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.