Four days of food!

As you may’ve noticed, I haven’t been posting much lately.  Fact is, I haven’t been cooking much.  Between my day job, my studies, and my geriatric laptop, the blog has suffered.

And I haven’t cooked dinner in more than a week!

We were very excited to welcome my out-laws to Austin for a long weekend of relaxation, sunny walks, and button-popping eats.  It was their first trip to Texas, and we hit all the highlights, except for (gasp) having barbecue!  So, Franklin BBQ: you’re still on my list!

However, in four days, we managed to take the parents to a backyard hot dog grillin’, eat Arturo’s breakfast tacos, tour campus, have a Shiner at the Cactus Cafe, engage in some serious cat whispering, enjoy homebrew and shoot shitting on our patio, go to Sagra’s pizza happy hour, watch UNC (family favorite) beat Ohio over free pints of Newcastle at Dog and Duck, cross the 360 bridge, nibble on fried green tomatoes and chicken fried steak sandwiches with prickly pear tea at the Silver K Cafe in Johnson City, tour the LBJ Ranch, ooh and aah at bluebonnets, explore South Congress, buy a pair of Lucchese Boots, cool off on the patio at the new Hickory Street, sample Convict Hill Oatmeal Stout, try fried catfish and jalapeno slaw tacos, scoff at 6th Street, have coffees at the Driskill Bar while watching more basketball AND hearing a band play Buddy Holly and Buck Owens tunes, meet some dressed up cowboys in starched shirts and fancy hats, walk across the Congress Bridge twice, listen to Twine Time, watch Meet the Press, have chicken mole enchiladas at Janitzio, go on an accidental moon tower tour, walk from the Bob Bullock Museum to the Co-op to Tyler’s to The Tavern to watch yet more basketball and drink yet more beer, and enjoy a violet sunset from the bridge overlooking House Park.

Here’s a sampling of what we ate:

The Sage Paloma cocktail at Sagra: Espolon Tequila Reposado, Luxardo Triplum,
grapefruit, lime, sage, and agave syrup.  Six dollars during happy hour, this one’s an Italian margarita!  So refreshing.

The Pizza Sagra (foreground, $7.50 during happy hour).  Our favorite of Sagra’s specialty pizzas, this crunchy pie is topped with tomato sauce, grana padano, spinach, mozzarella cheese, and truffle oil; but the very part is the egg cracked right in the center.  So rich!

We also really enjoyed the Calabrese Vesuvio pizza, which we hadn’t tried before.  At only $6.00 during happy hour, this one’s a steal: spicy salami, mozzarella, capers, green and black olives, peperoncini, and tomato sauce, folded and baked in Sagra’s brick pizza oven.

Fried green tomatoes at the Circle K Cafe.  We stopped into this adorable little restaurant on our last trip to the LBJ Ranch, last April, and decided to take the parents there.  It was a big hit.  Between us, we had these tomatoes with Ranch dipping sauce; a huge, fresh Caesar salad; a warm, homemade bowl of chicken and vegetable soup; a filling and flavorful grilled vegetable and Provolone sandwich; and the pièce de résistance, a chicken fried steak sandwich (you can guess who ordered it):

This was even better than I expected.  Crispy, peppery batter and tender, flavorful beef tucked between leaves of Romaine inside a honey yeast roll.  The prickly pear tea was also amazing.  I might have to drive back to Johnson City just to have this meal again.

The weather was so nice on Saturday, we decided to find a spot to eat outside on Congress.  We ended up at the newly revamped Hickory Street, which has been transformed from a tired but wallet-friendly buffet and happy hour spot to a more sophisticated foodie patio restaurant.  Whether this makes the place more or less Austiny, I’ll leave up to you.  The menu has certainly been updated to reflect current Austin trends.  Pictured above is the Charred Sweet Corn Guacamole with homemade potato chips ($8.00, serves 2-4), which was a big hit with our visitors.  Incorporating corn, feta,  and lots of cilantro to the more usual base of avocado, lime juice, red onions, jalapeños, this guacamole is one I might even try to replicate at home.

The Chickpea Chili ($7.00) was good, but probably not a dish we’d order again.

These Texas Fried Catfish Tacos ($9.00) featured two jalapeño tortillas with cornmeal battered, fried Palacios catfish and cilantro-lime apple slaw.  Creative and flavorful, the tacos were good but not great.

And, once again, you know me—I couldn’t resist the Bison Burger!  It was actually a little small considering it was $9.00, but Hickory Street is trying to go upscale, and bison ain’t cheap.  It was so rich that the single burger (sans fries or chips) proved more than adequate, especially after sharing the guacamole appetizer.  Bison is usually a little dry compared to beef, and that was the case here, but the flavor was great, and the caramelized bourbon onions and smoky sharp cheddar were delicious.  The challah roll bun was a great twist—another thing I’ll probably try at home.

At Janitzio, on MLK, conveniently located a mere block and a half from our house, we had enchiladas and fajitas.  The Enchiladas Mole with chicken ($8.99 for two huge ones, not pictured) are wonderful, though the nutty sauce could use a little kick; and the Enchiladas Suizas ($8.99 for three) are one of my favorite dishes here.  The sauce is sour-cream based, mixed with a little salsa verde.  I always substitute black beans with this combination, too!

Have you noticed a pattern here?  That all this food (especially the items I ordered) are kind of… absurd?  And by “absurd,” I of course mean “delicious” as well as “haute junk food.”  Well, this one takes the cake.

Behold the Tavern Dog, a quarter pound Angus beef frank wrapped in bacon and deep fried, topped with cheese and onions (and, supposedly, chili—although mine didn’t come with any!), wrapped in a cheddar cheese blanket (which is essentially a huge circle of crispy, fried cheese), on a bun.  With fries.  This monster is $8.99, and was, perhaps surprisingly, wonderful.  The Angus beef dog was just delicious, and I’m a sucker for a good slab of fried cheese.  When I was little, my mother used to make it on a cookie sheet as a snack—true story.  The Tavern should think about entering this dish into that fried foods contest at the State Fair.  Also, it reminds me of this.

Of course I ate all of it.

Check back soon for new recipes!

Taco shout-outs

Yours truly

Yours truly, ready to judge some tacos!

The tacos at yesterday’s Taco Experiment were so good, I wanted to do a round-up post and show them to you!

Ooh, the stakes are high!

Ooh, the stakes are high!

Thanks to the Austin Food Bloggers Alliance for giving me the opportunity to be the guest blogger judge. It was still a fun afternoon. It’s hard to go wrong with free tacos and beer from Brooklyn Brewery, sponsors of the event (I especially liked the maple porter!).

I was particularly thrilled to meet and eat alongside fellow judges Claudia Alarcón, Addie Broyles, Stacy Franklin, and Virginia Wood.

Enough parentheticals. Let’s go on to the tacos!

Prep!

Prep!

I suspect the time change on Saturday night felled a few of our culinary soldiers, as only 13 of the slated 18 entrants showed up. Nevertheless, it was a real adventure, and I had to stop myself from eating whole tacos several times! The presentations ranged from meat and won ton combos in a plastic cup (note: not a taco) to ice cream sandwiches (note: also not a taco) to traditional corn tortillas stuffed with slow-roasted meat and chiles (mmm, tacos). I was particularly impressed with the determination of the “cheftestants” to make as much as possible from scratch, including most of the tortillas we tried, along with various salsas, pickled salads, and other surprises.

They were also clearly enthusiastic about food; most of the fine folks I met went into mouth-watering detail about their ingredient sourcing and cooking technique. Knowing this background about each dish made the tasting that much more meaningful. I cook and research and read and write about food because I love to cook–and to eat. It was clear that all of the cooks at this event, while “amateurs,” were very serious indeed. Many of them are also bloggers; where possible, I’ve linked to their web sites here.

Spritedka's Box Wine Bison Taco

Spritedka’s Box Wine Bison Taco

The first entry was one of the most interesting, and one of my personal favorites due to my love of bison. Though not technically a taco, it was a great tasting sample size, featuring a tender chunk of bison braised in box wine, served with a slaw of black radish steeped in watermelon juice, and topped with sprigs of cilantro. A won ton was provided for crunch. The bison was delicious–really expertly done–and was well complemented by sweet and juicy slaw. This won by personal, non-official “most creative” taco award.

Pulled pork, by the Jelly Queens

Pulled pork, by the Jelly Queens

Next up was another small bowl sampler, this time with pulled pork. Created by the Jelly Queens, this entry was also an interesting marriage of traditional (pulled pork, chiles) and creative (white bean purée, another won ton). The pork was tender and just spicy enough; combined with the bean purée (and I’m a sucker for white beans) and a sweet green apple slaw, this would’ve been very satisfying as a full taco. I’m also really interested in the Jelly Queens’ line of organic jellies, jams, sauces, rubs. They seemed to have a very professional operation.

Smoked pork butt and salsas, from Sous Mi Alchemy

Smoked pork butt and salsas, from Sous Me Alchemy

The next taco was a traditional entry: smoked pork butt slow cooked overnight in a Dutch oven at a low temperature, using a simple spice rub. Local blogger Sous Me Alchemy really impressed me with her dedication to doing things from scratch: a homemade spinach, jalapeño, and onion tortilla; homemade queso fresca, a roasted corn pico de gallo; and homemade salsa roja (very fiery) and tomatillo salsa verde; all topped with fresh, homemade crema. This was all very impressive, but the tortilla was a bit too thick, smothering the flavors of the meat and fillings; due to its thickness, it was also a bit undercooked in the center. And, while all the ingredients were individually wonderful, the pile-on was a bit much, and tended to overpower the meat. It was just a bit too complicated. I would love to try each of these items on its own.

Braised pork with candied jalapeño slaw

No BS BP’s braised pork taco with candied jalapeño slaw

The next taco was another favorite of mine. From cheftestant No BS BP, it featured braised pork from Richardson Farms and a bright, creamy Gala apple butter (I’m sold!). The tortilla was just crispy enough, and the serrated edges added to the already eye-catching presentation. A jumble of colors and flavors topped it off: pickled shallots and candied jalapeño slaw started sweet and then packed a punch. A sweet and sour taco, this is something I would actually buy (hint, hint–No BS BP should probably start a food trailer). It was also at about this point in the competition that I realized I would probably want all of the contestants to win. Their hard work was so evident, and their tacos were so good!

Pecan smoked duck taco from Zesty Bean Dog

Pecan smoked duck taco from Zesty Bean Dog

They say you want to go first or last in competitions like this, so the judges will be more likely to remember you, but there is no way we could’ve forgotten entry number five: Zesty Bean Dog’s pecan smoked duck taco. After cooking the duck in Brooklyn Lager, chef Jen whipped up a decadent duck egg aioli, topped it with pickled serrano slaw, and wrapped it up in a homemade tortilla fried in duck fat. This taco was original and unforgettable. The texture was amazing: rich, succulent duck breast topped with crunchy, fried tortilla strips. The flavors were complex without being confusing, and the serrano slaw added just a little bite without overpowering the meat. Duck is so rich, it doesn’t need much dressing up, and Jen got it just right. She also came armed with printed cards detailing her ingredients (and noting that her tacos were 100% local)–a savvy move. I’m now a devotee of her blog! This taco won the judge’s favorite award, and was the buzz of the afternoon.

Da Beach Bums' halibut and guacamole taco

Da Beach Bums’ halibut and guacamole taco

Next up was another outlier: the only fish taco in the bunch! The halibut taco from Da Beach Bums was a refreshing change from the unending parade of pork, and was nice and light after the duck. Chef Chris grilled the halibut and added a red and green cabbage slaw soaked in Brooklyn Brewery IPA. Topped off with a small scoop of fresh guacamole and a dash of lime, and served in a tiny tortilla, this taco was another one I could see myself eating regularly. Usually not a fan of fish tacos, I found the halibut to be just fishy enough without being overpowering; it was perfectly grilled, retaining its juiciness and flavor. The guacamole provided a nice balancing kick–I’m not sure what kind of chiles it employed, but they were perfect. This taco was still a bit mild for my tastes, overall. But I would definitely eat it again, and it was memorable, especially as the only seafood entry.

Traditional lengua taco with amazing corn tortilla made with duck fat and beer

Traditional lengua taco with amazing corn tortilla made with duck fat and beer, from Talking Tacos

The winner of “most traditional” taco has to be team Talking Tacos, who presented us with a taco of beer-marinated lengua with cascabel and ancho chiles, crunchy chopped onions, a smattering of bright cilantro, and a dash of fresh lime juice. But that’s not even the best part; capitalizing on yet another unannounced trend, the team used a homemade, beer and duck fat corn tortilla. They won my heart by using East Texas’ own Bombshell Blonde ale from Southern Star Brewery, which they used to replace the water in their tortilla recipe. They worked the duck fat into the masa by hand, added a little baking powder, and created a tortilla of genius. The little girl who was on the team was pretty cute, too. She wanted to be a judge!

Pork belly with green apple purée Team Temple

Pork belly with green apple purée by Team Temple

Team Temple’s pork belly with apple purée seemed to catch the unspoken theme of the day: pork and apples! I’m not complaining, though, because this is a standard combination for a reason. It’s delicious. In fact, this was my favorite apple sauce of the day. It was very creamy–at first, I thought it was cheese! This taco also gets extra points from me for presentation; the crispy mini shell held together with a toothpick made it both easier to eat and adorable. Team Temple used tender, slow roasted pork belly, flash fried and topped with homemade apple purée, kim chi, and cilantro, nestled inside this delicious, homemade shell–original and memorable. There was a lot of fried stuff going on here–so, obviously, I loved it.

Traditional taco-calling shofar

Traditional taco-calling shofar

The "Grec-Mex Pitatilla" from the Holy Smokers

The “Grec-Mex Pitatilla” from the Holy Smokers

The next taco was from the loudest competitor: the Holy Smokers, aka Taco Jesus. This was definitely the most far out entry, in terms of ingredients and showmanship. Throughout the day, Taco Jesus blew a gigantic four-foot shofar and admonished the crowd with “Hallelujah!” This taco was a great fusion dish (and another good idea for a food trailer), featuring a slice of pita topped with homemade habanero hummus and three Spanish-style gyro meats: beef, lamb, and pork. On top of that was a drizzle of to-die-for jalapeño tzatziki (I’m totally going to make this!) and the Holy Smokers’ “Greco de gallo,” a chunky salsa with mint, dill, cucumber, red onion, corn, and tomato. For me, this one was a little too far from traditional to merit a win, but it was definitely delicious and well executed. Taco Jesus’s shofar blowing did make me feel a little like I was at a Yom Kippur rave, too, which was a bit… weird. But, hey, that’s what Austin’s all about.

Taco Jesus

Taco Jesus

Jamaican jerk pork taco from Outer Spice

Jamaican jerk pork taco from Outer Spice

And things just kept getting weirder. Or, at least, hotter. Outer Spice’s Jamaican-inspired jerk pork shoulder taco was very far out indeed. Including authentic Jamaican ingredients like smoked pimento leaves and mango salsa, as well as Outer Spice’s innovative and addictive raspberry syrup, as well as whole raspberries and lime wedges, this taco started out pretty standard, hitting you with a rich mouthful of tender pulled pork. However, just as you began to enjoy the interesting mix of flavors, the seasoning knocked you out into space. The chef laced the thing with Scotch bonnet spice! Don’t get me wrong; I love spicy foods, and the pepper packs the right kind of punch, a little sweeter than a habanero. But this was just too spicy for me. After the first bite, it got hotter and hotter for at least five minutes. I braved a second bite, but, without any water (did I mention this event wasn’t expertly organized?), I was too afraid to go further. I think this would’ve been better with a Scotch bonnet-based salsa on the side, so that the diner could try it without adulterating the entire taco with heat. The pork was wonderful, but, after the first bite, I couldn’t taste it. My mom probably would’ve loved this, though.

El Alto's pork carnitas with green onion and almond sauce

El Alto’s pork carnitas with green onion and almond sauce

Next up: a sweet taco from a sweet chef, El Alto’s lager-steeped pork carnitas. What this taco was lacking in presentation (it was a bit plain, and a little too juicy), it just about made up with in flavor. The pork was lovely, the corn tortilla was perfect (I’m a sucker for a good corn tortilla, and am partial to them over flour), and the spicy green onion and almond sauce was a revelation. Y’all know I love me some creamy green salsa. El Alto has created a fresh, smoky green sauce that I would love to see bottled and on sale at Wheatsville! Get on it!

Pulled beef taco with spicy cabbage slaw from Ender's Tacos

Pulled beef taco with spicy cabbage slaw from Ender’s Tacos

The final savory taco was the only beef entry, which I find hard to believe! I figured most of the cheftestants would go the pulled pork route, but this had the unexpected result of making it harder for this judge to remember specific differences, and also made it more necessary to judge the entries by the quality of their pork, its tenderness, flavor, etc. So I was excited to try Ender’s Tacos’ spicy pulled beef taco. Another entry in a tasting bowl, this time with a triangular tortilla added, the beef was slow roasted and very tender. Topped with a bright and intriguing slaw consisting of red cabbage, serranos, and jalapeños, and doused with a refreshing spritz of lime, the taco was almost salad-like. The hot slaw, while one of many presented, was creative and spicy, providing a late kick to an otherwise traditional beef taco flavor palate. This was another one that I would like to try full-size, on an empty stomach!

Roasted tomatillo ice cream "taco" from Mary Makes Dinner

Roasted tomatillo ice cream “taco” from Mary Makes Dinner

The final entry was a dessert “taco.” To be honest, I’d expected at least one choco-taco, and was grateful not to have been presented with any eel, sashimi, or raw vegan tacos. I am really surprised there was no bacon, though. I guess all the bacon aficionados were over at the Bacon Takedown. Anyway, the ice cream was a welcome addition after the quick-building heat of the Jamaican jerk pork and serrano-dappled cabbage. Winner of the organizer’s award for creativity, blogger Mary Makes Dinner presented us with a roast tomatillo buttermilk ice cream with a thin later of avocado frosting, topped with a single slice of candied jalapeño. Unfortunately, the cute, scalloped flat shells holding each bite-size sandwich together were a little too hard and chewy to eat easily. However, I just ate around it, and all was forgotten! The ice cream was delectable: rich and creamy with just the slightest hint of tangy tomatillo. Once again, I wish I had gotten a larger sample! If Mary isn’t selling this stuff, she should be!

Congratulations to the winners!

Cheftestant Sous Mi Alchemy accepts her prize

Cheftestant Sous Me Alchemy accepts her prize

Judges:
First Place: Zesty Bean Dog / Smoked Duck Pastrami Tacos
Second Place: The Holy Smokers / Grec-Mex Pitatilla
Third Place: Outer Spice / Jamaikame Crazy

Audience:
First Place / Grand Prize Winner: Sous Me Alchemy / Tacos Amores
Second Place: The Holy Smokers / Grec-Mex Pitatilla
Third Place: Talking Tacos / 512 Pecan Porter Lengua Tacos

Theo Prize For Experimentation: Mary Makes Dinner / Frío Tillo Taco

Tiny folklorico

Tiny folklorico

All in all, it was a great day with a great crowd. We were even treated to an impromptu folklorico performance by a tiny relative of one of the contestants! Thanks to everyone who came out, and to all the “cheftestants” who worked so hard to create these delicious and innovative tacos and taco-based dishes! Unsurprisingly, judging this event didn’t dull my appetite for tacos at all. I think I’ll go have some for lunch!

Some of the winners' loot

Some of the winners’ loot

RIP, Davy

I am heartbroken over the death, at 66, of my first crush, Davy Jones.

All these years, I’d somehow thought that I was the only little girl who was devastated to find out that the adorable, 21-year-old Davy I loved watching on TV in the 1980s was in fact twenty years older.  Like so many other fans over several decades, I was convinced that one day I’d marry Davy.  Reading other people’s personal remembrances today has been very meaningful.

My very first concert was the Monkees, in 1987, at the Dallas Starplex at Fair Park.  I remember being so excited, and it was extraordinary because my mom was just as excited as I was!  She was 16 when The Monkees premiered in 1966.  Ten years later, when Nickelodeon introduced them to a whole new generation in syndication, I was seven.  Apparently, Weird Al Yankovic opened that show.  I called my mom to commiserate about our sadness this afternoon, and we warmly recalled that concert; neither of us had any recollection of Weird Al!  We were too Monkee-struck, I guess.

It’s funny.  A couple of weeks ago, when Eric and I were at Austin Homebrew, “Daydream Believer” came on, and I couldn’t help but smile.  I sang and danced, right there at the register (rather out of character for me–I am one of those people who doesn’t dance).  And just last week, right here on this blog I discussed the fact that Davy Jones was the catalyst for my 25 years of Anglophilia.  In fact, he was the ultimate cause of my moving to England, an experience that changed the course of my life in infinite ways.

Even though I am 25 years younger than the Monkees’ original fanbase, hearing their music always takes me right back to my childhood, and to a time of innocent, smiling earnestness.  Davy’s contagious, adorable performances always, always brought me pure, shameless joy–and still do.  Unlike a certain writer at NPR, I am not in the least bit embarrassed of my love for this particular Mr. Jones.  “Daydream Believer” is pure pop perfection, and I have said for years that “I’m A Believer” is in my top ten pop songs (I dare you to listen to it right now and disagree).  “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is still culturally relevant.  Their TV show provided a sort of self-referential meta-commentary still that strikes me as very contemporary and, amid the slapstick and zany antics, introduced millions of American kids to the counter culture (remember the Frank Zappa episode?).  I love the Monkees and always will.

Another thirty-something commented on one of the articles I read this afternoon, talking about the unexpectedly deep grief they felt upon hearing the news, “Before I met Lennon and McCartney, I knew Micky and Davy.”  That’s how I feel, too.

Davy was very talented (did you know he was nominated for a Tony for his 1963 performance in Oliver!?), famously generous to fans, and an incredibly charismatic performer.  He will be deeply missed.

Review: Full English

(with bonus British food mini-memoir)

As if you needed any further proof that I am a homebody and rarely leave the campus-Capitol vortex, this place has been open for two and a half years, and I just went there last weekend.

In a city that practically runs on a steady diet of barbecue and tacos, an English café should certainly stand out. Unfortunately, British food still has a terrible reputation for blandness, a reputation borne of decades of rationing and a penchant for overboiling. The recent piece by NPR, “Dining After ‘Downtown Abbey’: Why British Food Was So Bad For So Long” pretty much sums it up. If you think British food is bad, I urge you to go read that piece, then come back here with an open mind.

Done?

Okay.

Davy Jones

Davy Jones

British food is not bad. It is amazing. As everyone who’s met me knows, I lived in England for four years (plus a study abroad trip as an undergraduate, plus three vacations spent there). I have been an Anglophile since approximately age seven, when I met Davy Jones on Nick at Nite.  I was devastated when my mother told me that The Monkees was twenty years old, Davy was in his forties, and I could never marry him.  Somehow, the bell bottoms and tambourines and Frank Zappa hadn’t tipped me off.  Anyway, from there I became obsessed with all things British, and I always, always wanted to move there.  When I was 21, in the year 2000, I did.  I like to say I did it in protest of Bush’s selection, making myself one of the few who made that threat and followed through on it, but, really, I wanted to study English literature at the University of York.  It was the culmination of a lifelong goal of moving to England.

And I loved it.

Though I had been to the UK three times previously, including on a semester-long study abroad course at Lancaster, it wasn’t until I moved there permanently that I encountered authentic British food.  I regularly ate home-cooked Sunday lunches in the homes of welcoming Yorkshire villagers, who invariably presented me with a plate piled impossibly high with juicy, expertly roasted meat, mashed potatoes, new potatoes, roast potatoes (and the English know how to roast a potato), Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, “sweet corn” (or as we call it, corn), peas (or as we call them, English peas), and hot Yorkshire puddings, all topped with lashings of rich beef gravy.

Frolicking in the bluebells, April 2004

Frolicking in the bluebells, April 2004

I had hundreds of varieties of curry (often called–and not erroneously–the National Dish of Britain), everything from Essex take-away to Brick Lane back alley to expensive restaurants. I’ve tried balti, biryani, and tikka masala; chicken tandoori, chicken masala, and coronation chicken; roghan josh, jalfrezi, and vindaloo.  But my favorite remains korma, with its creamy saffron and coconut delicacy.  I haven’t found a korma in Texas that comes to close to that served at the cheapest curry house in Britain.

Fish and chips and I go way back; I used to love to go to Long John Silver’s as a child, and throughout high school and college I infamously snacked on their batter crumbs and bought whole bottles of Long John’s branded malt vinegar to soak my fries in at home.  (Okay, okay, I still do those things.)  But the fish and chips in the UK are of another order entirely: usually haddock or cod, skin-on, well battered, huge, and fried till very crisp.  They may, in fact, be the perfect food.  Back in the old days, they were served wrapped up in newspaper and showered in salt; now you’ll get them in white wax paper.  Most “chippies” are take-aways.  You stand in line (a long line if they place is really good and it’s near lunch or dinnertime), order your choice of fish (they also serve an array of other fast food, including fish cakes, sausages-on-a-stick, and even curried chips), pay, douse your dinner in salt and vinegar, and go out on the street to chow down.  It’s a whole experience.  Best enjoyed at midnight, while slightly inebriated.

I enjoyed warm sausage rolls and roasted chestnuts and roast beef sandwiches from street vendors, and tried Cornish pasties in Perranporth.  I primly ate miniature cress sandwiches and sampled tiny cakes at Betty’s in York.  I regularly popped into Judge Tindal’s in Chelmsford for a quick lunch of chip butty and Guinness.  I bought and cooked my own salmon and cod fresh from the market in Doncaster and Saffron Walden (one of my favorite weekend drives).  I tucked into fresh pheasant shot on a neighboring farm, and I tried rabbit, quail, and venison (which tastes different from Texas white-tailed in a way I can’t even explain).  I had Scottish beef and heather-infused whisky and fried kippers and fried toast (oh, fried toast).  I even had a vegetarian haggis once in Inveraray, served with neeps and tatties.  It was actually delicious–I mean, I’m remembering it now, more than seven years later.  Britain introduced me to that delicacy of snacks, the Welsh rarebit.  It was there I began to learn about regional varieties of cheese–Caerphilly, Stilton, Blue Wensleydale, Double Gloucester, Red Leicester–and to appreciate the equally stunning diversity of British sausages.  The simple satiation of a perfect plate of bangers and mash is something I still go back to, weeknight after weeknight.  Britain enlightened me to the fact that there are more types of pies than chocolate merengue (although that one’s still my favorite).  In fact, while the sweet dessert pie is virtually unheard of in the UK (I know), the array of meat pies is astounding: cottage pie, shepherd’s pie, Melton Mowbray pie, chicken and mushroom pie, beef and ale pie, steak and kidney pie.  And don’t forget eel pie.

Before I moved to England, I had never eaten lamb.  Often I have opined that it would’ve been better never to try it, because I am a stickler for adorable baby animals and lamb is succulent and singular.  I rarely encounter lamb here in the US that is half as flavorful as that I ate in the UK (despite the fact that both are likely often imported from New Zealand).  Lamb was a revelation.

All this brings us back round to the topic of this post: Full English.  A wittily named café indeed, as a “full English” is slang for a proper breakfast, a.k.a. a “fry up.”  An apt name, too, as it invariably includes: fried or poached eggs, English back bacon (that deserves a whole other post), fried breakfast sausage, fried mushrooms, a fried tomato, and fried toast.  If you’re really hungry, throw some baked beans on the toast.  And if you’re really British, add some black pudding (believe it or not, I never once tried it–apologies to Mr. Bourdain).

I admit I was suspicious when I heard about Full English.  A small café in an out-of-the-way strip mall behind a convenience store in far South Austin?  English food in Texas?  Having survived many, many years of traipsing all around London in search of “real” Tex-Mex only to be disappointed by bowls of Nacho Cheese Doritos and Prego, I was wary of seeking to treat homesickness through bland imitation foods.  But my friend Laura–quite the foodie herself, and very well traveled, too–insisted we try it for Sunday brunch, having enjoyed the place as the venue for her recent baby shower.

Mr. Stella and I both ordered the Full English breakfast plate (a steal at $8.00): one bacon rasher, one poached egg, one piece of fried toast, one breakfast sausage, one tomato, and a couple of roughly chopped mushrooms.  Though it didn’t look like much food at first, I was surprised by how filling the meal was.

I am also happy (no, delighted!) to report that it is also quite authentic.  The fine folks at Full English make their own bangers from scratch, and they are excellent.  The egg was perfectly cooked, just runny enough to swipe up the yolk with the delectable, crisp toast.  The bacon, sourced from a farm in North Carolina, was exactly like that inferior stuff the British prefer (I’m sorry, I think streaky, crunchy, paper-thin, melt-in-your-mouth American style bacon is best–Full English will serve it on request); however, it was also expertly cooked, and packed a lot of flavor.  My friend Mike ordered an extra slice!  I hate tomatoes, but in the Full English breakfast plate, I have met a tomato I love.  The tomato was so fried that it was positively blackened, and tasted like a ripe, rich sun-dried tomato.  I’ll be back just for the tomatoes, making that my add-on in future.  And, of course, I can’t get enough of fried toast.  You can double up on everything for $12.00.  If you’re really hungry, I’d recommend it.

I was sufficiently stuffed to stop there, but I couldn’t help noticing the many other enticing, authentic greasy spoon offerings on the menu.  So I’ll be back for the bangers and mash with onion gravy (at $7.00, that’s three dollars cheaper than my old mainstay, the Dog and Duck Pub), a Cornish pasty (a variety are available for $5.00, including: beef, potato, and onion; spinach and feta; and strong cheddar with caramelized onions), and high tea.

The high tea menu is impressive, including several types of miniature sandwiches (cheddar and chutney, ham and mustard, bacon and tomato, cucumber and cream cheese); scones with strawberry jam and cream; five selections from their in-house cake and biscuits menu; and a pot of tea of coffee.

They also whip up a variety of fresh, homemade sweets: wholegrain shortbread, rock buns, flapjacks (British style–sort of like granola bars), and Millionaire’s Shortbread, a real delight.  This treat is basically a thin layer of shortbread, topped with caramel, topped with milk chocolate.  It has been a hit with everyone I know who’s been lucky enough to try it.  I wouldn’t be upset if Full English expanded their sweets menu.  Many of the items have already found fans at local farmer’s markets, and I think they’re on to a winner here.  As they say on their web site, “First we tested different recipes for our favourite British goodies–those treats we missed over here and could not live without. Then we reworked these recipes with better ingredients like raw sugar and Belgian chocolate, to make them as delicious as they could be.”

They also cater.

I should also mention the decor.  It’s very working-class-meets-Mod, with a vintage twist.  In other words, right up my alley.  Though Full English is hidden away in a strange spot, once inside, the place has a pleasant Austin-y vibe, with distinctive British overtones: there’s the fringed Union Jack hanging by the front door; the words to William Blake’s “And did those feet in ancient time” (a.k.a. “Jerusalem”) are scrawled upon another wall; bottles of HP Sauce decorate the tables; and, at the back, there’s a book and magazine rack with copies of British glossies and cookbooks.  Obviously, I could spend hours at this place.

In fact, I’ll probably do that this very weekend.  Again.

 

 

Full English
2000 Southern Oaks Dr
Austin, TX 78745

The Vampire Lestat’s Linguine Carbonara

Tom Cruise gave me this recipe.

No, seriously. One day in 1996, I was watching Oprah. I always watched Oprah. In 1996, my schedule went like this: school, tennis, Route 44 Dr Pepper, batter crumbs from Long John Silver’s, Oprah.

In 1996 I was also obsessed, along with my pal Morgan, with Interview with the Vampire.  I lived within walking distance of the movie theater, and we went to see that movie at least four times.  To add a tangent to a tangent, this film also marked the beginning of the Brad Pitt Obsession of 1996.  Once, we made Morgan’s mom go to the local video store and check out every Brad Pitt movie they had.  I should probably apologize for that now.

As you may recall, pretty much everyone thought Maverick had been miscast as the Vampire Lestat, including the character’s originator, Anne Rice.  However, Tom totally delivered.  In fact, it was Interview with the Vampire that made me a Tom Cruise fan.  He was feline, cunning, sexy, homoerotic, intense, fearless.  It was an amazing performance.  It was like a French-speaking, blood-sucking cross of Alan Cumming and Robert Plant.

Anyway, to promote the film, Tom Cruise appeared on Oprah.  And he shared his pasta carbonara recipe with her.  Don’t believe me?

That recipe always stuck with me, and one recent weeknight, very hungry but at a loss for dinner ideas, I decided to make Tom’s carbonara from memory.  Of course, as with most recipes I adapt, the only substantial changes here are the substitution of shallots for Tom’s onions, and the addition of cream.  Oh, and I used linguine – but you could use whatever pasta you have on hand.

And, don’t forget: the vampire Lestat revealed that his kind are not really affected by garlic, after all.  So put plenty in there!

The Vampire Lestat’s Carbonara

1 lb. linguine
1 tsp olive oil
~6 bacon rashers
1-2 cloves garlic, micned
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 eggs
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup finely grated parmesan cheese

1. Bring a large, salted pot of water to a boil. Add pasta and stir thoroughly.

2. Meanwhile, in a separate skillet, fry bacon in olive oil over medium heat until done and crispy. Set aside.

3. Skim some of the bacon grease out of the pan (you will probably have too much); drain and refrigerate for later use. Using about 1 tsp of remaining bacon grease, reduce heat to low and sauté the shallots and garlic for about two or three minutes, until fragrant. Do not burn.

4. By now, your pasta should be done (cook approximately 6-7 minutes, or follow package instructions for al dente). Drain and return to pot. Stir in the shallots and garlic. Crumble bacon into pasta in small pieces. Crack two eggs into the pot, add pepper, and stir thoroughly. Cover and set aside for 3-4 minutes. The heat from the pasta will cook the eggs.

5. Once the egg is completely cooked, remove the cover and stir in cream and half the parmesan. The mixture should be rich, but still fairly light on the pasta.

6. Serve immediately, garnished with a dusting of extra cheese. Black olives are also a favorite at my house (as pictured).

Serves 4.