Craft Beer, Fine Wine, Artisan Spirits, and Mouthgasmic Food.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

2011 SXSW Guide to Getting Your Drink On

This is an update for my 2010 SXSW guide to imbibing in Austin.  If you're looking for places to try some interesting cocktails, taste some regional brews, or sip on some wine, you've come to the right place.  The variables that I used to choose bars to include on this list includes variety in selection, atmosphere, and location.  This is definitely not a comprehensive list of bars in Austin. These are places that I might frequent to enjoy a quality wine, beer, or cocktail.  Here's a Twitter list of Beer, Wine, and Cocktails tweeters to follow.

View Beers, Wines, and Cocktails in a larger map

Downtown Area
Walkable from Downtown, but put on some comfy shoes. It'll be a 20-30 minute walk.

South Austin

Just a week bit North Austin

Far out North, South, East, or West!

2011 SXSW Guide to Happy Hours

Happy Hours are plentiful in Austin, and trying to curate a short list was really difficult.  Here's here's a short list of happy hours with respective commentary.  I've also included two links of intensive happy hour websites.  Happy Hour is usually 5pm - 7pm, with reverse happy hours during the last two hours of operation.  Be forewarned that these happy hour spots can get very crowded, and you might find yourself employing some parkour tricks to pounce on empty tables.

Austin Frugal Feaster - This one hasn't been updated in a while as it has restaurants listed that are closed, but most of the restaurants are still open.

Austin Food Journal's Calendar - This one is more interactive with a scrolling calendar.

Jeffery's - 1204 W Lynn St   Austin, TX 78703   (512) 477-5584 -  Jeffery's is one of those classic Austin restaurants.  I haven't been for Happy Hour in quite some time, but I do remember having a foie gras slider the last time I was there.  That's right, I said foie gras.

Eddie V's - 301 E 5th St   Austin, TX 78701    (512) 472-1860  - @NatanyaP likes Eddie V's, and my @Windaddict/@HopSafari enjoys the happy hour there as well.  It is also in the heart of downtown.  I've enjoyed their crab cakes at events many times as well.

Fonda San Miguel - 2330 N Loop Blvd W   Austin, TX 78756  (512) 459-4121 - @FondaAustin - Fonda San Miguel is an Austin icon.  Christian Bowers says that's where he first took his wife on a date many years ago.  Fonda serves tasty lamb chops and mushroom quesadillas, and most of all, I love their petit four desserts.

Quality Seafood -   5621 Airport Blvd  Austin, TX 78751  (512) 454-5827 - Quality seafood isn't really a restaurant perse.  It is more like a diner inside of a seafood market, but don't be put off.  The prices are right, and the food is pretty tasty.  They have daily specials and $2 fish tacos on Tuesday.  I didn't enjoy the crab cake here.  Order the gumbo instead.

Paggi House - 200 Lee Barton Dr  Austin, TX 78704  (512) 473-3700 @paggihouse - I love Paggi House for the atmosphere, service, and the dog friendly patio.  Not only are the deals great, the presentation of the food here has been tops.  I haven't been let down here yet!  Half off selected drinks and half off appetizers.

Trio at the Four Seasons - 98 San Jacinto Blvd  Austin, TX 78701 (512) 478-4500  @FSaustin - Trio understands happy hour.  With fabulous deals, cheery staff, great selection of wine, and to scrumptious lamb sliders, Trio has earned my happy hour loyalty.  Half off selected wines and appetizers, not to mention the new addition of a cocktail menu.  

McCormick's and Schmick's - 401 Congress Avenue  Austin, TX 78701   (512) 236-9600 @MccormickSchmicks - While it isn't the very best Austin has to offer, McCormick's and Schmick's is a great place to go for cheap eats.  With a purchase of a drink (minimum $2, ice tea counts), order from a reduced price menu in the bar area.  From half pound burgers and fries for 2.95 to a healthy serving of hummus and pita for 1.95, you can't go wrong.  McCormick's and Schmick's offers a regular happy hour and a reverse happy hour.  Get there early or practice your ninja skills in snagging a seat.  It can get crowded during happy hour.  Menus may different at both locations.

Monday, February 21, 2011

I'm the richest person in Austin @TedXAustin

Once the TedXAustin videos and photos are up, I will start adding photos and switching out the videos.
I love  I really do, and TedXAustin 2011 was my third TED experience.  Each of my TED experiences have been uniquely different, and left me even more certain that I was deeply in love with TED.

My first TED was TedXAustin 2010.  I thought the energy in the room was tremendous, the speakers and attendees were equally amazing, and I was infatuated with connecting to the awesome people I had met.  My second TED was TedXUT 2010, in which I was the live tweeter.  Live-tweeting for a conference is extremely mentally draining.  Not only must one pay full attention all the time at the conference, one much also quickly synthesize the content and post it into short 140 character messages.  I also respond and join conversations when I'm live-tweeting, which makes it only about a million times for difficult.

My TedXAustin 2011 experience can be described with several words: reflection, sharing, compassion, and understanding.  This experience had energy that was different from the others.  Many of the speakers spoke about pain, confusion, heart ache, and triumph.  I didn't leave thinking that I was going to change the world, but I certainly did leave feeling a wider range of emotion than on a normal day.  The day started with an engaging performance by Mother FalconMother Falcon was like the liberal Austin version of classical music.  Performance and style like that kind of make me wish I didn't give up on the piano 10 years ago.  I was in awe.

Another emotion expressed on stage was gratitude.  Gilbert Tuhabonye was that man.  Even though he came from Burundi with the scars of warfare, this man glowed of sunshine.  As an adolescent, he watches as his friends turn into his enemies and his other friends turn into the victims of beheadings.  Though his body was burned, he managed to escape by literally running away.  Running thusly became many things to him.  Gilbert also sang to the audience, a song he sang while running as a child.  And we mostly tried to sing back in tune.  I can't wait for his video to be online so that you see this someone who runs with joy.

JoaquĆ­n Zihuatanejo expressed many other emotions. Emotions that my overactive mirror neurons picked up.   Joaquin isn't just a poet.  He made poets.  He was an English teacher who took def poetry by the scruff of its neck and shook some crazy passion in it.  This embedded video isn't of his performance at TedXAustin, and but I do hope that it will be soon.  One of his poems hit close to home.  It was about a deaf student named John.  This deaf student name John reminded me of my own experiences teaching last semester. It was a striking reminder, and a reminder that though we live in the same physical space, our worlds are completely different. 

Another interesting theme at TedXAustin was on being rich.  No, I'm not talking about money.  I'm talking about having a rich life.  I think my life is richer than foie gras mousse served on pao de queso and covered with butter.  My life is rich with experience - the experience of driving all over the 48 contiguous states, the experience of working in prisons, the experience of driving on an autocross track, the experience of training and handling the top most titled dog of my breed in the world, and the experience of launching a cupcake at a zombie. My life is rich with friends, family, and community.  My life is also rich with opportunity, and lastly, my life is rich with food.  And after another great TedXAustin experience, I'm the richest person in Austin (self-proclaimed of course). 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Eating local @FigSantaMonica

I recently visited Santa Monica on business, and needless to say, the trip was also pleasurable.  Weather in Austin was pretty nasty right after my departure, and I arrived to see this.  Sunny skies, warm sand, and blue waters greeted me.  This is the view from the Fairmont patio. 

I decided to take a walk down to the beach.  Yes.  That's a gorgeous sunset.

And I couldn't resist dipping my toes into the cool water.  I didn't rush this experience. 

After a short nap, I made reservations for Fig Restaurant located in the Fairmont Hotel.  I love figs (the fruit), and I was pretty excited to love this Fig.  Visiting Fig was a real treat, reminding me much of our local Trio at the Four Seasons.  The service in both the hotel and restaurant were impeccable.  I would routinely return to my room to find apples, cookies, and fresh towels.  At the restaurant, I was greeted by name and with a glass of bubbly and a smile.  I'm getting a bit spoiled here.  A big thank you to Chef Ray Garcia and Chef Mat for sending out some lovely surprises. 

This dish is the foie gras and chicken liver parfait served with fig marmalade and grilled baguette. The flavor and texture combination were outstanding.  The foie gras and chicken liver parfait was incredibly rich, creamy, sinful, but not pungent. It was fantastic when paired with the sweet, thick fig marmalade.  Also, it was served in a really cute jar.  I ate this all by myself, except for the jar.

I smelled these babies a mile away, and that smell was of fragrant brown butter.  These fingerling potato and cheddar pierogi were the best pierogis I have ever had.  It will be very difficult to up these.  The outsides were crunchy and buttery, and the insides were hearty.  With the cold weather rolling in, this is a dish that will make you feel warm. 

Here's another dish that is perfect for the cold weather.  Kurobuta and cavalo nero meatballs.  These babies were juicy, hearty, flavorful. 

I'm from Texas where hot peppers are plentiful, and I groan many times when I taste a chile or salsa labeled hot only to discover that it is super mild.  The green tomatillo sauce on the incredibly tender braised beef tongue had just the right kick to make this Texan happy.  Be warned that this dish is not super mild.  That's coming from someone who drinks salsa for breakfast.  I loved this dish.

This was the pumpkin tortellini with blue hubbard squash and sage.  That brown butter was at it again.  Paired with the sweet pumpkin and crunchy hazelnuts, this was a great take on one of my favorite flavors: pumpkin. 

This is the hand-harvested scallop with artichoke berigoule, and smoked ham hock.  This scallop had the perfect sear on sweet meat.  It was simple and not overly complex so that the flavor of the scallop was distinct.  I loved the crunchy fried artichoke chip on top that added another layer of texture to this dish. 

This was the final course.  Melrose apple tartine with caramel sea salt ice cream.  It was warm with perfectly cooked apples that were just slightly tart.  The cool ice cream was a fabulous balance to the tartine.  Thanks, Fig Restaurant, for knocking this one out of the park.  Not only was the service welcoming and the food utterly delightful, it was interesting to see what sorts of food a local produce driven restaurant was cooking up in another part of the country.  As Austin was deep into the cold season, California was just getting persimmons and quince.  I don't even know of anyone growing quince in Texas.  Hopefully, I'll be coming to visit often in the future and trying other local produce.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

@NoblePigAustin - Pork so tasty, you'll forget about how cute they are

The Noble Pig is a drive, a long, long, long drive into the Northwest corner of Austin, TX.  And this is a drive that is worth it.  I had a couple of coupons I purchased for the Noble Pig due to the recommendation of many others via the Twitterverse, so @windaddict/@hopsafari and I made the trek up there. 

Here's some little piglets (not edible) I found at the shop.  They are pretty darn cute if you ask me. 

This was the BLT – House smoked bacon, lettuce, and roasted tomato.  It was pretty darn fabulous. Photo by @windaddict.

This was the The Noble Pig - Spicy Ham, Pulled Pork, Provolone, and Bacon. Photo by @windaddict.

And this was the brisket sandwich special.  I can't remember what was all in it, but it was darn good.  Photo by @windaddict.

The consistent factors that made these sandwiches awesome were 1. juicy, but not greasy meat 2. pork flavor 3. deliciously soft bread and 4. the flavor combinations of the dressing and other sandwich ingredients.  The execution of the three sandwiches were also perfect.  These are some of the best sandwiches I've ever had.  The only beef I have with Noble Pig is the hour long drive to get there, but it a well worth the drive.  If you're anywhere close to Northwest Austin, and you desire a sandwich that would bring @baconator to his knees, stop by the Noble Pig.  You'll be happy you did. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Austin Monthly's Cake Off

I attended the Austin Monthly Craziest Cake Competition last fall, and I thought I'd share the photos because I love cake.  I could probably put away an entire cake in one sitting.  I also love the photos because even though I love to bake cakes and cupcakes, I can't decorate to save my life.  I can pipe frosting, but I don't do cut out shapes or fondant.  Enjoy!

It's the South Congress Cake. 

Complete with trailer.

Here's a cake showing an Austin icon, Threadgill's. 

Other Austin icons. 

This wasn't my favorite cake in terms of design, but it was by far my favorite cake to eat.  The cake was champagne chiffon with strawberries. 

Awesomely crooked cake.

A pancake cake. That's some awesome balance. 

Fondant Leslie in a red thong. 

Marzipan Bevo. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Diner to Drive For: @MonumentCafe

Here's a diner to drive for: Monument Cafe.  You might have remember my post about the Monument Cafe (@monumentcafe) chocolate pie a few months ago.  That pie paired with 512 Pecan Porter is amazing.  @windaddict/@hopsafari and I took a little trip up to visit Monument Cafe up in Georgetown, TX.  Monument Cafe is in a new location (bigger) just a few blocks away from its original location.  The old location will soon be turned into a market (yay!).  The new location is not only bigger, but it also will be home to a large sprawling garden.  The herbs are out in the front of the cafe, and the back of the cafe will be home to the vegetables.  Enjoy the photos and stayed tuned for more news on the Monument Cafe. Thank you to Monument Cafe for having us in for a delightful lunch.  Photos by John M. P. Knox.

Look at that beautiful broccoli.  That is some gorgeous broccoli. 

The cauliflower is just at beautiful as the broccoli. 

And some lovely chard.

Here's the front of the cafe, which is appropriately in black and white.

The inside was modern yet with that nostalgic diner feel. 

I ordered the fried whole cat fish (with bone), and it was pretty fantastic.  I'm not a huge deep fried seafood fan, but this fish was crunchy and delicious.  Have this catfish, and you won't want to go back to nuggets.  Now the problem with Monument Cafe is the GIGANTIC vegetable selection.  Picking out the sides wasn't the easiest thing to do, but we had some help with recommendations. 

We also had the quiche with sweet potato fries and the squash casserole.  I'm pretty sure that @windaddict/@hopsafari wolfed down most of the quiche before I had a decent sampling.  I did manage to sneak some hot fries and heartwarming squash casserole. 

And last but not least, a chocolate malt made with house made frozen custard.  @windaddict/@hopsafari and I are huge fans of malts, and this one filled our malt craving.  If you're craving some comfort diner food, Monument Cafe is well worth the drive.  

Sunday, February 6, 2011

How to spot fake reviews

You're a business owner, and you're wondering how other businesses get so many reviews.  How did Uchi get 527 reviews with an average of 4.5 stars on Yelp (as of 1/1/11)?  How did Sugar Mama's get 314 reviews with an average of 4.5 stars on Yelp (as of 1/1/11)?  How come no one is talking about your business?  *I know that Uchi and Sugar Mama's do NOT engage in the behavior described below.  Thusly, I feel comfortable using their data. 

The temptation sets in.  You want more people to know about you.  You think no one will find out.  You're antsy for people to click on your website link.  You make a fake account on Yelp.  You give yourself five stars.  You wait a few minutes.  That wasn't too bad.  So you make another fake account.  You give yourself another five stars.  That was easy.  On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog right?  So you do it again. And again. And again.  Now you have seven positive reviews.  Job well done!  You ask your employees to log onto Yelp and to write reviews.  You ask all your friends, suppliers, regulars, and family members to do it.  It isn't technically wrong, if you don't get caught.  What an easy way to increase your ratings and pump up those reviews. 

WRONG. It isn't long before you get sniffed out.  You're slammed on the Master Debater's Threads, and Google Alerts show that you have been caught red-handed. 

Moral of the story. Don't write fake reviews.  Social media and crowd sourced content sites already spark controversy and debate.  Throw in examples of fake reviews written by business owners or their rivals, and everyone goes bananas.  Transparency in social media has been the norm with demand for honesty ever growing.  Users want to be able to put a face with a social media voice, and rest assured that conflicts of interests are revealed.  No one wants to be tricked.   

As a consumer, you do want to know which reviews are honest.  Here's some quick tips on sniffing them out.
  • Photo and name (Lack of online presence).  No photos and fake names are often hallmarks (though not always) of fake reviews.  Some fake reviewers have become savvy and will use a stock photo on the profile, and a generic screen name.  Stock photos (often flowers, trees, or puppies) are pretty easy to spot. Names are more difficult to gauge, but there are several ways to investigate. You can Google the screen name along with the city (example: Jennie C. Austin or MisoHungry Austin).  If nothing turns up, then it can get suspicious. 
    1. On occasion, the business owners and employees will use their real names and photos when reviewing their own businesses.  That's a dead give away as it is easy to check websites for business owner names or to find via  Sometimes, they will also write the review in first person.  "I worked really hard to open this restaurant" doesn't seem unbiased to me. 
  • Location listed on the profile.  If the location listed is not in same town that the businesses, look for other reviews in the same town.  Frequently, travelers review more than one business when visiting other cities.  If a person from Montana reviews just a single business in Austin, that would raise eyebrows.  It is unlikely (but not impossible) that an out-of-towner would review a business that isn't already well-known. 
  • Depth and breadth of reviews.  The number of reviews, types of businesses reviewed, and the details of the reviews are also very telling.  Lack of depth and breadth generally means that the person doesn't invest much time in the reviews or only selects particular businesses to review for whatever reason.  Those types of reviews are typically vague, lack descriptions, and are generic.  Here's some examples of vague reviews (names removed): 
    1. ********* has small plates packed with big flavor. Perfect place to meet for a drink and gently roll into dinner. Appreciated the guidance of the staff with perfect pairings of both beer and wine for our dishes. We ended up ordering the entire menu and nothing disappointed! Welcome to the neighborhood,*******!
    2. Wow, the ****** are amazing!!!!!
    3. I love all the*********, my favorite was the *******. I also had the ******* which was pure, literally....and wonderful on the recent cloudy cool days.  On a warmer day, the ****** is heaven on earth! What a novelty, can't believe I've never seen ******* anywhere else.
    4. This place is off the hizzy. HmmmMmmm I know what good is and this place is good, ya hear? 
  • Other contributions and timing of reviews.  If the reviews for the business were written before the business opened, you better believe that raises the red flag.  Also, contributing photos of "behind the scenes" or construction shots of a business is an indicator of conflict of interest with the business.  If you see the same shots uploaded to a review site that are on a photographer's portfolio, that is a dead give away.  *Anyone that has a relationship with the business or conflict of interest should either disclose it in a review or not review at all. 
  • Narrow range of businesses reviewed and aspects revealed.  This is a completely hypothetical example, though it has happened before with other suppliers.  A supplier naturally wants their customers to flourish, so they might be tempted to write reviews for their customers.  You might find a Yelp user that reviews only sushi restaurants, and the reviews praises only the freshness of the fish, how it is handled, and how it is prepared.  The reviewer's profile might say something about fish or link to a fish wholesaler website.  It is highly likely that the profile might belong to the restaurants' fish supplier.  That should be disclosed OR reviews of the restaurants in question should be avoided. 
    1. I can understand that a supplier really wants to let everyone know about their great ingredients and food, but the behavior should still be avoided. There are other ways to let people know about the ingredients. 
    2. Sometimes reviewers will outright say that they "are employees, and that's why they know the quality of the food is so great."  Oops.
    3. Sometimes the only other reviews are for other businesses in the same family (same owners).  Positive reviews of every single store in a chain is a little less than subtle.   
  • The same review (or clusters of reviews) appear on multiple websites, sometimes posted within minutes of each other.  That's waving the giant red flag of "someone on our marketing team was given the task of copying and pasting fake reviews to different websites this morning." 
  • A cluster of positive reviews pop up right after a single negative review.  Sometimes businesses have fake profiles in waiting.  If they receive a negative review, they immediately unleash several positive reviews.  It is pretty obvious when they are lined up chronologically.
Those are just some ways that fake reviewers are sniffed out.  The best defense against them is the time it takes to create believable fake profiles/online presence. 

*I've been going back and forth on whether or not I should write this.  I thought that in writing this, shady businesses owners might find tricks to appear less fake.  Honestly though, to create an online presence to does not escape the vigilant detection of savvy internet users and the likes of the Google machine would take hours upon hours.  I would guess that it would take no less than 50-100 hours per fraudulent online presence.  The likelihood of a business investing that many hours into a single fake review is extremely low.  Those types of businesses wouldn't even invest the time in reading this post. I don't think this blog post will affect these behaviors at all.