Back from the Hill Country: The good, the bad and in between....
I just returned an hour ago from our trip to Austin and after all of the endless emails from all of you kindly offering suggestions, I felt that in return I owed you a detailed and prompt write up upon my return. Here goes:
Thursday: I was picked up from the airport and dragged my husband immediately to Lockhart...Smitty's to be exact. We asked for the wet brisket and a piece of the smoked BBQ prime rib (which they were out of). The wet brisket was fabulous...juicy, flavorful and better than any I have ever had. I even liked their sauce. I was not deterred by the lack of prime rib and thought I should try elsewhere, so onto Kreuz we went. They did have it, but unfortunately it was not as good as I anticipated. First, it was dry and did not have much flavor at all. Still, I left
lockhart happily full. as a side trip, we went to Town Lake and sat for a bit in Mozart's, which I fell in love with. Such a great ambience and good, strong coffee. For dinner, we went to El Gringo Red House Lounge for a cocktail. I had my first mexican martini there, which was too dirty for me and salty, so I traded for my husband's beer. What it lacked in the martini, it made up for in atmosphere. For dinner, we went to El Chile. I loved the salsa; dark as chocolate, smoky, thick and mouth watering. How smoking tomatoes, jalapenos and garlic and then pureeing in a blender comes up with this salsa, I am amazed. We then had the rajas queso (with poblanos and grilled onions), which we did not like. It was way too thick, creamy and rich for us. For dinner, my husband had the chile relleno stuffed with pork which was fabulous. The pork was tender and tasty and not masked by too much sauce. I had the shrimp enchiladas, which were pretty good. I only say "pretty good" because I thought the sauces were too heavy for the shrimp. Once I pushed away the sauce, I did like the freshness of the corn and peppers inside. The rice served in the side is the best I have ever had...it was like sticky rice with vegetables. A few house margaritas to wash it all down and we left very happy. I would definitely return.
Friday: We woke up and drove out to Driftwood so I had some briket to compare Smitty's to. Needless to say, Smitty's won. Their brisket was dry. But, I have to say, I thought their pork ribs were great; a ton of meat, moist, criepy on the outside and complemented by their vinegry, mustardy sauce. I also liked the turkey, as well and the coleslaw, crisp and light--great complement to the mains. Combine that with a great drive and rustic, fun atmopehere, I would return. We went to Mandola Estate Winery: beware, they do not make their own wines yet but purchase their grapes from Driftwood down the street...but we loved the people and it was a pretty vineyard. We decide to drive to Fredericksburg and stopped at Becker Vineyards, written up in Wine Spectator. this is a trip you must make as there is a little four top table inf ront of a roaring fire (maybe not nice for you all in the summer, but this past weekend when it was in the 30s, it was nice). If not for the fireplace, make the trip for Henri, the FRenchman there who is pouring. He is a character and a lot of fun. for dinner, I let my husband choose as he lived in Ausitn a decade ago. He chose Gueros. I wept. :)
The margaritas were bitter, but once I upgraded liquor for $1, they were markedly better. The salsas were all bad and I disliked the ambience, although it was packed. One redeeming note: Their fish tacos were good...meat was charred on outside, but sweet and tender inside...very good. Had a few drinks with friends at The Belmont and Union Park and then called it a night.
Saturday: Woke up and went directly to Tamale House #3. I was back in charge. We had the migas and a few breakfast tacos. Migas had great flavor but were very watery; hard to contain in a tortilla.
For a snack, I decided I had to have the sopapillas at Angie's on 7th. They were ok. They were soft dougballs, which you all might think is good. I prefer sopapillas drenched in honey that are crispy and crunchy on the outside, thin and soft in the middle...still, they hit the spot on a rainy day. Also stopped at Joe's for a green mint tea to go. For dinner, we splurged and went to Uchi. I absolutely loved the ambience. We split a bamboo box of the light, sweet, unfiltered, cold sake which we really enjoyed. As for the food, appetizers: loved the cool seabass shashimi dish and the maguro, goat cheese and apple dish, as well. Also had from the specials: the applewood smoked yellowtail loin served on fried plantian chips, with pumpkin seed oil, marcona almonds, and grapes. FABULOUS. this is where chef Cole shines in marrying such unique ingredients. ON the other hand, tried the crab and shrimp dish off of the special menu and it was just average. Tried the bacon steakie, which was ok. I think maybe I was too meated out by then, but it just seemed like an all fat piece of pork rib. Then tried a sushi roll that was average; masked by tempura on the outside (cannot recall name--recommended by server). Also had the endo roll, which was more of a summer roll than sushi. Each rice paper was filled with shrimp, crab, cucumber, dipped in a fish sauce combo and then served with cucumber radish sauce on side with sweet rice vinegar. I went ahead and topped the roll bites with this and it was superb. Husband had some tempura japanese pumpkin which he lied. We split the black pepper sorbet for dessert, which I found hard, too strong and average. Our bill was $180 for all of this and one sake and one fat tire beer..very expensive, but a fun place with attentive, knowledgeable service and unique, great food (once you know what to order) for a special night out. I loved this place and highly recommend it.
Sunday: We had brunch at South Congress Cafe, as we wanted to walk the area since it was finally sunny outside. Loved the ambience, very funky and hip. I loved my spicy bloody mary. Husband's migas were good. The flavor was better at Tamale House, but the consistency was better here..thicker eggs, fluffy, with some onions and tomatoes. I had the blackened tuna tacos which were average at best. Flavors masked b/c too spicy (and I like spicy). I would ask for them rare next time. the rice and beans seemed to have been sitting under a lamp too long...just not good. for the big game, we decided to follow Tom in Austin's advice and go deep into enemy territoy and go to Shoal's Creek. I loved the setting with the benches outside. BUT, we were the only Bears fan, which would be fine with us, but the Saints fans were mean and unaccepting. It was not only enemey territory but enemy headquarters! And onlt Shiner beer. so, after one quarter we left and went to 6th to a variety of places. Did go to Cedar Door for a mexican martini, which I loved. you could taste the fresh lime juice and it was not too bitter/not too sweet...and not olive juice. Perfect to sit putisde and sip one on the deck. Sat also at Gingerman for second game talking to bartenders drinking some great beers on tap. Love this place. fox and Hound next door closed-becoming condos. We are thankful they still have another 3 years on their lease. For dinner, we went to Curra's. Hmm. Average. do not get the buzz on this place. Salsa was average although I could see that the migas in the am with some of their warm, borrocho salsa would be a great combo. did not like their regular salsa; average. Nothing stands out to make it interesting. Had the queso flameado, which was a bit too greasy; lots of oil. then, split the cochinita pibil for dinner. I have had this many places and this was not one of my favorites. The pieces of pork were really tiny little shreds; so small hard to taste and overwhelmed by the sauce. My favorite part was the red tortillas; they tasted of peppers and were just yummy.
Monday: Went to Juan in the Million on the way out as on way to airport and heard it was good. It was not. Why the press? The migas were dry and flvorless. The Huevos a la Mexicana was a very dry omelette basically and overpowered by the jalapenos. Then, to the airport it was, sad that our trip had come to an end. I loved Austin and cannot wait to return...so many great restaurants, great people (will just have to buy bigger pants for the next trip).
MPH...sure hope you will post whatever you discover in your search....am enjoying your posts and usually in agreement. Always good to hear of the "out of the way" Hispanic east and southeast sides. And I'm still a big fan of Evita's Botanitas on So. First for enchiladas and tacas al carbon.
What's the scoop on almost every Tex-Mex place that's well-known enough to make it into a guidebook or onto some media outlet's "top ten list"? It's awful. You should avoid Chuy's, Trudy's, Güero’s, Maudie’s, Curra's, Juan in a Million, etc. In my opinion, even Las Manitas, Polvo’s, and Maria's Taco Express are not truly delicious.
Once a place becomes popular with mostly white middle- to high-income locals and tourists—plus students (WM2HILT+S), it's time to move on because the food has gone way downhill.
You hit one of the better places among those frequented by the same audience: El Chile.
If you come to town again (or for others reading this thread who want to learn from ljero's experience), get way off the beaten track for the best Tex-Mex. The restaurants won’t cater to WM2HILT+S in terms of menu (no vegetarian beans), service (often Spanish-speaking only), and aesthetics. But you'll eat well.
This is just my take on it, of course. However, I started my trek to try every place on the Hispanic east and southeast sides of town because I just refused to believe that all Austin Tex-Mex would be so bad. (It isn’t.)
Sorry about Curra's not being to your liking. Also sorry that the pibil sucked. Bummer.
Also sorry about the Shoal Creek experience not being amazing; I guess the Saints fans were sore losers, which is too bad. That place is usually a blast. I envisioned that the joint would be jumping like never before on Sunday.
re: tom in austin
It was jumping and was the prefect spot, thank you for the rec. It was jsut that they hated having Bears fans there; booed, threw stuff at us and basically told us to leave! I tried for much of the afternoon to duplicate that type of venue for the rest of the game! Your recs were all great!
Glad you enjoyed your time here - hard to believe you were able to fit that many restaurants into your trip. Too bad we could only provide one day of pleasant weather for you to enjoy.
Becker is my favorite of the Hill Country wineries, too. And I agree, Guero's and Curra's both are living off of past reputation.
As an ex-New Orleanian, let me apologize for the fans behavior, but given the Saints dismal history, the fans right now are a little, or should I say, were a little, excited. I wasn't at Shoal Creek, but heard it was a madhouse.