Monday, December 8, 2008

Casa Colombia

The obvious assumption (and one all too easily made) is to consider Latin American cuisine in Austin limited to Mexican food. With a taqueria on every corner and more upscale, gringo-fied places such as Chuy's and El Chile receiving most recommendations, it's a hard assumption to break.

That was my case until I happened to look out my window while driving down E. 7th Street one afternoon and spotted a big yellow sign reading "Casa Colombia." I had already found Habana's Cuban food, but I wasn't counting on any more Latin variety. After all, tacos are good.

But the discovery of Casa Colombia made me forget tacos and even good Cuban sandwiches. I went with my friend Leslie, who spent a several formative childhood years in Colombia. I ordered what she ordered, and I was not disappointed.

For appetizers, we had arepa: fried cornmeal pancakes, served with goat cheese and panela salsa. The pancakes were crispy on the outside, but soft and warm inside. The textural variety, along with combination of tangy goat cheese along with the spicy salsa, was a pleasing starter for the palate.

Leslie insists that Colombian empanadas are much better than the Americanized ones you get around here, and overall, it was probably the best empanada I've had in Austin. The wrap is made with cornmeal also, and the flavorful meat and potatoes are so filling, I was almost too full for my soup.

The ajiaco soup may be the best cure for a bad day. Especially a bad, cold day. It is Colombian comfort food. A creamy soup made from potatoes and served with chicken, it's an excellent take on a traditional dish. Casa Colombia serves it with a small piece of corn-on-the-cob, as well as avocado, rice, and capers on the side. This way, you can add what you want in whatever quantity you like.

We finished off the night with a good cup of coffee, and I left entirely satisfied. However, I also left looking forward to my next visit.

The Basics:
Location: 1614 E. 7th St., one mile east of I-35, near the intersection of 7th and Comal
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed Mondays
Accepts: All major credit cards
Rating: 4 stars
Bottom line: Forget tacos. This is the best empanada in town.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Best Turkey Sandwich in Town

Today, Progress Coffee is celebrating its fourth anniversary, and in honor of four years of solid business and a fiercely loyal customer base, Progress is offering everything on its menu for free. Instead of charging it's regular prices, it's taking donations for some great local non-profits.

Progress is always pulling little stunts like this - offering free coffee here and there, for customer birthdays, local music events, or art shows. It's always trying to be honestly progressive: all the coffee is organic and fair trade, the barristas make a decent hourly salary. I wonder how the place manages to give so much away and stay in business.

Oh wait: it's always packed, and you can't get a sandwich for less than $7.

But, oh, what great sandwiches. In particularly, the 5th Street Turkey. It is the best turkey sandwich in Austin. Possibly the best turkey sandwich ever. Or at least, the best I've ever had.

It's thinly sliced roasted turkey on toasted ciabatta bread, along with cream cheese, spring mix greens, and the cout d'gras - the rosemary habanero jelly. The jelly makes this sandwich rise above the rest through a harmonious mixing of savory, sweet, and spicy. It's so good, I would gladly pay $7 for it, but it was even better to get it for free today.

The Basics
Location: 500 San Marcos St., at the intersection of 5th street and San Marcos, just east of I-35
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday 6:30 a.m. to midnight; Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Accepts: all major credit cards
Rating: 4 stars
Bottom line: Coffee with a conscience, along with a stellar turkey sandwich? I could not ask for more.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Austin Restaurant News: Closure of Stortini

Seeing as I have about five readers, and all of them go to Vox, I can safely guess that you (one of those five readers) probably ate at Stortini for half-priced lunch.

I was sad to learn in the Chronicle last week that Stortini closed November 1, and the owners are focusing on the Red House Lounge. The good news is that the Red House will continue offering Stortini's pizza menu, and the Stortini building will be used for catered events. (So if you're looking for a laid-back Austinish wedding reception site, you know where to go.)

So in honor of Stortini, I leave you with the parting memory of an eggplant parmesan sandwich...

Monday, November 10, 2008

Some Continental Charm for the East Side

While I cringe a little at the state of uber-gentrified East 11th Street, I'd like to highlight its most charming corner cafe, the Blue Dahlia Bistro. Nothing says gentrification like faux-Euro fare, but the Blue Dahlia is quirky, authentic, relatively inexpensive, and surprisingly humble (check Le Mission).

To the stranded francophile's relief, it offers a menu full French-inspired dishes, including cheese plates and open-faced sandwiches. It also offers continental inspirations not of France, like the porcini ravioli with basil pesto and caprese salad (fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and fresh basil). Other seemingly everyday American fare is given a French treatment - the egg salad is served with capers.

It's also a vegetarian's delight, with several exotic meat-free sandwiches (and let's face it - those are a rare find). I've already mentioned the egg salad, and also consider the ricotta with fig, black pepper, and agave. Or the brie with walnuts and apricot preserves. Or the humus with avocado, sprouts, and tomato. Plus, all the salads are served sans-meat.

The Blue Dahlia also tries to offer as much local, organic produce as possible, all the while keeping most entrees under $10. Every sandwich is served on whole wheat bread. It's these little touches, plus the beautiful ambiance created through low-lighting and sturdy wooden tables, that make this place seem right out of Provence.

Lucky for us, it's happily settled in East Austin.

The Basics:
Location: 111se E. 11th St., across from the Victory Grill
Hours: Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Accepts: all major credit cards
Rating: 4 stars
Bottom line: East Austin's the better for it.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Rainy Day Shelter

Tea and rainy days go together like peanut butter and jelly, Jim and Pam, Austin and weird, and when Anslee and I were looking to escape the Seattle-like weather, we stumbled upon Koriente Tea House & Restaurant. I can think of no other place in Austin where I'd want to spend a rainy afternoon than Koriente.

It has a large selection of hot teas, and the friendly, accommodating staff can answer any of your questions regarding flavor, caffeine-content, brewing method, even how the leaves were grown. They offer bubble teas and "art teas" if you're looking for something fun.

Their menu is Korean-inspired with some amusing variations (like chicken bulgogi and three bears porridge). It's all pretty healthy and there are plenty of vegetarian options. For being right behind Beauty Bar, this little hideaway could be much-too-pretentious, but it keeps a sense of humor about things. Cute but kitsch country decor mixes and somehow matches the vintage toys and old vinyl that decorates the place. On any given rainy afternoon, you might be lucky enough to share the place with some old Korean men arguing and some hungry hipsters.

The Basics
Location: 621 E. 7th St, at the Sabine and 7th intersection, small parking lot in the back
Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Saturday 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Accepts: Visa and Mastercard only, $5 minimum
Rating: 4 stars
Bottom line: It feels a bit like Seattle. All the better for Austin.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Damn Good Tacos: Welcome to Torchy's

Hello, culinary world of Austin, Tejas. I am Anslee and I am a foodaholic.

To kickstart my culinary journey on this wonderful blog, I will begin with my most favorite of all restaurants Austin-style: Torchy's Tacos.

Ahhh, Torchy's! That cute, little cartoon devil on the sign alone is comforting to the soul, in a somewhat twisted way. The logo/name of the place is actually a representation of this great city that prides itself on being weird, having pretty incredible TexMex, and being liberally unassociated with Baptists (or anything that isn't as passive as Buddhism). Whatever way you decide to look at it, Torchy's is 100% Austin and 110% awesome.

My favorite location is on South 1st and El Paso. Parking isn't the best situation, but usually one can find adequate room on El Paso or at the seemingly run down business across the street after hours. (Apparently, this place is still in operation. Who knew!) It looks kind of small, and that would be correct, but there is just as much (if not more) seating outside either off the patio or near El Paso Street. On a nice day, sitting outside is mandatory as there are umbrellas and adequate amount of shade.

As far as the food goes, I can honestly say that I cannot live without it. My favorites are the Baja Shrimp Taco with Chipotle Sauce (12 stars for that mess) and the Brush Fire Taco. The Beef Fajita Taco is another one I enjoy because even though it is plain compared to the other options I tastefully select, there's just something awesome about it. Maybe that is because I put the Chipotle Sauce on that, too. Hmmm. . . Anyway, there is a special taco for everyone like the Fried Avocado Taco, the Trailer Park Taco (Try it "Trashy!" You'll love it!), and the Ranch Hand. The names of the tacos trip me out, but be advised that if you take small children with you, they may ask you what the Dirty Sanchez is. Rest assured that in this case you can describe a tasty taco and not something else. Those taco people are naughty! I like it! Also, please note that they serve breakfast tacos. That's just the best of all taco worlds.

Now, there's something else that absolutely cannot go unmentioned - the Green Chili Queso. If this stuff came in bag form, I would attach a needle to it and feed myself intravenously around the clock. It is so good that I'm sure Mother Teresa herself wouldn't share a bowl of it with anyone else. Do yourself a favor and don't skip out on this one. You'll probably want to thank me with your first born child.

As far as the icing on the cupcake goes, why not kick your arteries while they're down and enjoy the Deep-Fried Chocolate Chip Cookies. That's right - deep-fried chocolate chip cookies. This could be a diabetic's dream (and coincidentally, I happen to be so). I wouldn't advise you to get them every time you go to Torchy's, but if it's a special occasion or you have someone to split them with, you should indulge. You only live once, right?

Some other things to note are that it is a BYOB establishment, but there is a Shell station within a block away. There are recycling containers as well. Also, I believe that the patio is dog friendly. The staff is really great, too. I'm on a first name basis with most of the South 1st and El Paso crew as well as the manager of the one on Guadalupe. Mention that I sent you, and you never know what will happen. But don't forget to get a Taco Junkie card. You'll probably fill it up quicker than you think!

Locations: 1311 South 1st St. (trailer), 2809 South 1st St., and 2801 Guadalupe St. (across from Dirty Martin's on the drag)
Hours: M-W 7am to 10pm, Th-F 7am to 11pm, Sat 8am to 11pm, Sun 8am to 10pm
Accepts: All major credit cards, cash, and full frontal nudity (Just kidding! Or am I?)
Rating: 5 stars (I'm biased.)
Bottom Line: I'm seriously going to Torchy's right this second. I'm completely not kidding.

Galaxy Cafe

With three locations, Galaxy Cafe might be the exception to my theory about expanding local restaurant chains. So basically, it's good.

The atmosphere is futuristic-retro, with a flare of the Jestons and sleek modern furniture and shiny chrome-like surfaces. it gives each cafe a fun, laid-back but still classy vibe. It matches the food perfectly.

Wraps, sandwiches and salads make it seem like a pretty typical sandwich shop, but it offers some fun variety. I went to the West Lynn location about six months (when I was still eating meat) and enjoyed a chicken sandwich with bacon and fresh mozzarella. To attempt to make it slightly healthier, I ordered it on a wheat bun.

This time around at the new location at the Triangle, I had the fish wrap (for the record, I occasionally eat seafood - healthy protein). It was one of the best wraps I've ever had. There was plenty of filling, but it didn't spill out. The dressing was on the side, making it significantly less messy. With plenty of breaded fish, cabbage, greens and cheese, it was better than a most chicken wraps I've had.

Other yummy menu options include the sweet potato fries and the strawberry shortcake. The sweet potato fries are nicely cut, so you can taste the sweet potatoes (unlike other restaurants that cut them too thin) and make a nice side to sandwiches and wraps. The shortcake is a decadent follow-up to lunch, and the significant portion ensures that you can share with friends. It's topped with a creamy glaze and has a hint of almond flavor that make it unique among other shortcakes.

My only complaint is that there could be a few more vegetarian options, but it's still has a better selection than similar sandwich places. Lunch prices are decent - you can eat a good meal for under $10 and it's a fun place to hang out with friends on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

The Basics
Locations: 47th at Guadelupe, The Triangle; 1000 West Lynn, between 10th and 11th Streets; 9911 Brodie Lane, Suite 750, northwest corner at Slaughter and Brodie
Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. everyday; breakfast ends at 11:30 a.m. weekdays and 4 p.m. on weekends
Accepts: All major credit cards
Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Bottom line: The perfect weekend lunch hot-spot!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Austin's Italian Oasis

My father is Italian-American. 100%. My grandparents immigrated from Italy after World War II, and my grandfather owned an Italian restaurant for more than 20 years. In college, I spent a few months studying in Florence and furthered my expertise in good Italian cuisine. Top that with living in the greater Philadelphia area for almost two years (South Philly boasts more Italian restaurants than probably all of Texas), and I'm more of an Italian food snob than ever before.

I know my Italian food.

I know what's good and what's not. I know when a meal is fairly priced. I also know anywhere south of Delaware, Italian food is only sub-par and overpriced. I was fully aware that when I moved to Austin, I might not find any good Italian restaurants. I went to Mandola's based on the recommendation of a friend who has impeccable taste.

After my first meal there, I thought, "Good. Now I can live happily in Austin." I had found a good Italian place with fair prices. It was my holy grail. I have yet to visit another Italian restaurant in this city. When I want my Italian fix, I go to Mandola's.

Here's why:
  • The gnochi. My grandmother makes gnochi with a combination of potatoes and ricotta cheese, making her dumplings softer and not as chewy as pure potato gnochi. Mandola's is the only place that has gnochi remotely close to my grandmother's.
  • The fresh bread. Mandola's also has a small Italian market in the front of the restaurant, and they make fresh bread. It's beautiful. Beautiful.
  • The gelato. My friend told me they imported the gelato machine from Italy, so I thought it could be good. It could also be terrible, like most gelato in the U.S. One time, a chef from the kitchen came out to help at the gelato counter due to a long line. I asked him to try the straciatella, and told him I had not had gelato that good outside of Italy. He told me that was because at Mandola's they make their bases fresh daily, and most gelaterias in the U.S. use pre-made bases. Hands down, Mandola's has the best gelato I've ever tried in the U.S.
  • The pizza. Mandola's sticks with the Italian tradition of serving a whole personal pizza, cooked in a stone oven. My favorite is the arugla and prosciutto pizza. First of all, it's huge and it's like a salad on the pizza. The bitter arugala and salty prosciutto balance each other and make a lovely combination on Mandola's fresh pizza crust.
I could keep going on why I love Mandola's and why it's so good. Maybe I'll save it for another blog post. Just know that it's get my Italian stamp of approval.

The Basics
Location: The Triangle, 4700 W. Guadalupe, Suite 12
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Accepts: All major credit cards
Rating: 4 1/2 stars
Bottom line: Trust me. This is the best Austin has to offer.

Titaya's Thai Cuisine

In the last two months, I've become a vegetarian, which has its difficulties and meant some serious sacrifice when I've visited my favorite restaurants around town.

However, one good thing about Southeast Asian cuisine is that there are a lot of vegetarian options, and my experience at Titaya's, my favorite Thai restaurant in Austin, has not suffered because meat is no longer an option.

My favorite dish there is the pineapple fried rice, and it's superb with chicken. It's filled with bell peppers, cashews, cilantro, and the ever-crucial pineapple. Without chicken, it's still a lovely hodge-podge of savory and sweet.

I've also tried the pad thai and green curry with tofu, and both are good sans-meat. Some dishes are better with tofu substitutions than others (I wouldn't order the fried rice with tofu), but overall, Titaya's food has never disappointed me.

It has a quiet, relaxing atmosphere, the walls in earthy reds and yellows, large windows bring natural light, and elephant decor abounds. The servers are all friendly and attentive. I've often gone there in large groups, and the wait staff are always accommodating and successfully manage large tables.

The Basics:
Location: 5501 N. Lamar Blvd., #C101, near Half Price Books
Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. - 3 p.m., 5 p.m. - 10 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday, 12 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Accepts: All major credit cards
Rating: 4 stars
Bottom Line: I can think of nothing negative to say. Try the pineapple fried rice.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Fun Place, Bad Food

I have a theory about local restaurants -- as they expand locations, the quality of the food changes. It usually gets worse. Opal Divine's proves this theory's validity. I'm not sure what allure Opal Divine's has on the city of Austin, but there are three locations across the city. The food is mediocre at best.

But before I launch into Complain Fest 2008, I will first say the downtown location has a fun atmosphere, with a large porch and balcony, covered in string lights and overlooking W. 6th. It also has a large selection of beers on tap and friendly service.

Now to the food. I had the nachos with guacamole. I split them with a friend, which was plenty of food for us, but I thought they were overpriced, especially for the quality (about $11 total). The toppings -- plenty of refried beans, pico de gallo and cheese -- were actually pretty good, but the chips were stale. The guac was a little runny. I've never had runny guacamole before. I didn't think it was possible, but then I ate at Opal Divine's.

Another friend ordered a side sampler because the vegetarian options are lacking. So he got french fries, mashed potatoes and mac and cheese. The fries are probably the best thing on the menu, although a bit too greasy. The mashed potatoes and mac and cheese were only decent. Honestly, both are the kinds of dishes best homemade, but you would expect better from such a restaurant.

Two other friends both ordered fish tacos. They both said they enjoyed their tacos, but needed more food, especially considering the fish tacos cost $9. I guess that's the overall verdict on Opal's Divine -- you just need more for what you're paying. After all you can get a decent burger and fries at so many better, cheaper places.

The Basics:
Location: 700 W. 6th Street, 3601 S. Congress Ave., 12709 Mopac and Parmer Lane
Hours: Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Saturdays 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sundays 10 a.m. to midnight
Accepts: All major credit cards
Rating: 1 1/2 stars
Bottom line: A shame to waste such a great porch

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Sunflower Restaurant

With a name like Sunflower, you might expect some kind of hippie sandwich shop with colorful artwork and coffee drinks named after musicians.

Instead, Sunflower is one of those indistinct Asian restaurants hidden in an ordinary shopping center. Surrounded by other Asian restaurants and grocery stores on Research Boulevard, it's pretty easy to miss. And if you're craving Asian food, why choose this place over any of the others in the same shopping center?

I'm not sure, honestly. Some friends said, "Let's go to Sunflower. It's Vietnamese food." So we went, and once we got there, I realized I had been there before but I didn't remember the name (remember -- indistinct Asian restaurant). But I did remember that the food was good. Really good considering the price. I've only been to a handful of Vietnamese restaurants in Austin, but I'll go ahead and name Sunflower as my favorite.

I can't remember exactly what I had the first time I was there, but I do remember my friend ordering a vegetarian crepe that was pretty good. This time, I had the lemongrass tofu vermicelli bowl, which is pretty white-person thing to order. I could've been more adventurous, but there's always next time, I guess.

It was good, though, and what I love about vermicelli bowls is how full they are, practically running over with noodles and been sprouts and shredded veggies and tofu/meat. They seem bottomless, and I'm always full about half-way through, meaning I have significant leftovers. Two meals in one!

My only complaint is that one of my friends told our server that she had a severe peanut allergy, and her curry was served garnished with peanuts. She told them again she had a peanut allergy, and all they did was scrape off the peanuts. Finally, she got a new plate of peanut-free curry, but it serves as a warning if you have nut allergies.

Otherwise, Sunflower is good cheap food.

The Basics
Location: 8557 Research Boulevard, at the end of the shopping center right of Target
Accepts: Cash and credit cards, but has a $10 minimum on cards
Price: under $10
Rating: 3 stars
Bottom line: Not as indistinct as it looks.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Vegetarian Variety: Mother's Cafe and Garden

Before I moved to Austin, I heard that it boasted more vegetarian restaurants per capita than any other city in the South. That said, in the last year, I've only been to one place with a full vegetarian menu, and that was Veggie Heaven, the hole in the wall across from campus with plenty of cheap veggie-rice-sort-of-curry combos.

Venturing off The Drag and towards Hyde Park, I had the experience of eating at Mother's, which offers a full menu of vegetarian treats and dishes, and guess what? It's not Asian!

It's not that I don't love Asian food. It's just hard to find good vegetarian food that doesn't center around tofu and noodles. (And Veggie Heaven boasts a menu with more than 50 items, but it serves pretty much five dishes with slight variations.) So Mother's is the first vegetarian restaurant in Austin to impress me. That's not to say it's the best vegetarian food I've had, but it's a viable alternative to yet another plate of pad thai.

First of all, Mother's is a beautiful restaurant. Recently renovated, it's very open with huge windows, allowing for plenty of natural light. Colorful local art splashes the walls, and all the furniture is a dark wood. Everything is clean and simple while still pleasing and elegant. Fittingly, it is a good place to take your mother.

It's known for its Spinach Lasagna, but for my first visit, I tried the Mamma's Quiche. On Sundays and Saturdays, Mother's offers a substantial brunch menu, with plenty of omelets and pancakes, but the quiche is on the regular menu all week. It was hearty portion, with a combo of spinach, mushrooms, black olives and green onions, topped with a thick slice of mozzarella and served on a whole wheat crust.

However, as tasty as the quiche was, it was served lukewarm. My guess is that the quiche is made in the morning. Seeing as quiche is served in slices, it makes sense to make it ahead of time, but it should have been heated up sooner to being served.

I tried some of a garden salad with Mother's famous Cashew Tamari dressing (which you can find at Whole Foods and the Wheatsville Coop). Unlike a sweet peanut sauce, this (very) salty dressing has a strong nutty flavor. It's the kind of dressing that adds great flavor, but only small doses. I would recommend it but with the caveat of ordering it on the side.

My other complaint is that many of the portions were almost too small, and some of the dishes probably should come with sides. One friend ordered the Avocado Sandwich, and it was served with two carrot sticks. For such a beautiful place, there just seemed to be something lacking, both in presentation and quality of the food. I'll say, for now, bigger portion sizes would help.

I will add that for American bistro style food, the prices are good. Most of the menu is under $10, and it offers a lot of locally grown vegetables and vegan options. Salads are a good way to supplement the small portions. One large Garden Patch Salad for $5.95 can feed at least four people.

Next time, I'm going to try the Spinach Lasagna, but for now, I say Mother's has a beautiful atmosphere with only somewhat decent food. That said, in comparison with Veggie Heaven, I'm impressed.

The Basics:
Location: 4215 Duvall Avenue, across from Hyde Park Bar and Grill
Hours: Mondays - Fridays 11:15 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Rating: 3 stars
Price: Under $10, more with drinks
Accepts: All major credit cards
Bottom line: Fares well for the frustrated vegetarian looking for variety.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Breakfast Tacos

Outside of Texas, the breakfast taco is an annomally. People think it's strange to eat eggs inside a tortilla. The concept was not so foreign to me when I first to moved to Austin a year ago. My mom would make us breakfast burritos growing up, but I was never a fan because our store-bought tortillas were always dry and the eggs were usually overcooked.

(For the record, my mom's cooking is excellent, the exception being eggs).

So after years of turning down my mom's breakfast burritos, the idea of eggs and tortillas together, well, sort of nauseated me.

But Austinites wore me down, constantly insisting I try them. I had my first breakfast taco in November, and since then, I've been hooked. I've eaten enough to make up for years of bad breakfast burritos. In all my taste tests around town, here are my favorites:

  • Maria's Taco Xpress. Maria rises out of her restaurant's reused rubble like an earth goddess beckoning the people of Austin to her Tex-Mex bounty. Literally. There is a half statue of Maria coming off the roof. I've only ever had egg, potato, and cheese breakfast tacos at Maria's, which are so good I don't want anything else when I'm there. The serving of eggs is hearty, with just enough potato and cheese to keep it balanced. I like to add a little pico de gallo for some spice. Otherwise, it's taco perfection.
  • El Chilito. I refer to El Chilito as the East Side's most glorified taco stand. That's all it it is - a taco stand. It's a bit over-rated, a bit too trendy, honestly. Go there on a Saturday or Sunday morning around 11, and all you'll see are hungover hipsters. No wonder there used to be grafitti across the street that read "Yuppies off the East Side." That aside, the breakfast tacos are good. I can get a full meal for under $4, and I appreciate all the cheese. (Unlike Maria's, El Chilito covers the eggs in cheese and it's always hot and melted.) So, yes, the overall stand is hyped up, but the breakfast tacos are delightful.
  • Juan in a Million. An East Austin staple for the last 25 years, Juan in a Million serves the mother of all breakfast tacos - the Don Juan. It's a pile of eggs, bacon, cheese, and potatoes all mashed up together and served on top of small tortilla. It's too much food for one person and you almost always have to order extra tortillas. The friendly service combined with the low price might just make it the best deal in town.

The Basics
Maria's Taco Xpress
Locations: 2529 S. Lamar Blvd., beside Walgreen's
Hours: Mon. 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Tues. - Fri. 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Sat. 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Sun. 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

El Chilito
Location: 2209 Manor Dr., intersection of Manor and Chestnut
Hours: Mon. - Fri. 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sat. 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sun. 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Juan in a Million
Location: 2300 Ceasar Chavez St., intersection of Ceaser Chavez and Mildred St.
Hours: Every day 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

All take major credit cards and cash

Monday, July 7, 2008

So Happy for Flip Happy

Excuse my absence.

Austin seems to attract the ever-amusing blend of quality high class with ironic kitsch, and nothing seems to embody this more than the gormet air stream trend. This is high quality food served for less because it's made in an air stream or truck or road side stand, and it's all over this city. Take a look at previous posts on Lulu B's and P. Terry's.

Now add Flip Happy Crepes, the gormet French staple served out of a 50's classic, gruyere and all. Flip Happy is notorious in Austin for beating Bobby Flay. Yep, that's right, Iron Chef grill-master Bobby Flay. He asked for it, seeing as he challenged them to a throw down for Episode 1 of Season 3.

Even still, it seems many people are surprised to hear about this local treasure and their Food Network victory. Tucked behind S. Lamar (in walking distance from P. Terry's) it still feels low-key, somewhat hidden. I talk about this place on a regular basis, telling people they must go, must try the savory crepes.

I then go on to tell them about the crepes. The roasted chicken, sauteed mushrooms, gruyere, carmelized onions. It is as wonderful as it sounds. My mouth is watering now as I write about it.

I've also tried the shredded pork with carmelized onions and gruyere (seems we can't get away from gruyere... oh gruyere!) Even the vegetarian options sound full of flavor. I could go meatless for spinach, feta, and roasted garlic. Or for tarragon mushrooms, caremlized onions, gruyere, spinach, tomato, and chives.

The downside to Flip Happy is its limited hours. Typically, it's open Wednesday through Saturday from 10:30 to 2:30. But check their blog to make sure they're open. Also, it's getting busier and busier, so keep in mind that it's not fast. You'll have to wait about 30 minutes.

But it's worth it. Oh yes, worth every mouth-watering bite.

The Basics:
Location: 400 Jessie Street, just behind P. Terry's on S. Lamar
Hours: Wednesday - Friday 10:30 - 2:30 p.m.; Saturday 9:00 - 3:00 p.m.
Accepts: Cash only
Rating: 5 stars
Bottom line: They beat Bobby Flay for a reason.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Clementine's and Thunderbird's

Clementine Coffee Bar and Thunderbird Coffee are two sides of the same coin. Owned by the same people, both offer excellent coffee, quiet yet inviting atmospheres, and good food. Clementine's is east and considered the feminine "sister" store, while Thunderbird is more northwest and plays the masculine, "brother" role.

Here's the breakdown of the two:

Name: Clementine Coffee Bar
Location: Manor Road, across from East Side Cafe

When I think of Clementine Coffee Bar, I think "What's not to like?" An old converted house, it has large windows bringing plenty of natural light. Inside, bright colors contrast with the overwhelming presence of white, while the exterior is a delightful lime green, making it more visible from the road (it would be easy to miss otherwise).

But really, Clementine's is just plain fun, and it goes beyond the decor. The barristas are a hodge-podge of typical Austinites, from shabby-chic hipsters to retro flare throwbacks. They create a laid-back atmosphere, friendly without ever being annoying.

My one complaint is that seating and parking are rather limited, and it gets a lot of UT traffic. During peak afternoon hours, it's difficult to find a table, especially one with a coveted outlet.

However, even if you can't find a seat, at least get a drink to-go. The coffee is excellent, all of it fair trade along with several organic blends. Lunch offerings are decent, from make-your-own bagels to excellent grilled paninis. But I usually go for the coffee - it's become one of my favorite cups in town. I've never been disappointed with a drink there.

Prices are fair, and they offer a frequent buyer's card, so after buying nine coffee drinks, you get one on the house.

I love Clementine's for the overall atmosphere, but as it goes with coffee shops, the coffee is the true test of a place's worth. Clementine's, by far, passes.

Name: Thunderbird Coffee
Location: Intersection of Koenig Lane and Woodrow Avenue

While Clementine's is bright and fun, Thunderbird is a bit toned down. The service is still great, and the coffee is the same excellent quality.

While the food is similar, Thunderbird has larger selection of sandwiches, all named for streets in the neighborhood. My favorite is the Arroyo Seco, a spicy chicken panini with a Tex-Mex sauce with a little bite. Le Raymond, turkey with brie and pesto, is also a favorite.

Thunderbird's has a large porch with plenty of shade and seating, making a great hangout on warm days. Inside, the walls are light blue, along with the high ceiling, gives the place a very open and inviting atmosphere.

It is easier to find seating than Clementine's, but parking is also limited. Weekends are usually the busiest days, as it gets a crowd of young professionals rather than students.

Drink prices are the same as Clementine's, and the food cost is comparable. It also offers a frequent buyer's card, giving incentive to come back again and again for the excellent coffee and quiet, laid-back vibe.

Price: drinks - under $5; food - under $10; free wi-fi
Rating: 4 stars
Bottom line: Sibling coffee shops offer some Austin's best coffee with great atmospheres. And you gotta love any place with a frequent buyer's card.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Central Market

In the past two weeks, I've eaten twice at Central Market on N. Lamar. It's an interesting experience - chill porch, live music, wine bar, upscale American bistro food. Yet, it's a grocery store.

Granted, this is Austin, headquarters of Whole Foods, which is more an experience than a grocery store with plenty of outdoor and indoor seating, lots of gormet ready-made food options and a bar for everything from juice to gelato.

As one of the area's few rivals to Whole Foods, it makes sense for Central Market to offer something of a dining experience. I'm just not so sure the food rivals Whole Foods. So far, I've tried the apricot chicken salad sandwich and the Mediterranean salad. Both a very fresh with large portions, although a little overpriced.

The chicken salad was the better meal. It wasn't overpowered by mayonnaise, and the apricots created a nice savory-sweet balance. Served on a croissant, it's pretty hearty for a chicken salad sandwich. I opted to go with the french fries as a side, although if you want healthy, you can order fresh fruit. The fries are crunchy on the outside, but still have a soft potato inside and not too greasy.

The Mediterranean salad is huge, filled with kalamata olives, feta cheese, and other Greek/Mediterranean staples. However, you can find a salad just like it at almost any decent American cafe, and I could've eaten a salad half the size for half the price. (It's $10 when you add grilled chicken.)

Overall, Central Market is a nice lunch spot if you have a large group, but it's easier on your wallet to buy ready-made food from the store rather than the cafe. If I had to choose a laid back place for sandwiches and salads, I'd honestly pick somewhere else.

Locations: 4001 N. Lamar and Westgate, 4477 S. Lamar

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Note on Habana

I have talked to a few people about Habana over the last few days, and two told me about their experiences of receiving bad service there. I've also read several comments on city search websites that include user reviews of restaurants, and many of the comments on Habana told similar stories of negative customer service experiences.

It was not busy when I ate there, and my friend and I had simple orders. There was not much room for error. Our server wasn't all that talkative, but she was attentive enough to make sure we had drink refills. She deserved her $3 tip.

However, I felt inclined to mention the restaurant's reputation for bad service. It's a laid-back place, but instead of translating into a chill island-themed feel, it's coming through in mistreatment of those paying the bill. This is Austin, not Europe. Servers need to be honest and timely, and when someone asks to speak to a manager, they should always speak to a manager.

My experience warranted four stars, but I'd say based on what I've heard, it's not always the typical Habana experience. You are now warned.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A taste of Cuba in Austin

A good Cuban sandwich should have plenty of roasted pork, a slice of ham, swiss cheese, and the ever crucial mustard and pickles. It's best when pressed and grilled so the cheese melts.

It's not too complicated, but it takes some place definitively Caribbean to get it right. Habana, Austin's best Cuban restaurant, definitely gets it right, from the laid-back island feel to the, yes, near perfect sandwiches.

It's menu also has a wide range of dinner entres, salads and appetizers, and even includes some vegetarian options which may be the one difference between this restaurant and the Cuban capital, where, I suspect, people always eat meat. While I appreciate vegetarian food, there is no way I could turn down that roasted pork. Think of a typical pulled pork barbeque sandwich, strip the sauce, and add some island flavors, and that's what fills Habana's sandwiches.

My test of good Caribbean food is always the tostones - plantains, fried, then smashed, then fried again. Good ones have a crispy crust but soft inside and retain some of that unique plantain flavor. They shouldn't taste like a bad version of a french fry. Habana gets these right, too. Nice and crispy, but not too oily or salty, they make a delightful side to the Cuban.

Habana also boasts a great Happy Hour menu with two-for-one deals on its best sandwiches, $2 beers and $3 mojitos, magarhitas, and martinis. On a warm, sunny day, while sitting at one of the outdoor tables under a thatched roof, you might just forget you're on South Congress and think you're in the islands.

The Basics:
Locations: 709 E. 6th Street and 2728 S. Congress Ave.
Price: $10-$20
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Accepts: All major credit cards
Rating: 4 stars
Bottom Line: When you're fed up with Mexican and crave Latin flavor, Habana is the perfect remedy.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

P. Terry's

On a typical Saturday night, most of the restaurants on Barton Springs, especially those just west of Lamar, are packed. So typical that I wouldn't expect to see people sitting at a fast food drive-thru on South Lama, not with so many good restaurants nearby. I would think...

But it's a different story for P. Terry's on South Lamar than it is for all the box chains down the street. It's atypical fast food. The burgers and fries and even the drive-thru are all there, but the stakes are raised by quality, fresh (and gasp!) healthy ingredients.

Veggies burgers, whole wheat buns and organic produce all fit into the menu. It might be hard to justify eating french fries, but if I'm going to clog my arteries, I'm doing it at a local place. And this little burger joint definitely helps keep it weird and local, even with the golden arches across the street.

Particularly, the chicken burger is interesting (and tasty) because unlike a normal chicken sandwich, P. Terry's chicken burger is a patty of ground chicken. So yes, it's chicken but it's also a burger. Order it on a whole wheat bun and without the mayo and suddenly those french fries are justifiable. (Barely...)

What's also great is that the prices aren't inflated by the quality food. You can get a combo meal for under $6, making it competitive with fast food places (with much less grease).

It has plenty outdoor seating, a fun 50s inspired feel, and kid-friendly fare including a sandbox. Couple that with the oldies playing on the loud speaker, and I'd say it's a great way to spend a Saturday evening in Austin.

The Basics
Location: 404 S. Lamar Blvd., near the corner of Lamar and Barton Springs
Price: Under $10
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily
Accepts: Visa, Mastercard, cash
Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Bottom line: Fast food without the guilt

Friday, April 18, 2008

Lulu B's

Name: Lulu B's
Location: 2113 S. Lamar Blvd., next to Office Depot
Type: Vietnamese
Accepts: Cash only

After three months of business and a spotlight in the Chronicle, Lulu B's has become a lunch hotspot for South Austinites craving Vietnamese food. Despite being situated in a small trailer that's easy to miss from the road, it's become well-known for its Vietnamese sandwiches.

To be entirely honest, I had never tried a Vietnamese sandwich before going to Lulu's. (Blame my lack of knowledge on Southeast Asian cuisine - I'm still a novice.) So I can't fairly judge my sandwich as "the best" I've had, seeing as its the only one I've had. However - the line up to the truck says enough.

I had the Lemongrass Chicken sandwich, which has delicate yet spicy flavors. The meat is well marinated and grilled just right, and its topped with a traditional Vietnamese salad of fresh vegetables (including chiles, so if you don't like spicy, watch out). The bread is fresh and, noteworthy for a baguette, easy to chew.

The summer rolls make a nice side, though not as excellent or noteworthy as the sandwiches. I heard other customers in line mention the quality of the vermicelli bowls. That's on my list of what to try next, if I can go without a sandwich.

Lulu B's also offers a variety of fruit smoothies and bubble tea. I enjoyed their Vietnamese coffee, which is sweetened with condensed milk.

Service is good, although avoid lunch hours due to lines and back-up. It's open from 11:30 to 6:00 on Tuesday through Saturday. The trailer currently operates under a huge tree, giving the yard and seating area a sufficient amount shade.

Overall, Lulu B's small menu offers enough Asian fusion flavor for South Lamar. With affordable prices, pleasant outside seating, and quick service, it's a treat.

Price: Under $10
Rating: 4 stars
Bottom line: Great fix for South Austin's lack of Vietnamese sandwiches