Thursday, July 10, 2014

Out of Town Edition: Texas Where Everything May Actually Be Bigger and Better

  I just visited my sister in her new abode in Austin, Texas where I was psyched to dive into the local food scene.  I'd heard tales of steaks as big as your face, food trucks as far as the eye can see, and slap yo' mama good barbecue. I was not disappointed.  My first night's meal actual turned out to be by far my best. We drove outside Austin to Driftwood to go to the famous Salt Lick Barbecue. As soon as you walk in you see meats of various kinds splayed over a fire pit in all their smoky glory. Once seated at a picnic table my sister her boyfriend (even pickier than mine if that's possible...) and I all went for the sample plate with a little bit of everything: smoked turkey, smoked brisket, a pork rib and smoked sausage with potato salad, cole slaw, and pinto beans.  Everything was great, but the pork rib beat all. The meat was smoky candy on it's own, but the amazing barbecue sauce brought it to an ethereal plane.  My sis and her man like the brisket better at their local Rudy's, but couldn't argue the superiority of the pork.  Let me put it this way...a little girl vomited at my feet on my way to my table and the food smelled so good it didn't dampen my appetite for a minute...that's saying something.

The Salt Lick Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon


    I was able to enjoy a good Tex Mex dinner at Matt's Famous El Rancho on what just happened to be the restaurant's 62 birthday.  My sister and I enjoyed the nice outdoor patio and very prompt service.  We loved bright fuchsia Prickly Pear Cactus Margarita.  The old fashioned tacos I ordered had a great slightly crispy texture from the grill. The brisket was a bit dry though, the ground beef version was much better.

Matt's El Rancho on Urbanspoon Fat Cactus on Urbanspoon

    As for the notorious Austin food trailers, I visited The Fat Cactus and Juice Austin, both parked off "SoCo" (or South Congress St.) The Fat Cactus features Navajo fry breads, which are fantastic on their on own, and even better when used as a taco shell.  Most cultures seem to have their own version of fried dough and I can't think of any I haven't liked...  I tried a fat cactus fry bread taco filled with chipotle chicken, cheese, beans, lettuce, tomato and salsa verde.  It was was essentially a chalupa on crack.  Amazing!  The Juice Austin truck wasn't cheap, but the juice was so tasty it re-inspired me to try juicing...yeah we'll see how long that lasts. I ordered the in incredibly refreshing pear, cucumber and mint juice.  I tried to reproduce it with my juicer today, but sadly not the same.



   My last night in Texas we found a compromise between the David Qui food truck East Side Kings that I was dying to go to and whatever burger joint my sister's man had in mind.We hit up the Magnolia Cafe SoCo after watching the bats fly since it was a name I recognized and we knew it would still be open (It' 24 hours) as confirmed by the sign declaring "Sorry We're Open. Even though the diner served up breakfast classics all day and giant bacon cheeseburgers for Tim (who ordered his with a giant pancake on the side and chocolate milk,) they also serve a variety of fresh and creative entrees. My sister had roasted acorn squash and curried vegetables, which were good, but could have benefited from the addition of some rice.
I ordered the chicken picatta with garlic mashed potatoes and grilled vegetables.  The picatta sauce was a little too thick for my taste, but the potatoes tasted like home cooking might, if my mom made good mashed potatoes, and the grilled vegetables were served up aplenty. The prices were reasonable for the quantity and  quality of the food.




Magnolia Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Joule: Not Worth the Hype

    I visited famed local chef Ashley Christenson's newest addition to her mini empire of local establishments, coffee shop and restaurant Joule.  I was excited to try out their brunch menu to see if Joule is worthy of all the hype. My conclusion? The coffee is fantastic, but not all of the food was great nor was the service.  The brunch menu at Joule sounded interesting. I ordered the BLT with avocado and was grossly disappointed.  The roasted tomatoes were oozy like a ketchup and the avocado was in guacamole form rather than in slices. The lime of the  guacomole didn't meld for me with the bacon.  Texturally, between the sandwich was like crispy bread with a bunch of goo in the middle. The grits with bacon, cheese, and sour cream were good, but I like my grits to have enough flavor that they can stand on their own, which I found these could not. My boyfriend loves biscuits and gravy so I was able to tempt him with that to go with me having seen them on the brunch menu.  The Berkshire pork shoulder gravy was certainly not the sausage gravy he was expecting. I thought it was pretty good, but it clearly was not for him. The ultimate nail in the coffin for me was the service.  Our waiter didn't show for sometime, our drinks took even longer.  Other tables were seated near us and had their drinks and food from other waitstaff before we'd even gotten our coffee. My lack of enthusiasm for the dishes we ordered were generally matters of personal taste rather than poor quality, however that combined with the slow service will likely keep me from coming back.

BLT with Avocado

Biscuits and Pork Gravy


Grits

Joule Coffee on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 23, 2014

Birthday Take Two at Bida Manda

   As I mentioned in my last post, I firmly believe that birthdays last for a week, particularly if they take place on a week day.  For my weekend celebration with friends (or 30th birthday part II) I met a group of my favorite people for dinner at Bida Manda.  I've blogged about my love of Bida Manda before, and my affection has not abated in the least, but nor has the difficulty in getting a reservation.  If anything, as more people have come to discover it, reservations have become even more elusive. It was no small feat getting in a sizable group on a Friday!  In any case, I'm not going to wax poetic about Bida Manda AGAIN, but I will show some of the food porn that I documented.  Strange...when I look at my birthday pictures they all seem to be of food with none of people or of myself...hmm..  Read my old entry Loving Laotian at Bida Manda for a complete review.

Herb Salad with Shrimp and Spring Roll

Hayes Barton: Quickly Becoming a Birthday Tradition

     I recently hit the big 3-0 so to celebrate I hit some of my all time favorite special occasion restaurants. I'm of the breed that believe a birthday lasts a week, thus allowing me more than one opportunity to go out and celebrate.  For my weeknight birthday my gentleman and I went to Hayes Barton Cafe in Five Points. We went there last year for my birthday as well, because there are few better places for a slice of birthday cake. This also gave the boyfriend a chance to make up for not paying for my birthday dinner at Hayes Barton last year. (Can you believe that?!) The atmosphere of Hayes Barton is an intimate 1940s and '50s themed diner. Yes, I said diner, but upscale, not the Waffle House or burger and fry kind. The walls are filled with post WWII Hollywood kitsch and the menu even hosts dishes named after classic Hollywood movies and movie stars.

Crab Cakes
Filet and Macaroni and Cheese















  On previous visits (always special occasions) I've enjoyed the Marilyn crab cakes (very good flavor, good crab to breading ratio and funny play on words to boot!) and their filet with the mushroom demi glacĂ© over mashed potatoes. They do this dish downright perfectly here. Even the green beans are impeccably executed. This time I mixed it up a little and got the even richer special, the filet over macaroni and cheese with a bordelaise sauce. The filet here is perfectly tender, but since we can only afford the four ounce (already 30 bucks!) it's definitely on the small side. Those with bigger wallets can afford a bigger steak.  The macaroni and cheese was sinfully creamy, not a light dish, but hey if you can't indulge on your birthday when can you?!  For dessert, because you would be amiss to go to Hayes Barton and not order dessert, if only to take one bite and get the rest to go like I did. As I child I didn't like cake, weird I know, but likely because I only got the kind from the grocery store bakery or out of a Betty Crocker box. I still don't like these for the record. In any case, I typically had  pie rather than cake on my birthday so I kept up that tradition by ordering strawberry pie. I do like the mile high cakes at Hayes Barton, particularly the lemon curd and fresh blueberry cake with cream cheese icing...although I wish the icing was a little sweeter, or the rich chocolate hazelnut ganache cake. Hayes Barton is quickly becoming my birthday tradition.



  Hayes Barton Cafe & Dessertery on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Triangle Restaurant Week Reminder

Remember, Triangle restaurant week started Monday, June 2nd and goes through Sunday, June 8th. Participating restaurants across Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill will be offering pre-fixe three course menus at $20 to $30 each. Some offer wine pairings for an additional fee.  This is a great chance to sample some high end restaurants that may ordinarily be out of your budget. I went to Buku last night with some friends, but unfortunately I still depleted my wallet since I couldn't resist the cocktail menu..you have been warned.  Keep in mind that many restaurants change their offerings from the options they have listed online. I was pretty broken hearted to see Buku didn't have the macadamia nut crusted wahoo or veggie samosa pot pie that were on the restaurant week menu once I actually got there. In any case, check out the participating locations on the website and enjoy!
Triangle Restaurant Week Site

Friday, April 25, 2014

Fired Up About Tazza Kitchen


    After reading a review of Tazza Kitchen in a recent edition of the Indy, I was psyched to give it a try.  The new restaurant centers around the beautiful mosaic tile covered wood fire oven brought in direct from Naples, Italy.  The restaurant claims their concept is a mix of Mediterranean and Baja inspirations, certainly a strange combination.  Both inspirations are reflected on the menu in pizzas to tacos, however I feel the true concept they should cling to is the wood fire oven.  Tazza seeks to utilize local ingredients, something I always appreciate in a restaurant.

   Tazza Kitchen is situated in Raleigh's Cameron Village and the trendy atmosphere inside and out is fantastic.  I immediately felt like a classy member of the in-crowd sitting out on the Tazza patio with my cocktail, but that did come with a hefty price tag.  I've been to Tazza twice in the last week, so you can infer that I liked it quite a bit.

  On my first visit to Tazza I went with three friends and was able to try out lots of things on the menu by sharing apps, entrees, and desserts around the table.  We started out with the highly recommended cast iron skillet of wood fire roasted brusselsprouts with maple vinaigrette, bacon and hard boiled egg, apparently a little play on breakfast.  I found the addition of hard boiled egg a little superfluous, but overall it was very tasty.  My pick was the cast iron skillet of bubbly hot goat cheese and marinara sauce served with olive oil and sea salt bedecked bread slices to dip.  This would be hard NOT to like. On my second visit with my friend (and gradual foodie convert) we ordered the spicy crispy potatoes, little baby potatoes with jalapeno puree and lemon zest, which were a very flavorful and unique take on potatoes and a great step up the culinary ladder for someone who would typically order french fries. I ordered the guacamole adorned with a little pico and served up with some freshly fried corn tostadas.  I liked the guacamole just fine, but would probably have preferred some lighter tortilla chips to the tostadas.



    For entrees the first time I went the inexpensive route and split a margherita pizza with a friend.  The wood fire oven gave a very identifiable smoky flavor to the pizza, which worked for me. Other friends ordered the shrimp and crispy polenta that was the creamier than I have ever known polenta to be.  My gluten-free gal pal was smitten with it!  Her fiance tried the baja inspired end of the menu and got the roasted pork taco with pickled onions and tomato jam, served up with black lentils. He's the quiet sort, so he didn't comment too much other than to say how much he like the pickled onions and tomato jam.  On my second visit I veered far away from the economical route and got the flounder special upon recommendation with no questions asked.  NOT SMART! The flounder, unsurprisingly, was not cheap and led to a hefty bill unbefitting the meager resources of an underfinanced foodie.  To make matters worse the delicate flounder was scorched by the high heat of the wood fire oven. They should have left it in there to cook for a MUCH shorter time. The farro with chorizo and pistachios it was served with wasn't my favorite either. If I was still hungry I would have eaten it, but after my appetizer I just left it on my plate...and that coming from a full fledged member of the clean plate club.  My potato loving friend was going to go the safe route and order the margherita pizza, but the waitress talked him into trying the Italian sausage and black pepper honey pizza. I tasted it and I've gotta say, it was pretty unique. I would never have thought about putting honey on a pizza, but the sweet, spicy, savory, combo actually worked.

    For dessert there were just two choices, both gluten free.  My friends and I ordered one of each, a flourless almond cake with a salted caramel gelato and a jar of chocolate budino, a rich chocolate custard with almonds olive oil and sea salt.  The flourless almond cake was a total let down, it was very mealy and didn't have the dense richness I would expect from a flourless cake. The gelato was delicious juxtaposition of salty and sweet. The dark chocolate budino bites highlighted with the crunch of roasted almonds created an ideal mixture of complementary flavors and textures. I skipped out on dessert on my second visit in favor of a second drink.

   
The cocktails are the true highlight of a visit to Tazza Kitchen.  They are artfully crafted drinks made with great fresh ingredients.  The blackberry mojito is a masterpiece of muddled and whole fresh blackberries, fresh mint, white rum, lime juice and sugar over crushed ice.  It looks as wonderful as it tastes, and isn't overly sweet.  After trying the margarita on my second visit, which was still quite good, I had to get another one of those blackberry mojitos!
     So overall it's definitely worth a trip to Tazza, but order carefully or you will empty out your wallet like I did.  Go with friends or a date and share an app. like the brusselsprouts or goat cheese, get (or share if you can agree on a topping!) a pizza.  The Italian sausage and black pepper honey is a great choice. Sharing will save you enough money to order a drink, and if you partake in the hard stuff, that is a must. The drinks are made strong, and they aren't cheap, so it may be wise to stick to just one.

Tazza Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Chuy's Tex Mex, A Chain Restaurant that Gets SOME of the Details Right

    I'm notoriously not a fan of chain restaurants. I make exceptions for small local chains like Neomonde (I love you Neomonde...) and places that pay enough attention to detail and freshness that they don't come across like a chain. For instance, judge me all you want, I like Bone Fish Grill, and I don't care who mocks me for it. They put hearts of palm on their salads, have consistently scrumptious food and damn good sangria to boot, so sue me! Anyway...I digress. A friend recently cajoled me into trying out a new Tex-Mex restaurant called Chuy's that's all the rage in North Hills. Chuy's is a chain out of Austin, Texas, but I figured at least Austin has a solid reputation for great eats. Chuy's was packed! We waited for an hour to get a table, and helped ourselves to the salsa and tortilla chip bar. The salsa was almost the consistency of a pico and tasted extremely fresh (I later found out they make it hourly, so no wonder!) The chips were evidently freshly made as well. The decor was fun, but definitely gave off a chain restaurant atmosphere.  After we FINALLY got a table, I was super excited to see that the tortillas were being freshly pressed. Definitely a good sign! There were a substantial list of homemade sauces to top off your order, so I decided to sample a bunch of different things by getting the "Elvis Presley Memorial Combo" with three types of enchiladas, a crispy beef taco, and somewhat randomly, a couple of tostada chips dipped in chile con queso. Geez Louise what a giant plate of food! It was definitely two meals worth, even for a big eater like me. Everything tasted fresh, but I wasn't terribly impressed with the enchiladas I had. They were fine, but the sauces weren't that great and certainly not enough to sell me on the place. The hard taco was quite good, but not particularly unique. The pre-dipped tostada chips were definitely a mistake, as the chili con queso on them becomes cold and therefore unappetizing by the time it reaches your table. I wouldn't get the enchiladas again, they weren't bad, but I wasn't blown away. I really wanted to like the place more on my first visit, the food was fresh, it wasn't greasy and didn't give me the sickly rock in the stomach feeling that all to often come from some Mexican restaurants, but overall I just didn't get the hype.

      I heard great things about the "chuychangas" and went back to try them with the picky man in tow. There was another hour long wait that he patiently endured for fear I would take him to an Asian restaurant instead.  This time I was more sold. The chicken chuychangas were creamy, rich, and sinfully tasty. The lightly crispy layers of flour tortilla were filled with hand pulled oven-roasted chicken, cheese, cilantro and green chilies. I wish they had more filling inside, but I would definitely get it again regardless. I paid the up-charge to get the queso on top. It came underneath rather than on top, a smart move that kept the chimi from getting soggy.  However the queso was entirely unnecessary, the chimi was rich enough on its own and I'm partial to a queso blanco versus the unnatural velveta looking (although decently seasoned) orange queso served here. There are numerous signature sauces to choose from. I tried the deluxe tomatillo on the side which is a creamy tasty choice for a chicken dish. I'm eager to try the creamy jalapeno sauce and one of their signature green chile sauces on my next visit...which I'm already planning. I'm hoping to take my sister before she moves to Austin next month so she can compare it to the original. I've heard the rumor that it can't compete.  Mr. My idea of Mexican is Taco Bell, ordered the crunchy beef tacos and proclaimed them "yummy." He (unsurprisingly) left his rice and beans untouched, but said he would definitely want to go back.  As for the drinks, the ritas contain fresh lime juice and even though I only got the house version (underfinanced, remember?) my only complaint with the margaritas was that they weren't big enough. So while all menu items are not created equal, this is a chain where they do put some degree of care into the details (although that's hard to gather from the mediocre service.)  Is it Mexican? No not really, so don't go in expecting that. However, if you're craving a tasty Tex-Mex version of a taco or chimi it's a decent place to go, provided you're willing to wait while the hype is still at a high.

Picky McPickerson's Beef Tacos. Don't mind the presentation, he had already started digging in before I took the picture.



Chuy's on Urbanspoon