Category Archives: Food

Flashback to: Austin

Two years ago we were in Austin Texas for the first time.

I’d never been to Texas and had little idea what to expect. My imaginings mainly centred around desert, ten-gallon cowboy hats, guns and other things that can kill you.

While I knew that Austin wasn’t really like the rest of Texas (it’s a pocket of Democrat blue in a Republican red state) I hadn’t been prepared for the city – tall buildings rising, glittering, into a sky shimmering with heat. Bigger than DC, its grid system sprawls for miles beyond the Capitol building in the north and the river just south of the downtown area (everything’s bigger in Texas). Unlike in DC, the grid is unfazed by geographical features, its roads making light work of the sandy creek to the west of downtown and the red river to the east. And the interregional highway cuts through the city, splitting East Austin from the rest of the city and forcing pedestrians into underpasses crowded with panhandlers.

This first time in Austin we hadn’t quite worked out the distances involved in just walking around downtown, so ended up walking miles in the baking hot sun. It was worth it though, as the city has so much to see and experience. Our longest walk was probably out west and north to Graffiti Hill. As we reached residential areas we began to doubt that we were on the right track, and then we found it – a series of graffiti walls leading up to the castle. It’s a strange place, but then Austin is famed for being ‘weird’.

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Keeping Austin Weird: experiences

Another bizarre experience was going to see the bats. The South Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin happens to have the world’s largest urban bat colony living under it (I told you – everything’s bigger in Texas). Every evening, just before sunset, all the bats stream out from under the bridge and fly out to enjoy the evening. Every evening, having checked their phones to find out when sunset will be, all the tourists crowd onto the bridge to watch. You can also watch from the river itself by hiring a kayak or similar, or from the bat observatory and the riverside.

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It was quite weird. The squeaking as they flew out from under us, the fluttering, whirring, rasping sound of their leathery little wings, but most unexpectedly, the faint smell rising from the cloud – reminiscent of rodents, but not quite the same.

Slightly less weird, but still pretty wild, is Austin’s nightlife. This centres on 6th Street, west of Congress Avenue and down to the highway. Austin is known as the ‘live music capital of the world’, and here on 6th street pretty much every bar will have some form of live music at some point in the evening. Some have a charge to get in; we decided just to hit as many of the ones without cover charges as possible, and we ended up seeing some weird bands! We also ended up in some weird places. One bar, called Nook, once we got in, turned out not to actually have a roof, so we were just drinking in the open air. Another is themed around the mythical creature, the Jacalope, and has at its heart a bucking bronco – except of course it’s a bucking Jacalope.

One of my favourite of Austin’s weird bars was on Brazos Street. Located on the ground floor of a hostel and reached through a secret door disguised as a bookcase, is a really great cocktail bar. I’m not going to tell you exactly where it is – that would spoil the fun – but if you’re ever in Austin, do go and look for it!

Food in Austin

Everywhere there’s good beer, excellent burgers and Mexican food, and good barbecue – though this is more traditionally eaten for breakfast or lunch. I wrote about our experience of Austin’s barbecue joints in my blog post on the difference between barbecue and grilling. Austin has some great outdoor barbecue places with, of course, live music. Here are the places we went to for food:

  • La barbecue – outdoor barbecue with live music and picnic tables. There’s a long wait but it’s definitely worth it. Having looked on Google I think this may have moved to East Austin now, further down Cesar Chavez street.
  • House Park Bar-B-Q – really old barbecue joint near Graffiti Hill.
  • Casino el Camino – great bar with possibly the best burgers in America
  • Chuys – a bit of a way out, on Barton Springs Road, and I know it’s a chain, but it’s probably the best Tex Mex I’ve had.

East Austin

When we visited Austin for the second time (I was at the university on a fellowship – you can read about it here) we got to explore the slightly more chilled and hipster East Austin.

East Austin is more residential, and I was staying with a local couple in an Air B&B in the lovely Swede Hill district. While the residential bit was lovely, the highway just to the west was a bit of an issue. When I arrived, my taxi drove under the highway and I was struck by the fact that I would have to negotiated this underpass on my way to the university every day. Luckily I found an overpass, just a few minutes out of my way, to the south, which gave me far easier access to the main city.

While we didn’t find such good food in east Austin, we did find some quirky places to get really good coffee. The Vintage Heart coffee shop certainly won our hearts with their great coffee and delicious doughnuts. And the Quickie Pickie grocery store had a lovely outside area where you could sit, eat and drink in the calm of the evening. A very different vibe to 6th street!

More Conventional Austin

As I mentioned, the second time we visited Austin I was there for a fellowship at the Harry Ransom Library, based at the University of Texas, Austin (hook ’em horns!)

The university is a great example of one of those big, well-funded state universities with top of the range sports facilities and one of the top college football teams, as well as enviable research facilities. One of the reasons for its financial stability is that in the early twentieth century they found oil on land that belonged to the university, and the rest is history.

As well as the Harry Ransom library, which has regular exhibitions, the university campus also houses the Lyndon B. Johnson museum, which is well worth a visit. It might be one of my favourite museums. I knew very little about LBJ before I visited, but he really did accomplish a huge amount in only one term as president. His work on equal rights should be better known over here – while Kennedy spoke about equal rights, it was Johnson that got through the legislation, and it was his experiences teaching Mexican American students in a segregated school that inspired his mission of social reform. The museum also has a life-sized, animatronic Lyndon B Johnson, which just has to be seen to be believed!

Nearby the University is the Texas State Museum, which is also very much worth your time. Before I went, I knew I should ‘remember the Alamo’, but after my visit I knew why I should remember it, and that I should probably also remember the massacre at Goliad as well.

Right now, from rainy London, where it’s struggling to remain above 20 degrees at the moment, I’ll just enjoy my memories of Austin. We had two great trips and, while I’m not sure I could live in that climate, if I ever get another chance I’ll enjoy ‘keeping it weird’ again in Austin.

 

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Asheville road trip: eating and drinking in Asheville

Asheville is a great town in which to spend a weekend – especially if you have some weather like we had.

When people had told us about Asheville they had talked about the craft breweries, the arty/hipster vibe of the town and the Vanderbilts’ Biltmore House and Estate. Luckily it turned out that it was possible to experience all of these in just a few days, and in fact we fit most of our sightseeing and pub-crawling into just one day, as I was actually attending my conference the rest of the time(!)

So here’s a run down of where we ate and drank over the three days we had in Asheville.

Brews

Wicked Weed: Our first night in Asheville we managed to find the Wicked Weed Brewing pub/restaurant. They specialise in West Coast-style hoppy IPAs and they did not disappoint. This is my kind of beer, so I was pretty happy. Their burgers were also amazing, including one topped with pancetta and pork rinds and a bison burger with hoi sin sauce and blue cheese coleslaw. I liked the complimentary pretzels with mustard dip. Some of the beers are rather strong, and some are a bit experimental – mango guava gose anyone? – but I’d rather have a place that misses from time to time than one that isn’t interested in trying stuff out.The pub has a large garden area and is able to open most of its frontage to the open air, so you feel like you’re eating outside even when you’re inside. They also have a downstairs tasting room and a yard area that gets busy on a weekend evening, with long tables, loud music and games of corn hole. We ended up here for a late night drink the next night…

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Lexington Avenue Brewery: On Friday we started here, closer in to the center of town. This place has a nice variety of beers, and I was able to find a nice session beer to start the evening with. No free snacks here, but we ordered some really great soft pretzels. Although this place does not have a garden, if you can get seats at the front you can lean on the large window ledges and enjoy the open air of the square outside. This was also a really friendly place – we got some good recommendations for other breweries from the other patrons here.

Oysterhouse Brewing Company:

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We stopped here for a mid-afternoon snack after going round Biltmore. On first sight it looks just like a nice cafe-bar on a corner. There’s a few tables out front, the frontage opens to the street, and there’s a nice bar with oyster shells embedded in the top. If you go to the bathroom though, you come across the brewery! We had a really great stout here, along with some excellent oysters. I didn’t expect to find good seafood in the mountains, but these were fresh from New England, and delicious.

The Wedge:

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This was probably our favourite brewery in Asheville. Based in a few old buildings by the railway, in the Asheville Arts District, this place has a large amount of outside space for people to enjoy, and free mini-pretzels and a Korean barbecue food truck in case you get hungry. We sat in the sunshine, at a picnic table which we ended up sharing with a group of hikers who had just finished a hike in the mountains. They were interested to find out how we’d found the Wedge, and what people had told us about Asheville, and were very happy to give us some recommendations for where else to drink, and eat, and hear some music. As can happen when you find that perfect beer and a sunny place to enjoy it in, time rather got away from us at this brewery, and we ended up heading back to the hotel sunburnt and sleepy.

The Thirsty Monk: We came here for a beer while we waited for a table at Tupelo Honey. It was a cool pub, decorated with signs from breweries from around the US, and the beer was good, Belgian style beer.

Food

Tupelo Honey: Although this is a chain, we decided it was worth eating here while we were in Asheville. And it was good. First came pickled and fried vegetables with ranch dressing, and fried green tomatoes with grits. I must admit, I just don’t get fried green tomatoes. The grits were great, but the tomatoes were just acidic. For mains we decided to go with the meals that included a choice of two sides, as a Southerner once told us that Southern-style food is all about the sides. I had the Carolina pan-seared trout along with mac and cheese and basil fried green beans, which was just perfect, while R went the whole hog and had fried chicken with gravy, sweet potatoes and okra – very Southern!

Biscuit Head:

I cannot recommend this place highly enough. We went here on the way out to Biltmore for breakfast/brunch and it was a revelation in biscuits. Here we were introduced to the Cat head biscuit – biscuits literally as big as a cat’s head – smothered in various breakfasty toppings and sauces. This is probably the only place in the world you can get a flight of gravies to go with your biscuit. We had a go at sharing both the pulled pork biscuit (which comes with maple syrup, pimento, bacon and a poached egg) and the country ham biscuit (which comes with cheese, scrambled egg, fried green tomato and espresso gravy). It’s a lovely place too, with space in and out, and friendly staff. You queue to order and then find somewhere to sit – it doesn’t take as long as you might fear from the length of the queue, and while we were queuing they brought out refreshing testers of iced chai. You also get unmatched proper mugs for your coffee, which I thought was a nice touch.

Getting Around

While Asheville has a nice and compact downtown area, and you can just about walk to the downtown arts district – which is around where the Wedge is – we found that it was helpful to have a car, especially to get to Biscuit Head and the Oysterhouse.

Locals’ Recommendations

We didn’t manage to check these places out, but we were told good things about them. One thing we noticed about Asheville was that its restaurants offer a wide variety of cuisines – if we hadn’t been so looking forward to Southern food and Brew-pub snacks, we would have been spoiled for choice. (Some of these might require reservations)

  • Zambra: tapas restaurant
  • Table: modern American restaurant
  • Limones: Californian/Mexican restaurant
  • Early Girl Eatery: brunch place
  • Catawba: brewery
  • Green Man: brewery
  • The Moth Light: music venue
  • Asheville Music Hall/One Stop Deli and Bar: food, drink and music

 

Read other posts in this series:

American ‘candy’!

As I faced the possibility this summer that our American adventure might be coming to an end, it suddenly struck me that I hadn’t fully explored the wealth of American candy out there. As you can see from the photo below, not all American candy is unfamiliar to the British eye. Both countries have access to Mars products like Snickers, Twix and MnMs, and I’ve definitely come across Reese’s cups in the UK. But look closely and you’ll see that American Milky Ways don’t look quite the same as British ones, and then there’s the puzzle of the intriguingly named 3 Musketeers…

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So for the good cause of this blog, I carried out some research into all the chocolate that was unfamiliar to me. I may have to wait a few months for my waistline to recover before I repeat the experiment for non-chocolate candy (or as we say in the UK, sweets)! Anyway, while I’m sure I’ve missed plenty, the preliminary results are now in. I now have a good idea what the different sorts of candy are, and which I would walk to the store to buy in the event of a sugar crisis. In other words, I’ve tasted a variety of Hersheys and other products, and scored them (highly subjectively) out of 5.

Firstly, I can report that, in fact:

  • US Milky Ways are actually like Mars Bars (I’d give them 4/5).
  • And the 3 Musketeers bars are, in a pleasantly surprising way, what UK milky ways used to be like in the 80s/early 90s (these score a perfect 5/5, partly for the nostalgia value).

Another one that made me nostalgic was the Heath bar, which I discovered is like the UK’s dime bar! Toffee in the US is pretty much always hard. Unfortunately this is Hershey’s – I don’t like the after-taste of their chocolate – so I can only score it 2/5.

The York Peppermint Patty is famous from Charlie Brown cartoons. It’s pretty good, not too sweet, and comes in mini or standard sizes. 5/5

There are a few brands that come in boxes, and seem to have been popular cinema snacks:

  •  Milk duds – not at all what I expected from the name. These are like the chocolate covered toffee you get in a tub of Quality street. After a while all the chewing gets tiring (2/5).
  • Junior mints – nice, small chocolate covered mint creams. Pleasant, but not much to write home about (4/5).
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These were devoured before I remembered to take photos…

As you might know, there’s a wealth of peanut themed sweets in the US, so I thought I’d give them their own section. Here’s my observations so far:

  • Reese’s Cups – I always loved these when I could get them in the UK. Chocolate over peanut butter cream – how can you go wrong? In the US they don’t just come in the original sized cups, but also in a large cup, and as mini-cups (eat a whole bag of these and you’ll feel very sick). Sometimes you can find them in dark chocolate. At Halloween they made pumpkin shaped cups, and for Valentines they were heart-shaped (tasty and versatile, always a good bet – 5/5).
  • Reese’s Nutrageous bar – might be my favourite. A bar of peanut butter cream plus actual peanuts, covered in chocolate (5/5).
  • Reese’s pieces – these look like MnMs, but are disappointing. They could actually do with some chocolate as they’re just sweet peanut cream in sweet candy shells (2/5)
  • Butterfinger – again, these come in regular and mini, and they recently brought out a cup version to compete with Reese’s. These remind me slightly of the old peanut cracknell that used to be in Quality Street, but I’m not sure this works so well in a large size (4/5 – mainly for the minis)
  • Baby Ruth – Seemed to me to be basically just like a Snickers, which is not bad (4/5)
  • Mr. Good bar – this is just a Hershey bar with peanuts, and, as I’ve mentioned, I’m not a fan of Hershey’s chocolate (1/5)
  • Payday – salty peanuts in a sweet corn syrup paste. This was actually rather unpleasant. (zero)
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I’m not sure what it is the York peppermint patty has 70% less fat than – a stick of butter?

Happily, as you might know if you’re a regular reader of my blog, our American adventure did not come to an end this autumn – our new visas were approved – so I still have time to try more American candy! There’s always plenty to choose from, including the seasonal treats surrounding Valentines Day, Easter, and Halloween. So if you know of an American candy bar I’ve not tried yet, do let me know. Which are your favourites?

The International House of Pancakes

A post for Pancake Day.

Pretty soon after I first arrived in the States my sister asked ‘So have you been to the IHOP yet?’. I was mystified, but it turned out she was referring to the ‘International House of Pancakes – the IHOP’. Apparently this often features in American TV shows, but for some reason I’d never heard of it.

In fact, it took me a while to even locate a branch in DC (though, as I wrote about a while ago, DC doesn’t have many great examples of old-style fast food places). In the same way as my local McDonalds and Burger King don’t exactly invite you in, it was apparent from Yelp reviews that my local IHOP (in Columbia Heights) was similarly unappealing – if I see the word ‘cockroaches’ in a review it’s a fair bet I’m going to be steering clear of that restaurant.

So I was really pleased when I discovered that the branch of IHOP opposite my doctor’s office in Arlington was both clean and well-reviewed. Finally, I would experience this mecca for pancake lovers – the myriad selection of flavoured syrups, those appetizing looking stacks of fluffy goodness, topped with an ice-cream scoop of whipped butter (take a look at their website and you’ll see what I mean).

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I don’t really know what I was expecting. The ‘international house of’ part of the name reminded me of the warm and friendly experiences I’d had in Center Parcs in the UK and in Holland. These European holiday parks offer relaxed, comfortable stays in forests, with activities for kids and spa-experiences for adults – and the famous Pancake House.

However, the sterile, cubicled space I entered in Arlington was a far cry from the clean lines and bright colours of the European diner I’d enjoyed. True, I was dining alone, which is often a depressing experience, but I think a certain amount of my disappointment was caused by the decor. It was the kind of design that you could imagine repeated across America, always the same, these 4-people booths with low cubicle walls so they could adapt to fit two sets of separate couples. The best I could say for this place was that they had used the space efficiently.

Good features of the IHOP are the size of their menu and their prices. The menu appears to be huge, partly because they offer nearly every ‘combo’ you can think of to suit your needs and your wallet. I got the 2x2x2 – 2 fried eggs, 2 pieces of bacon and 2 pancakes. It was cheap and it was fast. It’s basically the fast-food version of breakfast. And, as so often happens with fast food, it’s a bit underwhelming. It was all fine and tasty enough, and the service was prompt, and the place was clean – it was fine. The flavoured syrups on the table were fun for a little, but are a bit gimmicky, and I enjoyed the full flask of coffee that was brought for just me, but the whole thing felt a bit sad. Not at all what I’d been hoping for or what that smile on the website had hinted at.

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So today I won’t be celebrating Pancake Day at the IHOP. I’m glad I got to experience it, but I’ll be marking the day at home.

I have flour, milk and eggs and will make the traditional British (thin) pancakes of my youth (which I didn’t much enjoy back then, strange child that I was). In the past I have experimented by spreading them with nutella and adding banana, but I think the flavoured syrups at IHOP taught me a lesson. Lemon and sugar is all you need.

 

 

A trip to Costco

I think we have Costco in the UK, but in the US, for some families, it seems to be a religion.

A really great ex-colleague of my husband’s is a member and decided that we had to have this religious experience ourselves at least once while we were out here. I was a bit skeptical, as we might not be around for very long and it didn’t seem the time to buy in bulk, but that skepticism vanished pretty much as soon as we walked in. I don’t think I have quite the words to describe the experience, so I’m going to let my photos speak more or less for themselves.

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The never-ending warehouse…
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So much pie!
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Above: Shrimp for lunch anyone? Below: More shrimp! And so so much meat.

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I’m a bit ashamed to say that we couldn’t resist the cheap meat, and left with enough chicken to feed us for about six weeks, along with cans and cans of tuna, olives and anchovies! Oh – and a very good-value bottle of gin…

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Chin-chin!