Written by Jane Wu
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.
4th of July fireworks displays never cease to give me a rush of excitement and ooh-and-ahh wonder. Despite the crowds and heat, I viewed this year's spectacle from the Ann Richards/Congress Avenue bridge in Austin over Auditorium Shores. I fully expected the usual teeming crush of humanity, and was not disappointed.
Could Smithville, the Central Texas crossroads that calls itself “Heart of the Megalopolis,” soon change its slogan to “Movietown Megalopolis?” Already known as the pastoral setting featured in the 1998 romantic drama Hope Floats, Smithville has boasted considerable movie-making activity in recent years, notably with Austin director Terrence Malick’s 2011 Cannes Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life. Two more productions with big-name talent have been shot since Tree was completed two years ago: Beneath the Darkness, a teen thriller, and Doonby, an offbeat drama. And several more independent films have been “made in Smithville” as well.