Love Doesn't Have To Hurt
Valentine's Alternatives for the organizationally challenged
America's most romantically demanding holiday is rapidly approaching, and what's the disorganized lover to do? Dinner reservations should have been made weeks ago to avoid waiting hours for your turn at that cramped two-top, flowers and candy are a reliable but somewhat uninspired option, and an expensive jewelry purchase at this particular juncture could possibly overstate your case. Never fear – Chronicle contributors Melanie Haupt, Mick Vann, and I have each come up with innovative suggestions to ensure that even the most hapless suitor can pull off a successful evening's celebration. Whether you need to map out an up- or downscale progressive restaurant dinner, plan a casually romantic tour of our nationally famous food trailer scene, or seek the lowdown on some truly Austintatious Valentine's Day events, we've got you covered. – Virginia B. Wood
A Valentine's Trailer Crawl
As an ATX weird-oriented alternative to amateur night at the restaurants, we propose instead a Valentine's Day food trailer crawl. For transportation, we'll need a designated driver of some sort – hopefully not our date. We can always rent a limo for the night, and if we do, we'll take along a couple of TV trays with the legs shortened, flowers in a vase, and tray-stable glasses for Champagne, plus some wet wipes, napkins, and silverware. Make it a group effort with pals and rent an RV for the night, or make it weirder and get a buddy to drive a pickup and stick a couch or a couple of recliners in the back. We're ready to roll.
We'll need some bubbly iced down since it goes with everything, and really good bubbly doesn't have to cost a fortune. We love Spanish Cavas for their big tastes and little prices, and for $11 a bottle, Poema Extra Dry is hard to beat (Twin Liquors Marketplace, 1000 E. 41st #810). Over the holidays, we had a Cava tasting, and the clear winner was Anna de Codorníu Brut ($13 at Spec's). If we want California wines instead, we'll appreciate Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Noirs ($11 at Spec's) or the Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut ($22 at Twin Liquors). Throw a few bottles of Topo Chico into the cooler for a discreet burp when nobody's paying attention.
We'd pop the first bubbly bottle and start the evening at the fantastic Spartan Pizza at 1104 E. Sixth for some zippy pizza appetizers: a small Hades ($8.50) with tomato sauce, Italian sausage, green olives, herbed ricotta, and pepper flakes; the perfect crust for the perfect starter. Next we'd roll right down the street a few blocks to the amazing East Side King at Liberty Bar (1618 E. Sixth), where we would indulge ourselves with beet home fries ($7), an excellent fried brussels sprout salad ($6), and some of chef Paul Qui's Thai chicken karaage ($8) – or would the succulent tongue buns ($6) be more apropos, it being Valentine's and all?
Heading north six blocks, we get our pig on at Ray Tatum's 3 Little Pigs, behind East Side Wines at 1209 Rosewood. We can't resist splitting the succulent pork belly slider ($7) and an order of that wonderful crackling-and-bacon meat loaf with cheese grits and collards ($7), and then we'll see if Tatum has the mind-boggling pork cheeks and frites ($8) or the luscious milk-braised pork with sage ($7). If it's cold, he'll probably have a toasty fire roaring in the pit. Next, we would zip over to Luke's Inside Out next to the Gibson (1109 S. Lamar) to split the Cow ($8), the perfect combo of brisket, grilled onions, smoked Gouda, and chowchow on a sandwich. We'll see what the specials are that night, but hopefully it'll be the addictive mapo-fried tuna fingers with sesame slaw ($7).
Having thought ahead, we've packed a dozen of Lammes Candies' famous chocolate-covered strawberries to nibble on at the end of the evening, available at any of its locations Monday-Tuesday, Feb. 13-14 (www.lammes.com). If we're done before 10pm on Valentine's, we might feel compelled to check out Lick (2032 S. Lamar) for some organic, artisanal ice cream.
There it is: delicious and innovative courses at a leisurely pace, cooked by some of Austin's more creative chefs, and shared by that special friend (and maybe some other friends thrown in for good measure) without the crowds and all that oppressive restaurant Valentine's Day drama, with affordable bubbly to boot. Maybe it's not so weird after all. – Mick Vann
What better way to express your romantic feelings (and community spirit) than by purchasing an eclectic piece of original artwork? For the past 20 years, La Peña Gallery (227 Congress) has raised funds for its various programs with the Toma Mi Corazón ("take my heart") art show and silent auction. This worthwhile event is always delightful, featuring heart-inspired artworks created by local schoolchildren, as well as some celebrities and amateur and accomplished artists working in a variety of media. Creative Creations Catering will be on hand to provide food and drinks, and Sister Sister will perform. The preview party gives guests an opportunity to nosh while scoping out their favorite heart piece before the bidding starts. Get tickets at the door: $10 for the preview party (4-6pm) and $5 for the auction (6-8pm). Saturday, Feb. 11.
If dancing to big band tunes from the classic American Songbook is your sweet babboo's idea of perfect romance, two of Austin's favorite female vocalists are throwing a party just for you. Mady Kaye and Sara Hickman invite you to their second annual Valentine's Ball in the historic Saengerrunde Hall (1607 San Jacinto). A quintet of Austin's best jazz sidemen will back the ladies, and the family-friendly event will include music, dancing, sweet and savory snacks, and a cash bar. No dancing shoes? Just come enjoy the performance of two fine singers in Austin's oldest surviving music venue. Tickets are $25 per person at www.madykaye.com. Sunday, Feb. 12, 5-8pm.
Food trailer operator Will Pearce (pictured above) has come up with this year's most distinctive Valentine's option, no contest. Pearce and his entire staff at the Way South Philly food trailer (East Sixth & Waller) are ordained ministers and can legally perform weddings and vow renewal ceremonies. During the entire month of February, Pearce is offering a romantic special: Get two Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, sides, and drinks to go with a marriage or vow renewal ceremony for $39.95. (Traditional Philadelphia-produced Tastykakes are extra.) After the ceremony, the bride and groom can perform the ritual of cutting the cheesesteak and feeding bites to their partners. Bringing guests, including well-behaved dogs, is encouraged. All Pearce asks is that you call ahead (771-6969) to book a ceremony, and he's offering $5 discounts to anyone who mentions reading this story; through February.
Is it possible those romantic passions could be fired by food, wine, and film experienced in an atmosphere of absolute silliness? Then make reservations for The Princess Bride Quote-Along Feast at your favorite Alamo Drafthouse location this Valentine's Day. Chef John Bullington has created a five-course feast inspired by scenes from the movie. In honor of the 25th anniversary of this hilarious swashbuckling fairy tale, the Drafthouse will launch its new signature wine program, The Bottle of Wits, also inspired by scene from the film. The Bottle of Wits varietals, Inconceivable Cab and As You Wish White, make their debuts during the Valentine's Day screenings and cost $7 per glass or $28 per bottle. Reservations for the feasts, as well as collectable wine bottles, T-shirts, and die-cut embossed wine glass charms as mementos of the evening are available online at www.drafthouse.com. Tuesday, Feb. 14, 7pm. – V.B.W.
Food trailer operator Will Pearce (pictured at right) has come up with this year's most distinctive Valentine's option, no contest. Pearce and his entire staff at the Way South Philly food trailer (East Sixth & Waller) are ordained ministers and can legally perform weddings and vow renewal ceremonies. During the entire month of February, Pearce is offering a romantic special: Get two Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, sides, and drinks to go with a marriage or vow renewal ceremony for $39.95. (Traditional Philadelphia-produced Tastykakes are extra.) After the ceremony, the bride and groom can perform the ritual of cutting the cheesesteak and feeding bites to their partners. Bringing guests, including well-behaved dogs, is encouraged. All Pearce asks is that you call ahead (771-6969) to book a ceremony, and he's offering $5 discounts to anyone who mentions reading this story; through February.
Choose Your Own Adventure: A Valentine's Day Progressive Dinner
Let's face it: The Valentine's Day prix fixe menu is the lazy lover's way out. For the most romantic dinner of the year, sweethearts should aim to go above and beyond placing the evening's menu in the hands of a restaurant staff that doesn't know your significant other well enough to know that while short ribs are OK, goat cheese is out of the question. That a microbrew and cheese fries are eminently preferable to steak tartare and Malbec. This year, the truly creative suitors will curate a playful progressive dinner tailored to the preferences and desires of their object of affection in the interest of maximizing pleasure spent in one another's company while sharing favorite foods. Here are two scenarios for a progressive dinner: one casual, one romantic. The tone and menu of your progressive dinner depends on your tastes and imagination, of course, but rest assured that your thoughtful creativity will be greatly appreciated, if not rewarded warmly.
Keep it Casual
Maybe you're in the early stages of a relationship when candlelit dinners and seduction scenes aren't quite appropriate. Break the ice and set the tone for a congenial evening with some low-pressure drinks and appetizers at Perla's (1400 S. Congress), where the friendly bite of the Stone Wall (rum, apple cider, and ginger beer) pairs delightfully with the diverse selection of fresh oysters on the half shell. If the weather permits, get the blood pumping with a friendly game of shuffleboard on the patio. Keeping with the utensils-optional vibe, head over to Lucy's Fried Chicken (2218 College Ave.), where a bucket of fried chicken (save some for a midnight snack), a half-dozen oysters, and a Lucy Basilia – a twist on the Blackberry Smash featuring Dripping Springs Vodka – help sustain a loosey-goosey, supercasual vibe between les amoureux who don't take this whole Valentine's Day thing too seriously. Finally, top off your meal with some genuine naughtiness and head over to Gourdough's (1503. S. First) and split a donut the size of a hubcap topped with anything from bananas to gummy worms. Be sure to drop by Dominican Joe (515 S. Congress) on the way for a cup of Fair Trade coffee to sip while you and your sweetie linger over the sugary fried treat.
For the Smooth Operator
On the other hand, maybe you're a husband in the doghouse for insufficient expressions of love and appreciation. Or perhaps you are really looking to make a statement with this V-Day dinner. This kind of progressive dinner calls for low lights, impeccable ambience, and sophisticated dishes. For an elegant but affordable start to your evening, enjoy roasted shishito peppers and a Paloma margarita while sharing a love seat on the airy, twinkling deck at Paggi House (200 Lee Barton Dr.), where appetizers and cocktails are half-price from 5 to 7pm on weeknights. From there, head east to Justine's (4710 E. Fifth) for steak frites or coq au vin and a French 75. While upon first glance the space seems to disallow elbow room, much less the whisperings of sweet nothings, the close quarters actually set the scene for a perfectly cozy, intimate dinner for two. And of course, no romantic dinner is complete without a decadent final act. Set the stage for whatever happens after the eating is done with a Nutella crepe with mixed berry compote and a glass of red wine at Apothecary (4800 Burnet Rd.; find seats facing away from the televisions by the bar) or the orange-olive-oil cake with a crisp Viognier at Vino Vino (4119 Guadalupe). – Melanie Haupt
Sign up for the Chronicle Cooking newsletter
If you want to submit a recipe, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org