Monday, September 16, 2013

Gotcha Kolache: Weikel's Bakery in La Grange

I vowed long ago that, on every one of my road trips to Austin, I would stop at Hruska's in Ellinger for kolaches and klobasnicky at least one direction.  And I have lived up to that promise, enjoying their awesome pan sausage klobasnicky or poppyseed kolaches several times a year.

But I wavered yesterday.  I finally got sick of people telling me how awesome the kolaches at Weikel's Bakery in La Grange are.  So instead of blowing right through town on 71, I took the exit off of the highway to try something a little different.

I actually had been to Weikel's before yesterday, though it probably had been 10 or 15 years.  When I used to drive up to Austin with my parents, we would stop here sometimes.  I really didn't know about Hruska's until I happened upon them to get gas one time. 

The combination of great kolaches, pan sausage, and easier access off of the highway made it the go-to stop in this neck of the woods and I just forgot about Weikel's.  That is, until Sunday, when I exited and got a typical road trip snack (one kolache, one koblasnek, and an iced tea) to try to put this Highway 71 kolache debate to rest.

For kolaches, Weikel's has just as good a selection as any other legitimate kolache bakery with fruit options that range from classics like cherry and prune to some fruits like pineapple or pumpkin that are a bit more atypical.  And, of course, you can get your poppyseed, cream cheese, and cottage cheese here.

If you sell kolaches and you can't make a good poppyseed, then you shouldn't even bother firing up your oven.  Fortunately, Weikel's is worth the stop for a poppyseed.  The bread itself was great.  I think I liked it better than Hruska's bread. It was very light and had that hint of sweetness that you look for in a kolache.  I do think the filling is a bit sweeter at Hruska's, which I like, but Weikel's is pretty good too.  It's hard to say which one is definitively better; both are pretty darn good and are worth a stop.  I'll be more than happy to try some more of Weikel's fruit kolaches.

I do love fruit kolaches, but typically, it's the klobasnicky that Cari and I get.  I have been known to do some crazy things for Hruska's pan sausage and sauerkraut klobasnek.  Weikel's comes up short on these though.  Their sausage isn't bad, but is a little dry and is definitely small and doesn't fill up the roll.  I did like the soft roll that enclosed the sausage, but still think the thicker, dinner roll style bun at Hruska's complements their pan sausage better than this would.  Hands down, stop in Ellinger for koblasnicky.

As much as I liked the poppyseed kolache at Weikel's, I don't think it's enough to make it my stop.  The pan sausage at Hruska's is just that good, plus it's just way more convenient to turn right into Hruska's parking lot instead of exiting and crossing under the freeway in La Grange. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Yes, There Are Places to Rent in Tuscany - Food & Travel in Siena and Tuscany

Fortunately for Cari and I, the Maestro was wrong; there are plenty of places to rent in Tuscany, and we didn't have to find Mr. Ciccio to get one. 

He was right about everything else though.  Tuscany does feel a bit like paradise.  The gorgeous rolling hills dotted with villas and vineyards are one of the more beautiful places that I have ever been.  While the lazy Italian lifestyle can be frustrating in big cities or when trying to catch a train, it's actually quite charming in a smaller city like Siena where you really do just want to relax, eat, and drink wine all day.

That food and wine you'll be eating and drinking is enough of a reason to visit.  Italy may be up there with France as having one of the great cuisines of the world, but despite the fact that these countries share a border, they are many miles away in terms of philosophy.  While French cooking is complex in both taste and preparation, Italian food works because of its simplicity.  The best dishes in Italy may only have 4 or 5 ingredients, but they are going to be the best quality ingredients and will be taken (sometimes literally) right from your backyard. 

This risotto and tagliatelle are perfect examples of this simplicity.  Neither have more than a few ingredients.  The risotto from Enoteca i Terzi is merely risotto with zucchini mixed in, but it was one of the creamiest, tastiest risottos I've ever tasted.  Same with the Brunello tagliatelle from Osteria La Crocina outside of Montalcino.  It's simply pasta with fava beans, but the care that goes into making this pasta with their wine puts this over the top.

Much like Texas, Tuscany is overrun with wild boar.  It's pretty much open season on them year round, so you'll see Cinghiale on almost every menu, like this Cinghiale alla Cacciatora from Trattoria la Tellina with porcini mushrooms and polenta.  Wild boar ragu is also extremely popular.  While these were both a bit hearty to have for lunch during upper 90 degree heat, they were both very good, and you can't leave Tuscany without one of these dishes.

Tuscans love a good, thick steak as well; Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a t-bone sourced from local cattle grilled to rare over a wood fire.  The steak is 2-3 inches thick and, according to our wine tour guide, "If it's not a kilo, it's not a bistecca."  Admittedly, our steak from Enoteca i Terzi was a little underseasoned and bland, and I probably wouldn't get it from there again, but I'd go somewhere that you can get that huge hunk of beef.

And if you need a break during the day in Siena, a stop for coffee and a pastry at Nannini is a must.  Coffee flavored cannoli anyone?

Our favorite meal in Tuscany (and probably our favorite on the entire trip) was at Antica Osteria da Divo in Siena, a neat restaurant right in the middle of town where most of the seating is in caves that date back to the Etruscans.  Locals and travelers alike told us that this was the best restaurant in town.

What was so great about this place?  Truffles.

Da Divo has an entire page of their menu with antipasti, primi and secondi with truffles, which are shaved onto your food tableside.  I had never had truffles, so of course I ordered off of the truffle menu for each course.  The potato gnocchi with creamed Taleggio cheese above was by far the best.  The earthiness of the truffles was perfect with the rich cheese that was poured over the gnocchi.  The rabbit thigh stuffed with mushrooms and Toma cheese was also fantastic, and every other dish the two of us had there excelled.  It's not cheap, but if you're in Siena, you can't miss this place.

Eating wasn't all we did though.  Siena was our main base and, with a medieval historic center that has been completely preserved, makes for a great visit.  The Piazza il Campo is the heartbeat of town and is a great place to grab a drink after hours.  The duomo is one of the coolest cathedrals that I have ever seen with its alternating black and white marble.  Plus, being basically a large village where the countryside comes right up to its completely intact city walls, the pace is a little more relaxed.

I highly recommend Hotel Athena in Siena.  Clean, well priced rooms, great staff, and a multi-million dollar view of the Tuscan countryside if you upgrade to the balcony.

We also took a wine tour to Montalcino.  The town of Montalcino is a quaint village on top of a mountain with amazing views and is famous for its Brunello wines.  I definitely recommend a wine tour.  More on that later, but that's a must-do in Tuscany.

Since we flew into Pisa, we also stopped by there for a bit to see the leaning tower.  Though it was a Sunday, Pisa seemed like it didn't have too much going on, and I wouldn't recommend doing more than seeing the tower.

If you're a go, go, go traveler who has to see new sights every day, Tuscany may not be for you.  But if you want a more relaxed atmosphere and some awesome food and wine, this is the place to go.

Monday, September 9, 2013

First Look At City Oven in The Heights

I'm one of the few who was never the biggest fan of the D'Amico's Italian Market in the Heights.  I never really thought the food was that special, so never made more than an initial visit.  And I certainly didn't cry when they announced they were moving along from the neighborhood.

So I was naturally thrilled when, less than two months later, City Oven opened with a concept that is both one of my favorites and desperately needed in the Heights: pizza and beer joint.  We didn't make it for opening day on Thursday, but it was a no brainer for a Friday dinner on a night we wanted to take it easy and not blow too big of a hole in our wallet.

The turnover of the spot was less than two months, but it did feel like a completely different place.  While D'Amico's had a homey, mom and pop shop feel to it, City Oven is more wide open, bright, and hits vibe that is trendy, but still laid back enough to fit in with it's neighbors on White Oak.  One huge plus is the late hours: open until 2 AM on Fridays and Saturdays.  I can definitely see myself stumbling here from Public House or Little Woodrow's for some late night grub.  There's also a healthy amount of TV's inside, so this can be a great "I want to watch the game but the Mrs. doesn't want to" places.

Pizza and beer go together like peanut buter & jelly, and City Oven manages that marriage well.  The pizzas, baked in a wood-fired oven, are thin crust and range from traditional pizzas like Margherita or Meat Pie to more unique pairings like the Thai Dye with curried chicken or the BBQ Chicken.  The beers on tap number 15 and are mostly craft beers, and there's another 20 to 30 bottled options as well.  If you're not into pizza, City Oven can also hook you up with a sandwich, salad, burger, or one of four different giant meatballs. 

Giant is a good description of the meatballs.  They are rolled out of 12 oz of beef which makes them about the size of a softball.  Our choice was the classic City Oven Meatball ($10.99), ground beef stuffed with mozzarella and covered in San Marzano tomato sauce and ricotta cheese. 

The meat itself was good but not spectacular (as Cari said, "It's just a meatball,"), but it stood out because of the San Marzano sauce, which had a hint of sweetness to it that I enjoyed.  It definitely made for a good starter for two, and probably could be stretched for four if need be.  Some of the other meatballs sounded good (Chipotle Texas Meatball anyone?) and I'd definitely like to try some of those, but you won't go wrong with the classic.

We went traditional with the pizza as well and got the Sicilian in the oval ($14.99), which is the larger of the two sizes (10" round is the other).  The oval is actually a pretty big pizza, about 18" long and 10" wide if I had to guess.  It was topped with the San Marazano sauce, pepperoni, crumbled sausage, mushrooms and black olives (hold the olives, please).

We were actually quite impressed with this pie.  There's no skimping on the toppings here.  The crust is maybe a tad bland but is thin and crispy, but also a bit flaky.  You could tell the toppings were top notch and that slightly sweet tomato sauce just worked great with the salty pepperoni and sausage.  Cari told me this could be her favorite pizza in town, and I'll agree that it's pretty damn good.  Oh, and did I mention it was big?  This would easily feed two people by itself, not bad for $15.

There were some service hiccups with it being the first weekend night that it was open.  We sat on the (not extremely spacious) patio out front and had a little bit of confusion as to who was supposed to be helping us; we had different people take our drink order, take our food order, bring the food and follow up.  And the place was quite busy, but the pizza also took about 40 minutes to come for the table, which is a long time for a brick oven.  I'm obviously more than willing to give a pass for any of this due to opening day uncertainties and irregularities, especially with a full house.

That said, there wasn't much we didn't enjoy about City Oven.  We enjoyed the food, the beer selection, the vibe, and the price (a little over $40 for pizza, a meatball, two beers and two glasses of wine, plus tax & tip).  We're looking forward to a return trip soon.

Friday, September 6, 2013

State Fair: Big Tex Choice Winners Announced

Three weeks from today, Texans will begin to descend upon Dallas for four weeks of fun at the State Fair of Texas.

But while we all love the games, rides, exhibits, shows, and the Texas-ou football game (well, not the last three years), we all know that the fried food is the number one reason to go.

To help you sort out which of the new foods to try, the fair holds the Big Tex Choice Awards to find the best of the new fried greatness for us to gorge on.

The winners?  The best tasting was the Deep Fried Cuban Roll, basically a fried Cuban sandwich with pork shoulder, ham, swiss cheese, and pickles rolled up and deep fried.  Muy bueno!  This will be a must have this year.

The most creative of the entrants?  Fried Thanksgiving Dinner.  That's turkey and dressing rolled into a ball, dipped in creamed corn, rolled in cornmeal, and served with gravy and cranberry sauce.  That's a nice, heart clogging way to spice up your day after Thanksgiving sandwich.  I'm excited to try this, although a bit skeptical, as the most creative doesn't necessarily have to taste good, it just has to be creative.

Other new items to try?  I'll definitely be getting the Deep Fried King Ranch Casserole and Chicken-Fried Meatloaf.  Cari will no doubt be getting Texas Fried Fireball.  Throw in a Fletchers Corny Dog and a Deep Fried Frito Pie and there are only two words to describe how you'll feel.

Food. Coma.

October 12 can't come soon enough.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Eat and Drink Like a King at King's Biergarten

German food is one of the most underrated cuisines out there.  It's hard to beat a good Wiener Schnitzel, Schweinebraten, or J√§gerschnitzel, especially once the weather gets a bit cooler.

But there is an incredible dearth of German restaurants in Houston; I can count on one hand how many there are.  Two have been around for a long time: I grew up going to Alpine Brauhaus about once a month, and somehow it is still kicking down in Clear Lake, and Rudi Lechner's has had just about the same longevity on the west side.  But the new kid on the block is the one getting all of the raves: King's Biergarten in Pearland.

Opened in 2011 by Johann Sitter, an Austrian immigrant, King's was originally an accompaniment to Sitter's car wash next door (also named King's) as a place where you could grab a beer and a meal while your car got washed.  But word got out about the authentic food and mugs of beer, and within just a few months, King's expanded from 40 seats to over 200.  Since then, it has been ranked as the best German restaurant in America.  This is not only because of the food, but also the atmosphere; a lively, wide open biergarten with oompa music and waitresses in dirndl's slinging liters of beer without spilling a drop.

King's has one of the best selections of German beers on tap in Houston.  You can always get beers from Spaten, Franziskaner, Warsteiner, and Paulaner.  There's not many places in Houston that you can get a liter mug of beer, and it is the only place I know of where you can get a 3 liter "Das Boot" (which isn't a terrible deal at $35).

The menu has all sorts of German specialties: 2 different schnitzels, 8 sausages, goulash, pork shank, and almost any other German specialty you can think of.

Cari wanted Wiener Schnitzel, and I wanted sausage, so we got the King's Sampler; a double serving of Wiener Schnitzel, 3 sausages and 3 sides for $24.95 that was more than enough to feed both of us.  

I'd definitely get the Wiener Schnitzel again.  The breaded pork cutlet (they don't offer veal) was crispy but very light and, though it could've used a bit more flavor in the breading, a squirt of lemon on top made it pretty tasty.

For sausages, we got weisswurst, bratwurst and Polish sausage.  This was the first time that I had seen weisswurst in Houston, so I jumped all over it, and it was the best of the three sausages at King's.  Weisswurst is a delicate, finely ground sausage made of pork and veal that is traditionally eaten at Oktoberfest or for breakfast in Bavaria.  While obviously better in Munich, this light sausage is worth the trip to King's alone in my opinion, especially with their apple horseradish sauce.  Pair it with a hefeweizen for a great combo.  The bratwurst and Polish were both good, but I can think of better examples of those sausages around town.

We may not have loved every single thing that we ate, but pick the good stuff and combine that with the beer, the band, and the atmosphere, and I guarantee that you'll have a good time at King's.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Smoked Meats: Prause Meat Market in La Grange

Between going to UT, football games, and friends and family in Austin, I'm going to guess that I've driven through La Grange at least 200 times.  Which makes it kind of embarassing that I've never stopped at Prause Meat Market.

Finally, when I was there on business the other day and I got hungry at lunch time, I said no to Hruska's and took the exit off of 71 head into town.

Located right on the town square across the street from the Fayette County Courthouse, Prause is your typical small town Texas meat market.  You go to the front if you want to buy meat, and you head to the back for the BBQ, which is smoked on their pits outside.  The dining area in the back is just a few wooden picnic tables looked down upon by just about any animal that you could kill.

For smoked meats, Prause serves brisket, sausage, and pork shoulder.  Apparently, they do great business, though, because by the time I got there about 1:15 PM they were sold out of brisket.  I went ahead and got a plate with 1/4 lb of pork shoulder, a sausage link, potato salad, cole slaw, and a bottle of water which set me back a very reasonable $8.

The pork shoulder was hit-or-miss.  Most of the flavor was in the skin, so a good bite that had some of the skin and a little bit of fat was actually really good.  But the meat really was quite dry, so unless you had a bit of the skin on it, it was nothing special.

I really did dig the sausage though.  The half beef/half pork mix that is made in house was a nice, coarse grind that had a fair amount of onion, garlic and pepper.  The skin was perfect: tough enough for a nice snap when you bite into it, not too tough that you're sawing at it for 30 seconds to cut it.  There was just enough grease to give the sausage some flavor but not so much that it exploded when you bit into the sausage.  These links are worth the detour.

While the pork was nothing special, the sausage will bring me back here in the future, for sure.  Hopefully in time for some brisket.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Late Night Greek at AL Quick Stop

I've had my fair share of beers at Rudyard's in Montrose, some even before I legally could.  I've always ignored the convenience store that was right next door, figuring that it was just a convenience store.

But AL Quick Stop is more than just a neighborhood corner mart. Yes, you can still get a tallboy or a Slim Jim to go, but much like Ekko's by the Galleria, a grill spans the back wall that can whip up any of your Greek favorites: gyros, shwarma, kafta, falafel and more.

I really wasn't all that hungry, I had just stopped in for a drink. But I couldn't pass up the opportunity, so I got my favorite Mediterranean grub; one falafel sandwich and one gyro sandwich.

The falafel will get the job done late at night, but it wasn't anything to rave about. Though the flavor was fine, the breading was nowhere near as crispy as I would've liked it. It definitely wasn't fried up fresh for me, which I'm sure contributed to my dislike.

Different story with the gyro though. That was one heck of a sandwich. It was all in the meat. Most gyro meat is very thinly sliced and can be quite dry. This was the opposite. The sandwich had huge chunks of tender, juicy meat, some of the best that I've had in Houston for sure.

AL Quick Stop has great drunk food destination written all over it. It's right in the middle of Montrose, so whether you're grabbing a craft beer at Hay Merchant, a cocktail at Anvil, or clubbing it up in Midtown or Washington Ave, you'll be close by. It'll be one of my go-tos for sure.