Brasserie Les Halles – Park Avenue

August 14th, 2014 by virginia

I guess it’s pretty obvious that Two Fat Bellies has become more of a travel food blog than a NY/NJ food blog. It’s been pretty tough for us to find new interesting places to eat around here since J was born, especially because Josh and I both still work full time and we don’t like to impose on our families any more than we already do. Not that we don’t go out to eat, but we go to familiar places where they know J or where no one would notice if she were disruptive (ie., kid-friendly chain restaurants). For an almost-2 year old, she’s actually really good in restaurants, but we certainly won’t be taking her to Daniel anytime soon, for example.

Ever since I was pregnant with J, I’ve been craving steak frites. And not just any steak frites – the one specifically from Les Halles. I’ve eaten plenty of steak and french fries since then, but there’s just something about Les Halles’ version that keeps it on top in my mind. But sadly, we haven’t had the opportunity to go there in almost three years. And so when I had an early summer Friday from work, I convinced Josh to meet me for a super late lunch at the Park Avenue location, which was about a 30 minute walk from where we were in midtown. We’ve never eaten at the Park Avenue branch, only the one in the Financial District. I was impressed by the old woodwork and real brasserie feel, though the restaurant was smaller than I thought it would be.

We got there just after 3 pm so it was fairly empty inside, but we were just in time for the start of happy hour. That meant a $5 beer special, and, best of all, $1 east coast oysters and $2 west coast oysters. We love raw oysters, so it was too good a deal to pass up. We ordered 6 east coast and 6 west coast to start.

Kumamoto (west coast) oysters on top, blue points (east coast) on the bottom

Kumamoto (west coast) oysters on top, blue points (east coast) on the bottom

The oysters arrived nicely chilled with lemon, cocktail sauce, and mignonette sauce on the side. We just like it with just a little squeeze of lemon though, so we can really taste the flavor of the oyster. We started with a west coast oyster, and then alternated with an east coast one, so we could compare them side by side. Even though we’re east coast snobs, we have to admit, the west coast oysters were far superior. They were kumamoto oysters, slightly smaller in size than the east coast blue point oysters, but much more flavorful. They were incredibly briney, with syrupy liquor that coated our tongues with a wonderful sea flavor that reminded me of fresh uni. The blue points, in comparison, were watery and weak. That’s not to say they were bad, but when eaten right after a kumamoto, it was no contest. Both varieties though were very fresh and pretty well cleaned. Definitely a good bargain at $1/$2 each.

For our main course, we decided to share an order of steak frites and a croque monsieur. The steak frites, which we ordered rare, was exactly as I remembered – tender, juicy, beefy. It just need a good sprinkle of salt from the table, and then it was absolutely perfect. The fries were also just as I remembered, double fried so they’re crispy on the outside and soft and potato-y on the inside. And the salad is not slouch either, lightly dressed with a flavorful vinaigrette that I wish I could replicate at home.

Steak frites

Steak frites

The croque monsieur was was gorgeously browned and bubbly on top when it arrived. It’s really a classic version of the famous ham and cheese sandwich covered in bechamel – it’s cheesy and rich and toasty all together. Unfortunately, I thought there was a bit too much nutmeg in the bechamel, which is a bit of a turnoff for me. Josh loved it though. The sandwich came with the same crispy fries and dressed salad on the side.

Croque monsieur

Croque monsieur

You know how typically when you put something up on a pedestal in your head, it usually disappoints when you get to have it because it’s not as good as you remember? This definitely wasn’t the case with the steak frites at Les Halles. It was everything I remembered it being, and is still my standard for all other steak frites. It’s just that good. And the oyster happy hour was just a bonus – it looks like it’s running from 3-7 on Tuesdays-Fridays until October 1. Even without the happy hour though, Les Halles is definitely worth a visit (or many).

Les Halles (multiple locations)
411 Park Ave S.
New York, NY

Plantation Cafe & Deli – Hilton Head, SC

August 12th, 2014 by virginia

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After lamenting the lack of good she crab soup over the course of our week in Hilton Head, we asked around whenever we had the opportunity to talk with locals, and the general consensus seemed to be that the best she crab soup on the island could be found at the Plantation Cafe & Deli. It’s a diner-like cafe that’s only open for breakfast and lunch, and there are two locations on the island – one on the north end and one on the south. We wound up going to the northern location on the morning that we were heading home from Hilton Head.

The menu is huge, as you would expect at any diner. There were lots of eggs and assorted breakfast items available, as well as numerous sandwiches and salads. We started with a bowl of the famous she crab soup.

She crab soup

She crab soup

Chock full of crab, thick, creamy, and rich, this really was the she crab soup of our dreams. The crab flavor was very pronounced, and it had a bit of a pepper kick to it that wasn’t overwhelming. A bowl was pretty filling though, so we were glad to have shared it, though I was craving more when we finished.

I don’t usually go for breakfast items at a diner, but a few of the breakfast dishes were calling out to me. I ended up sharing the crab cakes benedict and Elle’s southern breakfast with Josh. The crab cakes benedict featured poached eggs stacked on top of two decent-sized crab cakes and a toasted english muffin. The crab cakes had a good amount of meat in them, not a lot of filler, though they were on the mushy side rather than light and crisp. Still, it was a nice combination in terms of a runny egg on top of flavorful crab and a crunchy english muffin. We got the hollandaise sauce on the side and dipped lightly (I hate it when my eggs benedict are drowning in sauce). We had a choice of home fries or grits, and since the southern breakfast came with grits, we opted for home fries. They were shredded potatoes that were nicely browned and well seasoned on the outside, soft in the middle. We also had a choice of fresh fruit or hot cinnamon apples, and of course we went with the apples. They were like apple pie filling, though not as soft, but warm and comforting.

Crab cakes benedict with homes fries and hot cinnamon apples

Crab cakes benedict with hot cinnamon apples and home fries

Elle’s southern breakfast featured a big bowl of grits topped with three fried green tomatoes, two eggs any style (we opted for over easy), two sausage patties, and a choice of a buttermilk biscuit or toast (biscuit, of course). The fried green tomatoes were crispy on the outside and juicy and tart on the inside, but they seemed to be lacking something – more seasoning, some sauce, anything. It seemed odd that they were in the bowl of grits, so we just moved them off to the plate and doused them in salt and hot sauce, which made a big difference. The grits were buttery and creamy, and we tossed a little hot sauce in there as well for a nice kick. I’m not a fan of sausage patties in general (too many bad fast food breakfasts growing up!) but these had a nice browned crust on the outside and were milder in the flavor, which I preferred. The biscuit was fluffy and just plain yummy.

Elle's southern breakfast - fried green tomatoes, grits, eggs, biscuit, sausage

Elle’s southern breakfast – fried green tomatoes, grits, eggs, biscuit, sausage

Overall, we were pretty impressed with the food at the Plantation Cafe & Deli. It’s a cute diner that serves large portions at reasonable prices. The she crab soup was amazing (I would go back just to eat another bowl of it), and the ambiance is casual and friendly. It’s a great spot to grab a filling breakfast or lunch, and I hope that we can find the time to make it there again this year.

Plantation Cafe & Deli
96 Mathews Dr.
Hilton Head, SC

The Sea Shack – Hilton Head, SC

August 9th, 2014 by virginia

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The Sea Shack is great little place on the island that I finally got to try two years ago. It’s a no frills joint where the specialty is – you guessed it – seafood. You order at the counter in front and then they call your name when your food is ready. Although we usually make sandwiches for lunch and eat by the pool every day, now we try to make a special trip to the Sea Shack once a year. It takes a bit of planning since they’re only open for lunch until 3 pm (they do serve dinner from 5-9 pm), and Josh and his dad don’t usually get back from golfing until about 2 pm.

The menu is surprisingly extensive but basic. You can pretty much get whatever seafood they have either fried, grilled, or blackened. The Shark Attack combo lets you try the most amount of items, though you can also get combo platters with 2 or 3 items of your choice. The Shark Attack comes with fried fish,  shrimp, scallops, oysters, and crab cake. It also includes hush puppies and your choice of two sides. We opted for mac n’ cheese and the veggie of the day, which was stewed okra and tomatoes. The seafood is fried on the spot when you order so you can be sure it’ll come out piping hot and crispy. Everything tastes fresh, and the oysters are big enough that you can taste their brininess through the breading. The crab cake is also excellent, not too heavy on the filler.

Shark Attack combo

Shark Attack combo

The okra on that day was delicious, not at all slimy, but crisp and bright. I wish I could eat okra more often! The mac n’ cheese can be a little mushy but there’s lots of cheese mixed in. And the hush puppies are great, light and fluffy on the inside.

Hush puppies, mac n' cheese, stewed okra and tomatoes

Hush puppies, mac n’ cheese, stewed okra and tomatoes

Since we already had a big plate of fried food, we decided to try out the jerk grouper. I asked them at the counter which they would recommend – jerk or blackened – and they said they make their jerk seasoning in house. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a fan of the seasonings they used. There was something in it that had a floral quality that I didn’t like, though Josh didn’t seem to mind it. The grouper was also a bit overcooked, rendering it a little tough and chewy. I’ll skip this dish the next time, and go for something blackened. For our sides, we chose french fries (standard, but crispy) and sweet potato cornbread, which tasted a bit like pumpkin pie and was very dense but moist.

Jerk grouper, french fries, sweet potato cornbread, hush puppies

Jerk grouper, french fries, sweet potato cornbread, hush puppies

Overall, I think if you want to eat fried seafood, the Sea Shack is the place to go. Everything is prepared fresh, so that it’s not sitting out under heat lamps getting soggy. The restaurant has seats on the inside but it’s a pretty small place so it does fill up quickly. We tend to go later than normal lunch hour when it’s not as crowded, but it’s still tough to find tables together for our big group. There is also seating outside. Most sandwiches/platters will run you about $10-$15, but you get a pretty big portion of food and the quality merits the price tag. It’s definitely worth checking out.

The Sea Shack
6B Executive Park Rd.
Hilton Head, SC

Nick’s Steak and Seafood – Hilton Head, SC

August 7th, 2014 by virginia

Nick’s Steak and Seafood is the sort of generic seafood restaurant that you’ll find all over Hilton Head. We’ve eaten there before, many many years ago, and now we know why we didn’t go back. What lured us in this time was the all you can eat snow crab legs, in which several people in our party partook. But our meal got off to a bad start when Josh asked our server what fish was local, and the response was, “Umm..nothing?” I guess we have to give points for honesty!

Nevertheless, I started with a bowl of she crab soup, which I hoped would be somewhat local, given that it’s a lowcountry specialty. The soup I got was very creamy and not much else. There wasn’t any discernible crab flavor, and it was actually incredibly greasy on top. It was so bad that I sent it back, something I generally never do, because I was convinced they had given me the wrong soup, or had forgotten to stir it before they served it to me. The she crab soup other people at our table received didn’t look anything like mine, and theirs at least had some crab in it. I got back pretty much the same bowl though, and our server said it was just a new batch of soup. I don’t know what that meant, but it wasn’t a good bowl of soup.

She crab soup

She crab soup

Rather than do all you can eat crab, Josh and I shared two pounds of snow crab legs (I think it was about $25 for two pounds and $35 for all you can eat) and the captain’s platter. The snow crab legs were steamed and were just ok. They didn’t seem super fresh in the sense that the shells didn’t have a good snap to them and the meat got stuck inside. When snow crab legs are prepared nicely, we can easily extract the meat whole. They tasted fine though. We also got to pick a potato side (we opted for fries), and it came with the vegetable of the day (green beans).

Steamed snow crab legs

Steamed snow crab legs

We chose the fried version of the captain’s platter, which featured tilapia, shrimp, and scallops. The tilapia was pretty mushy, both inside and out, and the scallops tasted a tad fishy. The shrimp were the best part of the plate, with relatively big pieces that weren’t too overcooked. It also came with a choice of potato (we picked fries again) and the house vegetable.

Captain's platter with fried shrimp, tilapia, and scallops

Captain’s platter with fried shrimp, tilapia, and scallops

Overall, we thought the food at Nick’s was pretty disappointing. From start to finish, our food was pretty poorly executed and bland in flavor. The only thing I could really see coming here for is the bar, as they had decent beers on tap and a Steelers theme going on. But it’s far from a dining destination, and I doubt that we’ll be making a return visit any time soon.

Nick’s Steak and Seafood
9 Park Lane
Hilton Head Island, SC

Dye’s Gullah Fixin’s – Hilton Head, SC

August 5th, 2014 by virginia

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Dye’s Gullah Fixin’s is a restaurant in Hilton Head that I’ve wanted to try for years, but it’s got a reputation for being hard to get into. The daily hours vary depending on whether Dye is catering a party elsewhere. We were finally able to snag a reservation last year and I was thrilled to be able to taste home-style Gullah cuisine for the first time. Per wikipedia, the Gullah are descendents of African slaves who reside in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina and Georgia. The cuisine reflects a blend of these African and Southern roots, and so it is a bit different from the usual Lowcountry fare we’ve eaten before in terms of flavors.

The menu isn’t very long and is pretty straightforward. We ordered a few appetizers to share, and we indulged on the complimentary cornbread with sugar cane syrup on the side. The cornbread was deliciously moist and didn’t even need the syrup or extra butter that came with it.

Cornbread with cane syrup

Cornbread with cane syrup

We got a few orders of the shrimp devil eggs, which were deviled eggs with shrimp mixed into the mashed yolks. These were well seasoned, not too heavy or mayo-y, and made for a nice bite to start.

Shrimp devil eggs

Shrimp devil eggs

The seafood hush puppies were fantastic. They were served to us piping hot, and had a delicately crisp outer shell. There was a mixture of crab and shrimp on the inside, and these were surprisingly light, not too dense. The hush puppies came with a homemade tartar sauce, and they were one of our favorite dishes of the night.

Seafood hush puppies

Seafood hush puppies

We also got steamed shrimp, which were bathed in a garlic butter and served with cocktail sauce. The shrimp were cooked just right so that they were tender and plump. Simple, yet tasty.

Steamed shrimp

Steamed shrimp

Lastly, we all shared a crab cake plate as part of our appetizers. The crab cakes were two big patties bursting with blue crab meat and very little filler, aside from a few veggies and seasonings. Since this was technically a dinner plate, it came with our choice of two sides. We opted for collard greens, which were more rustic in flavor than the typical collard greens we’ve tasted before, allowing the slight bitterness of the greens to shine through. We also chose the mac n’ cheese, which was baked and on the dry side, though had decent cheese flavor.

Crab cakes with collard greens and macaroni and cheese

Crab cakes with collard greens and mac n’ cheese

For our main course, Josh and I split the country fried chicken and the smothered shrimp and grits. The fried chicken came with a breast, thigh, drumstick, and wing (half a chicken) and was nicely crisp on the outside, not the least bit greasy. The meat was tender and juicy, and everything was well seasoned. We had a choice of two sides and opted for more collard greens, plus lima beans, which were savory in flavor and buttery in texture.

Country fried chicken with collard greens and butter beans

Fried chicken with collard greens and lima beans

The smothered shrimp and grits were covered in a rich brown gravy and came with bacon and smoked sausage on the side. While I liked that you could crumble in the bacon yourself, thus ensuring that it stayed crispy, there was too much gravy on the plate. I get that it’s supposed to be smothered, but the grits were totally lost in the sea of thick gravy. The shrimp were also overcooked, rendering them tough and chewy. It was too bad, because I like the flavors of the dish, but it got to be overwhelming very quickly.

Smothered shrimp and grits

Smothered shrimp and grits

Overall, we were generally pleased with our meal at Dye’s Gullah Fixin’s. Everything is homemade, and you can see the thought and care put in every dish. The only miss of the evening for us was the smothered shrimp and grits, but everything else was fantastic, especially the appetizers. The hush puppies, the crab cakes, and the fried chicken were our favorites f the evening. The food and the ambiance are nothing fancy, but that’s part of the charm. Dye herself was in the kitchen and came out to speak with us several times. She’s pretty straightforward and no nonsense, but you can tell she’s passionate about her cooking and about sharing Gullah food with newbies like us. Her niece, who was about 12, was our server for the evening, and she was extremely polite and efficient. J took a particular liking to her and wouldn’t eat unless she was around, which we all thought was pretty adorable. It’s definitely a place worth checking out, if you can get a reservation!

Dye’s Gullah Fixin’s
840 William Hilton Pkwy.
Hilton Head Island, SC

ELA’s Blu Water Grille – Hilton Head, SC

August 1st, 2014 by virginia

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Since our annual Hilton Head trip is fast approaching, I better catch up on last year’s restaurant excursions! ELA’s Blu Water Grille was a new restaurant for us last year (in 2013). It’s right on the water at Shelter Cove and has amazing views of the harbor. We were such a large group that they gave us a private room on the third level that had big windows on three sides, and we arrived just in time to watch the gorgeous sunset.

Sunset in Shelter Cove

Sunset in Shelter Cove

The meal started off with baskets of hush puppies and garlic bread. The hush puppies were a tad dense, but whenever we got freshly fried batches, they were pretty delicious, especially slathered with butter. The garlic bread was lackluster in comparison, with not enough garlic flavor and a poor crust, so we mostly focused our attention on the hush puppies.

Basket of hush puppies

Basket of hush puppies

The menu looked incredible, with seafood obviously being the star, and we had a hard time choosing what to eat. Josh and I ended up ordering a crab cake for our appetizer, and we also got a few orders of fried green tomatoes to share with the table. The crab cake was a pretty decent size for an appetizer portion, and there was definitely a lot of crab in the cake with not much filler. It had a nice crispy crust on the outside, and the crab was fresh tasting and flaky inside. I was intrigued by the accompanying key lime aioli, but it didn’t really have much key lime flavor to it. I also wish there was a bit more of it, as I think some sauce always help to prevent a crab cake from being too dry. Nevertheless, it was a good crab cake and well prepared.

Crab cake

Crab cake with key lime aioli

The fried green tomatoes were also nicely prepared, with a light, crispy coating. They were served with a zingy creole sauce that added flavor and seasoning but didn’t overwhelm the slight tartness of the tomatoes.

Fried green tomatoes

Fried green tomatoes

The entrees, however, were nowhere near the same level of execution as the appetizers. Josh and I shared the scallops and the grouper. The scallops had a beautiful sear on top and were cooked correctly, but they were over-seasoned. I have a pretty high salt threshold and this was maxing out my limit. The accompanying crab risotto with truffle butter, which is what inspired me to order the dish to begin with, suffered from the opposite problem – under-seasoning – and tasted neither of crab nor of truffle. It was just muddy in both flavor and texture, although I would get whiffs of truffle oil here and there, but not the fragrant earthiness that I was seeking. The risotto itself was oddly lumpy and wet, like bad oatmeal or rice pudding, not toothsome or creamy.

Scallops

Pan seared diver scallops with crab risotto

Even so, the scallop dish fared better than the grouper, which, despite its lovely presentation, was cold, dried out, and totally bland. The lobster butter noted on the menu, which certainly would have helped, was virtually non-existent. All of the fish we had on the table suffered from the same poor execution.

Pan roasted grouper

Pan roasted grouper

My mom, who loves lobster and bacon, had to order the lobster carbonara. The menu I think was a bit misleading, as it described the dish as “1 1/2 lb steamed lobster over creamy fettuccine”, and she definitely did not receive a whole 1 1/2 pound lobster. The head was there, which is her favorite part, but it was for show only – the innards were completely removed. The claws were there, already out of the shell, but the rest of the legs and body were missing, including the coveted knuckle meat. At least the tail was there, cleaned up and ready to eat. I guess at a nice restaurant such as ELA’s, people aren’t really expecting to break out a lobster bib and crack their way through an entire lobster, but the amount of meat seemed a bit paltry to me when you’re advertising the weight of the lobster on the menu. And I get that a lot of people don’t like lobster roe or tomalley, but keeping some of that in the dish would have helped it tremendously, taste-wise, as the carbonara itself was devoid of any flavor. I don’t know how they managed to snuff out the bacon in the dish, but they did. The sauce on the noodles was pasty, unseasoned, and just plain terrible.

Lobster carbonara

Lobster carbonara

Up until this point, the meal had been wonderful. We were enjoying the view, the lovely room, the great service, and the tasty appetizers. Once we got the entrees, however, our dinner definitely went downhill from there. All the plates were beautifully presented and pleasing to the eye, but definitely not to the palate. We were pretty stunned by the poor execution and the lack of flavor in the dishes. We had been rooting for ELA’s to be our new go-to restaurant, and things looked promising at first. The restaurant has a lot going for it, and ambiance-wise, it’s great for a celebratory night out or a special occasion. But the entrees – I still can’t get over how bad they were. They were definitely hard to swallow, especially given the prices. The restaurant is on the expensive side, with appetizers ranging from $7-$15 and entrees primarily between $30-$35. Sadly, I’m not sure it’s a place we’ll revisit, although I’m tempted to give it another shot just because there was so much potential. The execution issues could have been because we were such a large group. We had friends dining there at the same exact time and they raved about their food – but they were a table of 4, not 14. Still, a restaurant of this caliber should be able to handle the volume, so it’s a hard call. We’re definitely running out of restaurants to try in Hilton Head!

ELA’s Blu Water Grille
1 Shelter Cove Ln.
Hilton Head Island, SC

Tam Deli and Cafe – Austin, TX

July 30th, 2014 by virginia

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The last day of our Louisiana/Texas trip was really just a travel day. We had an early afternoon flight out of Austin and needed to return our rental car by midday, so we took it easy in the morning. We did have one last stop planned though, on our way to the airport. Rather than suffering through bad airplane food, we picked up some banh mis from Tam Deli and Cafe to tide us over.

The banh mi that I had read the most about during my research was the fried garlic shrimp banh mi. When we opened up the sandwich though, it looked more like a po’ boy than a typical banh mi, as it was dressed with lettuce, tomato, and mayo, rather than cilantro, jalapenos, and pickled vegetables. We laughed that our trip had come full circle, considering we started out in New Orleans and ate more than our fair share of po’ boys while we were there. Nevertheless, it was a delicious sandwich – the shrimp were perfectly fried and covered with crunchy, pungent bits of garlic. The garlic flavor wasn’t overwhelming, but it definitely makes its presence known. The french bread was crusty on the outside, chewy on the inside, and wrapped around the fillings nicely, without getting soggy or too messy.

Garlic shrimp banh mi

Garlic shrimp banh mi

We also ordered a grilled pork banh mi, which ended up being more like the traditional banh mi that we’re used to. It was filled with flavorful strips of savory grilled pork and topped with pickled shredded carrots, sliced cucumber and jalapeno, and of course, cilantro. It wasn’t as stuffed to the brim as the banh mis we’re used to from back home, but it was still tasty nonetheless.

Grilled pork banh mi

Grilled pork banh mi

Lastly, we also got two cream puffs, because, why not? These were fresh when we ordered them (and we devoured them right away), with a delicate choux pastry exterior and creamy custard inside. They were two lovely petite bites.

Cream puffs

Cream puffs

Overall, we thought the banh mis from Tam Deli and Cafe were pretty solid. The fried garlic shrimp sandwich was delicious in its po’ boy format, but might have been even better dressed with the traditional banh mi ingredients; I’m not sure if you can request it that way, but it’s worth a shot. The garlic shrimp itself is worth the detour, though this place is pretty far outside of downtown Austin. But if you have a car and are heading to the airport, it’s not too out of the way. Don’t forget to get a cream puff for dessert. We ended up eating our banh mis by the gate while waiting for our flight, and they held up really well. It was a nice conclusion to our week and a half of pigging out through Louisiana and Texas, and it definitely made us want to do more food-related road trips in the future.

Tam Deli and Cafe
8222 N. Lamar Blvd.
Austin, TX

East Side King and Via 313 – Austin, TX

July 30th, 2014 by virginia

Food trucks are pretty mainstream in Austin. Everywhere we went, there would be parking lots with multiple food trucks set up in what seemed like permanent locations, with Christmas lights strung up, picnic tables, and other assorted outdoor seating. It’s pretty different from NYC where food trucks park on the street and have to move to different locations each day and deal with parking tickets, street cleaning schedules, etc., and we knew that we couldn’t leave Austin without trying a few of the most popular ones.

We were pretty full after our incredible meal at Franklin Barbecue, so even though we walked miles around the city to burn off the calories, we didn’t have room to try as many places as we would have liked. The top of our list was East Side King, which is owned and operated by Paul Qui, the winner of Top Chef Texas. There are many East Side King trucks located throughout Austin, and we were hoping to try the one at the Grackle (which has since closed), since it was outside in front of the bar, which would have made it easier for us to sit there and eat with J.

Austin (and Texas in general) has super strict rules about children not being allowed in bars that don’t serve food. We tried to get into multiple bars on Sixth Street to listen to live music but were turned away every time. Some places even specified “no babies” on their signs that decreed no one under 21 was allowed in, so it’s not just a matter of trying to deter under-aged teens and college students from trying to sneak in. Unfortunately, the East Side King truck at the Grackle was catering a private event that night, and so we went to the next closest location, at the Liberty Bar, which was just up the street. However, the truck is located behind the bar, and to get there, you have to walk through the bar. Josh checked at the door, and they confirmed that they wouldn’t even let us walk a baby through to get the truck out back. So we did what we had to do – park on the street, have Josh go in to order and pick up the food, and then eat in the car.

East Side King at Liberty Bar

East Side King at Liberty Bar

It worked out pretty well, as the food was neatly packaged in takeout containers that allowed us to eat easily without making a huge mess. First we tried the brussels sprout salad, which was fried brussels sprouts with shredded cabbage, onions, and assorted herbs tossed with a sweet-spicy sauce. The brussels sprouts had a good char on the outside and had a nice texture to them – not mushy. The dressing and the herbs gave the salad a southeast Asian flavor, and it was both sweet and savory at the same time. There was lots of mint, basil, and cilantro, which made it quite a refreshing dish that was well balanced. The salad was topped with a deep fried mantou bun.

Brussels sprouts

Brussels sprout salad

Next we tried the Thai chicken karaage, which was a fusion of Japanese fried chicken bites with Thai flavors. The chicken was crispy on the outside and juicy in the middle. The sauce was similar to the dressing for the brussels sprouts, though a tad sweeter and stickier. Again, the fresh herbs mixed in helped bring balance to the dish.

Thai chicken karaage

Thai chicken karaage

The beet home fries were pretty intriguing – I love beets but I’ve never thought about deep frying them before.  The beets weren’t exactly crispy, but they had a distinctive shell on the outside, and the inside was smooth and creamy. It was like frying had concentrated the roasted beet flavor, making them less earthy and more sweet. There was kewpie mayo (sweet Japanese-style mayo) on the side topped with schichimi togarashi, which is a Japanese spice blend. We didn’t use a lot of the mayo though, as the beets were delicious on their own.

Beet home fries

Beet home fries

Lastly, we tried the Poor Qui’s buns, which is roasted pork belly on steamed mantou buns with hoisin sauce and cucumber kimchi. Pork belly buns were pretty trendy in NYC at one point, and this was a fairly standard version, though still solid. The pork belly wasn’t as melty as I typically prefer, but the cucumber kimchi added a little twist to the usual fare. I just wish there was more filling overall, as the innards were pretty skimpy compared to the bun.

Poor Qui's buns

Poor Qui’s buns

Overall, we were pretty impressed with the dishes we got from East Side King. Even though Josh had to carry the food through the bar outside to us, it was still hot and fresh when we dug in. Everything we tried packed a punch of flavor, especially the brussels sprout salad. It’s definitely something I want to try recreating at home. The only thing I might not order again was the pork belly buns, but there were plenty of interesting-looking things on the menu that we didn’t get to try.

After polishing off the food from East Side King, we continued up the street to Via 313, a pizza truck parked outside of the Violet Crown Social Club. Again, J and I stayed in the car while Josh ran out to order. It took about 15 minutes for our pizza to be ready, but we were parked just across the street so Josh was able to stay inside with us while we waited for order to come up.

Via 313 pizza truck

Via 313 pizza truck

Via 313 features Detroit style pizza, which a thick crust, square pie, similar to a Sicilian. However, the cheese is layered directly on top of the crust, and the tomato sauce is drizzled on top of the cheese. We ordered a plain cheese, so that we could taste the classic version of the pizza.

Classic Detroit-style cheese pizza

Classic Detroit-style cheese pizza

The crust was lighter and more airy than a usual Sicilian, though the very middle was a little doughy. The pizza is baked in a pan, so the bottom and sides are nicely browned. The cheese covers the entire top of the pizza, all the way to the edges where it gets all caramelized and crispy – that was the best part. The sauce was tangy, not too sweet, though I did wish there was a little more of it.

Underside shot

Underside shot

Overall, I had to admit, the Detroit-style pizza was pretty good. We’re NYC pizza snobs, but I could see the appeal of the thick yet crispy crust, the browned cheese edges, and the sauce on top. Via 313 makes a fresh, hot pie that we really enjoyed. J took down a whole slice by herself, and she’s pretty picky about her pizza.

Even though we spent the last night of our trip eating in our car, it was a fun experience, as we got to try innovative and well prepared food that is astonishingly cooked on a food truck. It’s pretty incredible, considering I used to complain about the size of our kitchen when we lived in NYC. The only downside to dining in the car was that we couldn’t enjoy any beers while we were eating, but that was a small sacrifice to be able to taste such great food. Unfortunately we weren’t able to hit all the spots that we wanted to try, but I do hope that we’ll be back in Austin at some point in the near future.

East Side King (multiple locations)
@Liberty Bar
1618 1/2 East 6th St.
Austin, TX

VIA 313 (multiple locations)
@ The Violet Crown Social Club
1111 East 6th St.
Austin, TX

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