Gastronomically speaking, this was one of the best trips I've taken lately. Partially, that was due to the presence of Carl Stone, composer and insatiable gourmet, who is always ready to blast off to uncharted new dimensions, in Austin at the beginning of the trip. With the cry of "Let's have another" ringing in your ears, it's hard to resist.
Thus, my first day in Austin ended with dinner at Madras Pavillion, the South Indian vegetarian restaurant I discovered a few years ago, but this time, we avoided the combo plates and ordered this and that from the a la carte meu -- a great idea, as it turned out. Among the great things we got were "Chinese" iddlis (the menu there realizes that a lot of the Indians who eat at the place come with their kids, and those kids are bored with Indian food, so it has several odd fusion dishes, including an Italian dosa I'm scared of), which were nice and fiery, a semolina-based dish tempered with roasted dal and spices, and a number of other things I"ve forgotten. There was a pink dipping sauce I've got to see if I can find in my books, too, along with the usual rasam. If you live in Austin and haven't been to this place, you're missing one of its great treasures.
In fact, India seems to be making a strong showing in Austin -- thanks, high-tech folks! -- and another worthy place is the funky Shalimar far up on N. Lamar. There was a Pakistani wedding going on in their back room the night I visited, which I took for a good sign, and the place is properly Pakistani rather than Indian, not that there's that much difference between Pakistani and Northern Indian, thanks to the Mughal influence. I had a beef dish that was cooked almost to the point where the meat dissolved in the unctuous green sauce, and, since it was on the menu, mattar panir, which I love. This was the best I've ever had in a restaurant (I've made slightly better at home). Creamy, with nicely made fresh panir, and -- the big difference -- cashew nuts which brought out not only the nuttiness of the sauce, but also the panir flavor. And made with frozen peas, not canned. I'm sure restaurants are finally catching on to this trick, but dang, it took them a long time. Zero atmosphere, television tuned to a sports channel, and super-low prices.
Mexico, however, is not to be slighted, at least not while I'm in town. The find this time was La Michoacana Meat Market on East 7th St., thanks to a tip from my old pal George Leake, who resurfaced via e-mail just before I left Berlin and mentioned this place as being a place where his co-workers at the restaurant he cooks at recommended as somewhere you could get stuff as good as their grandmothers and mothers make. In the center of the store there's a counter with a steam-table and a big flat space on which to toast tortillas, as well as a fryolater for the gorditas and huaraches they also sell there (both bases for the toppings from the steam-table). You go in, decide what you want, then go stand in line at one of the cash registers and tell them what type of thing you're going to order ("three corn tacos," for instance). Then you go back to the counter, hand over the receipt the cashier's given you, and order. The lady will have your tacos ready in seconds: big, fat, two-tortilla ones. She'll then ask you if you want onions and cilantro with them (correct answer: yes), and hand them over. There's an amazing red picante sauce in squeeze bottles on the tables surrounding the counter, or they'll put some in little containers for a to-go order. Oh, and did I mention that each of these beauties costs $1.49? That's less than a Euro! Over several days, I managed to sample chile verde, picadillo, al pastor, barbacoa, rajitas con queso, and, one morning for breakfast, egg and potato, ham and egg, and chorizo and egg tacos. Every single one of them was stunning. Carl got a plato, with rice and beans, on our visit, with the chile verde, for, I think, less than four bucks. Asking around various long-time Austinites, I got an almost unanimous "I've driven past that place" reaction, but, besides George, I didn't meet anyone who'd been there. Big mistake, folks. Plus, the grocery section is a trip: everything you need to set yourself up to cook Mexican, including, duh, meat cut for fajitas and so on.
Seven years ago, on a cold day, I found an odd Mexican restaurant on S. 1st that specialized in lamb, only to have it vanish without trace. Recently, I discovered that it had re-appeared on S. Congress just north of Ben White. El Borrego de Oro is at 3900 S. Congress, and well worth the visit. I had the birria plate ($9.50), which was a stupefying quantity of lamb stewed with tomato and onion, with which you get handmade tortillas and pico de gallo. They also have a lamb soup with hunks of corncob floating in it, but it wasn't that cold this time. They also do seafood, including cocktels, which are good. I also note on the menu I took away that there's a cabrito soup and various other unusual dishes, including a chicken breast stuffed with chorizo, mushroom, and cheese that sounds pretty good.
Carl and I also found a place on Cesar Chavez that advertised itself as "el catedral de mariscos," and, while it was more of a parish church than a cathedral, it partially satisfied my jones for Mexican seafood. Someday I'll find a place that does calamares rellenos, small squid with the bodies stuffed with rice and peas and then covered with ranchero sauce, like a joint called Lucy's Mariscos in Santa Monica did in the '70s. Hell, maybe it exists in Austin: far north Lamar seems to be the new ethnic gourmet gulch, and if I'd had more time, I'd have explored the Chinese seafood place I saw, not to mention a few of the Mexican places, and I'd also have rampaged through the Chinatown center, the new Vietnamese shopping mall at 10900 N. Lamar (a number that surely didn't exist when I first came to Austin), although I noticed that a banh mi place was going in there, so that'll be waiting for me next year.
About midway into the Austin segment of the trip, I got a cold which shut down my taste-buds, but fortunately they revived in time for me to have two great meals at Madam Mam's, which still makes the best Thai food I've ever had. The major discovery this time was a so-called appetizer of beautifully grilled marinated pork served with various vegetables and an insanely delicious sauce. You wrap the pork in the romaine lettuce leaves that come with it, dip it in the sauce, and experience bliss. But you'd better have at least one other person at the table if you want to order a main course; this is a serious quantity of food!
And no trip to Austin would be complete without a visit to Gene's for an oyster po-boy (Carl was so in need of one he got to Austin, picked up his rent car, and drove to Gene's for one before he checked into his hotel, so you can see he has his priorities straight!). The only thing wrong with Gene's is that it closes at 8pm, and I don't like heavy lunches, so I've never tried his jambalaya or fried chicken because I rarely eat dinner too early. Gene promised me he's working on later opening hours, so I hope he has that worked out before next year. Or I'll comprimise my principles. It's worth it, I bet.
In other news, Hoover's is now open for breakfast daily, which is very good news indeed, since you can get garlic cheese grits for breakfast and dinner now. A bunch of us No Depression writers got together to buy Peter and Grant breakfast in thanks for the ones they'd bought us over the years, and although the occasion was sad, the food made up for it as much as it could.
Wait! What about barbeque? Well, with Carl in town, you can bet at least one trip was made, and we headed to Lockhart for a Smitty's versus Kreuz showdown. Comparison of the brisket and pork chop at both places proved Kreuz the winner this time out, and their cheese-jalapeno sausage was a surprise new hit, too. I was stuffed, though, to an almost unpleasant degree, so it was a good thing I was driving, because when Carl said "But what about Black's?" I could just ignore him and drive out of town.
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My trip ended with a marathon journey that went Austin to Newark, Newark to Paris, and then Paris to Montpellier on the TGV train. It was a complete change of scene, but a great one; I can't wait to start cooking down there. Meanwhile I had to make do with eating at restaurants, and can report that you can get a superb slice of terrine and a great steak with a Roquefort sauce and a half-liter of wine at the Bistrot d'Alco for twenty Euros (the place is an old favorite of mine there), which is what I did as soon as I'd taken a nap to burn off some of the jet-lag. The new discovery came courtesy of Bart Calendar, an American blogger/writer who's been in Montpellier for a number of years, after we started talking about cassoulet (not really native to the immediate area, but, seeing as how it was cold, something that sounded damn good) in the Bar Vert Anglais. Several names were proposed, and I intend to research them some day, but La Chêneraie won the toss. The place isn't without problems -- the bread was very substandard for a town with superb bakeries, and the cheese course was meager and way too cold -- but the cassoulet was excellent and only €17.90 on the menu, and the half-bottle of Chateau de Fourques from St. Georges d'Orques, a little-known Languedoc appellation, was a revelation: spicy and fruity, revealing new mixtures of the two with each sip.
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Tomorrow, various notes and miscellenea from Austin and Montpellier, including further news on the move.