Beyond 5 Boroughs Travel

Austin, Texas

austin_2013photos taken by iLuvpotato © 2014

SXSW 2014 may be over but Austin, Texas is a great city to visit year round.  I made a visit to Austin, TX last year during labor day holiday weekend and stayed with my friend.  There was no better way to celebrate the last days of summer than swimming holes, the best barbecue and live music.  Here is my overdue post, a recap of my trip to the Lone Star state and one of the best capital city in the country.

08.31.2013 (Day 1)
I met my friend, a native Texan who now lives in Austin, Texas through working and both for our love of farmers market, so naturally our first stop was the farmers market for a light breakfast. It was considerably early or at least in my internal clock but many items was already sold out.  It made sense because of the climate in Austin, Texas by noon can reach up to and over 100F, so the locals really start their day early then off to swimming hole we go!  One of the most visited and popular swimming hole is Barton Springs Pool and it is a definite must.  As I’m used to swimming at my local recreational center in a body of bleach water, Barton Springs Pool is a whole new experience, with natural mineral water generated from underground springs with an average temperature of 70 degrees is an ideal treat from the heat.  Our lunch stop was at Lucy’s Fried Chicken.  We ordered a 1/2 dozen of Austin oysters, corn on the cob, corn bread muffin, collard greens and a basket of fried chicken to share and to fuel our appetite.  That evening we went to my friend’s parents lake house in New Braunfels, TX for an ‘Open Grill’ which was a term that was new to me and meant you bring your own meat for the barbecue like a pot luck in which I bought some sausages from a local German butcher shop.

09.1.2013 (Day 2)
This was my second time staying at my friend’s parents lake house.  They have visited me a number of times in New York City and in many ways have become my extended family. We made breakfast tacos from our leftovers from the open grill.  It was one of those Sunday meals to linger around with good company without the fuss. Later that afternoon, we drove through the roads passing ranches from New Braunfels to Wimberly, TX.  The views were spectacular and even quoted in guide books, “the Tuscany of Texas!”  My friends and I arrived to Jacob’s Well which was overcrowded, even one man came dashing out after taking a glimpse  and said in a fury with an European accent, “this is disgusting.”  Instead we went to Blue Hole but was also disappointingly full.  Finally we settled and picnic at a less populated swimming hole.  The biggest accomplishment was I successfully conquered my fear in attempting the tarzan swing which was one of the most liberating thing I have done in awhile and I recommend everyone to do the same if you never have.

We drove back from Wimberly to Austin and had dinner at a drive-thru at El Chilito.  I had three tacos a fish, a shrimp and a Puerco en Cascabel aka Cactus tacos with a plate of rice and beans along with horchata.  Later we went to a trendy bar, The White Horse.  It happened to be conjunto night which means ‘gather’ and the Mexicans really knows how to have a fiesta.  There was the usual bar scene with a good selection of beer, pool table, live music and dancing but rarely an old school of Mexicans and young hipsters under one roof in a bar.  The intermix of culture and generation was what really distinguished The White Horse from any bar I have ever been to and the friendly, social atmosphere really made the experience fun.

09.02.2013 (Day 3)
Despite the heat wave, the locals in Austin, TX remains very active with outdoor sports.  People were running, hiking, kayaking, bicycling, you name it.  Well, my friend and I tried paddle boarding in the heart of city.  In addition to being very active, it is also the city where Whole Foods supermarket chain stores was born in the 80s and remains to be one of the biggest Wholefoods in the country and that’s where we had an al fresco lunch follow by some shopping.  I was hoping to purchase a pair of cowgirl boots but a pair goes for about more than a roundtrip airfare. I’ll have to save up besides it will give me a reason to go back.  Instead we opted for some ice cream at Amy’s which are known for their ‘crushn’ method and I had the triple mexx with pecans.  To conclude my trip in Austin, TX, it had to be Texas barbecue at Salt Lick BBQ.  This was the real deal and Salt Lick BBQ takes it very seriously.  There was a bocce court, a wine cellar and a vineyard but the main attraction was of course the pit where a ton of meat was firing up.  We did a family style with an assortment of meats which the ribs and pickles really stood out. It was an epic way to end my visit to Austin, Texas and what the city reminded me was to let loose a little and enjoy the pleasures in traveling and in life.  Thank you to my friend and her family for being such gracious host.

I was lucky to have a friend to take me around on all the hot spots.  An alternative source to plan your next trip to Austin, Texas I discovered while visiting is this charming collection of city guide books: Wild Sam Field Guides.  Unlike any other guide books, I find these personal, authentic and visually creative.  A perfect addition to any traveler or designer’s collection. And for the outdoorsy person, Hill Country Outdoor Guide is a good source.

Amy’s Ice Cream
El Chilito
Lucy’s Fried Chicken
Salt Lick BBQ

Barton Springs Pool
Blue Hole
Jacob’s Well
The White Horse

Sustainable Food Center
Whole Foods Austin, TX
Uncommon Objects

Beyond 5 Boroughs Travel, New York City Eats

2013 Year in Review

FOOD_2013photos taken with instagram by iLuvpotato © 2013

It’s hard to believe another year has gone by and as I get older, “staying in” has a whole new feeling.  Maybe because I traveled more frequent than any other years.  I started 2013 with an annual sister bonding West coast trip from San Francisco, Seattle to Vancouver.  Went to Washington D.C with my family for the spring cherry blossom and visited my friend in Austin, Texas to soak up the summer sun on labor day weekend.  And joined a spontaneous, intense 6 days bus tour with my parents from Colorado, North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, to Utah, which redefine my perception on how I see America and especially Chinese bus tours.

Or maybe because I will officially be in my “late-twenties” one month from now and in the latest Kinfolk issue covering the subject on Age in an article I can resonate with is David Coggins piece “Acquired Tastes: Only Time Will Tell.”  I’ve noticed my taste palette has changed, where some dishes have really grew on me with an appreciation. When I was a child I used to push aside soups, avoided hot pot and Chinese rice porridge aka congee or ‘jok’ but now I can devour an entire bowl.  Currently, I am passing the oatmeal with black sesame seeds and goji berries my mom prepares me on weekends, well, – only time will tell.

Sometimes it is necessary to “staying in.”  To catch up on personal emails, a book for leisure, or using kitchen tools.  It helps to recharge and rejuvenate from the work week whether in the comfort of my pjs or with a group of friends lounging where time feels endless.  The end of the year is a time for reflection and as we wrap up 2013 what I am most appreciative and find most satisfying is that one good meal.  The one good meal is define by the service, the quality, the environment and most importantly the people you share the meal with.  Here are my top 12 for the year 2013:

El Poblano Farm /// One of the highlights this year was joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) with El Poblano Farm. A small one acre farm with varieties of produces to Mexican herbs like papalo, all grown in Staten Island.  By joining a CSA, it introduced and motivated me to cook something I would never have bought. Some of my favorites were, squash blossoms, papalo, acorn squash, and chamomile.  The experience of being part of a CSA that was most rewarding was being part of a community, a visit to the farm and a shared home cooked meal with CSA leftovers.  It also helps the organizers Erica, Ken and farmer Gudelio are all so friendly and such loving people. Thank you for a great season.

Cafe Mogador /// I rarely revisit a place for brunch twice in a year as there are too many choices in New York City but Cafe Mogador is an exception.  Primarily because I am obsessed with their harissa. It’s a condiment that comes on the side upon requested and it gives an extra kick to brunch. I especially love the hustle and bustle environment of the restaurant and the Moroccan inspired decor.  No wonder it’s a favorite for the locals and tourist alike since 1983 in the East Village and it’s certainly has become one of mine.

Dominique Ansel Cronut /// New York City is notorious for long lines for always something.  Since May 2013 when Dominque Ansel Bakery launched the cronut, there has been outrageous lines from 5am. These would be sold out from the moment the doors open, limiting 2 cronuts per person. I would have patiently waited but I’m not a early morning person.  My cousin however, crazily waited and hand delivered to my door and surprised me with a cronut – she is the best.  The flavors changes each month and I had the coconut. We both agreed it was not the best thing we ever ate but I must praise Chef Dominique Ansel for creating this hybrid dessert between croissant and doughnut where both two iconic pastries from France and America meets.  The idea is truly a masterpiece.

Bar-b-cue /// If it’s one cuisine that defines America, it’s barbecue and it’s hard to narrow down to only one when I had so many good barbecue this year.  Mighty Quinn’s who started at outdoor markets opened their brick and mortar shop in the East Village earlier this year. They’re known for their briskets but when I think of barbecue I think of finger food. Ribs is the way to go and their less traditional but creative side dishes like the edamame & sweet peas salads.  I visited my friend on the last days of summer, a native Texan with New York City at heart who drove to the outskirt of Austin, Texas where I witnessed and tasted how it’s really done at Salt Lick BBQ.  It is an impressive estate, there is bocce, a vineyard, a wine tasting room but the main attraction was of course the pit where the meats are smoked.  One of the best barbecue experiences. My friend even tied the knot at a barbecue joint this summer at Dinosaur BBQ in Harlem, one of the married couples favorite spot and how barbecue and weddings is meant to be, pure fun.

Fried Chicken /// If barbecue is the cuisine that defines America, the one dish that defines America has to be the iconic fried chicken – sorry burgers and hot dogs.  Everyone who knows me by now, knows that I Love Fried Chicken and I’m not the only Asian or person who is fascinated with this fried bird.  Foodblogger Donny Tsang started a fried chicken project where he chronicles all the fried chicken he has eaten in New York City. For really beautiful fried chicken photos see his blog.  Chefs across New York City has taken this classic dish and elevated it with their interpretation including renowned chefs David Chang and April Bloomfield with their advanced reservation group fried chicken dining experience.  [Read my Momofuku Fried Chicken Dinner here]  There’s also Chef Robert Newton’s version on a boneless fried chicken at Seersuckers, although the biscuits with three way jams was what really stood out in the meal.  Then there is the Blue Ribbon empire where they finally opened a fast food style or 2013 update on KFC, Popeyes or Hill Country Chicken with Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken.  The wings are outstanding and spices on the fried chicken are flavorful with numerous honey options on the side to experiment with and where playing with food is encourage here.

Mission Chinese /// What’s great about New York City restaurants is, what is authentic when it is common to find a Mexican cooking a bibimbap and a Chinese cooking an enchilada, or who cares as long as it tastes good.  This goes for Mission Chinese, Chef Danny Bowien who is frequently spotted on Lower East Side or Chinatown with his striking long blond hair is Korean descent from Oklahoma and makes kick-ass interpretation on Chinese food including spicy sizzling cumin lamb platter and don’t be too surprise to find kale on the menu.  It’s ashamed the New York City Department of Health closed the location but a block away, visit Mission Cantina where he takes on Mexican food in which I have yet to try.

Lafeyette /// Formerly the Chinatown Brasserie, the location of what is currently Lafeyette has gone through multiple reincarnation and from the two experiences I had, I hope it stays in the years to come. Without having to travel to Paris, Lafeyette has one of New York City’s best croissants that consists the perfect amount of butter and flakey texture, let’s not forget the crumbs. I was lucky to get invited to one of the most lavish and delicious cookbook launch of The Way We Ate.  Where platters of cheeses, charcuteries, olives, mixed greens paraded out and was a preview to what Lafeyette had to offer in which I know I will be back in the nearest future.

Best of Gowanus: Four and Twenty Blackbird /// Lavender Lake /// Runner & Stone
My work office had temporarily relocated to Gowanus, Brooklyn from late April through October and boy did I eat well within the seven months. Gowanus, is sandwiched between Park Slope and Carroll Gardens and it is transforming with the new Wholefoods Market open.  A once industrialized neighborhood and the ever so infamous highly polluted Gowanus Canal is gaining momentum as a food destination.  While working in Gowanus, I got to explore the neighborhood and some of my favorites includes a humble pie shop, Four and Twenty Blackbird.  Where pie by the slice or a whole pie can be ordered and flavors changes according to season. Right on Carroll Street near the Carroll bridge is one of the best bars in Brooklyn, Lavender Lake.  Named after what used to be the color of the Gowanus Canal and formerly a horse carriage house, the structure of the bar has excellent indoor and outdoor seating, with a terrific bar snack menu and the must try roasted brussel sprouts with aioli and beer on tap, although they need to bring the Lefthand stout back on tap!  Last but not least, Runner & Stone.  I’ve always been a fan of their pastries and brioche that they sell at New Amsterdam Market but the baguette is exclusively available at the shop and is incredible.

Egg /// Breakfast is probably the most commonly skipped meal, as I am guilty in being one of those people. We’re always on a hurry in the morning with the extra 20/30 minutes sleep or simply have no appetite.  Egg in Williamsburg, Brooklyn however, if you by chance have a weekday off is a nice trade for the daily bagel or toast.  There’s a set of crayons and white paper as table covering where your inner child or artist is encouraged.  The menu also reflects the contemporary fine art, with dishes like the Egg Rothko, probably inspired by the artist Mark Rothko, in which the tomato resembles that iconic Rothko “red.”

Walrus and The Carpenter /// I’m still Seattle dreaming from my visit to Walrus and the Carpenter in February. Those fried oysters, holy sh** [Read more here]  The team behind Walrus and the Carpenter had open this past year with The Whale Wins which by no surprise has already received critically acclaimed reviews. Walrus and the Carpenter has my dream kitchen and everything about it is spot on, even if you do not like oysters you will likely be converted, I promise.

Buvette /// One of my favorite neighborhoods in New York City is the West Village.  It’s one of the parts in Manhattan that is not a grid and every street corner has it’s own character. Buvette is one of the reasons why I love the West Village even more so than ever.  Voted by Village Voice, “the best cassoulet” and I cannot agree more [Read here]  In my recent visit, I had the opportunity to meet the man behind the design for Buvette, Max Poglia. over croissants and coffee.  It’s rare to find a restaurant that put so much thought into the food that also complements the visual aesthetic.  If you are still figuring out New Year’s Eve plans, why not ring in with their annual Nuit Blanche.

Chez Panisse /// “What is the best meal you’ve had this year?”  Well, it’s hard to pick that one place after eating at so many but the most epic, would have to be at the legendary Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA. [Read more here]  The concept of the menu changing daily according to what is available on the day of the market is so simple yet brilliant.  That is how our grandmothers and mothers shopped for their daily cooking and luckily with walking distance to fresh produce, butcher shops and fish market is how I was raised to cook too. My impression I left at Chez Panisse is the definition of success.  Alice Waters has created an institution where like Chef David Tanis and David Lebovitz have all started their career in food.  When you measure success, it is more than your very own but those surrounds you and Chez Panisse has achieved that, in fostering these talents in today’s food industry.

Thanks to the dreary, grey weather we are having in New York City today has allowed me to “staying in” in writing this.  The blinking blank cursor can sometimes be intimidating and distractions from the outside world can get me sidetracked.  So a little encouragement from the rain goddess really helps.  I started writing my annual recaps in 2010 and have continued since.  [Read them here: 2010. 2011. 2012.]  It has always been one of my favorite pieces, as I get to highlight and share these listings.  Rather than one long end of the year post, I will do my best effort to write shorter but more frequent posts in the new year. Until then, it’s good to go out, explore, get a breath of fresh air, travel, get inspired, meet new friends, develop deeper friendships and reunite with old ones over a shared meal.

happy new year and best wishes in 2014!