|Friday, December 6th, 2013|
12:02 am - London and Ireland Trip, September 21: Arrive in London
This autumn, we took our first international vacation. We spent most of a week in England, then two weeks in Ireland.|
If I write this tripup at my typical plodding pace, I may still be writing at Easter. And yet it is worth writing about. So I’m going to try a change; I’m going to try to write only as much as I have stories to tell. This means that I’m going to aggressively gloss over the mediocre and undistinguished places and not describe the nondescript dishes. We’ll see if that makes this go any faster.
If this trip were the sort of literature to have themes, there are a couple of themes that stand out to me:
- One theme was a very self-conscious adolescent sampling of different roles and travel styles, as we try to figure out what we like in international travel.
This came out even more in our pre-trip planning. We considered taking a bus tour, and we considered hiring a private guide, and we considered various combinations of those options. But we were dissuaded from a bus tour, and a private guide turned out to be too expensive for comfort. So we ended up a tour much like we would have had in the USA, with the two of us traveling by ourselves by walking, public transit, or car as the occasion warranted.
- The other theme was a perennial musing about whether we were seeing things meant for tourists or for locals. My first impulse would be to say that I prefer things meant for locals, but there are reasons to prefer tourist things as well - tourist-focused experiences are often better curated and better explained. But wherever we went, I found myself conscious of the question of who the audience was.
Friday, September 20
Our trip to London started with a connecting flight to Toronto on a small prop plane, followed by an extremely long walk through the Toronto airport to our next gate.
We ate dinner at Casey’s Grill and Bar in the Toronto airport, and it was delicious - one of the best airport meals I’ve ever had.
Lori got a club sandwich with poutine - this poutine was much better than the poutine I’ve had in the US.
I had the Singapore Street Noodles - not particularly Canadian, but very tasty.
On the flight to London, an Indian gentleman asked us to exchange seats to let his wife sit with him. We agreed, although it split us apart. I managed to sleep on the plane, but Lori did not; she reported that the Indian gentleman stood for the whole duration of the flight to let his wife sleep across both their seats.
After a long wait through customs and baggage claim, we stopped in a coffee shop in Heathrow to regroup. We had our first English tea and scone - not distinguished, but it establishes a baseline that yes, tea and scones are something that real people do. (And the individual jar of preserves is much more classy than I usually find in the USA.
I thought that we could get to our hotel by mass transit, but things did not go as well as I had hoped. Google Maps gave us a route involving three trains, but neglected to mention that the the last leg was on the Docklands Light Rail, and the DLR was not running this weekend because of maintenance. There was supposedly a bus covering that route, but we failed to find it. And our attempts to hail a taxi didn’t work. And the SiM I had bought in the airport wasn’t giving me cellular data for some reason. So we started wandering in search of a taxi stand and some food.
This is one of the first pictures we took in London. I don’t recall what square it was, but it actually captures London pretty well with the juxtaposition of Victorian monuments with sleek glass skyscrapers.
A loriner is a person who makes hardware for harnesses and riding habits, as bits and spurs. (We did not know that when we saw this sign.)
We followed the sound of church bells out of idle curiosity, and discovered that the bells were those of St. Mary-le-Bow, whose particular fame is that to be a Cockney, one must be born within earshot of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow. In fact, a wedding had just concluded, and we got to see an example of British wedding fashion, including several fancy hats.
We stopped in Costa (a chain of coffeeshops - fairly similar to Starbucks) in hopes of getting some lunch and some use of their advertised free WiFi. Unfortunately, the WiFi required a UK postal code to register, and I did not know any UK postcodes offhand. So we were thwarted. But we got to eat a couple of sandwiches. And we got to eat something new to us: a sticky toffee pudding muffin. In addition to the toffee on top, the muffin had a thick vein of caramel running through the center.
Lori had managed to pick up a blister already, so we got a cab to our London lodgings, the Cable Street Inn in the East End. This was a very nice boutique hotel above a former pub. We stayed there for six nights, and found it very pleasant. The proprietor, Julian, had a day job as a documentary filmmaker, but he was very helpful and we had several very pleasant conversations with him. He told us that the building itself dated to about 1750, but the windows were newer work, done in the 1850s. (It makes us blink - in the US, buildings that old are few and far between.)
From the inn’s terrace, he showed us a couple of sites that we would not have identified on our own:
This mural commemorates the Battle of Cable Street. When the British Fascists wanted to march through this predominantly Jewish neighborhood, tens of thousands of people came out in force to resist their march and the police who were enabling their march.
Julian also pointed out St. George in the East Church, whose roof was destroyed by a bomb in World War II. He said that the roof had never been rebuilt, and while that is technically true, it led me to a wrong conclusion that the church was no longer used. According to Wikipedia, a new modern church was built within the old church walls, and it is still in active use.
It was now early evening; getting to the Inn had taken most of the afternoon. We didn’t feel that we had done anything really touristy yet. we aimed for a walking tour of pubs, but though we could figure out (with Julian’s advice) how to get there through the Underground even with the DLR not running, we made enough wrong turns that it wasn’t clear we would be in time. So we decided on an evening bus tour, See London by Night.
We asked the tour operator for a recommendation for a restaurant where we could get a bite in time for the tour. He recommended a pub called Henry’s across the street. We weren’t sure that Henry’s was right for us, because there was a crowd of very flashily dressed people in front; we thought there would be a wait to get in and we would be underdressed if we did make it in. But the crowd was only outside; there were plenty of tables and most inside were casually dressed. I don’t know what the fancy crowd outside was doing.
Lori ordered a hard cider, and we got a bit of a culture mismatch: the waitress asked us (in a Scandinavian accent) “What is ‘hard’?” We had to explain that the American default for “cider” was non-alcoholic.
My steak and ale pie was delicious. Most pies that we encountered in England and Ireland looked like this, with a crust thick enough to maintain its shape even when soaked by gravy.
Lori’s sausages and mash was also very good - among the better sausages we had on this trip.
The See London by Night tour was pretty good, and did give us at least a cursory introduction to the city. My notes say that the tour guide’s jokes were "worn smooth like river stones” from long repetition.
Houses of Parliament
The London Eye (the spire in front has some very high swings)
The Thames, with lights on the river
St. Paul’s Cathedral
The Tower of London
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|Wednesday, August 28th, 2013|
11:21 pm - Bluebonnets, Bats, and Barbecue: April 17, 2013: Wednesday
On Wednesday, we had time for one spot before our return to the airport. We went for breakfast to Magnolia Cafe, which Adam had spoken well of. Their signage reflects a conscious Austin quirkiness: the sign at the street says “Sorry We’re Open”, and a sign on the wall points out that they are open 24/8.|
The interior continues that theme with chaotic decor that reminds me of the late Lynn’s Paradise Cafe, in a smaller space with more art on the walls.
The piece de resistance is the brightly painted pterodactyl wearing a top hat.
My migas came out looking pretty, but these were my least favorite migas of the trip. The tortillas in the migas were very soft and provided no textural contrast, and the mushrooms and jalapeños didn’t add much to the dish.
Lori’s strawberry pancakes came out big and thick, but only of good-but-not-special quality.
We went to the airport and successfully left Austin. Some trip reports might not consider such things noteworthy.
In the Dallas airport, we saw a Salt Lick food stand. We had passed up eating at Salt Lick while we were in Austin, but Chris had texted us that they had eaten at Salt Lick in the Austin airport. he had said that it was of the same quality as Dickey’s, which is damning with faint parse. But almost all airport food is mediocre, and I like barbecue, so mediocre airport barbecue is as appealing as any other restaurant option. And eating there would let me add another place to my list of Roadfood restaurants, albeit with a very big asterisk. So we had lunch at Salt Lick.
It was bad. It was much worse than I expect Dickey’s to be. (Though in fairness, we ate at Dickey’s in DFW in July, and that was bad too.) Both meats came in a sandwich that was so sodden with sauce that it could not be eaten neatly. The sausage was bland and the brisket was gristly. We had hoped to it would be one last farewell to Texas, but instead it was just a reminder of the pleasures of returning home.
After four and a half months, my Austin trip report is over. I probably won’t write another report until we return from our next trip in October.
Hits of the trip:
Collin Creek Bakery
The Broken Spoke
Micklethwait Craft Meats
Royer’s Round Top Cafe
The Austin Lounge Lizards at the Bugle Boy
The banana pudding at the Driskill Hotel
Texas Pie Company
Louie Mueller Barbecue
Amy’s Ice Cream
Plus a special extra raspberry for American Airlines.
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12:04 am - Bluebonnets, Bats, and Barbecue: April 16, 2013: Shady Grove
We had arrived at the airport around 2; by the time we had a voucher for a hotel room and left, it was nearly 6. We went to the hotel room (adequate but a little dingy) and collapsed on the bed for an hour or two. I massaged Lori’s legs, but wasn’t able to wholly banish the ache of standing in line for hours.|
But at last we revived enough to consider seeking food. But we had little oomph for deciding, and of course we no longer had any plan to follow. But we called Adam in hopes of another chance of his company. It took us a while to come to a conclusion, but when I mentioned Shady Grove, Adam said it was a great evening for Shady Grove.
Shady Grove is listed on the Roadfood site, but I hadn’t tried hard to include it, because the review seemed halfhearted. And I thought that we were so aggravated that we wouldn’t be able to really enjoy any restaurant. But our experience at Shady Grove was simply idyllic.
I think that we came at the perfect time to enjoy Shady Grove - both the perfect time of day and the perfect time of year. It had been hot during the day, but because this was April, it did cool down in the evening. So the weather had the balmy languor of a warm evening that feels cool by contrast.
And they were showing The Princess Bride, with subtitles.
I ordered the chicken fried chicken, with sides of black-eyed peas and green chile rice.
The difference between fried chicken and fried chicken can only be explained in the context of chicken fried steak. Chicken fried steak is notionally beef fried in the manner of fried chicken - but the recipe has taken on an identity of its own. So chicken fried chicken is chicken fried in the manner of chicken fried steak, usually as a boneless chicken breast batter-fried and served with cream gravy. I don’t know what it would be called if you fried steak in the manner of chicken fried chicken. The chicken fried chicken was extraordinary, tender and crisp and succulent - it was head and shoulders above the chicken fried steaks we had had at Threadgill’s and Hoover’s.
The sides were both very good as well. The green chile rice had a strong capsaicin kick.
Lori ordered the country fried chicken salad and found it yummy. She noticed that the menu description said it came with fried green chiles, so she ordered them on the side because she has hardly any tolerance for chile heat. I’d expected that the fried chiles would be crouton-sized hunks or slices, suitable for eating in a bite as part of a salad. But these came in foot-long spears with little heat - they would make a great appetizer.
The menu says “Ask about our amazing desserts… they are deliciously homemade!” and in such matters we are nothing if not biddable. We ordered three desserts and shared them all.
The peach cobbler was the best cobbler of our visit. It had a crunchy, streusel-like topping.
Chocolate icebox pie was certainly, but to my fatigued palate, it tasted little different from a more common French silk pie.
Peanut butter cheesecake touches on one of my own food prejudices, but Lori and Adam enjoyed it.
Our evening at The Shady Grove delighted us far beyond my expectations. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it entirely compensated for the airline frustration, but it was certainly a brilliant silver lining.
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|Thursday, August 22nd, 2013|
11:22 pm - Bluebonnets, Bats, and Barbecue: April 16, 2013: Airport Woes
When we went to turn in the rental car, the Hertz guy said, "Are you flying American?" When we said yes, he told us that all American flights were canceled due to a computer glitch, and suggested that we not turn in the car until we had verified that our flight would leave. (Chris and Amy had the good luck not to be flying American, and they got to leave on schedule.)|
I waited with the car while Lori went to talk with the American desk. She quickly confirmed that our flight was canceled. She was given an 800 number to call to reschedule the flight, but getting American to get us a hotel for the night would require waiting in a line as long as the line for Franklin Barbecue.
I still don't know whether we did the right thing that afternoon. We could have afforded a hotel on our own, and gone off to do one of the things that we hadn't managed to squeeze into our itinerary. And in fact we were conscious at the time that this was an option.
But: I was so furious about American screwing this up that I could not (and still cannot) imagine being happy with something else that afternoon. I would have felt like a sucker. So, if the real choices are between waiting in line for hours of frustration or grinding my teeth at being taken for a sucker... well, it's no easy choice, but waiting in line is at least cheaper by the cost of a hotel room.
And so Lori waited in line until her legs hurt, and I waited in the cell phone lot without running the air conditioning, trapped there by my own fury and frustration and knowing that was what was trapping us there.
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10:18 pm - Bluebonnets, Bats, and Barbecue: April 16, 2013: Nau's Enfield Drug
12:21 am - Bluebonnets, Bats, and Barbecue: April 16, 2013: Franklin Barbecue and Louie Mueller Barbecue
On the way south to pick up Lori, we dropped off Amy to stand in line at Franklin Barbecue, one of the most lauded barbecue places in Texas. When we returned with Amy, she told us that the wait was two and a half hours. I was surprised; I’d exchanged email with the staff of Franklin Barbecue, and they’d said that the wait wasn’t nearly as bad on a Tuesday as on the weekend. (Since we were there, Franklin Barbecue has been named as “Best Barbecue in Texas” by Texas Monthly, and I believe the wait has gotten much longer.)|
Amy magnanimously offered to wait in line at Franklin while we went to visit Louie Mueller Barbecue, on one condition: we were to rent her one of the lawn chairs from the guy across the street from Franklin. It was a fair requirement, so we left her with the chair and the leftover donuts and headed up again to Taylor.
I hadn’t managed to arrange a meeting with Wayne Mueller at Louie Mueller, but we got lucky: as we walked across the parking lot, he was just walking to his car. He recognized us, and we had a pleasant chat for a few minutes. We got to commiserate over the fire that had consumed their smokers.
Louie Mueller’s really looks the part of an old Texas barbecue joint. The walls are bare brick, blackened from years of smoke, decorated with barbecue awards. The tables are mismatched picnic benches and school tables, and they do not look like they were carefully chosen for artistic effect.
A corkboard on one wall shows geologic strata of business cards progressively dyed by smoke. I don’t know whether it takes a month or a year or more to turn a white business card brown, but the effect was one of palpable age, like being at a family reunion and seeing children’s faces echoing those of their grandparents.
A panoramic picture of the interior: http://www.flickr.com/photos/48435163@N04/9165560079/in/set-72157633279611298/
We rejoined Amy at a park in east Austin, each bearing our packages of meat to share.
The barbecue from Franklin Barbecue was exceptionally… well, I would try to make it sound better with a word like ‘moist’ or ‘unctuous’, but the real word for it is greasy. (But in a good way!) The grease soaked through the pink butcher paper in a way that no other barbecue on this trip had done, and it left a sheen of grease on the picnic table.
My picture of the brisket makes it look like sort of a mess. But it tasted and smelled great.
So here’s the sixty-four dollar question: is this barbecue so outstanding that it is worth waiting in line for hours? My expectation going in was that I would not find it so outstanding - I don’t have a very subtle or discriminating palate, and I had found all the barbecue on this trip delicious. But I allowed a chance that I would really find Franklin Barbecue qualitatively better. But the reality didn’t quite fit into either of those buckets. Here’s what I remember:
- Franklin’s brisket was qualitatively different, and that is noteworthy. I would have a very hard time distinguishing the briskets from the other five places we ate, but I think that I could single out Franklin’s in a blind taste test. The difference was this: all the briskets had a surge of flavor when first tasted, but Franklin’s brisket released a second wave of flavor after a second or two of chewing.
- the brisket was tender and moist and had a very rich, complex flavor.
- As well as being very greasy, Franklin’s was very peppery, and peppery in the same way that it was oily; fat peppercorn fragments clung to my fingers in defiance of napkins. (The stack of napkins we had with us seemed like more than enough before we started eating, but turned out to be wholly inadequate. I have fewer pictures than I might otherwise have had, because once we started eating, every picture required a struggle to clean the worst of the oil and pepper off my fingers.)
In this picture of bark from Franklin Barbecue, ogle how dark the smoke ring is and how peppery the crust is.
It certainly is great barbecue, but I have little patience for waiting for hours in hot shadeless sun. I think that with lines like Franklin’s, I could be just as happy going to Micklethwait a few blocks away.
We then turned our attention to the brisket from Louie Mueller. Wayne might say that the smokers still needed a few decades of seasoning, but this was just as delectable as what we remembered from the Roadfood festival. It’s so close to the center of good Texas barbecue that it’s hard to find really distinctive qualities to describe, but we couldn’t identify a clear winner between the two meats on the table.
(I think this is the brisket from Louie Mueller, but I’m not quite sure. Ordinarily, I would check this by checking the timestamps on the photos or the GPS tags - but we ate the meat from Louie Mueller at the same time and in the same place as that from Franklin. My clue here is that Franklin’s served on pink paper, but this is on a bed of white paper.)
We sampled normal and chipotle sausages from Louie Mueller, and both were smoky and intensely flavored.
Amy had brought a bourbon banana tart sold at Franklin’s, but it paled compared to the glory of the meat.
The peach cobbler we had brought from Louie Mueller was similarly ordinary, with a texture more like a bread pudding than like the biscuit-topped cobbler I love.
This was the last great meal of our Austin plans, and it certainly was a glorious finale.
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|Wednesday, August 14th, 2013|
12:08 am - Bluebonnets, Bats, and Barbecue: April 16, 2013: Round Rock Donuts
We had meant to be packed up and ready to go for Tuesday, our last day with Chris and Amy. But we had always found things to do that were more pleasant and more interesting than packing up. So Tuesday morning came with a bit of a scramble, and we weren’t quite all ready. So in a tradeoff, we left Lori to finish packing while we went to get donuts, with a promise to return with donuts to her.|
Our destination was another Roadfood-listed donut shop: Round Rock Donuts.
It’s rare for me to be be really impressed one way or another by a donut, and these donuts were no exception. We bought a variety, but we ended up giving most of them away. The most distinctive quality of these donuts was the glaze, which had a distinct yellow tinge (though I didn’t notice a distinctive taste).
We bought one token kolache, because we had missed two previous plans for Austin-area kolaches. I sample kolaches everywhere I find them, but I haven’t yet found a kolache I’ve really loved. Even so, I don’t think this was among the better kolaches I’ve had.
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|Saturday, August 10th, 2013|
2:53 pm - Bluebonnets, Bats, and Barbecue: April 15, 2013: Vivo and Donn's Depot
Our dinner plans for Monday were something of a loose thread in my plans. I had originally planned that we would eat dinner at Micklethwait Craft Meats. But I had checked their hours and discovered that they had shifted from evening hours to lunch hours. So I had rescheduled them for Saturday's lunch, but never filled the hole in Monday evening.|
We realized that we'd given somewhat short shrift to the Mexican side of Austin's offerings; all we had eaten with Chris and Amy was a breakfast taco and the migas at Threadgill's buffet. So we called Adam for Tex-Mex suggestions, and he suggested Vivo, with a particular recommendation to check out the restrooms.
I commented on the drive over that I have trouble knowing what to order at Mexican restaurants. I did most of my Tex-Mex eating as a child, where I almost always got tacos. Pittsburgh has been devoid of good Mexican restaurants until the past few years, and Lori tends to be wary of spice, so I haven't eaten a lot of Tex-Mex food as an adult.
Chris offered to order for the group, and pointed out that his mother was Mexican, and he had often visited relatives in San Antonio.
This made me realize that I had taken a very proprietary attitude toward this trip, as if I this was particularly my state that I was showing off - and that attitude was hardly justified in Austin because I had grown up two hundred miles away. I tried to double-check all the things I'd said on this trip to to check whether I had crossed the line from proprietary to patronizing. I didn't identify any examples, and I dearly hope there were none.
Our outdoor table was very sharply lit, such that the table was in an island of light but it was hard to see the other people at the table.
The salsa was very good, but the chips were even better; they tasted like they were straight from the fryer.
The trio of dips we had ordered as an appetizer (queso, bean dip, guacamole) were each very tasty.
I confess that the enchilada has passed out of my memory, as has the chalupa and the puffy taco plate:
We ordered the chicken quesadilla out of consideration for Lori’s spice tolerance. But I think this was the star of the entrees; it had a really sumptuous flavor. I’ll admit, though, that it probably doesn’t need the drama of the sharp shadows, like a brooding Batman posing as a quesadilla.
For dessert, we had a plate of sopaipillas that may have interbred with beignets.
The other particularly noteworthy thing about Vivo ws the exaggerated sexual dimorphism of the restrooms. (Adam had recommended that we be sure to see the restrooms.) The walls of the mens’ room were coveredwith graffiti and graffiti art in a Latino style, but Lori and Amy reported that the women’s room had velvet-upholstered lounges and a crystal chandelier.
After Vivo, we went to Donn’s Depot. Adam had recommended Donn’s Depot second after the Broken Spoke when I asked him for honky-tonk recommendations. He said that the particular distinguishing virtue of Donn’s was that often when he went, he would be the youngest person there. I had included it in our schedule because I wanted to do some honky-tonking while Chris and Amy were with us.
Adam had also mentioned the women’s restroom here as worth a view. The report from Lori and Amy was less enthusiastic; it was built into a caboose, but otherwise not outstanding.
Unfortunately, this was the wrong night for Donn’s Depot. Instead of the usual entertainment, there was a cheesy piano bar entertainer, and the music just wasn’t good at all. This is probably why there was only one other table occupied. We had a token drink and left as soon as we felt we could politely do so.
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|Saturday, August 3rd, 2013|
10:24 pm - Bluebonnets, Bats, and Barbecue: April 15, 2013: Bats
In the early evening, we indulged one of my own Austin tourist desires: we went to see the bats emerge from under the South Congress Bridge. (There are a million or more Mexican free-tailed bats living in cracks in the underside of that bridge during the summer.)|
I must acknowledge that not all of our party was as enthusiastic about seeing bats as I was; some of us were worried about close encounters with bats or guano. As a compromise, we arranged a ride on a riverboat cruise in a covered boat.
If Lady Bird Lake were set down near Pittsburgh, it would be regarded as a narrow, shallow spot in the river - all things are relative. But it's a pretty lake, with lots of people using it, running alongside, riding bicycles, and so forth.
Around sunset, we parked upstream from the bridge and waited for the bats to get active. The sunset was nicer than my iPhone could capture.
The bats emerged in a long thin stream heading east, like a trail of smoke with larger particles. The bats did not come anywhere close to us; our closest view was to see them wheeling out as we passed under the bridge to return to the dock. I found the effect oddly serene, because there were so many bats that they lost their individuality and were only comprehensible as a continuous flow. It seems that bat should be a mass noun, like sheep or deer or fish.
A brief video of the bats: http://www.flickr.com/photos/48435163@N04/9067302085/in/set-72157633279611298/
Once it became fully dark, it was impossible to see the bats, but there were some lovely views of downtown Austin.
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|Wednesday, July 24th, 2013|
10:55 pm - Bluebonnets, Bats, and Barbecue: April 15, 2013: Texas Pie Company
From Lockhart we drove west across flat Texas prairie to Kyle, to visit another place on Chris's short list: Texas Pie Company. The giant three-dimensional sign indicates how committed they are to their pie:|
The menu, too, is very pie-centric. We had a lot of trouble narrowing down our decision - many choices looked great. (We were interested in the King Ranch chicken, but didn't feel we had the appetite for it in addition to pie.)
They served their pies in bowls, which made me think that they were really expecting the pie to be served with ice cream. I like the contrasting colors of the two bowls in this picture.
I'm also very pleased with this picture of the almond joy pie. The pie was very good - the pie crust had some crispness, even if it was intended to accompany ice cream, and the layers of chocolate, coconut, and almond filling were excellent.
A profile shot gives a better view of the under layers of filling:
The strawberry-peach pie was less photogenic, but even more tasty. Lori described it as "delicious crust with sweet mellow strawberry and peach flavors".
The decor of the Texas Pie Company was a cheerful hodgepodge. Since we were still thinking about crafted and uncrafted places from our trip to Lockhart, we discussed which of those two applied here, and we concluded that despite its ramshackle appearance, it nevertheless seemed crafted, as if someone had carefully chosen the mismatched tables.
We would very happily return to the Texas Pie Company.
It was here and now that we hit our collective wall - or at least our collective speed bump. The plan I'd drawn up called for us to visit the Cathedral of Junk that afternoon, but none of us had the oomph to do so. We sat around the table for quite a while after the pies were gone, and when we did finally leave, we returned to the hotel for a brief nap before setting out again in the evening.
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|Saturday, July 20th, 2013|
2:43 pm - Bluebonnets, Bats, and Barbecue: April 15, 2013: Lockhart
"We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.." —The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
In Lockhart, we visited Kreuz Market (pronounced "krites") and Smitty's, two of the restaurants that have earned Lockhart the title of "The Barbecue Capital of Texas". (I didn't put Black's on the itinerary, because the one time I visited Black's, I had a severe allergic reaction a few hours later. I don't know that one caused the other, but I didn't want to take the chance. And though I offered in complete sincerity to take the rest of our party to Black's, I knew that I would be very likely to say to myself "well, just a nibble probably wouldn't be too risky" - if I think I should abstain, it's easiest for me to not even step inside.)
Kreuz Market and Smitty's are closely related. Smitty's location is the original location of Kreuz Market. But when the patriarch of the Schmidt family died, his son Rick Schmidt owned the business, but his daughter Nina inherited the building, and Nina's terms for rent were unacceptable to Rick. (My source for this is an interview with Rick at http://southernbbqtrail.southernfoodways.org/texas/kreuz-market.shtml . Rick said very clearly that there was no feud between him and Nina, but I suspect that there were at least a few stern looks.) So Rick moved Kreuz Market to a big new building north of town, and Nina established Smitty's in the old building.
The biggest difference between the buildings is that Kreuz Market looks like a building that was crafted as a barbecue parlor, but Smitty's looks like a place that "just happened". I've experienced a handful of other restaurants with that uncrafted quality - and a slew of restaurants that try to imitate it. For example, T.G.I. Friday's and a bunch of other chain restaurants try to imitate the "junk on the walls" quality of a place like Chiodo's - but the junk on the walls at Friday's feels deliberately chosen and placed, whereas no curator's hand ever guided the selection of the brassieres thrown to the ceiling at Chiodo's.
Another example: there is a company named The Irish Pub Company that specializes in the design and manufacture of Irish pubs around the world. I'm sure they have done their homework, they know what makes an Irish pub work, and they try to create an Irish pub experience as authentically as possible - but I've been to several Irish pubs in the US that felt like I could turn them over and see a "made by the Irish Pub Company" stamp on the bottom.
And in the same way, Kreuz Market's building looks like what you would get if you contacted the hypothetical Genuine Texas Barbecue Joint Company and said, "I'd like the extra-large economy size, please." There's no doubt that the creators knew exactly what sort of place they were recreating, and I would not say that Kreuz's is not authentic. But Kreuz's tables have never had knives chained to them in lieu of other cutlery. Kreuz's walls have not accumulated the geologic layers of carbon that Smitty's has acquired from decades of smoking. And the sign in Kreuz Market that said "No forks - they are at the end of your arm" seems to me to be a sign of a restaurant that is explaining itself to tourists instead of catering to locals who know how it works. This isn't a bad thing in itself, but it is a crafted thing, and I tend to prefer uncrafted places simply because those are harder to find.
I'm presenting photos out of strict chronological order in order to compare and contrast Kreuz Market and Smitty's. Should chronology matter, we visited Kreuz Market and then Smitty's.
Kreuz Market is a big barn of a building by the highway - I've read that it seats 560 people, though people inside said that it only gets anywhere close to full on Friday and Saturday nights.
Smitty's looks like a storefront on the town square from one side, but it's more prominent on the side facing the highway.
The first thing we saw at Kreuz Market was actually the woodpile. We were very impressed by the sheer size of the woodpile - it's clearly designed to support a massive amount of smoking.
Because of that, we made sure to see the woodpile at Smitty's before we left. It also shows a dedication to smoking, but it doesn't have the immense scale of Kreuz's.
The menu board at Kreuz market. (I don't have a photo of a menu board at Smitty's, and I don't remember seeing one.) The name "shoulder clod" is very low on the list of fancy names for a cut of beef.
Kreuz Market has 8 16-foot smokers, according to the Rick Schmidt interview. Some of them line the walls of the smoking room, but some radiate out fanwise from the center like altars to some pagan god of smoked meat. (I am half joking with this description - but only half.)
At Smitty's, years of smoke have deposited carbon on the walls above the smokers in formations that resemble the walls of a cave.
(I was surprised that at both places, the fire was mostly outside the smoker. I expected that there would be more attempts to contain the smoke and focus it on the meat.)
The dining area at Kreuz Market had decor, like this long rattlesnake skin and this Texas silhouette made out of rattles:
The dining area at Smitty's was more spartan:
But what about the barbecue itself?
This is what our order at Kreuz Market looked like when we received it. Texas barbecue stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from dining experiences that focus on beautiful plating. (Plating itself is a marker of a certain type of crafted dining experience.)
And this is what it looked like unveiled. The brisket (my notes say brisket, but perhaps this was the shoulder clod) was very smoky, but somewhat dry. The sausage, though, was lovely, with a robust flavor and a firm snap. Of all the sausage we had on this trip, this came closest to epitomizing what I think of as a Texas hot gut.
Kreuz Market has expanded to include some side dishes as well, and we sampled their beans. The beans had a lot of spice and sausage bits, and it added up to a great flavor.
This is our order from Smitty's. The brisket was paler but had a more vivid smoke ring than from Kreuz Market. It had a peppery crust and was a little juicier than Smitty's, though still on the dry side.
The sausage at Smitty's edged across the line from "juicy" to "greasy", but it too had a lot of flavor.
I should emphasize, though, that both of these briskets and sausages were very similar and very good. I look for differences because that's a way to draw out the individual character of each place, but I'm not at all sure I could distinguish them in a blind tasting, and I'd be more than happy to eat either one. And I do not know whether the differences I noted, if they're real, were due to the restaurant or to variations between different cows.
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|Wednesday, July 10th, 2013|
11:35 pm - New Mexico
I told Dale that our New Mexico trip didn't deserve a trip report, but some jotted scribblings are in order.|
Chris and Amy were getting married July 6 in Albuquerque, and we wanted very much to be there. My work schedule is tight, but July 4 counted as an extra day off. So we planned to fly to Albuquerque on Tuesday, July 2, go down to Cloudcroft to visit my parents for a few days, then come back for the wedding and depart on Sunday, July 7.
Our troubles with this trip started on Wednesday, June 26. I looked at our flight confirmation, and discovered that our reservation had us flying back from Albuquerque on Saturday, July 6 - before the wedding began. I normally try not to swear, but I texted Lori a stream of simple profanity. Lori took on the job of rescheduling us, though it incurred an expensive change fee. But there were no flights back on Sunday; we had to reschedule for Monday.
Then on the evening of Saturday, June 29, I came down with a fever. Over the next few days, I had phases of fever up to 103.8°F, and horribly embarrassing diarrhea. We went to an urgent care center on Monday to see whether I could get any relief, and whether I could safely fly. The doctor said it would probably last a total of 5-7 days from the first symptoms, I could fly if I felt up to it, and if Lori hadn't already come down with this, she probably was not going to.
We weren't willing to risk flying early Tuesday morning as planned; we wanted some awake time to monitor my symptoms before flying. But we rescheduled (with another fee) to fly on Tuesday evening. I felt significantly better on Tuesday.
Packing for the trip was a mess, because we were trying to pack for lots of contingencies and I wasn't much help. But the flight went smoothly. Since we landed near midnight, we got a hotel in Albuquerque instead of driving down then.
Wednesday, July 3:
We had a tasty brunch at the Frontier Cafe. I really like this picture of the sweet roll, but I don't actually find the sweet rolls wonderful to eat.
We arrived at my parents' cabin and were welcomed pleasantly.
That evening, though, Lori started getting feverish. She went to bed early, but it wasn't enough to avert illness; she came down with the same disease I had had.
Thursday, July 4:
Lori was horribly sick all day. We'd planned to go to the Mescalero Apache reservation for a roundup with rodeo and dancing - but we stayed home to take care of Lori all day.
I did finish one project for Chris and Amy. In western Pennsylvania, it's traditional for weddings to include a cookie table, piled with an enormous variety of cookies made by the family and friends of the bride and groom. We would have loved to make a cookie table for Chris and Amy. But we couldn't bring enough cookies on the airplane, and we didn't want to impose on their family and friends. So we honored the cookie table tradition in spirit: my mother and I made a batch of sugar cookies in the shape of a picnic table.
Lori was so sick that she didn't manage to stay awake to watch fireworks on TV.
Friday, July 5:
My cousin Allison had planned to visit my parents this day, but we called her and warned her not to come anywhere Cloudcroft lest she and her son encounter our germs.
Lori was much recovered, so we drove back to Albuquerque. But once we got there, Lori felt sick enough that she just stayed in the motel room while I went off to dinner with a group of Roadfooders.
Dinner was at Harry's Roadhouse near Santa Fe; it was very tasty.
Saturday, July 6:
We both felt healthy-ish today, which was a very good thing, because we really wanted to attend the wedding in good spirits.
We visited Jerky by Art, a carne seca shop for which I have a particular fondness.
We ate lunch at Mary and Tito's, a New Mexican restaurant. The food was very good - the chicharrones were among the best I've had, the sopaipilla stuffed with carne adovada was very good, and the Mexican wedding cake was great.
We went through Old Town Albuquerque briefly, then went off to the wedding.
The wedding was wonderful. My cousin Allison has said that couples tend to get the wedding that is right for them, and this was certainly true of Chris and Amy. A smattering of details:
- The vows featured pledges like Amy's "I promise to listen to your heavy metal podcasts, even when I've never heard of the bands"
- The dinner was New Mexican food catered by Garcia's, and it was all splendid. (Though perhaps I wasn't completely healthy - after one plate, I felt almost completely unable to eat any more, as much as I wanted to.)
- Chris and Amy's first dance was the Hokey Pokey.
- Because Chris is a Latin teacher, the wedding cake was a reconstructed Roman recipe, made with spelt flour and sweetened with honey. I liked it.
- It rained heavily late in the evening - but in the high desert, that felt like a blessing.
It was a great wedding, and we wish Chris and Amy every happiness.
Sunday, July 7:
Lori was feeling under the weather again, though thankfully she didn't have a recurrence of the most distressing symptoms. After a very slow start and a snack at Golden Crown Panaderia, we went up to Santa Fe.
We had lunch at Pasqual's - tasty but not the extraordinary splendor that Gregg had described.
We shopped a bit near the Plaza, but Lori didn't have nearly the energy or enthusiasm for shopping that she normally would.
We attended Mass at St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe.
As we were walking back to our car, someone tried to sell us a very nice vase at a piddling price. As we were declining, someone called out that he had just stolen the vase and the storeowner chased after him. We later met the storekeeper, who had recovered the vase - he said that the robbery was an attempt to get drug money.
We ate at Harry's Roadhouse, because New Mexican food seemed too risky for Lori - very good food.
More troubles: When we got back to the motel, our keys wouldn't open the door to the room. Nor would the desk clerk's master key. As he was bringing out the machine to reset the lock, another guy came along with the magic touch to get things working again.
That night, the toilet in the room clogged again; I was tired and I hoped that time would relieve it, so we went on to sleep.
Monday, July 8:
When we woke in the early morning, the toilet was still backed up. So I went to the front desk to get it handled. The guy said that maintenance didn't come until 8am, and he handed me a plunger. I plunged the toilet successfully, but this was not at all the service I wanted.
We had trouble getting moving to check out, but we made it work by shoving everything haphazardly into our suitcases.
We stopped at the front desk to complain about our troubles with the room: the lock, the toilet, the non-working phone, the broken hair dryer. The assistant manager on duty offered to knock a bit off our bill - but then we realized that he was taking 15% off a rate that was higher than the special rate we had gotten. Once we pointed that out, he was friendly about correcting the error, but it meant more delay.
Stopped at the 66 Diner for a so-so lunch. Flew home without incident.
We made it to the wedding, and that was what was most important to us. But aside from that, it was one of the worst trips I can remember.
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|Sunday, June 23rd, 2013|
12:32 am - Bluebonnets, Bats, and Barbecue: April 15, 2013: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
After Gourdough's, we took a break from food for a trip to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.|
I had high hopes for the Wildfower Center; it was my last best hope for broad fields of Texas wildflowers. These hopes didn't quite come true. There were some very nice flowers, but they came in portions that were garden-sized instead of field-sized. I found myself acutely conscious that it wasn't quite measuring up to my hopes, and hoping that Chris and Amy weren't too disappointed.
I have tried to research just who was responsible for the name "Horse-Crippler Cactus", with no success. This means that I can neither confirm nor deny my idea that it was named by an botanist who carried a grudge. (It is apparently also called "Candy Cactus", which carries much less bitterness.)
The color garden did offer some swaths of flowers, but they didn't extend as far as the eye could see.
California poppies apparently grow in Texas too. I love their intense orange.
In a little building at the far end of the gardens, there was an exhibit of some very beautiful art made in pressed paper. Unfortunately, photographs were prohibited.
Indian blanket is one of the wildflowers I expect to see along Texas highways.
Yellow and pink primrose complete the set I expect to see on the roads.
The lily pond showed a bit of wildlife in the form of snakes and turtles.
This is the variety of honeysuckle that grew on the neighbor's fence when I was a child.. We used to pluck the blossoms, bite the bases off, and suck out the nectar inside.
My mother fought against trumpet vine for many years.
Yes, I have an inner fifteen-year-old snickering at this.
We took one of their walks among the fields outside the more cultivated part of the center. It did have patches of bluebonnets.
And from the top of the tower, you could get a real sense of Austin landscape.
(We took many more pictures there, but I tried to present just my favorites. I invite you to click through and look at my Flickr collection.)
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|Monday, June 17th, 2013|
10:33 pm - Bluebonnets, Bats, and Barbecue: April 15, 2013: Mellizoz Tacos and Gourdough's Donuts
Monday was the day that most embodied the title of this report.|
We started with a request from Amy: she was keen to visit Summermoon Coffee, because they offered coffee that was roasted with a wood fire. I don't drink coffee often, so the sips I took just tasted like coffee to me; perhaps Amy can contribute an opinion of whether this makes a perceptible difference.
I've added this table card to my collection of Roadfood signage because of the edit that was made; one small edit can make a great deal of difference to the implications of a sentence. (Though "toy" more accurately represented what I saw.)
Our breakfast destination was one that Chris had particularly asked for: Gourdough's donuts. I'd rescheduled this trip from Saturday morning because of Chris and Amy's late arrival, but when I had rescheduled it, I hadn't checked my notes for their opening times. I remembered that they opened at 8, but I had forgotten that they only opened at 8 on Saturday. So we arrived at 9:40 to find that Gourdough's opened at 10am. (They are open until midnight on most days and 3am on weekends - many food trucks seem to cater to night owls.)
So with a bit of time to kill, we turned to the adjacent taco truck, Mellizoz Tacos. This was just as well, because Chris and Amy hadn't yet had a chance to eat a great breakfast taco.
We ordered the 04, which included eggs, bacon, avocado, beans, and cotija cheese. This was amazing, and the picture does not do it justice. The avocado and cheese made it very rich and luscious, and the bacon helped make it super flavorful. This was definitely the best breakfast taco of our trip, and this is the taco whose memory makes me salivate two months later.
It was also very messy, though - through some trick of geometry I haven't wholly figured out, a tortilla that is large enough to contain a taco's worth of fillings cannot be cut into two half-tortillas large enough to contain a half-taco's worth of fillings.
As we finished that taco, Gourdough's had put out their menu board:
We ordered two donuts and split them each four ways. I was tempted to order more because there were so many interesting flavors, but this was a good choice - one taco and two donuts were more than enough to keep us full for quite a while.
The Miss Shortcake was topped with cream cheese icing and fresh strawberries, and by my lights, anything with that many strawberries has got to be good. But it was much better than I expected, because under a pile of frosting and strawberries the size of my face, there was a really light, crisp donut. A lesser donut such as one from Krispy Kreme would have gotten crushed under the toppings; this was capable of playing off the toppings to make a really delicious combination of tastes and textures.
The Flying Pig ("bacon with maple syrup icing") was a great success as well. I tend to be suspicious of layering bacon with donuts because of the problem of layersquish. If you layer a soft donut (again, think Krispy Kreme) with a piece of bacon that requires a bit of gnawing or sawing to sever, the donut will be crushed and tattered by the process of cutting the bacon. But the Flying Pig soared over that trap - the bacon was crisp enough to break easily with a fork, and the donut was strong enough that it was easy to get all three flavors in every bite.
Everything we ate that morning was fabulous, and I'm so glad that there were four of us to share everything - Gourdough's donuts are so massive and filling that I don't think I could have done justice to more than one if it had been only Lori and I eating.
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|Tuesday, June 11th, 2013|
10:27 pm - Bluebonnets, Bats, and Barbecue: April 14, 2013: Hoover's Cooking and more
One of the pleasant surprises of this Austin trip was how many dear friends we were able to meet there. I’ve already told of how we got to spend time with Steve, in spite of the fact that he lives in Florida. And weren’t really surprised by the chance to spend time with Adam, because he lives in Austin. But we were surprised when Adam told us that his parents were coming through Austin on Sunday evening, and we happily made plans to join them for dinner at Hoover's.|
We didn't try to draw Frances and Elliott completely into our habits of sharing everything equally, but they did fit right in with our Roadfood group, cheerfully sharing their own plates and sampling ours.
I think the most exotic choice of the evening was Amy's drink selection: the beetarita. A margarita made with beets could be anywhere from very good to horrible; this turned out to be pretty good, but there are some good reasons that the beetarita is not as popular as its lime-flavored cousin.
I was skeptical of the smoked hamburger, because a hamburger usually wants to cook too quickly to pick up much smoke. But this smoked hamburger really did have a nice smoky taste.
The candied sweet potatoes were super sweet.
Fried catfish, flanked by fried okra, porky green beans, and bacon-laced mustard greens.
Chicken-fried steak, flanked by black-eyed peas, mac and cheese, and jalapeño creamed spinach. Chicken fried steak may be one of those foods that I like more in my imagination than on my plate (haluski is another). Although this was a very good chicken fried steak, it didn't satisfy my desire for a chicken fried steak against which all others would fall short.
Frances and Elliott did join us in sharing all the desserts. The peach cobbler was my suggestion, and again it wasn't quite what I wanted it to be; it was topped with a pie crust, and I much prefer a biscuit crust on my cobbler.
The pecan praline bread pudding was probably the best thing we ate at Hoover's.
I think we were all surprised that the buttermilk pie was served in a bowl. The filling was good, but my notes say that it was "a little strange" (without providing details, unfortunately). The crust was only so-so.
The banana pudding cheesecake was very good, but not nearly as good as the banana pudding we'd had at the Driskill.
I don't recall who suggested miniature golf after dinner, but it was a lovely suggestion. I love mini golf; it reminds me of summers with my grandparents and and simpler times that may or may not have actually existed. And Peter Pan Mini Golf turned out to be a nice course, with some interesting holes and funky statuary. I would have been most delighted if it had had a motorized windmill, but it is nigh impossible to find a motorized windmill in mini golf these days. It was a great pleasure to play a foursome on a warm evening, and I hope that everyone else was as happy as I was.
It took us a bit of looking to realize that this statue was depicting an armadillo atop a lone star atop a mustang's head with a cowboy hat flanked by a pair of cowboy boots. It's hard to get much more Texan than that.
I may have won the match on points, but Lori gets the glory: she got two holes-in-one in eighteen holes!
After that, a warm summer night called for ice cream, so we went out to seek a location of the local chain Amy's.
Although we had enjoyed Amy's ice cream at non-Amy's locations, our blackberry ice cream with cake mixed in was a disappointment, because it had large ice chunks.
Although we'd had a full day of eating, Chris incited us to just one more, because he noticed that near Amy's was Home Slice, which he had read to be the best pizza in Austin.
We spent quite a while discussing the figure depicted on the neon sign. She seems feminine at first glance, and the signage says "Queen of Pies" - but she sports a virile bushy mustache. (I later discovered that this is addressed on their website, in the Flash animation at http://www.homeslicepizza.com/queenofpies/ .)
I don't have enough experience of New York pizza to judge this slice by NY standards. It was flexible and a bit messy, but it was satisfying in a late-night way.
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|Saturday, June 1st, 2013|
6:12 pm - Bluebonnets, Bats, and Barbecue: April 14, 2013: Driskill Hotel, South Congress Food Trucks
We bade farewell to Steve and went off for a walking tour of downtown Austin. (We like walking tours in general on these tours; it gives us a little time to digest.) This was a fine walking tour, particularly because it was free, but I can't remember much about it at all.|
I do remember the unabashedly pro-Confederate tone of the Civil War memorial.
And I remember the tale of Angelina Eberly. She saw the soldiers of the Republic of Texas coming into town to move the government records to Houston, and she fired the town cannon (damaging the land office) to rally the citizens of Austin to resist.
The tour ended at the Driskill Hotel, so we stopped in at the 1886 Cafe and Bakery in the Driskill for a drink and a snack. (And we noticed that Steve was in the Starbucks next door, so we invited him to join us.)
The two we chose were both fancy renditions of plebeian treats. The house made Moon Pie was not a smashing success. I don't recall that I've ever had a genuine MoonPie, so I lacked a basis for comparison, but this was not a pleasant treat; it tasted mostly of thick, crumbly graham cracker.
The banana pudding, however, was outstanding. (The description from the menu: "Layered with "Nilla" Crust and Banana Bread, Banana Sabayon, Warm Banana-Rum Sauce".) It had a superb, rich banana flavor, and a nice play of textures - this was one of the best things we ate on this trip.
Lori says of the Driskill Hotel: "It is now my ambition to spend a night (if not a weekend) in this beautiful old hotel. There are many stories of the Driskill Hotel being haunted; I looked and looked, but saw no ghosts."
I had marked time in the schedule on Sunday afternoon for us to visit Austin food trucks, but I didn't have particular food trucks in mind. Multiple Austinites recommended East Side King as a food truck par excellence, but their hours were wholly incompatible with this time - for example, at one location, they are open 5pm - 1:45am, Monday - Saturday. So instead we drove down to the South Congress food court to see what was to be seen there.
The first truck we saw was Burro, serving specialty grilled cheese sandwiches. I hope they have some good air conditioning, because the thought of being stuck in a metal can on a hot Texas day seems really fierce to me.
We ordered their special of the day, a grilled cheese sandwich with brisket from La Barbecue (formerly run by John Mueller), Redneck Cheddar (cheddar made with beer), and mango serrano sauce. It was good, but really quite mild. The brisket was very gently flavored, without the pepper punch of so much other barbecue we'd had. And though I could slightly taste the mango, I couldn't taste the serrano peppers at all.
We also ordered fried pears, because we hadn't heard of fried pears before. I think I had been expecting something batter-fried and tender, but these were batter-free and mostly hard. The frying softened the outsides a little, but mostly it just made them very hot - which was no virtue on a 90° day. I wouldn't order them again.
We ambled past the rest of the trucks (I remember Wurst Tex; I'm not sure whether we actually saw Mrs. P's Electric Cock or whether I've just constructed a memory based on Travelin' Man's description) but the thing that really appealed to us on this hot day was shaved ice. It appealed to others as well; the line was much longer than at any of the other food trucks.
Unfortunately, I didn't record which flavor Amy chose, but it was sweet and fruity.
I saw that they had a special "pickle" section on the menu, and I remembered that Central Texas was the origin of the Pickle Pop. So I ordered the Dilly Surprise: shaved ice with pickle juice and chunks of pickle. The four of us had widely diverging opinions on the Dilly Surprise. At one end of the spectrum, Lori thought it was freaky and unpleasant, but on the other end, I thought it was great. The sour pickle juice cut through the dusty taste of summer heat, and It wasn't at all sweet and cloying the way lemonade can be. But although I happily finished it, no one else seemed to be hoping I'd share more than a sample.
(In the course of writing this up, I've learned that the South Congress Food Truck is now gone; the food trucks have been sent elsewhere to make room for a new hotel.)
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|Tuesday, May 21st, 2013|
11:27 pm - Bluebonnets, Bats, and Barbecue: April 14, 2013: Threadgill's, John Mueller Meat Company
One of the sad truths of taking the lead in a trip like this is that people may follow you when you don't know where you're going. And that in one sentence is the story of how Steve joined the four of us at Threadgill's gospel brunch.|
I thought that Threadgill's gospel brunch would offer us a way to get two desirable things at once: we could get good food at Threadgill's, and sample another slice of Austin's music scene.
Unfortunately, instead of getting two good things together, we got two mediocre things. The brunch buffet was perfectly serviceable, but it was just a brunch buffet, distinguished only by two things: it included migas (albeit not splendid migas), and it served salsa in the largest bowl I can recall used for serving salsa. There was probably two gallons of salsa in a large metal bowl.
The gospel was not what I had hoped for either. We were seated in a different room from the musicians, so it was hard to hear them over the sound of our own conversation. Because I didn't hear them well, I can't say much about the quality of the band, but I think that if they had gotten the room clapping, we would have heard it.
Chris suggested that we order the chicken fried steak, to get a sample of one of their specialties that wasn't on the buffet. It was certainly a good chicken fried steak, but I had been hoping for an outstanding one.
We finished at Threadgill's with enough time to pay a visit to John Mueller Meat Company. This visit itself was a fortuitous result of our trip to Royer's Round Top Cafe the night before, because Bud Royer had said that the best barbecue to be had in Austin was at Franklin Barbecue and John Mueller's. Now, I only know of changes in the Austin barbecue scene from scrumptiouschef's posts to the Roadfood forums, but I had been under the impression that John Mueller had been kicked out of the business bearing his name. But because Bud Royer mentioned him, I did some research that morning: John Mueller had indeed been fired from one business earlier in 2013, but he had started a new enterprise, John Mueller Meat Company.
John Mueller Meat Company was a food truck in a fenced lot of its own.
They opened at 11am, but by 12:30, they were already sold out of brisket and side dishes. There was little line, so we speculated that they must have had a very large order. (The prices look cheap at first glance, but they're sold by the half pound instead of the pound - correcting for that makes them seem on the high side.)
Bereft of brisket, we ordered some luscious smoky turkey
and some sausage. The sausage had a very heavy hand with the black pepper, so much so that the bite of the pepper clobbered all the other flavors.
Steve thought through the lack of brisket and concluded that if he was to sample beef at John Mueller's, it would have to be in the form of the beef ribs. Then he added pork ribs (behind the beef ribs in this picture). Both species were very tasty, but the beef ribs were particularly notable, succulent and unctuous with rendered fat, with a flavor-packed bark.
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|Wednesday, May 15th, 2013|
12:31 am - Bluebonnets, Bats, and Barbecue: April 13, 2013, part 4
We had a special dinner planned, and it ended up being not just special, but utterly outstanding.|
Our dinner destination was Royer's Round Top Cafe in Round Top, Texas (population 90 according to the sign at the town limits).
If you look closely at the picture, you may notice what we noticed when we got to the porch: Bud Royer was sitting outside. (I don't think you can look closely enough at the picture to make out the sign on the beer cooler: "Beer on the honor system. Lawyers and bankers pay cash." We recognized Bud from meeting him at the New Orleans Roadfood Festival in 2010. Chris was the first to introduce himself and shake Bud's hand. And Chris's explaining that he was a senior writer for Roadfood.com may have contributed to the feast we were about to have.
Chris said that we were five for dinner, but I corrected that to seven. In retrospect, I should have called to book a table in advance, because the cafe does not have that many tables. But they had a large table open right next to the door.
As we were ordering iced tea and lemonade, the door opened, and in walked Steve Koenigsberg. I wasn't surprised; I had been receiving text messages about his progress, under the name "Mystery Guest". (I had renamed his entry in my phone, in case I had to ask Lori to read my texts while I was driving.) I had been trying to surprise Chris and Amy - but Chris said that he has met Steve in enough unexpected places that no encounter with Steve surprised him anymore.
Steve was accompanied by Cara, a professional colleague of his. I hope that he will chime in, because this is really his story to tell. But it's something like this: he and Cara had been together at a recruiting fair in Houston, and he had offered to give her a ride back to Austin. When the fair had ended, there was just enough time for him to join us at dinner. He feared that Cara might prefer to spend time with her colleagues in Houston, but when he suggested that they drive an hour and a half for dinner in a tiny town in Texas ("Round Top? You mean Round Rock, right?"), she agreed without hesitation.
I think this picture perfectly captures both Steve and Royer's Round Top Cafe:
We ordered two appetizers that Bud Royer recommended: the grilled shrimp BLT (great)
and the enormous stuffed jalapeños (good, but tricky to cut to share among eight people).
About the time that we prepared to order entrees, we all - the five of us with plenty of Roadfood experience, our guests Adam and Cara, and Bud Royer and his staff - realized that we really were game for anything Royer's might serve. I've thought that before and had it turn out to be false, so I was a bit slow to recognize it now, but discovering now that we were all game was a heady, intoxicating realization. Where we had ordered appetizers by name, for entrees we just asked for five entrees and let Bud and the staff decide.
If you ever have an opportunity like this, to dine at Royer's with a large group of people who are all happy to enjoy whatever comes, I strongly recommend you take it. It was about this time that we started describing the dinner with words like "bacchanalian" and "epic revel". It's hard for me to describe these dishes in detail, because my impressions all swirl together in a kaleidoscope of flavors. I think presenting a jumble of pictures captures the evening better than paragraphs of careful description:
Jud's Great Steak, served with Bud's Smash (mashed potatoes, creamed corn, red onion, and blue cheese crumbles)
Grilled pork chops with chipotle-raspberry sauce, with mashed potatoes and creamed corn
"The Awesome Steak", served on mashed potato casserole, topped with portobello mushrooms sautéed in a red wine cream sauce
Fried Red Snapper
Rack of Lamb, served with a lemon, garlic, basil sauce and sautéed vegetables
Bud decided that in addition to that, we needed to try the grilled quail (top) and the stuffed quail (bottom).
Here's a closeup of the stuffed quail (stuffed with shrimp and cilantro - it was really tasty)
By the numbers, it doesn't seem an excessive amount of food - less than one entree per person. But the sheer variety (and all of it very good) made us feel overwhelmed. There were leftovers of everything after the first servings, because it's far easier to divide things into eighths than sevenths, and the vast bounty overwhelmed all greed, so we kept proffering each other the last tidbits like doting ethnic grandmothers. "Would you like to finish the lamb chop?" "Surely you want a bit more quail?"
Of course, the other reason that we were slow to finish our entrees is that we were saving room for pie. Royer's is renowned for their pies, and for Bud Royers' insistence that his pies be eaten with ice cream, to the point that pie without ice cream costs an extra fifty cents. We asked for five pieces of pie. Bud decided that we should get eight. (When we got the check, the pie was free, which made me happier about the extra pieces. But we made up for that with a giant tip.)
One down side of ice cream on pie is that it makes it hard to take pictures of the pie underneath. This plate had pecan pie, chocolate chip pie, Texas trash pie (I can't remember what was in this. It's akin to the buttermilk delight pie that has chocolate chips, pecans, and coconut, but the Texas trash pie had more stuff. Very tasty), and the Texas-sized Ho Ho.
The other plate had Junkberry pie (a medley of fruits), apple pie, strawberry-rhubarb pie, and cinnamon-roll bread pudding.
The Ding Dong in cross section. It was one of the best of its kind we've encountered.
All the desserts were delicious, but I do have some commentary on the pies. The filling on Royer's pies is superb, but the crust is not so great. The crust is pale and somewhat shortbread-like - it is far from the best pie crust I've had, and I can make better pie crust myself on a good day. However: ice cream is rough on pie crust; even a good flaky pie crust will turn soggy under melting ice cream. So it all fits together that a passion for ice cream-bedecked pie would go with mediocre pie crust.
To my own taste, ice cream is a better friend to cobbler than to pie. So if Royer's was going to change to suit me (I didn't even suggest this to Bud Royer, because I felt that he is obviously not), he would turn his filling talents towards cobbler instead of pie.
After such a splendid gastronomic debauch, anything else would be anticlimax. But we had one more stop: I had discovered that this trip would give us a chance to see the Austin Lounge Lizards perform in Texas, at the Bugle Boy in La Grange. The Bugle Boy is a very nice space for a concert - it is very strongly focused on listening to the performance, instead of dancing or drinking or talking. I hope that the others enjoyed the Austin Lounge Lizards at least half as much as I did; I had the advantage of being familiar with most of their songs. And some of their topical tweaks to "Old Blevins" made me laugh so hard that I became lightheaded.
I had planned for us to visit Weikel's Bakery for kolaches before the concert, but our long dinner at Royer's made that impractical. After the concert ended at 10:30, I drove us to Weikel's under the belief that they closed at 11. But Weikel's was dark and empty. But this was not exactly a case of not doing my homework: when I checked my notes later, I saw that according to my notes, Weikel's closed at 10pm. So does this count as being travelin-manned, or was this merely being dumb?
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|Sunday, May 12th, 2013|
11:57 pm - Bluebonnets, Bats, and Barbecue: April 13, 2013, part 3
Another wildflower picture, taken from the window of the minivan at a stoplight near Bastrop. (It boggled me that Texas allows driving 75 mph on roads with stoplights.)|
As we were passing through Bastrop on the way to Elgin, we saw more than one billboard advertising Buc-ee's. Upon learning that none of us had experienced Buc-ee's, Adam declared that our Austin visit would be woefully incomplete if it did not include an experience of the glory of Buc-ee's. And as it happened, there was a Buc-ee's just on our route.
Adam suggested that I pass him my phone, and so we have photographic record of my expression upon entering Buc-ee's:
Buc-ee's is not a Roadfood stop; it is a convenience store built on a massive scale. I would be hard pressed to throw a paper airplane from one end of the store to the other. (In more prosaic terms, the Buc-ee's website claims that the Bastrop location is 50,000 square feet, though it is eclipsed by the New Braunfels location which is the largest convenience store in the world at 67,000.)
The other claim to fame of Buc-ee's is their restrooms, which Adam strongly encouraged us to visit. The restrooms at Buc-ee's were immense and immaculate. There were two dozen urinals on one side of the men's room, each in their own alcove to prevent any inconvenient risk glancing sidelong and seeing another man. I took no photos from inside the men's room, because there wasn't a moment when the room was empty. But we did take a few pictures of the decor just outside the restrooms:
We enjoyed samples of the sausage, and Chris bought a hat. We also sampled the Buc-ee's Beaver Hut, a candy concoction of pink goo enclosed in chocolate and peanuts. Unfortunately, it was nasty - I cannot recommend it in the slightest.
Our destination in Elgin was one of the famous sites of Texas barbecue, Southside Market, the originator of Texas hot sausage (also called "hot guts", to Lori's dismay). But Southside Market is no longer a small storefront on the town square, but a large barbecue establishment.
The interior was spacious and efficient, but redolent with the scent of smoking meat.
We shared a beautiful platter of brisket, sausage, beans and potato salad.
The brisket was delicious we decided that we might prefer the brisket to the sausage.
But I argued that even so, if one were to have one meat here, it should be the sausage. The sausage was unusual among all the hot guts we sampled; it was extremely tender, even soft. But very rich and flavorful.
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|Monday, May 6th, 2013|
9:08 pm - Bluebonnets, Bats, and Barbecue: April 13, 2013, part 1
Saturday brought us Chris and Amy, barbecue at last, and a mystery guest joining us for one of the most outstanding revels of my Roadfooding.|
Unfortunately, it didn't bring us Chris and Amy at 9am as we had expected. In order to satisfy their own travel requirements, Chris and Amy had carried out an elaborate plan under which they had flown to Dallas and then woken at the crack of dawn Saturday morning to take a bus down to Austin. But they shared some of our travel luck: at 9:20, Amy sent me a picture of the road ahead of the bus with the text "Don't know the deal, but the fact that people are turning around on the highway isn't a good sign." We have had that happen to us in Kentucky and Indiana, and we agree that it is not a good sign. We found out later that tractor trailer accident had happened at 7am and blocked the interstate for hours.
This derailed our breakfast plan, because I had planned to make our first stop one of the donut shops that Chris had specifically requested. So I sought out breakfast tacos, because I had not scheduled them for later. Yelp suggested a food truck named El Primo. I felt happy when we arrived: it certainly looked like a place that was more authentic than upscale.
The "migas-ham & egg" taco was very good, with lots of savory flavor and interesting textures.
The chorizo and egg taco was also tasty. I tried to add a little salsa from a squeeze bottle on the windowsill, and I got a lot of salsa instead - and the salsa had a definite burn.
We were very amused by this billboard across the street:
We were particularly amused because this is the lawyer billboard we see most often in Pittsburgh (someone else's picture):
It's pretty clear that David Komie has all the hair that Edgar Snyder lost and more besides. (We commented on those billboards to Adam at one point, and he said that he has played in jam sessions with David Komie, and that David Komie throws killer parties. I know nothing about how raucous Edgar Snyder's parties might be.)
There was also a court of food trucks across the street from El Primo. We wandered among them briefly, but none of them were open. We did stop to take some pictures of the freestanding murals:
This mural depicts Leslie Cochran, a famous Austin character in every sense. He was apparently famous for hanging out on Sixth Street wearing women's clothing, and the tutu and bikini top pictured here was a common outfit. We were told by a tour guide on Sunday that although he was believed to be homeless, it was discovered after his death that he had a mansion - however, I note that claimed mansion is not mentioned in the Wikipedia entry or the eulogies I checked.
I know nothing of the quality of these food carts, but I really liked the names "Bananarchy" and "Lard Have Mercy".
Lori suggested we stop in at La Mexicana, a nearby Mexican bakery.
I ordered a fruit cup, because I've learned that going out of my way to eat some fruits and vegetables helps me on these Roadfood trips. What I ended up with was about a pound of fruit - apples, strawberries, mangoes, pineapple, and grapes - topped with a sprinkling of chile pepper. (This is as close as I have come to the pico de gallo of Arizona, and I don't know how close it actually is.) This was really good; the fruit was very fresh, and the chile really woke up the flavor.
Lori's chocolate shortbread was not so good.
Since Chris and Amy were still stuck on the road, we decided to pursue Saturday morning's plan without them. We drove out to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, but discovered that there was a garden and flower show that meant that there was no parking to be had within half a mile.
Our next idea was to go to Franklin Barbecue, renowned for both its barbecue and its long lines, and spare Chris and Amy some line-waiting. We were told that our line would be three hours. Shortly after we joined the line, Amy texted us that they expected to arrive in Austin in half an hour, so we left the line without getting Franklin barbecue that day. But this visit gave us two glimpses of the secondary economy that has emerged around Franklin Barbecue.
1. Across the street from Franklin Barbecue was a man offering chair rental for those standing in line.
2. When the staff member came along to tell us that we had three hour's wait ahead of us, the man ahead of us said that he had heard of people selling their places in line on Craigslist, and asked what the going rate was. She replied that Franklin's discouraged that because it wasn't really fair, but the typical price for a place near the head of the line was two to three hundred dollars.
My rudimentary understanding of economics suggests that in a situation like this where the price doesn't balance supply and demand, a secondary market will emerge to narrow that gap, like the ways people make deals with rent-controlled apartments in New York and San Francisco. I haven't seen that at work with Franklin Barbecue yet, but I haven't had much time to observe. I wonder what other sorts of secondary barbecue economy will develop around Franklin's. Barbecue futures? Default swaps hedging against sellouts?
Picking up Chris and Amy brought Lori some relief from my speculations about barbecue economics. For our first stop together, we visited another barbecue place recommended to me by Roadfood poster scrumptiouschef: Micklethwait Craft Meats.
I really love the setting of Micklethwait; eating outdoors on a tree-shaded picnic table was a lovely way to start our adventures.
And the barbecue was fabulous, too. We shared a combo plate of brisket, lamb sausage, and ribs.
The brisket had a gorgeous smoke ring and a splendid flavor to back it up. Looking at this photo makes me hungry again.
The lamb sausage was very coarse and firm, with a rugged chew.
The pit masters at work:
Next door to Micklethwait was proof that in Austin, mobile trucks aren't just limited to food: this is Gypsy Rose Vagabond Beauty Parlor. (We thought it was a fortune teller at first.) My primary thought is how beastly hot it would be in a metal trailer in the Texas summer unless it has outstanding air conditioning.
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