Category Archives: Eating Out

7 places I wish I could have taken you during IACP

This past week Austin hosted the 2011 conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP), a gathering of some of the most important food communicators in America. There were chefs, cookbook authors, journalists, bloggers and corporate food folks in attendance, each more famous and friendly than the last.

Non-food blogging Austinites might have noticed that the conference was happening because of the deluge of #IACP tags in the Austin Twitterverse, and because there were special IACP meals, tours and tastings at many of Austin’s restaurants. Many of these food events were once in a lifetime opportunities for the city’s best chefs to cook in the national spotlight on their own turf, and it was pretty awesome to see the likes of Jacques Pepin and Dorie Greenspan excited about Texas cuisine. A high point for me was when Elise Bauer tweeted, “Austin is food heaven,” from a taco truck last night.

Every moment of the IACP conference made me proud to be a Texan. However, some of my favorite Austin food experiences weren’t represented at the conference. Here’s a list of seven culinary adventures that keep Austin weird– and delicious– for me.

1. Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon

Three words: Chicken. Shit. Bingo.

Photo © Gary J. Wood

2. Creamy Jalapeno and Chips at Chuy’s

Tex Mex restaurants in Austin are a dime a dozen, but Chuy’s chips are the thinnest and crispiest in town. Locals know to ask for “creamy jalapeno,” the house-made jalapeño ranch dressing that made Chuy’s famous. It’s a spicy cool and creamy accompaniment to chips in the Texas heat. During happy hour at Chuy’s Mexican martinis are just $6 and you can get free, self-serve chips and creamy jalapeño out of a vintage car trunk near the bar. Seriously, it’s around the corner from the restaurant’s Elvis shrine.

3. Black Star Co-op

One of the major themes at IACP was the growing awareness of community  in consumer-food relationships. I heard over and over in sessions that “consumers want to know where their food comes from,” and “it’s all about the relationship.” As the first co-operatively owned brewpub in the United States, Black Star Co-op personifies these trends. The bar is literally owned by its neighbors (membership shares are $150), and its operations are governed by a member-elected board of directors.  Chef Johnny Livesay used to be the produce manager at Wheatsville, Austin’s farm-to-market grocery co-op, and he uses his connections with local farmers to source the best local produce for Black Star’s kitchen.

Photo © Ed Menard

4. Swad

The atmosphere at Swad is about as far from culinary hype as you can get, which is nice when you need a break from trying to impress people at a food conference. It’s tucked in a strip mall in a working-class area of north Austin, between a dance club called Desperado’s and an Indian market. Swad serves south Indian and Pakistani street food, all vegetarian, all spicy, all awesome. The enormous menu is printed mostly without English translations, and it includes lots of exotic dishes along with some familiar Indian selections like Naan and mango lassi. Standout items include samosa chat, potato-stuffed samosas in a terrifically spicy chickpea curry, and any of the dosas (stuffed lentil crepes). It pays to order adventurously at Swad; I try not to get the same thing twice, and I’ve never encountered a disappointing dish.

5. Casa de Luz

There are many hippies in Austin, especially south Austin, and I’m not sure that came across in the local programming at IACP. Lunch at Casa de Luz is one of the best ways to experience life as a south Austinite, and its vegan, macrobiotic menu would have been the perfect antidote to all the sausage and brisket served at the conference. A three-course meal includes a set menu with soup, salad and delectable entrees like blanched greens w/almond cilantro sauce and corn on the cob with umeboshi paste. The dining room’s community-style seating and bus your own table policy contribute to Casa de Luz’s hippie atmosphere.

6. Alamo Drafthouse

Movie theaters with full menu service are a rising trend in the food industry, and Alamo Drafthouse is a great example of How To Do It Right. They remove people who talk or text during the show*, they bring you Shiner Bock by the bucketful, and instead of lame pre-show advertising, the Alamo creates custom preshows for each movie (think clips of Dan Akroyd as Julia Child before Julie and Julia). Besides the usual theater offerings, Alamo Drafthouse contributes to Austin’s food scene with special culinary events. When Food Inc. opened, the theater produced a menu of local, organic offerings. And each year for the annual showing of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Chef John Bullington prepares an epic twelve hour long feast, with themed dishes like New Zealand lamb, lembas bread, elevensies and coney stew.

*Edited 6/6/11 to add: Alamo just released a new preview that’s going to start airing before its R-rated shows here in Austin. (Caution, NSFW: language.)

7. Mrs. Johnson’s Donuts

This Austin institution would have been the perfect way to celebrate National Donut Day during IACP. Hot, fresh donuts and some of the best people watching in Austin starting at 9 PM on Airport Boulevard every day. If you’re looking to make a night of it, dive bar Barfly’s down the road will even let you bring in a box of donuts.

Photo © Jeremy Sternberg

Ricotta Brulee from Asti Trattoria

The owners of Asti and Fino, some of my favorite restaurants in Austin, have given all of us an early holiday present!  Last week they published three recipes from the menus of Asti and Fino:

We were so lucky to enjoy the ricotta brulee on our Thanksgiving table this year.  My friend Nathan Russell made it according to Asti’s recipe, adding his own spiced cherry compote on top.  It was delicious! We joked during dinner that if cheesecake and creme brulee had a baby, it would taste just like Asti’s ricotta brulee. That joke didn’t last too long since eating babies is frowned upon in most circles.

In all seriousness, I can’t brag on this recipe or Nathan’s fantastic preparation enough.  Go check it out on Asti’s website, and consider adding it to your holiday party menu!

Cafe Express comes to Austin

Houston-based Cafe Express opened a new Austin location a few weeks ago on North Lamar near Central Market and P. Terry’s Hamburgers.  (You may remember a La Madeleine there, previously.)  Like the Houston and Dallas locations, the Austin Cafe Express serves casual, southwestern fare in a relaxed atmosphere.  I grew up eating at Cafe Express in Dallas, so I was eager to see how the Austin location would measure up.

A few weeks ago, I attended the restaurant’s soft opening with my friends Nathan and Amy and lots of other Central Texas food bloggers and media.  It was a great night, and although there were still a few construction trucks in the parking lot when we arrived, the food and service were promising.  Nathan, Amy and I went back this past Thursday so that we could try the food again, this time without the benefit of a press pass.  I am pleased to report that our meal was just as good as it was at the opening, better in some instances.  The waitstaff is obviously new, but our order was quick thanks to special training managers on board from the restaurant’s Dallas and Houston locations.

Although I believe the restaurant’s menu would be improved by inclusion of locally-sourced ingredients, it does utilize fresh produce and whole ingredients in most entrees. There are a wide variety of vegan and vegetarian options, plus a good mix of healthy fare and some indulgences. (See bread pudding, below.) The restaurant also serves wine by the glass, carafe or bottle and offers a happy hour on weeknights.  I haven’t tried the wines yet, but I can definitely vouch for Cafe Express’ Black Currant iced tea.  The beverages are all serve yourself, and there are fresh mint leaves and lemon slices at the drink station to enhance the iced tea.

Next to the drink station is my favorite part of Cafe Express:  jars with dozens of flavorful, complimentary condiments.  Olives, roasted garlic cloves, pickled carrots, capers, sun dried tomatoes, and  breadsticks are some of the goodies you can serve yourself while you wait for your meal.  My favorite item was the pickled carrots; Nathan and Amy liked the olives best.  The presence of croutons here makes me think it might be intended as a salad topping bar, but none of the waitstaff batted an eye when we loaded up on tapas and ate them at our table.

Besides the free stuff,  we went we started the meal with chips, salsa, and guacamole.  The chips were just so-so, but the salsa and guac were excellent. After a few average chips, we ended up eating the salsa and guac with spoons.

The standout entrée of the meal was Amy’s vegetable tart: artichoke hearts, tomatoes, spinach, goat cheese, and pesto in a flaky, savory crust.

Nathan ordered Southwestern Chicken, which conveniently fit into the high protein, low carb diet he’s on.  Basically it’s a whole grilled chicken breast, served over a black bean sauce, topped with tomatoes,  guacamole and cheese and some tortilla strips.

I think the black bean sauce in the Southwestern Chicken was the same as the black bean soup that came with my meal: a soup, salad and sandwich combo.  The soup was okay, and I appreciated that the spring mix salad had fresh, tender greens.  No iceberg in sight, thank you very much.  My veggie sandwich was good too, with hummus and the same yummy pickled carrots I found earlier at the free tapas bar.

The very best part of our meal was the warm bread pudding with vanilla sauce. This dish was just what the menu suggests: creamy, warm bread custard with a hint of almond, covered in vanilla sauce and cinnamon.  This dish won the Taste of Dallas best dessert award in 2008, and it’s easy to see why.

All in all, Cafe Express is a nice addition to Central Austin’s casual dining scene.  For families, there is a kid’s menu with fruit as a side option, and the adult food bests nearby EZ’s on every count. The restaurant interior is bright and clean , making it a great fit for casual group meals and business lunches.

*I was not compensated for this review, although Cafe Express provided a free tasting to me and my guests at the restaurant soft opening. We purchased the meal items pictured here on a separate visit.

** Thanks to Amy Russell for taking beautiful pictures and allowing me to use them here.

Ladies who Lunch: Paggi House

Last night I met up with a bunch of blogger friends for happy hour at Paggi House in south Austin.  We all met through our mutual friend Grechen, who organizes weekly meet-ups through her blog New to ATX.  Fellow food lover and awesome-dress-wearer Becky co-hosted the happy hour and set things up with Paggi House. (Great choice for large groups, by the way!)

These meet-ups are awesome because they give bloggers in Austin a chance to network, vent, and be fabulous together.  The group yesterday was almost all women, with a great mix of fashion, food, and lifestyle bloggers in the group.

We were seated on Paggi House’s fabulous patio.  They have a good wine list, but I found the specialty cocktails much more exciting. Everything on the bar menu is 50% off during Happy Hour.  My friend Amy and I shared the cheese plate and bruschetta:

The quality of the food was top notch, but I was bummed that the bruschetta only included 5 pieces of bread. The cheese plate had a measly 11 crackers.  Why the prime numbers and lack of carbs, Paggi House??  The honey and quince jam on the cheese plate (back left and right corners, respectively) were terrific, but I ended up with more on my fingers than in my mouth. Later in the night Amy and I ordered a $5 bowl of fries from the regular menu.  Not as fancy, but much more satisfying after a few drinks.

Here I am with KathyPhantastic and TheAmyShow.  I was too busy boozing to get a picture of my new friend Sandhya, but you should check out Amy’s and her new Austin Street Style blog: The Style Co-op.

I aspire to accessorize like Diya and Anslee.  And like Rose and Laura.  I didn’t get their pictures so you’ll have to take my word for it that they’re adorable.

There’s Diya again, and Joyce!  Besides wonderful fashion blogs, both these ladies have willpower of steel.  It came out during HH that Diya had worked at Ann Taylor and Joyced worked at Anthropologie.  They both actually made more money than they spent on clothing there. How is that possible??  (I worked at Chili’s for a while and never actually ate any of the food, so I guess I can see where they’re coming from.)

Also fabulous: Joanna and Becky. Joanna covers Austin fashion at Keep Austin Stylish. Becky writes about cocktails and restaurants for the Austinist and the Examiner.

I so, so wish I could have gotten a group shot of everyone last night so that we could document all the amazing early fall looks we were wearing.  Ladies please let me know if you’ve got additional shots so that I can link to your pictures, too!

House Pizzeria

I know I’m late to the party on this one, but if you haven’t made it out to House Pizzeria you should try it!  Tonight we had their Oktoberfest special pizza topped with beer braised sausage, caramelized onions and cheddar.  It was divine.  Truly inspiring flavors, and the best thin crust I’ve had here in Austin. They had a decent wine list plus a ton of local beer on tap, and my iced tea was fantastic. Our meal came with gratis crunchy bread sticks  and European-style bottled tap water. I knew we were in for a spectacular pie when I tasted cracked pepper, rosemary and fennel in the bread sticks.  Rami and I both split the 12-inch pizza and were comfortably full; total cost for dinner and my drink was under $15, including tip.

The flavors in the pizza inspired me to cook with beer this week.  I just added some Bratwurst from Full Quiver Farms to my Greenling order so that I can make a pasta-free version of this beer braised sausage recipe, from one of my favorite websites, SustainableTable.org.

Greenling’s Best of Austin Bash

Rami and I just got home from a great (long!) night at Greenling’s Best of Austin Bash at Hummingbird House in South Austin.  I made about 200 Rosemary Pesto Rolls for the occasion, and it was so much fun passing them out to all the new people I met.

My husband Rami took a few pictures of the event per my request.  This is me set up at the food table, giving out rosemary pesto rolls.  You can see I was right next to a huge platter of Brazos Valley Cheese.  It was so, so good.  I’m very proud of the fact that I only sampled three pieces of cheese, leaving plenty for other fans to eat.  On the left is my new friend Jenny.  She made some killer dessert bars with some nuts from College Station. (Not Aggies, actual pecan nuts. Tee hee hee.) (I almost exploded holding that joke in for the past 24 hours.)

The line for food at the bash was really, really long.  Imagine the people you see above times at least 30.  I brought about 200 rolls with me and served almost as many hungry Austinites.  By the time folks got a pesto roll, some of them had been waiting over an hour!

Here’s another picture of the line.  Also, let’s all take a minute to gawk at this gorgeous tent in the backyard of the Hummingbird House.  Big white tent that holds 200 people with a concrete floor=gawk.  Dreamy white sheer liner= gawk.  Built in twinkle lights & poll wraps=GAWK.  I had a tent wedding in Iowa that I decorated myself, and I have so much GAWK in my heart for pretty tent draping.  Also, Chiavari Chairs.

Here’s a shot of the grounds after dark.  The big tent in the picture above is in the far background.

This is a vanity shot.  Since I was serving pesto rolls from behind a table, most folks only saw me from the waist up.  That means they missed the adorable detail on the bottom of my shirt and my effective use of braided leather belt.  Gaze upon it now!

This is my basket of Rosemary Pesto Rolls.  If you haven’t seen it yet, I hope you’ll check out the recipe here.

See you guys at the next soiree! I had so much fun last night, I already started planning my next recipe.  Hint: apples, brie, rosemary, butter.

Run away screaming

This article by the Washington Post will help give you all the willpower you need to make dinner at home tonight: Eating a large tuna sub at Quizno’s is the equivalent of eating a stick of butter. Una Chicago Pizzeria’s individual deep dish pizza has as much fat as 45 strips of bacon. Read the whole thing here: http://bit.ly/djuXoK