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Written by Lori Moffatt

What's up with offal? Seems as though every menu I see these days has some form of offal on it, whether it's sweetbreads or lamb's hearts or some delicacy long treasured in Europe or Mexico, but only now (at least that I'm aware) earning praise in America. At Austin's East Side Showroom (a new, noisy restaurant in the freshly hip section of East 6th Street), I enjoyed a truly delicious salad of local field greens with cornmeal-crusted sweetbreads (that's pancreas and thymus glands, y'all), then another night at Vino Vino, a wine bar on Guadalupe, I tried its version of sweetbreads on the appetizer menu. (Love Vino Vino for the topnotch wine selection and cozy, clubby ambiance.) At then at Olivia, the South Lamar restaurant, recently lauded by Bon Appetit as one of American's top ten new restaurants, the chef served an intriguing appetizer of bacon-wrapped jalapeno stuffed with lamb's heart. The owner told me he takes pride in serving the whole animal, "from the rooter to the pooter." Anthony Bourdain, eat your heart out. Ahem.

If I ever had any doubt that the foodie culture has become firmly established in Texas, now I'm fully convinced otherwise.

Last week I attended a reunion of high-school chums in Oklahoma City, a seven-hour drive from Austin (though my lead-footed mother claims to do it in five). Instead of gunning it straight through, I stopped this time in Dallas to pursue one of the city's most refined competitive sports: Shopping. Thankfully (for my bank account's sake), I've discovered the cheap thrills of thrift and consignment stores.

The Vernal Equinox and the first official day of spring—March 20—is so close we can taste it. Well, FEEL it (in the sun's warm rays on our skin), SEE it (in the leaves budding out on even the pecans, which somehow know when the chance of frost has passed), and SMELL it (in the fragrance of all those flowers). It's tough to be inside in weather this glorious. So get on out there. We just received word that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's "Texas Outdoor Family" program, which kicked off a few years ago to encourage people to enjoy the great outdoors, has expanded this year to include themed weekends organized around such topics as learning to mountain bike. On March 23-24, at Stephen F. Austin State Park, groups of up to six participants ($65 for all!) can learn basic camping skills (such as how to pitch a tent, build a campfire, and go geocaching) along with mountain biking safety, etiquette, and rules of the (off)road. Amazingly, most equipment—including tents, handheld GPS untis, cookware, lanterns, and bikes—are provided. You're on your own for food, clothing, and sleeping bag. Sign up for this program or others by calling 512/389-8903; www.tpwd.state.txus/calendar/texas-outdoor-family-stephen-f.-austin-state-park-houston-1.

In Houston this Saturday, March 23, from 11-2, the always zany and creative Orange Show Foundation hosts its annual Easter Orange Hunt, when kids of all ages can tour the Orange Show site—a veritable playground of whirligigs, moats, and brightly tiled and painted structures—and collect eggs, candy, and (of course) oranges. Also on March 23, the Orange Show will also host its first annual PEEPS Art Contest. Using Peeps marshmallow treats, contestants will make sculptures, costumes, and other works of art, following the lead of similar contests in Washington, D.C., Denver, and Westminster, Maryland. If you’d like to submit an entry, bring it to the Orange Show for judging by noon on Saturday. Winners will receive Peeps prizes, gift cards, and recognition on the Orange Show website, www.orangeshow.org.

a Peeps creation from the Westminster competition

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 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. 

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

When the Blanton Museum of Art opened its new building in Austin a few years ago, I signed on as a member. It wasn't long before I understood the appeal of supporting the arts. Philanthropy notwithstanding, members get discounted entry to special parties and events, a nicely designed monthly newsletter, free admission to exhibits, and discounts at the very cool gift store (which opened last month, along with the Blanton Cafe). Now that I'm a member, I definitely go to the museum more often—it's free, fun, and philanthropic!

Last year, when I went on vacation in Mazatlãn, Mexico, my group followed the keen advice of a columnist in Arthur Frommer's magazine Budget Travel and rented a century-year-old home in the historic district. I'm planning to stay closer to home this year, but I still check the Budget Travel Web site for deals, and I especially like the blog. Imagine my surprise this week to find my hometown of Austin on the editors' Top 10 Destinations To Watch list for 2009—sharing company with Berlin, Budapest, Cambodia, Hawaii, Mexico, Panama, Reykjavik, Vancouver, and Washington, D.C.(I'm not sure why the editors narrowed some places down to the city, and went for states or even countries in others, but no matter.)

I was recently visiting with a friend who works in the hotel business in Austin, and she and I discussed a trend I'm seeing more of these days: As the national economy feels a squeeze, hotels aren't necessarily lowering their rates, but they are offering more package deals—reserve two nights and get a third for free, a restaurant credit with a night's lodging, wine-and-cheese basket in room—that sort of thing. So when you book a room at your next Texas vacation spot, be sure to ask about similar deals.

And while we're on the subject of a sluggish economy, how has it affected your personal travel plans? Or has it? As for me, I've gotten a lot less shy about packing a cooler and making those on-the-road dinners stretch into lunch the next day. As long as I can find ice, this works even if the place I'm staying doesn't have a fridge.

So: Are you taking shorter trips or staying closer to home? Packing PP&J for breakfast? I'd love it if you'd share your tips for traveling on a budget. And, would you like to read more of this sort of thing in TH?

I-35 through Fort Worth has been a construction-congested mess for as long as I can remember. So imagine my delight to discover, on a holiday trip through the city, that much of the construction in finally finished. For travelers using the Interstate to get to points north or south, it's a much more pleasant commute. And for those bound for Cowtown proper, it's also simpler to reach Fort Worth's ever-expanding Cultural District, as well as the Stockyards National Historic District and downtown's Sundance Square.

 

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