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Mediterranean in McKinney

Written by | Published May 19, 2009

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!

European Culinary Discoveries in McKinney

Written by | Published May 19, 2009

A few days ago, I made the one-hour trek up I-35 from Austin to check out the old Santa Fe depot and train museum, and also to revisit the Czech Heritage Museum & Genealogy Center, the latter a repository of fascinating and strange stuff (everything from century-old marionettes to stamp collections) donated to the museum by Texans with Czech heritage.

I had heard that the Czech Museum would soon be moving from its cramped home in the basement of the SPJST insurance building to new digs in a restored historic building nearby—great news, as the museum will finally be able to properly highlight its collection. But I wanted to see one particular item—known as The Magic Gambler— before the museum became fancified.

What is The Magic Gambler, you ask? First of all, know that has that curious, creepy-appealing quality of old dolls and circus freak shows. Covered by an oblong dome some two feet high, a doll that looks vaguely like a monkey—dressed in a black pointed hat and a faded red-and gold cape—holds what appears to be a brass cake dome in his hands. A faded garland of leaves and flowers adds a Hansel-and-Gretel-ish, woodland touch to the display. But the magic starts when you place a key into a slot, turn it a few times to wind a mechanism in a music box, and step back. The doll’s wizened head starts to bob, its eyes open and close, and its teeth start to chatter. Then one, two, three, The Magic Gambler’s century-old, bony hand lifts the cake dome to reveal two tiny dice.

Curator Don Mears tells me this whole production was probably a bar gimmick; you and a group of your 19th Century, Czech friends would order a round of beers, pick a number, and the mysterious caped gent with the chattering teeth and the cake dome would determine who paid the bar tab. I’d like a Pilsner Urquell right about now, come to think of it. Join me: This round’s on me.

I just received a phone call from a Tammy Huerta-Mallini from San Benito, who turns out to be the late Freddy Fender’s daughter. She called to tell me that on June 6 at 10 a.m., the City of San Benito will host a memorial tribute to her dad, along with a dedication of a headstone at his grave at San Benito Memorial Park. Along with a headstone and six monuments commemorating his long career, the gravesite will also include a replica of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Tammy says that Latin-country-pop start Rick Trevino will sing Fender’s hit “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” after the dedication.

Fender, born Baldemar Huerta in San Benito in 1937, died in Corpus Christi in 2006. Today, most people remember him for his hits “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” and “Teardrops,” as well as his roles in the groups Los Super Seven and The Texas Tornados.

 I can’t be there for the dedication of his memorial, but it promises to be a  heartfelt and joyous occasion. Call the City of San Benito, 956-361-3804 Ex. 301, for details. 

Retail Therapy

Written by | Published May 12, 2009

I recently visited Houston on some personal business, and aimed to make the visit more pleasant with some retail therapy. 

In general, I love Houston; I like the heat and humidity, which allow most plants to flourish in wild growth spurts we don’t see in more arid Austin; I like the museums, which showcase art and culture from around the world. And while I feel quite shallow admitting this, I really like the shopping. On my last trips to Hugetown, I did my civic duty to help the economy by pumping some dough into one of my favorite retail ventures: the Guild Shop, a resale-for-charity venture just north of Westheimer on Dunlavy. This place is chockablock with everything from handbags and housewares to paintings and jewelry—most of it donated by philanthropic Houstonians who needed some extra closet space. Keep in mind that the Guild Shop is convenient to the deep-pocketed residents of River Oaks, and you’ll get an idea of the quality of merchandise. That said, I walked away with a broiling pan (hu-hum, but much needed) in addition to some interesting costume jewelry and a few choice gifts. The Guild Shop is staffed by volunteers, and the shop closes at 3:30. And trust me, when the big hand reaches the “6,” they’ll chase you out faster than you can scoop up those perfect Italian Ferragamo flats.  

Bouquet of Thanks!

Written by | Published May 11, 2009

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.

Flowers for Mom

Written by | Published May 4, 2009
Heading out to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in southwest Austin this morning, where fine-art  photographer Rick Tolar is busily setting up his Flowers of Observation exhibit, which opens tomorrow in the Center’s Visitors Gallery. Cosponsored by the Wildflower Center and Texas Highways, the exhibit features 20-plus of Tolar’s eye-popping wildflower close-ups on canvas, and coincides with the Center’s celebration of National Wildflower Week (May 4-10). Rick will be in the Gallery from 9 to 4 on Saturday, May 9th, to sign copies of April TH, which features seven of his stunning images.  He’ll also have signed 5x7 prints of his work for sale ($20 each) that day. The exhibit stays up through Mother’s Day (May 10th), so treat mom to a day at the Center—enjoy a relaxing stroll through the glorious gardens and see the vibrant Tolar show. Better than a bouquet!

Does Anyone Want the Mosheim School?

Written by | Published April 29, 2009
Back in August of 2008, my Up Front column included a photograph of the abandoned and derelict Mosheim school, an Alamo-like building located about eight miles west of Valley Mills at the intersection of FM 217 and FM 215. TH reader Elliot Herndon sent us the photograph, and Phil Murphy of the TxDOT Waco Maintenance Office identified it at the request of photo librarian Anne Cook. Now it turns out the building is scheduled for demolition. The April 9, 2009 edition of the Valley Mills Progress (mailed to me anonymously) presents a front page photo of the school building with a story about the proposed demolition, explaining that the owner can't afford to repair or protect the structure.

Will the Baker Hotel Live Again ?

Written by | Published April 29, 2009
Everyone who visits the long-shuttered Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells hopes for a revival of this voluptuous landmark that dates back to the Roaring 20s. All lament the empty swimming pool, the broken windows, and the generally forlorn visage of the once-lavish destination for "taking the waters" and generally living the high life. Now there's a glimmer of hope. At last week's Texas Travel Counselors Conference in San Angelo, I spoke with Ninfa Holly of Mineral Wells who shared the news that an investor group has taken an interest in the hotel and has plans to refurbish up to 120 rooms for stage one of a building renovation. Cross your fingers that this project will work. If you'd like more details, email or call 940 / 325 - 2557.

What’s Your Favorite Wildflower?

Written by | Published April 27, 2009

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!

Big Bend Primer

Written by | Published April 15, 2009

I stopped in at my local Barnes & Noble Saturday evening to say hello to longtime TH contributors Gary Clark and Kathy Adams Clark. The Houston-based author-photographer duo was there to sign copies of their just-released Enjoying Big Bend National Park: A Friendly Guide to Adventures for Everyone (Texas A&M University Press). Gary, a naturalist who has been visiting Big Bend for the last 30 years, wrote the text, and Kathy, who owns the photo agency KAC Productions, shot the photographs. The result: a handy reference that makes planning a trip to this far-flung park a little less overwhelming. Filled with practical information and stunning images, Enjoying Big Bend is sure to make this challenging site more popular than ever. Seeing it made me want to pack up and head for “the Texas outback” immediately.

Bluebonnet Fix

Written by | Published April 10, 2009

I thought I’d adjusted to the lack of bluebonnets this year—wildflower showings around Austin have been lackluster in general—but a trip to Houston earlier this week reminded me how much I count on seeing those broad swaths of blue plastered across the roadsides each spring. The state flower was in full force along US 290, especially in the Brenham area, and after the visual famine, the dramatic displays seemed more beautiful than ever. I think I actually said “Yes!” when I saw the first gorgeous patch. It suddenly felt like spring had really sprung. For more promising wildflower drives, see "Trips to Bountiful" in the April TH.

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