Thursday, October 30, 2014

Random October Eats IV

Late Lunch at the “Manshack” Texican

Early in the month Art and I were meeting about a new restaurant consulting gig, and we hadn’t been to The Texican in quite a while, and it’s not that far down the road from his house, and we were both feeling a bit puckish, so off we went. The Texican has been there for years, and they call themselves El Paso-style Mexican food, since that’s where the owners originated.They have long been a source for quasi-New Mexican food in town. Don’t get me wrong; you won’t think that you’ve been transported to the Owl Café or Horseman’s Haven, but it serves a need.

Normally when I go I get the Chile Colorado, which is tender, succulent pork chunks braised in a a dried red chile sauce akin to a New Mexico “Red”. It’s a steady, strong, reliable dish. Before I got hooked on that dish, I was a sucker for the stacked Santa Fe enchiladas, which come with the same deep red sauce as the Chile Colorado. Art’s a big fan of their Green Chile enchiladas, a rather recent addition, which is chicken enchiladas draped with a New Mexico-style green chile sauce. It’s not Hatch, but close enough for a Central Texan who doesn’t want to embark on a 12-hour drive for a food jones.

When we got there, they had green chile signs all over the place, saying it was green chile season, and ask about their green chile specials, and what-not. So I did, and slowly a vision developed in my mind. A vision of the Santa Fe stacked enchiladas (known as montadas in Norteño enchilada parlance), “Christmas-style”, meaning half red chile sauce, half green chile sauce, topped with a runny fried egg. Sure, it’s Manchaca, but we can play New Mexico if we want.

Manchaca Springs Stage Depot way back when

Manchaca is a wide spot in the road way down south, where the end of Manchaca Road tees into FM 1626, but it started out a long time ago as a clear-running spring that all of the Native Americans, settlers, and travelers knew about and depended on as they traversed the nearby Old San Antonio Trail and the Chisholm Trail. Several theories claim provenance of the name Manchaca. One theory says that it comes from the Choctaw word imashaka, which means “behind it”, or “to the rear”. Some think it was named after one of two spots in Louisiana with similar names: Manchac Pass and Bayou Manchac. But most folks think it was named after Tejano army officer José Antonio Menchaca, and when that Hispanic name gets Anglicized by redneck South Austinites, it morphs into “MAN-shack”; they even dropped the final “a”. There is a local school on the corner that calls itself Menchaca Elementary, but those kids say "MAN-shack"; spelling be damned.

Manchaca Train Depot

Early maps referred to the springs in the early 1840’s as both Manshack Springs and Manjack Springs, so the name was apparently being mispronounced for some time. An 1849 land agent map called it Manchac Springs. The area got its first post office in 1851, located at Manchac House. The area benefited from the opening of the International-Great Northern Railroad in 1880 (and a new post office opened up named Manchaca, although pronounced “man-shack”) and by 1884 the little town of 75 residents had become a shipping point for cotton, grain, lumber, and fence posts. By the 1890’s a Methodist church, a hotel, and a school had all opened. In the ensuing years the little town slowly grew, and then almost died in the 1970’s, where there were only 36 residents, but since that low point, growth has been non-stop, and they still haven’t learned how to pronounce the name of the town the correct way.

Maya Queso, salsa, and totopos....and my spoon!

Lately The Texican has gotten a little better; baby steps, like the chips getting thinner and the sauce spicier. Service has always been good, except when a hostess tries to seat two single men talking business next to a table of screaming babies, or lead Art, who is disabled, to the faraway corner of the back dining room. Little glitches, but the food is dependable and tasty. We usually start out with a large bowl of Chile con Queso Maya ($7.99), which is a rich, cheesy queso generously embellished with avocado and beef picadillo. It comes about the same time that they are bringing out the second container of salsa, which is spicy, garlicky, and excellent. I receive my spoon that I eat my meal with when the queso arrives, because The Texican is yet another in a long list of restaurants that have stopped bringing spoons to the table. The Maya was good, the salsa extra zippy, and the thin totopos abundant and crispy.

Santa Fe Enchiladas, Christmas-style (sort of), and 1 runny fried egg

I ordered my Santa Fe enchiladas ($11.99) filled with beef and cheese, with onions added, one runny fried egg on top, and requested “Xmas–style” which the server assured me could be done: half red chile sauce, and half green chile sauce. Everything was perfect except for one glaring problem. The green sauce turned out to be a bizarre mixture of green chile and tomatillo sauce. It was still good, but all thoughts of Santa Claus vanished immediately. Was that how the kitchen meant it to be? Did the server say “green sauce” and then go, “oh shit, he wanted green CHILE sauce”, and the cook said “No way I’m re-firing this ticket because of your mistake”. ”I’ll ladle some green chile over the verde, and maybe he won’t notice”. Or maybe the server said, “Wow, that dumbass didn’t even know the difference. Cool.”  All kinds of things could have happened. Regardless, I didn’t send it back, I cleaned my plate, and I will return.

Mick Vann ©

The Texican
11940 Manchaca Rd

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Random October Eats III

Lunch at China Dynasty

The reason I like China Dynasty, other than the fact that it’s very convenient to Art’s house when we are meeting about various restaurant consulting gigs, is that they make good rich stocks, which then get used as the base for the soups, and as the base for their stir fry dishes. You probably didn’t know this, but a lot of Chinese restaurants cheat by mixing up assorted soy-based sauces to produce an approximation of what a stock should taste like. That umami mimicry leaves me cold, wanting for more.

Another big Dynasty plus is that their egg rolls actually contain pork, while the vast majority of eggrolls out there do not, and their hot and sour soup actually contains shredded pork, and it’s made with pork bone stock. Pictured here are a couple of lunch egg rolls, and they are cooked to order, with an exterior that’s crispy and flaky. Most joints serve them limp, lukewarm, and greasy. Note the bowl of hot and sour soup next door, right before I add some of their tasty red chile oil to it. It’s loaded with goodies, and has big, porky taste.

The pan fried dumplings are always meaty and moist, and juicy when you take that first bite. The dumpling wrappers are not too thin and not too thick, and tender to the bite, while the dipping sauce has just the right balance of sweet-salty-sour, and ample ginger threads.

This is one of my favorite lunch dishes, chicken with mushrooms. Most Chinese joints would have a steamtable half-tray full of this dish sitting in the back and just scoop and scoot. Dynasty cooks it to order, and manages to keep the chicken moist and juicy (even if this dish uses chicken breast, which I detest), while the mushrooms are sliced thick and meaty.

This is their General Tso’s Chicken, below; they prepare it using boneless chicken thighs, which actually have some flavor and don’t get all dried-out and tough. If you are one of the morons out there that always insist on eating chicken breast meat, and ruin it for the rest of us, then wise-up! Thigh meat has much better chicken flavor, it stays more moist and juicy, and it is much less prone to over-cooking. The batter they use on the chicken is light, and not excessively thick like most restaurants serve.

On top of good, dependable food, the service is spot-on: unobtrusive, accommodating, and efficient. Is Dynasty the best in Austin? Nope. But is has been here in South Austin forever, prices are very reasonable, and they prepare food the right way, without a bunch of short cuts that compromise flavor. We definitely like it.

Mick Vann ©

China Dynasty
2110 W Slaughter Ln, 512/ 280-7153
NW corner of Slaughter and Manchaca, in the HEB strip center

Random October Eats II

Lunch at Sap’s Westgate

I was on the way home from work a couple of weeks back and had worked up a serious hunger, so I stopped by Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine, which, in my learned opinion, is the best Thai restaurant in Austin and Central Texas. The original location is on Westgate, just south of Ben White, but there is a newer, larger location in the HEB strip center on the southwest corner of Burnet and Koenig.

I saw a friend of mine was already eating there when I arrived, so while waiting on my order to arrive, he offered me some of his Pad Prik Gang (S-P47, $9.95), which is Sap’s spiced-up, 4-chile version of a standard Central red curry stir fry. Usually the dish is served as a dry stir-fry, meaning there is very little sauce, but Sap’s version is more substantial and Southern-Thai oriented. While most Thai curries tend to the soupy side, this is thick with red curry paste and extra spices, with ample heat from serrano chiles and young green peppercorns, and herbal qualities from Thai lime leaf and Thai basil; the liquid comes from coconut milk cream, which adds richness. He was having it with pork and Chinese broccoli, a stellar combination. If you can handle the heat, I highly recommend this dish.

S-P47, Pad Prik Gang

Before the Portuguese traders showed up in 1529 with chile peppers from the West, the original heat in Thai food came from peppercorns. Thailand grows a lot of peppercorns down south, vining up tall sturdy poles, which are situated in parallel rows. When you go to the market, you’ll see gorgeous bundles, packages, and baskets of processed black and white peppercorns, as well as clusters of young, fresh green peppercorns. Black peppercorns are simply ripe fruit that has been sun-dried, while the white peppercorns are ripe fruit that has had the exterior coating removed before drying; green peppercorns are immature fruit, and typically we only get them over here in cans or bottles, packed in brine. All types of peppercorns are still used in Thai cooking.

rows of tall peppercorn vines, just north of Chanthaburi, in SE Thailand

young green peppercorns, from the website of Leela Punyaratabandhu at, a really good Thai cooking website. Leela's new cookbook is excellent and highly recommended.

black and white peppercorns, close-up and side-by-side, from

white and black peppercorns for sale in the market at Chanthaburi

My order arrived, with the server first bringing the S-P8, Pad Ped Ga-Prao, $8.95, a simple Thai stir fry named after the ga-prao, or Thai holy basil, which is included in the stir fry. I ordered mine with pork and Chinese broccoli included, which combine nicely with the fish sauce, soy and oysters sauces, pinch of palm sugar, Thai chile peppers, mushrooms, cilantro, and Thai holy basil. It is a standard Thai street food dish, and Sap’s makes an excellent version, especially when you get it with brown jasmine rice. Thai holy basil has a unique ability to accentuate the spiciness of chiles, so although the dish isn’t heavy with the Thai chiles, the overall effect is spicy.

S-P8, Pad Ped Ga-Prao on the plate, with nuttty, brown jasmine rice

My other dish soon arrived, steaming all nuclear-hot in the bowl. Tom Kha Gai (S-P11, $8.75) is one of my favorite Thai soups, and Sap’s is the best in town. What makes it far better than the competitors is the assertiveness of the galangal in the broth (kha, as in tom kha, means “galangal” in Thai). The other main advantage of Sap’s version is the amount of coconut milk and coconut cream used in making each bowl. This version is creamy and rich from the coconut, and loaded with herbal flavors from the lemongrass, Thai lime leaf, and galangal, the Thai chiles, chicken breast, mushrooms, and lime juice just elevate it even higher. This soup is fantastic.

S-P11, Tom Kha Gai

I left satiated and armed with several to-go packages, and although I’d like to claim I repeated the feast the next day from those plastic bags, this stuff is so good, and my will power so weak from my memory of how good it tasted hours before, that the leftovers didn’t last through the night.

Mick Vann ©

Sap’s Fine Thai Cuisine
4514 W Gate Blvd, 512/ 899-8525
5800 Burnet Rd, 512/ 419-7244   

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Dos Salsas -- Georgetown

Random Fall Eats I

Spoon status – none

Note: the spoon is the most sensible of the eating tools, especially when eating chili gravy, refried beans, and rice, yet it has disappeared from the rolled tableware set-up all across America. I hate having to ask for a spoon, and hate it even more when they forget to bring me one; fortunately, the queso arrived with a spoon, so I hijacked that one.

I happened to dine with a friend at Dos Salsas in Georgetown (there is another location in Cedar Park) several weeks back, and found the overall experience dangerously close to the bland side of my delicious dining spectrum. Looking around at my fellow diners that fairly busy Saturday mid-afternoon might explain why; the room was crammed-full with a mix of upper-middle to upper class seniors (Sun City retirement village is relatively close by) and families with kids. This is not a crowd that would fully appreciate a properly-spiced platter of Mexican food, but Dos Salsas does claim expertise in TexMex, and they had plenty of TV sets on for the UT game (although most in the crowd were more interested in the A&M game), and my companion had described it as “not bad”.

We started with totopos and the namesake dos salsas, one a red cruda/casera and the other a boiled tomatillo. Neither had anywhere near enough chile heat for me, but the chips were thin and warm, and the salsas weren’t watery and thin, so it was a tolerable start. A rarebit of the Queso Dos Salsas ($7.99) followed, arriving as a rather bland concoction of processed cheese, pico de gallo, guacamole, and beef picadillo. It was okay if you jacked it up with some of the red salsa, but it pales in comparison to the same dish served at the Texican on Manchaca Road in way south Austin. We also had a scoop of guacamole ($5.99), which was also middle-of-the-road; perfectly fine and chunky, but no redeeming qualities that made it exceptional in any way. Including more of everything in the recipe would have helped the flavor considerably, and increasing the portion size would have helped the inadequate cost-to-value ratio.

She ordered the taquito plate ($7.99), which consists of 4 small tacos, composed of carnitas, shredded brisket (the TexMex answer to barbacoa), “steak”, and “chicken”, all topped with onions and cilantro, and served with “guacamole sauce”. I had a little nibble of each of the meats and found them lackluster and under-spiced, with the chicken being overcooked. The sauce was a blander, textured version of the popular taqueria tomatillo-based salsa which is emulsified with avocado. The plate wasn’t bad by any stretch, but I’d be lying if I said it was great.

I went for their enchilada plate ($10.50), with 3 beef picadillo and cheese-filled enchiladas draped with their chili gravy, that stalwart of TexMex cuisine, a sprinkling of Longhorn cheese, and a runny fried egg on top. The filling managed to be on the dry side, which made the sparse application of the chili gravy that much more noticeable. Chili gravy is what makes the TexMex enchilada what it is, and to short-ladle the gravy is just plain criminal; we’re not talking about an expensive ingredient. In fact, it is the cheapest component of the dish. The refried beans lacked that creamy, lardy consistency we all crave, offering instead a batch of beans that looked like they have been almost-pureed with an immersion blender. The rice managed to be dry and a little tough (undercooked?) at the same time, with an oily edge that capped off the taste triumvirate.

In the menu ordering competition between her and me, I’m not sure who won. It was loud inside, and the prices were a little high, but the service was fine. Bottom line, I could probably be persuaded to go back there again, and wouldn’t be exactly kicking and screaming, but my first foray left me wanting much, much more.

Mick Vann ©


Friday, October 17, 2014

Ed Lee and the Gochujang Chronicles

Chef Ed Lee

This past Sunday I was invited to attend Ed Lee’s cooking class at Central Market Cooking School, where he would be cooking with a recently-released Gochujang sauce which he helped develop for Chung Jung One Company, a division of Daesang Corporation of South Korea, which is one of the world’s largest fermentation companies. You probably remember Ed from Top Chef, where he was the totally chill and affable fan favorite competing against eventual winner, Austin’s own Paul Qui. Ed really didn’t want to talk about the show much, other than to say that it was brutal, and a huge boon to his career, but that at the end of the day, “you had to remember that it was just a TV show.”

Jicama and pineapple pickle

His Top Chef days are over, and he’s concentrating on his growing restaurant empire (Milkwood and 610 Magnolia/The Wine Studio in Louisville, with a new restaurant opening in D.C. this coming spring). Lee is also the co-host of this season’s Mind of a Chef on PBS, which is without question the best and most creatively-engaging cooking show on TV. Narrated by Executive Producer and King Badass of all-things-cooking-show, Tony Bourdain, this year’s edition features Ed Lee and Magnus Nilsson; Ed takes the first 8 shows, while Magnus bats the clean-up position. Ed’s also very satisfied with the success of Smoke & Pickles: Recipes and Stories From a New Southern Kitchen, his groundbreaking cookbook that was released by Artisan last year (for my May 2013 review in the Chronicle, see link below).

Short rib japchae

Another of Eds’ recent projects was doing some product demos and recipe development for 
leading Korean foods manufacturer Chung Jung One. That went well, so they invited him to South Korea for 10 days to consult on the development of their new Gochujang sauce, the traditional fermented hot chili paste. Gochujang was on everyone’s hot new cooking ingredient list last year, right up there with finger limes and freekeh. If you’ve eaten Korean food before, you’ve had gochujang (pronounced GO-chew-jong) and just didn’t know it. Gochujang is first-cousin to Sichuan hot bean paste, and is a fermented umami bomb condiment made from red chiles, a grain (glutinous rice, rice, barley, or wheat), fermented soy beans, salt, and a little sweetener, such as rice syrup.


Fermented and pickled vegetables and beans were introduced as early as 350 AD from China, but chile peppers didn’t arrive from Japan until 1620 (originally coming there via Portuguese traders in the 1530’s). Like every country in Asia, once chile peppers arrived, black pepper had to take a back seat, and Korea wholeheartedly embraced the red chile pepper. Everyone used to make gochujang in their backyards, fermenting in the sun in big pottery crocks, closing it up every night and anytime it rained, for 3 meticulous months. You could buy it at the market from small, artisanal producers if you didn’t make your own, but in 1972 companies started producing it commercially from powdered ingredients, making folks lazy, and now homemade paste in the homeland is a rarity. What makes Chung Jung One’s version stand out is that it is organic, gluten and MSG-free, and is made with fresh ingredients. The flavor profile harkens back 100 years, when every Korean family fermented their own paste, so the potential market applies to Korea as much as the States.

Creamy dual seaweed risotto

The class was sold-out, and Ed was on his game, riffing on pickles and his trademark Southern food with roots firmly planted in Asia, but this class was focused more on the gochujang. He started out making a zesty jicama, pineapple and pepper quick pickle, which would accompany the rice bowl later on. And that demo and the next dish was paired with a very drinkable, fruit-forward Beaujolais, the Domaine de Combiers Fleurie La Cadole 2012. Ed then quickly whipped-out a really tasty japchae made with sweet potato starch glass noodles, with braised short rib meat, shitakes, and julienned vegetables. I could have eaten a bucketful. The class loved the double seaweed risotto with clams and shrimp, which paired perfectly with the accompanying crisp, fruity Argiolas Sardinian white. The two different seaweeds load the rice with umami flavor, and I loved that his method is to add all of the liquid at once. Great dish, with no textural ill effects from the unfussy shortcut method.

Gochujang-kissed pork rice bowl

The main course was the rice bowl with jicama pickle and gochujang slathered pork loin, with lettuce and herbs. This is a spicy, satisfying bowl of goodness, and the glass of big, ripe, dark-fruit rich El Burro Kickass 2012 Garnacha from Bodegas Ayles paired nicely. A late treat was a coconut pudding with rice, almonds, sesame seeds, vanilla, and Thai basil matched with a fruity, nutty, lush, cream-textured Santo Vino from Villa Puccini.

Coconut pudding with rice and nuts

We all got to taste the gochujang and I loved it. The flavor is umami-rich and complex, with great depth and a really clean, spicy finish; a little too spicy for the wimps in the class. One taste and you can imagine dozens of uses for this condiment. Central Market has it on the shelf, so don’t hold back. You’ll love it. Ed’s class was entertaining, and the food was excellent. Once I tasted it, I remembered why I liked his cookbook so much. And if you haven’t been watching Mind of a Chef, you’re blowing it.

Mick Vann ©