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.

________________________________________

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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Rebooting with a memory

Cracker Barrel fireplaceIt’s been w-a-a-a-y too long since I’ve posted on here. So it seems only fitting to reboot the blog with a post about a food memory.

It’s not a fancy place. It’s not even a local place, even though I try to stick to local restaurants here. In fact, you’re likely to find this restaurant in most cities, usually next to a family friendly hotel, right off a highway.

But sometimes, even the most commonplace chains can hold big memories’

The chain? Cracker Barrel. But it’s not about the menu or some amazing dish, although the food is good. It’s about family. Family lost, and family found.

It started on a one ordinary Christmas Eve. While everyone else was running around buying last-minute gifts or frantically wrapping or assembling, my mom decided we would head to Cracker Barrel for an early dinner.

So off we went. My mom and dad. Me. My kids (two, that first time). My little brother. We waited for our table outside in the rocking chairs, talking and laughing. My mom and I never had a good relationship, but somehow, on that cool, almost chilly, South Florida Christmas eve, everything felt okay. Close even. When we were called to our table (near the lit fireplace!) we continued to laugh and talk. It was crowded and service was slow, but no one cared. We were, for the moment, a happy family. It felt like magic, no matter how unlikely the setting for real magic. Without realizing it, we had started a tradition.

The next year, the kids and I again joined my parents and brother for another Cracker Barrel Christmas Eve,  And two years later, a new family member in tow (my youngest daughter), we did it again. Every year, as soon as we walked into Cracker Barrel, rich with the scent of candles and biscuits, the magic returned.

Sadly, the relationship between my mom and I broke down completely after that last visit. And before we could repair it, and spend another Christmas Eve at Cracker Barrel, she passed away.

But in a weird twist, the universe stepped in. Because of family battles between my mom and other family members, I never got to know my cousins very well. But one Thanksgiving, I was invited to join a group of them for a cousins reunion dinner. We feasted and caught up and laughed. And then, before everyone headed off to bed, we made plans to meet again in the morning for brunch, before everyone headed home.  The place? Cracker Barrel.

A different city, a different location, but it didn’t matter. Just as on those Christmas Eves, the magic was there. I had family. We laughed, we ate, we shopped and we connected. And we planned for future get-togethers, with future breakfasts and brunches at the same spot.

Now I live far from my cousins, and those gatherings are just memories too. But when I feel too lonely and disconnected, I grab my daughter and we head to the Cracker Barrel here in Austin.  The beach is far, far away. My cousins are no where within driving distance, and my mom has been gone for over three years now.

But for a moment, when I walk around the shop, or watch the flames in the fireplace, or engage my daughter in a game of checkers while we sit in rocking chairs, everyone is right there. Just out of sight, maybe. But all there.

I know someday I will go home, and once again be near that Cracker Barrel where it all started. But until I do, I love knowing there’s a place where my memories are alive and well at highway exits across the country.

Do you have a restaurant or food that evokes memories of times or people long gone? I would love to hear about your special memory.

Hope Market offers freshest produce on “Find it in Austin Friday”

close up of okra in basket

Fresh okra….

Every Sunday from 11 am to 3 pm, Austanites can by-pass the tasteless, mealy textured produced served up by  grocery stores and experience the real thing at the Hope Farmer’s Market located at East 5th and Comal.

The Market began in October 2009, a challenge in a city known for stores selling organic and local produce. But almost four years later, it’s still going and growing, bringing Austin residents a weekly destination where they can connect with the farmers who grow the food instead of just a clerk who’s stocking it.

baskets of persimmons

Ripe persimmons….

Shoppers can find all sorts of fresh vegetable, fruits, nuts and herbs in season. Vendors also sell fresh milk and dairy products (including my favorite goat dairy products from Swede Farm), honey, syrup, eggs, meats and baked goods.

Radishes

Just picked radishes….

And while you shop you can also listen to live music, and maybe snack on some of the treats you just bought. If you go, please bring plenty of reusable bags — remember, no more plastic bags in Austin. Personally, I like using one of those old-lady folding carts, too. Hey, veggies get heavy!

Most of the stands accept EBT/SNAP and WIC benefits, making it easier for people in need of a hand to get the healthy food they really deserve. You can find out more about that at the Hope Farm Stand at the market. Most vendors don’t accept credit or debit cards, so if you’re not using one of the food assistance programs, do bring cash.

Kale

Fresh kale…

The Farmer’s Market is also a great place to take your kids shopping. Once they see all those brightly colored, tempting veggies and fruits you might have an easier time getting them to try them.

pecans in basket

Well-behaved dogs on leashes are welcome, too.

Smashburger adds a juicy twist to Austin casual dining

Smashburger signWho would have thought it…a near-lifetime vegetarian raving about a restaurant based on meat?  But it’s true. No, I did not cross over to the dark side. Let me explain.

Yesterday I had the privilege to attend a press preview for the newest location for Smashburger, a Colorado-based chain that’s opening its 202nd location at 9900 S. IH 35 in Austin today. Company founder and head cheerleader Tom Ryan was on hand to treat us to samples the restaurant’s signature burgers, chicken sandwiches, and (dear to my vegetarian heart!), in–house made black bean veggie burgers (yeah now you see where my enthusiasm comes from!)

veggie burger at Smashburger in Austin

Well, that and the piles of fragrant rosemary and olive oil fries, the crispy fried jalapeno pepper slices and the super-thin crispy onion rings with a truly addictive dipping sauce.

fries onion rings jalpenos at smashburger

In a world (and city) filled with fast-food burger joints, what makes Smashburger different? We found out as sample after sample came out from the kitchen.

Great big burgers topped with bar-b-que sauce, bacon and cheddar. Chicken sandwiches crispy in a chicken-friend-steak style coating. A cilantro-and-blue-corn-tortilla infused black bean burger (mine was topped with fresh slices of jalapeno and a spicy chipotle mayo on a spicy chipotle bun — I love my spice!)  A grilled chicken sandwich topped with slices of locally-sourced goat cheese and crisp cucumber. Salads and hot dogs, too. The food kept coming, and the reviewers kept eating.

burgers and other sandwichs smashburger

“It’s too good to stop”, one food blogger said. Another added that Smashburger’s chicken sandwiches were the first chicken sandwiches he’d had that actually had flavor. And when we headed into the kitchen to watch the unique “smashing” process in action, another reviewer said the burger tasted more like steak than ordinary hamburger.  And (and this is a shocker!) in a city so well-known for its bar-b-que, several reviewers rated the Smashburger BBQ, Bacon and Cheddar Burger the best they’d ever had.

For those who can’t image a burger without a tall frosty beer, they have you covered.

beer in mug

And for those who crave an ice-cold sweet old-fashioned shake or malt with their meal, yup, they’ve got you covered, too.

Milk shake at smashburger

As a vegetarian, I’ll admit there was a lot I didn’t taste. But as a foodie, I appreciated the incredible attention to detail in everything they do. The buns are toasted on the inside to prevent the juices from making them soggy. The menu in each of their 200+ locations is adjusted to match the tastes and food sources in the local market. The burgers are made from prime Angus beef, and the veggie burger is crafted in-house. Nothing is frozen and thawed.

Tom Ryan of Smashburger

Tom Ryan, who’s prior food masterpieces include the Pizza Hut Stuffed Crust Pizza and the McDonald’s Fruit and Yogurt Parfait seems to have done it again.

Smashburger is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. They have a kids menu and a pet-friendly patio at their I-35 location. More Austin locations are planned, but for now only the Slaughter Lane and New Braunfels locations are open.

(My personal meat-eating partner couldn’t join me yesterday, so thank you to all my fellow reviewers for sharing your experiences with the meat!)

Baskets waiting for burgers

Vegetarian Tortilla Soup on Taste of Austin Tuesday

Vegetable Tortilla Soup

When we moved to Austin, I started seeing Tortilla Soup on menus all over the place. It sounded amazing, and when friends ordered it, it looked even better. But as a vegetarian, the chicken broth and chunks of meat kept it off my table.

But not one to be discouraged, I decided to experiment and create my own version. Just without the meat. And I’m happy to say, with endorsement from my resident meat-eater, I think I’ve finally got it right! The recipe is at the bottom of this post. But first, here’s the process.

I started the soup by making a pot of brown rice, and setting that aside to steam. I also put some cooked black beans into a pot to warm with some crushed garlic and lime juice.  You can use beans you’ve cooked from scratch, or use plain, unseasoned canned black beans. Your choice.

beans and rice for soup

The soup itself starts with coarsely chopped peppers and onion and several whole cloves of garlic, sautéed in extra virgin olive oil.

peppers and onions cooking

To that I added my seasonings…cumin, black pepper, oregano and cayenne pepper. Once they had sautéed for a couple of minutes, I stirred in a can of diced tomatoes.

bowl of diced tomatoesNext came the broth. I used a Kosher vegetarian broth mix that has a chicken-style flavor, but you could use your favorite homemade or commercial broth.

vegetable broth mixAnd then the Morningstar Farms Meal Starter strips and a can of yellow and white corn.

morningstar farms vegetarian meal starter strips

Then in went some fresh cilantro.

cilantro

 I let that all simmer together for about a half an hour. It smelled heavenly!

When the soup was almost done, I sliced a couple of fresh, ripe avocados, and drizzled them with lime juice.

Avocado halves

I chopped a whole bunch of fresh cilantro (never can get enough!  I love cilantro!)

fresh cilantro

And then it was ready to assemble. I like to use large shallow soup bowls for this. First I added a scoop of rice, then topped it with a tumble of black beans. Soup was ladled into the bowl and then the whole dish was dressed with avocado and cilantro.

IMAG1243

I put the tortilla chips on the table for everyone to garnish their own dish (soggy tortillas are nasty!) I also put out a selection of hot sauces for people like me who like a little extra kick. And finally, I had my very own Austin-style, vegetarian-friendly Tortilla Soup!

Ready for your own? Here’s the recipe:

Vegetarian Tortillia Soup

Makes 4 generous servings or 6 side servings

2 cups cooked brown rice, warm
2 cups cooked black beans
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon lime juice
1 tablespoon water

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large green peppers, coarsely chopped
2 large yellow (not sweet) onions, coarsely chopped
6 cloves of garlic, peeled, but not crushed
1 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes, plain or seasoned
1 1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp cayanne pepper (or more to taste)
Generous amount of fresh ground pepper (at least 5 or 6 turns of the grinder)
8 cups chicken-style vegetable broth
15 ounce can white and yellow corn
1 package Morning Star Farms Meal Starter Chik’n Strips
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 large ripe avocados, halved then sliced
2-3 tablespoons lime juice
Cilantro for garnish
Tortilla chips or strips
Hot sauce for the table (optional)

Put the black beans in a pot on low.  Add the garlic, lime juice and water, and cover. Allow to warm slowly, stirring once or twice while cooking.

In a large, heavy bottom pot, add olive oil, peppers, onions and whole garlic cloves. Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until onions just start to become translucent and peppers are slightly softened.

Add cumin, oregano, black pepper and cayanne and stir to coat vegetables. Cook for one minute.

Add canned tomatoes, broth, Chik’n Strips, chopped cilantro and corn. Simmer for 30 minutes.

Scoop rice into a ball at one side of the soup bowl. Top with drained black beans. Scoop soup into bowls but not over top of rice and beans. Garnish with avocado slices and cilantro. Pass tortilla chips and hot sauce at the table. Yum!

UPCOMING: Austin Kosher Chili Cookoff comes back for 8th year

pot of chiliYes, Texas is known for its chili…but with the pork that’s so often a part local cook-off recipes, people who choose to skip out on that particular beast for religious or health reasons have been kind of left out of the fun.  The pork meant Jews, Muslims and others couldn’t sample cook-off chili offerings.

Not so at the annual JCC Kosher Chili Cookoff! February 10th of this year  will be the 8th  year for the pork-free zone in Texas chili, held at Austin’s JCC campus.

Contestants can choose to enter the meat or the vegetarian division. And to keep everything truly Kosher, the meat division entry fee includes certified Kosher meat, as well as access to all needed cooking utensils.

According to Amy Kritzer, The Austin Jewish Outlook’s food writer,  the event was started by the grandfather of this year’s event chair Jerrod Kogut.   This year’s cook-off also includes arts and crafts, kids activities, and great food, and promises to be a full day of fun for families. 

The competition and the event are open to the public. Entry fees for a meat-chili team of 4 are $250, with meat provided.  Vegetarian teams have an entry fee of $125 (and yes, I will be there sampling those veggie chilis!)

Not ready to cook? Admission the event for everyone else is $12 for adults, $10 for students and free for kids under 4 (or over 65, for the young at heart!)

Sign your team up at the event website, or contact Jerrod for more information at KosherChiliAustin@gmail.com . Registration closes February 1st.

So what are you making with your Thanksgiving leftovers, Austin?

Southwestern corn chowder and spiced sweet potato souffle with stuffing crust

This is another one of those off-topic posts (I’m thinking of making them a regular feature on Fridays, so I can share the rest of the Austin experience with y’all.)

Today’s off-off-topic (kind of like off-off-Broadway but without the pretentious audiences) is a “What to Do With Your Thanksgiving Leftovers” cook-off on Google Plus.  There was three of competing, plus an awesome judge and timekeeper (sucking up?  You bet!) and a fun audience.

The challenge?  Come up with a creative way to use Thanksgiving leftovers to make a tasty Black Friday meal.  And we all jumped right into the challenge.  We each cooked in our own kitchens, and shared the event as a live Google Hang Out.

The first competitor was Mary Helen Leonard of Mary Makes Dinner. She crafted her Thanksgiving leftovers into a tempting-looking Turkey Day pizza.

The second competitor was Amy Kritzer from Kosher food blog What Jew Wanna Eat and a series of regular cooking demonstrations from Google Austin.  She turned her Thanksgiving ingredients into a delicious looking Thanksgiving Benedict.

My creations were a bit different.  Because we are vegetarians (or at least 2/3 of the household is; my husband eats, well, pretty much everything!) , I skipped over the turkey and went right for the leftover veggies and stuffing.

And because we’re living in Austin, I opted for a local flavor, too.  I started with a Southwest Corn Chowder, full of chopped veggies from the vegetable tray, corn, mashed potatoes and an array of smoky spices.  The soup was finished with a dash of cream, and garnished with fresh cilantro and a sprinkling of Mexican cheese.

Southwestern Corn Chowder

I also made a dish with leftover sweet potato casserole and stuffing, combining the sweet with heat by adding cayanne, San Antonio Chili Powder,  a touch of garlic and some hot Paprika to the potatoes and then whipping them with eggs and egg whites.  That became the soufflé to top a crust made of twice-baked stuffing baked in muffin cups.

Sweet potato souffle on a stuffing crust

I was going crazy getting ready for the event, but I had so much fun doing it!  If you want to see the video, check it out on Google+.  And don’t forget to vote for your favorite chef!  There are prizes afoot, so click here to pick your number one choice! 

After Thanksgiving Cook-Off