Category Archives: Review

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.