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

Lafayette Quickie – Prejean’s Restaurant

February 12th, 2014 by virginia

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When I was researching Lafayette restaurants, Prejean’s came up often in my searches. The reviews were mixed; some said it shouldn’t be missed, others wrote it off as being too touristy. When we checked into our hotel, they offered us coupons from Prejean’s that advertised a free gumbo if we ate there and presented the card. To be honest, that was a bit of a turnoff for me, and I was ready to pass on going but when the restaurant that we wanted to try closed for lunch earlier than we expected, Prejean’s was our only option.

I really wanted to have crawfish etouffee while in the heart of Cajun country, but we were also pretty full from the three pounds of boiled crawfish that we had just put away, so I had Josh order just a side of etouffee rather than a whole entree. I figured it would be much less food, plus we had to eat in the car because J had fallen asleep on the drive over from Breaux Bridge, and we didn’t want to disturb her. The serving was a big cupful and more than enough. The sauce was buttery and creamy – very rich. There were tons of crawfish tails mixed in, which I appreciated. We spooned the etouffee over the white rice they provided on the side, and it was a wonderfully hearty and homey combination. The etouffee was a bit on the sweeter side, and had lots of paprika and other seasonings. I think we liked the original etouffee we tasted at the Acme Oyster House better, but this was still a good version.

Crawfish etouffee with rice

Crawfish etouffee with rice

We also got a crawfish enchilada appetizer, which is supposed to be another one of their specialties. The enchilada was actually pretty tasty, with lots of cheese melted on top and some tomato-y crawfish sauce to round out the flavor. I wished there were more crawfish tails wrapped inside the enchilada though, as they got a bit lost underneath all the cheese and sauce. But it was a nice twist on a shrimp enchilada, and I’m glad to have tried it.

Crawfish enchilada appetizer

Crawfish enchilada appetizer

Overall I don’t know if we could really pass judgment on Prejean’s, as we only got an appetizer and a side dish to go. The food we tasted was good but didn’t blow our minds. If we ever do make it back to Lafayette, there are still other places I want to try for crawfish etouffee.  However, the enchilada was a great segue into the next part of our trip – Texas. We hit the road for Houston after leaving Prejean’s, en route to some really amazing Tex Mex food.

Prejean’s Restaurant
3480 NE Evangeline Thruway
Lafayette, LA

The Fruit Stand / Foti’s Market & Cafe – Breaux Bridge, LA

January 30th, 2014 by virginia

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When I was doing research on places to eat in or near Lafayette, I was primarily looking at restaurants that offered crawfish boils. Then I hit a snag – it wasn’t crawfish season. As a result, all of the places that I had on my list were closed or not offering boils this time of year. I was pretty disappointed but didn’t want to give up hope. When I saw that Breaux Bridge was the “Crawfish Capitol of the World”, I knew that it would be our best bet for finding live crawfish.

After our tasty breakfast at Meche’s Donut King, we asked the friendly young women behind the counter if they knew of anywhere to get boiled crawfish. They suggested either The Fruit Stand or Crazy ‘Bout Crawfish. The latter was right off the highway and looked a bit touristy, plus I couldn’t find a menu online that said if they were currently serving fresh crawfish. The Fruit Stand, on the other hand, looked like just that – a farmer’s market, not a restaurant. But there was a sign outside that said “boiled crawfish”, so we were pretty much sold.

Boiled crawfish!

Boiled crawfish!

The outer part of The Fruit Stand is Foti’s Market & Cafe, where you can order burgers, sandwiches, and other assorted grill/fry items. We went inside to the supermarket part of the store, which has assorted fruits, vegetables, seafood, and grocery items for sale. We asked about the live crawfish, which they said was fresh, but that because it was winter time, the specimens available were smaller, as the larger crawfish bury themselves deep in the mud to avoid the cold. We took a peek at the big bucket of crawfish, and they seemed pretty decent in size to us so we ordered up three pounds (the minimum) at $4.99/pound. We were asked how spicy we wanted the boil to be, and when we asked how spicy “spicy” was, it was recommended that we get the mild version. We didn’t argue, but wondered how spicy a boil could possibly be. Silly us.

We waited at a table back in the cafe area while they cooked up our crawfish, which was presented to us in a giant tray and topped with two boiled potatoes and a piece of corn on the cob. The crawfish were brilliant red in color, both from the shells and to the seasoning liberally applied.

Three pounds of boiled crawfish

Three pounds of boiled crawfish

After dropping off our tray, the guy who made the boil offered to rinse off some of the seasoning for us. We made the mistake of declining. Initially, the first few bites were great. The crawfish were sweet and perfectly cooked so that they were tender, not dried out or tough. The seasoning, which appeared to be predominantly salt, ground cloves, and cayenne pepper, had a nice kick. But gradually, that kick built. And built. Until we had tears in our eyes and runny noses. At first, we were cracking open and eating the tail meat, and then sucking on the heads. In the end, sucking on the heads proved to be too painful due to all the spice in the seasoning.

Crawfish and seasoning up close

Crawfish and seasoning up close

After drinking a lot of beer (me) and water (Josh, since he was driving) and chewing on the boiled potatoes, we decided to just take some time to let our mouths cool off while we shelled all of the tails at once. Once we were done shelling and had a mountain of crawfish meat in front of us, we wiped the spice off our hands as best as we could and proceeded to feast on the tail meat. I was sad to leave all the heads behind, but there was no way to get past the seasoning. Eventually, all I was tasting was the cloves and cayenne anyway, not the briny goodness of the head innards.

Tails, heads, and shells

Tails, heads, and shells

Considering this was our first crawfish boil, I thought we got through the mountain of crawfish well enough. We had no issues pulling off the heads and cracking open the tails with our hands. Even though these were off-season “smaller” crawfish, I didn’t find their size to be too puny, and the flavor was better than any frozen crawfish tails we’ve tasted before. The small size did prevent us from enjoying the claw meat, which yielded so little return that it was just not worth our effort to crack them open.

I have to admit that I wasn’t a huge fan of the crawfish boil seasoning used here, as I have an aversion to cloves. I don’t know if most boil seasonings taste like cloves, but the flavor was really overwhelming after a while and I wished that we had chosen to have the crawfish rinsed before we ate them. But the crawfish themselves were obviously fresh (we saw them alive) and their meat was sweet and tender. At $4.99/pound, I would be buying many pounds if I had access to these back home. Next time, we’ll know better that “mild” is still “super spicy”. Overall, however, I was just thrilled to have found a place that prepared crawfish boil in the off-season.

The Fruit Stand/Foti’s Market & Cafe
200 W Mills Ave.

Breaux Bridge, LA