Wednesday, December 28, 2005

 

Happy Birthday to Me

Today is my (31st) birthday. My entire family is down here to celebrate Christmas and my birthday with me. And what do we do for my birthday?

Amanda made fresh fruit salad for breakfast, and Dad and I went to Hot Bagel Shop for...hot bagels. Plain, blueberry, cinamon raisin, and babana walnut. We had coffee and fresh orange juice from Central Market. Then we went to Ikea, because nobody in my family had been there before, and it's really quite the tourist attraction.

For lunch we went to Barnaby's. I had a mushroom swiss burger with fries. When you get fries at Barnaby's, order a side of honey mustard and a side of barbeque sauce, then mix them together to dip the fries.

Aftre some post-holiday window shopping at the Galleria, we stopped at Amy's Ice Cream for a snack. I had Belgian Chocolate with Nutter Butters, my favorite.

It took some time to get hungry again for dinner, but some napping and Rushmore got us ready. We went to Berry Hill for queso and tex-mex. Amanda and I split some nachos with Stephen.

Now I'm full and happy and ready for bed. The folks leave for the Austin area in the morning, and Josh comes in tomorrow afternoon.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

 

Benjy's

My oldest little brother came to visit us last weekend. His birthday was in October, and our parents gave him a ticket to Houston for his birthday.

Where do you take a budding hipster to dinner in Houston? Benjy’s.

Despite having an 8:30 reservation, we had to wait for a few minutes at the bar. I had (sing along if you know the words) a Makers Manhattan, up. James and Amanda had soft drinks.

We split an appetizer of coriander chicken samosas. Amanda and I had Arugula salads with manchego cheese.
James had a steak with potatoes and veggies, green beans I think. We all thought it was funny that the waiter corrected his order. When asked how he wanted his steak cooked, James said well done. Medium well? the waiter asked politely. Yeah, medium well. Amanda and I explained why ordering a steak well done is a bad move at a restaurant. The first reason has to do with plain snobbery—connoisseurs eat their steaks more on the rare side. On the more practical side, many chefs will use smaller and worse cuts of beef for people who order well done, because they figure the person eating won’t be able to tell the difference once the meat is cooked to the density of metal. James enjoyed the steak, and I hope he tries even more exotic temperatures soon. Medium rare, maybe?

I had a pork osso bucco with mashed potatoes. I ordered it mostly out of curiosity, because ossobucco is made with veal. I also had them replace the polenta with potatoes. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the pork osso bucco tasted great. The pork, braised and covered with the tomato sauce, fell off the bone in the same way. The only thing missing was that the pork version didn’t allow for scooping out the bone marrow the way veal shank does. The pork osso bucco was as good as any veal osso bucco I’ve had.

We had no room for dessert, but we ordered a piece of tres leches for the three of us to share. It was a birthday dinner, after all.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

 

The Salt Lick

I am a newcomer to barbeque. Even into my mid-twenties, I would often tell people that I wasn’t a fan of it. I’d eat it, sure, but I didn’t see what was so special about it. My mistake was that I thought barbeque was about the sauce; barbeque is about the meat. Smitty’s, for example, famously serves its barbeque without sauce or utensils. The absence of sauce is a sign of how seriously they take the meat.

Our backyard grills are good for a lot of things, but barbeque is not one of them. Grilling uses a fairly high heat to cook the meat and smoke for flavor. (A coworker in Dallas once explained that grilled foods are not timed in minutes, but beers. Fish—one beer. Chicken—two beers. Steak—two beers per side. But that’s for later.) Barbeque uses a low heat, and the smoke is for cooking the food as much as it is flavoring it. So if you want to make barbeque, you need a surface for your meat that is not too close to the heat. You need to keep the heat steady. And you need the heat to remain steady for six to twenty-four hours. Who has time for that?

The Salt Lick does.

Our pre-Thanksgiving retreat took us to an inn only ten minutes from the Salt Lick. We didn’t realize this until we were driving there, and it was cause for loud celebration in the car. In fact, we went straight to the Salt Lick and checked into the inn later. It used to be in the middle of nowhere about 45 minutes outside of Austin, but it’s now just on the edge of sprawl. A number of custom-home subdivisions are being built nearby, and three or four new vineyards are also in the area. Despite its small-town roots, the Salt Lick is too well-known to be a local hangout or limited to farm trucks. A steady stream of BMWs, Volvos and Tahoes line up at the gate. The restaurant sells t-shirts, caps, and bumper stickers with slogans like “You can smell our pits from a mile away.” The restaurant itself consists of several low-roofed, Austin stone (limestone to you outsiders) buildings. One is the main dining room, one is the banquet room. The tables are made of heavy wood. They’re large enough for ten or twelve people and have picnic benches for sitting.

The family dinners come highly recommended, but that was too much food for our family of two, so we ordered individual combo plates. I had brisket, sausage, and ribs. Amanda had brisket and smoked turkey. Each came with potato salad and cole slaw.

The brisket was incredibly tender (no knife necessary) and flavorful. It was also bigger than I’m used to seeing. It had a layer of fat that a lot of places would cut off and more of the burnt surface than usual. Spicy with a bit of sweet, the sausage didn’t seem over-processed. Chunks of meat and flecks of spice were clearly visible. And the rib? Well, Amanda called it, several times, “the greatest pork rib known to mankind.” I have never eaten a pork rib so large, so juicy, so smoky, so wonderful. So as to enjoy every bite and not get too caught up in the moment, I’d eat just a bite of rib at a time, and then cleanse the palate with some potato salad or beef. I ate every scrap on my plate, probably around a pound and a half of meat. I contemplated going back for dinner.

On top of the perfect meat, the Salt Lick also has great sauce. It’s got tomato in it, but no so much that it’s red. There’s a fair amount of mustard in it, which gives it a yellowy-brown color. It’s got just enough sugar to keep the mustard from taking over, but not so much that it covers up the sharpness. The Salt Lick has a region-less sauce. It’s got the mustard of South Carolina sauce, but it’s not bitter. It’s got the vinegar of Memphis or North Carolina sauce, but it’s not thin. It’s got the sweetness and tomatoes of Texas sauce, but it’s not thick with molasses. I guess what I’m saying is this: even if barbeque were about the sauce, the Salt Lick would be the best.

I didn’t try this myself, but it’s worth mentioning. One of the daily specials when we stopped by was beef rib. I thought it was your basic roasted prime rib, which is good but not what you want at a barbeque joint. What I saw was, indeed, a beef rib. A large bone section, about a foot and half long, with meat attached. It must have been enough to feed four or five people. Once I saw it, it reminded me not of the prime rib at a steak house but the brontosaurus ribs that tip over Fred Flinstone’s car.

I had many things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. Near the top of the list: thank goodness I’m not a vegetarian.

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