Book Review: The Mindful Carnivore

Peregrine falcons, well on their way to recovery, had begun nesting in New York City. But living there wasn’t going to suit me for long. In my small apartment, I felt separate from nature. It was all around me—in the trees that lined the streets, in the gray and black squirrels that loped through Washington Square Park, in the grass that sprouted in the cracks and seams of the pavement—but it felt too fragmented. I wasn’t touching soil. I wasn’t hearing the sounds of water, of wind in the trees. Unlike the farmers whose trucks I visited in Union Square, I had no contact with the earth from which our food sprang.

Along the sidewalks of Brooklyn and Manhattan, I picked up pigeon feathers. I read and reread the Wendell Berry poem pinned to the wall of my apartment, “The Peace of Wild Things”:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

One evening, leaving class and stepping out onto Eleventh Street near the corner of Sixth Avenue, I noticed an unusually bright streetlamp out of the corner of my eye. Looking up, I saw the full moon and realized I hadn’t seen stars in months.

So says Tovar Cerulli in the first chapter of his new book, The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for SustenanceI just finished reading this deeply thoughtful, challenging, and beautifully written book, so I wanted to share it with you.

Tovar Cerulli was a vegetarian for many years, and a vegan for over a decade.  His love of nature and genuine desire to find a sustainable and compassionate diet led him first to gardening, then to abandoning veganism, and, ultimately, to hunting.

In many ways, Tovar’s journey mirrored my own; his childhood was spent fishing and gathering berries in a woodland idyll (Vermont and New Hampshire), but as he began considering food ethics and his affinity for animals, he veered into vegetarianism.  He became a stereotypical college vegan, sporting long hair and lecturing friends and family on the evils of meat eating.  But his experience trying to grow food, in which he encountered hungry, determined, and destructive animals (from slugs to woodchucks), brought him face to face with the fundamental reality of food: we must kill to live.

As I also realized after many years trying vegetarian diets and following ethical systems designed to reduce the suffering of all sentient creatures, Tovar determined that even vegan diets are indirectly responsible for animal suffering and death.  His perspective shifted, and he began to explore sustainability as the fundamental marker of compassionate eating.  And this, eventually, led him to hunting deer in the forest surrounding his Vermont home.

He writes with profound understanding of both the ethical imperative that drives the choices of vegetarians and vegans and the wonder and intimacy experienced by the ethical hunter.  These two seemingly opposed groups have more in common than most realize, and The Mindful Carnivore has provided what I hope will be only the first of many attempts at reconciliation and convergence between compassion-minded vegans and sustainability-seeking omnivores.  In this wonderful book, part memoir and part philosophy, Tovar also touches on the role of food in human memory and community; religion and ethics; environmentalism; and the magic of the wild.  As Tovar says on his web site:

At twenty, moved by the compassionate words of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and concerned about the ecological impacts of meat, I became a vegetarian. Soon I went vegan.

Almost a decade later, having moved back to a rural community from New York City, I realized that all food has its costs. From habitat destruction to grain combines that inadvertently mince rabbits to the shooting of deer in soybean and lettuce fields, crop production is far from harmless. Even in our own organic garden, my wife and I were battling ravenous insects and fence-defying woodchucks. I began to see that the question wasn’t what we ate but how that food came to our plates.

A few years later, my wife—who was studying holistic health and nutrition— suggested that we shift our diet. My health improved when we started eating dairy and eggs. It improved still more when we started eating chicken and fish.

Searching for ethical, ecologically responsible ways to come to terms with my food, I began to contemplate the unthinkable: hunting. Two years later, I took up a deer rifle.

Tovar has also written on hunting, forestry, wildlife, and conservation for many magazines.  You can read some of his essays here, and the first chapter of The Mindful Carnivore is available for free on his web site.  In 2011, Tovar completed his M.A. thesis, “Meat and Meanings: Adult-Onset Hunters’ Cultural Discourses of the Hunt.”  He is currently working on his Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts, focusing his research on food, hunting, and human relationships with the natural world.

I can’t wait to read his next book!  Meanwhile, be sure to check this one out.  If you’re remotely interested in these issues, you will definitely enjoy it.  Tovar has created a work which is equal parts challenging and sublime.

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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

Austin Middle Eastern Food Review 2012

This post is part of the Austin Food Bloggers Alliance Austin City Guide 2012!

Alborz
3300 W Anderson Lane #300
Menu

Alborz is a Persian restaurant tucked away in a strip mall on Anderson Lane, nestled right next to Mo-Pac.  Even though it’s a little hidden, it’s easy to get to because of its proximity to major thoroughfares, and well worth a visit.

Selections from the lunch buffet

Selections from the lunch buffet

The menu is anchored by fragrant rice dishes and roasted and grilled meats, notably chicken, lamb, and beef, but they also have an array of Persian specialties such as kashk-o-bademjan (baked eggplant pureed with spices and topped with dried yogurt, mint, sautéed onions, walnuts, and garlic); Persian potato salad; and four house stews.  My favorite was fesenjan–a tangy and sweet pomegranate and walnut soup.  If you have room, they also have popular Persian desserts, including baklava; rolled cake with peaches and pistachios; homemade ice cream with saffron, rose water, cardamom, and almonds (everybody was ordering it!); and sholeh zard, a bright rice pudding with saffron, and cardamom.

Fesenjan - tasty pomegranate soup

Fesenjan – tasty pomegranate soup

To sample all of these things at once, along with your fill of dolmas, baba ghanooj, hummus, and tabouleh, check out Alborz’s award-winning buffet.  The lunch buffet is $9.69 ($10.99 on weekends), and the dinner buffet (available Friday through Sunday) is $13.99.  They also serve beer and wine.

Persian "macaroni and cheese"

Persian “macaroni and cheese”

For a really special experience get there between 7:45 and 9:30 on Friday or Saturday night–they have belly dancers!

Alborz is a little out of the way if you’re based downtown, but it’s a very popular weekday lunch spot for those who work in the area.  The lessened weekend traffic makes a Saturday or Sunday visit casual and leisurely.  Service is pretty good; last time I was there, as a single diner for the Saturday buffet, it was a bit slow.  If you go in for a regular dinner, service is more attentive.  The atmosphere is cozy and more elegant than one would expect considering the location.  They have the now-ubiquitous big screen TVs (broadcasting NASCAR and Serie A last time I was in), but they are muted, so not too distracting.  Alborz is popular for large family gatherings, workday lunches, and intimate dinners.  Check it out next time you’re in the neighborhood!

DiMassi’s Mediterranean Buffet
12636 Research Boulevard
Menu

If you want a quick, affordable, varied Middle Eastern/Mediterranean meal, check out DiMassi’s.  A chain, they formerly had two restaurants in Austin, but the south location has now closed.  The Research location may not be convenient for everyone, but if you live in the area, it’s worth the occasional visit.

This buffet is huge.  They have all the Middle Eastern specialties you’d expect, plus all-you-can eat grilled meats, falafel, and a decent selection of desserts.  The decor and atmosphere is not inspiring (think: loud, cafeteria-like), but, at $9.99 for lunch (11:00am – 4:00pm) and $11.99 for dinner (4:00pm – close), including unlimited trips, drinks, etc., it’s not a bad deal.  This might be a good place to go with a large, diverse group of picky eaters who want to sample various Middle Eastern dishes for the first time; or for anyone who is really hungry and craving some quick lamb shank and lady fingers.

Flying Falafel and Po’Boys
2001 Guadalupe St. Ste. A1
Menu

This is hands-down my favorite Middle Eastern (slash New Orleans po’boy) place in Austin.  It’s conveniently located on my walk home from work, the owners are friendly and knowledgable, they make most items to order, and their ingredients are always fresh and delicious.

Lamb and Bbef gyro with majadara

Lamb and beef gyro with majadara

Owner Nuha Haddad is originally from Jordan, and came to Austin via New Orleans, which explains the seemingly odd choice of menu items.  Flying Falafel has daily lunch specials rotating between authentic New Olreans staples (red beans and rice on Mondays) and Arab delicacies (the above-and-below-pictured menssef is served on Thursdays).  They also have excellent seafood gumbo, catfish po’boys, and even fried chicken!

But back to the Middle Eastern food.  My boyfriend loves their falafel with tahini, hummus, and pickles.  Other hits include the zatter pita (cracked wheat, oregano, sesame seeds, olive oil) with yogurt; the mixed beef and lamb gyro; madajara (rice with lentis and beans served with Arabic salad); and the chicken shawarma plate. They also have dolmas with either meat or veggies, baba ghanooj, tabouleh, hummus, and labneh, their delicious strained yogurt with fresh herbs (I can’t get enough of this stuff).

Menssef with chicken

Menssef with chicken

But we need to talk about the menssef again.  I first discovered this revelation a couple of years ago.  I used to work a block away from Flying Falafel, and I’d regularly pop in to get lunch.  The owner kept telling me to come back on Thursday for the menssef special, saying, basically, that it would blow my mind.  I finally ordered it, and she was right!  A simple but decadent dish, traditional Jordanian menssef is goat slow cooked for many hours in dehydrated salted yogurt balls reconstituted with water, then served over rice with a garnish of fresh herbs and pine nuts and/or slivered almonds.  At Flying Falafel, you can choose from lamb, chicken, or a mixture; but be sure to get there before 1:00pm on Thursdays to get the lamb–they always run out!

Prices range between $3.99 and $11.99, so there’s something for everyone here.

Expanded review here.

Kismet Cafe
411 West 24th Street
Menu

Kismet is another campus-area gem, located next to the Castilian dorm on 24th Street.  This is a great place for lunch, because of their special (as shown above!): $5.55 for any pita wrap, plus fries and a drink.  The wait is a little long sometimes, but you can’t beat that deal.

Gyro lunch deal

Gyro lunch deal

Their gyro is pretty standard; coupled with crispy fries and their delicious, garlicky hummus, it’s a filling lunch. Other wraps available on the lunch special include chicken or beef shawarma, falafel, kafta kebab, fried kibbeh (fried bulgur and chopped meat), Santa Fe chicken, eggplant, or mixed veggies.

Kismet, while serving up an impressive menu of grilled, sliced, and skewered meats, also caters to vegetarians with a separate menu including various mezes, wraps, and a vegetarian sampler plate. Desserts include baklava, rice pudding, knafeh (a Palestinian sweet cake made of shredded phyllo), and nammourah (a.k.a. haresee, a delectable honey cake).

Hummus

Hummus

Expanded review here.

Maoz
The Triangle
4601 N. Lamar Blvd
Menu

Maoz, an international chain of vegetarian falafel restaurants, has come to Austin!  They are located in the Triangle and are open until 11:00pm Sunday through Thursday, and until midnight on Friday and Saturday.

My previous Maoz experiences had all been in London, specifically in Soho, specifically at 1:00am, and always, always drunk.  Maoz was where I first discovered the heavenly combination that is french fries and mayonnaise (thanks, Alex!).  The storefronts are always very clean, shiny, and efficient: fast food falafel.  Having said that, they make a decent product, allow you to customize your toppings Subway-style, and may just be what you’re looking for if you’re in the mood for a quick, crunchy falafel wrap.

Note: Today’s Groupon is for Maoz!

Phoenicia Bakery and Deli
4701 Burnet Road
and 2912 South Lamar
Menu

Phoenicia, with two Austin locations, is your go-to stop for stocking up on imported Middle Eastern (and other foreign) goods, from ghee to pine nuts to halal meats to candy bars to coffee to… British pork pies?  Yes.  They have everything.  Stefon would love this place.

Very good gyro

Very good gyro

I’ve lived in Austin for eleven years, and I’d never been to Phoenicia until last week.  My friend Mike (photo contributor to this piece) and I went in to pick up a picnic dinner from the deli at the Burnet location.  We ended up trying the mixed lamb and beef gyro, kafta wrap, and a chicken shawarma wrap with tahini.  These were some good wraps, made extra special by Phoenicia’s homemade pitas.

They also serve an award-winning whole roast chicken (only $3.99!), along with your usual Middle Eastern staples: hummus, tabouleh, and falafel. You can also fill up on manaish (a.k.a. zatar, a warm pita rolled with a blend of imported thyme, olive oil, and spices), lahme-bi-agin (meat bread with ground beef, tomatoes, and spices), and cheesy feta and sesame bread.

The deli has an interesting array of imported soft drinks, too.  Mike tried the Camlica, because the can looked cool, and it turned out to be a carbonated, lightly lemony drink (l later found it it’s Turkish).

Note that Phoenicia is primarily a grocery store, so there is limited outdoor seating.  This is a place for shopping and take-out, not a romantic dinner.  However, the service is great, and the take-out is really, really good.  Go there.

Sarah’s Mediterranean Grill and Market
5222 Burnet Road # 500
Menu

This is my new favorite restaurant.  Located in increasingly hip Allandale, with a diverse group of shops withing nearby walking distance, Sarah’s is another imported grocery with a small cafe.  Their selection of groceries is very impressive.  I want to go back soon just to browse!

Aside from having delicious food at very reasonable prices, Sarah’s is most famous for having the friendliest staff you’ll ever meet, and a casual, homey atmosphere.  Squeezed in among the aisles of sesame paste and giant cans of olives is the busy kitchen, and there are a few bright, four-person tables in the front window.

Garlicky hummus

Garlicky hummus

To start with the basics: Sarah’s has the great hummus.  Look at all that garlic!  They also serve all the usual Middle Eastern mezes, including baba ghanooj, meat- and vegetable-stuffed domas, tabouleh, and those pan-Mediterranean favorites, baklava and tzatziki.  A selection of halal pita wraps are available, filled with your choice of falafel, chicken, beef, kafta beef, or gyro beef.  The lamb shank rightly gets high praise–it’s succulent, tender, and well spiced.

Chicken shawarma plate

Chicken shawarma plate

Even better than all this, in my opinion, are the shawarma plates.  These are a real steal.  For $5.99, you get a huge meal of flavorful, lemony chicken shawarma dusted with slivered almonds on a bed of paprika-sprinkled rice, a fresh salad, a big serving of hummus, two slices of pita, and a sweet date for dessert!  The beef version (pictured up top) is just as delicious, with such savory grilled meat.

If you are in the Rosedale/Allandale area in North Central Austin, do not miss this place.

Tom’s Tabooley
2928 Guadalupe Street
Menu

Tom's

Tom’s wrap and hummus, by electric blues on Flickr

I cannot believe I don’t have any of my own photos of Tom’s Tabooley.  I’ve been going there for ten years!Conveniently located on the funkiest section of the Drag (Guadalupe at 30th Street), Tom’s has been serving up their famous tabouleh, hummus, and wraps for years and years.  You may recognize their logo from the deli case at one of your favorite local delis or grocery stores.  Or perhaps you’ve seen their round stickers on light poles and guitar cases around town.  Tom’s is the go-to place for fresh mezes.

They make superior versions of all your favorite meze standards with a Texas twist: hummus (regular, roasted garlic, roasted red pepper, Kalamata, spicy Southwestern), baba ghanooj, falafel, dolmas (traditional, dill mint, curry, jalapeno, or habanero), and labneh.  And they also have a variety of extremely fresh, shockingly affordable wraps, including: hummus with salad; mixed veggies; tabouleh and hummus mix (a favorite); the Tabouley Melt with cheese, grilled onions, and mushrooms; falafel with feta; chicken; mixed lamb and beef gyros; and the ever-popular Thai Wrap, with rice noodles and your choice of falafel or marinated tofu (ranging in price from $4.50 to $7.50).

There’s also the Mediterranean Sampler for $7.00 (for those of us who want it all), salads, and homemade baklava, halva, and fudge.  Tom’s menu helpfully denotes vegan and gluten free options, and even includes a Gluten Free Special ($8.00), including baba ganooj, dolmas, hummus, labneh, chicken, and salad.

Tom’s is a great place for casual dining with a side of people watching, due to their location on the block that houses weird Austin institutions Toy Joy, Buffalo Exchange, and a liquor store.  Hang out for a while under the patio umbrellas and soak it all in.

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

Bon Bons by Serena

Y’all know I love local products, smart design, and delicious treats. This one’s a three-fer!

Austinite (via New York City and Tyler, Texas) Serena Hicks is cranking out the bon bons! Last night I had the opportunity to sample her delicious creations at the Austin Social Affair at the Rattle Inn. Recently featured in the Austin American-Statesman, Bon Bons by Serena is generating a lot of well-deserved buzz.  If you’re still looking for a perfect Valentine’s Day gift for that special foodie in your life, look no further!

Serena currently offers four unique and addictive bon bons:

The Matriarch is inspired by Serena’s 84-year-old grandmother, and they’re made using her original, vintage recipe! Described as a “classic vanilla shortbread cookie hand stuffed with a maraschino cherry, hand dipped in a vanilla frosting,” this sweet treat is my favorite in the line. The cherry’s bright flavor and smooth texture is a nice complement to the buttery exterior.

The Susie Q is named after Serena’s mother and incorporates ingredients from her favorite cocktail: brown sugar and dried apricot, hand dipped in a 100% Arabic coffee bean liqueur frosting and topped with an espresso bean!

The boy’s favorite was The Texas Treat, a basic vanilla shortbread bon bon containing a Texas pecan, then hand dipped in Texas whiskey and chocolate frosting. His favorite part? Serena uses Balcones Baby Blue Whisky, homegrown in Waco!

Finally, the Brown Sugar Kiss bon bon is a brown sugar confection with a kiss of chocolate on the inside and outside! The dough is wrapped around semi-sweet chocolate morsels, hand dipped in a semi-sweet chocolate sauce, and then finished with a banana chip. Fancy!

You can order bon bons in adorable boxes of four or luxurious boxes of twelve on the Bon Bons by Serena web site–she even delivers! These little treats are a great gift; the expert design and packaging makes the most of a great product and inspires a real sense of occasion. Serena also does catering.

And be sure to check out Serena’s blog for all the latest from the bon bon curator! This is a local food business to watch.

Bon Bons by Serena
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