Franklin Barbecue – Austin, TX

July 28th, 2014 by virginia

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Prior to our arrival in Texas, I hadn’t given much thought to Franklin Barbecue. Sure, I wanted to try it, but I also don’t like standing in line or big crowds. I also don’t like feeling disappointed when restaurants don’t live up to their hype. But after getting to Austin and realizing there really wasn’t that much to see around the city, we decided to bite the bullet and make the wait, the logic being that who knows when we’ll ever be back in Austin.

For those of you who’ve never heard of Franklin Barbecue or have never seen the Chase commercial featuring Nobu Matsuhisa, a renowned Japanese chef, visiting the famous Austin joint and meeting Aaron Franklin, the person behind the barbecue, it’s a much lauded barbecue restaurant that started as a food trailer and quickly grew into a brick and mortar location with a line almost as notorious as its food. People literally wait hours each day to eat this barbecue, and brisket, Franklin’s most popular item, always sells out. Once all the food is gone, usually by midday, they close up shop. And so basically, unless you’re the POTUS, there’s no way to avoid waiting if you want to taste that brisket.

Josh and I mapped out our plan of action the night before: he would leave our hotel first around 8:30 am and get in line. I would stay in the room until J woke up and get her ready for the day, including packing the diaper bag full of books and toys that would amuse her during the inevitable wait. While I was getting everything ready, Josh called to say that I should bring whatever beer we had, as the line was long and everyone was drinking. So I put the beer we had left over from the Salt Lick, as well as a few other beers we acquired during our trip, in a grocery bag topped with ice, hooked it up to J’s stroller, and soon J and I were on our way.

I’m pretty directionally challenged, so even though Josh tried to tell me how to get there the night before, I stopped by the front desk for a map and clear instructions. It was almost 10 am at this point. When I asked the nice young man at the desk how to get to Franklin Barbecue, his response was, “Well you see, ma’am, the thing about this place is, there’s this line…” My first thought was, “Yikes! Am I really a ‘ma’am’ already?” Which was quickly followed by my second thought, “Duh, of course I know about the line.” I convinced myself that the “ma’am” was just a polite Southern thing, not a reflection of how old I may or may not look, and I quickly assured him that my husband was already waiting in line; I just needed to know where to go to meet him.

It was a pretty short walk from our hotel to Franklin Barbecue, and as the restaurant came into sight, the line didn’t look too bad. Only when I got closer, and could see down the hill from the building, did I realize just how far it stretched.

At first glance, the line doesn't look too bad

At first glance, the line doesn’t look too bad…

Upon closer inspection, you see just how far down the block the line stretches

Upon closer inspection, you see just how far down the block the line stretches

When I located Josh, who was about three-quarters down in the line, he told me that the line had actually been longer, but they had just given out the “last man standing” sign to someone only a few people behind him, and so a bunch of people who were at the very end of the line gave up and left. The sign indicates that the person holding it is the last person guaranteed to get brisket. Basically, a worker at the restaurant takes a poll of what each person in line is going to order, and then based on that, they estimate at which point they’re going to run out of brisket. There is also an informal rib count, and I was alarmed to hear that the people right in front of us were the last ones guaranteed ribs.

Our position in line

Our position in line

The restaurant officially opens at 11am, and so we still had a bunch of time to kill before the line would even begin to start moving. Looking around, most people were a lot more prepared than we were, with folding chairs, umbrellas, and coolers of drinks set up. One rowdy group behind us (who we later found out was the crew from Uchi and Uchiko, two of Austin’s top restaurants and where Top Chef Paul Qui honed his skills) was drinking endless cups of bloody marys and seemed to be having a great time. I guess if you think of the wait as sort of a pre-bbq tailgating party, it’s just part of the fun. I still didn’t think the wait was fun, but at least we had a few cold beers to help us pass the time. And if you don’t remember or know to BYO, someone comes around selling cold beers and drinks from a tray.

To kill some time during the wait, Josh went to check out where the magic happens - the smokers out back

To kill some time during the wait, Josh went to check out where the magic happens – the smokers out back

At long last, the line began moving at 11, but at a snail’s pace. The pair in front of us, who were students at the University of Texas, were experienced diners and told us that the line moves slowly because they’ll only serve as many people as they can seat in the restaurant. That way, you are guaranteed to find somewhere to sit and eat your food immediately. It made sense to us, but as the line eventually crawled up towards the side of the building, there looked like a few tables were always empty at any given time.

When we ultimately made our way up the ramp and inside the restaurant (a triumphant feeling, 4 hours after Josh first started waiting), we could finally see what was going on. There’s still a decent wait from the time you get inside until you reach the counter to order, and the reason for that is the man himself – Aaron Franklin. Not only was he taking everyone’s order and personally slicing every brisket, he was greeting and chatting with each person that came up. When it was finally our turn, he asked us where we were from, gave us permission to take pictures, and then made fun of us for not ordering enough food (I guess most people order a lot and take home leftovers, which wouldn’t have been practical for us).

When we ordered a quarter pound of brisket, he asked if we wanted fatty or lean. We’re no fools (or so we thought) – of course we wanted fatty! Then he asked if we were sure, and he sliced off a hunk of a lean burnt end for us to taste, which may have been the single greatest bite of barbecue I’ve ever eaten. Seriously.

The master in action

The master in action

The burnt end, which is the end point of a whole brisket, is probably the most flavorful part of the meat. It’s usually fatty and has lots of bark on it, and even though this was a lean end, we literally had juices dripping down our arms when we bit into it. The end had a nice bit of char on it, was smoky but not overly so, and ridiculously rich in the best way possible. Those ends alone were worth the wait, and we were pretty lucky to have gotten to try them. We wound up changing our order to half lean and half fatty because of that.

The lean brisket was still nicely marbled throughout, though it had a meatier texture than the fatty brisket. The fatty brisket was so tender it practically melted in our mouths. I think it’s just a personal preference – it you like to chew your meat, go for lean. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not tough or chewy at all, but it’s definitely got more bite than the fatty. Some people might find the fatty end too fatty and soft, but for me, there’s no such thing when the meat is prepared properly. The char on the outside of all the slices was just great, imparting lots of concentrated meat flavor.

Brisket up close - look at the glorious bark

Brisket up close – look at the gorgeous bark

The rest of the barbecue was no slouch either. Fortunately, they did not run out of ribs ahead of us, so we were able to get a quarter pound of those. The juicy ribs that were meaty and well seasoned. They weren’t falling off the bone but yielded easily to our bites.

Ribs up top, brisket, pulled pork, turkey on the left, plus bread and cole slaw

Ribs up top, fatty and lean brisket, pulled pork, turkey on the left, plus bread and cole slaw

Cole slaw was the only side we ordered, which we used as a crunchy counterpoint to all the rich meat we were eating. It was perfectly fine – fresh, crisp, not overdressed – but nothing to write home about.

Cole slaw

Cole slaw

We also got a quarter pound of pulled pork, which wasn’t the pulverized mash that we’re used to seeing. This was roughly chopped meat, still in identifiable chunks, with a good mix of fatty and lean bits.

Pulled pork

Pulled pork up close

The pulled pork was the best vehicle for three barbecue sauces on the table – Texas-style, espresso, and sweet vinegar. Texas-style was the standard thicker, darker, sweet and smoky sauce. The vinegar sauce reminded us of Carolina barbecue, with its signature tang. The espresso sauce definitely had a strong hint of coffee flavor, but was a bit too out of the box for us to really enjoy the barbecue with; it seem to overpower the flavor of the meat. And we used the other sauces sparingly, as this barbecue was good simply on its own.

Barbecue sauces - espresso, sweet vinegar, Texas-style

Trio of barbecue sauces – espresso, sweet vinegar, and Texas-style

Instead of sausage, we decided to try the turkey, which people in line told us was really something special. The slices we got in our quarter pound order were surprisingly moist for breast meat, and packed a punch of smoky flavor. Josh declared it the best turkey he’s ever eaten, and he desperately wants to try smoking a turkey for our next holiday meal. I’m generally not a turkey lover, except maybe on a club sandwich slathered with mayo, so I probably didn’t appreciate the smoked turkey as much. Compared to the other meats we had, it was much drier in texture, and the smokiness was a bit too strong for my taste. We saved a few pieces of it for J to eat later, as she had fallen asleep while we were in line. She was a definite trooper during the wait – reading books, eating snacks, drinking milk, toddling around, and generally charming the people around her. Aside from a younger baby in a carrier, she was the only kid we saw in line.

Smoked turkey

Smoked turkey

Overall, I have to say, Franklin Barbecue definitely lived up to the hype. We haven’t tasted better barbecue anywhere else, and for us, it was worth the wait. The line itself is an adventure – if you come prepared for it, time passes quickly. The people we met in line treated the wait like a party. They planned their whole day around this. For them, it was a time to drink, laugh, and hang out with friends before eating amazing food. And the barbecue is absolutely amazing. The flavors of the meat, the textures, were all outstanding. Aside from the turkey (which Josh loved), I thought nothing was too smoky but everything had a wonderful savoriness to it that was imparted by the smoker. We ate until we were stuffed, and then continued eating because it was just too good to stop. Besides, we had burned off plenty of calories standing in line for 4.5 hours. And you know what? We would do it again.

Franklin Barbecue
900 E. 11th St.
Austin, TX

Sold out! The sign on the door when we left the restaurant around 2:30 pm.

Sold out! The sign on the door when we left the restaurant around 2:30 pm

The Salt Lick – Driftwood, TX

July 23rd, 2014 by virginia

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We took a much-needed break in San Antonio from eating barbecue after our epic day of feasting through Luling and Lockhart, but we picked back up on the barbecue train after arriving in Austin. We spent the afternoon exploring the south side of the city, including the famed South Congress Ave. area where there are lots of restaurants and bars. It was kind of dead though, as it was still early in the evening, so we decided to make the 40 minute drive to the original location of the Salt Lick, a barbecue place we’ve heard a lot about.

It was fortunate that we made the decision to go when we did, as they were closing the restaurant early for their staff holiday party that evening. There was a short wait for a table, but we had the foresight to pick up a 6-pack of beer on our way to the restaurant (it’s a BYO) so we were able to enjoy a cold one while we waited. It also gave us time to observe the huge pit were all the meats were being cooked, which definitely helped to whet our appetites.

The barbecue pit at the Salt Lick

The barbecue pit at the Salt Lick

We ended up getting a huge table in the back just for the three of us, which gave us plenty of room to accommodate J’s high chair and spread out. We debated ordering family style, which is basically all you can eat beef brisket, pork ribs, and sausage, as well as sides, but we weren’t super hungry and didn’t want to overdo it. At $21.95/person though, it’s a pretty good deal, and a lot of groups around us appeared to be partaking. Instead, we shared combo plate and one double cut beef rib. The combo plate came with two meats, and we selected brisket and pork ribs (the other choices are sausage or turkey). It came with potato salad, cole slaw, and beans on the side, as well as soft bread, pickles, and onions.

Table of food (and you can see J's little hand reaching out to snag a rib!)

Table of food (and you can see J’s little hand reaching out to snag a rib!)

The pork ribs were very meaty, not falling off the bone but still tender. The brisket was on the drier side though, without the marbling that I like in fattier cuts. Fortunately the Salt Lick barbecue sauce was there to help, add some moisture and tangy sweetness.

Combo plate with brisket and pork ribs

Combo plate with brisket and pork ribs

The single order double cut beef rib actually came with two ribs, both massive. I felt like I was in the Flintstones, gnawing on a gigantic rib. Unfortunately, the meat was pretty tough and dry, and even the barbecue sauce wasn’t much help here. The pork rib was the clear winner of the two.

Double cut beef ribs

Double cut beef ribs – you can see the meat sort of dried and shriveling away from the bone on the front rib

Overall, we were slightly disappointed with the barbecue from the Salt Lick. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. The meat didn’t have much smoke flavor to it, which I don’t necessarily mind, but it was definitely drier than other barbecue we tasted on our trip. I don’t know if they were in a rush since they were closing early that evening so we just happened to be there on an off night, or if what we got was standard. I also think that part of the appeal of the Salt Lick (the Driftwood location at least) is the atmosphere, which is usually supposed to be crowded, noisy, and festive, with live music and plenty of seating, both indoors and out. We were there on a chilly winter night just before they were closing, and we were at a big table with just the three of us. I would definitely like to try it again, maybe on a warm day sitting outside with a bunch of friends and a cooler full of beer.

The Salt Lick (multiple locations)
18300 FM 1826
Driftwood, TX

Taco Tex and El Milagrito Cafe – San Antonio

July 22nd, 2014 by virginia

After eating some very good puffy tacos at Henry’s, we continued our taco crawl with a stops at Taco Tex and El Milagrito Cafe, which I had read were some of the best breakfast taco places in San Antonio. Taco Tex was a very nondescript storefront in a strip mall (I forgot to take picture of the sign), but it was surprisingly crowded given the time of day (it was a little late for breakfast, a little early for lunch on a weekday).

Josh ordered two tacos for us and brought them out to the car where I was waiting with J. The first was a beef fajita al carbon taco, which had lots of big strips of meat, grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, and shredded cheese. I was kind of surprised to see the lettuce, tomato, and cheese, but I guess that was the “Tex” part of the taco? They really didn’t need to be there, and actually detracted from the overall flavor of the taco. The beef was tender and well seasoned, and the grilled onions were the only topping I thought the taco needed. The flour tortilla was soft and had a nice chewiness to it.

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Beef fajita al carbon taco from Taco Tex

The pastor taco was our main reason for visiting Taco Tex. It’s seasoned pork marinated with chiles, spices, and pineapple. There was lots of meat piled into the taco, but nothing else, which also surprised me. Usually there is some pineapple mixed in, and maybe some chopped cilantro and onion on top. Nevertheless, the meat itself was had a good char on the outside that gave it a nice texture and lots of flavor. The filling was a little sweet, a little spicy, and definitely woke up our taste buds.

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Pastor taco from Taco Tex

Overall, we thought Taco Tex was solid joint with tasty, cheap tacos, but it’s definitely not a can’t-miss destination. If you’re in the area and hungry, it’s a great place to grab a quick, satisfying bite. The flour tortillas were good, and the pastor packed a lot of flavor.

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El Milagrito Cafe was our last stop in San Antonio. Since we had an hour and a half drive ahead of us on our way to Austin, we decided to stop in for a full sit-down lunch, having already whet our appetites with the tacos we had eaten earlier. The menu was huge, and as usual, we had a tough time deciding what to order; I wanted to eat pretty much everything listed. J snacked on the complimentary tortilla chips and salsa while we debated our options.

Chips and salsa at El Milagrito

Chips and salsa

We ended up getting one more batch of tacos, mixing up flour and corn tortillas based on our waitress’ recommendations. First we tried the barbacoa, which is beef that is slow cooked under its incredibly tender and falling apart. The flavor of the barbacoa was intense, almost gamey, though the texture was a bit too soft for my taste. It came with chopped cilantro and onion on the side, which we added on top of the taco with a squeeze of lime juice. We ordered this one on a corn tortilla, which was nicely griddled and didn’t have that gritty corn flavor that usually deters me from corn tortillas.

Barbacoa taco from El Milagrito

Barbacoa taco from El Milagrito

We also got al pastor on a corn tortilla, wanting to compare the al pastor here with the one we had just eaten at Taco Tex. The pork here was cut up in bigger pieces, and it seemed saucier, whereas the Taco Tex seasoning was more cooked into the meat. It was milder in flavor, not as sweet or spicy, but also filled to the brim with meat. Again, I was surprised by the lack of pineapple. Maybe that’s just a NYC thing?

Al pastor taco from El Milagrito

Al pastor taco from El Milagrito

An article I had read about El Milagrito said to order the Asada a la Mexicana taco with guacamole on top, so we did. It was grilled steak mixed with diced peppers, onions, and tomatoes (I guess representing the green, white, and red of the Mexican flag). While I liked the creaminess and extra oomph that the guacamole added, the steak itself was on the blander side, but tender. We ordered this taco on a flour tortilla, which was slightly thicker than the corn tortilla but had a nice flavor and a great chew to it.

a la Mexicana taco from El Milagrito

Asada a la Mexicana taco from El Milagrito

We also had to get one last “true” breakfast taco before leaving San Antonio. We went for the Taco Loco, which was chorizo, potato, beans, and eggs on a flour tortilla. It was a ton of filling, a ton of flavor, and something I would happily eat for breakfast every day.

taco from El Milagrito

Taco Loco (with chorizo, beans, potato, and eggs) from El Milagrito

We picked up another chicken fajita taco for J, which she ate half of during lunch, and then finished the rest after we arrived in Austin. She seemed to really enjoy the chicken, which was tender and well seasoned, and she loved the flour tortilla.

Chicken fajita taco from El Milagrito

Chicken fajita taco from El Milagrito

Overall, the tacos from El Milagrito Cafe were among our favorites in San Antonio. They had the best flour tortillas, the fillings were abundant and flavorful, and the overall vibe of the restaurant was great. It’s nothing fancy but it’s bright and clean, service was spot on, and prices were ridiculously cheap. The most expensive tacos we ordered were $2.25 each (the barbacoa and Asada a la Mexicana), with the rest coming in under $2. Pretty much all of the breakfast/lunch plates on the menu were less than $7. If I had the stomach capacity, I would have ordered even more food than we already did. I wish we had a place like this closer to home, and if we’re ever in San Antonio again, I would happily go back.

Taco Tex
15104 San Pedro Ave.
San Antonio, TX

El Milagrito Cafe
521 E Woodlawn Ave.
San Antonio, TX

Puffy Taco Round-Up – San Antonio

June 11th, 2014 by virginia

The puffy taco is a San Antonio specialty that involves a light, flaky, deep fried tortilla as the taco shell. These puffy shells are nothing like the hard, tortilla chip-like taco shells that we’re used to back east. We decided to try out three of the most well-known puffy taco places in San Antonio and see what makes these tacos so special.

First up was Ray’s Drive Inn, which claims to be the home of the original puffy taco. We stopped there for a quick snack after touring all of the beautiful San Antonio missions.

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While the outside of the restaurant looks like an old time car hop, you actually order and get your food inside. J was asleep so Josh got our tacos and brought them right outside to the car where we quickly devoured them. We shared a puffy beef taco and a puffy chicken taco.

Puffy tacos from Ray's Drive Inn

Puffy tacos from Ray’s Drive Inn

Our initial thoughts about the puffy shell was that it was surprisingly soft and not as crispy as we would have hoped. It had a strong corn flavor but a slightly gritty texture. Both tacos came topped with chopped iceberg lettuce and tomatoes. The beef filling was slightly spicy and was well seasoned, but the chicken was dry and bland. It could have used some sauce or salsa, though that might have rendered the puffy taco shell even more soggy.

Puffy chicken taco innards

Puffy chicken taco cross section

Overall, we weren’t overly wowed by the puffy tacos at Ray’s Drive Inn, but we continued on our puffy taco crawl at our next destination, La Hacienda de Los Barrios. Our friend James actually recommended it to us, though we had also seen its sister restaurant, Los Barrios, featured on an episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay. La Hacienda is a bit off the beaten path, in a somewhat rural area well north of downtown San Antonio. It’s a huge space though, with lots of adjoining rooms and plenty of seating, including outdoor space.

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Since we were there for dinner, rather than just a snack, we did end up ordering more items, though of course we had to get the puffy tacos. We went for the same meats as at Ray’s – one beef, one chicken. The tacos were ordered a la carte so each showed up on its own large white plate, which was odd only because the plates were much larger than the tacos. What ended up happening was that each taco had fallen on its side and wound up sitting in a pool of condensation from the heat of its own shell. That rendered half of each taco soggy, which was really a shame because the other half was super puffy and crispy, just what I thought a puffy taco shell should be like. The shell didn’t have as much of a pronounced corn flavor, which I preferred because it didn’t overpower the flavor of the meat.

    Puffy beef taco from La Hacienda de Los Barrios

Puffy beef taco from La Hacienda de Los Barrios

Again, we liked the beef better than the chicken, just because beef tends to have more flavor in general. However, the chicken here was shredded more finely and had more seasoning, which gave it more taste. It was also more moist, and we thoroughly enjoyed both puffy tacos.

Puffy chicken taco from La Hacienda de Los Barrios

Puffy chicken taco from La Hacienda de Los Barrios

We also shared a Rio Grande plate, which included an enchilada verde, a chicken flauta, and a stuffed burrito. The enchilada was filled with chicken and covered in a tangy tomatilla sauce. The stuffed burrito was filled with beef picadillo and topped with melted cheese and ranchero sauce. The chicken flauta was in a crispy shell but on the dry side; it tasted better after dipping into the salsa they gave us with chips at the beginning of our meal. It was a large plate of food, rounded out with rice, beans, and guacamole salad. The enchilada verde was the star of the plate, with its nice and bright sauce.

Rio Grande plate

Rio Grande plate – stuffed burrito, chicken flauta, enchilada verde

We got a carne asada taco a la carte for J, though she was a bigger fan of the complimentary tortilla chips that graced our table. After had her fill of the beef, which is to say, after she took two bites, we shared the remainder, which was filled with strips of tender and well seasoned steak. The taco came with with guacamole, lettuce, and pico de gallo, and the flour tortilla had a nice chewiness to it.

Carne asada taco

Carne asada taco

Overall, we were pretty pleased with the food at La Hacienda de Los Barrios. While the puffy tacos suffered from a slight presentation issue, they were tasty and I could finally see why a puffy taco shell is so appealing. The combination plate that we shared was a huge amount of food and let us try a variety of offerings from the massive menu. Everything we tried was freshly prepared and well seasoned.

Our last puffy taco stop was Henry’s Puffy Tacos. It was actually the first stop of a little taco brunch crawl we did on our last day in San Antonio, but more on that separately, as the other joints didn’t involve puffy tacos.

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We ordered our usual beef/chicken combo and ate them immediately in our car outside the restaurant. Josh accidentally added guacamole to the tacos, which was different from our previous puffies, and I admit, the guacamole might have given Henry’s an edge. It added an extra element of flavor and prevented the meat, especially the chicken, from drying out. The beef was also different here – it was grilled strips rather than the ground beef that we got everywhere else. I don’t think Josh specified each time he ordered; he just asked for chicken and beef, and we ate whatever they gave us. But the puffy shell was the real standout at Henry’s. It was light, crispy, and had good flavor that complemented the toppings well.

Chicken and beef puffy tacos from Henry's Puffy Taco

Puffy tacos from Henry’s Puffy Tacos

Overall, Ray’s had the densest puffy taco shell, which made it our least favorite. It was actually a pretty disappointing introduction to puffy tacos for us, and had us questioning what made a puffy taco so special. Fortunately, our next two tries fared much better. Henry’s had the puffiest and lightest shells, which put it at the top of our list, although La Hacienda’s puffy taco wasn’t too far behind. We would happily eat at either place again, and experiment with various fillings. In our experience, the chicken puffy tacos just tend to be drier and more bland. Both the ground beef at La Hacienda and the grilled beef at Henry’s packed a lot of flavor and didn’t get lost inside the shell or underneath all the shredded lettuce. I don’t know why puffy tacos aren’t popular outside of San Antonio, as their light and crispy texture is much better (in my opinion) than the standard hard taco shell. Even if the inside layer of the puffy gets soggy from the toppings, the outside stayed crispier for much longer. It’s definitely something that I want to eat again, and I’ll be on the lookout for it here at home.

Ray’s Drive Inn
822 SW 19th St.

San Antonio, TX

La Hacienda de Los Barrios
18747 Redland Rd.
San Antonio, TX

Henry’s Puffy Tacos
6030 Bandera Rd.
San Antonio, TX

Taco Haven – San Antonio

May 13th, 2014 by virginia

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Eating a lot of tacos in San Antonio was our primary focus, and Taco Haven was the first place we tried out. It was recommended to us by our hotel concierge and was also on the list that I had researched prior to our trip. It was brunch time on a Sunday when we arrived so we had to wait a few minutes before we were seated, but the line wasn’t too bad.

We munched on the complimentary basket of chips and salsa while we perused the massive menu. The chips were thicker cut than most so they were a bit hard to bite through, but were still tasty enough with the salsa.

Chips and salsa

Chips and salsa

It was hard for us decide what to order because all of the tacos were calling out to us, but our waitress said that two would be more than enough for each of us. I was a bit surprised by that, given that we can usually take down three or more tacos each, easily. Nevertheless, we each picked two different tacos, and then asked our waitress for a bonus recommendation for a fifth taco that we would split. I also asked her about the menudo, which is a tripe soup that I’ve always wanted to try. She offered to bring me a taste, and brought back a small cup of the savory soup with lots of pieces of tripe. While the soup itself was just ok, the tripe was fabulous – soft and tender, with just the slightest chew.

Menudo (tripe soup)

Menudo (tripe soup)

When our tacos arrived, I understood why our waitress said two would be enough. They were massive! But the tortillas were also incredibly bready, which came as a huge shock to us. They looked homemade but were nothing like the thin, chewy flour tortillas that I devoured at Lupe Tortilla. These were thick and doughy, more like a thin, dry pita bread, and didn’t even remotely resemble any tortilla we’ve ever seen or tasted before. They were pretty disappointing, both in texture and flavor, and even the fillings couldn’t save these tacos.

For my tacos, I picked chorizo and eggs and Haven taco. The chorizo was surprisingly bland and didn’t add much flavor to the scrambled eggs. The combination of the bready tortilla and the bland, dry eggs was just heavy and dull. It definitely needed more seasoning.

Chorizo and eggs taco

Chorizo and eggs taco

The Haven taco was not what I expected. The menu said it was papa con chile and chile con queso. I guess I mis-read “chile” for “chili”. What I got was a taco filled with potatoes, peppers, onions, and cheese; what I expected was the taco to have ground beef as well. Nevertheless, this was a pretty tasty taco. There were tons of seasoning, and despite its bland appearance, it was packed with flavor.

Haven taco

Haven taco

Josh picked the Torres taco, which had bacon, beans, and cheese. There was also sour cream on top, which wasn’t mentioned on the menu and he wasn’t too happy about, but otherwise, it was a relatively harmless and decently tasting taco. He also got a carnitas taco, which had big chunks of pork in it, but was otherwise just ok. The flavor and texture of the pork were both fine, the taco itself was nondescript.

Carnitas taco and the Haven taco

Carnitas taco and the Torres taco

For our shared taco, our waitress recommended the steak a la Mexicana taco. It was grilled steak with a sprinkling of diced peppers and onions. Again, the meat by itself was fine, but as a taco, it just didn’t do much for us.

Steak a la Mexicana taco

Steak a la Mexicana taco

We got J a chicken fajitas taco, which looked the same as all the other meat tacos we got – a lot of meat, a lot of bready tortilla, and not much else. I guess with “fajitas” in the name, I was expecting peppers and onions mixed in, but there was nothing. J liked the chicken just fine, but she didn’t eat it with the same gusto as she did at Lupe Tortilla.

Chicken fajita taco

Chicken fajita taco

Overall, we were both incredibly disappointed with the tacos at Taco Haven. The biggest detractor was the terrible bread-like tortilla. It was just dry and heavy and did nothing for the fillings. All of the tacos just seemed to be missing something – a sauce, a hit of acid, more seasoning, anything. Their only upside was that they were incredibly cheap, $2-$3 each depending on the fillings. We walked away full but unsatisfied. Too bad, because the service was great, and the atmosphere was cheery and bustling. We probably would have been better off ordering off the non-taco part of the menu, but at a place called Taco Haven, how could we not order tacos? This was a definite bust for us.

Taco Haven
1032 S Presa St.
San Antonio, TX

Texas Barbecue Round-Up – Luling and Lockhart

May 1st, 2014 by virginia

We spent our second night in Texas at our friends’ home outside of Houston. James and Angie were wonderful hosts to us, and J had the time of her life playing side by side with their boys. After spending a relaxing evening making homemade pizza on the grill (a veggie pizza topped with fresh slices of jalapeno is a brilliant combination) and eating donuts and kolaches for breakfast, we got a late start on the next leg of our trip, San Antonio. James advised us to stop for some barbecue lunch at City Market in Luling, Texas, which was about 2.5 hours away. He also mentioned that about 20 minutes away from Luling was Lockhart, where there were multiple renowned barbecue joints. Since we were hitting the road a bit later than we expected, we figured it would just be more convenient to stop through Lockhart on our way from San Antonio to Austin, which would be the shortest drive on our trip anyway.

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Luling was a small, quaint-looking town and City Market was located on a main street among other shops. Inside the tables were set up cafeteria-style, so I found a high chair and got J settled while Josh went to the back room where the pit is to order our food. It was a little after normal lunchtime so the restaurant wasn’t too full, and we wound up having the table to ourselves. Josh came back with an assortment of meats served on butcher paper. He also got some pickles on onions on the side, and a package of saltines for J rather than the usual white bread.

Assorted barbecued meats from City Market

Assorted barbecued meats from City Market

The brisket was on the leaner side so not as tender or as marbled with fat as I usually prefer. The meaty flavor, however, was just delicious. It was smoky but not overwhelmingly so, and I loved dipping it into the slightly spicy/slightly vinegary barbecue sauce that was left out in glass bottles on all the tables.

City Market brisket

City Market brisket

The ribs were a bit tougher than I expected them to be, and also on the drier side. They needed a bit more seasoning to them, and that’s where the barbecue sauce came in handy again. The sauce was the perfect combination of spicy and tangy flavor.

City Market ribs

City Market ribs

James had recommended we order the sausage, and while I am usually not a fan, this was something special. The meat was coarsely ground and reminded me a bit of merguez in texture. The casing had a good snap to it, and the flavor of the beef was smoky and well seasoned. I was surprised by just how much I liked it.

City Market sausage

City Market sausage

After enjoying the barbecue so much at City Market, we craved more. And so we made the split decision to continue on to Lockhart. We had nothing in particular planned for that evening in San Antonio, we were only 20 minutes away, and we were still hungry, so why not? We decided that we would order 1/4 pound each of the same meats – brisket, ribs, and sausage – at the three most popular barbecue places in the barbecue capital.

Our first stop in Lockhart was Smitty’s Market. While the entrance was dark and kind of smoky from the barbecue pit down the hall, the separate dining room was brightly lit and bustling, reminding me of an old school diner or ice cream soda shop. There were long communal tables, many of which were filled with families enjoying an early dinner.

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Josh went to get the food while I staked out some seats with J. He came back with the barbecue on butcher paper, more crackers for J, as well as a Big Red soda and Lone Star beer. Neither of us had ever tasted Big Red before, and to be perfectly honest, we both ended up hating it. It kind of tasted like cream soda, but not, and was just too sweet and cloying. The beer, however, was quite refreshing, and paired much better with the barbecue.

Assorted barbecued meats from Smitty's Market

Assorted barbecued meats from Smitty’s Market

The brisket was fattier than the one at City Market, and I liked that better. It was more tender and the meat almost seemed to melt in your mouth. I just wish that it was slightly more seasoned though, because while there was a decent amount of smoke, it lacked the meaty flavor of the City Market brisket. Still, it was very good on its own.

Smitty's Market brisket

Smitty’s Market brisket

The ribs at Smitty’s were fabulous. They sort of reminded me of the Texas version of the barbecued ribs that you get at Chinese restaurants. They were smoky, slightly sweet, and had us licking off our fingers after eating them. The meat was juicy and falling off the bone tender. Delicious.

Smitty's Market ribs

Smitty’s Market rib

Smitty’s sausage, on the other hand, was very disappointing. It tasted like regular breakfast sausage to me, which I didn’t like. There was nothing about it that stood out, and I also found it to be quite greasy. I would definitely pass on it the next time if I came back.

Smitty's Market sausage

Smitty’s Market sausage

Our next stop was just a few blocks away, Black’s Barbecue. The inside looked like a barbecue joint to me, with wood paneled walls and lots of animal heads hanging up. The tables were covered with plastic red checked table cloths, and there was just a casual, homey atmosphere to it that I liked.

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However, I found the barbecue at Black’s to be pretty smoky in general, but the brisket was especially so, and not in a good way. All I tasted was smoke, not the flavor of the beef. It got to be pretty overwhelming, even though the meat itself was fine in texture and fattiness.

Assorted barbecued meats from Black's Barbecue

Assorted barbecued meats from Black’s Barbecue

Black's Barbecue brisket

Black’s Barbecue brisket

The ribs had a promising-looking dark crust on them, but they also fell flat. The meat was chewy and surprisingly tough. We wound up using a lot of barbecue sauce to help get them down.

Black's Barbecue ribs

Black’s Barbecue ribs

The sausage at Black’s was also disappointing. It seemed drier in texture than the other sausages we tasted, and again, we needed help from the sweet barbecue sauce on the table to counteract the overly salty smokiness. Part of the problem might have been that our palates had just been overwhelmed by that point with all the smoke. Maybe it’s just an aspect of Texas barbecue that we’re not used to, but we didn’t really encounter that issue anywhere else.

Black's Barbecue sausage

Black’s Barbecue sausage

We were definitely no longer hungry at this point, but we powered on to our next and last stop, Kreuz Market. In contrast to the other barbecue joints we visited, this place was massive, with high ceilings and endless seating options. Like Smitty’s, there was no barbecue sauce offered, though there were bottles of a salt and pepper mixture on the table.

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J’s patience with our little food crawl had ended by this point, so we powered up some Sesame Street on the iPad and hunkered down to enjoy our last trio of meats for the day.

Assorted barbecued meats from Kreuz Market

Assorted barbecued meats from Kreuz Market

First we tried the brisket, which was astonishingly bland. It lacked both seasoning and smoke, and was much drier and tougher in texture than the other briskets we sampled. We tried using the salt and pepper mixture on it, but really, it just needed some sauce to add flavor and moisture.

Kreuz Market brisket

Kreuz Market brisket

The rib, on the other hand, was spectacular. It was unlike any rib we’ve tasted previously, and crusted with lots of crunchy bits of crushed black peppercorns. The meat wasn’t falling off the bone, but it was tender and juicy. The seasoning was great, the meat had a lot of flavor, it wasn’t overly smoky, and we happily devoured it.

Kreuz Market rib

Kreuz Market rib

The sausage at Kreuz’s was another surprise winner. We had low expectations after the disappointing brisket, but the sausage was well seasoned and peppery, with a nice snappy texture.

Kreuz Market sausage

Kreuz Market sausage

So the final verdict?

Brisket:
1) City Market
2) Smitty’s Market
3) Black’s Barbecue
4) Kreuz Market

Ribs:
1) Kreuz Market
2) Smitty’s Market
3) City Market
4) Black’s Barbecue

Sausage:
1) City Market
2) Kreuz Market
3) Black’s Barbecue
4) Smitty’s Market

Based on our rankings, I guess City Market was our favorite barbecue of the day. In addition to great meat, that tangy barbecue sauce put it over the top. Both Kreuz’s and Smitty’s had highlights as well, particularly their ribs, while Black’s just really didn’t do much for us. Obviously we’re Texas barbecue noobs, so take what we have to say with a grain of salt. There are probably other meats we should have ordered, but given our agenda and stomach capacity, we did the best we could.

We were beyond full by the time our barbecue binge was finished. Our “late lunch” had rolled into dinner time, and we couldn’t even think about eating another bite. We stuffed ourselves back into the car and finished the drive to San Antonio. After taking a late evening stroll around the River Walk and checking out the Alamo, I finally started feeling a little peckish again around midnight so we nibbled on some leftover brisket and sausage while sharing a bottle of wine in our hotel room. It was a great day of indulgence, and we were thrilled with our last minute decision to go to Lockhart that day. This is what I love best about road trips – the ability to be spontaneous and just pick up and go to whatever interests us most at that particular moment.

City Market
633 E Davis St.
Luling, TX

Smitty’s Market
208 S Commerce St.
Lockhart, TX

Black’s Barbecue
215 N Main St.

Lockhart, TX

Kreuz Market
619 N Colorado St.
Lockhart, TX

Whataburger

April 29th, 2014 by virginia

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I had figured that for any road trip, there would be a time when we would have to hit up a fast food restaurant for a meal. But my rule for eating “locally” while traveling applies to fast food as well, and so I prefer to go to chains that aren’t readily available back home. In Texas, this meant checking out Whataburger, which is primarily in Texas but also has locations in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Oklahoma.

We stopped by for a quick lunch before exploring the Johnson Space Center, so we went to the location on NASA Rd. Josh and I both got the original Whataburger with the default toppings – mustard, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and diced onions. Josh opted for double meat though while I stuck with a single patty.

Original Whataburger

Original Whataburger – double meat

At first glance, the Whataburger looked fairly standard with a squishy, seedless bun and lettuce and tomato poking out. It was a decent size in circumference, though I thought the beef patty was on the thinner side. Josh had the right idea in ordering a double, as the toppings to meat ratio was completely off on my single burger. I usually don’t order mustard on my burgers, but did so here because it was part of the standard package. I thought it overwhelmed the meat, which was pretty bland and nondescript. I did like that the bun had been buttered and toasted before assembly, but even that was more flavorful than the meat.

Autopsy shot

Autopsy shot – single patty Whataburger

We got an order of six chicken bites for J. She ate a few pieces but then started tossing them on the floor so we wound up eating the rest ourselves. They were heavily breaded but still had lots of meat inside. I thought they were pretty good for fast food nuggets, although the portion seemed small for the price. The bites were pretty tiny compared to the super large containers of dipping sauces they offered.

Chicken bites

Chicken bites

And of course, our meal wouldn’t have been complete without french fries. These were skinny fries, similar to McDonald’s, though with more potato flavor. They weren’t as crispy as I would have liked, but we enjoyed them nonetheless.

Thin french fries

Thin french fries

Overall, we thought Whataburger was just ok. Better than McDonalds and Burger King for sure, but no comparison to In N Out. The burger reminded me a bit of Wendy’s burger, which isn’t a bad thing, but also isn’t that impressive. The ingredients did seem fresher though, and the burger was constructed better. But maybe I just had higher expectations because of the hype around Whataburger. Would I eat here again? Sure. Would I go out of my way to eat here? Definitely not. What I did like, however, was the service. The staff was friendly and courteous, and rather than having you get your own condiments, someone walked around with a tray of ketchup/sauce containers, straws, and napkins and offered to replenish our supply whenever we ran low. That’s something you don’t see at other fast food places, and I appreciated the extra level of hospitality.

Whataburger (multiple locations)
100 East NASA Rd. 1
Webster, TX

Lupe Tortilla – Houston

April 22nd, 2014 by virginia

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Our first night in Texas was spent in downtown Houston, although it was really just a stopover for us to break up our drive into more manageable segments for J. Josh goes to Houston often for work, and he warned me that there wasn’t much to see in the city. However, he said that we could eat the best fajitas he’s ever had. That was a pretty bold statement in general, and while he does usually order fajitas whenever we’re at a Tex Mex restaurant, he’s not exactly a connoisseur. I, on the other hand, never eat fajitas, so I was pretty sure that no matter what, they would be the best fajitas I ever ate, but the skeptic in me wondered just how good any fajita could possibly be.

It was getting pretty late by the time we arrived in Houston so rather than going to the hotel first, we drove straight to the restaurant, Lupe Tortilla. I had googled it during our drive and saw that it was a chain restaurant with many branches throughout Texas, which made me even more skeptical. We went to the one closest to downtown Houston and the place was packed. That was a good sign, even though it meant we had to wait about 20 minutes for a table.

Since it was late and we technically had eaten two lunches in Lafayette before heading to Houston, we declined ordering any appetizers. In hindsight, I would have liked to try the queso flameado since I’ve never eaten it before, and we ended up never having it on the rest of our trip. Oh well, just another reason to go back to Texas. Instead, we zoned in on the fajitas and decided to share a mixed pound of beef and chicken.

While we waited for our food, we snacked on the complimentary basket of tortilla chips with salsa and a warm bean dip. The chips were terrific – thin and crispy with just the right amount of salt. The salsa was on the runny side but was packed with flavor and had a little kick to it. We made a pretty good dent in everything while we waited for our food to arrive.

Tortilla chips, salsa, bean dip

Tortilla chips, salsa, bean dip

Shortly thereafter, a large sizzling platter arrived with our beef and chicken, plus grilled onions and an array of accoutrement – guacamole, pico de gallo, shredded cheddar cheese, rice, and beans. We asked for a mix of flour tortillas and corn tortillas. I prefer flour, whereas Josh is usually a fan of corn. I constructed my first fajita with a few slices of beef, some grilled onions, a little guacamole, and a sprinkle of pico de gallo. I used a flour tortilla, which was large in size but super thin, unlike the commercial flour tortillas we get from most places at home or at the supermarket. I took one bite of my fajita and my eyes opened wide – I was believer. These were definitely the best fajitas I’ve ever had, by a long shot. The steak was beautifully cooked and incredibly tender. The meat was well seasoned and had a great grilled flavor to it that helped it stand up to the rest of the accompaniments.

Chicken and steak fajitas with various accompaniments

Chicken and steak fajitas with various accompaniments

I tried a chicken fajita next with a corn tortilla, and while I definitely preferred the flour tortillas, the chicken was outstanding. Moist and flavorful, I couldn’t decide which protein I liked more, the chicken or the beef. Even J, who was on a bit of a meat strike by this point in our trip, devoured piece after piece of both the steak and chicken.

Overall, Lupe Tortilla really did have the best fajitas I’ve ever eaten. And not just by a little. It completely blows any fajita I’ve ever had out of the water. There’s just no comparison. In fact, when Josh ordered fajitas just the other day, I took one nibble on a piece of steak and turned up my nose. I didn’t even ask for a full bite. I think Lupe may have ruined me for other fajitas. In addition to their fantastically flavorful and tender meats, their flour tortilla is outstanding. It’s thin and chewy, yet with a delicately flaky texture, and is more similar to a peking duck crepe than to any other flour tortilla I’ve tasted. The website says they are hand-rolled, and I can believe it. I’d even enjoy eating them plain, without any fillings. Admittedly, our experience with Tex Mex food has mostly been limited to chain restaurants, but I know when my taste buds are happy. And I could not be happier going back to Lupe at any time. Too bad it’s all the way in Texas! I would definitely be going there often if it was close by. Oh well, until next time!

Lupe Tortilla (multiple locations)
2414 Southwest Freeway
Houston, TX ‎

Two Fat Bellies Hit the Road – Texas

April 13th, 2014 by virginia

This was my first official trip to Texas, and I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I had driven through it before on a cross country trip with my family, but we didn’t stop anywhere except a rest area somewhere along the highway. I don’t even remember which highway, or which towns/cities we went through. So I was kind of excited yet kind of nervous – most peoples’ reactions when we told them we were going to Texas was, “Why?”

Why indeed. For the food, duh. I wanted to taste Tex Mex cuisine, Texas barbecue, and pretty much anything else I could get my hands on that I wouldn’t be able to have back home. Texas seemed like a good place to be able to consume massive quantities of food and not be judged for it.

We did some sightseeing as well, of course. We had to kill some time in between all the eating so that we could make space in our stomachs for more food. There wasn’t much to see in Houston proper, our first stop, but we did spend a great day exploring the Johnson Space Center. We even got to touch moon rock!

The former Mission Control (a la Apollo 13)

The historic Mission Control (should look familiar if you watched the Apollo 13 movie)

The building where they do training for International Space Center missions

The building where they do training for International Space Center missions

Saturn V rocket display (you can see how big it was compared to J in the background!)

The ginormous Saturn V rocket display

The massive thrusters on the Saturn V rocket

The thrusters on the Saturn V rocket

Shuttlecraft Galileo from Star Trek

Shuttlecraft Galileo from Star Trek

We spent an epic afternoon eating in Lockhart, the barbecue capital of Texas.

Caldwell County Courthouse

Caldwell County Courthouse

We remembered the Alamo in San Antonio, plus a few other less well-known missions that were pretty beautiful.

The Alamo

The Alamo

Mission Concepcion

Mission Concepcion

Mission San Jose

Mission San Jose

Mission San Juan

Mission San Juan

Mission Espada

Mission Espada

We also strolled along the famed River Walk, underneath a twinkly canopy of Christmas lights. We were there during the day as well, but it’s much more magical at night.

A boat on the River Walk

A boat on the River Walk

Endless strands of Christmas lights

Endless strands of Christmas lights

And we saw the Texas State Capitol in Austin and the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Oh, and a graffiti park. Yeah, there wasn’t a whole lot to see in Austin. But at least the food was good!

State capitol

State Capitol

Stevie Ray Vaughn statue

Stevie Ray Vaughan statue

Walls of graffiti

Walls of graffiti

I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised – we had a great time, ate way more food than we should have, and I would happily go back to eat some more; there was still lots that we didn’t get to. All in all, our mini road trip from Louisiana to Texas was a huge success, and we look forward to our next adventure with J.

Apiary

April 9th, 2014 by virginia

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Just wanted to take a break in between the Louisiana and Texas trip to talk about a semi-recent meal we had at Aviary in NYC in February to celebrate our 16th anniversary as a couple. It was a notable anniversary for us because we were both 16 years old when we started dating, so sometime in between this anniversary and the next, we’ll have been together for more than half our lives. I think that’s a pretty cool milestone.

Since J came into the picture, it’s rare for us to have a dinner on our own. We either bring her along with us, or if we can get someone to watch her, we’re usually meeting friends for dinner or going to a party. So when Josh’s parents graciously agreed to watch her for our anniversary, we knew we wanted to have a nice meal out in the city, which is a rare luxury for us these days. After doing a bit of research, we settled on Apiary, a fairly under the radar restaurant with a chef we were both curious about – Scott Bryan.

We had both read about Scott Bryan in Kitchen Confidential, where author/chef Anthony Bourdain sings his praises. After leaving Veritas in 2007, however, we hadn’t really heard much about Chef Bryan since then. He seems like such a talented, passionate cook who is really just focused on the food, not all the PR and other hype surrounding chefs these days, and so we were eager to sample his offerings.

As a side bonus, we went on a Monday, when the restaurant offers no corkage fees. We stopped at Astor Wines nearby and picked up a bottle of white from Tuscany and a bottle of red Chateauneuf du Pape to go with our meal. I had researched the menu online beforehand so I had a good idea of what I wanted to order, but of course I needed Josh to agree with me. Our waiter also came up with a long list of recommendations when asked what dishes he preferred. Rather than going for the 5 course tasting menu, we decided to come up with our own tasting with four appetizers and two entrees, so that we could try more dishes.

While we waited for our food to come out, we noshed on the bread, slices of sourdough with a hearty yet crispy crust. It was delicious with the fruity olive oil that came on the side for dipping.

Sourdough bread and olive oil

Sourdough bread and olive oil

We told our waiter that we planned to share all the dishes, so the kitchen thoughtfully split some of them into two plates for us. For the first course, we were each presented with our own plates of hamachi crudo, and our order of grilled quail was placed in the middle of the table. The hamachi, which is yellowtail fish, was sliced thin and served raw with slices of avocado, hearts of palm, chopped chives, finely diced jalapenos, and a microgreen salad on top. The dish was dressed with a yuzu vinaigrette, and while I loved the pop of the acid and the freshness of the fish and vegetables, Josh thought there was a bit too much citrus on the fish that overwhelmed its delicate flavors. Overall though, we both thought it was a bright dish that woke up our taste buds and was a great start to the meal.

Hamachi crudo, avocado, hearts of palm, jalapeno

Hamachi crudo, avocado, hearts of palm, jalapeno

We were more mixed about the grilled quail dish, as we thought that was a bit odd for them to have presented us with individual crudos while the quail just sort of sat on the table and got cold while we ate our fish. Maybe they expected us to finish our crudo quickly, and then move on to the quail immediately? Logistically, it was also kind of hard to eat the quail while reaching over our crudo plates. I think our waiter saw us struggling a bit and quickly removed the empty plates and provided us with clean small plates to transfer the quail onto, which was a slightly  messy affair. The quail itself was well seasoned, but the meat was pretty chewy. Josh picked up his half with his hands and ate the meat off the bone, while I tried a more delicate approach with my knife and fork, which wasn’t very successful. It came with lentils on the side, curried spiced yogurt, and drizzle of paprika oil that added a bit more smoke to the dish. The flavors were intense and exotic, which we enjoyed, but it was hard to get past the chewiness of the quail.

Grilled quail, curried spiced yogurt, french green lentils, orange

Grilled quail, curried spiced yogurt, french green lentils, orange

For our second course, the kitchen split our order of swiss chard and ricotta ravioli. There were two plump raviolis in each bowl that were topped with a piece of fried sage, brown butter, and poppy seeds. The pasta itself was perfectly cooked and gorgeously delicate, both in texture and flavor. The brown butter was a tad greasy but otherwise appropriately rich, and worked well with the sage. The surprise element of the dish was the poppy seeds sprinkled on top, which added a nice dainty crunch to each bite.

Swiss chard and ricotta ravioli, sage brown butter, poppy

Swiss chard and ricotta ravioli, sage, brown
butter, poppy

The last of our appetizer courses was the grilled octopus, which they also split for us. Each portion of tentacle came with romesco sauce, chorizo oil, and arugula dressed with lemon. I took a bite and commented to Josh about how it was probably the most tender octopus I’ve ever eaten, and he looked back at me in surprise and said the texture was only ok. We traded bites and indeed, his octopus was much chewier, with a sort of bounciness to it, while I could have cut my portion with just the side of my fork. Coincidentally, this has happened to us before, where we each had two completely different tentacle textures from the same serving. I thoroughly enjoyed this particular preparation, especially the smokiness from the grill and from the chorizo oil. The arugula salad lightened up the dish and prevented it from feeling too heavy.

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Grilled octopus, romesco, baby arugula, lemon

For our entree course, the kitchen did that thing again where they split one of our dishes (the duck breast) and served the other one (the pork chop) whole at the same time, where it also sat in the middle of the table until we were ready for it. Nevertheless, the duck was simply fabulous – medium rare, beautifully pink, rendered skin, and perfectly seasoned. There were whole green peppercorns in the jus drizzled on top, which had gave each bite a little peppery pop and a slight floral hint. I wasn’t a big fan of the glazed turnips on the side (I found them to be slightly too bitter and acidic, although Josh didn’t mind them), but I enjoyed the pureed parsnips and chewy farro underneath. The duck was the real star of the plate though, and it was our favorite dish of the night.

Long Island duck breast, parsnip puree, farro, glazed Tokyo turnips, green peppercorn-armagnac jus

Long Island duck breast, parsnip puree, farro, glazed Tokyo turnips, green peppercorn-armagnac jus

Josh finished his duck first and dug into the pork chop, still having to reach awkwardly across his duck plate. The pork chop was massive, probably the thickest pork chop we’ve ever gotten at a restaurant, and was cooked through to medium as the chef recommended. It was served on top of a bed of black bean tinga, which is a Mexican style sauce made with chipotles. I thought the beans were just slightly too al dente for my taste, but Josh disagreed and liked that they had texture to them. There was a spiced avocado mash on top of the pork, but I didn’t taste any of the orange ginger glaze that was mentioned on the menu. I thought the pork was seasoned well and the dish had a lot of flavor to it, but it didn’t really wow us. We felt like it was something we can make at home, and Josh’s mom has a similar dish in her repertoire that involves simmering pork chops and black beans in a combination of salsa and tomato sauce. Obviously this was a much more refined dish than the one she makes, and the quality of the pork was vastly superior, but the flavors were almost identical.

Berkshire pork chop, black bean tinga, orange ginger glaze, spiced avocado

Berkshire pork chop, black bean tinga, orange ginger glaze, spiced avocado

I was stuffed to the gills by this point and didn’t even finish my half of the gigantic pork chop, so we were prepared to pass on dessert. Plus we heard from Josh’s mom that J was getting a little fussy and was probably going to be ready for bed soon, and we wanted to see her before she went down for the night since we had left for work before she had gotten up for the day. The waiter surprised us by bringing a vanilla panna cotta with our check, in honor of our anniversary. It was an incredibly nice gesture, and helped to cap off a lovely evening. The panna cotta was smooth and creamy, and we could see real vanilla bean seeds on top. It was served with raspberry coulis that was just slightly tart, which helped cut through the richness of the cream.

Vanilla panna cotta, raspberry coulis

Vanilla panna cotta, raspberry coulis

Overall, we really enjoyed our anniversary meal at Apiary. The meal hit some really high highs (the duck, the raviolis), and didn’t really have any misses. While the quail and the pork chop weren’t our favorites of the evening, they still had great flavor and would probably appeal to a lot of other people. I loved the hamachi and the octopus courses, but the kitchen showed a bit of inconsistency in those dishes as Josh’s octopus was far from the tender specimen I received, and his crudo had too much acid on the plate. As a side note, Josh later confessed that he’s actually not a big fan of octopus in general, because he feels it has no flavor, while I vehemently disagreed. See, even after 16 years together, there are still surprises in our relationship! But in general, we had a great dinner, and service was fabulous. Our waiter was knowledgeable, enthusiastic about the food, and came by to check on us often. With BYO Mondays, Apiary is a great place to go out for a nice, upscale meal without blowing your budget. They also offer a three course prix fixe menu on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays for $38, with items from the regular menu. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Apiary
60 Third Ave.
New York, NY