Archive | December, 2011

Caffeine City, Part 1: The search for my favorite cup of jo.

26 Dec

I love coffee.  No, I adore coffee.  Growing up in the armpit of Texas, i.e. Houston, where the act of stepping outside your house guarantees the need for a shower, I did not drink coffee, or anything hot whatsoever.  My love for coffee did not form until much later while living in the Washington, D.C. area, where it was much chillier and coffee drinking was the cool thing to do.  But back then, my cup of jo consisted of about one-third coffee, two-thirds milk and enough sugar to send me into a diabetic coma.  Coffee took a while to take a hold of me, but once it did, I pretty much wake up every morning looking forward to my morning mug.

I know I’m not the only one around here who loves coffee.  So I thought a blog series on finding the best coffee houses in Austin would be a fun one!  Plus, it gives me a chance to explore many coffee shops that I have never been to, or even heard of.  I wanted to give this research validity by using an uncomplicated, standardized system, so here are the criteria I will be judging:

  1. Ambience/Comfort
  2. Service
  3. Taste/quality of the coffee

The first place I decided to check out is called Texenza Coffee in Tarrytown on Windsor Rd.  Nestled in a little strip mall, the store front consists of a row of windows that lets in really nice light.  The place is one spacious room with many small cafe tables and a few comfy leather chairs.  The first thing I thought of when I walked in was “corporate”.  The place reminds me of Starbucks, which isn’t good or bad, but it lacks Austin character. However, there is plenty of seating and wi-fi.

Service with a smile is important and Texenza did deliver on that.  However, the service was a little slow since the one barista there was the only employee working and there was quite a line.  So I have to give the guy a thumbs up for smiling the whole time while trying to serve us all as quickly as possible.   This was the day after Christmas, so maybe most of the employees were still on vacation?  I  think it was too much for one person and I don’t know if under staffing is the norm for this place.

The most important thing here is, of course, the coffee.  I pretty much order one of two things, so that is what I am going to use as the benchmark.  The first is a cup of brewed coffee.  Texenza Coffee roasts their beans here in Austin and has many different varieties.  Fresh roasted beans sounds great, right?  Well, I don’t know what happened in between the roaster and the brewer, but that cup had absolutely no flavor.  It tasted very watered down and weak, so my suspicion is the water to coffee ground ratio was completely off.  Big fail.  The second item I drink is a latte.  Not the sugared-up-mocha-gingerbread-whatever-other-dessert-we-can-make-into-coffee kind, but a simple latte that takes real skill to make.  I once took a one day course in making espresso and,  believe me, there is quite a bit that goes into it.  So how was Texenza’s latte?  Eh.  That’s pretty much it, just eh.  Not horrible but not great by any stretch – again, not much flavor.  I also look at the frothy milk, the cute design you usually see floating on top, which is called latte art.  And it really is an art – I made over one hundred espresso drinks in my class that day and still could not get that darn heart to come out right!   The reason I pay attention to this is two-fold: a proper art pour shows that the milk is steamed properly.  Properly steamed milk really enhances the flavor of the espresso, gives your latte or cappuccino that silky texture and is the only way you are going to be able to pour latte art.  Secondly, a barista who takes the time to pour latte art really takes pride in his/her work and I believe it is quality you can taste.   So what did the Texenzabarista pour for me?  A heart?  A rosette?  Nope, I got an amorphous blob – or maybe that was supposed to be a melted snowman?  The barista was rushed I’m sure since he was the only one working there at the time, but I’d rather wait a few extra seconds for a latte done right.

Description: Coffee cortado (An latte art exam...

I wish my latte looked like this

So here’s my report card for Texenza Coffee:

  1. Ambience:  C for lack of character
  2. Service:  B for service with a smile, though they were understaffed
  3. Quality:  D for lack of flavor

I really hate to give them a D for their coffee, but it really was not good.  Maybe it was an off day, but this was my experience.  Oh well – on to the next cup!

Texenza Coffee on Urbanspoon

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Texas may be bigger than France, but…

18 Dec

beers on tap at Hopfields

Charming.  That’s the word that came to mind the moment I stepped into Hopfields, a new central Austin bar on Guadalupe at 31st street.  It’s a small place that’s large on atmosphere, vintage character with a modern twist.  This place has only been open three weeks and already it has a following.

I had the chance to chat with the owner, Bay Anthon, and he told me Hopfields has been a true labor of love, involving the whole family.  His wife was instrumental in the interior design and I think she did a fantastic job.  The rustic dark wood seating, vintage mirrors, copper pendant lighting and cream colored brick walls evoke a comfortable warmth.  The corner benches are actually reclaimed church pews found in Jarrell, Tx (how cool).  There is also an inconspicuous and adorable little candle- lit room in the back, a great place to steal away for an intimate conversation.  The owner also told me about the “secret door”, but since it’s a secret, I can’t tell you about it (otherwise I would have to kill you, of course).

Hopfields offers a wide selection of great beers on tap, including many local brews, as well as wine.  They also serve several select cocktails and, according to my friend Calvin, they make the best sidecar cocktail he has ever had.  I’ve never had a sidecar, but after enjoying a few of the drinks Calvin makes, I’d say the man knows what he’s talking about.  So you might want to give that one a try.

a creamy pint - yum

Another aspect of Hopfields that I love is the food.  The menu is distinctly French.  The list of food choices is petite, but the flavors are anything but.  Remember what I said about it being a family affair?  Yeah, Bay’s mother-in-law was back cooking in the kitchen.  Really.  In fact, the menu consists of her family recipes which Bay told me they have been eating for years, but of course they have never been served in a restaurant before.  Well, hats off to the chef – the food was great!  I enjoyed her salad nicoise – soft, buttery greens with haricots verts (that’s green beans for you non-French folk), fingerling potatoes (that’s small spuds for you non-French folk), olives, tomatoes and hard boiled egg, topped with a generous piece of tuna glazed with a mustard sauce.  I also tried their frites, French for french fries, with aioli for dipping – so tasty and completely addicting.   I’ve also heard from another friend that their burger is fantastic – of course it has a French twist  and absolutely that is what I am ordering for the next time.  Already thinking about it.

So far there is not a happy hour, but Bay told me he’s not ruling out that possibility in the future.  There is free wi-fi and it is a nice place to work from – where do you think I am while typing this?  He would like to encourage work-at-home types to come in during the day, so he may offer specials in the afternoon.  The place is still a work in progress, waiting for us Austinites to help it find its niche.  And I am happy to oblige.

Hopfields on Urbanspoon

Spend your pesos at El Alma Cafe

11 Dec

El Alma Cafe

A friend of mine suggested I check out El Alma Cafe, a Mexican restaurant on Barton Springs Rd that opened this summer, replacing what was El Chile.  My husband and I  arrived around 7 pm on a Friday and the place was hopping.  It is not very big,  you are able to scan the entire restaurant from the front entrance and the tables are placed closely together.   But this arrangement gives a feeling of intimacy and coziness and I like it.  I absolutely love the colorful artwork on the walls and the lighting that illuminates the room makes the place sparkle.

Happy hour runs Monday – Friday 3 to 7 pm and Saturday – Sunday 3 to 6 pm.  Their drink specials consist of $2 Lone Stars, $3 Sangrias, $4 house margaritas and $5 margarita chilangas, which are a spicy, orange infused frozen margarita (yum).  I was really hungry so I was mostly interested in what they had to offer in terms of food.  The happy hour food deal is half priced appetizers and they have some great choices.  We tried the empanadas – crispy, deep fried, filled with mushroom and cheese and served with salsa and guac.  Very tasty.  We also ate the ceviche clasico, which are pieces of lime marinated black drum fish tossed with tomato, avocado, serrano peppers and red onion and served with thick tostada chips.  I love ceviche  and will order it any chance I get – theirs did not disappoint.

ceviche

empanadas

I was still hungry so decided to order an entree and boy am I glad I did.  Sometimes it pays to ask the waiter what his favorite dish is and he did not steer me wrong.  I love meat but the veggie verde enchiladas were so fantastic that I did not miss meat one bit.  The veggie filling of poblanos, mushroom and spinach was so so flavorful and what really did it for me was the smokey yet sweet blanket of tomatillo sauce.  I think I could drink that stuff!  I consider enchiladas the gold standard for mexican food and these were the best vegetarian enchiladas I have ever had.  Seriously.  They are paired up with white rice and black beans for $10.95 and are worth every penny.

I found the quality of the food and the service of the staff to be excellent at El Alma.  The appetizers, though good, are a little expensive if you aren’t able to take advantage of happy hour prices –  full price is $7.95 to $9.95 and they are small.   The main dishes, however,  are reasonably priced – the enchilada plates are $9.95 to $12.95.  They offer tacos a la carte of all sorts (I bet they are delicious) – $3.25 to $4 per taco.  There are also more expensive plates on the menu, varying from $14.95 to $18.95, but considering the yumminess factor (that’s a real word, right?) of the enchiladas, I bet they are worth it.

My vote – go to El Alma for the food.  Go for the atmosphere.  As far as for happy hour?  If you’re a fan of margaritas, 4 to 5 bucks seems pretty good.  If you like Lone Star beer, which I don’t, then you can’t beat 2 bucks for a beer (are they worth that?).  The appetizers are good but small and if you have an appetite like me, then my guess is you’ll be ordering off the regular menu soon enough – and that is not a bad thing.

El Alma on Urbanspoon

You can’t spell happy with Pappy.

7 Dec

The purpose of this blog is to let readers know about all the wonderful little hidden gems this city has to offer in terms of great food and drink.  And one of my pastimes is going out to eat and finding new places to enjoy.  A new restaurant opened up on Burnet Rd recently in my neighborhood and of course it is my duty to check it out.

The place is called Pappy’s Bar and Grill and it inhabits this inconspicuous corner in a strip mall by the Allandale HEB that seems destined to fail.  In the 9 years I have lived here, I have seen that corner spot change hands so many times.  Not sure why, could be that it’s not easily visible since HEB commands the major presence there or the fact that it’s near Kids n Cats, a store that on the inside looks  like a yard sale vomited or where the “Made in China “crap goes to die.  In fact, the owner of Pappy’s apparently was getting really desperate to get customers through the doors that he decided to park himself up on the roof and play his guitar to get people’s attention.  Gotta give him props for trying.

So he got my attention and Ross and I decided to give Pappy’s a shot.  And I really, really wish I had good things to report.  But not in this case.  Oh where should I start?

First off, the place was dark.  Not dark as in mood lighting – dark as in, is this place actually open?  Part of the restaurant looked like it was closed off due to construction or a hazmat accident – not really sure what to make of that.   The waitress comes over right away – okay, prompt service, that’s a plus (though there  really wasn’t anyone else commanding her attention).  She takes our drink orders and hands us the menu.  This is where we should have faked an illness and walked out.  The menu did not give me any confidence in the food since it was a laminated card displaying large photos of the food.  If you’re going to have photos,  be sure they are representative of what you will actually be eating.   You can probably guess by my tone that they were not.  Plus, the menu just looked cheesy.  The food options were incredibly unhealthy – not a single salad or vegetable on there.  Only a burger,  a couple of sandwiches, chicken strips, pizza, hot wings, queso – you get my drift.

Then we got the food.  I ordered a cheeseburger with fries and I think the only way to accurately describe it is to say it was the same quality you would get at the concession stand at the zoo.  Seriously.  The meat patty didn’t even come close to covering the surface area of the bun.  Ross ordered the chicken strips and they weren’t bad, but hey, they’re chicken strips.

Come on Pappy, this is Austin.  If you are planning on serving up some American grub, you’ve got to do better than that,  especially when you’ve got an awesome burger joint practically next door (Phil’s Icehouse).  But I don’t want to just dish out the bad, I want to give a solution for you Pappy.  Because I want to see you succeed -the more restaurants I have in my backyard, the happier I am.

So I’ve got two words for you: SportsBar.  If this place was changed up to a sports bar I bet it would rock!  First of all, this endeavor would not require much.  The space at Pappy’s is ample – in fact, they already have a room set up with two very nice pool tables and darts.  Done.  Second, there is also already a very long bar with three huge flat screen TV’s.  Done.  All you need are more TV’s along the other wall, add more brewery taps, improve the food quality with some healthier options  and serve up good drink specials during game days and you’ve got yourself a business.  Besides, who doesn’t love a sports bar in this town?

I doubt the owner of Pappy’s Bar and Grill will ever read this, which is a shame because I think it would work.  Hmmm…maybe after the place goes under, I’ll take over the lease and turn it into a sports mecca.  Who’s in?

Pappy's Bar and Grill on Urbanspoon

Happy Hour doesn’t get any simplier than this

3 Dec

One evening I decided to stick close to home and called up my good friend Melissa Skorpil, who also lives in my hood, to join me for a happy hour.  We decided to check out Simplicity Wine and Eats, one of the fun establishments on Burnet Rd.  We showed up at 5:30 and the place was pretty empty.  But that soon changed and as the sun went down, the atmosphere went up.  Nostalgic tunes from Depeche Mode were playing overhead, though not too loud so we could actually hold a conversation – what a concept.  Folks started filing in, with a  group of about 15 lively people pushing tables together to create their own party.  Simplicity has a modern and simplistic feel to it, nothing pretentious.  It lacks a little in style compared to other wine bars I’ve been to, but is very comfortable and functional. 

The one thing that I admire about this place and helps it stand out from the crowd is their philosophy of creating an almost zero waste restaurant.  On their website they state that “we compost all of the disposable dishes and utensils (made of renewable corn & bamboo) & we recycle all our wine and beer bottles. Simplicity is a 100+ seat restaurant that only produces 3 bags of landfill trash per week!”  Really??  That is amazing to me because I know of a two person household, well…really a two person, two cat, two dog, two turtle and one gecko  household, who produces about the same amount!  So either they are really eco-friendly or we, um, I mean the other people, are completely wasteful.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say both are probably the case.  But I digress…

The point is that Simplicity is really trying to do their part in helping the environment and I can really get behind that idea.  Their happy hour is Tuesday through Friday, 4 to 7 pm, and offers half off of all starters, $5 wines by the glass, 15% off of all bottles of wine, $2 for all bottles or drafts of beer and $5 pitchers.  We opted for a pitcher of Blue Moon, which is the equivalent of 3 beers for only $5.  That is pretty darn cheap!  We also got a couple of appetizers, the spinach artichoke dip and papas aioli (thick cut potato wedges with garlic aioli dip).  The food here doesn’t have a decadent appearance since it is served in disposable bowls and plates with disposable utensils, but the dip was very fresh tasting and the potatoes were yummy.  The prices are very reasonable and really fantastic during happy hour – our pitcher of beer and two starters cost up a whopping $11!  Seriously.

Simplicity Wine and Eats

photo by Melissa Skorpil

Melissa and I had a great time and we both agreed that Simplicity Wine and Eats is worth coming back to.  Melissa, who is a photographer, brought along her camera and took a shot of me enjoying the beer.  Melissa is a great photographer and she specializes in portraits and food photography-handy for me to have a food photographer as a friend for this blog, eh?  If you’re interested in learning about Melissa’s photography services, view her website, Skorpil Photography.

Until next time, get happy Austin!

Simplicity Wine & Eats on Urbanspoon

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