Category Archives: Review

Book Review: Plant-Powered For Life by Sharon Palmer, RD

 

Do you want to feel vibrantly alive? Do you want to be in the peak health of your life, no matter your age? Do you want to enjoy a constant kaleidoscope of rotating colors, flavors, textures, and aromas in your meals? Do you want to do your fellow mankind, animals, and the planet a huge favor?

Living a plant-powered life can give you all that and more.

I had the great honor of being asked to read and write a review for “Plant-Powered For Life“, the recently-released second book by Registered Dietician Nutritionist Sharon Palmer. Also the author of “The Plant-Powered Diet“, an avid blogger and speaker, and with hundreds of hands-on hours helping people empower their life and better their health through diet, Ms. Palmer knows her food.

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This is an insightful, instructive book which focuses on a whole-lifestyle approach to better health through better eating. It is exactly the kind of book I have been looking for. It includes tons of practical tips from how and what to shop for at the grocery store, to ways to prepare and cook different vegetables, to 125 plant-powered recipes.

There are also gorgeous full-sized photos of various recipes and produce sprinkled throughout every chapter. The food looks so tasty, it would make even the most hard-core carnivore crave a Farro and White Bean Burger, Thai Lettuce Wrap, or Strawberry Soy Lassi.

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She begins the book simply, by asking the reader to create a plant-powered life goal. There is a whole spectrum from die hard carnivores simply aiming to include more plants in their daily diet, to going full-blown vegan. You choose how vibrantly plant-powered you want your life to become.

Since I am a lifelong omnivore, I’d like to add more veggies into my diet every day, as well as having a minimum of one meatless day per week. I will keep packing in more and more veggies, until they begin to supplant the meat naturally.

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The book is broken down into 52 chapters, and each is a call to action about changing one small segment of your life. You can choose to take on one chapter per week for a year-long journey to plant power, or you can skip around to whatever chapters best fit in your life and speak to you.

Included in each chapter is 2-3 plant-powered recipes. These recipes feature seasonal produce, and a rainbow of variety. Ms. Palmer repeatedly makes the point that eating varied, whole, plant-based foods is the most ideal diet humans can follow.

Each fruit, vegetable, legume, or grain has a unique mixture of micro- and macro-nutrients that contribute to vibrant health. We need a rotating variety of these vitamins and minerals to achieve and maintain ideal health.

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All the recipes have suggestions for substitutions or variations; for example, if you follow a gluten-free diet for dietary reasons there are substitutions included to make the recipe gluten-free. Most have very brief ingredient lists, and prep/cook times under an hour. I have already found at least a dozen recipes I am super excited to try and get into my weekly meal rotation!

I am so happy to have this handy plant-based eating guide slash cookbook on my kitchen shelf. I’m sure I will refer to it for advice, ideas, and inspiration for years to come. Count me in for eating more plants this year!

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The best part of this article, is that Ms. Palmer’s team has been generous enough to enable me to give one lucky reader a copy of their very own! Below is a Rafflecopter giveaway; you can earn up to four entries, plus an extra one each day you Tweet about us!

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This giveaway begins at midnight MST on Sunday January 25, and ends Sunday February 22nd at noon MST.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Product Review: Steep and Go

 

As you may know from my earlier post all about the Health Benefits of Tea, tea is very good for your health for many reasons. Whether you drink it hot with honey or over ice, tea can contribute to a happy, healthy lifestyle.

I am always looking for new tea flavors to try, and new ways to get more tea into my days. I have a tea pot and cups that a friend gave me for a birthday which I love, it strains the loose leaves and you can pour right out of the pot. I have a tea kettle my thoughtful brother gave me which has that classic whistle to it. And I am always on the lookout for new and exciting tea companies and products.

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One day over a year ago, a friend who is a fellow tea lover recommended I check out The Tea Spot website. Located in Boulder, they are a local Colorado tea company producing high-quality loose leaf tea blends and tea products. Their website is also packed with educational information about tea, as I referenced.

As I’ve collected more loose leaf tea, I have enjoyed the winters much more. Unfortunately, during the summer I don’t want hot tea and I’m too lazy to brew it hot then cool it in the fridge before drinking hours later. The Tea Spot has found a solution! The cold brew steep and go.

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This plastic miracle has an adapter which allows it to fit onto most standard sized water bottles. The top is a pop-up nozzle which clicks closed for no spills, and the bottom part is a filter which keeps loose leaves out of your mouth, and in your bottle.

To answer commonly asked questions when people see mine:

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1. How long can you steep the tea?
As long as you want. I put it in the bottle at night, stick it in the fridge, then take it with me the next morning.

2. Doesn’t it get bitter?
Nope, not at all. I think this is because you put it in cold–room temp water rather than boiling water; it doesn’t release as many tannins.

3. How much tea do you use?
You only need about 1 heaping teaspoon per 16 oz bottle of water. And I’ve re-used the leaves for two brews with success.

You can choose to add sweeteners such as honey or splenda, but after one or two bottles I grew to prefer the taste of simple green tea. The only thing healthier is pure water!

When I first received the steep and go, I tried to put it onto a bottle directly. I could not get it to tighten, because I didn’t realize there are two adapter rings, one the color of the steep and go, and another clear plastic one. Both sides are slightly different sizes, such that the adapters can make the steep and go fit four different bottle types! The Tea Spot also has a re-useable bottle for the steep and go, which will definitely be my next purchase.

I have not yet tried to run it through a dishwasher, but if put on the top shelf the plastic seems hardy enough to not melt. I will likely end up hand-washing this every dozen uses or so.

Besides loose leaf teas, they now offer whole leaf tea bags as well. You may wonder, what makes these tea bags different from ones I can buy at Wal-mart? Let me allow them to explain:

The differences between loose leaf tea and traditional tea bags are numerous, and it goes far beyond the surface. The leaves used in most bags are actually the “dust and fannings” from broken tea leaves. This is a huge compromise in quality from full leaf tea. Finely broken tea leaves have lost most of their essential oils and aroma. When steeped, they release more tannins than whole leaf tea, resulting in bitter astringent brews. The material, shape, and size of the bags themselves are also important factors. Most tea bags constrain the tea leaves, keeping them from expanding to their full flavor and aroma potential.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the sound of “tea dust” as a beverage.

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Sue of Siam — Restaurant Review

 

In Aurora, Colorado, on an innocuous side street in a rather run-down part of town, a tiny white building sits back in a parking lot simple labeled Sue of Siam: Authentic Thai Cuisine. Their slogan is “We bring Thailand to your table”.

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It’s a place I had driven by a hundred times when I lived near that part of town. Curiosity began to build, and one day I decided to do something about it. I talked a friend into being brave with me, and we adventured inside.

The place is small, seating only about 20-30 people. But the feeling is intimate, and the owner makes you feel like one of the family immediately. He was very attentive, explaining anything we had questions about and making recommendations. They will accommodate any spice level and taste preference.

When asked for our drink order, I saw hand-written onto the menu “Lime juice”. Imagining a shot straight from the fruit, I had to try it.

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Turns out it was like lemonade, but made instead with limes. It was sweet yet tart, and very refreshing.

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We had the egg rolls, Cashew chicken, and Pad Thai of course.  Everything on the menu is very affordable, with lunches averaging $7-8 and dinner only one dollar more. The egg rolls were sweet and crunchy and totally addicting. Their house-made sweet and sour sauce is delicious enough to want to eat with a spoon.

The cashew chicken was chock-full of fresh steamed snow peas, bell peppers, and sweet chunks of marinated white meat chicken all bathed in a complex umami-packed brown sauce.  And the Pad Thai was a perfect rendition with thick noodles, crunchy bean sprouts, a spicy-sweet peanut sauce and crushed peanuts on the side.

Overall, I’d give Sue of Siam:

  • 9 for taste
  • 10 for atmosphere
  • 9 for value

Sue of Siam is located at 106 Del Mar Circle, Aurora, CO 80011. You can call them at (720)949-1980 or visit the website. I’m not sure at this point if the deliver, but they definitely do allow carry-out, and offer catering and private parties.

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How to stay cool, plus a Keurig give-away!

 

Summer is winding down, but there are still a few scorchers ahead. And even through the fall and winter, sometimes it’s nice to have a frosty beverage pick-me-up. Iced drinks are my number one favorite way to keep cool, as they taste great and also cool your internal body temperature, making it easier to beat the heat.

It’s no secret that I love my caffeinated beverages, and have finally figured out the secret to Perfect Iced Coffee. This trick works with tea, juices, or any other drink as well. Try it yourself and see how great it is to no longer have watered-down drinks that are still icy cold.

This summer, Keurig is sponsoring a nation-wide #StayCool contest! If you share a photo of how you stay cool on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, you are entered in a contest to win a Keurig K Cup and other fun goodies!

  • On your mobile device, take a photo and share it on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #StayCool & #Sweeps. Make sure to share your location!
  • Your photo will appear on the interactive map where you can see how everyone else is riding out the summer heat. You’ll automatically get a chance to win a Keurig® brewer and Brew Over Ice K-Cup® packs!

In other exciting news, The Budget Epicurean is partnering with Keurig for a K Cup beverage give-away! Readers who enter will have the chance to win:

  1. A variety pack of Keurig K Cups
  2. Coupons for BOGO K Cups
  3. An ebook with drink recipes

Top three entries will receive the prizes in order. One other mode of entry is to send an email to BudgetEpicurean (at) gmail (dot) com with your name and how you #StayCool! Raffle ends 8/25/2014. Winners will be notified and posted about on 8/26/2014.

BudgetEpicurean Keurig giveaway, by Rafflecopter.

This is why I was super-pumped to get a Keurig K-Cup brewer! IMG_4471

I’ve long laughed at the idea of a one-cup wonder, as I tend to brew a big ‘ol pot of java on Monday and use it throughout the week (or freeze it… hint hint). However, I’ve been more and more curious as tons of new options come out for this bad boy. What if I only wanted one cup of hot coffee? What if I wanted to try a new type of tea? What if I wanted cold tea?

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Well, now Keurig has the answer to all these dilemmas! Hot tea, any kind you want, just one cup, and no tea kettle required. Cold tea, perfect for sunny days, porch sipping, or watching your show on the couch. Coffees, flavored coffees, decaf too. All at the touch of a button.

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I have to admit, I’ve only tried a few varieties so far and I’m already in love! This guy had earned its counter space the first day I had it. Set-up was a breeze, and it was ready to brew within minutes of leaving the package.

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The first thing I tried was the Vitamin Burst acai berry Cold Brew. It smelled delicious the second it began brewing.

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Simply fill up a tall glass with ice cubes, pop in the cup, and hit ‘brew’. Easy peasy.

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This is a 24 oz cup I think, and it was done in less than a minute.

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I just popped on some berries and a cute umbrella as garnish, and enjoyed!

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The flavor is delightful, refreshing and light. I found the highest brew setting was just sugary enough for me, though you could choose lower amounts of water if you like it stronger.

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Trying to re-create the ice cube “splash” on the box. =)

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The Keurig obviously works wonders for coffee. For just one cup in the mornings or afternoon, pop in your favorite and hit the button. You can have six people with six different favorites, and serve up a hot fresh round in minutes. My counter is now half dedicated to beverages.

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The brew-over-ice coffee is equally wonderful. Yes you will get some watered down effect, unless you use my tip

In case you missed it above, The Budget Epicurean is partnering with Keurig for a K Cup beverage give-away! Readers who enter will have the chance to win:

    1. A variety pack of Keurig K Cups
    2. Coupons for BOGO K Cups
    3. An ebook with drink recipes

Top three entries will receive the prizes in order. One other mode of entry is to send an email to BudgetEpicurean (at) gmail (dot) com with your name and how you #StayCool! Raffle ends 8/25/2014. BudgetEpicurean Keurig giveaway, by Rafflecopter!

Disclaimer: Keurig machine and K-Cups were provided by Keurig Green Mountain, Inc., all opinions are those of the Budget Epicurean.

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These guys are the Real Dill

 

Many a huge business success has started from one tiny great idea. One such idea was had the day Justin Park and Tyler DuBois decided to make a batch of pickles together. For some time, each had been individually making homemade pickles as a fun hobby. They exchanged recipes and tastes, and eventually collaborated. That first batch, the original version of their Jalapeño Honey Dills, foretold of greatness. The pickles were so unique, crunchy, and flavorful, they just had to share their creations.

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After two years of talk, plans, and recipe experimentation, they launched the brand “The Real Dill” in summer of 2012. To this day, they still follow the same recipes they created in their home kitchen, using all natural ingredients and home canning techniques. All of the pickling spices used are proudly sourced from local Denver business Savory Spice Shop.

Their flavors range from high heat Habanero Horseradish and Jalapeno Honey to the more tame Caraway Garlic Dills. The Bloody Mary Mix is made in part with excess pickling liquid and a smooth tomato base, yielding an herby, complex drink that just needs a dash of liquor to make your day. New recipes and flavor combinations are tested all the time, so be on the lookout for new favorites.

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I was lucky enough to have the chance to interview Co-Founder & Owner Justin Parks.

So Justin, what is the ‘story’ of The Real Dill, how did it all start?

It was really just a hobby gone wild. We were making pickles for fun and really didn’t have plans to start a business. But we got really excited about what we were making and I think we expected the excitement to wear off at some point and it never did. So after a year or more went by and we were still devoting our free time to this pursuit we knew that it was something we were really passionate about. We finally decided to take the leap and it has been a wild ride ever since.

That sounds like such an adventure! How do you source your products? The cucumbers, the spices, the jars, etc.

Sourcing is probably one of the biggest challenges and something that we are constantly striving to improve upon. Our primary focus is to find the absolute best quality product that we can get. After all, the end product is only as good as what we start with. Sourcing good quality produce can be a lot trickier than you’d expect and although we go through what we think is a lot, we don’t have a ton of buying power. Our cucumbers come from various sources throughout the year, including Colorado, Mexico, California, Georgia, and Florida. We source all of our spices from Savory Spice Shop in Denver.
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What is your favorite pickle flavor?
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My favorite flavor changes all the time. Every product we make is so different from the others that it can depend on your mood at the time or what you’re eating it with. That said, I think the Spicy Caribbeans are my favorite. They have tons of flavor and are just so unique and unlike anything else out there. 

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Where do the ideas for recipes come from?
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The ideas and recipes come from general inspiration. Sometimes it may be inspirations that hits us while traveling, or while eating a great meal, or cooking at home. We have a long, long list of recipe ideas that we are interested in trying out and we haven’t gotten to most of them just yet. But when something really excites us, we make it a priority because ultimately that is why we are doing what we’re doing. To have fun.
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Sounds like you really have your priorities straight. Do you offer factory tours to the public, take part in community events, etc?
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We do not currently offer any tours because we’re operating in a shared space. But we are in the process of moving into a new facility that will belong to us and we are very excited to bring people in and show them what we do, how we do it, and even teach them how to do it at home. (AWESOME, home pickling lessons! Sign me up.) We do tons of events, including farmer’s markets, festivals, in-store demos, and other miscellaneous gatherings. We do over 200 events per year, closer to 250, actually. We love to engage with people and share our passion for what we do. Getting out into the community to engage with people face to face is very important to us.
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If you don’t have time to hit up a farmer’s market, you can find their products online by searching your zipcode to find the nearest vendors, or ordering online at Mouth.com.
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So how much does word-of-mouth help your business vs. paid advertising?
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I don’t believe we have ever paid for advertising, so I don’t have any experience with it. There’s obviously no better advertising than word of mouth, and its something that we benefit from a great deal. Events are a great opportunity to connect with people and share an experience with them. That is far more powerful than a billboard or a magazine ad can ever be. It also takes a lot more effort.

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What is your favorite part of working with The Real Dill?

I think business and entrepreneurism is rarely thought about as a creative pursuit. But I think that it requires endless creativity and that’s what makes it fun. There are new challenges every single day and there is no book with all of the answers. So, you have to find creative and inventive solutions to the problems that come up. It’s a huge challenge and that’s what I enjoy most about what I do.

Is the “pickle industry” competitive compared to other food genres?

In our experience it definitely has not been. Before we got started we reached out to some established pickle companies in other areas and locally, and for the most part they were happy to help. And there’s not a shred of competitiveness in the local Colorado artisan food and drink scene. It’s pretty amazing how genuine and supportive everyone is. I think that, for the most part, people are creative enough to distinguish themselves from the competition and people realize that the rising tide raises all ships. We have formed some pretty amazing friendships and partnerships with people that might be assumed to be competitors.

That’s so great to hear. Colorado in general does seem to be blessed with a huge variety of amazing artisinal foodies. What type(s) of your products sell best and why?

Our Bloody Mary Mix is actually our best selling item, which was not something we expected. We were pretty naive when it came to the market for Bloody Mary Mix. But from the very first day we launched that product it has been our best seller, and we sell out of it pretty regularly.

Apparently Coloradans like their boozy breakfast drinks with a hit of flavorful pickle juice! Seems like you cultivate many new as well as returning customers. What do you hope your overall customer experience is like?

We hope that our pickles are so good that you feel like you have to tell everyone you know about them. Not only would that mean that they were good, but also that they made you happy.

Making people happy is a worthy goal. What do you see as the future for the Real Dill?

We definitely look ahead, but generally speaking we’re most focused on the step immediately in front of us. We’re very intentional about slow, organic growth, at a pace that is comfortable for us. Our goal is not to be a nationally distributed product, but hopefully we can find a sweet spot that allows us to pay the bills and to have some flexibility. Most importantly, this is a pursuit of passion so it only works if we are having fun. And we couldn’t be happier to be doing what we’re doing and we’re fortunate to be able to do this for a living. 

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There you have it folks, a Cinderella story of a fun hobby turned into a pursuit of passion and full-blown business for two creative Colorado entrepreneurs. The next time you are at a Farmer’s Market, be sure to find the Real Dill’s booth and sample some of their handmade artisan pickles, and famous Bloody Mary Mix. Your taste buds are sure to thank you.

Honey, you’re so sweet

 

“Honey honey, how you thrill me, ah-hah, honey honey”… ABBA had it right. Honey is thrilling, and delicious. Produced by the humble honey bee, it is an ancient sweetener and medicine.

How is honey made?

Honey begins as flower nectar. The flowers make a sweet, sugary liquid for the purpose of attracting insects, like the honeybee, to them. In this symbiotic relationship, the bee gets a treat and the flower gets its pollen spread. The pollen sticks to the bee’s furry body, and it can carry the pollen miles away to fertilize another flower.

The worker bees bring the nectar back to the hive, where they store it in the honey combs. The sugars are naturally broken down, and evaporation turns the liquid into the thick, gold goodness we know as honey. Humans have found ways to harvest excess honey while not harming the bees and leaving more than enough for the hive. Good news for us all!

Watch this clip from How It’s Made, in less than 5 minutes, explain how honey is made, harvested, and bottled in our modern world. You could also check out Ford’s Honey Farm, or the National
Honey Board website for more info.

What can you do with honey?

Honey is a versatile thing. Honey is a great, natural sweetener. Thus, you can use it to replace sugar or other sweeteners in many things. It can be used as a sweetener in beverages and baked goods, such as a sweetener and binding agent in granola bars, or mixed with balsamic vinegar and drizzled over strawberries.

A teaspoon of honey in warm milk will help rid you of insomnia, at least I believe so. A tablespoon (or four) of honey makes a warm cup of tea positively sing. Honey can be used in cooking as part of a tropical marinade, in a dressing for coleslaw, or as a snack like putting honey on a sweet potato.

I got my awesome honey from Bjorn’s Colorado Honey at the Cherry Creek Farmer’s Market which I recently reviewed. You can find them in Boulder, CO at 845 Mohawk Dr. or many Colorado farmer’s markets. The woman running the stand was very kind, and passionate about bees and the good they do in the world.

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Her company not only sells local raw honey, but also makes many beeswax products and proplis based cosmetics. What is propolis? you may ask.

According to Wikipedia, propolis is a resinous mixture bees collect and use to seal small gaps in their hive. Larger gaps are usually sealed with wax. Beeswax is used in many cosmetic products, but propolis largely has gone to waste. Until now.

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I tried a sample of this hand cream, and it truly is wonderful. It instantly makes your skin feel smooth and supple, and smells clean without any perfumy fragrance.

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The honey itself was only $10 for a 16 oz jar. To order some yourself, email pontus. jacobson @ gmail. com. The viscous liquid gold is wonderful on just about anything; particularly drizzled over yogurt, granola, and fresh seasonal fruit.

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Honey nutritional facts

Honey is more than just sugar. Per 1 tbsp, it has about 60 calories, zero fat and cholesterol, 17 g of carbs (16 of which are sugar), but also has trace vitamins and minerals, as well as antibacterial properties which may help the healing process for cuts or bites.

Honey also has beauty benefits. The Huffington Post lists 9 “sweet” ways you can use honey in your beauty routine for frugal fixes, from dry hair to chapped lips.

It is a popular belief that honey can help cure seasonal allergies. The logic behind this claim is that bees use nectar and collect pollen from the flowers which are blooming in your area. Thus the honey will contain small amounts of this pollen. When you eat local honey, your immune system recognizes these foreign particles and fights them. Then when you encounter them again in nature, you should be fortified with pre-made anti-allergens.

The problem is, that is false. Simply eating small amounts of local honey cannot cure allergies. Reasons include the fact that bees carry back many types of pollen and contaminants, so you cannot have honey made from say only ragweed pollen. Also allergies are typically caused by allergens blowing in the wind, not the kind the bees collect on their bodies. This just means honey belongs in your kitchen, not your medicine cabinet.

For official information, visit the Mayo Clinic website, WebMD.com, or How Stuff Works: Health page.

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 What is your favorite way to use honey?

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Winery Review: Balistreri Vineyards

 

Long known for its microbreweries and beer, Colorado is gaining traction in the winery business. Many small, local wineries have been sprouting up all over the Front Range and growing in popularity. From the Manitou Springs Wine Festival to the Denver Urban Wine Fest and  Denver International Wine Festival, to the Colorado Mountain Winefest in September, the Colorado appreciation for fermented fruit is gaining momentum.

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The Colorado Association for Viticulture and Enology (CAVE) is a member-based association that exists to encourage and support enology and viticulture in Colorado.” If you’re interested in viticulture, especially in the state of Colorado, check out their extensive website.

One local winery that has been a huge success since it’s opening in 2011 is Balistreri Vineyards, located at  1946 E. 66th Avenue. A local family business, they have been awarded medal after medal in local, national, and international wine competitions. Originally farmers, then owners of a large greenhouse, the family realized the cut flower and potted plant industry near home was taking a turn for the worse. They decided to tear down the dozens of greenhouses and build a little wooden building to house the beginnings of their winery.

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This is the back of the winery in the winter. A large yard space is surrounded by a terraced walkway which is wrapped in lights in the winter and greenery in the summer. There is a raised stage on which bands could perform, or a couple could say their wedding vows.

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Inside the remodeled and expanded building, there is a giant hall to hold a few hundred guests, a fully functional kitchen, and a beautiful picture-perfect staircase leading up to the bride’s and grooms chambers. It is a perfect set-up for a wedding, and so picturesque to boot.

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This is just a sampling of the many award-winning wines Balistreri has produced. They specialize in bold, fruit-forward reds and dry, refreshing whites. If you go in the tasting room you can sample their entire line-up of wines. “The Winery is open for Wine Tasting, Winery Tours & Lunch seven days a week from 11:00am-5:00pm.”

The tours are fascinating and informative. All wine-making and aging is done in house. The basement is filled floor to ceiling with giant oak barrels, housing future Balistreri wines.

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These barrels are majority American oak, with a few specialty barrels from time to time for seasonal and special wines. For example, two barrels that previously housed whiskey hold future port at the moment, to give unique flavors and aromas to the finished products.

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They also hand-fill and cork all their wine bottles here, with huge ancient metal machines.

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And the final, finishing touch: a swirl of wax to seal the top of the bottle. Keeps it fresh, and classy.

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Demonstrating how to wax the bottle.

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After your tour and/or tasting, if you’re feeling hungry or too buzzed to drive home yet, they have a wonderful lunch menu with everything from small tastes and cheese trays to full meals of salads, sandwiches, and pastas.

IMG_9435 These are the bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with almonds. They were sweet and a little bit salty, absolutely delicious. Every plate is served with fresh ciabatta and dipping oil.

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This is the roasted pear salad with dried fruits, goat cheese, candied nuts, and balsamic vinaigrette. The bed of arugula provided the perfect bite to the sweet fruit and balsamic, and I’m a sucker for anything with goat cheese.

The service is quick, and they are very attentive. Water glasses are kept refilled, and you can of course have a glass of any of their wines with lunch. Oh, and if you go on the tour after the tasting, they will pour you a glass of your favorite to take with you!

The location is fabulous, with the exception of the overall location. They family farm was in the same place for decades, but around it has sprung up the industrial heart of commerce city. Thus, the picturesque porch and trellises surround a lovely sitting area, right next to which drive giant semi trucks and various construction vehicles. The business next door rents cranes, whose long metal bodies you see peeking over the winery’s back fence.

I have not attended any special events, but I know they have many. A wine and dinner with a projected romance movie, live music, and harvest festivals are only a few of the yearly offerings. Check their website often for updates.

They also have a wine club, which offers two levels of membership, access to new releases and special edition wines, and great discounts. Especially if you live in the area you should consider it, as you get even more discounts for picking up your wines rather than shipping them.

 

Overall, I would rate Balistreri Winery as:

  • Taste: 8
  • Atmosphere: 8
  • Value: 6

As a reminder, for reviews the evaluations are based on:

  • Taste: 1 (wet toast) – 10 (your taste buds have died and gone to heaven)
  • Atmosphere: 1 (gas station bathroom) – 10 (best you’ve ever experienced)
  • Value: 1 (not worth it) – 10 (super duper deal)

All opinions are those of the Budget Epicurean. Please enjoy responsibly.

 

Cherry Creek Farmer’s Market

 

If you have been following this blog, it’s no secret that I love fresh produce, and especially summertime farmers markets! And if this is your first visit here, now you know that I love fresh produce! =)

As such, when I moved to Colorado from Ohio, one of my first priorities was finding local markets. There actually was one right on my campus the first summer here. It was super convenient, but unfortunately not enough interest to continue it this summer. So I had to find new places to explore and get my fruits and veggie fix.

Wherever you are, Local Harvest has a great farmers market finder. You can also find farms, and local CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) through their site. In Colorado, I’m so thankful that people love fresh, local produce as much as I and there is a website called Colorado Fresh Markets that lists several in the Denver area.

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I live quite close to the Cherry Creek area, so I enlisted a good friend of mine, and we set out one sunny Saturday morning to explore. We were greeted by amazing smells, quiet happy noises, and slow-roasting of the locally famous Hatch chiles.

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The Cherry Creek Shopping Center at the corner of 1st Avenue and University Blvd. fences off a huge area of parking lot for all the vendors. Open every Saturday from May 3 – October 25 from 8am – 1 pm and on Wednesdays June 18 – September 24 from 9am – 1 pm, you have two chances to enjoy the local bounty.

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As we walked around there was a good-sized crowd of people from all walks of life. There were many moms pushing strollers and holding toddler hands, ladies still pregnant with their husbands sweetly carrying bags and boxes, older couples, professionally dressed people, people in gym clothes or yoga pants, plenty of dogs on leashes.  Everyone was simply enjoying the day, no rushing, chatting with friends and strangers. Something about a Farmers Market turns everyone present into friends and time becomes irrelevant.

The range of vendors was just phenomenal. There were mutiple vendors touting hand-made soaps, candles, belts, clothing. Of course I was most interested in the foods, and there was food galore. Many different farmers were set up with tables laden with farm-fresh produce. Tiny plants, flowers, and herbs. Tomatoes, heirloom and not, cucumbers, watermelon, beets, carrots, potatoes, onion, lettuces, corn, exotic looking fruits.

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And there were so many types of cheese! Hard cheese, soft cheese, wedges, wheels. Cheese that was hard outside and liquid inside. Most vendors offer samples so you can try for yourself how silky smooth the “Snowdrop” cheese is.

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Live music is found in at least two different locations. Singers, guitars, and drums keep the mood calm yet festive.

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And the pastries! The breads! The rolls, cakes, doughnuts, pretzels! It’s a carbo-loader paradise. The homemade farm-fresh bread looks artisan and beckons to your nostrils to buy a loaf. And at 2 for $10, why not?! They are huge, and far healthier than a bleached, fortified store-bought bread could ever be.

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This doughnut company had such a clever name, “Glazed and Confused“. And they had very unique and interesting doughnuts, including the wildly popular right now maple bacon. They also had one inspired by the Girl Scout “Samoa” cookie.

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Crazy elaborate doughnuts seems to be a foodie trend that is not going away anytime soon. Luckily for them, because they are celebrating the opening of their brick-and-mortar location at 5301 Leetsdale Drive in Denver as of June 13th!

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I had to sample a dumpling from the Pierogies Factory, because due to my Polish/ Hungarian/ Solvak heritage, I have had literally dozens of pierogis in my life. I must say, their pork pierogi was the bomb. Not the same as a soft mashed potato pierogi like mom makes, but the pork was a totally unique flavor bursting with salty, herby goodness.

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And then we have The Real Dill, a local artisan pickle company. From Habanero Horseradish Dill to Jalapeno Honey, from Caraway Garlic to their Bloody Mary mix made with pickling juice, their flavors will blow your mind.

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And of course they offer samples of each! IF you try the Habanero or Aji Chile, may I recommend having lemonade or bread nearby?

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Then we started to realize that all these great smells and tiny samples had started our bellies to rumbling. The Farmers Market draws a crowd of food trucks, eager to impress. Each is as fascinating and unique as the next, but we eventually settled on Gyros.

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Oh. My. Word. This gyro meat…. so perfectly seasoned and flavorful, bursting with onions, garlic, and herbs. Piled onto thick, warm, homemade pita bread, and then slathered in dressed greens, tomato, feta, and kalamata olive.

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The half-size was more than enough, but they offer a full size, chicken, falafel, and vegetarian options as well.

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An example of some of the brighter characters that Farmers Markets attract.

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We were both looking to restock our honey stores, which had gotten low over the winter due to high tea consumption. And then we found these people. The lady who runs the stand is just the sweetest, friendliest woman you’d hope to meet. She regaled us with stories of beekeeping, and why bees are so critical to the future of our food.

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The tall, white-haired gentleman beside her is her son-in-law, and the inspiration for the name “Bjorns Colorado Honey”. Originally from Sweden, he met the lady’s daughter in Austria and they fell in love. She convinced him to move to Boulder and get married, and he became part of the family honey business. Ah, love. A jar of the honey ended up in both of our bags that day.

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They also make hand cream from parts of bee life usually discarded, the “propolis”. It is a resinous substance made by the bees to protect and seal their hives. It has many biomedical and cosmetic uses. According to WebMD, “Propolis seems to have activity against bacteria, viruses, and fungi. It might also have anti-inflammatory effects and help skin heal.” Clever.

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The huge hot pretzels for sale.

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Fresh hand-made strawberry lemonade to quench your thirst.

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My friend and I headed home after a long, fulfilling day at the Cherry Creek Farmers Market!

 

All in all, the farmers market was a blast. I went home with a huge loaf of farm-fresh bread, chive and garlic goat cheese, a jar of Colorado honey, and a belly full of happy. I also got a little hint of a tan! Bonus.

Farmers markets are a great way to make new friends, relax, and support local businesses and farms. Check out one near you this weekend!

 

 

Taste of Austin: Restaurant Reviews, Part 2

 

To remind readers, this is the second part of the first food review article for Budget Epicurean. For reviews, preference will be given to unique, local, family-owned establishments. Food locations will be evaluated based on:

  • Taste: 1 (wet toast) – 10 (your taste buds have died and gone to heaven)
  • Atmosphere: 1 (gas station bathroom) – 10 (best you’ve ever experienced)
  • Value: 1 (not worth it) – 10 (super duper deal)

All opinions are those of the Budget Epicurean.

So we survived 2 days of a 4 day trip so far, and have kayaked along downtown, been filmed for The Cooking Channel, tried tacos of all sorts, and experienced food trucks, dive bars, and fine dining in Part 1 of Austin food reviews. Upcoming adventures include skydiving, hipster bars, ice cream, burritos, and of course you can’t leave Texas without some classic Texas BBQ!

After a late brunch at the Roaring Fork, we were pretty well sated. However, that same friend who was kind enough to introduce us to Gourdough’s had more late-night epicurious adventures planned.

This time, the lovely silver sporty car rolled to a stop in front of local hot spot Easy Tiger. Bake shop by day (and night) and hopping hipster bar scene by night, I was wowed by the atmosphere here. At 709 East Sixth Street, the place was wall-to-wall packed with locals laughing and talking, sipping on craft brewed beers from a huuuuuuuuge blackboard list, munching on various ethnic appetizers, and playing various bar games. Not surprising for a Friday night.

The indoor portion offers tempting-smelling baked goods at street level, convenient for anyone stumbling home from the famous 6th street drink-fest at 1am. If one is still coordinated enough to descend the steep staircase, a large tavern area greets you with a not-too-loud mix of music playing, several bar areas, and plentiful seating.

Wander further and you reach the outdoor area. Aforementioned huuuuuuge list of beers is a reminder as you walk out into an iron-fenced cobblestone yard littered with picnic benches right next to a gorgeous river. With several bridges over the water, lighted lampposts, strings of lights, and wall-climbing ivy, the whole area is reminiscent of a European alleyway. At the furthest end there is a netted area for ping-pong, where a rowdy group of people is playing a heated game.

Easy Tiger outdoors

We sit at a weathered wooden picnic table and intently study the drink menu. Nowhere near hungry enough for a full meal, we defer to our friend’s expert opinion. He puts in our order, and then the waitress looks to me for my drink. Still a bit overwhelmed by the selection, I ask her opinion on a light, fruity beer. She gives me full details on several on the menu, and I end up choosing a Real Ale Fireman’s #4.

The beers are delivered in frosty, heavy glass mugs in record time. The Real Ale was still a bit hoppy for me, but I’m a beer novice. I had gone against my friend’s advice, who wanted me to try a local Austin beer, and I regret it a bit. However, there is a flavor for every taste and plenty of opportunity to go back and try another.

They do have a “Mug Club” with the cryptic “ask your server for details” on the menu. I can only assume that means some sort of challenge whereby you pay a large price upfront then get to try each and every beer they offer. If I were an Austin local, I may be up to the challenge.

As we chatted in the breezy evening air and listened to the water flowing by, our server brought out the surprise appetizers: the Mixed Grill and a house soft pretzel.

The mixed grill consisted of a perfectly balanced four-point spread of beef sirloin with cilantro chimichurri, pork tenderloin with stout maple glaze, grilled corn, and house-made kielbasa with sauerkraut and honey mustard.

Easy Tiger apps

As there was only one piece of corn, and I did not consume it, I cannot attest to the caliber of the vegetables here. The meat however… How can I even describe the beef sirloin? Delectable. Melt in your mouth. Perfect. It was cooked just right, crisp brown exterior with a butter-soft pink interior. The chimichurri sauce was a flavor explosion of fresh herbs and spices.

The pork tenderloin was tender and juicy, sweet with a subtle beer flavor. And the kielbasa made the pollock inside me swoon with happiness. The honey mustard was a bit too overpowering for my taste, and the sauerkraut doesn’t hold a candle to my grammy’s. However, the kielbasa itself was perfect just as it was. Though quite pricey for the amount of meat, the Mixed Grill is an indulgence worth trying at least once.

The soft pretzel was roughly the size of a large person’s head. It was perfectly soft and doughy, and liberally sprinkled with sea salt. I’m not sure if there was anything other than butter in the dipping sauce, but it was sure addictive. It all disappeared faster than we probably wanted.

Overall, I’d give Easy Tiger:

  • 8 for taste
  • 10 for atmosphere
  • 7 for value

Though it would have been perfect enough to sit and enjoy the view and atmosphere of Easy Tiger, we were a three-block walk from the most famous drinking and debauchery location in Austin, so we had to explore further.

6th street sign

While we ate nothing further that night, I can attest that 6th Street is indeed quite the party place. As it was also graduation weekend for many local universities, I’m sure the crowds were even rowdier than usual. And local establishment The Jackalope has decent Kamikaze shots. Lemony and burny, just what one needs before dancing the night away.

What’s the best thing to do the next day on little sleep?  Indoor skydiving of course! Austin iFLY is a giant indoor skydiving destination. Using the same technology professional skydivers practice with, you can experience what it’s like to float and free-fall.

iFLYIt is quite the experience to be wearing a fitted flight suit and lean forward into an enormous upward air stream to be completely supported in midair.

flyingConveniently, right next door is a local favorite ice cream spot, Amy’s Ice Creams. With several locations, this one offers those who have done the iFLY experience an extra free topping. Jackpot.

The website lists over twenty pages of rotating ice cream flavors. They also offer all the standard toppings like hot fudge, caramel, nuts, and whipped cream, along with a dizzying array of specialty toppings. Chocolate dipped strawberries, sundaes, frozen yogurt, ice cream cakes, floats and milkshakes round out the full menu of delicious desserts.

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They also have a question on the board which if you answer correctly, you get a bonus topping! It’s worth knowing your Disney trivia for extra chocolate or candy goodness. See if you know the featured question from when I went.

What movie is this quote from: “Cause I’m a lady, that’s why”?

I’m not telling the answer, in case that question is still up. =) I knew it because I’m a Disney girl through and through. That meant I could have up to two extra toppings! I’m such a sucker for warm brownies and ice cream. So I ended up with a warm brownie sundae with vanilla bean ice cream, hot fudge, caramel, nuts, whipped cream, and butterfinger bits.

Yeah, it was just as mouth-watering as you’re thinking it was.

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The ice cream was distinctly vanilla flavored, with flecks of the bean throughout. The chocolate fudge was molten liquid, slightly melting the ice cream. A soft, fudgy brownie waited  at the center for anyone daring enough to dig for it. And dig I did. The crunchy Butterfinger pieces were the perfect topping, and I just love peanutty things stuck permanently in my teeth.

The whole experience was fantastic, though my eyes were far bigger than my stomach. I could have split this with someone and still had extra left over. The ice creamery was right next to the bakery part of Amy’s and though I did not try any of the food from there, it smelled divine. The inside had televisions showing live-image feed from the skydiving going on next door. And there was a gorgeous shaded play area out back with lots of toys and playground equipment to keep the sugared-up kids that go there happy.

Overall, I’d give Amy’s Ice Creams:

  • 8 for taste
  • 7 for atmosphere
  • 7 for value

To head off the sugar coma which was sure to follow this treat, we decided to do a quick hike up Mount Bonnell. This is the generally accepted highest point in Austin at 775 feet. Named for the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Texas Republic, George Bonnell who moved to Austin in 1839, spectacular views of Lake Austin and occasionally downtown are offered from the peak.

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After a quick jaunt up the 190 feet incline of steps and some photo ops of the Lake view, we have worked up enough hunger to round out our journey with a stop at Freebird’s World Burrito.

Begun in 1987 in Santa Barbara, California and made popular by UC Santa Barbara students, Freebird’s four tortilla flavors and four sizes of burritos quickly spread like wildfire and grew in popularity.

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Each Freebird’s location boasts a life-sized “Libby” statue of liberty riding a custom-built bike exploding out of the wall.

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There are many choices to be made, first up: what size of burrito? There is the original FREEBIRD size. Then if you’ve a smaller appetite, the HYBRID. (S.O. says “that one is for wimps”). If you’ve got a mighty appetite, you can try the MONSTER. And if you’ve a death wish, go ahead and take on the SUPER MONSTER. Those bad boys weigh in at about seven pounds of meat, cheese, rice, and toppings. Holy heart attack.

I decide that in the interest of not dying I’d like the wimpy hybrid. Now, what kind of wrap? They offer four flavors: Spinach, Cayenne, Flour, or Wheat, each with its own unique color. Let’s try spinach, to pretend like a massive burrito is a healthy choice.

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From top to bottom, the MONSTER, the FREEBIRD, and the HYBRID.

Layered up with meat of your choice, beans, salsas, lettuce, cheese, and/or sour cream, rolled into a tight bundle and wrapped in aluminum foil, we grab our giant bag of goodness and head on home. But not without first admiring all the tin foil art around the building. Apparently it is a thing to take your foil from an eaten burrito and turn it  into a piece of art. Then you leave it scattered about the building for future burrito-lovers to enjoy. It’s amazing how creative people can get sometimes…

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“Fresh. Natural. Scratch-made on the daily. That’s the way FREEBIRDS rolls.” The website does not lie, this burrito tastes like all the ingredients came out of a garden just this morning. The steak is seasoned perfectly, the veggies are crisp and delicious, the salsa isn’t too spicy as to make it inedible, and the green tomatillo sauce is just right. This is a similar and yet different experience from Chipotle, with its own unique offerings.

Overall, I’d give Freebird’s World Burrito:

  • 8 for taste
  • 7 for atmosphere
  • 7 for value

With the Austin trip coming to a close, we realized we had still not had any Texas BBQ. As we had to head to the airport the following afternoon, the best option was to have the Salt Lick BBQ at the Austin International Airport.

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Want to know what makes the Salt Lick BBQ so unique and darn delicious? They say “The barbeque sauce has no tomatoes so it won’t burn or become bitter. It does have sugar so it will easily caramelize. We sear the meat and then move it away from the hottest part of the fire to cook slowly. We finish our products over an open fire fed by live oak wood.” Whoa.

Though I was assured that the airport version is nowhere near the same as the sit-down location in Round Rock, TX, it sure smelled like heaven waiting in line at the airport. We had to go with the brisket meal deal, because we all know brisket is simply the world’s greatest meat. It comes with classic baked beans and a pickle, on a square sesame seed bun.

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The brisket was divine. The BBQ sauce was indeed not tomato-ey or tart, but it had a sweetness and smoky depth of flavor. The meat is tender and juicy, good enough to eat alone by the pound. The beans were interesting… too much black pepper for my taste, and not enough brown sugar or bacon. But who cares when you have the world’s best meat sandwich right?

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The sandwich was so filling that I only finished half of it. Luckily I could take the rest on the plane ride home, and had a little piece of Texas for lunch the following day. At about ten bucks for the meal, getting two meals out of it was a bonus.

While the airport offered plentiful seating near the location, it was in an airport. So I cannot judge what the atmosphere of the sit-down location is like.

Overall, I’d give the Salt Lick:

  • 9 for taste
  • 5 for atmosphere
  • 7 for value

 

And there you have it. Eight food destinations in Austin Texas, from all different food genres and price points. Each one unique and with outstanding offerings, I hope dear readers that you have the chance to visit all of them at some point.

 

 

If you have a food location you’d like to see featured here, please email me at Jennifer (at) budgetepicurean (dot) com with details.

 

Taste of Austin: Restaurant Reviews, Part 1

 

As this is a food blog, I’ve decided to expand it to include reviews of notable food locations. Preference will be given to unique, local, family-owned establishments. Food locations will be evaluated based on:

  • Taste: 1 (wet toast) – 10 (your taste buds have died and gone to heaven)
  • Atmosphere: 1 (gas station bathroom) – 10 (best you’ve ever experienced)
  • Value: 1 (not worth it) – 10 (super duper deal)

All opinions are those of the Budget Epicurean.

For the very first food review article, you lucky readers get a two-part special of notable food experiences in Austin Texas! From taco trucks to ice cream to upscale waterfront dining, Austin offers an array of options to satisfy any foodie’s curiosity and taste buds. Having never been to Texas before, my hosts were set on showing me as much of the town as I could handle in 3 ½ days. And they did exactly that.

We flew in late at night on a Wednesday, and headed straight to bed. We were greeted the next morning with fresh, homemade blueberry pancakes. I’m never upset about pancakes.

That morning was filled with outdoor adventures in a nearby park, exploring a natural spring, and kayaking along a beautiful downtown view.

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After our picturesque exercise, we wanted some fuel. But we had big plans that night, so it had to be something quick and small. Trailer Park & Eatery was just down the road, so we headed over to the corner of S. 1st St. & Elizabeth St. West. The parking lot fits the food trucks and a picnic seating area only, so we parked across the street. At just past noon, there wasn’t much of a crowd yet. There was however a van and filming crew. IMG_1447That’s right, The Cooking Channel’s “Food Truck Face-Off” was filming right then and there!

Two new food trucks would later be vying for top truck to win. But at the moment, all we were concerned about was the one truck we came here for: Torchy’s Tacos.

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For those of you who don’t know, Torchy’s is kind of a big deal. People know about it.

Former executive chef Michael Rypka left the fine food world to pursue his dream of creating and serving Damn Good tacos. As their own website says: “Mike realized he had bet his life savings on green chili pork and fajitas mixed with his own desire for some great street food. With no customers in sight, Mike hopped on his scooter and handed out free chips and his award-winning salsa to personally invite everyone to stop by the trailer for some tacos. It worked.”

From a humble beginning with one food truck, Torchy’s Tacos now operates several stores as well as the trailer park. They regularly have long lines and happy customers. After one bite of my own, I saw why.

I ordered two tacos, “The Independent” and a “Beef Fajita”. The Independent is a vegetarian dream that even a meat-lover would love. With thick, marinated, hand-battered and fried portobello mushroom strips, smooth refried black beans, crispy chunks of falafel, charred roasted corn, crunchy escabeche carrots, queso fresco, fresh cilantro and avocado, all drizzled with an ancho aioli heaped high onto a flour tortilla, the Independent was filling in every way.

The flavors and textures contrasted and complimented to create a perfect bite every time. The ancho aioli had a bit of a kick to it, but was controlled by the creamy avocado and salty cheese. I loved everything about this taco, I wouldn’t have even known it was vegetarian.

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Meanwhile, I had to give equal attention to my Beef Fajita. Simpler in a way, yet more complex in others, the beef fajita consisted of marinated and grilled skirt steak, smothered in sweet grilled onions and peppers, and topped off with coarsely shredded cheese & pico de gallo. I got mine in a flour tortilla with green tomatillo sauce. The flavors and spices of the marinade and rub made a steak so tender and flavorful I could eat it alone all day long. The grilled onions and pepper completed the flavor profile as only they can.

The ingredient list for this taco was short, but it packs a powerful punch of flavor. The beef was tender and cooked perfectly, and no one flavor overpowered the mix. Two tacos was a perfect light lunch, filling without being heavy. One of the many beautiful things about Torchy’s is that you can pick and choose and order as many of each taco as you like to try all the tastes that catch your eye.

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Diners can enjoy their tortilla-ed treats at an outdoor picnic bench area shaded by large trees wrapped in lights. No doubt nighttime here is beautiful. There is also an indoor garage area with two televisions and a large community bulletin board advertising local dance classes and such. An indoor option is critical for when weather threatens, and the outdoor seating is chill and relaxing. The loud traffic from the road right behind you can be a bit obnoxious though.

While we were blissfully enjoying our tacos, a representative of the The Cooking Channel came over to ask if we minded being filmed. Why of course not! We signed our wavers, and got our nom on. Who knows, maybe in a few months I’ll have my first 15 seconds of on-screen fame!

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Stuffed from our “snack”, we piled back in the car to head home for some games and a nap. We needed to be refreshed and hungry again in a few hours.

Overall, I’d give Torchy’s Tacos:

  • 10 for taste
  • 6 for atmosphere
  • 8 for value

En route to dinner, the secret was finally let out: our destination was the famous “Oasis on Lake Travis”, the sunset capital of Texas. Located at 6550 Comanche Trail, The Oasis does live up to its reputation, a towering stone building four decks high sits alone atop a cliff overlooking the (unfortunately low) Lake Travis. The entrance-way is a collage of greenery, flowers, and a hodge-podge of statues. A woman with an umbrella and a child watch from a balcony while a gymnast is forever frozen mid-flip and a cowboy rides a bucking bronco under a majestic soaring eagle. All the bronze work at The Oasis is for sale, if you’d like a heavy and expensive memento of this unique dining experience.

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We arrived early, around 6 pm, and already the bottom three decks were packed with people. On the uppermost deck, the live band was setting up for the night. We snagged a front-row lakeside table on the second-highest deck and ordered a round of chips & salsa, and a “Famous Margarita” which was served salt-rimmed and frosty in a heavy glass embossed with the Oasis symbol and name.

The salsa was a little too watery for my taste, I would like more of the chunks of fresh tomato. But the overall flavor was great, with bits of onion and cilantro, and a slight heat from jalapenos. The margarita earns it’s fame, with a smooth, refreshing taste with no bite at all from the tequila. These are dangerous as they are easy sipping and go down fast.

The plastic cups in which the water was served are included as a souvenir for each diner.

IMG_1472After a leisurely hour of chatting and taking advantage of the many photo-op locations, we ordered our meal. I chose the fish tacos, because the lime margarita compliments fish, and the night was balmy and perfect for such things. The tilapia was perfectly seasoned and grilled, served in small corn tortillas and topped with generous amounts of purple cabbage slaw, pico de gallo, guacamole, and spicy ranch sauce.

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The two mini corn tacos were the perfect size to get all the big flavors without feeling too stuffed. The rice on the side was a bit lack-luster in flavor, but the taco toppings (pico de gallo, tomatillo sauce, salsa) could be mixed in and kick it up a notch.

Around the table we had the loaded nacho platter to share, as well as the “Spicy Beef” enchiladas which have no spice. (The menu puts a pepper symbol next to “spicy” dishes. The Spicy Beef mysteriously had no spice). The loaded nachos came smothered in cheese, salsa, pico de gallo, jalapenos, and sour cream, with the option of refried or black beans or meat if you so chose. The drinks were great, the food was good, but what you really go to the Oasis for is the experience.

Then the magic moment arrived. The little kids in the establishment were all herded towards an old-looking bronze bell with a thick rope attached. The sun was kissing the horizon, turning the ambient light deep amber and scarlet. The excitement was palpable.

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Sunset at the Oasis is quite the event. Everyone holds their breath as the ruby blaze of sun sinks lower and lower, until finally the light extinguishes and the children throw their weight against the rope, ringing the bell loudly across the water and the entire place erupts in cheers and applause.

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Overall, I’d give The Oasis:

  • 6 for taste
  • 10 for atmosphere
  • 6 for value

After the applause died down and a few more photos to commemorate the moment, we headed back to end the night quietly at home. Or so I thought. Turns out, a local friend had other plans for us.

We were picked up in a lovely silver sporty car and whisked downtown. Pulling into the parking lot of our final destination, I looked up to see a glowing doughtnut-man sign declaring we had arrived at “Gourdough’s”.

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Opened in a vintage trailer in 2011, Gourdough’s has exploded in popularity and press. Everything on their extensive and imaginative menu is served either on or with a donut. And these aren’t the sticky-sweet donuts you’re used to, they are giant savory chunks of deep-fried delicious that go perfectly with chicken fingers, honey butter, and honey mustard dipping sauce (The Mother Clucker) or fried crispy-caramelized bananas with cream cheese frosting and brown sugar (The Funky Monkey), both of which we tried.

The inside area is a typical bar, mostly wooden with tables and booths. We weren’t interested in drinking for now, so we headed out into the gorgeous night to the outdoor seating area, a rock-carpeted fenced-in yard with multiple picnic tables, several giant televisions, and the classic vintage trailer on display. The area was nice enough, but they were playing some very strange and occasionally disturbing show on the TVs. Perhaps blame it on the late hour and the assumption that most customers by now would be drunk.

Mine was the Funky Monkey, and it positively oozed deliciousness. I love fried bananas, and this thing was loaded with ’em! The donut was indeed thick and savory, and smothered in sweet cream cheese frosting with brown sugar sprinkled all about. It was a bit overwhelming though, I couldn’t finish the whole thing. Of course, I also had to try a bite of the other three around the table, which likely contributed to my over-full tummy…

the Mother clucker
the Funky monkey

Each donut on the menu sounds as amazing as the next, with burgers using donuts as the bun, savory “Drunken Hunk” bacon-wrapped meatloaf, and sweet-tooth satisfying sugar-coma inducing confections. Even the salads come with a donut on the side. If you’re on a diet, steer clear of this place. But if you want a unique taste experience, pull on in and grab a picnic bench!

Overall, I’d give Gourdough’s:

  • 9 for taste
  • 5 for atmosphere
  • 8 for value

It was getting late, and the bar was near closing time, so we finally called it a night and headed home. After a good long rest, the next morning was fend-for-yourself as we all prepared for a big graduation ceremony. Life accomplishments are always exciting! I’m sure the graduate had such nerves they wouldn’t have been able to hold down a big meal anyhow. With the help of some cereal and a big Starbucks frappuccino, I held out until brunch. Boy was I glad I did!

We pull up into a tree-shaded parking lot next to a fenced-in reservoir. People are jogging and walking their dogs, or paddle-boarding and kayaking in the sun. We head towards a large, pale brick building with a huge “RF” branded on the side. This is the famous Roaring Fork. Founders Guy and Larry own and operate a string of upscale dining establishments in the west and southwest, as well as some more wacky concepts like the Salty Sow.

IMG_1604Guests are greeted by an open, curved kitchen space with marble countertops, stainless steel and glass, and a giant open fire pit with roaring flames. The spacious interior has soaring ceilings and windows the width of the walls, giving the whole space an airy feel. We are seated out on the glassed-in wooden deck overlooking the small reservoir that was once a rock quarry.

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As a soft breeze whispers through the trees, the waiter comes over to explain to us the specials which are not on the enormous, heavy, leather bound menus. There is fresh-caught fish and chef’s choice of beef, at market price of course. The waiter understood we were there for brunch, and shared the special with us, a choose-two menu called the “Texas Two-Step”. Nearly the whole dining party went that way, since it’s always better to try multiple dishes.

Their chicken is apparently famous by word of mouth, as is their pork shoulder and green chili. They also have the amusingly named “big ass burger” and “half ass burger”. However, when I saw wood-grilled salmon, I had to have that. And when I read mixed green salad with candied walnuts, feta, & a cranberry vinaigrette dressing, the deal was sealed. I’m a sucker for salads that include feta and anything sweet.

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Now, once the orders were placed and drinks were brought, some restaurants bring a basket of bread or other such appetite-whetting things. Not classy enough for the Roaring Fork. They bring out two heaping baskets of steaming fresh-from-the-oven muffin bites. They smelled divine, and when asked about them, the waiter informed us that they are corn muffins with shredded cheese, jalapenos, and black currants. It sounds like a strange combination, but one bite and we were all hooked. We joked with each other as one after another kept saying “no, really, this is the last one”.

IMG_1599When the meals came, luckily I was sitting next to someone kind enough to offer a bite of the chicken, and it was indeed delicious and fall-off-the-bone tender. My salmon was sweet and smoky, perfectly flaky, and served on a bed of wilted spinach with garlic and onion, alongside creamy mashed potatoes with just the right consistency.

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With a lovely bar area we didn’t have a chance to enjoy and multiple patios, the Roaring Fork has a great, classy atmosphere to relax in and enjoy being pampered.

Overall, I’d give Roaring Fork:

  • 9 for taste
  • 9 for atmosphere
  • 6 for value

 

Hope you learned a little and drooled a lot! Thus ends the first part of my Tastes of Austin restaurants review. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we indoor skydive, the Statue of Liberty rides a motorcycle, and brisket gets involved.