Labor Day Weekend in The Hill Country

29 Sep

As exciting as far away destinations can be, one of my favorite places remains just a few short hours south on IH 35.  With abundant shopping (Has that monstrosity in San Marcos been named “The Mother of All Outlet Malls” yet?), fantastic scenery (What screams Texas summer more than a float or kayak trip down the Guadalupe?), a happening live music scene in Austin, legendary BBQ in Lockhart and Luling, and boutique Texas wineries scattered throughout the windy dirt county roads, a trip to the Hill Country is a treat for my inner fashionista, small town girl, music lover, foodie, and wino.  I don’t think you can ask for more out of a weekend getaway.  Ok, maybe a little less traffic on IH 35.

This Labor Day mini-reunion with two of my favorite Texas girls started with a Saturday brunch at Eastside Cafe (2113 Manor Rd, Austin), one of those quaint little eateries that just screams Austin.  The cafe is in an old house sitting on an acre of land, where an herb and vegetable garden produces the seasonal goods used by the restaurant.  Adjacent to the restaurant is a small shop called Pitchforks and Tablespoons, selling gardening tools, plants, cooking utensils, cookbooks, herbs, and spices.  I actually received one of the Eastside cookbooks as a gift and have prepared wonderful dishes (including this one) from its recipes.

Dining with two other fresh veggie fiends, Eastside Cafe couldn’t have been a better choice.  For brunch, I chose the smoked salmon and shrimp salad ($12.25).

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Smoked salmon and shrimp cakes atop a bed of mixed greens with a lemon remoulade dressing.  The dish was simple and delightful, a very basic contrast between the rich texture of the salmon and shrimp cakes and the bed of crisp greens.  The dressing was light but also creamy.  My minor complaint is that the seafood cakes could have been a little less salty.

Eating brunch at Eastside Cafe makes you feel like you’re temporarily stepping into the life of an authentic Austinite.  With cute yuppie families dressed in Austin chic (Birkenstock and Anthropologie mixed with a little couture), waitstaff that jumped directly out of a Weezer music video, and eclectic furnishings inside a beautifully restored mid-century cottage, Eastside cafe is quirky, organic, fresh, hippie-chic, Austin cool.

You can’t have a girls’ reunion without some quality shopping time.  In the afternoon, we headed out to that massive block of concrete and pavement amidst the otherwise picturesque hill country highway scenery known as the Prime Outlets at San Marcos, which was ranked last year by The View as the third best place to shop in the world (behind destinations in New York and Dubai, that’s not too shabby).  It was a cool day for early September in Texas, and we managed to walk the entire perimeter of the huge outlet mall.  By the time we walked back to the car, arms loaded with shopping bags, we had worked up quite the appetite for dinner at Malaga Tapas and Wine Bar (208 West 4th St, Austin).

Malaga is conveniently located for a pre-bar hop dinner in downtown Austin.  The interior is a seductively candle-lit, long and narrow space with limited table seating.  The bar, however, runs the entire length of the restaurant and provides a surprising allowance of bar seating.  On this Saturday night, Malaga was crowded and loud, and the tall ceilings of the industrial style space didn’t help the noise level.  We were quoted an hour wait for a table for three (bar seating is first come first serve).  What other options do you have without reservations in downtown Austin at 8:00pm on a Saturday night?  We waited at the bar and ordered wine to help pass the time.  A glass of 2003 Oriel Setena Terra Alta (a Grenache, Cab, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Merlot blend from Spain) did the trick.

Luckily, we were seated after waiting a little over 30 minutes.  We had been browsing the menu (teasing our appetites) while waiting at the bar and knew exactly what to order upon seating.  Onto the tapas!  I apologize for the poor quality of photography due to the extremely dim environment of the restaurant.

First up, Empanadas Salamanca:

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Filled with spinach, mushroom, and Mahon cheese with a side of spicy tomato sauce, these empanadas are baked and not deep fried like Mexican street food.  I found the empanadas a little dry by themselves, but quite delightful with the spicy dipping sauce.  The subtly fiery tomato sauce brought out the peppery notes in my grenache and left a lovely lingering aftertaste.

Queso de Cabra Frita con Miel:

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Breaded and fried goat cheese balls drizzled with honey served with a sweet onion relish and crostini.  This was by far the group’s favorite dish of the night.  What’s better than goat cheese?  Deep fried goat cheese with a thin, light batter glazed with honey accented by just the slightest bit of pungency from the onion relish.  Let’s just say the three of us put up a good fight for that last goat cheese ball.

Ravioli Madrileno:

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Smoked chicken ravioli smothered in spicy marinara sauce and cheese.  This was another dish that hit a great note with my wine, just a solid ravioli dish that fit the description on the menu to a tee.

Esparagos con Cazuela:

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Asparagus in a garlic sauce.  It’s nothing fancy but we needed a simple veggie plate after the other three rich plates.

Lastly, the Almond Chocolate Mousse for dessert:

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We split a glass of Harveys Bristol Creme (a cream sherry) to go with our nutty dessert, a fantastic ending to our interactive and entertaining meal.

My share of the split check (dinner, wine, dessert, and sherry) with tax and tip was $26, very reasonable for a casual but upscale atmosphere in downtown Austin.

We divided our post dinner time bar hopping on 6th Street and in the Warehouse District (trendier and more upscale than 6th Street, caters to a slightly older crowd, perfect if you’re tired of puking collegiate drunks), and ended the night close to where we started.  Sipping on cocktails (mojito for me!) at Saba Blue Water Cafe (212 West 4th St, Austin), we played voyeurs through the large windows overlooking the concert crowd at Cedar Street next door.  But alas, it was time for bed, the river awaits in the morning.

Ok, I meant afternoon.  We slept in on Sunday morning and after sluggish attempts at primping to hide our hangovers, finally made it to brunch at Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill (303 Red River St, Austin) by 1:00pm.  Should it still be called brunch?

Moonshine serves a buffet brunch on Sundays from 10:00am to 2:30pm (which we barely caught after a 30 minute wait) for $14.95 per person.  With a huge spread of southwestern and Texan dishes, it was the perfect hangover cure.  Some favorite items included the orange-cranberry muffin, grilled jalapeno breakfast sausage, green chile cheese grits, corn-flaked fried chicken tenders, sweet potato casserole, and the white chocolate bread pudding with raisins and bourbon sauce.

The hill country received its fair share of rain this year, and the ever popular Guadalupe River was limited to guided kayaking trips due to high flow.  Simply wanting a relaxing float on tubes, we headed to the Comal River instead.  The Comal is a short river with fewer rapids than the Guadalupe, but there is one man-made chute to make your ride a little more exciting.  The high flow made the float a quick trip this year, which was a good thing because it started drizzling near the end of our float and we were all covered in goose bumps.

On the drive back to Austin, I couldn’t resist but request that we look for dinner in the BBQ capital of the Texas (and therefore the world), Lockhart.  On a Sunday evening, two of the three BBQ greats were closed (Smitty’s and Kreuz), which made our dinner destination Black’s BBQ (215 N. Main St, Lockhart) an easy choice.  Co-owned by Norma and Edgar Black, this is the oldest family-owned BBQ restaurant in Texas (since 1932).  Out of the three Lockhart legends, I had previously only been to Smitty’s, which is a meat-focused place with some of the best ribs I’ve ever had (brisket and sausage weren’t too shabby, either).  Black’s, on the other hand, has an above average selection of side items for a BBQ joint, which might explain their willingness to provide utensils (trust me, utensils aren’t popular in these places), even if they are plastic.  Unlike Smitty’s, where you walk down the smokey hallway sharing the same air as the smoke pits, the majority of the smoke pits at Black’s are separated by a wall with glass windows.  We ordered a few slices of brisket, a sausage link, a couple of ribs, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, and green beans to share.

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Ribs are not Black’s strong suit.  As you can see from the photo, they were dry and tough, though well seasoned.  Brisket was tender and smokey, but a little fattier than I prefer.  Sausage was excellent, crisp casing and coarse smokey interior.  Judging by the meats alone, I would say that Smitty’s outranks Black’s in all three categories, and both restaurants (except for Black’s ribs) are leaps and bounds ahead of the BBQ in the DFW area.  The sides at Black’s are quite decent.  I was particularly surprised by the excellent onion flavor in the green beans.

We ended the meal with some peach cobbler a la mode, meaning I got a single serving size Blue Bell vanilla ice cream cup to top my peach cobbler.  Dinner was under $30 for all three of us, quite a bargain considering I’ve paid more for much worse BBQ on many occasions.

Full and satisfied, we were more than ready for a hot shower back in Austin.  Comfy pajamas and a bottle of cheap but good Australian Cab/Shiraz blend meant a night of catching up, silly and serious.  Being in a male dominated career field and living with my better half, I live in a testosterone driven world.  I can’t express how much I appreciate sharing time with girls who are ambitious, career driven, maintain a creative domestic flare, and are always chic and elegant when it’s time for a night out on the town.  We want to be classic mid-heel leather pumps at work, trendy embellished suede flats at home, and tempting patent peep toe D’orsays at a soiree.  That’s not too much to ask for, is it?

Monday called for an early departure as I was anticipating traffic on IH 35 to Dallas (and later my anticipations were confirmed), but not before lunch at Hyde Park Bar & Grill (4206 Duval St., Austin) in the historic Hyde Park neighborhood.  Hyde Park Bar & Grill has an Austin vibe with its quaint neighborhood feel, but is more traditional than hippie with modern but conservative decor.  Since one the girls left Austin earlier that morning, the two of us who remained decided to split an entree to cut a few calories after a whole weekend of feasting. 

Half of the Dijon Artichoke Chicken entree ($11.95 for the whole entree):

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The kitchen was accommodating enough to split the entree onto two plates for us (hence the half dinner roll).  As you can see from the photo, the half portion was still sufficiently sized.  A creamy Dijon sauce topped the juicy grilled chicken breast and artichoke hearts.  It was the perfect comfort food ending to a weekend of adventures.  The sides, green chile mashed potatoes and corn and edamame succotash, fell along the same lines of comforting and yummy.  This is the kind of Sunday night dinner I would want to prepare at home.

We also ordered a side of oven roasted carrots ($2.95) to share:

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I never realized caramelized carrots can taste so much like sweet potatoes!  These were tender but maintained just a bit of crunch in the center. 

Lunch marked the end of my mini Labor Day vacay in Austin.  I hugged my fellow foodie friend goodbye knowing that by this time next year, she’ll likely no longer be an Austin resident.  Maybe we’ll find another destination for our annual girls’ trip, but I honestly can’t imagine anywhere else more perfect than the Texas Hill Country.

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2 Responses to “Labor Day Weekend in The Hill Country”

  1. foodczar 09/30/2007 at 5:50 pm #

    Donna, you sure are a smart girl. You keep stealing my ideas without even knowing it! May I offer a few suggestions? For Barbecue, don’t forget County Line or Salt Lick in Austin, Louis Muellers in Taylor, Rudys in Round Rock, and of course, Coopers in Llano. And please, please, PLEASE do NOT forget Fredericksburg!!! Camp David Bed and Breakfast runs just $99 a nite during the week and includes a GOURMET breakfast (as in, breakfast quiche or MONTE CRISTOS!) Fall Creek or Becker Vineyards are my wineries of choice in the area, and for fine dining, The Cotton Gin in Fredericksburg can’t be beat. The Rock Star and I will be going in November; maybe we’ll run into each other there!!!!!
    Food Czar

  2. luniz 10/03/2007 at 2:25 pm #

    You know, the brisket I got at Smitty’s was out of this world juicy and tender, but it was also fatty…so fatty there were huge streaks of it running through. But the fat didn’t really take away from the enjoyment of eating the brisket. I think it’s just something you have to get accustomed to because lately I’ve read a lot of reviews saying their brisket from Smitty’s/Black’s/Kreuz/etc were too fatty. I also learned after the fact that I could have asked for a leaner cut of brisket, next time I’ll have to try both side by side.

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