Yum Yum Cha, nestled near the Museum District in the 610 Loop, is a rare find. Even better, Yum Yum Cha also serves dim sum on weekdays and most evenings. Traditionally, this diminutive treat is only served during weekend brunch-time.

Whenever I have a rare burst of Saturday morning energy (and a craving for homemade soup or a special salad or stir-fry), I head over to Sunset Valley Farmers Market, just outside of Austin in Sunset Valley. Summer happens to be an especially favorite time for me to go, despite temps hovering close to 90 degrees by 11-ish, when I usually arrive there. Despite not getting there at the opening hour of 9 a.m., I can still find excellent selection. You see, I love making gazpacho, and there's no place or time of year better to find homegrown, organic tomatoes—the key ingredient—than the farmers' markets. I can also find fresh homegrown cucumber, onion, garlic and jalapenos, the supporting ingredients there. Plus, once you've cooked with garden-fresh garlic, store-bought never quite measures up.

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