La Condesa

I COULD go to trendy new restaurants soon after they open and THEN blog about them, but I much prefer waiting a few years until everyone already knows how awesome Eating Establishment X is, and then write about it like I’m the first to know. I’m talking, in this case, about La Condesa.

I ventured to the downtown TexMex restaurant for lunch recently and was pleased to see the hype wasn’t for nothing. I have no trouble believing this place will be a regular contender when the mister and I find ourselves in the “where should we go for date night” predicament.

Right off the bat I liked La Condesa for the location (across from Austin’s super cool City Hall, The W Hotel, Moody Theater and Lamberts). At night the trees light up and the people watching is superb. So kudos, LC, for picking out some pretty prime real estate in which to serve tacos.

Besides being situated in the heart of mucho A-town action, the architecture and interior design is jaw dropping, astounding even. You could sit inside and stare at the textured walls, vibrant murals, swanky lighting, everything…before  you realize it has been 10 minutes and you haven’t even opened your menu. I’m not overselling either. In fact, the restaurant won a people’s choice restaurant design award from AIA Los Angeles. Pretty nifty.

If you weren’t already intrigued, allow me to go on. I’ve always heard you can tell how good a TexMex restaurant is going to be by the chips and salsa. Perhaps forecasting this very school of thought, the brains behind the La Condesa menu offer not one, but four salsas on which to over indulge before your meal begins. There’s a classic salsa roja, as well as a fresh and creamy avocado tomatillo, chipotle salsa and a super spicy but delectable option. Four salsa choices AND a generous helping of warm chips. Don’t mind if I do.

The main meal itself (fish tacos, my go-to taco when breakfast tacos aren’t an option) was splendid as well. The serving wasn’t too massive, but was still plenty filling and the tacos themselves really hit the spot. The best part about the entree, however, was the extra tortillas that come with the meal. Some places (no names) up-charge for extra tortillas (not cool), but La Condesa included two additional corn tortillas right on the plate, just like that. It was an unexpected treat and came in handy for scooping up extra salsa, black beans and rice. It’s such a small thing to do, but that alone would have tempted me to return for another visit.

By lunch hour’s end, I had been converted. The tasty array of  salsas, visually entrancing atmosphere, and surprise bonus tortilla had me singing the praises of La Condesa to anyone that would hear it. Unfortunately I can’t speak on behalf of their margaritas. I guess I should return for happy hour in order to tell that tale.


Mason

What’s a Mason? A type of brick layer, certainly. A trendy boy’s name, yes. And, most importantly, it’s a tiny town halfway between Austin and San Angelo whose total population could easily fit into my high school. So how is it that I wound up  neck deep in Puncher (Mason’s awesome high school mascot) territory?

I was commissioned by a local magazine to write a travel piece on the little gem I had previously only seen on the corner of the weather man’s forecast map. I knew little about the county seat of Mason County, but I did know it was the birthplace of my friend Mixon who generously offered to be tour guide during my Westward excursion.

Here’s what you need to know about Mason:

•Its main exports are Topaz (the state gem of Texas, which is particularly ironic because Mason County is the only place my birthstone has ever been discovered within Texas borders) and sand.
•Besides being the hometown of my award-winning writer friend Mixon, Mason is also home to another popular writer: Fred Gipson, author of the heart wrenching story of Old Yeller.
• Until recently, prisoners of the Mason County Jail were forced to wear bright pink jumpsuits in an effort to encourage delinquents to reform their law-breaking ways.
• The recreational activity of choice for the locals is driving “the loop,” a dirt road which loops around the town and across the hill country landscape. Poor conditions of the road limit drivers to a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour, which is probably best since drinking and driving on the excursion is par for the course.

But Mason is more than Jeopardian tidbits and factoids. After driving two hours west on Highway 29, Mason is the first town along the highway that actually compels travelers to stop and stay awhile.  Old stone houses, chock-full or character, welcome visitors from either side of the road, and unlike most of the drive to that point, Mason is hilly and lush with mature trees. But what really makes Mason noteworthy are the people. As is typical with small towns, everyone knows everyone. Grab lunch with a local in one of Mason’s cafes and they can tell you a story about any other Mason native that passes by the storefront; that guy drove his truck into a telephone pole last week, those folks own the movie theatre. But it’s not the trivial, gossip-ridden stories that might circulate in a high school of the same size. When you live and work with the same folks for 10,  20 and 50 years, the stories become part of the town’s history and are told with a sense of ownership and pride, like an author writing down a chapter of a novel. Mason’s 2,000 residents know how to live next to each other, but also how to appreciate one another at the same time. The waitress in the cafe always knows who at the table is going to take care of the check, and the storekeeper on the square knows all about the back up quarterback’s knee injury. It’s smal town living at its finest.


Hill Country Saturday

A pilgrimage to the Texas Hill Country can take on many forms. For some, the visit to one of the most beautiful regions in Texas means miles of tubing, beer in hand, down cold, rapid-filled rivers. Others ponder hikes through thickets swarmed with wildlife and wildflowers, but on this particular Saturday a trip to the Texas Hill Country meant lots of peach ice cream, local wine, and a farm-developed seed vacuum cleaner.

The first stop on our hill country hangout was in Blanco to visit the popular lavender fields which have made Blanco the self-proclaimed Lavender Capital of the World and host of the area’s Lavender festival. Unfortunately the summer’s drought made hills of purple pollen scarce, but droves of arts and crafts vendors and sellers of lavender-themed knick knacks still came to profit from the Lavender craze in Blanco’s historic square. While the flowers were scarce, the local charm wasn’t and Blanco made a great stop for a light lunch. Check out Zocalo Electric Cafe for a menu that’s small but is customized daily to reflect the freshest ingredients available at the cafe. The food is light and wholesome and the atmosphere of the  converted bungalow adequately reflects the small-town charm that brings visitors to Blanco in the first place.

From Blanco it’s about a 20-minute drive to Fredericksburg, a city I’ve grown up knowing for its German heritage, wineries, and most-importantly…its peaches.

We arrived at a long-time family favorite pit stop for peaches, Burg’s Corner. The roadside stop for all things peaches hasn’t changed since the 1970s and offers hungry Hill Country visitors loads of peach paraphernalia, produce, picturesque picnic areas and peach ice cream. Licking up scoops of the Blue Bell peach ice cream at Burg’s Corner is a memory from my youth I’ve carried into adulthood and will hopefully one day emerge itself in the memories of my future offspring. The stop is humble but it’s one of those places that for some reason nests itself in your subconscious and begs to be revisited over and over again.

This view from a picnic area around the corner overlooks the Pedernales River. This beautiful and serene piece of scenery is not only the setting of dozens of family picnics, it’s where we go to remember my Oma who considered this picnic stop a Texas treasure. Her ashes are scattered here.

Down the road from Burg’s is Becker Vineyards.  A road surrounded by orchards and vineyards on either side leads guests up to the limestone headquarters of this local winery. Ten dollars gets you in for tastings of sublimely delicious Texas wines, but part of what you pay for is not only the rich and delightfully cared-for beverage but also recommendations from the vineyard’s staff of the best wines and nearby sight-seeing opportunities and the spectacular view of the Fredericksburg countryside.

Further on down the same road that hosts both Burg’s and Becker is Wildseed Farms. The massive wildflower mecca is the proverbial candy store to many a Texas Gardener. Their covet-worthy seed selection fills an entire room and acres and acres of innovative irrigation systems water not rows of corn or tomatoes but instead fields of flowers. The grounds are certainly a site to behold.

There’s no limit to the combinations of experiences the Texas Hill Country can afford, but on this Saturday the combinations of flowers and ice cream and peaches and wine couldn’t be rivaled.


To market, to market

I really don’t like going to the grocery store. I always choose the wrong checkout line, parking can be a hassle and the aisles always seem to be filled with shrieking children and the ever-oblivious slow walkers. Since patience is not one my best virtues, grocery store shopping has always been high on my list of Things I Must Do But Don’t Really Wanna. It’s sandwiched right in between getting my oil changed and poop scooping. But when we moved down the street from a Central Market, all that changed. Sure there are still the oblivious aisle walkers and treacherously narrow parking lots, but the stunning selection of produce, beers and wines, fantastic cafe and flattering lighting has made trips to the grocer feel like trips to some exotic, air-conditioned farmer’s market to the stars.

I suppose in my quest to determine whether we at the doodle house are hippies or yuppies, my unconditional love of Central Market should put another tally directly under the yuppie column.


Tavern=not tight

There are certain food stuffs you dream about as a child but never really imagine you will have the opportunity to behold unless you befriend an eccentric billionaire. A swimming pool full of jello, a house made out of chocolate, a blanket of cheese perhaps?  The Tavern‘s Cheddar Blanket Burger provides the opportunity to partake in a queso quilt—an opportunity that’s better imagined than experienced in 3D.

The laughs produced by this ridiculous cheese to burger ratio was about all the fun The Tavern provided on this particular Friday night.

After a rousing debate of Which Sports Bar Can Host Heath and Kelsey’s Pretend Anniversary/Ranger’s Watching Party The Tavern, for one reason or another, came out on top. We arrived on a Friday around 6 p.m. and despite it being the optimum time for end-of-week drinks, the place was pretty barren. I don’t usually like to give bad reviews of restaurants, as I believe it’s better karma to not put those negative vibes out into the universe, but The Tavern was pretty terrible. It met all of the “don’t eat at this restaurant” requirements:
• The wait staff was MIA. We waited 20 minutes for a waitress to acknowledge us at our table, despite other people arriving in our vicinity and being tended to, and by the time she did arrive we had already ordered at the bar.
• The wait staff was rude. After other friends arrived to join the party and were directed by the server to order from the bar because the restaurant was “busy,” the table was then chastised for having some drink tickets at the bar and some at the table. “Well that’s confusing,” she said without first consulting the brain-to-mouth filter.
• The wait staff was incompetent and slow. They couldn’t split tickets, they couldn’t remember drink orders and they couldn’t ring up the credit cards and adjust the bill without error (causing a delightful double charge on the trusty Visa). That being said, the former waitress in me still tipped a commendable 20 percent, so servers of the world hath no fear.
• The food was excessive and mediocre (see cheddar blanket above). In actuality I don’t have super high expectations of bar food, but when everything else is terrible, you want something stupendous from the menu to perhaps make up for it. My fried egg BLT was on par with something I could have made at home (with fresh eggs nonetheless), and Heath’s burger was, despite the entrée’s title, unexpectedly saturated in cheese. Come now, who orders a cheddar burger and expects to be drowning in cheese? Not until last Friday did I come to realize there is such a thing as too much cheddar.

Perhaps my sour recollection of The Tavern is partly rooted in the fact that, through no fault of the Tavern, The Ranger’s game was rained out, which put a pun-intended damper on the evening. Or perhaps I’m being blind to the difficult serving circumstances that can arise with a large dinning party. Perhaps the server was in training, or had some severe personal issues that prevented optimum attention to the table. Whatever the circumstance, the long-standing Austin grill and bar was a severe disappointment. The Tavern did, however, deliver on one promise—it was air conditioned.

[At least we had the company of friends to bring a much-needed silver lining to the evening.]


Eastbound and Down

This weekend we headed to Nacogdoches, home of the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks, to support Heath’s sister Megan as she performed in her senior recital. A skilled flautist, Megan put on quite a show for Heath, myself and more than a dozen other friends and family members that had us tapping our toes in rhythm and sighing in disbelief at both her stamina and melody making abilities. Job well done, Megan.

After being thoroughly entertained and blown away by Nacogdoches’ most skilled musician, we took a walk around campus to experience a day in the life of a Lumberjack.

Heath really liked the trees.

It turns out there is no such thing as too much purple at SFA.

After the recital comes the heart of any family gathering—in this case, a hearty dinner at Clear Springs Cafe.

…Followed the next day by a stroll with Gramps and Elouise at The Azalea Gardens.

The walk included a requisite tree ring counting, obviously. (This is Heath and Gramps we are talking about.)

As all adventures tend to do, this one ended too soon but was filled with fun and family and afforded us a much needed change of pace from our usual Austin antics.


Seeing Red

I never thought I would be so happy to not eat free tacos.

Yesterday, I had a simple goal: get free tacos from Torchy’s. The local business was celebrating the opening of a new South Side location with free tacos and beer, so I had made it my mission to enjoy both as a sort of mid-week treat. After work Heath, myself and some former colleagues jumped in the car, braved rush hour traffic and headed down South Lamar Boulevard with tacos on our mind. But as we approached it became clear tacos would be a no go. The queue for quality queso wrapped around the parking lot and nearly out into the busy street. Our stomach’s rumbling, it looked like it would be at least an hour or two before any taco consumption would take place. Alright, I guess we will have to pay for our dinner tonight. What’s nearby? RED’S Porch. OK. Why not?

RED’S Porch is the second restaurant by the creators of Austin’s North by Northwest. Like it’s sister restaurant, it features dozens of draft beers, signature drinks and a great happy hour (which we were fortunate enough to take advantage of). The food is great, too; a unique blend of cajun, Tex-Mex and Southern specialties that are moderately priced and great reflection of the region. But the best selling point of RED’S was the view. Typically, tourists and Austin local’s alike head to The Oasis for great patio dining and scenic views, but RED’S offers a comparable atmosphere at a third of the distance, wait time and cost as the lakeside eatery. One covered and two open patios make up the outdoor dinning spaces while the inside bar and lounge areas still receive a healthy dose of fresh air and have a breezeway-like feel provided by several huge open windows and doors surrounding the space. The second floor of the relatively new restaurant offers spectacular views of Austin’s greenbelt that catches first-time visitors by complete surprise. One minute the rush hour traffic of South Lamar was whizzing past at the speed of light, the next we were surrounded by a Central Texas paradise.

If you head to Austin for a visit, expect to stop by this place.


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