Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Chen's Noodle House - Rediscovering a Hidden Gem

In this town burgeoning with hot new restaurants, it's easy to forget the tried and true favorites that deserve our support. We recently revisited Chen's Noodle House after much too long an absence, and while I'm delighted to report that it was even better than I remembered it, I also felt a pang of regret for not having patronized them more often.

If you haven't been to Chen's, it's a VERY unassuming hole-in-the-wall in a pretty divey strip center near 183 and Spicewood Springs Road. Chen's is so on the down low that when we were there recently, there was absolutely no signage to be found on the exterior of the restaurant. I neglected to snap a photo of the storefront to share with you, but if you're facing Asia Market (which seems to be closed at the moment), Chen's is to your left.

You order at the counter and serve yourself silverware, napkins, and tiny cups of tepid tap water. And then the food comes out and you're reminded of why you came.

These lamb skewers ($9) were some of the finest specimens of lamb I've ever tasted. They were impeccably seasoned and so tender. I really wanted another order of these, but as you'll see in a moment, we had already ordered too much food.

Chen's Noodle House lamb skewers

These fried dumplings ($10) came out next. Super tasty.

Chen's Noodle House dumplings

I'm looking at the online menu right now, and I think these sesame pockets were only $8. Which confounds me, because they were substantial enough that I think four light eaters could make an entire meal out of them. They were generously stuffed with flavorful pork, and pockets were soft and came out warm. The sesame seeds added a nice crunch and toasty goodness.

Chen's Noodle House sesame pockets

My combination noodle soup ($9) was the stuff cold days were made for. My friend suggested that I add a sauce called jia jiang to it, as well as a healthy dollop of their wonderful house-made hot oil. The noodles are handmade. How do they even sell this for $9? The bowl was gigantic. You can see the soup spoon on the bottom right, dwarfed by the massive bowl.

Chen's Noodle House combination

We were so sated and happy as we walked out of Chen's, and vowed loudly not to wait so long before returning for another visit. I hope you follow suit - I know you'll be happy you did.

8650 Spicewood Springs, Suite 127
Austin, TX 78759
512-336-8889

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Sunday, September 2, 2018

Eating Our Way Through the Minnesota State Fair, 2018

Yesterday was our annual Minnesota State Fair Eat-Fest. Although I feel as if someone poured an entire salt shaker into my veins, I'm also filled with happy memories of a Fair properly conquered. Here's a rundown of what we ate:

1. Corn & Blue Cheese "Fritz" from the Blue Barn
In case you are dense like I was, "fritz" are "fritters." These were nicely fried and served with a tangy chimichurri sauce. We liked them, but I didn't think them particularly blue cheese-y or even particularly corn-y tasting. Plus, we were so crushed that the Blue Barn didn't bring back its amazing Truffled Trotters from last year. B+.

blue cheese & corn fritz

2. Fried Olives
These are one of my sister-in-law's favorites every year, and for good reason. They're stuffed with cream cheese and then deep fried, apparently right on the stick, and served with ranch dressing. Good stuff. A-.

fried cream cheese stuffed olives

3. Flavored Fried Cheese Curds from Miller's Flavored Curds
Flavored cheese curds were a new item (at least to us) last year. We liked them enough to pay them a repeat visit. Last year, we got a sampler of all four flavors (plain, jalapeno, garlic, and ranch); this year, we stuck with our favorite from last year, the garlic. A-.

garlic cheese curds

4. Grilled Peaches with Herbed Goat Cheese from the Produce Exchange
Our favorite new item from the fair this year, the grilled peaches with herbed goat cheese were a much-needed palate cleanser after the initial barrage of fried everything. The peaches were huge and juicy and sweet, and the grilling process accentuated the peachy flavor. The herbed goat cheese gave it a savory component that was just right with the peaches. Aggressively priced at $9 for about 3/5 of a peach, but all the concessions at the State Fair are overpriced, so we let it slide. A.

grilled peaches w herbed goat cheese

5. Birchwood Heirloom Tomato Sweet Corn BLT from the Farmer's Union Coffee Shop
In a surprising departure from tradition, our choices this year seemed to pay a little more homage than usual to the farmers at the Fair. They came through in this BLT - the tomatoes were thickly sliced and full of flavor - like the homegrown tomatoes of my childhood (I haven't been able to master tomato growing in Texas). We asked them to halve our sandwich to make it easier to share, so it's not that photogenic and was much messier than it probably would have been otherwise, but it still tasted great. A-.

BLT w corn

6. Wood Grilled Elotes from Tejas Express
This was on many of the critics' favorites lists, and it probably would have been higher on mine if I didn't live in Texas and have access to so many outstanding examples of elotes on a regular basis. This version had a nice char from the grill and was seasoned well, but they were way too skimpy with the cheese (cotija, I think), and the kernels on this corn were less plump than the ones at the regular corn stand. B+.

elotes

7. Poutine from Duke's
After TacoCat crushed our loaded fry dreams by closing for good a few days before we arrived, we ended up getting poutine at Duke's. I was really impressed that they were cutting their fries from fresh potatoes right there in the booth, but the end result wasn't as compelling as I'd hoped. My brother pointed out that the gravy tasted like the gravy on KFC's mashed potatoes, and he was spot on. Also, these would have been better served in a boat and with smaller bits of cheese curd so you got more curd in every bite. B.

poutine

8. Cheddar Cheese Curds from The Big Cheese
My sister-in-law says these are the best fried curds at the Fair. I have not conducted an exhaustive search myself, but these are excellent. They retain a little more of that squeaky-on-your-teeth texture specific to curds, so you know you're eating the real thing. A.

cheddar cheese curds

9. Tom Thumb Donuts
Tom Thumb Donuts are one of my must-stops every year. You can watch your doughnuts being flipped out of the fryer before being doused in cinnamon sugar and put into your bag, piping hot. Perfectly pillowy with a fresh cinnamon flavor, $5 for a bag of 16. You can't go wrong. A+.

Tom Thumb donuts

10. Sweet Martha's Cookies
These are on my sister-in-law's list every year. It's an absolute gauntlet to get to them, involving probably a good thirty minutes in line. I personally find them way too sweet, but they're at least charmingly warm when you get them, and the sheer volume at which they turn these out is nothing short of astounding. Sweet Martha's grossed $4.3 million in 12 days at the Fair last year, so I am apparently the only person in the universe who isn't in love with them. B.

Sweet Martha's

Thus concludes our annual trek to enjoy all the food the Fair has to offer. My step tracker says I walked 12,221 steps yesterday; I'm hoping that takes care of at least a fried curd or two!

P9010349*

Have you been to the Minnesota State Fair? What are your favorite Fair foods?



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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Scorpion Bakehouse - The Best Bakery You Don't Know About Yet

Anyone who's been following my blog for a while knows that one of the reasons I write it is because I love spreading the word about up-and-coming food superstars. And if you've ever tasted the cakes made by Melissa of Scorpion Bakehouse, you know that she is very much a food superstar! Her cakes are not only stunningly gorgeous, but they are as delicious as they look. When you show up with one of these beauties, nobody, and I mean nobody, will believe that a home-based baker made it.

I mean, JUST LOOK AT THIS S'MORES CAKE.

Scorpion Bakehouse

One of my co-workers deemed it the best chocolate cake she had ever had. It was that good.

Scorpion Bakehouse

Don't you want to just dive head-first into that luscious meringue?

And as if her incredible cakes weren't enough to showcase her talent, she's also collaborating with her super-talented artist husband Briks to make the coolest cookies you will ever see (you may recognize Briks' art from the walls at Ramen Tatsu-ya, Drink Well, Spokesman, and several other places around town and around Texas!) My friend Jen and I got some of the cookies for our friend E, and Melissa & Briks customized them especially for her! We were so beside ourselves with excitement over these!

Scorpion Bakehouse Cookies

Those two adorable characters in the middle are E's fur-kids Joey and Cocoa - they captured their ham personalities so well!

At the moment, Melissa isn't set up for delivery service, so you have to pick up her cakes and cookies on the north side of town. But they're 100% worth the drive up there. I have a feeling I'll be doing it a lot more often - I have a lot of coworkers and friends with birthdays!

Interested in ordering? Just email Melissa at scorpionbakehouse@gmail.com.

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Monday, April 16, 2018

A Visit to Cannon + Belle

Though it's been open a while, I hadn't had a chance yet to dine at Cannon + Belle, so I jumped at their generous offer for a complimentary tasting at the restaurant. South Austin Foodie joined me for a fun and delicious meal - read on to see what we tried!

We kicked off the meal with cocktails - a Metabolic Mule (Dripping Springs Orange Vodka, KTonic Original Kombucha, Domaine Canton Ginger Liqueur, ginger simple syrup, and lime) for Suzanna and an Angelina's Punch (Deep Eddy Lemon Vodka, blackberry shrub, mint, and soda) for me. Both drinks were refreshing, well-balanced, and not too sweet - perfect cocktails for Austin weather.

Cannon & Belle Cocktails

From the Shared Plates menu, we chose the Honey & Black Garlic Wings and the Sweet Pea Cake. The wings were messy, but finger-licking tasty. Honestly, the Sweet Pea Cake was not our favorite - it was rather dense and too salty.

Cannon & Belle Honey Black Garlic Wings
Honey & Black Garlic Wings

Cannon & Belle Sweet Pea Cake
Sweet Pea Cake
We tucked into a White Pizza next, which was probably my favorite savory dish of the meal. It was so impossibly cheesy in only the best way, and the fresh oregano that dotted the top helped cut through the richness of the cheese. After trying this, I was a little sad to set the leftovers aside so we would have room for more!

Cannon & Belle White Pizza
White Pizza
Our final savory course was this lovely seared scallop dish, which was served with a smooth brown butter and sunchoke puree, mushrooms, green beans, and tomatoes. 

Cannon & Belle Seared Scallops
Seared Scallops
Could we really have left room for dessert? No, not really, but we ordered some anyway: a piece of their Salted Chocolate Stack cake and the Seasonal Fruit Crisp. I had also been eyeing the Chocolate Mexican Fizz (Z Resposada Tequila, coconut milk, vanilla simple syrup, egg white, Aztec chocolate bitters, and soda) from the regular cocktail menu and could not resist ordering one to sip with our desserts. It was the right decision.

Cannon & Belle Chocolate Mexican Fizz
Chocolate Mexican Fizz
Both of the desserts were excellent, but the salted chocolate stack was particularly sublime. I could not get enough of that cake - the brown butter and salted caramel elevated the chocolatey layers into something much more special. Plus, it is just an impressive looking dessert, stacked high with enough sugary goodness for several people to share.

Cannon & Belle Salted Chocolate Stack
Salted Chocolate Stack. I mean, just look at this slice!
Cannon & Belle Fruit Crisp
Seasonal Fruit Crisp
We had a fabulous time at Cannon + Belle and thoroughly enjoyed our meal. The service was impeccable thanks to our wonderful server, Lindsey, and the space was comfortable and - at least when we were there - it was quiet enough to have a conversation at normal volume, which is a rare find downtown, these days. You can bet I'll be back to try more of the menu at Cannon + Belle - or maybe I'll just have another white pizza and a slice of that cake!

500 E. 4th Street (in the Hilton hotel - note that they validate self-parking in the Hilton garage)
Austin, TX 78701
512-493-4900

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Sunday, March 4, 2018

Best Fine Dining in Austin, 2018





Welcome to the ninth (!!) year that this blog has featured an upscale dining guide! This post is part of the Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide, the best way to find all the outstanding food this fair city has to offer.
To qualify for this fine dining guide, restaurants must be locally-owned and offer at least one entrée that cost more than $25. Because I am so frequently trying to think of a restaurant in a particular part of town, this list is divided according to restaurant location. Hope you enjoy this year's guide!


DOWNTOWN (broadly defined here as spanning from I-35 to MoPac,
and from Ladybird Lake to MLK):

ATX Cocina, 110 San Antonio Street, Austin TX 78701. This newer hotspot from successful restauranteur Larry Foles (father of Philadelphia Eagles Nick Foles, who is a co-owner of this restaurant) bills itself as Modern Mexican. Its kitchen, which is entirely gluten-free, turns out delicious and interesting fare.

Austin Land & Cattle1205 North Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78703. According to their website, ALC is the only independent, family-owned steakhouse in Austin. They've been around for over 20 years, which is quite an accomplishment in Austin's ever-changing restaurant landscape.

Café Josie1200 W. 6th Street, Austin TX 78703 - One of the few establishments left near downtown where you can have a conversation without shouting over a din. I've found the food to be delicious and consistent. If you're dining with extra-hungry people, they offer a $45 all-you-can-eat option (billed as "the experience" at dinner time in addition to their a la carte menu (there is a brunch "experience," as well).

Clark's Oyster Bar1200 W. 6th Street, Austin TX 78703 - The prices here are on the steep side for what you get, but everything I've tried has been excellent, and I am glad for a spot to add to the short list of locally-owned seafood restaurants.

Cippolina1213 West Lynn, Austin, TX 78703 - Charming bistro with a more casual feel.
Every seat is on the front row at Counter 3. Five. VII.

Counter 3. Five. VII.315 Congress, Ste 100, Austin TX 78701 - This all prix-fixe restaurant guarantees you a front row seat to the show of creating your meal.

Driskill Grill604 Brazos, Austin TX 78701 - Fine dining in a beautiful historic hotel. They have their own dry aging room.

El Naranjo85 Rainey Street, Austin TX 78701 - Quite possibly the best interior Mexican food in town.

Emmer & Rye51 Rainey Street, Ste 110, Austin TX 78701 - My first experience at Emmer & Rye could have been better, but the large majority of the people I know who have been really love it, so perhaps we were there on an off day. I'm a giant fan of their sister restaurant, Henbit, so I'm probably overdue for another visit here.

Fixe500 W. 5th Street, Austin TX 78701 - My favorite spot for upscale Southern food, serving amazingly fluffy biscuits and some of the best fried chicken I've ever tasted.

Geraldine's605 Davis Street, Austin TX 78701 - Housed in Austin's first Kimpton hotel property, Geraldine's offers live music every night.

The GroveThree locations: Downtown, 800 W. 6th Street, Austin TX 78701; West - 6317 Bee Caves Rd, Austin TX 78746 and Lakeway - 3001 RR 620, Austin TX 78734 - A solid offering by experienced Austin restauranteur Reed Clemons. Fantastic salads and some of the best calamari in town.

Italic, 123 W. 6th Street, Austin TX 78701 - upscale Italian fare by the ELM Group (which also owns Easy Tiger and Irene's).

Jeffrey's1204 West Lynn, Austin TX 78703 - On the spendy side as far as Austin fine dining goes, but you can enjoy their excellent food for much less during happy hour - 4:30-6:30 Tues-Sun and all night on Monday.

Josephine House1601 Waterston, Austin TX 78703 - A very sweet restaurant in an old house. I'm partial to their Monday night steak frites night.

La Condesa400 W. 2nd Street, Austin TX 78701 - It took me a couple visits to hit my sweet spot here, but now I'm a fan. Flavorful, interesting Mexican fare in a gorgeous and interesting space. The small plates are the star of the show.

Lambert's401 W. 2nd Street, Austin TX 78701 - Not your father's barbecue. Think pork ribs with a fennel-coriander rub, brisket with a brown sugar and coffee rub, and brussels sprouts with bacon and brown butter.

La Traviata314 N. Congress Ave., Austin TX 78701 - Their carbonara will make you cry tears of joy. Blog post dedicated to this thing of beauty here.

Le Politique, 110 San Antonio, Austin TX 78704 - A bright and airy French spot, new to the scene in 2017.

Parkside301 E. 6th Street, Austin TX 78701 - New American fare. If you're dining with someone who wants a more casual meal, send them back to the Parkside's sister restaurant, a pizza joint adjacent to the Parkside and aptly called Backspace (while you eat at Parkside, of course).

Monkfish Sandwich at Olamaie
Olamaie1610 San Antonio St., Austin TX 78701 - another upscale Southern restaurant with phenomenal biscuits (off the menu) and simply gorgeous surroundings (I so coveted their dining chairs that I asked our server to find out where they were from). Word to the wise, though; they will firmly refuse any changes to their recipes (this includes removing ingredients), so study the menu beforehand to make sure it will work for diners with dietary restrictions.




Péché208 W. 4th St., Austin TX 78701 - Absinthe bar that also happens to have excellent food and service.

Ranch 616616 Nueces St., Austin TX 78701 - Quirky...like Austin. I'm partial to the jalapeno-maize trout, but I don't really think you can go wrong here. Strong cocktails and a nice patio round out the deal.

Red Ash Italia303 Colorado #200, Austin TX 78701 - A newer Italian spot that doesn't shy away from bold flavor. Their "hot & crispy Italian bread" appetizer is one of the most garlicky things I've ever eaten (in a good way!).

Swift's Attic315 N. Congress, Austin TX 78701 - Inventive small plates (for example, edamame served with pop rock salt) in a wonderfully steampunkish space.

TRIO98 San Jacinto, Austin TX 78701 - The Four Seasons Hotel is all about exceeding expectations, and its restaurant, TRIO, does just that.

TRACE200 Lavaca St., Austin TX 78701 - In the super-cool W Hotel Austin, which makes it a great choice for a meal before hitting a show at ACL Live,

Wink1014 N. Lamar, Austin TX 78701 - Another great spot offering New American fare with a focus on fresh, locally-sourced ingredients and an emphasis on personal attention. If you're celebrating a special occasion, let them know; they'll print up special celebratory menus just for you.

Winflo Osteria1315 W. 6th Street, Austin TX 78703 - cozy Italian spot with an ample patio. If you get an opportunity, their Listen at Winflo live music series is a lovely experience.

Wu Chow500 W. 5th Street #168, Austin TX 78701 - The restaurant that proved to Austin that Chinese food doesn't have to be eaten in a dive - also, the home of the best soup dumplings in town.


WEST OF DOWNTOWN:

Fabi & Rosi509 Hearn, Austin TX 78703 - Cozy spot in an old house with a European menu.

68 Degrees2401 Lake Austin Blvd., Austin TX 78703 - Co-owned by the owner of one of my favorite Italian restaurants in town, La Traviata. I personally prefer the menu at La Traviata, but 68 Degrees is still very good and a lot more convenient (no fighting for parking downtown).

EAST:

Buenos Aires CaféTwo locations: East - 1201 E. 6th Street, Austin TX 78702; Lakeway - 13500 Galleria Circle, Bee Cave, TX 78738 - Lovely spot serving up - you guessed it! - Argentinian fare. It's all about the chimichurri here, which you should basically slather over everything you order. If you have room for dessert, they've upped the ante with their quatro leches cake. Extra leches is always a win in my book.

Chicon1914 E. 6th Street, Ste C, Austin TX 78702 - From the folks who brought you Contigo, Chicon has a similar "upscale ranch food" feel, with a few surprises like black rice with oyster mushrooms, root vegetables, and saffron aioli.

Dai Due2406 Manor Road, Austin TX 78722 - I struggled with whether to include Dai Due here; after two visits, it has yet to impress, and on one of these visits we suffered through a painfully chewy $90+ steak. This place gets a ton of love from other food writers, though, so I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt.

East Side Cafe2113 Manor Rd, Austin TX 78722 - A glimpse into the good old days when Austin was more hippie-funky, with a large garden on the premises that sources many of their herbs, decorative garnishes, and some of their veggies.

Hillside Farmacy1209 E. 11th Street, Austin TX 78702 - This sweet little place is housed in a building that once was home to a pharmacy, and they've kept many of the accoutrements of the previous occupant intact. Their menu covers everything from raw oysters to shepherd's pie, and they've got you covered for every meal - opening at 9a daily and closing at 10 or 11 at night.

Intero, 2612 E. Cesar Chavez, Austin TX - I've yet to visit this brand new Italian spot, but everything I've heard thus far about it has been positive. Hard to go wrong with a spot that offers both pasta and chocolate.

Jacoby's3235 E. Cesar Chavez, Austin TX 78702 - This family-operated restaurant sources all of its beef from the family's ranch, and there's a really cool little mercantile on the premises so you can get a little shopping fix after your meal.
Seafood Pasta at Juniper

Juniper2400 E. Cesar Chavez, Austin TX 78702 - Our first (and only, so far) meal at this Northern Italian spot was wonderful. The pasta was especially lovely, but there wasn't a single thing we tried that I didn't thoroughly enjoy.

Kyoten4600 Mueller Blvd, Ste 1035, Austin TX 78723 - I'm so disappointed in myself for not having made it here, yet, as Japanese food is one of my favorite genres. At dinner, it is all-omakase, though they have an a la carte menu at lunch time.

Launderette2115 Holly St., Austin TX 78702 - I'm a huge fan of Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki (both formerly of Sway and La Condesa), and their latest venture is one of my favorite spots in town. It's one of the few places where I actually get excited about ordering chicken; their brick chicken is outstanding.

Licha's Cantina1306 E. 6th Street, Austin TX 78702 - I have yet to visit Licha's, but one of the best home cooks I know (who also happens to hail from Mexico) raves about this place.

L'Oca d'Oro1900 Simond Ave., Austin TX 78723 - The kitchen seems to take a while to turn around orders here, but we welcomed 2018 here, and the festive New Year's Eve celebration earned L'Oca d'Oro a recommendation from me.

Monger's Market + Kitchen2401 E. Cesar Chavez, Austin TX 78702 - Before opening Monger's, owner Roberto San Miguel was a longtime fixture at the farmer's markets, offering fresh Gulf coast seafood. The market is now a brick & mortar with a restaurant for those who prefer to have a chef cook their treasures from the sea.

Old Thousand1000 E. 11th Street $150, Austin TX 78702 - a hip Chinese spot with sufficiently traditional flavors to keep most Chinese food purists happy. Don't miss the chongqing chicken or the brisket fried rice (blog post about my first visit here).

Pitchfork Pretty, 2708 E. Cesar Chavez, Austin TX 78702 - This newcomer to the restaurant scene is wowing Austinites with their gorgeous and inventive plates. I've only been to happy hour here, but based on that experience, I'd say it's definitely worth a visit.

Salt & Time1912 E. 7th St., Austin TX 78702 - It's a butcher shop! It's a restaurant! It's both, in one tasty package.

The happiest of happy hours at Salty Sow
Salty Sow1917 Manor Rd., Austin TX 78722 - On the casual end of upscale dining, which is one of the things I like about it. I'm a sucker for their triple fried duck fat fries, the brussel sprout caesar salad, the truffled deviled eggs, the crispy chicken thighs, and the butterscotch boudino. Also, I love the fact that an entire section of their menu is dedicated to "Things in a Jar."

Yuyo, 1900 Manor Road, Austin TX 78722 - Yuyo is a newcomer to the Austin fine dining scene, brought to you by the El Chile group of restaurants. This is my favorite of the bunch, offering Peruvian food, which is hard to come by in Austin.




SOUTH OF THE RIVER (CLOSE TO DOWNTOWN):

Central Standard1603 S. Congress Ave., Austin TX 78704 - Located in the fabulous South Congress hotel, Central Standard offers a varied menu, including one of the 50 greatest burgers in Texas according to Texas Monthly magazine.

Eberly615 S. Lamar, Austin TX 78704 - The emphasis at Eberly is on the atmosphere. It's a beautiful and lively space and the service is attentive. The food feels a little like a pricey afterthought; it's good, but probably won't surprise you.

El Chipiron, 2717 South Lamar, Austin TX 78704 - I've heard mixed reviews on this new Spanish spot and am finally heading there later this week to form my own opinions. Watch this space for an update! I hear the gin & tonics aren't to be missed.

Juliet Ristorante1500 Barton Springs Rd, Austin TX 78704 - Italian fare in a lovely space reminiscent of my parents' home in the 70s (but modernized to be beautiful in this decade). My food experiences here have been a little inconsistent, but it's worth a visit.

June's All Day1722 South Congress Ave., Austin TX 78704 - June's is named after the force of nature that is June Rodil, a fabulous Master Sommelier who has been a light in the Austin wine scene for quite some time. The food is excellent and, of course, the wine list is perfect.

Crispy Wild Boar at Lenoir
Crispy Wild Boar at Lenoir
Lenoir1807 S. 1st St., Austin TX 78704 - Like eating at the home of owners Todd and Jessica Duplechan. The concept is simple: any three courses for $45; extra courses are $10. The food is wonderful and the service is exemplary. Don't miss it (and be sure to make a reservation).

Mattie's, 811 W. Live Oak Street, Austin TX 78704 - This incarnation of the beloved Green Pastures restaurant is simply gorgeous. The milk punch that fueled many Green Pastures brunches is still on their menu.

Odd Duck1201 S. Lamar, Austin TX 78704 - A food trailer that grew up to be a brick & mortar, by the same chef-owner as Barley Swine (below). Full blog post here.

Otoko1603 South Congress, Ave., Austin TX 78704 - Paul Qui is behind this 12-seat, all-omakase experience, though I've yet to hear anyone say they actually saw him behind the counter. Honestly, I was a little disappointed by my only visit here - the food was wonderful and it was one of the most beautiful meals I can ever remember enjoying, but I was hungry shortly after I left, which is kind of a downer at this price point.

Perla's1400 S. Congress Ave., Austin TX 78704 - One of very few locally-owned seafood restaurants in town. One of Perla's best assets is the expansive patio right on South Congress, perfect for people-watching.

Soto, 1100 S. Lamar, Suite 2115, Austin TX 78704 - Soto's Cedar Park location has long been one of my very favorite Austin restaurants. The price point at their new South Lamar location feels a little more aggressive (likely necessitated by the rent here), but you'll find much to be impressed with on the menu.

South Congress Cafe1600 S. Congress Ave., Austin TX 78704 - New American in a casual-yet-upscale setting. They don't take reservations, and there can be a long wait at peak hours.

Sway1417 S. 1st, Austin TX 78704 - Modern Thai dishes that pack a serious flavor punch. Full blog post about it here.

Walu Walu (grilled escolar) at Uchi
Uchi801 S. Lamar, Austin TX 78704 - Sushi/Japanese fusion. It's a scene, and usually requires a wait, but it's worth it. Don't miss the hamachi nabe.

Vespaio1610 S. Congress Ave., Austin TX 78704 - Italian. Its sister restaurant next door, Enoteca Vespaio, also offers delicious food in a more casual atmosphere.

Zax312 Barton Springs Rd, Austin TX 78704 - A bright, laid back spot with a dog-friendly patio that I always enjoy. I have trouble veering away from the shrimp remoulade salad, but whenever I have, it's always been tasty.


NORTH OF DOWNTOWN:

Asti408C E. 43rd St., Austin TX 78751 - Solid Italian fare from experienced restauranteurs Lisa & Emmett Fox.

Barley Swine6555 Burnet Road, Ste 400, Austin TX 78757 - Interesting, innovative fare from a chef with a nose-to-tail philosophy.

Bonhomie, 5350 Burnet Road, Austin TX 78757 - French bistro-inspired food by Uchi alum Phillip Speer. The pomme rosti selection is wonderful.

The Carillon1900 University Ave., Austin TX 78705 - Located in the AT&T Conference Center & Hotel on campus, The Carillon could easily be a buffet restaurant in a large, well-funded university. And, in fact, during the day, it is. But at night, it transforms into a fine dining establishment with very good food.

ChinatownThree locations: North - 3407 Greystone Drive, Austin TX 78731; Downtown - 107 W. 5th Street, Austin, TX 78701; West - 2712 Bee Caves Road, Ste 124, Austin TX 78746 - The OG favorite for upscale Chinese fare.

Fonda San Miguel2330 W. North Loop, Austin TX 78756 - Interior Mexican in a warm, inviting atmosphere.

Foreign & Domestic306 E. 53rd St., Austin TX 78751 - A tiny place with a completely open (and similarly tiny) kitchen surrounded by bar seating so you can watch the action while you swoon over your food. The food here can be a little adventurous (in a good way) - I once tried venison heart tartare here.
Chirashi Bowl at Hanabi

Hanabi9503 Research Blvd, Ste 500, Austin TX 78759 - A lovely neighborhood sushi restaurant with consistently very fresh fish and some of the most earnest service I've ever encountered. I probably eat here more often than any other restaurant. Full blog post about it here. (they also have another location that serves ramen and kushiyaki).

Komê, 5301 Airport Blvd, Austin TX 78751 - One of the few sushi places in town where my non-raw-fish-eating husband gets excited about ordering sushi. Both the raw and the cooked offerings here are excellent - and surprisingly affordable (for sushi).

Musashino2905 San Gabriel, Austin TX 78705 - Consistently fresh sushi with some interesting offerings in the maki (sushi roll) department.

North by NorthwestTwo locations: Northwest - 10010 N. Capital of Texas Hwy, Austin TX 78759; and South - 5701 W. Slaughter Ln, Ste D, Austin TX 78749 - Consistently decent, and they brew their own beer. 'nuff said.

Olive & June - This Italian restaurant from established Austin chef Shawn Cirkiel is a favorite of mine. I love their Sunday dinners, when they offer a very generous multi-course meal for $36 (children 12 and under are free!), A blog post about my first meal at Olive & June can be found here.

Mussels at Texas French Bread
Mussels at Texas French Bread
Texas French Bread2900 Rio Grande, Austin TX 78705 - This little bakery and café offers a wonderful dinner service. It's one of my favorites for a casual but delicious meal. Much of the food is locally sourced, and everything I have tried has been beautifully prepared.

Uchiko4200 N. Lamar Blvd., Austin TX 78756 - The sister restaurant to Uchi. I've heard their food described as more "masculine" while Uchi's is more "feminine" - I guess my taste buds are hermaphrodites, because I love both spots.

Vino Vino4119 Guadalupe Street, Austin TX 78751 - Wine bar that also serves excellent food.


BIT OF A HIKE:

Andiamo Ristorante2521 Rutland Drive, Austin TX 78758 - This out-of-the-way Italian restaurant has a devoted following for a reason. Addictive bread, wonderful pasta, photo art that will make you want to get on the next plane to Italy. Their monthly wine dinners are not to be missed (reservations fill up quickly, so be sure to get on their mailing list!)

Apis23526 Highway 71 West, Spicewood, Texas 78669 - One of my favorite restaurants in Austin. Worth the drive.

Café Malta3421 W. William Cannon Dr., Austin TX 78745 - Tucked away in a strip mall that also contains a tobacco shop and a Taco Bell, Café Malta definitely qualifies as a hidden gem. To my surprise and delight, they make most everything from scratch, from their pastas to their preserves.

Trout Salad at Jack Allen's Kitchen
Jack Allen's KitchenFour locations: North - 3010 W. Anderson Lane, Ste D, Austin TX 78757; South - 7720 Highway 71 West, Austin TX 78735; West- 3600 N Capital of Texas Hwy, Austin, TX 78746;  and Round Rock - 2500 Hoppe Trail, Round Rock, TX 78681 - Jack Allen, the founding chef of Z'Tejas, brings a breath of fresh air to otherwise-barren upscale restaurant landscapes. The flavors here are bright, fresh and innovative. Try the Navajo Taco or the trout salad - both are fantastic.

Soto11066 Pecan Park Blvd, Cedar Park, TX 78613 - Well worth the drive to Cedar Park. If you want to be really wowed by a meal, go find Chef Andy and tell him to surprise you. He will. Full blog post here.

What's your favorite spot to enjoy fancy fare?

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Friday, March 2, 2018

Best Chinese Food in Austin, 2018




My second Guide for the 2018 Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide is about something near and dear to my heart - Chinese food. Eating my mom's awesome Chinese food nearly every day while I was growing up means that I have very high standards when it comes to this category. Austin doesn't offer nearly the quantity or quality of Chinese restaurants as in other cities, but there are still many places here where you can find great Chinese cuisine.

CANTONESE

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Salt & Pepper Squid at Din Ho = "the usual"
If you live in or near Central Austin, Din Ho Chinese BBQ (8557 Research Blvd., Austin, TX 78758) is probably your go-to for Cantonese food. Over the twenty plus years I've been going there, the food and service has varied a bit in quality; even so, I've yet to be unhappy about a meal I've eaten here. Our standard order here always includes salt & pepper squid (called "fresh and dried squid in special salt" on their menu) and sauteed snow pea leaves; other favorites are their flavorful won ton soup, Peking duck (served with steamed buns rather than the traditional pancakes), orange beef, and Singapore style rice noodles.

If you need a spot to host a large banquet or wedding, the very spacious New Fortune Chinese Seafood Restaurant (10901 North Lamar Blvd., Ste A-1, Austin TX 78753) is the place you're seeking. An Asian organization to which I belong usually hosts their Lunar New Year banquet at New Fortune.

Great Cantonese food can also be found at First Chinese BBQ (10901 N. Lamar, Austin, TX 78753) and Ho Ho Chinese BBQ (13000 N. IH-35, Austin, TX 78753). If you find yourself out in Lakeway, I've also had some truly outstanding meals at Pao's Mandarin House (2300 Lohman's Spur, Austin TX 78734). Hot tip: Pao's has a secret menu with some of the more traditional dishes on it that I've found you have to ask for unless your party is predominantly Asian.


SZECHUANESE

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Sichuan Spicy Sizzling Lamb at Sichuan River
When you start talking Szechuanese food, most people are familiar with the popular Asia Cafe (8650 Spicewood Springs, Austin TX 78759), known for their spicy fish. Ditto A+A Sichuan (13376 Research Blvd., Austin TX 78750), a little ways further west of Asia Cafe. But few people seem to have heard of my favorite Szechuanese restaurant, Sichuan River (4534 Westgate Blvd, Austin TX 78745) down south, where the cumin lamb is part of my standard order. I'm also fond of the little-known Szechuan House (11005 Burnet Rd, Austin TX 78758) up north (ignore the terrible Americanized-looking food on their website - this is not representative!). The dry fried green beans, ma po tofu, and spicy fish fillet are all excellent at both Sichuan River and Szechuan House. Szechuan House also has a mushroom dish called "Stir Fried Three Kind (sic) of Mushroom" that I would order pretty much every day if I were a vegetarian. Brand new to the scene since December of 2017 is China Family Restaurant, (1914 Guadalupe, Suite B, Austin TX 78705). At first blush, their menu seems very Americanized, but the Chef Specialties menu lists a variety of Szechuanese favorites, which Yelpers are deeming "legit" and "authentic." Finally, a friend who lives north of town swears by Sichuan Garden (110 N. IH-35, Suite 240, Round Rock, TX) in Round Rock.


UPSCALE

In the last couple of years, hipper, younger restauranteurs have brought more modern versions of Chinese food to Austin. One such hot spot, Wu Chow (500 W. 5th St., Austin TX 78701), from C.K. Chin of Swift's Attic, offers dishes from all eight styles of Chinese cuisine. You pay a premium for the beautiful surroundings and the downtown location, but there are certainly circumstances that justify the extra expense.

Pork rib appetizer at Old Thousand
Another upscale option is Old Thousand (1000 E. 11th Street, #150, Austin TX 78702), with the
slogan "Dope Chinese Food." Their menu offers a little something for everyone, and their flavors will please both traditionalists and those who seek something a little more contemporary. Full review here.

The old guard favorite in this category is Chinatown Restaurant (three locations: North, 3407 Greystone Dr., Austin TX 78731; Downtown, 107 W. 5th St., Austin TX 78701; and Westlake, 2712 Bee Caves Road, Ste 124, Austin TX 78746). The first Chinatown restaurant opened in 1983, which I suspect makes it one of the longest-running restaurants in a dynamic and very competitive Austin restaurant scene. Like the others in this category, Chinatown's food tilts away from the traditional in many respects, but perhaps owner Ronald Cheng's penchant for keeping things fresh is what has kept his regulars coming back all these years. 

NOODLES

Chinese handmade noodles are a beautiful thing. Here are my favorite spots in town to find them.

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Rice Bowl Café (11220 N. Lamar, Austin TX 78753) serves up a GIGANTIC bowl of handmade noodles with beef and veggies for just $9.50; they also have my favorite scallion pancakes in town.

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Chen's Noodle House (8650 Spicewood Springs Rd., Austin TX 78759) and Chen Z (6705 Hwy 290, Austin TX 78735) both offer a variety of wonderful handmade noodle dishes in delightfully divey surroundings.

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Xian Noodles at Xian Sushi & Noodle

Xian Sushi & Noodle (Two locations: Mueller - 1801 E. 51st St., Bldg C 370, Austin TX 78723 and Northwest - 13201 RR 620 N. Ste U208, Austin TX 78717) is the only place in town where you can watch a chef hand pull your noodles before serving them. You can choose the thickness of your noodles; I think the texture of the thicker ones like the pappardelle adds a bit of oomph that makes the noodles taste more homemade.



Julie's Handmade Noodles, 
8557 Research Blvd., Ste. 110, Austin TX 78758 - this longtime fixture near UT campus, formerly housed in a food truck, transformed into a brick & mortar north of 183 this year. Expect generous portions made with love.


DIM SUM

Dim Sum at Wu Chow
Unfortunately, the field for dim sum in Austin is pretty small. For traditional dim sum, my favorite is New Fortune Chinese Seafood Restaurant (10901 North Lamar Blvd., Ste A-1, Austin TX 78753). For a more upscale dim sum experience, check out Wu Chow (500 W. 5th St., Austin TX 78701). They don't have the traditional dim sum push carts, but that just means that everything arrives at your table freshly cooked. They have hands-down the best xiao long bao in town and are obviously using quality ingredients.

Other dim sum spots in town include Shanghai (6718 Middle Fiskville Rd., Austin TX 78752) and Chinatown Restaurant (dim sum only offered at two of their three locations: North, 3407 Greystone Dr., Austin TX 78731 and Westlake, 2712 Bee Caves Road, Ste 124, Austin TX 78746). Full blog post about Chinatown's dim sum can be found hereBao'd Up (1911 Aldrich Street, Austin TX 78723) which opened last year after this guide was written, offers a variety of both sweet and savory Chinese bao at their counter service spot in Mueller.

Did I leave out your favorite spot for Chinese food? Leave a message in the comments!





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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Best Thai Food in Austin, 2018


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It's time again for the Austin Food Blogger Alliance's City Guide (currently links to the 2017 guide; 2018 guide coming soon)! I'm so excited for you all to see the full Guide this year. Our members and especially our Technology Chair, Peter Tsai, have been working hard to put it together, and it's chock full of useful information to please your palate.

I'm writing three guides this year, and the first one I have for you is Thai food. I wrote about my favorite Thai spots on this blog in 2013, and a few more great spots have cropped up since then to help satiate your appe-Thai-te. Here are some of the most notable ones:

Muangthai, 13945 Highway 183 North, Suite C-80, Austin TX 78717.
Few people I've told about this strip mall Thai joint up north near Lakeline Mall have heard of it. Yet, it's one of my favorite Thai places in town, and worth the trip. My very favorite dish here is the Chu Chee (SP4), a fried catfish fillet topped with the most amazing red curry sauce. We usually order the sauce on the side so the fillet stays crispy longer. Also, word to the wise: they are not afraid of heat, here, so we usually request our dishes mild so that the less-heat-loving folks in our group can still eat the food. But if you like it hot, they'll be happy to oblige.

I'll be brutally honest - the service here is frequently overwhelmed and, therefore, often not particularly attentive. The space is nothing fancy. But I've liked all the food I've eaten here, and particularly that fantastic catfish dish.

Muangthai
Please excuse this photo, which I took in 2012. We usually get takeout from here when we go! This is the marvelous Chu Chee (fried catfish fillet served with coconut red curry sauce and lime leaves)


Sip Saam Thai, 6309 West Parmer Lane #505, Austin TX 78729.
I haven't yet made it to Sip Saam Thai, but have heard a number of raves about it from trusted foodies, including one of my favorite foodie 'grammers, @myw13, and my friend and neighbor with whom I'm frequently lucky enough to share food, Jackie of Studio Stence (who took the photo below).  Jackie tells me they are like Muangthai in that they are more than willing to bring the heat if you so desire. I can't wait to check them out!

Sip Saam Thai - photo by Jackie Stence

Madam Mam's / Sap's (multiple locations for both)
I'm sure the owners of these two establishments prefer not to be linked to one another anymore (the competing restaurants are the product of the couple's split - her locations are Madam Mam's; his are Sap's). But it's hard not to link them when they still share a common menu. I'm hard pressed to order anything here other than the Pad Kee Mao (F5)(note that you have to ask for flat rice noodles or you'll get a version made with spaghetti noodles) or what is basically the rice version of the same dish, Pad Ped Ga-Prao (P8). For an appetizer, I love the Thai rice cakes (Kao Tung / A3).

<Sap's
Pad Kee Mao - wide rice noodles stir-fried with your choice of protein (I always get pork), mushrooms, Thai basil, and Thai peppers


Thai Kun, Two locations: 
Brick & mortar at Rock Rose at the Domain, 11601 Rock Rose Ave., Suite 110, Austin TX 78758.
Trailer at Whisler's, 1816 E. 6th Street, Austin TX 78702.
The hottest thing I ever remember attempting to eat was the larb at Thai Kun in the Domain (pictured in the cover photo for this blog post). I seriously wondered if I might need an esophageal transplant afterwards. Luckily, their offerings include more sedate dishes, too, like the crab Thai fried rice or the chive cakes.

Thai Kun
Crab Fried Rice at Thai Kun


Sway, 1417 South 1st Street, Austin TX 78704.
Ah, Sway. Your food is so good that I can almost forgive your terrible tables. I love most every dish I've had at Sway, but my favorites are the son-in-law, the jungle curry, the tiger cry, the kai yaang, and the salt & pepper tofu. For dessert, the Thai tea affogato or the jasmine tea panna cotta. Sway is really a fusion restaurant and purists may lament its inclusion here, but it's so wonderful that I think it deserves a spot in this guide nonetheless.

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The Son-In-Law - braised pork shoulder, crispy farm egg, thick soy, chili vinegar


Dee Dee, 2500 E. 6th Street at Pedernales, Austin TX 78702.
Feeling a little grouchy? Dee Dee's website is sure to cheer you up. And their food will cure your worst bout of hangry. They operate out of a trailer, so either dress for the weather or get something to go, but definitely try them out - it's good stuff.

Dee Dee


This sweet restaurant and coffee bar on West Mary is a favorite of mine for many reasons. I love that they source locally and use humanely-raised meats. I love that the owner, Jam Sanitchat, teaches cooking classes at their store (which I highly recommend), passing on her passion for cooking and her secrets about her favorite Thai ingredients. And most of all, I love the food. Fresh Thai flavor abounds in every dish. And you can cool things down afterwards with a scoop of their housemade vegan ice cream. The ice cream flavors are marvelous (everything from mint chip to ginger lemongrass), and you won't for a second miss the dairy.

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Spicy Basil Fried Rice

Krua, 2024 South Lamar Blvd, Austin TX 78704.
I've experienced some long waits for food and some other service issues here, but on balance, Krua is pretty good as Austin Thai food goes, especially in the south part of town where good Thai spots seem to be a little harder to come by. These mussels swimming in red curry are fantastic; order some rice to go with it, as you won't want to waste a drop of that sauce.

Krua Thai

Titaya's, 5501 North Lamar Blvd, Suite C101, Austin TX 78751.
Titaya's has been around for a really long time, and boasts a solid 4 stars on Yelp with over 1350 reviews. I haven't had a ton of luck there myself, of late, but I'd love to be proven wrong, as it's one of the closest Thai restaurants to my house. If you have a favorite standout dish here that you think I'll like, please let me know!

What are your favorite Thai places in town? I'm Thai-ing to know - please share in the comments!


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