Rio Grande proves local Tex Mex is always best!

Rio Grande in PflugervilleIt seems like my best restaurant discoveries are coming more and more in the form of happy accidents. Take Rio Grande in Pflugerville.

This time, it was a last-minute invitation to join with some people from a Meetup group. I never heard of the Rio Grande Tex Mex, but hey, have GPS, will travel. So off we went.

I have to be honest…I didn’t have high hopes. The name sounded like yet another chain Tex-Mex, with boring ingredients and so-so salsa. Boy, was I wrong!

First of all there was the salsa. This one had a real kick! And the chips were fresh and crisp.  It was all I could do to not eat more of them. But the vegetarian nachos were calling out to me from the menu, so I wanted to save my imaginary “chip allowance”  for my meal. (Imaginary, because I have yet to stick to it!)

In this case, thank goodness I did keep my chip indulgence low, because what arrived was a HUGE plate of giant chips, decked out with tons of vegetables, cheese, black beans and more of that amazing salsa…and a great big pile of jalapeno that warmed my capsaicin loving heart. On the side, was an even bigger pile of guacamole and another of sour cream.

I usually eat pretty low-fat, and in small quantities, but I knew this was going to be an exception. Who cares if it was all absolutely terrible for my waistline — my taste buds won out, and I feasted!

I’m not sure if I would like to claim that I ate the whole thing…that would have been quite an accomplishment for me. But the truth is, everyone around me wanted a taste, so I had some much appreciated help in clearing that plate. No, really!  I didn’t eat it all!

The deliciousness didn’t stop with my nachos. My meat-eating partner-in-crime , Sir Lancelot, ordered Morlianas, a chicken enchiladas dish served with freshly sautéed mushrooms, zucchini, and bell peppers and queso fresco. Let me just say that there was not a speck left on his plate when the waitress returned to clear the table — and he had no help in cleaning that plate!

After we ate, I did some research on the Rio Grande Tex-Mex. It’s a local place with two locations (one in Hutto and the one we went to in Pflugerville), owned by native Texans Mario Maldonado and his wife Raquel Cisneros. It seems the two have a reputation for excellence in local restaurants  — no wonder this didn’t taste like chain restaurant food.

The local pride also showed in the service. Our glasses never emptied…they were refilled as soon as they reached half full. And when there was a slight delay in the kitchen for one dish, our waitress told us immediately, and offered her apologies. I love restaurants where it feels like you’re a guest instead of a customer — and Rio Grande definitely provided that experience.

I can’t wait to go back…just read a review that they have an awesome breakfast, too. I’ll have to check that out next.  Just let me run a 5K or two first…I don’t want to regret a single bite!

There’s a patio which would be great for a date night, and a good kids’ menu, too.

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More info on Rio Grande:

15821 Central Commerce Dr
Pflugerville, TX 78660
(512) 252-1800

Monday – Thursday 11:00a – 9:30p
Friday 11:00a – 10:30p
Saturday 9:00a – 10:30p
Sunday 9:00a – 9:00p
Reservations: Yes
WiFi: No
Dog-friendly: No
Website: Rio Grande Tex Mex

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Austin Diaper Bank helps young and old (Make a Difference Monday)

Austin Diaper Bank logoCan you imagine not being able to buy diapers for your baby? Or being a senior citizen in need of adult diapers, but with a limited income?

Diapers and other personal care needs aren’t covered by programs like Food Stamps. They’re not available at most food banks.

But if you have a baby or toddler, they’re not optional either. Lack of enough diapers to keep a baby clean can lead to a whole host of physical and behavioral problems. And now researchers are finding a link between being unable to afford diapers and a mom’s increased risk for depression. Which of course, then affects her ability to care for an uncomfortable, fussy baby — or a baby who may even be in pain with severe diaper rash and other infections. It’s becomes a downward spiral in which no one wins.

And for older people in need of incontinence protection, having adult diapers can mean the difference between going out in public at all…or becoming a recluse.

Cloth diapers might sound like an option for people with children, but the laundry costs can quickly become financially prohibitive for that, too. Especially if, like so many people in apartments, you don’t have a washer and dryer at home. (Trust me…I did the cloth diaper route! It was hard to keep up even WITH a washer and dryer!) Add to that the fact that most day care programs won’t accept a child in cloth diapers, and you have a secondary economic issue.

Thank goodness there are people stepping in to help to fill this need here in Austin. I met the ladies behind the Austin Diaper Bank at a Texas M.I.L.K. event a few months ago. I learned that the group was the idea of founder Beverly Hamilton. She read about a similar program in other cities across the country, and was touched by the impact of the programs on the lives of children and families. But when she learned that Austin had no such program, she stepped into the void. The Austin Diaper Bank was born in June of 2013.

“There are many reasons people need help with diaper costs,” the volunteers told me. “It could be a family living in poverty, a job loss, a divorce or an illness. And with seniors, it’s an on-going problem as income doesn’t keep up with higher prices.”

The program is currently run out of the director’s home, but is looking for help with renting a space so they can accept more donations, sort and repackage them, and get them out to the growing numbers of families in need.  The group has already taken in and distributed over 50,000 diapers to date. But the need keeps expanding.

So how can you help? So glad you asked! Austin Diaper Bank is always in need of diapers, volunteers to sort, package and deliver diapers and to get the word out. Check out their How YOU Can Assist ADB in 2014 page for the details. That package or two of baby, toddler or adult diapers you donate could make a big difference to a family in crisis.

Austin Diner rocks it for breakfast

Austin DinerIt’s cute. It’s kitschy. And it’s another diner here in Austin!

Those we’re my thoughts when we walked in the Austin Diner over the weekend. I immediately fell in love with the collections of vintage mixers and other kitchen ware from the 50’s and 60’s.

classic mixers

Then the waitress came over, and welcomed us to this adorable place. She was friendly — and once we told her it was our first visit, she her smile got even bigger. We felt like guests, instead of just customers!

The menu was just as inviting. Lots of delicious choices for our breakfast — and even after we had made our choices, we kept looking at the options for a later lunch or dinner visit, if the food was good.

Austin Diner insideIt wasn’t long until that “if the food was good” turned into “Oh yeah, the food is good!” I ordered Migas — my favorite food in Austin. And I wasn’t disappointed! The mixture was delicious, and it was topped with just enough queso.

Others in our group opted for pancakes, eggs, sausages and other breakfast classics. And by the time we left, every plate on the table was empty.  In fact, we were already talking about coming back again for the next weekend brunch. The diner has lots of vegetarian choices, in addition to classic diner food like chicken and dumplings. It’s a great choice for families, too. There’s a very limited, partial menu online, but the complete menu has a lot more choices.

I’m still in search of that real 24-hour diner somewhere in the Austin area (gotta know I can fill my eggs, potato and toast craving at 2 a.m.!), but the daytime diners I’m finding, like Austin Diner, are doing a good job of filling the void at breakfast time.

San Antonio Mission San José (Wordfree Wednesday)

There is some really OLD stuff here in Central Texas! You knew?  OK, new to me!  And I loved it!

Everything in Austin seems to have been built kind of last Thursday. Or at least in a year starting with a 19- or 20- .  S’alright. So is everything in South Florida. But I was delighted to discover that there are buildings in our neighboring city of San Antonio that date back to the 1700’s!

We only got to visit one of the missions (and, yes, some of these building have later additions from 1800’s), but it was still amazing. The rest on another day. but for now, here’s Mission San José.

Open door in old SA Mission Chapel at Mission San Jose Church door San Antonio Walkway Mission San Jose Church Mission San Jose Arches Mission San Jose Walkway of arches Mission San Jose Arches and sky Mission San Jose Missing roof open sky Mission San Jose Old walls Mission San Jose Arches and sky Mission San Jose Sunlight on walls Mission San Jose

Lasagna Meets My Favorite Dip (Taste of Austin Tuesday)

2014-01-022I was browsing Pinterest this morning, when I spotted what I knew HAD to be my supper tonight. It was a recipe from blogger Megan Brewer for Spinach and Artichoke Lasagna Bundles.

Lasagna AND Spinach-Artichoke Dip?  Oh, yeah! I’m there!

It had a lot of ingredients, but it sounded so incredibly delicious I had to try it.

Usually when I try a completely new recipe, I try to follow the directions pretty much as written. But for this one, I had to make one change. The recipe called for old-fashioned lasagna noodles, but all I had in my pantry were the oven-ready ones. I stopped at the store, but unless I wanted to pay for fancy imports ($5.99 for noodles? I think not!), all they had were the oven-ready, too.  So I adapted — the roll up directions became a stack. I also added some delicious zucchini and some fresh basil from my herb garden.

thin sliced zucchini

The result? Delicious!  Certainly messier than the recipe that inspired me…but the taste was all there, just as I imagined when I read the recipe.

So here’s my take on Megan’s recipe:

Ingredients:

  • 2 zucchini, scrubbed and sliced thin, long ways
  • 2 large cloves garlic, pressed

heads of garlic

  • 1 teaspoon dried basil or 6 fresh basil leaves, minced
  • 1 yellow onion, diced small

chopped onion

  • 4 cups chopped spinach leaves (fresh, not frozen)
  • 1 cup chopped artichoke hearts (I used marinated…next time, I would use plain ones in olive oil or water)
  • 1 8 oz package cream cheese

Fire-roasted tomatoes

  • 1 can diced, fire-roasted tomatoes, strained, with the liquid reserved
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 3 cloves garlic, pressed
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Olive oil

  • 1 cup shredded Parmesan/Romano cheese, blend
  • 8 oven-ready lasagna sheets

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 375F
  • Lightly grease a large glass baking pan with olive oil
  • Place 4 lasagna sheets in the bottom of the baking pan
  • Set aside
  • Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a pan.
  • Add zucchini, garlic and basil and saute for 3-4 minutes until tender
  • Remove cooked zucchini from pan, and keep warm on a plate
  • Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to a large pan, along with the diced onions.
  • Cook the onions until they become translucent.
  • Add the spinach and artichoke hearts and cook them until the spinach leaves shrink down and become limp
  • Add the salt, pepper, and 3 cloves of garlic, and toss the spinach-artichoke mix together.
  • Strain off any excess liquid, then add the cream cheese and stir until it has fully melted into the spinach mixture.
  • Place 1-2 thin slices of zucchini on each lasagna noodle
  • Top each with one-quarter of the spinach-artichoke mixture
  • Add a second sheet of lasagna on top of each stack
  • Top each row with 1/4 of strained diced tomatoes and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese
  • Pour the reserved tomato juice around the edges of the noodle stacks
  • Cover the lasagna with foil and bake for 30 minutes.
  • Remove the foil, add additional cheese and broil the top of the dish for an additional  2-3 minutes or until the cheese browns, bubbles and melts.

Serve hot, with a salad and crispy bread.

Baked Spinach-Artichoke Lasagna

Messy, yes. But oh so delicious!!!

Would I make these again? In a heart beat! My family loved it, too. I made a double recipe, and it’s all gone! But next time, I’ll wait until I can find regular lasagna noodles so I can roll them up. Thanks, Pinterest…and thanks Megan!

Making the Homeless Smile (Make a Difference Monday)

Today’s Make a Difference Monday isn’t local. And at the same time, it’s completely local. Let me explain….

The video below didn’t come from an Austin area group. But because this fair city is also home to so very many homeless people, the message…and the action…is perfect for here-at-home action. I’ve worked with the homeless for years, and know the value of a smile, a recognition that these people (whom my daughter once dubbed “Angels on the Street”) are no less human, no less deserving of a kind word, a smile, a ray of hope.

Watch the video. Check out the group behind it. Let it inspire you. At the bottom of this post are some links to help you get started on sharing smiles of your own.

Making blessing bags for the homeless (what to include and what NOT to include)

Homeless resources in Austin:

(My goal in the next few weeks is to create a single page, printable directory of local resources for the homeless residents of Austin. That way, we can all include those with the coins, food, or smiles we hand out. My husband deserves 100% of the credit for that idea…it is a great way to connect people with the services they might not know exist. Watch for that printable added here SOON!)

Sundays in my City: Castle Hill Graffiti Park

Castle Park graffiti park 1I reserved Sundays on this blog for whatever strikes my fancy. This morning, my inspiration came from Traci from A Star in my Own Universewhen her Sunday in my City post landed in my inbox.  The post was part of meme from Unknown Mamiwhere she invites people to share posts that show something unique in their city. I loved the idea!

So here I am…sharing something that makes Austin unique, that was fun to look at, that made me smile. Castle Hill Graffiti.

Castle Park Graffiti creature

In lots of cities, graffiti is an underground art. Buildings are tagged, arrests are made, but as an art form, it’s undervalued. Not so in Austin. We have an entire park dedicated to graffiti artists.

Castle Park Graffiti 2This is not an elite park, reserved for the few. There are no forms to fill out, or approvals to seek. Artists from around the city simply bring their paints and their vision — and art happens.

artist at work at Castle Hill Graffiti Park AustinAnd the result is amazing! Colors, shapes, messages, interwoven in a collage that took my breath away…or made me smile.

DSC03558Even the park’s trash cans, light posts and drainage lines had been turned into works of art.

Castile Hill Park Drainage lineIt’s tempting to try my own skills with a spray paint can, and add to the colors of Austin. On the other hand, I am so impressed with the work of these mostly-young creators of color and design that I think I just might leave it to them, and remain an appreciative audience.