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.
Like a lot of women in Central Texas, I imagine, I once dated a soldier stationed at Fort Hood, the lifeblood of the military city of Killeen. On most weekends during our short courtship, he'd visit me in Austin, where we'd frequent the live-music venues on Sixth Street and along Guadalupe, the road that parallels the UT campus. On a few occasions, though, I made the one-hour trip to the base. This was a few years before Operation Desert Storm and many years before 9-11, and security concerns weren't the same as they are now. So on one night when he had guard duty at one of the post's motor pools, I accompanied him. I assume this was allowed but can't be certain. Regardless, no one stopped us. And so I have a rather surreal and oddly romantic memory of a warm night curled up on an armored tank, watching the stars.
Though I am no poet laureate, I couldnâ€™t resist throwing my Texas spin on â€˜Twas the Night Before Christmas.â€ I know itâ€™s been done before, but I'll share my version, nonetheless â€¦ with a few links to help you see what a great state we live in.
Happy Christmas to Y'all!
â€˜Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the state,
every Texan was stirring, they could hardly wait!
In the desert, coyotes howled a wintry song.
In the Valley, a chorus of birds sang along.
Sunbathers on the coast sported their holiday glow,
The Monahans revelers surfed the sands of Christmas time,
The big cities were a beacon of bright lights Ââ€“ reds and greens,
and Hill Country Main streets aglow with festively-lit scenes.
Across the Lone Star state, it was very easy to see
that hearts were filled with love, and there was much felicity.
Restless, they were, in their holiday cheer,
filled with the knowledge that Christmas is near.
When what should they spy across the Comanche Moon
But a silhouette of Santa. Heâ€™d be here soon!
They raced to their beds as Santa approached,
And tried to find sleep, as they had been coached.
With much state for St. Nick to cover, led by Rudolphâ€™s bright red nose,
The excited Texans feigned sleep until they did doze.
In the still of the silent night, Santa made his way
making every stop, like clockwork, savoring each gifted treat.
Then off in the big sky he rose out of sight,
And with a cheerful belly-chuckle he shouted:
"Happy Texas Christmas, yâ€™all, and to yâ€™all a good-night!"
I recently went to see the new Martin Scorsese film Hugo, the directorâ€™s first film intended for family viewingâ€”and a 3D picture to boot. Based on American writer Brian Selznickâ€™s Caldecott Award-winning book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, about an orphan living in a busy, 1930s train station in Paris, the film captivated me with its characters, inventive plot, and gorgeous use of 3D-technology. The movie (and book) draws heavily on the mythology and history of real-life French filmmaker Georges MÃ¨liÃ©s, a magician by training who directed more than 500 innovative films before declaring bankruptcy in 1913.
Interestingly, the MÃ¨liÃ©s story has a Texas connection. One of the reasons Georges MÃ¨liÃ©s suffered financially toward the end of his film career was that American film companies were screening pirated versions of his films, so in 1902 he sent his brother Gaston MÃ¨liÃ©s to the United States to guard his copyrights.
Gaston, also a filmmaker, spent a few years in New York, but he eventually settled in San Antonio, possibly to treat himself to the healing sulphur waters near the ruins of the San Jose Mission. In San Antonio, Gaston MÃ¨liÃ©s established a studio called the Star Film Ranch, and devoted his talents to turning out some 70 one-reel films, mostly westerns. The San Jose ruins served as the set for at least three Star Film productions, all made in 1910. Like his brother Georges, Gaston was fond of special effects and outlandish action sequences: A May 1976 story in the San Antonio Light notes that MÃ¨liÃ©sâ€™ film An Unwilling Cowboy featured a full-blown square dance on horseback.
In 1911, Gaston and his Star Film Ranch maximized the appeal of the Alamo with a film called The Immortal Alamo, in which MÃ¨liÃ©s cast himself as William Travis (and director John Fordâ€™s older brother Francis played Davy Crockett). Students from the Peacock Academy, a San Antonio military institute, played both Texian and Mexican soldiers.
Itâ€™s a big state, but a small world.
In January issue of Texas Highways, which weâ€™re putting to bed before the Thanksgiving holiday, my colleague Nola McKey suggests an action-packed 2012 itinerary for those of you who adore a good festival.
Iâ€™m particularly interested in the upcoming Whooping Crane Festival in Port Aransas (February 23-26)â€”not only because I love Port A, but also because I admire the birdsâ€™ tenaciousness and survival skills. After all, while whooping cranes are still on the state and federal Endangered Species List, their flock size should reach record levels this year. Once numbering only 21 birds in the entire planet, whoopers in 2012 are expected to number somewhere around 290, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Tom Stehn.
Texasâ€™ winter flock of whooping cranes spend the summer in northwestern Canada, at Wood Buffalo National Park, and usually travel to Texas through a migration corridor that crosses over the Texas Panhandle and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Then the birds head south, where their flight path takes them over Waco, Austin, and Victoria before arriving at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in November.
A quick phone call to the refuge just now confirmed their arrival, and the numbers are looking good, folks. The park official with whom I spoke said they hadnâ€™t conducted a formal survey yet, but theyâ€™re estimating that 75% of the population has already arrived, with more trickling in every day. Theyâ€™ll stay in Texas through March or April, depending on weather conditions.
Iâ€™m fascinated by the fact that itâ€™s possible (not likely, but possible nonetheless) to spy these birds during migrationâ€”perhaps even in the skies above Austin. They tend to migrate in small groups of four or five birds, and they often stop at wetlands environments or agricultural fields en route to the coast. While they resemble sandhill cranes, whooping cranes are largerâ€”more than four feet tall (the tallest birds in North America!)â€” and are solid white, except for black wing tips that are visible only when theyâ€™re flying.
I hope to get to the Port A region sometime this winter to see them. See www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/aransas/
Last weekend (November 12-13) was the first weekend of the newly expanded, bigger-and-better East Austin Studio Tour, which invites the public to tour more than 145 artistsâ€™ studios throughout East Austin over two weekends. Itâ€™s the Tourâ€™s 10th anniversary, and itâ€™s amazing to me to think about how itâ€™s grown from a grassroots effort with 28 studios on tour to this yearâ€™s veritable art party.
I made it to a few stops last Saturday, including the home painting studio of my friend David Leonard, who paints cityscapes, landscapes, and industrial settings. See his painting at left, titled City Park (Dallas,TX), which he completed in 2008. I admire his work because he somehow marries a photorealistâ€™s attention to detail with the warmth and vibrancy of an Impressionist. His work is frequently featured at Austinâ€™s Davis Gallery, but itâ€™s fun to see his works in a home setting, and to study where and how he works.
Thatâ€™s part of the appeal of the tour for meâ€”to witness the art-making process and setting of each artist. So Iâ€™ll hit the streets again this Sunday, spend a little money to support artists whose works grab me, and no doubt find inspiration in details both large and small. See www.eastaustinstudiotour.com.
Dia de los Muertos is nothing new. The ritual celebrated in Mexico and parts of the United States gets its roots from the Aztecs, and many â€“ possibly yourself, included â€“ have long had this as part of their own life experience. But even as a Rodriguez, it wasnâ€™t something that my family participated in. I only recently started paying closer attention to the celebration, thanks in part to a friend who passionately shared the history of it with me and to the museums who seem to embrace it more and more by opening up space for traditional ofrendas (altar offerings). My recent visit to the Rio Grande Valley and many of its museums, featuring Dia de los Muertos exhibits, magnified that interest in me even more.
The Day of the Dead is based on the belief that the dead come to visit their loved ones from Oct. 31-Nov. 2. In recognition of this homecoming, families and friends set out altars of offerings â€“â€“ at their gravesite or in homes â€“â€“that include a photo(s) of loved ones who have passed, along with items that represented that person and their hobbies, as well as their favorite foods, drinks and more. Toys and candy are typically placed for the children.
Along with the personal items, the altars include many universal Dia de los Muertos symbols including crosses/religious symbols, fruit, pan de muerto (breads often shaped like the skull and crossbones), marigolds (or CempazÃºchitl), sugar skulls and candles to light the way for the dead.
Calacas, or skeleton figurines, are all over these Dia de los Muertos displays. They are often seen doing joyful things, as in life. The calacas represents death as an extension of life and not something to be feared.
Most notable among the calacas is La Catrina, the well-dressed skull figure, usually in her finest gown, hat and gloves. It was explained to me recently that La Catrina mocks a wealthy woman who did nothing to help the poor. The point is being made that no matter how wealthy or privileged we may be in life, at the core â€¦ and in death, we are all bones â€¦ all the same.
Calaveras are the skulls represented in the altars - most especially, the sugar skulls. The abundance of sugar made it the perfect medium for creating the folk art that represented the departed in colorful and positive ways.
I learned a lot about some of the meanings from my dear friend Cole Ynda who, in memory of her late brother David, wrote a beautiful poem incorporating the elements of Dia de los Muertos. She explained the symbolism in her poem, Querido.
I didnâ€™t know, before that, that there was a reason the marigolds were always the flower of choice. Aside from it being noted as sacred to Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the dead, Cole put it in words that brought it more to life for me, so to speak. She said the marigolds serve as a guide, much like the candles do, because â€œthe dead can see the color and vibration of the flower.â€ In her poem she calls them â€œlos colores de la tierra, de la vidaâ€ â€“â€“ colors of the earth and of life. That just sounds so lovely to me.
A few years ago, I visited the Mexican American Culture Center in Austin during their Dia de los Muertos festivities. I joined a craft table with a bunch of children, but embraced the kid inside me and was determined to make my own sugar skull. The first sugar skull I ever decorated, I dedicated it to two â€œDâ€s â€“ my dad, Benito Cruz Rodriguez and to David, Coleâ€™s brother. I think I did an okay job. Well, the 5-year-old next to me started copying mine and you know what they say about imitation. :)
The Spanish tried to squash the ritual, calling it sacrilege, but Iâ€™m beginning to see it for the beautiful, poetic gesture that it is. Itâ€™s not a mockery of death. Itâ€™s more about coming to terms with it and its marriage to the thing we call life. Itâ€™s about remembering and continuing to embrace our loved ones, even in death.
PAN DE MUERTO
- 5 cups of flour
- 1/2 cup of sugar
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 tablespoon of anise seed
- 2 packets of dry yeast
- 1/2 cup of milk
- 1/2 cup of water
- 1/2 cup of butter
- 4 eggs
Mix together the sugar, salt, anise, dry yeast and only 1Â½ cups of the flour.
In a small saucepan, heat the milk, water butter.
Add the liquid mixture to the dry mixture and beat well.
Blend in the eggs and another 1 Â½ cups of flour and, once again, beat well.
Gradually mix in the remainder of the flour until you get a firm, non-sticky dough, and knead for about 10 minutes.
Let the dough rise to double itâ€™s size (about an hour) in a greased bowl.
Reshape the dough, incorporating some bone shapes on top, then let it rise for another hour. You may also make smaller individual breads and/or try different shapes with the dough.
Bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes.
After baking, you may sprinkle it with confectioner's sugar and colored sugar.
I took a vacation day recently to celebrate a milestone with my husband, and we decided to play tourist in Austin. First, we took the dogs to the new hike-and-bike trail that wends through the cityâ€™s growing Mueller neighborhood, where local artwork embellishes the trails, and where botanists with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center have helped restore a swath of native prairie grassland. Then, intrigued by the promise of more public art, we ventured downtown to the swinging 2nd Street District, where we browsed the shops, checked out the new Violet Crown Cinema (finally! an art cinema downtown!), and spent a rewarding few hours exploring the artwork found throughout Austinâ€™s beautiful, limestone-and-copper City Hall, which was designed by architect Antoine Predock. (The angular, copper â€œarmadillo tail,â€ which juts above 2nd Street, â€œliterally shouts â€˜Here I am!â€™â€ according to architect Phil Reed of the local firm Cotera +Reed.)
Modern architecture aside, what a surprising treat this art collection is. This is the 7th year that City Hall has hosted its year-long Peopleâ€™s Gallery exhibitâ€”a collection of more than 150 visual artworks by local artists. The program, part of the cityâ€™s Art in Public Places initiative, is designed to encourage public dialogue and the understanding and enjoyment of visual art, and Iâ€™d say it accomplishes that goal. Edgy sculptures, contemporary paintings, intriguing photographs, and mixed-media pieces galore are displayed in the hallways, foyers, lobbies, and meeting rooms throughout City Hall, and we enjoyed admiring them as we moseyed through the warmly lit building. (Thereâ€™s free parking in the City Hall Parking Garage, too; validate your ticket at City Hall or at most 2nd Street District shops and restaurants.)
The Peopleâ€™s Gallery Exhibition 2011 remains on view through January 12, and you can cast your vote for the Peopleâ€™s Choice Awards through December 30.
[caption align="alignright" width="263" caption="Pyracantha #132 by Stella Alesi"]
- Blue Scales Yellow Stamp, by Jennifer Chenoweth
Since art, architecture, and community often meld together, it makes sense that Gensler chose to host the official launch party of a new endeavor called Generous Art, an online art gallery that envisions art purchases as community-oriented transactions. Conceived and brought to fruition by visual artist and entrepreneur Jennifer Chenoweth, Generous Art works like this: When a site visitor purchases art, the retail price is divided among the artist (40%), a nonprofit organization of the buyerâ€™s choosing (40%), and the gallery itself.
More than 20 Austin-area artists are currently on board, including Virginia Fleck, who creates colorful and intricate collages from plastic bags and other recycled materials; Stella Alesi, a realist painter focused on the life cycle of birds, lizards, plants, and other life forms; Wells Mason, a craftsman currently fascinated with blurring the line between sculpture and furniture; and Emily Moores, whose stark yet evocative charcoal-on-paper works resemble Japanese woodcuts. Beautiful stuff.
This thought has stayed with me all day: Art, beauty, and communityâ€”all intangible concepts worth nurturing, whenever and wherever we find it.
A few years ago, I had the good fortune to participate in one of Houstonâ€™s first â€œWhere the Chefs Eatâ€ Culinary Tours, a collaboration between some of the cityâ€™s most adventuresome chefs and the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureauâ€”both groups who sought to elevate the cityâ€™s reputation as a world-class food town. Instead of visiting some of Houstonâ€™s many well-regarded â€œfine diningâ€ spots, we explored a half-dozen or so casual and/or family-owned joints that the chefs frequent when theyâ€™re not cooking in their own restaurants. We toured the kitchens, met the owners, traded recipes and stories, and generally had a blastâ€”feasting on veritable banquets of barbecue, Thai entrees, Indian dishes, and interior Mexican specialtiesâ€”with professional chefs to guide us in our exploration of new cuisines, ingredients, and preparations.
The only downside to the tours? Theyâ€™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 â€œpreserve, promote, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas.â€
Tickets for the first tourâ€”January 22â€™s â€œChinese New Year with Chefs Chris Shepherd and Justin Yuâ€ â€”go on sale December 1, followed by opportunities to join tours such as â€œLate night Bars and Bites with Chefs Seth Siegel-Gardener, Terrence Gallivan, and Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd,â€ â€œOysters with Chefs Mark Holley and Jonathan Jones,â€ 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 â€œrepeatsâ€ include explorations of barbecue, street food, Southern comfort food, and Vietnamese cuisine. See www.houstonculinarytours.com for a full run-down.
Iâ€™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 Robinsonâ€™s book Great Wine Made Simple. As we progressed through the first chaptersâ€”learning to differentiate between light-bodied and full-bodied styles, identifying characteristics of â€œThe Big Six Grapesâ€ (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz), and building a vocabulary of â€œflavor wordsâ€ like tannic and oakyâ€”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 Austinâ€™s Barr Mansion and Artisan Ballroom, a beautiful event site in northeast Austin that is the nationâ€™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 Franceâ€™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 Blancâ€”a grape used in Texas wines produced by Fall Creek Vineyards, Spicewood Vineyards, and other Texas producersâ€”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 â€œOld World/New Worldâ€ 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 CrÃº 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 winesâ€”some from vineyards that date back hundreds of yearsâ€”I couldnâ€™t help but wonder how the young Texas wine industry compares. One vendor told me that the difference wasnâ€™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 saidâ€”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 exampleâ€”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 donâ€™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 worldâ€”to compare, contrast, and become more knowledgeable. Itâ€™s a fun endeavor, and one of the few educational paths where repeating a lesson is encouraged. Cheers.