Thursday, October 24, 2013

Taco More: Más y Más!

A few weeks back my boss at UT, Shane, and I joined Diego, our recently graduated and retired workstudy, for lunch at Taco More. We wanted to touch base with Diego after several months of his journey off into the real world. It’s not environmental law, but homeboy has landed a real job that pays him a living, so kudos for that.Ironically, he got hired once he deleted his degree from the application.

Taco More sits on the Northwest corner of Parkfield and Rundberg in north-ish central Austin, not that far beyond of 183/Research. At lunchtime the joint is pretty busy, but Diego was able to snare a table on the patio and had totopos (chips) and salsa waiting when we arrived. Neither Diego nor Shane had ever been there before, so I gave them a rundown on the menu. I had eyes only for posole and chivo.

We got more chips and raided the salsa bar inside. They usually have 6 different salsas and a whole assortment of other treats, like pico de gallo and radish slices. My favorite sauce is featured here in this shot: it is made from chile de arbol and crushed peanuts and is hot as hell but very flavorful. They also have the standard smooth green jalapeño-tomatillo-avocado that everyone is nuts about. The red sauce here is the raw tomato version of their casera (house) salsa, which is different from the cooked red salsa served with the totopos. They are all great.

This shot shows the griddled fresno chiles (they have a little bit of heat, but not very much) and the small fried, dried hot-as-hell smoky chiles japones that both grace the salsa bar. The green sauce pictured here tastes like pureed jalapeños with just a dab of tomatillo and big 
chunks of avocado; it’s mostly jalapeño and is quite piquant. The other component in this shot is onion pickled in a marinade with a little Mexican oregano and vinegar with a little sugar. The sweet in the sweet-sour is subtle, but they taste really good.

 Here is the taco de chivo in all its glory, topped with onion and cilantro. Rich, sensual shredded goat meat that melts in your mouth with just the right amount of funk. Taco More handles goat with delicious aplomb.

Here is the TM gringo, two tortillas stuffed here with tender, succulent pork carnitas and melty queso asadero. This combines for a fantastic gringo that could only be better with a homemade flour tortilla (the corn tortillas taste homemade by the way).

But these were just appetizers. What I really wanted off the TM menu was a bowl of their amazing posole. The “medium” is just over five bucks and comes in a mini bathtub cradling a rich, aromatic, complex pork broth seasoned with dried red chiles; it has a little bit of zip to the taste, but is more about chile flavor than heat. In the broth are white hominy and easily a half pound of the most tender braised pork  chunks you could ever want to slurp. The broth is loaded with hominy and pork. On the side they bring another full-sized plate covered with shredded lettuce, radish slices, avocado slices, onions, and cilantro, all of which get dumped ceremoniously into the bowl.  A smaller side plate holds three crispy fried corn tortillas to be broken up and added to the bowl. I am an eater of some renown and it is all I can do to finish a loaded medium bowl of this magnificent posole. It’s on par with their fabulous chickpea and goat meat soup that is also offered.

Not that many güeros seem to have discovered Taco More (a good thing); the crowd is usually mostly Latinos from the neighborhood, but trust me, if you are looking for a dynamite taqueria, Taco More is the spot for you (no matter your heritage).

Mick Vann ©

For my previous Chronicle review of Taco More, go here:

Friday, October 18, 2013

Spec's: Secret No More

Three story sign....the secret's out at our fave south burger joint

A little while back the Three Amigos were going to grab an early Thursday night bite and we wanted it to happen south, without having to suffer any traffic abuse; it’s absolute hell getting north anytime between 2:30 and 7:30 pm.  We rendezvoused and were going to hit up Royal India in Sunset Valley, since none of us had eaten there, but when we pulled up in front at 5:10 the joint was deserted. Turns out they open at 5:30 and it was sunny and hot as hell, so we decided to bounce. Heading west on the frontage road, Spec’s was the next turn heading north, so burgers it was.

Note the guacamole oozing at the bottom

Spec’s is the spot for fantastic burgers and sandwiches that nobody seems to know about, and wouldn’t you know it, we get there and they have a 3 story-tall sign on the front talking about how they make great burgers and what a secret it seems to be. Thankfully for us, not them, the place wasn’t crowded and we were able to saunter up to the counter and order at-will. Our buddy A went with the guacamole-Monterrey Jack unit, while chum S went for the bacon-grilled onion-cheddar burger. I am always a sucker for the bleu cheese-bacon burger, but at that second S’s choice sounded dynamite, so I seconded his selection; it may be my new favorite.

Thick cheddar and bacon....yummmm

We decided to each get a different side and share: fries, onion rings, and tater tots.  Any spot that has tots on their menu always gets preference from me; I LOVES me some tots, especially dipped into some yellow mustard. One of their incredible Reuben sandwiches on the side and a round of North Carolina’s  tart and bubbly 1917 original cane-sugar cherry soda, Cheerwine, and we were good to go. By the way, go to North Carolina and they pronounce it KNORR-kahlina and not GNAW-ER-kahlina.

Cheerwine, Norcalina's tart and bubbly real sugar cherry soda

TOTS!...need I say more?

Another advantage of the interior location is that the cheese section is right next to the seating area, so hors d’oeuvres of cheese samples are yours for the taking; there are always a couple offered. Our name gets called and we procure the baskets and settle in for some serious chow-down. The burgers are flame-grilled, smoky, moist, and made from high-quality meat. All of the components are first-rate: the cheddar is aged and rich, the bacon thick-sliced and apple-smoked, the tomatoes red and ripe. As a lagniappe in your basket you get a spear of a snappy, garlicky dill pickle. The fries, rings, and tots are all frozen, but of a premium brand and delivered hot, golden-brown, and crisp (and in mass quantity). The Reuben is one of the better versions in town, but we were so full I had to almost choke down my part of it (well, actually more than my part). Since the place is a deli, the tabletop condiment selection is off the charts; we used an old school label of Caribbean habanero sauce whose name escapes now, but you’d never find that on any other table in Austin.

Righteous Reuben...... 

Next time you think sandwich or burger down south (or midtown, at the Spec’s on MOPAC, just north of Research), you can’t do much better than Spec’s, especially when you consider the portion, quality, and price. Their secret is getting out.

Mick Vann ©


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Sunflower: Not So Sunny

Sunflower: Not So Sunny                              

I really hated it when Le Soliel closed down. As soon as it opened, I liked the food much better than Sunflower, its matrimonial parent. I thought husband put out better food than wife (the competing owners were once hubby and bride). They split and he left to open Le Soleil while she remained at Sunflower. I also much preferred the generous elbow room at Le Soliel, not to mention seeing a welcoming smile and having someone treat me in a reasonably civil manner.

So about a month ago R and I were on a Vietnamese food-craving jag, and I decided to give Sunflower another try. I had not been there in years; not since hubby opened Le Soleil, as a matter of fact. We made a point of going late afternoon when it would be the least crowded, and thankfully, there was only one other table there when we arrived. The menu hadn’t changed, nor had the layout; tables are crammed uncomfortably close together. If you hunker down, you can have a private conversation but you’ll also know what all your neighboring diners are discussing. You’ll get brushed up against by servers and anyone trying to get to or leave their table. The place is a space violator.

Chicken salad 

The food has slipped. We started with a chicken salad (# 21) and noticed one thing right off the bat. The salad was tight-fisted with the chicken and very lightly dressed; the tiny dish of nuoc cham they brought with it was barely enough for that dish, much less the remainder of the meal.  It’s fish sauce, water, sugar, and a little lime juice for crissakes. Even though we had requested to get our four dishes in two courses, the remainder all came out at once. We were trying to avoid the clutter of three dishes, and all their side dishes coming all at once. Two tables in the joint, one of which had finished, and they couldn't accommodate that simple request.


Green beans with tofu in spicy sauce

Bo Luc Lac

Green bean and tofu with spicy sauce (#88) was fine; I ordered it mostly as a nod toward some vegetables.  Shaking beef (Bo Luc Lac, # 34), whose flavor used to explode with every tender bite, was underwhelming. The chunks of beef were of a lesser cut and not as tender; the flavor punch was lacking and the cubes looked lonely on the plate. Grilled pork meatballs (Nem nuong, # 14), was underseasoned and cooked too long, making the balls dense and tough in the wrapper. Even with some herbs wrapped inside the rice papers and a shallow dunk in what little nuoc cham remained, they couldn’t be resurrected.

Nem Nuong

If I come in and drop 40+ bucks for 2 people, the least you can do is smile and thank me for coming. The angry but bored expression on the woman checking us out did not change the entire time I was paying out. Luckily I knew that you had to go up to the counter to pay, or we would probably still be sitting there. Just me, but if I had a restaurant with limited floor space, I’d be dropping checks and politely hustling people out the door so I could turn more tables. I’d also appreciate my patrons.

The impression I was left with is that they were allowing us to come eat their food. Back in the day, the abuse of hostile service in an uncomfortably cramped space was worth it, because their food was really good. Now, not so much.

If you want to make your own shaking beef, here’s a great recipe Art and I developed that will be far superior to Sunflower’s:

Shaking Beef -- Bo Luc Lac

Serves 8 as an appetizer  (3 ounces of beef per person), or 3 to 4 as an entree
This warm beef salad gets its colorful name from the action of the beef cubes as they dance in the sizzling oil in the skillet. It is a dish seldom found on Vietnamese restaurants menus in the U.S., and illustrates the French influence on the cuisine of Vietnam by the use of olive oil. In Vietnam this dish is most often served at home as an evening appetizer to accompany drinks, with a small dish of mixed salt and pepper accompanying, to which lemon or lime juice has been added, for dipping the beef cubes.

1 pound lean rib eye or sirloin steak, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 stalk (bottom half) lemongrass, sliced very thin, chopped very finely in an electric spice 
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon chile paste, e.g. sambal oelek, or similar
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon fish sauce (nuoc mam)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

For the Salad:
1 large sweet onion, halved, paper-thin slices (1015Y onions, or similar, are preferred)
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
2 garlic cloves, minced or shaved finely
Sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups watercress, rinsed, drained, heavy stems removed

Advance Preparation
1, Combine the lemon grass, soy sauce, chile paste, garlic, fish sauce, sugar and 2 teaspoons of the vegetable oil. Mix well.
2. Place the beef cubes in a resealable plastic bag and pour the marinade over the beef cubes, toss well, and allow to marinate for 1 hour.
3. Marinate the onions in the vinegar, sugar, garlic, black pepper and olive oil. Allow the onions to marinate for 1 hour.

Cooking Method
4. Heat the remaining 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil in a small skillet over medium high heat. Add the remaining 2 cloves of garlic and sauté seconds.
5. Add the beef cubes with their marinade. Sauté quickly, searing the outside. Cook medium rare.

6. Toss the watercress with the onion mixture. Pour the hot beef with the pan juices over the watercress salad and serve immediately. Accompany with a small side dish of equal amounts of finely ground sea salt and black pepper to which a small amount of fresh lime or lemon juice has been added.

Eat the cubes with the salad, dipping the cubes into the seasoning mixture.

Chef Notes- Be careful not to burn the garlic when cooking the beef. Add the hot beef immediately before service to prevent the watercress from wilting. Beef or lamb tenderloin may be substituted for the beef ribeye, if seared only to the point of rare. Pork tenderloin may be substituted for the beef if cooked to the point of medium. Any lettuce or green can be substituted for the watercress, but frisee or curly endive will match the peppery flavor.

Mick Vann ©