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Where the Chefs Eat

Written by | Published September 26, 2011

Chef Monica Pope at Revival Market, a grocery, butcher, and charcuterie in the Heights. Photo by Julie Soefer.Chef Monica Pope at Revival Market, a grocery, butcher, and charcuterie in the Heights. Photo by Julie Soefer.

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to participate in one of Houston’s first “Where the Chefs Eat” Culinary Tours, a collaboration between some of the city’s most adventuresome chefs and the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau—both groups who sought to elevate the city’s reputation as a world-class food town. Instead of visiting some of Houston’s many well-regarded “fine dining” spots, we explored a half-dozen or so casual and/or family-owned joints that the chefs frequent when they’re not cooking in their own restaurants. We toured the kitchens, met the owners, traded recipes and stories, and generally had a blast—feasting on veritable banquets of barbecue, Thai entrees, Indian dishes, and interior Mexican specialties—with professional chefs to guide us in our exploration of new cuisines, ingredients, and preparations.

The only downside to the tours? They’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 “preserve, promote, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas.”

Tickets for the first tour—January 22’s “Chinese New Year with Chefs Chris Shepherd and Justin Yu” —go on sale December 1, followed by opportunities to join tours such as “Late night Bars and Bites with Chefs Seth Siegel-Gardener, Terrence Gallivan, and Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd,” “Oysters with Chefs Mark Holley and Jonathan Jones,” 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 “repeats” include explorations of barbecue, street food, Southern comfort food, and Vietnamese cuisine. See www.houstonculinarytours.com for a full run-down.

Wine Tasting at Barr Mansion

Written by | Published September 20, 2011

pinot-gris-544I’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 Robinson’s book Great Wine Made Simple. As we progressed through the first chapters—learning to differentiate between light-bodied and full-bodied styles, identifying characteristics of “The Big Six Grapes” (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz), and building a vocabulary of “flavor words” like tannic and oaky—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 Austin’s Barr Mansion and Artisan Ballroom, a beautiful event site in northeast Austin that is the nation’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 France’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 Blanc—a grape used in Texas wines produced by Fall Creek Vineyards, Spicewood Vineyards, and other Texas producers—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 “Old World/New World” 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 Crú 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 wines—some from vineyards that date back hundreds of years—I couldn’t help but wonder how the young Texas wine industry compares. One vendor told me that the difference wasn’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 said—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 example—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 don’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 world—to compare, contrast, and become more knowledgeable. It’s a fun endeavor, and one of the few educational paths where repeating a lesson is encouraged. Cheers.

Pix from the Festival

Written by | Published September 19, 2011

[caption align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Dramatic clouds"]

Dramatic clouds[/caption]

Mavis Staples takes us there

Mavis Staples takes us there
the bike zoo

the bike zoo
A great weekend all around! Were you there? What was the moment that stood out for you? On the third day, I finally figured out how to maneuver through the streams of people, which reminded me of water rivulets making their way down a windshield on a rainy day. At some point, you just have to jump in and go with the flow.

Day Two, ACL

Written by | Published September 18, 2011

Stevie Wonder may have stolen the show on the second night of ACL, but the glorious rain that came earlier in the day—which inspired smiles and celebration even as festival-goers got drenched—ushered in the most surprise. After all, it hadn’t rained (significantly, anyway) in Austin since May. Temperatures modulated and energized the crowds. Fall is in the air!

Once again, the smooth operations of the festival impressed me. Even as the park teemed with people, the mood was easy and accommodating. Props to fest organizers C3, who continue to make improvements to the festival’s operations and addressing concerns. This year, we found increased shade structures, additional free water stations (courtesy of CamelBak), and numerous opportunities to assist organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and statewide firefighting squads. It’s always great to feel philanthropic while you’re having fun.

Aside from the music, there’s a lot going on at ACL. What other festival, for example, offers such a wide variety of dining options prepared by upscale restaurants? And I’m not talking about turkey legs and corn dogs. Local flavor rules here. ACL’s food court, “curated” by Chef Jeff Blank of Hudson’s on the Bend, offers options such as pork-belly sliders with pickled onion ($6 by Odd Duck Farm to Trailer), oyster tacos with chile-honey aioli ($8 from Garrido’s), crispy artichoke hearts ($6 by Bess Bistro), steak frit sandwiches ($7 by Aquarelle), and truffled macaroni-and-cheese ($7 by Lonesome Dove Western Bistro out of Fort Worth. I’ll admit I found it amusing to see bikini-and-boots-clad fans sprawled on the grass eating meals they might normally enjoy by candlelight in a restaurant.

When the rain subsided, I spent some time checking out the arts offerings. The variety here reminded me of a marriage of Austin’s Cherrywood Art Fair, Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, and South Congress’ First Friday funkiness. Drive-by-Press offered silkscreened T-shirts, Bolsa Bonita had an assortment of kitschy and ironic bags printed with hirsute Tom Selleck images, Rokoko’s imaginative ceramics, dresses by SOLA, $25 straw cowboy hats by Texas Headgear, leather-and-metal cuffs by LeighElena jewelry, scarves by Pangea, and wood-mounted prints of Austin scenes by Austin Art Garage. Most vendors were local, though a few came from as far as Chicago. The owner of Souldier, who was here from the Windy City for her 5th year at ACL, tells me her recycled-seatbelt headbands, bags, and guitar straps sell well at ACL, and that bands such as My Morning Jacket, Iron and Wine, TV on the Radio, and Fleet Foxes all use her guitar straps on stage.

So the line blurs once again. Art and music. Bring on the fun.

Reflecting on Day One, ACL

Written by | Published September 17, 2011

Walking through the festival grounds at Zilker Park, especially after the sun started to dip and the crowds thickened in anticipation of Austin Music Festival headliners Kanye West and Coldplay, it was easy to imagine myself a mere ant in an army of 40,000 other beings. It was an instant reminder of my small place in humanity. For a moment I felt flustered by the crowd. Then bam—more music, a chance encounter with a friend, a sight that made me laugh—and the mood turned in an instant. As a friend put it, ACL is not the minors. What it is, at least to my mind, is an instant submersion into what makes Austin such a tight community.

As I gear up for Day Two of the bash, I’m reflecting on yesterday and how seamless ACL operations seemed to be. Early in the day, we experienced our first indication of the solidarity of Austin --that joyous moment when skies finally opened up and rained (a short burst, yes, but water all the same) while crowds throughout Zilker shouted in glee and surprise.

The burn ban is in effect this year, and several donation stations for statewide volunteer firefighters reminded us of the wildfire risk. Still, some dedicated smokers (of ciggies and wacky tabac alike) were lighting up—but amazingly, I spied not a single discarded cigarette butt. At least they’re being responsible, which is the whole point of the ban. In a related note, festival organizers have made what I consider a brilliant business to keep the grounds litter-free: at several stations throughout the park, you can pick up a green trash bag, then meander the grounds picking up stray cans and other recyclables; when the bag is full, you can redeem it for an ACL T-shirt. Neat incentive that makes sense all around.

The festival’s food options (more on that in other post) are well known for their diversity, quality, and local vibe—with renowned restaurants like Olivia and Hudson’s creating rave-worthy noshes. But I’m also pleased to find the eclectic array of Austin shops and artisans selling their creations—again, reinforcing the sense of community. We’ll explore that aspect in greater depth today and tomorrow.

On-the-fly conversations with festival-goers, performers, and even a police officer working the event further underscored the community theme. Chilean-American singer Francesca Valenzuela (a knockout with tremendous pipes and a solid pop sensibility) told me that one thing that’s different about US audiences (and Texas crowds in particular) is that we’re open and supportive of new musical experiences. And the cop with whom I chatted told me with a big grin that he loves the people-watching. He confessed that he was on board to escort Kanye West and his entourage to the stage later that night—but that he wasn’t star-struck. After all, he’d heard Kanye was a prima donna. (Anyone care to dispute that?)

Biking to Zilker Park was a breeze. I hauled my bike on the back of my car to a spot near the Lady Bird Lake hike-and-bike trail, and popped over in a flash. Pedestrians and bikers on the trail were all smiles, hauling camp chairs, soft-sided coolers, umbrellas, and blankets to the site. “See you there!” we’d shout as we passed each other—strangers united by the promise of music, food, art, sweat, and celebration.

We’re posting photos to our Facebook page and tweeting all day (as long as the WiFi holds out, anyway), so follow TH on FB and on Twitter.

See you there.

ACL Fest Tips for 2011

Written by | Published September 16, 2011

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!

 

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Across the globe, when talk of music festivals come up, two Texas events always make the list - spring's South by Southwest and fall's Austin City Limits Music Festival, both in Austin – the Live Music Capital of the World. Austin's Fun, Fun, Fun Fest, in November, is also starting to rise to similar ranks.

Bakery Cafe—Back to Blue?

Written by | Published August 22, 2011
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bakerycafe-cropWhile in Port Aransas recently, I drove to Aransas Pass looking for the Bakery Café, 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 façade 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 café 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 café image, they’ll be able to use the issue as a guide if they decide to repaint the café blue again. We hope so!

Texas-shaped pool!

Written by | Published June 17, 2011

With triple-digit heat already here in Austin (and lingering), I'mm semi-obsessed with swimming pools, so I smiled when I spied the Texas-shaped pool at Amarillo's Big Texan Motel, the lodging companion to the famous Big Texan restaurant, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. (If you haven't heard of the Big Texan's free 72-ounce steak dinner, the mother of all big-food challenges, here's the skinny: You have to eat the whole thing, plus a slew of sides, in less than an hour.)

I don't think I could make a dent in that steak, but I sure can see myself doing a few laps from Amarillo to Brownsville.

Know of any other great hotel pools? Let's come up with a "Best-Of" list!Big Texan pool

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img_0306Next 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. Women’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 soldiers’ 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.

Travel Deals

Written by | Published April 7, 2011

I recently made a quick trip to Houston to take care of some medical appointments, which got me thinking about the idea of “health travel,” or even the vague concept of “secondary travel.” For example, even if my main reason for visiting a city is to catch up with family, see a hotshot out-of-town specialist, or to attend a work conference or other event, I do try to squeeze in some recreation. In Houston, I try to visit a museum or gallery, a favorite shop, and a restaurant or bar I’ve been hearing about. This time, I joined up with two longtime Houston friends to check out El Real Tex-Mex Cafe, the new (yet old-school) Tex-Mex restaurant dreamed up by food writer/historian Robb Walsh and restaurateurs Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd. I had heard raves about the cheese enchiladas with chili gravy—that classic Tex-Mex comfort-food concoction served with orange cheese, lard-laden (and I mean that in a good way) refried beans, and Spanish rice. Well-deserved raves! Tart margaritas and a salvaged décor from the shuttered El Fenix Restaurant completed the experience. I’ll look forward to future visits once I can fit into my jeans again.

When I visit the Bayou City, I often stay with friends, but this time, I tried an experiment. I had heard about travel websites like www.lastminutetravel.com and www.hotwire.com, which offer unsold hotel rooms at steeply discounted prices, and I decided to give lastminutetravel a try. Here’s how it works: You go to the site, pick your city and general area, plug in your dates, and the website finds available rooms. In my case, I found a “four-star hotel” in “downtown Houston” for $95. The site provides photos of the hotel, and a list of amenities, but you don’t learn the name of the hotel until you’ve booked the room. (This makes sense to me: While the hotels want to sell their unsold rooms, they don’t want to advertise that they’re willing to drastically undercut their rack rates. And be aware that after you reserve the room, you can’t cancel or change your reservation.) For my one-night stay, this worked beautifully: My hotel turned out to the Hyatt Regency, where rooms normally start around $180 per night. The hotel has a great rooftop pool, and its central location proved perfect for exploring on foot. When I returned to the office, I poked around these sites to see what other hotel deals I could find in Texas: I pretended to want to book a room four days out, and I turned up a “four-star” hotel in Galveston for $96 and a “three-star” hotel in downtown Fort Worth for $68.

Have you tried these sites for Texas travel? Care to share your experiences?

How I Survived SXSW: The Music

Written by | Published April 1, 2011

See related: How I Survived SXSW: Film and Interactive

How I Survived SXSW: The Basics

duran2crowd-good...and the crowd goes wild!

How to survive the Music portion of South by Southwest. Easy. Expect midnight or 1 a.m. headliners, lots of SXSW parties and little sleep.

In my previous installment, I highly recommend the SXSW’s express pass for bigger venues/band names. It’s worth it. Definitely. But realizing bands are playing into the wee hours of the morning followed by all the after parties that don’t end until 6 a.m., 10 a.m. is virtually the crack of dawn. But, if you can swing it, wake up long enough to get it then return to your Zzzzs.

As with the film schedule, the choices are phenomenal. Pick the bands you want to see most, and let the rest be icing on the cake.

Unlike the film portion, there aren’t discussions or Q&A with the bands at the shows, but you can see plenty of panel discussions, keynote addresses at the Convention Center, as well as interviews at the IFC Crossroads House. Bob Geldof and Yoko Ono (talking, not singing) were among the highlights.

cnn-grill-band1There's music everywhere, including this live band at the makeshift CNN Grill SXSW.

Still, the music portion presents the perfect opportunity to explore and experience so many new, up-and-coming bands. Take full advantage.

I did a lot of that and was pleasantly surprised on many occasions. Sometimes, I found the particular music I stumbled upon was not necessarily my style, but I always appreciate the creative education … and people watching.

duran8Duran Duran perform at Stubb's.

Admittedly, I couldn’t help but indulge in the familiar. Music snobs might chide me for going the mainstream route, but I enjoyed nurturing my ‘80s roots while watching The Bangles or Duran Duran. I saw them both from front and center. That wouldn’t have happened “back in the day.” Thanks SXSW.

I also hoped, as part of this whole SXSW experience, to take in two of the consistently big parties – Perez Hilton’s Night in Austin and Rachel Ray’s Feedback Party. Lots shared their personal opinion about each of these “celebrities”, but my interest was not in them, rather the energy around the parties they throw and the people and performers who show up. I managed to score badges for both.

perez-hiltonsignThere was talk of a surprise guest at the Perez party – Lady Gaga. Brittney Spears. P. Diddy. No surprise guest showed up, but it was a heck of a party with great music. People with RSVP wristbands started waiting in line at 3 p.m. for open doors at 6. Probably not necessary, as I saw people walking in throughout the evening. Also, if you have a badge, guess what? You don’t need a wristband. Though it’s technically not put on by SXSW, they used the same entry system for the party – badges over wristbands. If you’re badgeless, you’ll have to RSVP for those wristbands, and know that they accept tons more RSVPs than they allow in, and wristband distribution ended about 5 p.m. – All gone.

Kanye West hosted a party that night, too. Again, more RSVPs than available tickets.

While I enjoyed my evening at the Perez Hilton Party, this also was the evening of the biggest moon in ages. I heard it was a gorgeous sight to see. My badgeless buddies enjoyed the view from Auditorium Shores, where the City of Austin hosts a free concert as a thank you to locals who, in essence, give up their city for SXSW. They found the show via listings at www.sxsw.com/free. Between the closing performance by Bright Eyes and the beautiful moon, I hear the night was amazing.

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