Not your Mama’s Tacos!

Taco Mamacitas

My sister-in-law was the first to introduce me to Taco Mamacita in Chattanooga and I’m the kind of person that once I discover something as wonderful as this, I want to share it with everyone.  Three years consecutively I was able to persuade my staff to take them for team celebrations. (One staff member, went back the following three weekends in a row to introduce others to the Taco Mama glory!) We had many a ‘ladies nights out’ with some of my colleagues, several double dates, and numerous times where it was just the hubby and I escaping at the end of a stressful and tiring week. Not only did we want to visit Taco Mamacita this summer while in town because of the great food, but because it is now a place full of precious memories with friends and family.

Taco Mamacitas

Before you write this off as just another taco place, Taco Mamacita is NOT your average Tex Mex, lettuce-filled-soggy tortilla! Neither is it just the best version of the tastiest standard yummy taco out there (although it is that too). Mama is putting some of your favourite foods into taco form. Love Pulled Pork Sandwiches? Try The Memphis with dry rubbed slow braised pork, onions, pickles, jalapeno slaw and BBQ sauce. OR how about the Loaded Gyro with thinly sliced lamb gyro, baja white sauce, peppers and feta. My personal favourites are the California Club (exactly what you might think-a twist on the classic club sandwich) and the Vegetarian Jerk with sweet, fiery, jerk-seasoned plantains and Mango Salsa.

Taco Mamacitas

As well as offering a great regular menu, they have hidden items and chef’s specials on occasion. While we were visiting they were trying out a new taco with duck confit, goat cheese, and cherry pepper relish which was outstanding.

Taco Mamacitas

And then there’s the seasonal Mojitos (virgin available upon request) like blueberry, strawberry and my absolute favourite, blackberry. All made with fresh fruit and muddled mint leaves. Perfect for hot summer days on the patio.

I don’t know that we will find anywhere quite like Taco Mamacita round here in Texas so if you are reading this and get to pass through Chattanooga (or their Nashville, TN or Charleston, SC locations) stop by and order some Mango salsa on my behalf!

Chattanooga’s Julie Darling Donuts

To me, donuts are as quintessentially American as burgers and hot dogs. I know this is not particularly accurate as pastries made from fried dough covered in sugar are prevalent in many cultures but personally I think of the US when I think of donuts. I am sure that it has something to do with their presence in movies and TV shows that aired in England during the 80s and early 90s. (The classic donut-loving-overweight cop joke comes to mind.) And, donut shops were practically non-existent in the UK as opposed to the mass chains and local joints in every town and city in North America. When I arrived in 2003, all I had ever known of donuts were that they were filled with jam and came in packs of 10 at Tescos. Then I was introduced to Krispy Kreme and their hypnotic hot and ready light. (Ironically, a few months after leaving London, a store opened up in my old neighbourhood!) I was hooked for better and for worse; donuts would never be the same for me again and this love affair led me to seek out the best little sugary pillows at every turn.

I had the pleasure of visiting places like Gordoughs Donuts and Round Rock Donuts in Texas earlier this year, both of which were exceptional for different reasons. But for me there is only one donut shop that truly has my heart, and that is Julie Darling Donuts in Chattanooga, TN. Although they did not open until 2010 and were not a formative part of my first USA experiences as a Grad student, I cannot imagine downtown without their charming 50s throwback storefront. 

Chattanooga's Julie Darling Donuts

Not only do they offer the standard delicious flavours but my absolute favorite aspect of Chattanooga’s Julie Darling Donuts is their vast, creative and delicious specialty menu.

Chattanooga's Julie Darling Donuts

Donuts like Coconut Creme Pie, Pancakes and Bacon, Key Lime Pie, and Banana Split

Chattanooga's Julie Darling Donuts

To avoid eating several donuts in one sitting, and in order to be sure we enjoyed our much missed favourites, we had to figure out creative excuses to visit CJDD a couple of times this summer while on vacation in TN. And it was well worth the downtown detours.

Chattanooga's Julie Darling Donuts

Granny’s Apple Pie is exactly as you would imagine with warm spices, a hearty filling and even a little crusty crumb topping.

Chattanooga's Julie Darling Donuts

And the gourmet Oreo; soft, fluffy dough topped with rich chocolate fudge sauce and scattered crunchy creme-filled cookies.

If you ever find yourself in the North Shore/Coolidge Park neighbourhood, seek out Chattanooga’s Julie Darling Donuts on Frazier Avenue and don’t leave without trying their Pancake and Bacon Donuts. (Check their Facebook page before you go as they often have daily specials) You will not regret it!

Used Books and Rain

As soon as we crossed into our home state of Tennessee this summer for a little getaway, it seemed as though the mountains knew family had come to visit and they stood ready to welcome us in their flourishing green Sunday-best, looking more beautiful than ever.  I think both John and I experienced a sense of relief as the feeling of belonging and familiarity swept over us, unmarred by months under the scorching Texas sun.

Our first course of business (after a good night’s sleep) was to venture to our favourite used bookstore, McKay.

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I say used bookstore but in truth McKay is an entire warehouse full of organized shelves, neatly overflowing with music, movies, video games and books of all genres at extremely reasonable prices. I remember the first time I walked into this discount treasure trove as a Londoner used to paying extortionate prices for everything! I was fresh off the boat and ran around filling up an increasingly heavy basket until I remembered that I was also a broke student and reluctantly placed each item back on its cozy shelf. Months later, John and I met and our joint obsession with McKay helped fuel our blossoming romance into wedded bliss!

McKay Chattanooga, TN

McKay Chattanooga, TN

Being English Lit, and Biblical Studies Majors, McKay was our weekly drug of choice when we lived in TN. (Which probably explains why we have 6 full bookcases at home!) And although this might be a tad unhealthy, John in particular has saved us a fortune by purchasing his necessary books and commentaries from this musty-paper smelling paradise. During our visit, we were able to sell some items for trade credit (which we immediately exchanged for more books to take home of course!) and left brainstorming how to convince the store owners to add Waco to their list of locations.

Just 5 minutes down the road from McKay is our all time favourite Thai restaurant, Rain Thai Bistro.  Another regular on our date-night circuit, we ordered our much missed dishes and it was as familiar as settling down to a home cooked meal at a family reunion.

Rain Thai Bistro, Chattanooga TN

Although Rain has a pretty extensive menu, sometimes its just the perfectly executed and well flavoured classics you crave like Basil Rolls, Panang Curry and Pad Thai.

Rain Thai Bistro, Chattanooga TN

Rain Thai Bistro, Chattanooga TN

 Rain is not only one of our favourites but everyone we have introduced it to has fallen in love. On a staff outing a few years ago, one of my students had just returned from Thailand and was immediately transported back across the world when our food arrived. As many Thai restaurants as I have tried, few compare to this one so humbly placed in a very unsuspecting strip mall. Needless to say, our first day back in TN was a home run! 

My 10th USAnniversary!

bilbo quote

August marked 10 years since my arrival in the USA and I have found myself reflecting and reminiscing a lot lately. As a result, today’s post is very different than normal as I set the scene for a week of some of my favourite eateries from our summer vacation.

It is still strange to me sometimes when I think about how this little wandering Greek- Cypriot Londoner finally found her home with a tall southern gentleman at the foot of the Smokey Mountains, in a little town just north of Chattanooga, TN. And, little did I know that I would have to leave that majestic view to graze in the flat lands of Texas, just a few years later, while my husband finishes his doctoral work. That is life my friends. You never know how it is going to unravel as each foot is placed in front of the other.  You just move, hoping, trusting, squinting into the distance and believing somehow that you will look back at the end of your life and feel peace with all you have learned and experienced. Even those who meticulously plan 10 years at a time can never truly know what is ahead. I think somewhere deep down that is my favourite thing about life; the mystery. It’s the peace we find when things aren’t as we imagined. The hope, and knowledge, that things can change means we can focus on present moments that are still positive and draw strength for the patience required as we wait for the up and coming. It is also the hope of all the adventure that is yet to come.

 

Ski Lift

In the summer of 2003, when I was still living in London and a month away from moving to the States, I had the pleasure of attending a conference at the ski resort of Pamporovo in Bulgaria. Being July, we were not there to ski but an afternoon outing had been arranged to ride the ski lifts across the beautiful mountains. I learnt something monumental that day as our journey unfolded. The first ski lift at which we arrived was pretty modern with large cushioned seats, a thick strong safety bar that locked into place, and a short little ride to the first mountain. Being slightly afraid of heights, I felt as safe as possible under the circumstances and decided to move with the flow of people making their way to the lift. It was rather quite pleasant as we smoothly sailed up to the tops of the trees, enjoying the crisp summer air, and landed safely on the other side of the valley.  

However, the next ski lift was not as sturdy-looking and a little older than the first. The view from the mountains was stunning and, despite my trembling knees and the strong desire to go back alone, I decided to hop on this next set of ski lifts and just grip the flimsy bar with all my might. As we bobbed along the line, I could not get enough of the natural beauty around me. I have always loved the mountains and these were stunning.

Once we reached the final ski lift, at the very height of the resort, I was pretty mortified at the sight of the contraption that would be carrying us down. The safety bar was a thin rope of metal that came half way across the body, the entire chair was paint pealed and somewhat rusty, and as each empty seat rolled around the top of that highest mountain, it swung wildly, squeaking and taunting its next victim. Even though I could hear my heart pounding in my head, I somehow managed to muster the courage and rode this lift of death to the bottom of the mountain. The view was silently breathtaking and completely distracting from the fear I had initially experienced. It is an experience I will never forget.

Every moment of the journey that day was only visible as I approached each leg and for that, I am so very thankful. If I had seen that final terrifying lift from the beginning, I would have turned around and mulled on back to the hotel with the few others who did not want to go into the mountains. Instead, each stage was revealed gradually and I managed to find just enough courage and strength to get to the next point and experience some of the most incredible scenery. One month later, I arrived in the States for what was to be two short years and here I am ten years later, with so many hill top moments behind me, and still enjoying the ride!

Why do I tell you all this? Because it seems fitting to celebrate my USAnniversary by highlighting the food in a city that became a very significant mountain top for me during the early years of my life in this country. I will be spending this week focusing on the wonderful eateries we love so much in Chattanooga and I truly hope to inspire you to visit this beloved city. Who knows, maybe one of life’s ski lifts will take you there someday too.

chattanooga

Birthday Surprises in Austin

Last weekend, I turned 35! Hard to believe how quickly my 30s are moving along. It seemed that my 20s went on forever so I assumed the next decade would pass at the same pace. But, I was wrong! I’ve always heard that time speeds up the older you get and it appears to be true. GULP! I can’t say I am unhappy with the way my life is turning out. I lived up my 20s mostly as a single and free woman moving around and having great adventures and the last seven years as a married woman have been just as wonderful, fulfilling and adventurous but in a different way.

Part of this has been due to the incredible man I married. I had no idea when I met this silent, intelligent, introverted, tall American southern gentleman that he would capture my crazy, nomadic, impetuous heart in such a way to find roots and a home in him that I love. (I hope you will excuse the side-step into gushy territory but I can’t tell you the next foodie bit without explaining how we ended up at the places we visited last weekend.) Some of you may remember from a couple of months ago that John and I always try and plan cute fun birthday surprises for each other every year.  A budget is set and then the whole day is a complete mystery. But it’s not just about where we go or what we do, it’s also about the creativity involved! One year I made word-search and crossword puzzles that John had to solve to discover the next destination. On my 30 birthday, John hid 30 presents all round the house with no clues and I had to find them all just by frantically looking under mattresses and dishware!  This year was no exception. All I knew when we left the house on Saturday morning was that we would be spending the weekend in our favourite Texas city, Austin. Once we arrived, John gave me a clue sheet

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(mastered from my favourite game Whirly Word!) to help me figure out the next step of the day. First up was :

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can you see it? You can imagine my squealing delight when I realized I would be going for a MASSAGE! I can’t think of  a better way to soothe these aging muscles of this 35 year old body! After 30 minutes of complete serenity, we moved on to one of our favourite sunny day past times:

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a SCENIC walk along Mount Bonnell; a beautiful small mountain overlooking the river. The trek up and down the trail helped prepare our appetite for lunch :

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Not just any TACOS but we went to a great Austin trailer/restaurant called Torchy’s Tacos

Torchy's Tacos

where we had The Fried Avocado (hand battered avocado with pico, lettuce, cheese and Poblano sauce) and

Torchy's Tacos

the Mr. Pink (seared Ahi-Tuna, cabbage, cilantro, queso fresco, with lime and Chipotle sauce). Yum!

Torchy's Tacos

But for dessert, one more puzzle told me we would be leaving Torchy’s and venturing over to Buenes Aires Cafe

Buenos Aires CafeBuenos Aires Cafe

for my favourite kind of dessert: BRULEE

 However, this was no normal Brulee, this was their Dark and Spicy Chocolate Brulee which is exactly as it sounds. Rich with a lovely bite!

Buenos Aires Cafe

We also enjoyed a slice of real Lemon Meringue Pie

Buenos Aires Cafe

and a delightful cup of Turkish Mint Tea. hmmmmm relaxing!

Buenos Aires Cafe

After being full and happy, I unscrambled my next clue which led us to

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lovely artist MARKETs around the city.  You can imagine we were pretty tired by the time we checked into our hotel. Fortunately we had plenty of time to relax before dinner.

And, now we come to the real jewel of the day (other than my Sweetie!)

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I love sashimi, SUSHI and other Asian flavours so John hit one out of the park with his final surprise of the night. We went to Uchiko

Uchico

which is rated number 1 on TripAdvisor out of 2,300 restaurants in Austin and we knew from the arrival of our first plate that we were in for something very special. This is the kind of place where you can order lots of little dishes and sample so many wonderful flavours and concoctions without getting full and uncomfortable. We had 10 different dishes in total and each one was just as amazing as the next. Here is a small sampling of the descriptions:

Koviche: fresh diver scallop, tomatillo, kalamata, black lime. 

Yokai Berry: Atlantic salmon, dinosaur kale, Asian pear, yuzu

Hot Rock: “sear it yourself” wagyu beef, Japanese river rock. This was not only fun but delicious. The meat was so tender and cooking on the rock made it surprisingly taste like it had been perfectly flame grilled.

Hot Rock at Uchiko, Austin

Even the  Tobacco Cream dessert with chocolate sorbet, maple budino, huckleberry, scotch was strangely one of the most delicious I think I have ever had! (Sorry Brulee! We had a good run!). I wish I had taken pictures of all of these to share them with you but I was too busy staring lovingly over the table at my date and being wooed by all the wonderful dishes that kept arriving. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that this was one of the most amazing meals I have eaten on the planet! It’s up there with my other all time favourite in Cambridge, La Raza. A perfect day!

The next day we went to Round Rock for Outlet Mall Shopping but not before stopping at the famous Round Rock Donuts for a quick peak.

Round Rock DonutsRock Round Donuts

 They have been featured on several Travel Channel shows like Man Vs Food for their crazy Texas sized donut:

Round Rock Texas

We settled for a plain glazed non-giant sized donut and I can definitely see why they are a donut favourite. Soft, warm and melt in your mouth sweetness.

All in all it was a wonderful birthday and I am very blessed by my darling hubby who, not only treats me well all year round, but knows exactly how to make me feel extra cherished on my special day.

The Only Way to Eat Brussels Sprouts

Brussels Sprouts are a staple at my family’s Christmas Dinner table. Those little green bundles have been passed right under my (reluctant up-turned) nose for the past 30 something years and I had all but given up on them until recently when I was in a restaurant ordering conundrum. While dining out for the Hubby’s birthday at South Congress Cafe in Austin (for more about that day read here), I was really craving scallops but the ones on the menu were being served on a bed of my holiday nemesis. The description read ‘crispy Brussels Sprouts’ (not boiled and mushy) and I was desperate enough that I looked at the server (probably with pleading in my watery eyes) asking him if these green buggers were really worth the rest of the dish. He assured me that they bore no comparison to my idea of sprouts and that the scallops were amazing…..so (after taking a deep breath) I couldn’t resist and went for it. One of the best restaurant decisions I have made! They were completely delicious and I kept talking about  them to John for days so it is no wonder that they ended up on  the menu for our Easter Sunday dinner. I couldn’t really find an exact recipe so I decided to just try and recapture the magic from the original description at South Congress (‘crispy brussels sprouts, bacon, lemon basil brown butter’) and some creativity.

Crispy Brussels Sprouts

Crispy Brussels Sprouts

1lb Brussels Sprouts

2 tbsp butter

2 strips of bacon (cooked and chopped into small pieces)

1 shallot sliced thinly

1 small clove of garlic, minced

squeeze of lemon juice

1/4 tsp of dried basil

oil for frying (about 3 cups)

salt and pepper to taste

Rinse the sprouts and thoroughly pat dry. Trim off ends, peal away a couple of the outer leaves and then cut in half (if you need a visual there are several helpful videos on YouTube). Make sure they are completely dry.

Brussels SproutsBrussels Sprouts

Heat your oil to 350 F. Place a few sprouts on a slotted spoon and lower into the heated oil. Cover the fryer immediately to avoid being splattered with oil. The sprouts contain a high amount of water and they will start popping under the lid. Also, do not put too many in at once or there will be too much water released into the oil and they will burn before it is safe to open the lid. (We discovered this the hard way…needless to say I was a bit nervous because I didn’t completely know what I was doing and geared up for protection….think hazmat with a spatula! After doing the second batch as per my above directions, it was really easy and completely fine!) Cook each batch for about 3-4 minutes (you will hear the popping coming to an end) Remove with a slotted spoon and drain well on kitchen paper before transferring onto a serving dish. You will probably need to cook the sprouts in about 4-5 batches.

Melt the butter in a pan. Brown the shallots and garlic in the butter then add the cooked bacon, and sprinkle with basil, salt and pepper. Mix well. Pour over the sprouts and then squirt a little lemon juice over top.

It was delicious and transported me back to that surprising discovery at South Congress! (The hubs said he liked it even better than the original ones we ate in Austin….but he is a little biased!) They were the perfect accompaniment to our Easter meal of Whiskey Stew, Yorkshire Puddings and Roasted Parsnips.

Easter DinnerCrispy Brussels Sprouts

I can’t wait for my next dinner party to sport these sprouts!

Birthday Burgers at Hopdoddy Burger Bar, Austin

Birthdays are a big deal here at the Duncan household, even more so now that the hubs is doing his PhD and hardly gets any free time. Last Friday, he turned 35 and I got the chance to pull him away from his laptop and piles of books to a weekend full of fun and surprises. In the morning he was given a large bag full of numbered balloons and had to pop them as the day proceeded to find out where we were going next.

Happy Birthday!

We had a blast- and I say we because it was just as much fun for me planning and seeing his reaction to each clue as it was for him to be spoiled! It was such a needed break and a very important day so there was no question as to where we would be spending our adventures- in Austin, TX! After a quick dash through the Starbucks drive-thru, we made the 2 hour drive south to the Zilker Park Botanical Gardens for a peaceful outdoor scenic morning stroll. This was perfect to balance out our stop for lunch at the hectic South Congress on a beautiful sunny day. In all honesty, apart from the parking issue, the extrovert in me loves being around any downtown hustle and bustle so I felt energized and excited for our stop at the incredible Hopdoddy Burger Bar on this famous Austin street.

Although it was heaving with eager hungry guests like us, Hopdoddy has this great system where your table is assigned to you as you are lining up and even on a very busy lunchtime rush, our wait to actually sit was only about 20 minutes. Even still, because you are moving in the line past the beer taps at the bar (and sipping on your drink) and creeping all the more closer to the burger order station, you feel like time is passing and you are making progress. Then the food arrives and you realize you would have waited double the time if necessary (and more!). Some of the most unique and delicious burgers I have ever seen and eaten. All their meat is ground in-house daily and comes from cows that are humanely raised and fed all the good stuff to keep them happy and healthy. Their buns are made from scratch and baked on site throughout the day. The result?

Primetime at Hopdoddy, Austin

delicious and moreish hand-crafted burgers like Primetime: Texas Akaushi Beef, Brie Cheese, Truffle Aioli,

Arugula, Caramelized Onions, Steak Sauce

Llano Poblano at Hopdoddy, Austin TX

and the Llano Poblano: Angus Beef, Pepper Jack, Roasted Poblano Chiles,

Apple-Smoked Bacon, Chipotle Mayo

Fries with Green Chili Queso at Hopdoddy, Austin

all finished off with their seasoned Kennebec Fries and Green Chili Queso.

I seriously could have gone back for dinner but fortunately (or unfortunately) there were other surprises to unveil. After a long afternoon of used-bookstore browsing, we returned to the buzzings of South Congress and enjoyed another amazing celebratory meal at South Congress Cafe. Sadly, the lighting was pretty bad for photos so none of the pictures I took on the night came out. I would have loved to shown you my beautiful plate of seared scallops with crispy Brussels sprouts glazed with basil, bacon and lemon brown butter, or John’s hearty steak au poivre and blackened jumbo shrimp. But, your imagination will have to do. The other alternative is for you to visit Austin, TX and taste them for yourselves 🙂