Wednesday, September 28, 2005
I'm going to say that my ranking is (from best to worst):
Of those four, Baja Fresh is the one I really can't handle. It just affects me negatively on so many levels. First, the food's just nasty. It's like bathing in a sea of nastiness... for hours after you've eaten. Well, at least that's been my experience. Plus, it is Baja Fresh that replaced the Sound Exchange music store on Guadalupe street in Austin. It's unfair to use this against them, I guess, but it still hurts. At least they didn't knock down all of the wall art.
Anyway, this is not meant to be a Baja Fresh hate-fest. Besides, if Taco Bell offered build-your own burritos, I imagine they would rank lower than Baja Fresh. They would also rank lower than the dirt in my backyard. ... which, by the way, is free.
On with Freebird's then! My latest visit wasn't so great.. It was an absolute contrast with the first, heavenly visit. The second and third times were decent... but very clearly sub-heavenly. I'm not sure what happened. The first time I went, I was completely transfixed by the habanero sauce. Oh yeah. It was fire and damnation.. Fire and damnation totally taste good. The next couple of times, I got the same sauce... which was great.. but I wasn't really writing home about the other objects in the burrito (like beans, peppers, rice, cheese, etc). As for this latest visit... I'm reminded of the time a friend of mine had access to a potato gun. I would have rather starved that day for lunch, and shot my burrito with the potato gun into Barton Creek.
Let's consider this fourth visit a big freak accident. The main problems were that some things seemed to be missing from the burrito, like... there was not enough cheese, not enough pinto beans (replaced by too much rice), etc... Really, I like to like Freebird's. They do really cool stuff, such as loudly proclaiming their non-use of pig fat, displaying aluminum foil art, making many of their sauces fresh, and having several vegetarian options. Plus, again, I've had pretty good fast food there.
I can't stress the badassness of the habanero sauce. No one messes with Freebird's habanero sauce. End of story. Thinking of trying? Not a good idea. Now go away. For some reason, this reminds me of some dialogue from a movie (Maybe it's Raging Bull??):
Joe Pesci: "blah blah blah..." (something lightly denigrating DeNiro)
Robert DeNiro: "What? Get the %#&* outta here!!"
Joe Pesci: [starts following order... getting out of there]
Robert DeNiro: "... Where you goin? Come ere!"
Joe Pesci: [comes back]
Clearly, Robert DeNiro is in control in this scene. That's because he's like the habanero sauce.
Besides that, the other ingredients seem pretty fresh.. What's also cool is their choice of 4 or 5 different tortillas. (flour, cayenne, wheat, spinach, and corn (for tacos)). That's definitely a plus for me. Other choices you get are of beans (refried, whole pinto, or black), sauce (habanero is one of 7), "meat" (white chicken, dark chicken, steak, combo, or "veggie"), and "freebies" (tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, roasted garlic, lettuce, etc, etc).
Freebird's is also a Texas chain... so more "locality" points than Baja Fresh and Chipotle (I think Chipotle is partially owned by McDonald's). Chango's seems to be strictly in Austin, by the way.
I would say, for fast food, DEFINITELY give this place a shot, especially for burritos. For tacos, you might want to consider Maria's Taco Express or Mi Madre's... But this place surely rocks on a good day!
Monday, September 19, 2005
Since I was born to Brazilian parents, I'm guessing I'm supposed to be a fine critic of Brazilian food. Unfortunately, I haven't eaten a whole lot of it in years, even from my mom, since most of the real stuff has meat. For example, the "national dish" of Brazil, called Feijoada, usually contains pork (if not, then beef). So in a way, I'm a novice, at least since I went vegetarian. Please keep this in mind.
When this place opened, under its old name, I freaked out; it was advertising itself as "Brazilian & Tex-mex", AND they didn't even get the Brazilian flag right on their sign. This was all very scary. I took my parents there. It was all very scary to them, too. I suppose I can empathize with the whole "tex-mex is an option" thing, especially since the place is so near to UT, but I don't see El Salvadorian or Columbian restaurants in town adding "and tex-mex" to their taglines. Also.. this place oozes weirdness anyway, because it's kind of "upscale" in service and price, yet it's adjacent to a convenience store, which is itself adjacent to a sportsbar (Posse's, one of my favorite locations). There are college students everywhere around here, all the time. Like 24 hours a day.
My parents' verdict? All they liked was talking to the owner in Portuguese. I have to say that's my verdict, too, after going there maybe 4 times now. There are about 3 or 4 vegetarian options, but only one of them seems to be a sufficient meal (the Palmito ao Forno, because it contains lots of cheese). My latest visit was around Labor Day weekend. Here's the data I have....
Palmito ao Forno: "Huh?", in Portuguese, is what my mom said when I told her about this dish. Ok.. I didn't think it was too bad, but it's basically a consolation prize for the vegetarians. A layer of decent white cheese on top of a mixture of vegetables... mostly green beans and hearts of palm. It was a bit too salty. My friend ordered the same thing and privately confided to me later that day that she "absolutely hated it". It came with breaded, fried banana slices, with some kind of sweet dip. I thought those were ok. I believe the same friend "absolutely hated" these, as well.
Veggie Sandwich: Ok... er.. This might no longer be on the menu, actually. I had it a couple of years ago. It was pretty good... but definitely not a complete meal. My memory suddenly runs thin.
Bobo de Camarao: This being a shrimp dish, I haven't tried it. My mom ordered it once though, and decided it was pretty authentic, but almost spat it out. A friend of mine ordered the same thing two weeks and was absoltely unimpressed. Shortly after, he said something to the effect of "You know, the food here isn't really very good."
Chicken Milanesa: Another friend ordered this the other day, and seemed to be very happy.. I think I almost heard him yelp with excitement. To put it in perspective, my dog never yelps ... even with excitement.
Fried Yuca: My mom's fried yuca is spectacular. The fried yuca at Sao Paolo's? Give me a break. They're okay, but I'll take fries next door from Posse's over these any day.. And for half the price. Maybe they'd be interesting if you're trying fried yuca for the first time. It's basically like french fries... except a bit different.
Pao de Quejo: This translates literally into "cheese bread". It's essentially little balls of bread where cheese is smoothly, uniformly part of the dough. Pretty good stuff, even here at Sao Paolo's. This is the best item at this restaurant. Little balls of bread.
Nachos: I guess this is one of those tex-mex items.. with a "twist" (!!!). That twist is apparently using wheat chips instead of tortilla chips. That's it. That's the twist. Is this review almost over yet? I think it is.
Mojito: Whatever. The one at Saba Blue Water Cafe is much, much better.
Caipirinha: The latest one I had here was fine, though not as good as my dad's. The first one I had here? UGH! I think maybe they changed the recipe....
Passion Fruit Juice: The same friend to declared the Palmito ao Forno to be the enemy, liked this drink. The waiter said it was not freshly-squeezed, but.. it was still pretty good. How often do you see passion fruit juice?
That's it. Besides the nachos, I haven't tried the tex-mex stuff. I mean, if I wanted to, I would rather be at, say, any tex-mex place in Austin. The atmosphere is cool, though the look they're going for is probably spoiled if you look outside. Also, they had a jazz band playing during my most recent visit. Then there was the quirky waiter. It's a locally-owned place, which is cool, blah blah blah. Maybe having more decent food would help. Or at least slash the prices by 70%. Make it a food clearance sale, all the time. This message goes out to the new location: please improve on the first one.
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
The belly dancer I saw was balancing a sword on her head. Yes I know you can balance a sword on your head, too. It wasn't that way. She was balancing it by the blade's sharp edge. As in, I had a slight fear of death at my table.
Is the food terribly authentic? I'm not too sure; I am unlucky enough to still not have had home-cooked food relating to this region... nor did I actually eat anything regional the one time I was actually IN the Middle East (Dubai).. (they gave me a free sandwich at the airport). But I do know this: the place is BYOB. (Beer, wine, whatever). I doubt you'll see that too often in the Middle East. I've also heard whisperings.. where from I don't know... that this claims to be a Turkish place.
Small tangent: I'm looking for a term that basically means "The Middle East and North Africa" that (1) is not "The Arab World" and (2) isn't relative to another place in the world (i.e. "middle east" is east only of the things west of it). Suggestions anyone? Include Turkey? Maybe... Sigh.
Anyway, I've been to Ararat probably about 3 times now. The first time I went there, I was a meat-eater extraordinaire. Unfortunately, I have no idea what I ordered, except that i thought it was ok. The second time, I was vegan. Still don't remember what I ordered.. except I remember vegetables on top of a pita. It was pretty good. Now for this latest visit, I'm just a normal vegetarian. This was 2 weeks ago. I went with a group of about 10 people, and we pigged out. Majorly. We were all oinking at the end. The BYOB (2 bottles of wine in this case) probably helped. So... breaking it down:
Pita: Pretty tasty. Nice and hot, too, in my mouth. Yeah.. this was ideal for scooping up the hummus and baba ganouj. Incomparably better than the (bwahaha) "naan" trianglets at Cosmic Cafe. This was whole, though, not cut into pieces and destroyed.
Hummus: Nothing completes a nice Middle Eastern meal like some awesome hummus. Oh yeah.. This was good stuff, though I still found the one at Marakesh Cafe and Grill way better. This is also better than the hummus made by Tom's Tabooley. I respect them and all... but.. yeah. All of these of course put to shame various hummuses (hummi?) all over the city, found in hummus sandwiches and whatnot. All right, I had hummus in New York. It was insanity... (in a good way). This wasn't quite that good.... but I liked it here anyway. It was on par with the one at Alborz Persian Cuisine, I thought.
Baba Ganouj: Ok... interesting. Sweeter than I expected.. Certainly more than the one at Marakesh, which I really like. Still parsing this. Maybe in a few weeks, my brain will have properly figured this out. Not that it was bad! Just not what I expected.
Dolmeh Felfel: Basically this was something like a the grape leaf dolmas I'm used to, except they were stuffed green bell peppers. The stuffing was a highly yummy mixture of rice, nuts (walnuts, maybe?), and various spices. Rounding out the dish, there was bulgar wheat (basically seemed like tabouleh), roasted veggies (*magnificent*. Zucchinis, tomatoes, red/green peppers, onions, with equally-magnificent brown mystery powder on all of these)... hmm what else? Oh yeah: maust museer (reminiscent of Indian raita), and some sort of spicy tahini sauce. ALL of this was great.
Other people ordered stuff that also looked, smelled, *and* sounded good (sizzling chicken, etc).. I definitely sat next to the right people. Of course, the BYOB could have just been causing me to hear food wailing when in fact it was silent and happy with itself.
Halva: You either love halva, or you don't. This style of halva is heavy on the sesame flavor, and sour-ish in the way that I like. Many people invariably hate it. But not me.... I'll take this kind of halva any day... 24 hours straight, if necessary. The one here was no exception.
Apricot Fruit Cake Thingie: Huh? I don't really care for apricots all that much... but I tried this anyway. But... I didn't detect any apricot flavor. Who knows what I was smoking. The point is: this didn't seem very special.
In conclusion... Ararat is totally a winner, though I still like the more no-frills Marakesh better. Both way better than Alborz, for sure.. at least for vegetarians. So: (1) I believe 8 out 10 at the table liked their food, obviously including me. (2) The waitress gave us free hummus and baba ganouj because we were a large group. (3) This is a *local* restaurant.. There's only one of them. (4) The menu has 5 vegetarian entrees.... and they all look *really* good. (5) I must reiterate: BYOB!!!!!!
You may want to make a reservation.
Monday, September 12, 2005
Central Market Cafe
I've always wondered if the cooks just go into the grocery store and buy the supplies they need everyday.. If so, I'd *really* be interested in knowing where they get their fries, which are some of the best in the city (my ranking for fries is probably Opal Divine's, Posse's, EZ's, then Central Market Cafe). The patty they use for the vegan burger is great, too. It's of the meat-impersonation variety (unlike the superior veggie burger at Artz), which is usually fine by me. It has always impressed me that "Vegan Burger" is actually an item you can order, though unfortunately it's not on the menu. I'm not sure, but I believe the vegan and veggie burgers use the same patty.. and all that's different in the vegan one is a different bun and a lack of mayo, etc.
This review concerns the Central Market Cafe South location. It should be noted that the last time I went to the OTHER Cetral Market Cafe location, up around 41st and Lamar, they told me they "do things a little differently here" and that the menu there wasn't the same. The last time I heard "We do things a little differently here", someone was in the middle of telling me how people work 35-hour weeks in France. So I don't know if that's somehow related here. Also, the veggie/vegan burgers there used a completely different patty... I believe it was the Gardenburger patty. I'm ABSOLUTELY sick of the standard Gardenburger patty, to the point where even the sight of the box makes we want to... seek out some privacy.. quickly. So for me, the south location is therefore the way to go.. no doubt about it.
Now... the other vegetarian options freak me out. Once I tried... I think it's called.. "Silken Tofu". This was an absolute mistake I should have seen coming. Imagine being served a small rectangle of tofu, with a few herbs and spices on it. The waiter tells you "This is your meal, and you will like it." Of course, you eat it, because the gun's pointed at your head. Maybe I would've enjoyed it if I were in prison.
I also had a pasta there once... I vaguely remember a creamy sauce... lots of pine nuts... and not enough food. To top it off, I believe there was a stomach ache involved. If I'm going to suffer a stomach ache, I should at least get a decent helping of food. Sorry, but I don't remember the name of this dish, and there seems to be no menu online. Just tell them to not give you the "stomach upset" pasta.
Enough of the not-so-great food there. What else about the vegan burger? The bun can sometimes be a bit thick, but it's pretty good; looks like whole wheat flour. I always like to choose the excellent fries as my side (which also means it will have a few fried onion string things), but one could also go for fruit salad or side salad... probably a couple of other options. Nowadays, they've been putting guacamole in the burger, which I'm not really into in this setting... so I just ask for it on the side. I also ask for extra lettuce, and that usually works out pretty well.. (I think it's green leaf lettuce usually). There's also tomato and onion inside, as well as a few pickled vegetables on the side.
It's a big meal. The last time I got it for lunch during a work day, I was pretty much out of commission afterward. It was almost like coming out of a buffet. So if you're veggie, and you visit this place, the veggie/vegan burgers, especially with fries, score highly with me. Everything else... don't bother. There are probably a couple of vegetarian things on the menu I still haven't tried, though. And in case you don't know, Central Market, the grocery store, is owned by HEB, which is a large grocery store chain in Texas and Louisiana. As far as non-natural-food grocery store chains go, HEB is pretty cool, as in they seem to do a relatively good job listening to their customers, etc. For example, just as for the natural food stores, HEB's milk doesn't contain synthetic Bovine Growth Hormone. You can't get that guarantee at Albertson's, Randall's, or Walmart Supercenters, etc, as far as I know. To me, that's a huge plus. For me, Wheatsville Food Co-op is still king, but I still find myself at HEB a lot.
Anyway, there you go.. No data on the meat items for you, but at the south location, the veggie/vegan burger (with awesome fries) is great! Also, I forgot to mention the excellent salad bar with several veggie and meat options. I believe both locations also have live music sometimes, which is cool... Give it a shot!
Thursday, September 08, 2005
Not that I have any problem with this; I welcome references to outer space in food. I still haven't been to Mars Restaurant & Bar, but I want to. I'm not sure if the deli in Sun Harvest counts. "Cosmic" Cafe *definitely* counts, though. It seems the owners of vegetarian Mother's Cafe decided to ditch their other veg restaurant, West Lynn. They sold this location to the Cosmic guys, who are *supposedly* from Dallas. I'm thinking it's more like M31. These people (?) are doing the vegetarian thing, too, so have no fear! Check out the menu at the website for the only other location, in Dallas.
This is the kind of place that is trying to be extremely... zen-like? Supposedly they have yoga there. Meditation everywhere. Very chill. That is, except for our waiter, when a friend and I visited there for lunch one day. He was SO hardcore. HOW ARE THINGS TODAY!!!!!???? MAY I INTEREST YOU IN ONE OF OUR SPECIALS!!!!!!! AAAAHHH!!!!! Totally frenetic (but cool) guy. My friend did make a good point that, really, he was the only source of energy in the whole place, so he was doing a perfect job. Basically, the place was still half-painted.. few bells and whistles.. Menu looked bland, etc, and didn't have all the items from the Dallas location. As of this writing, they are in transition.. Still moving in. So that's all ok.
These guys basically serve Indian fusion food. It's interesting and very worth checking out. Here's what I can tell you about the food thus far:
- Mango Lassi: THE BEST mango lassi I have ever tried. I normally like plain sweet lassi instead, but this was a great exception. It tasted like they used fresh mangos, instead of canned mango juice or something. Additional evidence of this: the color was not a deep orange or bright yellow.. but instead was sort of a washed out yellow. To me, it looked more like the real thing.
- Portabella Trance: All I know is that my friend ordered this and was blown away. It might be next on my list to try. Literally, he almost was blown out of the restaurant, through the roof. Luckily, the surrounding roads aren't that major.
- Eggplant Masala Pizza: I am told by a different friend that this is spectacular, at least from the Dallas location. It wasn't on the menu yet here when I went. Hmmm.. maybe actually this is the next one to try.
- Buddha's Delight: I'm not entirely sure this is what Gautama Buddha would've eaten, as many of the ingredients (like chili peppers and potatoes) apparently only existed in the Americas when he was around. That aside, this was a pretty good selection. It came with a lot of stuff, so I'll have to break it down further:
a) Rice: Not from outer space. Standard. Plain white basmati. Next topic.
b) Naan: Hmmm. Disappointing. I was expecting a real... like... Naan. Instead, I got 4 or 5 pita trianglets. I like non-existent words.
c) Samosa: Yeah this was pretty good! Not the best around... but enjoyable. On par with Madras Pavillion's in quality I'd say.. Spicy and potato-filled. The real star here, however, was the tamarind chutney. Sorry.. that's The Tamarind Chutney. There is a god, and it is called The Tamarind Chutney. I got blown away by this... even more than my friend by his dish. WOW. I was trying to dip everything on my plate into this stuff. The other chutney? Bleh. I think it was mint. It was tried and immediately scorned and rejected.
d) Dal: Certain friends of mine are way into this dal, but I just found it average. I thought they needed to calm down on the cloves. Also it was really more of a soup. I think it was made with Masoor lentils.
e) Spinach w/ Tofu: Hmmm.. I remember thinking of canned spinach when I had this. Were I to be a spinach-hater, it would be because of items like this. Maybe Popeye would like it.. but not me. Note: this was actually the vegetable of the day, so any other day, there might be something different on Buddha's Delight. Note #2: This item was supposedly a fluke. I've just had too much input from friends saying that the other daily vegetables are absolutely delicious.
I admit, the stuff here that I liked... I REALLY liked... and was Cosmic in stature. I'm willing to blame the earthly remainder on the whole "transitional" state of the restaurant. The receipt even said "West Lynn Cafe" on it. Not to mention people were walking in thinking it was still West Lynn... It was funny trying to count the number of those that promptly just walked out. Anyway, I'm going to recommend that this place definitely be checked out ASAP. Very promising place, even with the galactic trianglets, etc. All vegetarian... and local to Texas. I'll find myself here again very soon!