Top Ten Food Stories of 1997

Best Bites of 1997



Bumper Crop of Texas Cookbooks: Angela Shelf Medearis and Miguel Ravago

photograph by John Anderson

1. Changes and Transitions in the Local Restaurant Biz The transition traffic in the restaurant business this year made it hard to keep the players straight. It was enough to make you dizzy, what with some high-profile closings -- Coyote Cafe, Brio downtown -- and major transitions: Bertram's replaced chef Peter O'Brien and made chef Miguel Ravago a partner; O'Brien rounded up investors and opened Si Bon in the former Skyline Grill location; the popularity of the suburban Brio Vista prompted owners to close their downtown location and expand the catering facilities of Z'Tejas Grill; longtime German restaurant Gunther's was purchased by Cuban immigrants who added the cuisine of their homeland to the menu and made a very unique two-fer; Xena became the Austin outlet of San Antonio's El Mirador; Cedar Street was taken over by landlord Sinclair Black and the Bertram's group; displaced Brio chef Raymond Tatum did a guest stint at Threadgill's for several months; snazzy Mediterranean restaurant and wine bar Tocai blossomed in an abandoned bagel store; Señor O'Brien's gave way to the Rhythm House tapas bar; and while the owners of homegrown chain Serrano's purchased the beleaguered Ninfa's chain from bankruptcy court, the scions of Houston's Lorenzo family opened a Ninfa's outlet in the site of the former Coyote Cafe.

2. Robert Mondavi Becomes an Honorary Texan The legendary patriarch of the California wine industry was the guest of honor at last April's Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival and was named an honorary Texan by George W. Bush, Jr. While Mark Miller was in the Four Seasons lobby bar whining to New York restaurant entrepreneur Drew Nieporent about how much he hates Austin, Robert Mondavi donned his new grey felt Stetson and had an Austintatious good time at every festival event. He made encouraging remarks about the future of the Texas wine industry, danced with his lovely wife to the sounds of Mr. Fabulous, and bought a case of Becker Vineyard's Viogner for his private cellar. Y'all come back anytime, Robert!

3. Re-opening Party at Bertram's Twelve hundred Austin food lovers attended the June soiree to re-christen the downtown landmark building and welcome beloved chef Miguel Ravago back to the restaurant business. The huge crowd devoured tiny, excellent gorditas and sopes, and washed them down with Lucinda Hutson's signature tequila punches. A great time was had by all.

4. Bumper Crop of Texas Cookbooks In a remarkable year for local cookbook collectors, we enjoyed books from both local and national publishers. UT Press published Texas Tortes by pastry chef Art Meyer, Bright Books brought us Janice Woods Windle's True Women Cookbook, and Eakin Press put out Texas Tacos to Tuxedos by suburban Austin caterers Betsy Nozick and Tricia Henry. The self-published Stop and Smell the Rosemary from the Junior League of Houston was named the top community cookbook in the country at the Tabasco Awards, and the heir to a local restaurant dynasty wrote Matt Martinez's Culinary Frontier. Simon & Schuster debuted Cocina de la Familia by Marilyn Tausend and local chef Miguel Ravago and plans to launch the Spanish version in 1998, and Dutton released another volume by Angela Shelf Medearis, Ideas for Entertaining From the African-American Kitchen.

5. Explosive Growth For Farmer's Markets For a while this summer and fall, it looked like we had almost as many farmer's markets as local farmers, but that's a good thing. Ardent farm supporter Pamela Boyar left Whole Foods Market and began promoting markets in the Westlake Hills and Hyde Park neighborhoods with great success, while established markets at Travis County Farmer's Market, in South Austin, and in surrounding towns continued to thrive.

6. Organic Produce Moves Into the Mainstream Locally, more organic produce shows up in farmer's markets and on more grocery shelves and restaurant menus every day. Nationally, the FDA finally joined the big movement to establish clear national organic standards industry-wide with stiff financial penalties for misrepresentation. As the popularity and profit potential for organic produce continues to grow, consumers and chefs need to educate themselves about what organically raised produce really is so the term organic won't go the same way as now meaningless terms such as lite, low-fat, fat-free, and natural. The use of the herbicide Round-Up on weeds and the chemical fertilizer Miracle-Gro to enhance crop yields are not consistent with organic farming methods no matter how charming the farmer.

7. National Conference on Vegetarian Diet Pyramid Held in Austin Because of Live Music and Good BBQ Oddly, the Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust made no effort to contact local vegetarian restaurants or members of Austin's well-informed vegetarian community to encourage participation in its November event. Instead, it chose to feature menus of non-vegetarian celebrity chefs from Austin, Houston, and San Antonio at the event gala and spent its free time scouting BBQ joints and live music venues.

8. National Chains Vanquished in Local Bagel Wars At some point in 1997, Austin achieved critical mass where bagel stores were concerned and something just had to give. When the flour settled, longtime local favorites Hot Jumbo Bagel and the Bagel Manufactory were still shaking and baking, while Bruegger's and others quietly folded.

9. Austin Food Company Stocks Looking Good Though they've yet to overtake Dell Computers on the NASDAQ market, nationally traded homegrown food companies Whole Foods Markets and Schlotzsky's performed very well for stockholders in 1997.

10. Ethnic Food Options Expand In 1997, adventurous Austin palates were delighted by the opening of two Salvadoran eateries (Sabor and El Zunzal), an authentic Caribbean jerk joint (Calabash), an Indonesian noodle house (Java Noodles), a new Middle Eastern spot (Kismet Cafe), a genuine Irish pub (Fadó), a Mediterranean restaurant and wine bar named for an Italian grape varietal (Tocai), a couple of good Cajun places in outlying areas (Broussard's in Cedar Park, Hoody's in Oak Hill), new Mexican, Chinese, Thai, and Korean restaurants too numerous to mention individually, one Spanish tapas bar (Rhythm House), with another one to come in January (Malaga), and a genuine gelateria downtown (Milano's).


BEST BITES OF 1997

by Virginia B. Wood



Sashimi at Musashino

photograph by John Anderson

1. Salad Nicoise at Mezzaluna Former Mezzaluna chef Edward Behrhorst treated me to a sumptuous feast on my birthday in July. The entire meal was extraordinary, but the Salad Nicoise made with fresh local vegetables and a tapenade-encrusted filet of fresh tuna was simply the best thing I ate all year.

2. Zarape de Crepas Fonda San Miguel chef Roberto Santibanez and Mexico City cooking teacher/author Maria Dolores Torres Yzabal teamed up to prepare a dinner celebrating Julia Child's 85th birthday in August. The first course was a cilantro crepe gateau layered with goat cheese, poblano pepper strips, lettuce, and tomatoes in a luscious avocado sauce with olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette.

3. Potato Bread w/bacon & chives at Schlotzsky's/Bread Alone Executive pastry chef Rebecca Rather worked this bread into Bread Alone's regular lineup last spring and I've been hooked on it ever since. Flecked with real bacon and fresh chives, it's the best bread imaginable for BLTs -- if you can keep from eating the whole loaf in the car when it's warm from the oven.

4. Schnecken from Russell's Bakery I'm hard pressed to decide among the big, raisin/nut-studded "snails," the cinnamon-sugar dusted cinnamon rolls, and the weekend special apricot kolaches, but I'm pretty sure the schnecken are my favorite.

5. 10oz Tenderloin Steak at Royer's Round Top Cafe Restaurateur Bud Royer won an award from the Beef Industry Council for his creative use of beef this year, and I can understand why after eating this steak. He coats a 10oz piece of beef tenderloin in his personal spice blend, cooks it no more than medium rare with some dill butter, and serves it surrounded by tasty grilled onions. Every butter-drenched, cholesterol-laden morsel of it was divine.

6. J*One*S Venison Rack at 34th Street Cafe I was lucky enough to try Tim Albright's treatment of John and Sydney Jones' tender venison chops during the few short months when 34th Street had a fling with dinner service. Albright's barely sweet berry demi-glace was just the right complement to the locally raised game meat that's showing up in restaurants all over town (Si Bon, Cafe at the Four Seasons, Zoot, et al.).

7. Rosemary Habanero Jelly I have J. P. Hayes to thank for introducing me to this spicy condiment from Austin Slow Burn. The jelly makes a dynamite topping for plain, humble cream cheese with crackers, but it really transforms grilled pork chops or tenderloin. It's a close call between this wonderful local jelly and the multiple national award winner from Fredericksburg, Fischer & Wieser's Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce.

8. Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon This elegant premium wine is the top of the line from the Rutherford, California property owned by moviemaker/vintner Francis Ford Coppola. It was the crowning glory of a delightful wine dinner menu prepared by Miguel Ravago and served in the lovely private wine room at Bertram's last summer.

9. Guinness Ice Cream@Fadó; Coffee Biscotti Ice Cream@Central Market Ice Cream Contest; Gianduja Gelato @Milano's My abiding love for ice cream is no secret and this was a heavenly year for it. There was just no way to choose among these three remarkable flavors. Amy's makes the Guinness for themselves as well as Fadó, Fonda San Miguel pastry chef Natalie Poilpre sometimes features her coffee biscotti creation on her dessert menu, and the chocolate/hazelnut gianduja is in the regular rotation at the new downtown gelateria.

10. Chile del Campo from Boggy Creek Farm I was just wild about this fresh, organic hot sauce from Austin's favorite urban farmers all summer and fall. Larry Butler uses organic tomatoes, onions, jalapeño peppers, and balsamic vinegar, then enriches the flavor with a touch of the olive oil from his own smoke-dried tomatoes. After tasting it at the farm stand, I drank my first jar of this addictive concoction on the way back across town in the van. Larry promises to make more next year.


TOP TEN REASONS TO BE HAPPY (OR HUNGRY) AT CERTAIN HOURS

by Meredith Phillips



Manuel's Happy Hour

photograph by John Anderson



1. Manuel's
Making a meal (and a night) of happy hour at Manuel's is extremely easy with sale-price margaritas and half-price appetizers, including the hefty blue lump crab nachos, and the stellar ceviche and campechana. Don't forget an order of fresh corn tortillas.

2. Z' Tejas Grill They finally caught on and are offering all appetizers, rather than a select few, for half price at happy hour, along with their signature jalapeño margaritas.

3. Suzi's China Grill It can be distinguished from the original Suzi's (also excellent, not so fancy) in four major ways: the tremendously good lamb dishes, the half-price spicy tangy dumplings (or any appetizer, for that matter) between 5pm and 7pm, fusion cocktails with names like Suzi Crackle, and the upscale decor.

4. Rhythm House 1997 brought this new tapas bar to Austin, and with it yet another chance for half-price foods (and reduced-price drinks, of course) between the hours of 5pm and 7pm. Check out the sangria and the blue drinks.

5. Miguel's La Bodega Same deal. Half-price applies between 5pm and 7pm, $1 off the special frozen margs, and an almost city-ish atmosphere -- a total anomaly in Austin -- to boot.

6. Curra's An excellent restaurant to begin with, but it moved up a notch by putting margaritas on sale ($1.99) all day until the dinner hour.

7. Fadó A certain charm (enhanced by the fabulous, marble-mouthed waitstaff) overrides the Disney effect of this prefabricated Irish bar. During happy hour the drinks are still rather pricey, but I highly recommend it nonetheless. Plus, they have a "brill" salmon salad that can feed a family of four for as many days.

8. Dog and Duck Pub $2.25 pints all day Tuesday, and the fish and chips are the perfect excuse for malt vinegar, which consistently rocks my world.

9. Waterloo Brewing Company Wednesdays are happy days: Waterloo's microbrews are $1.50 per pint.

10. Good Eats, Barton Springs Road "Hush up, bundle up, drink up" was the mantra of the 83-cent margarita devotees. For a limited time early in 1997 (read: winter), the Good Eats folks served cheap frosty ones, but only on the patio. How they arrived at the concept or the price we'll never know, we're just sad it's over.


TOP TEN MEALS YOU EAT WITH YOUR HANDS (THAT AREN'T HAMBURGERS, SANDWICHES, OR TACOS)

by Patrick Earvolino

1. Tuna or Salmon Sashimi @ Musashino

2. Argentina Empanada @ The Empanada Parlour

3. Slice of Plain Pizza @ Domenick's Pizzeria

4. Chicken Gyro @ Phoenicia Bakery & Deli

5. Schezwan Tofu Wrap @ Snow Pea

6. Citronella Beef @ Fortune Pho 75

7. Spinach Calzone @ Niki's Pizza

8. Spicy Thai Chicken Wrap @ Wrapido

9. Blazin' Buffalo Wings @ BW-3

10. El Champion Burrito @ La Salsa


TOP TEN SALAD BARS

by Patrick Earvolino

Few pounds heftier since the holidays but no less busy? Stop by one of these venues for some light fast food between returning gifts and hitting the sales racks.




Whole Foods Salad Bar

photograph by John Anderson



1. Whole Foods Market
($4.99/lb) Small but wonderfully eclectic selection includes fine organic vegetables, wheat roast, tamari seasoned tofu, baked sweet potatoes, and exotic soups. Dressing options of Garlic Sass and Oka's Miso clinch first place.

2. Central Market ($4.00/lb) A changing assortment of tasty prepared salads, including the wonderful eggless egg salad, in addition to fresh produce and homemade croutons, place this bar at a close second behind Whole Foods.

3. Albertson's Village Market ($2.89/lb) Quality greens plus tempting goodies that range beyond standard items (carrots, mushrooms, broccoli, etc.), including hearts of palm and artichokes, cubes of grilled chicken, guacamole, tapioca pudding, and several satisfying soups, make this bar the best bargain on the list.

4. Hickory Street Bar & Grill ($4.29, all you can eat) Downtown's quaint salad bastion offers a ton of fixings, from crudités to more exotic items, such as pickled hot cherry peppers, three-bean salad, and potato sticks. A buck more gets you soup, baked potato, and sundae bars as well.

5. Souper Salad ($3.99 all you can eat salad bar; $4.99 with soup) Like Hickory Street but without the atmosphere. Some of the prepared salads can be decent, e.g., Thai pasta salad, shrimp ceviche, and the ever comforting tuna skroodle.

6. Randall's at Westlake ($2.99/lb) Fresh greens and big chunks of ham, smoked turkey, and jack cheese make this bar perfect for the chef salad lover. Price includes taco bar hard-shell tacos, stewed chicken, and seasoned ground beef.

7. Jason's Deli ($4.25 all you can eat) Standard salad greens and vegetables countered with 10 kinds of crackers, a giant bowl of crostini, and a mysterious balsamic hot sauce.

8. Marie Callender's ($6.95 all you can eat) Small selection includes an interesting homemade chicken-and-raisin salad as well as real bacon bits. Pie included on Sundays.

9. Fresh Choice ($3.99 for one trip to salad bar) Signature prepared salads are a bit heavy, but crumbled bleu cheese and steamed broccoli options earn kudos .

10. Sirloin Stockade ($4.99 at lunch; $5.99 at dinner) Small, basic salad bar is part of a buffet that includes baked and fried chicken, braised vegetables, macaroni and cheese, and brisket.


TOP TEN WINTER MICRO BREWS AVAILABLE ON DRAFT IN AUSTIN

by Patrick Earvolino

1. Young's Winter Warmer Dark, full-bodied ale accented by apricot and chocolate.

2. Redhook Winterhook Not too heavy, not too sweet: the accessible winter brew.

3. Fuller's Old Winter Ale Bitter and woody; like their ESB but sweeter.

4. Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale Citrus-y, with a ton of Cascade hops.

5. Samuel Adams Winter Brew Creamy, malt-heavy brew; full-bodied but deceptively pale.

6. Pyramid Snow Cap Aromatic ale with hint of citrus and spice.

7. Anchor 1997 Christmas Beer Spiciest beer on the market: nutmeg, nutmeg, nutmeg.

8. Anchor 1996 Christmas Beer Like the '97, but fuller with more licorice in the palate.

9. Shiner Winter Ale Medium bodied and slightly sweet; Shiner's best effort yet.

10. St. Arnold Christmas Ale Sweet ale with an off-nose from a normally great producer.

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