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.

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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 🙂

Austin, the weird and wonderful!

Having formerly lived in London, and then more recently close to the (believe it or not) up and coming foodie city of Chattanooga, TN, getting used to the limited culinary options in Waco, TX has been quite an adjustment.  It’s not that there isn’t some lovely food here, it’s just that those places are few and hard to find. I truly believe Waco is a city at the beginning of a journey that will end with it being a budding hip town but that will probably not happen during our time here. As much as I love cooking and experimenting in the kitchen, I equally adore exploring and discovering new food joints and then introducing them to others.

Luckily, whenever the claustrophobia of Waco sets in, we have two great neighbouring food cities in Dallas and Austin for a fun occasional adventurous getaway. Although, the 2 hour drive is not something you can do for just an evening, it is comforting to know that these places are accessible even if just for the day. Recently, we had the joy of visiting Austin while my in-laws attended a conference. We drove down and spent the night with them and when they left the next day for their flight home, we ventured into the downtown area for some quick foodie fun. Austin is famous for many reasons but it is the city’s slogan that says it all; ‘Keep Austin Weird!’ and we were excited for our first real dose.

The first stop was at Franks on 4th and Colorado and for any of you hot dog fiends, this is a must visit if you come to the great city of Austin. We took a long time choosing what to order because every item was so unique and interesting (and this is after looking at the menu many times from home before we arrived!!) . We settled (and I really mean settled because we wanted to try everything!) on a couple that sounded too irresistible to miss. (My camera decided not to work that day so we had to take pics with our phone. Sadly they are not that great but I still wanted you all to get a glimpse of the magic!)

I ordered the Southern Belle; a blackened split Vienna Beef Polish link dressed with pimento cheese, fried green tomatoes, and Cajun remoulade and scallions.

Southern Belle, Franks, Austin

John ordered The Notorious P.I.G.; house made pork, bacon jalapeno sage sausage topped with mac n’ cheese, and Dr. Doppelganger BBQ sauce.

Notorious P.I.G. Franks, Austin

I have to say, I did suffer from a massive case of order-envy after I tried his. Not that mine wasn’t amazing but his was just the perfect unexpected interesting mix of well-matched flavours. The pure genius of their menu, including sides and drinks, ensures that Franks will always be an Austin favourite.

After this incredible lunch, we wondered down town a little further and took our chances on a food truck for dessert, Gordoughs Donuts on S.1st Austin St. One of the saddest parts of leaving East Tennessee was being so far  from my all time favourite donut shop, Chattanooga’s Julie Darling Donuts. Since moving to Texas, we have been hoping to eventually find something as good. Once more, we were enthralled by Gordoughs insane menu. With items such as the Boss Hogg, (covered in pulled pork, potato salad and honey bbq sauce!),  and Black Out  (brownie batter, chocolate fudge icing, chocolate covered brownie bites and chocolate syrup!), we knew we were in serious trouble again. We finally decided on trying two at the truck and then taking a couple back with us to Waco. This was a big mistake! We didn’t realize that their donuts are the size of your face! In fact I can safely say that the image of the donuts on their on-line menu is pretty much actual size! We ordered The Carney (apple pie filling, cream cheese icing with caramel and dry roasted peanuts), the PP&J (grape jelly filling with peanut butter icing and peanut butter morsels), the Flying Pig (bacon with maple icing)

Flying Pig, Gourdoughs, Austin

and a Black Out.

Black Out, Gourdoughs, Austin

Needless to say we really did bite off more than we could chew and didn’t quite get through the first two. But that’s what ‘to go’ is for right? What they are doing at Gordoughs is pretty crazy and unique. It didn’t quite replace my little retro Julie Darling in TN but I definitely recommend it at least once if you are visiting Austin. 

All in all, it was a fun escape from Waco and we can’t wait to visit Austin again sometime soon to experience more of their great city and awesome food. I don’t know if I could say everything we saw was weird but it is certainly a very unique town and extremely fun.