Category Archives: food & drink

Louie Mueller BBQ in Taylor

Texas flag at Louie Mueller BBQ

A smoke-filled room and shafts of sunlight from gaps in the black paint on the windows and skylight greet you as you walk into Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, TX, one of my favorite corners of the Barbecue rectangle surrounding Austin.

When I used to teach out in Taylor, we’d sometimes go to lunch at Louie Mueller on teacher workdays. It was easy to tell who had gone because they smoke their brisket inside the building so you walk out even after a short lunch smelling like a barbecue pit.

We went for lunch last week, which was the first time I’d been out there since I quit teaching at Taylor High and since then, the Food Network has featured Louie Mueller on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives so they were more crowded than I thought they’d be what with the SXSW crowd who’d made the drive out of Austin, but the line moved reasonably fast and the wait gave more time for anticipation and a little iphone photography of the flag above and the business cards on the wall, browned by years in the smoke.

When you reach the front of the line, they cut you a piece of brisket to sample before you order, but my decision was made: brisket sandwich, chipotle sausage, potato salad, slaw and iced tea. It was as good as I remembered.

Some things never change and that’s a beautiful thing.

Business cards at Louie Mueller BBQ

South Austin Chili

Black beans, fresh rinsed
obsidian jewels,
drop through fingers
feeling for stones.

Pasilla chiles, toasting,
warm the air. Later,
ground and simmered in oil,
they seethe in a mild lava.

Chocolate softens,
flows into the chili—
an ebony swirl
rippling on a midnight sea.

This is for Read Write Poem’s What’s Eating You?.

One of my favorite things to cook is The Soup Peddler’s South Austin Chili recipe in his Slow and Difficult Soups. I like the end result, but I love the process of making this chili. The time spent in the kitchen working the ingredients and listening to music while enjoying a beer as the pasillas toast in the oven is sheer joy.

The chili itself is wonderfully rich with a slow chipotle burn, and with the chocolate added it comes off almost like a mole.

Three Austin Cookbooks

Right now, my favorite cookbooks are all from Austin. It’s part the recipes, but more than that is the shared philosophy that food and eating should be more than just a way to get the necessary calories to make it through the day while expending the least time possible. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of great cookbooks for great meals in a hurry, but cooking, like a good road trip, is as much the journey as the destination.

These three Austin cookbooks celebrate the journey in the kitchen, the thrill of using great ingredients and the soul-lifting joy that comes from savoring a lovingly made meal and finding that place where food and art make life just that much more wonderful.

The Soup Peddler’s Slow & Difficult Soups: Recipes & Reveries by David Ansel is about as fun as a cookbook can get. If Seinfeld’s New York had the soup nazi, then Austin has its own soup hippie. In the book, Ansel describes his dissatisfaction with his cubicle job and how he left that to start his business making soup and selling it to his south Austin neighbors off the back of his bike.

Ansel’s philosophy about food seems to be that the process of cooking should be as fulfilling as the eating. His recipes lead to huge quantities of soup, the better for sharing. I’ve made the South Austin Chili, a vegetarian chile which is the most unusual (there’s chocolate in it) and exquisite smelling chili I’ve ever made. Not particularly hot, but very good. The Chompy-Chomp Black Bean Soup is great for those nights when you need to cook with what you’ve got. As fun as the recipes are, the reveries make for great reading while standing in the kitchen watching the soup cook.

Though I haven’t tried it yet, you can still order his soup online and have it delivered, but probably no longer by Ansel on his bicycle.

If you’re interested in eating in season, try Eating in Season: Recipes from the Boggy Creek Farm by Carol Ann Sayle. I like the idea of eating what’s locally available as much as possible. The food tends to be better and it’s better for the environment and the local economy so this book really excites me. The Boggy Creek Farm itself is an urban farm located here in Austin that uses organic farming practices. I’ve never been to their market stand, but I’ll have to go pretty soon.

The book is divided into two parts, one for hot season recipes based on vegetables grown in the harsh and bitter “winter” of central Texas, the other half is for the hot season, or as I like to think of it, the other 360 days of the year. Flipping through this book makes me dream of fresh summer vegetables and fills my head with all kinds of exciting things to do with them.

Last week, I made Larry’s Roasted Chile-Roasted Tomato Gazpacho, even though those things aren’t quite in season. I’d never made gazpacho before, but it turned out quite well and gave me something to do with some of the green chiles that are still filling up my freezer.

Finally, Fonda San Miguel: Thirty Years of Food and Art is a stunningly beautiful cookbook that belongs as much on the coffee table as in the kitchen. I have yet to make any recipes from this one, despite the fact that Fonda San Miguel is one of my top five Austin restaurants. Even without having tested it in the kitchen, this is one of my favorite cookbooks. A good cookbook should be as much fun to use as browse and this is a true stand out.

Austin is a great town for people who love food, and these cookbooks, taken together, revel in three of the other things that make Austin so wonderful, be it the weirdness of the soup peddler, the environmental awareness of Boggy Creek, or the art of Fonda San Miguel.

Do you have a favorite Austin cookbook that I should check out? If so, let me know in the comments.

Oh, I Lose Control, When You Serve Filet of Sole

I think it’s this way with many married folk: the spouse isn’t home for dinner and, well, that’s when you eat at the restaurant she hates or perhaps just have Cheerios for dinner. When feeling industrious, I sometimes invent and if it works out, then perhaps I’ll make it for my wife one day. Usually, though, I wind up microwaving some cheese on a couple of tortillas, rolling them up and eating them in between handfulls of peanuts.

I never said I was fancy.

Tonight, as my wife slogs through her MBA program as she does every Tuesday, I found myself feeling adventurous as I inspected the contents of the fridge looking for something different. I really wanted fish tacos, and as fate would have it there were a couple of filets of sole in there. Now, I know sole isn’t exactly a fish taco kind of fish and baking it wrapped in tin foil isn’t really the preferred fish taco cooking method, but it’s easy and that’s the point.

I started off by buttering a piece of foil and placing the filet inside. Next I thoroughly coated it with chili powder, cayenne pepper and cumin, touched off with a bit of sea salt. Whilst (see how fancy this is making me?) the sole baked, I chopped up some prepackaged baby salad greens, a tomato and some onion. I mixed all the veggies in a nice blue bowl and added some of the Whole Foods brand chipotle ranch dressing.

When the fish was nearly finished cooking (about 8 minutes at 400°F) I added some tortillas to warm. At about 8 minutes, the fish was done and I took it from the foil, placed it on the tortillas with the salad mixture and a few drops of Sgt. Pepper’s Tropical Tears mango habañero salsa.

Served on a yellow plate and paired with a glass of ice cold Austin tap water, it was surprisingly good. I even feel a bit guilty for not inventing it while my wife was at home.

A Fine Austin Brewery

Last week I stopped in at HEB for some beer and saw a brew I’d never noticed before – Independence Pale Ale. As I was checking out, I saw that it’s brewed here in Austin. The beer was a very good pale made with lots of hops, especially cascade hops, which happens to be my favorite variety.

It turned out that last weekend was the second anniversary of the Independence Brewing Company and that my wife had already made plans for us to go to the celebration. She’d never had the beer and so was surprised to see that that’s what I had happened to buy.

On Saturday, we went to the brewery in one of the many warehouses off of East Ben White. The brewery is very small and the people friendly. There was a band and Jasper was there wagging his tail and greeting the guests, but I didn’t try the beer named for him. I did try the Freestyle Wheat which was crisp and refreshing as well as the Bootlegger Brown. The Brown was my favorite. I’m not a big fan of browns, but this one with its dark color and rich chocolatey flavor reminded me more of a porter. Delicious.

The Independence Brewing Company is the best thing to happen to Austin beer in a long time, at least since the days of Celis and Waterloo. Hopefully, they’ll grow and continue to brew great beer for many years to come.

The Unbearable Spiciness of Green

I’ve managed to fit my green chile reserve into the freezer by giving away several pounds and eating several more pounds of this perfect fire. My wife’s car smelled of fresh roasted chiles for about a week after buying the case, but now the smell is gone and for the next few weeks, I rely on Chuy’s to get my fix.

So far, we’ve made it to Chuy’s twice since the green chile festival began. We go often this time of year in our effort to sample all of the special Hatch green chile menu items and so far I’ve not been disappointed.

On the first visit, I enjoyed the #18 Relleno & Empanada combo. Now, a good chile relleno is probably my favorite dish, but when that chile is a Hatch green (as opposed to the more typical poblano) as Chuy’s rellenos always are, well, then, it doesn’t get much better, but when it comes with a chicken empanada with green chile sauce, it does get better. Much better.

Yesterday, I enjoyed the Macho Burrito – roasted pork, jack cheese and guacamole – smothered in green chile tomatillo sauce. While not as exciting as the Relleno/Empanada combo it was right tasty and a real slow burner. We also tried the Extreme Salsa, a thick green chile (and avocado, I think) paste, that wasn’t really extreme, but was very good.

So far, Chuy’s is once again delivering another awesome green chile festival. I only wish my car smelled of fresh roasted green chiles.

A Box of Fire

Hatch Chiles

I could smell it as soon as I opened the car door in the Central Market parking lot. There is nothing quite like the aroma of fresh chiles roasting in the late summer heat. I love August in Austin for the twin green chile festivals hosted by Central Market and Chuy’s, and this celebration of nature’s most perfect fruit is now upon us.

The chiles are shipped in fresh from the chile harvest in Hatch, New Mexico and roasted on site. Central Market sells them by the pound, and Chuy’s creates a special Green Chile Festival menu that runs from mid-August to mid-September.

Each year, I buy several pounds of chiles from CM to freeze and use throughout the year. Use? Hah! I usually just eat them straight with a bit of salt or wrapped in a tortilla when I’m feeling industrious. Then we eat at Chuy’s at least once a week until we’ve tried all the green chile specials and gone back for seconds of our favorites. So far, nothing has topped the green chile tortilla soup of 1996 or the Charlie Brown chicken (crusted with pumpkin seeds) of 2003.

So, yesterday it began. While selecting my bags of roasted chiles, the clerk informed me that for $22 I could get a whole case, roasted while I waited and would save a ton of money and get more chiles. How could I refuse?

Now, my freezer is full of small baggies of chiles and all day I ate chiles. Next week, Chuy’s starts up, and I wonder what delights they’ll have cooked up for us this year.

I’ll keep you posted.

Better than a Lunch of Sliced Bread and Boxed Juice

Kids probably get tired of the same old boring juice box in their lunches everyday. Now, there’s something better… single serving boxes of wine.

Three Thieves Wine

The boxes are made by Three Thieves and probably aren’t intended for school lunches. Well, maybe grad school lunches, but either way when we saw these at Whole Foods it seemed like a cool idea, not because I like my wine in a box, but because here was a way to take wine to the pool, the campground, tailgating, wherever glass is unwelcome.

But, what of the taste?

Boxed wine tends to get a bad rap, but the 2002 Bandit Cabernet wasn’t bad. In fact, it was pretty good. Now, I’m not a wine snob, but I likes me a good red and while I wouldn’t serve this (from the box) at a dinner party, it would be great for a picnic at the park or dinner by a campfire.

The box claims that the packaging, which is made from renewable resources is not only convenient, but reduces packaging waste by 90%. I guess that makes this a green wine.

Cheers!

And no, you don’t use a straw.

California Beer

Irish Pub in Squaw Valley
(inside an Irish pub in Squaw Valley)

In 1994, I was working on a made-for-TV movie in San Jose. On a day off, I drove up to Mountain View with one of the sound guys. We attended the Small Brewers’ Festival of California where I tried many beers including Pete’s Wicked Ale, which quickly became my favorite.

When I returned to Austin, I preached the gospel of Pete’s but it would be another year and a half before it made its way here. By the time I found it, in a 7-11 on MLK, it tasted different. I still liked it, but it wasn’t quite what I remembered. Perhaps beer tastes better in memory?

A few years ago, I mentioned it to a friend’s father who is an alcohol distributor. He claimed that all California and all European beers were skunky by the time they reach Texas and that they taste totally different (meaning fresh) closer to the source.

I don’t know if this is true or not, but when we were in California, I found that my favorite beer of all time, my comfort beer if you will – Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – was not the same in the Sierra Nevada mountains as it is in the hills of central Texas.

I love Sierra Nevada for its crisp hopiness, almost IPA-like in character. It’s the cascade hops that I love, I suppose, which is why when I make beer I try to load it up with similar-tasting hops. Still, there’s nothing like a cold pint of Sierra Nevada Pale. The idea of drinking a pint of Sierra in the Sierras was too much to pass up, but imagine my surprise when I tasted it. It was like a great beer made perfect. It had greater complexity of flavor than it does here. There’s an almost floral presence in the taste, but it’s not sweet or soapy, it’s just… better.

Perhaps my friend’s dad was right. Perhaps Sierra is a bit off here in Texas, but I still like it. The test will be if I can locate a local purveyor of any of these fine beers that we tried on our trip and see if they taste as I remember them:

  • Tahoe Red Ale from the Lake Tahoe Brewing Company (whose site I can’t find) somewhere on the Nevada side. I liked this one. Reds aren’t my favorite, but it was smooth and pleasant.
  • Steelhead Extra Pale Ale from the Mad River Brewing Company in Blue Lake, CA. Truly a light pale in color. Nicely hopped, and I say the hoppier the better. This was my favorite of the beers we discovered.
  • Eye of the Hawk Select Ale by the Mendocino Brewing Company in Ukiah, CA. You can tell it’s a very alcoholic beer (8.0%) without reading the label. It’s thick, full, and strong. Reminds me of some Scottish ales. One is enough.
  • Great White Hefe-Weissen by the Lost Coast Brewing Company in Eureka, CA. I like a hefe after a hot day. It wasn’t really hot the day we tried it, but it still went down clean and smooth. Very refreshing with a wedge of lemon. Beautiful rich golden color.

We also drank Sierra Nevada Pale. Of course.

In his book River Horse, William Least Heat-Moon at one point describes reaching the west coast as coming to the end of the “Great American Beer Desert.” It’s not too deserty here in central Texas, but I do love going to California if for nothing else than to try new beers.