Sherman's Food Adventures: May 2018

Saltgrass Steakhouse

Normally, I try to avoid touristy restaurants like late-night informercials (unless there isn't anything else to watch...).  However, we ended up at Saltgrass Steakhouse right on the San Antonio River Walk for a few reasons.  First, we needed food since it was already 3:00pm and we were stuck on the Riverwalk.  Second, while we were taking the hotel shuttle to Sea-Tec (on route to Dallas), someone recommended the crab cakes at Saltgrass.  Lastly, it was happy hour and not only could we get a few bites on the cheap, the drinks were equally inexpensive.

We ultimately ordered some of their happy hour specials including the Fried Mushrooms.  Okay, for $4.00, this was an obscene amount of mushrooms.  They were aggressively battered and fried, but when eaten hot, they were crispy with juicy mushrooms inside.  However as they got colder, the batter became mealy and too thick.  I had to resort to peeling it off.  I thought the ranch dip was a good match for the fried mushrooms.  Also on the happy hour menu was the Artichoke and Spinach Dip accompanied by fresh tortilla chips.  This was pretty good with large chunks of artichoke and plenty of not-overdone spinach leaves.  The mix was creamy and cheesy with just the right amount of seasoning.

Okay, we did order the aforementioned Crab Cakes and gawd they were enormous.  These were breaded, pan-fried and topped with even more crab in a buttery sauce. I found them rather loose though and the breading was not as crispy as I would've liked.  In fact, some portions were too soft and rather wet.  Despite this, the filling was mostly crab which was fluffy and mildly-seasoned.  Were they great crab cakes?  No, but they were decent and a good value.  My son didn't get very creative and got the Mini-Corn Dogs with fries.  These little nuggets were hot and crunchy.  Although the fries weren't anything special, they were fried properly being crispy with plenty of potato texture left inside.

We also ordered the Surf & Turf to share which started with a choice of soup. I don't even remember what the other option was, but we went with the Chicken Tortilla Soup.  It was surprisingly good despite not looking that interesting.  The chicken soup was flavourful without being salty while the crunch from the tortilla strips were pleasing.  They didn't soften up too much even though they were sitting in hot broth.  As for the main dish, it was the 10 oz Striploin with grilled shrimp and lemon butter.  It was prepared medium-rare as requested while charred enough on the outside for both aesthetics and caramelization.  The steak ate well being meaty and tender while the buttery shrimp were perfectly prepared.  Despite my reluctance to visit chain restaurants while on vacation (there are more interesting things to eat), Saltgrass did the job and satisfied our expectations at the time.

The Good:
- Great location on the River Walk
- Food ranged from decent to good
- Attentive service

The Bad:
- Regular menu is on the pricier side
- Hostess was a bit confused originally seating us at the bar (yes with the kids) for happy hour and insisting that we couldn't sit anywhere else

Lucy's Fried Chicken

Even though most people would not associate good Asian food with Texas, it really does exist.  There is a sizable Vietnamese population in certain cities.  However, we didn't travel down to Texas for pho, so it was not on my to-eat list.  With that being said, we were getting bogged down by the amount of meat we were eating.  Therefore, we attempted to try some ramen as a break from BBQ.  But just like it is everywhere else, there was an excessively long lineup which didn't interest us at all.  So our backup plan was to go back to the well and eat heavy in the form of Lucy's Fried Chicken.

Although the place looked rather roadhouse-like and not particularly kid-friendly, it was completely the opposite.  My son loves Fried Chicken and we got a basket for the table.  This consisted of mixed pieces that included both dark and white meat.  This was some pretty solid fried chicken as the skin was nicely rendered, well-seasoned and crunchy.  Underneath, the meat (including the breast) was moist and tender.  For adults, we tried the Deep Fried Chicken Livers marinated in Lucy's "secret buttermilk blend".  Usually, I find most places cook livers until they are rock hard.  Not here though as the livers were tender and juicy.  The aggressive batter on the outside was crunchy and not overly greasy.  On the side, there was a creamy and lightly spicy chipotle ranch dip.

Viv decided to try the Wood Fire-Grilled Texan Oysters topped with house chorizo, garlic butter, house jalapeno salsa and pumpernickel crumbs.  These were surprisingly good featuring buttery soft oysters that were appealingly briny and sweet.  The combination of chorizo and jalapeno salsa added a noted kick and light tang.  Of course, the garlic butter did its thing with an aromatic punch.  Providing a textural contrast, the pumpernickel crumbs were crunchy and stood up to the moisture.  Since I knew my daughter would've wanted to sample the West Texas Red Chili, I got a bowl even though we had more than enough food.  Consisting of ground beef only (as authentic chili should be), it was hearty and rich.  There was a low-rumbling heat that was smoky and flavourful (without being salty).

For her main, my daughter was brave enough to order the Fried Chicken Spaghetti.  Topped with a piece of fried chicken, the whole thing was actually a casserole consisting of spaghetti and chicken in a creamy cheese sauce topped with melted cheddar.  Naturally, this was rich and heavy.  It was a bit goopy as the spaghetti had absorbed most of the moisture and had become overly soft.  There was the mildest amount of spice to go with the ample cheesiness.  For no apparent reason other than I love French Fries, I got a basket for the table.  These hand-cut fries were pretty good, being lightly crispy and possessing plenty of potato goodness inside.  They were tossed in mildly spicy seasoning salt.

Lastly, my son really wanted a side of Mac n' Cheese despite the amount of food we already had on the table.  It was a good choice though where the noodles were still firm while completely coated in a lightly sharp cheesy sauce.  I would've liked to see a bit more salt, but the mac was not devoid of flavour either.  So Lucy's wasn't our first choice of eats, nor was it even actually on our original list of restaurants.  However, it was a bit different and the fried chicken was solid.

The Good:
- It doesn't look it, but it is kid-friendly
- Good fried chicken
- Other proteins we had were done right

The Bad:
- Well, not that it is a surprise, but food is heavy
- The spaghetti was meh

Franklin Barbecue

For many, Franklin Barbecue represents the holy grail of smoked brisket.  Sure, there are those who would say many other places do just as good of a job, if not better.  I've done my research and if we just stuck with Austin, there is La BBQ, Black's and Micklethwait Craft Meats.  Now, if we open it up to the entirety of Texas, there is Snow's, Corkscrew and so on...  But we were getting BBQ'd out and had to limit our intake to one in Austin, so we chose the media darling (as seen on TV and the movie Chef) in Franklin.  In fact, I had pre-ordered 5 lbs of meat and sides so that I wouldn't need to line up.  We took the short drive back to our hotel to enjoy the feast. 

Heck, I dug straight into the Beef Brisket first since this is what I've been waiting for.  Oh man, this definitely lived up to the hype and accolades.  I'm sure many would point out their personal favourites, but for me, this was every bit as good as I have dreamed of.  It was smoky enough without being overwhelming while the bark was flavorful.  The meat itself was super moist and fatty without being mushy.  It retained the meatiness of brisket.  The same could be said about the Pork Side Ribs.  They were also juicy with tender meat that melted in our mouths (except for the lean portion).  It was mildly smoky with a tasty peppery spice rub on the outside.

Unlike the ones from Pecan Lodge and Heim, we found the Pulled Pork at Franklin to be really good.  It was moist and tender where we needed very little sauce (if all).  It was also mildly smoky and spiced.  The BBQ sauce was necessary not for moisture, but for overall flavor.  We weren't fans of the Smoked Turkey Breast since it was predictably dry and at parts, chewy.  There probably was no way around this due to the lack of fat.  However, it probably would've helped if they had sliced this thinly.  We found this not smoky enough for our tastes and generally lacking in flavor.  It was fine on  the edges as the spice rub was good, but other than that, we had to douse it with BBQ sauce for moisture and flavor.  

Although the Smoked Sausage was fairly tasty due to the fatty and juicy meat, the casing was too chewy for our tastes.  It was hard to get through, even with a knife.  As with the other meats, it was also appealingly smoky.  The whole thing also included a loaf of white bread, onions, pickles and 2 types of BBQ sauces (one was peppery and sweet while the other was much more smoky and rich).  We added beans, potato salad and coleslaw that were all okay, but nothing special.  For dessert, we had a small Bourbon Banana Cream Pie which was pretty good.  The crumbly, yet firm crust was buttery and held together.  In the middle, the filling was creamy and dense being just sweet enough and aromatic.  Overall, we quite enjoyed the brisket, ribs and pulled pork, yet not as enthused about the turkey and sausages.  Despite what people might say, I still think if you are ever in Austin, it is worth checking out Franklin.

The Good:
- Dat brisket
- Equally good ribs and pulled pork
- Pre-order eliminates waiting for hours

The Bad:
- Turkey and sausages were meh
- If you must eat in, the lineup is generally ridiculously long

Odd Duck

After 2 back-to-back BBQ lunches to start our vacation in Texas, we were a little meated out.  To top it off, we had dinner at Knife Steakhouse the first night and continued to eat more meat at Lonesome Dove the next.  Hence, we really didn't eat lunch, giving way to kolaches at Czech Stop.  For dinner, we wanted to go for something completely different.  Even though we had the Chinese food urges, we refrained and decided to head to Odd Duck (on recommendation from Melody).  Their take on farm-to-table cuisine sports some interesting menu items.

We arrived in time for happy hour and proceeded to order some of the specials including the Pretzel filled with shiitake chorizo and accompanied by masa mustard.  This was pretty tasty with the unmistakeable pungent earthiness of shiitake combined with some spice.  The pretzel itself was chewy and nicely spiced with fennel, caraway and sesame seeds.  Finally, the mustard had a nice tang that helped brighten things up.  Next, we had the Redfish Ceviche with tiger's milk, beets, olives, sweet potato curry and yam chips.  The cumin from the curry really stood out and created aromatics to the dish.  It was complimented nicely by the sweet and slightly tart beets (and the juices).  I thought the fish was a little lost in this, but we didn't mind as the flavors were impactful.

One of my favorite items was the Muffaletta Pizza featuring house-made mortadella, olives, capers, brussel sprouts, onion and pistachio.  Crispy and slightly chewy, the thin crust held up to the wealth of toppings.  I particularly found the meaty mortadella to be almost sausage-like.  It was complimented well by the tangy and salty olives and capers as well as the nuttiness from the pistachio.  Although a fairly simple dish, the Oven-Roasted Sweet Potatoes were intensely tasty and delicious.  They were caramelized to the point where the natural sugars were completely activated with depth and smokiness.  It was served with whipped cajeta which made for an added layer of smoky sweetness while the pecan pork fat crumble afforded crunchy aromatics.

Yet another seemingly simple dish in the Roasted Beets resulted in layers of flavor that were pronounced.   The beets themselves were tender with a bite being slightly earthy, but more tangy and sweet.  Graced with a black bean mole that was thick and slightly spicy, there was also notes of chocolate and peppers.  Combined with the residual beet juices, there was a great mix of sweet, tangy, spicy and umaminess.  Adding crunch and just overall awesomeness, the fried cheese curds were a real treat.   I found the Sunny Duck Egg with smoked duck, sweet potato tots, giardiniera and creamy buffalo sauce to be a bit hit and miss.  The perfectly prepared egg was runny with tender egg whites, but the duck was a bit chewy.  Loved the tanginess of the giardiniera as it helped lighten the dish.

Our last plate consisted of the Grilled Whole Jerk Quail with green tomato, toum and spiced cashew.  Sporting nicely rendered and charred skin, the quail itself was well-seasoned and spiced.  However, the brine was a little aggressive where the quail was rather salty.  I thought the garlicky toum to be a good compliment to the quail as well as the tangy green tomato.  Overall, we enjoyed our meal at Odd Duck due to the creative and composed dishes.  Sure, some dishes had some hiccups, but they were not the norm.

The Good:
- Interesting and creative dishes
- Nice casual vibe
- Down-to-earth service

The Bad:
- Not sure about the mandatory valet parking
- Need to order lots to be full

Czech Stop & Bakery

Originally, I had planned to arrive in Austin from Dallas a little bit early so we could grab more BBQ.  However, we were so full from all of our eating, no one was in the mood for a sit down meal.  Therefore, we made the convenient stop in West, Texas for some gas and some Kolaches.  Huh?  What?  Yes, situated in a gas station, the Czech Stop & Bakery has been serving up these traditional pastries since 1983. For those who never have tried Kolaches, they are pastries made of sweet yeast dough usually filled in the middle with fruit.

As such, went ahead and got the Cherry and Cherry Cream Cheese.  Unlike kolaches I've had before (and that isn't many), these featured much more filling than dough.  Hence, there was plenty of sweet fruitiness and moisture.  The dough itself was pillowy soft and lightly sweet, but wasn't soggy (even around the fruit glaze).  I found the filling to be just sweet enough.  My son didn't want fruit and had the Nutella.  He enjoyed it since there was enough filling to add a nutty sweetness.  For me, that was too much nutella for the amount of pastry.  But what do I know?

For me, I enjoyed the sweet kolaches, but I'm more of a savoury person.  Therefore, we also got some savoury pastries including the Ham, Jalapeno and Cheese.  As evidenced in the picture, there was no shortage of filling which meant it was hearty and flavorful.  There was spice and tang from the jalapenos while the ham and cheese added saltiness.  I wasn't as impressed with the Sausage and Cheese as it didn't seem as fulfilling as the ham & cheese.  There was less cheese and the sausage wasn't big enough to ensure that it was in every bite.  Despite this, the fruit kolaches were every bit as good as people have remarked on the internet.  If you are passing by, I suggest you make a stop.

The Good:
- Pillowy soft pastry
- Lots of filling
- Inexpensive

The Bad:
- The sweet ones are better than the savoury ones


Lonesome Dove Western Bistro

One of first spots I put down on my itinerary for Texas was Lonesome Dove Western Bistro located in Fort Worth.  In fact, it was smack dab with the Fort Worth Stockyards (well more like on the on the edge, but you get the idea).  Hence, it was the perfect place for us to grab dinner after a day of exploring the sights and sounds of the Stockyards.  Now, one would question why BBQ was not the first thing I would jot down on any eating list for Texas.  Well, much like any Texan will tell you, there is more than BBQ in Texas!

Besides, we were here to try Lonesome Dove because of Chef Tim Love (another Top Chef connection, albeit Top Chef Masters).  For appies, we began with the Blue Corn Lobster Hush Puppies with watercress butter.  These were lightly crispy on the outside, yet pretty wet on the inside.  In terms of flavor, the briny sweetness of the lobster came through as well as the sweet pop from the peppers.  The creamy and buttery sauce exhibited a background bitter brightness. Viv and I also shared the Butter Lettuce with applewood smoked bacon lardons, spiced pepitas and chili buttermilk.  Generally, butter lettuce can be overly soft, but this one had a decent amount of crunch.  The tanginess of the jalapenos added zip to a spicy and creamy dressing.  Fatty and smoky, the lardons provided depth and body while the crunch from the seeds was a nice textural contrast.

My daughter wasn't extremely hungry, so we got her an order of the Texas Red Chili garnished with fried tortilla strips and cheese.  As evidenced in the picture, the chili was rich and meaty.  For those who aren't aware, authentic chili does not contain any beans.  Hence, this had a stew-like quality to it where there was depth from the spices while not being too spicy.  There was a level of smokiness to go with the natural meat flavor.  My son decided on the Chicken Fried Steak with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, grilled green beans, pickled peppers and creamy gravy.  Although the beef was a tad chewy, it wasn't overly so.  The batter was well-seasoned and crispy while the gravy had a nice silkiness and spice.  Smooth and creamy, the mash went well wit the gravy.  Lastly, the beans were crunchy and very garlicky.

For myself, I had the 9 oz Roasted Garlic Stuffed Beef Tenderloin with western plaid hash and syrah demi-glace.  Being their signature dish, I found the plating rather odd (I did cut the steak in half) with the asparagus border.  No matter, the steak was freakin' awesome!  The picture doesn't do it justice as there was a plethora of garlic stuff inside that created a tasty aromaticness.  As you can see, the steak was perfectly prepared medium-rare.  It was super tender and juicy.  Viv again shied away from pork and beef products going for the Colorado Rainbow Trout with chorizo sweet potato hash and cilantro orange butter.  Exhibiting wonderful crispy skin, the trout was well-season and moist.  The hash was mostly sweet with some savory elements, especially from the chorizo.  Bringing it all together was a nutty and aromatic butter.

For the table, we added the White Truffle Mac n' Cheese topped with fried artichoke hearts.  Made with orzo, the dish was notably cheesy with a slight sharpness.  The white truffle was there, but retained enough so it wasn't overpowering.  By adding fried artichokes on top, there was a crunchy counterbalance to the soft pasta.  For dessert, we shared the Authentic Mexican Churros with chocolate, caramel and raspberry dipping sauces.  These were hot, crunchy and sweet.  I particularly enjoyed the dark chocolate dip as it was smooth and rich with some bitterness.  The raspberry was tart with the right viscosity while the caramel was buttery and smoky sweet.

The Good:
- Refined comfort food
- Excellent service
- Proteins done right

The Bad:
- A little rough around the edges, but that's the charm
- On the pricier side

Heim BBQ & Catering

After a great start to our BBQ adventure at Pecan Lodge in Deep Ellum, we ventured out to Fort Worth for some more.  In actuality, we were in Fort Worth to pay a visit to The Stockyards and get some commercialized wild west fun.  But before that, we drove down to Heim BBQ & Catering since they were rated in the top 50 by Texas Monthly (Pecan Lodge makes that list too).  Unlike our relatively short 45-minute wait at Pecan Lodge, we didn't have to wait much at Heim.  This was probably due to it being a weekday.  We even got parking right across the street.  Hey, we didn't mind that at all!

We ended up getting the 3-Meat Platter with brisket, pulled pork and pork ribs.   If I had to compare, the brisket was softer and much more moist than the one at Pecan Lodge.  However, the bark wasn't as pronounced nor as smoky though.  The pulled pork was very similar in texture to PL, but once again, was not as smoky.  We found the pork ribs to be better than PL in our opinion.  They were fall-off-the-bone tender while being succulent and well-spiced.  For our sides, we had fries and beans.  The fries were crispy and well-salted while the beans were a bit bland and too watery for our tastes.

We also added the Bacon Burnt Ends which were very fatty, yet ultimately tasty.  We would've preferred the fat to be cooked down more as it was a bit tough to eat.  On the other hand, the meat portion was fantastic being super concentrated with sweetness and smokiness.  The most majestic part of our meal had to be the 2-lb monstrous Beef Short Rib.  It was more smoky than the other meats and was super-fatty (in a good way).  The meat literally melted in our mouths.  The best way to describe the rib would be "meat butter".  Yes, it was that tender. 

For dessert, we had the Banana Pudding that was sweet and custardy.  There was slices of fresh banana throughout as well as crispy cookies on top.  The dessert was probably sweeter than my personal preference, but the cookies helped break up the flavor.  For the items we tried at Heim, the beef short rib stood out.  However, our preference would be Pecan Lodge as the meats at Heim were lacking smokiness and the brisket was too soft and wet.

The Good:
- That short rib
- For us, it wasn't too busy

The Bad:
- Could've been more flavorful
- Brisket was too soft and wet

Knife Dallas

If you haven't noticed by now, I'm not shy in trying to hunt down all of the restaurants that sport Top Chef contestants (whether they won or not).   Since I would be down in Dallas, it was a given I would try Chef John Tesar's modern steakhouse aptly named Knife.  On the show, he was somewhat vilified as a hot-headed chef that produced some pretty good food.  Once described as the most-hated chef in Dallas by D Magazine, John Tesar didn't really come across as unreasonable on Top Chef.  Maybe he was just stuck in untenable situations?

Before we even ordered our actual food, we were presented with a plate of Crudites accompanied by a green radish dip.  Normally, I do not comment on veggies and dip, but the various carrots were sweet and super crunchy.  There was also celery, radish and endive.  However, the tastiest thing was the creamy and bright dip.  For our actual appie, we had the Yellowtail with Texas ruby grapefruit, avocado, Murray River salt, sriracha and Ligurian olive oil.  This featured beautiful and buttery yellowtail that was thickly sliced.  There was only a touch of sriracha that didn't interfere with the natural sweetness of the fish.  I would've liked to see a touch more salt to bring out the flavours a bit more, but the dish as a whole was very good.

For my son, he went for the Beef Cheek Burger with truffle mayo.  My word, this thing was a beast.  The size on the beef cheek was bigger than the actual bun.  Size is one thing, but the darn thing was beautifully prepared being tender, succulent and gelatinous.  The braising liquid was balanced and impactful.  The truffle mayo added another layer of luxuriousness.  Although my son didn't use the pickles on the side, it would've been the perfect compliment as it would've added the necessary acidity.  For my daughter, she went for the Fettuccine Bolognese that also arrived in an enormous portion.  Freshly made, the pasta was a touch soft, but still okay.  As for the bolognese, it was rich with plenty of meat and carrots being well-seasoned with an appealing amount of spiciness.

Viv decided on the King Salmon and cauliflower since she wanted to get away from red meat after our BBQ lunch at Pecan Lodge.  Although the skin was prepared crispy and was well-salted, the fish itself was a little more done than she would've preferred.  On a side note, she ate the leftovers cold the next day and it was actually moist.  As for the cauliflower, it was well-seasoned and had a nice bite.  For myself, I had the 10 oz Texas Wagyu Skirt Steak.  I asked for it to be prepared medium-rare and although the optimum is to cooked the steak a bit more to activate the fats, the steak still turned out perfect.  It was well-charred on the outside and properly seasoned.  The meat was juicy, well-rested and super tender (even for a skirt steak).

For my side, I chose the Creamed Spinach and roasted shallots which was amazingly tasty and prepared how I personally like it.  Unlike other versions, the spinach wasn't cooked to a pulp.  Rather, it was still vibrant and had texture.  The sauce was creamy, yet not overly so while the roasted shallots were aromatic and added taste to an already flavorful dish.  We were so stuffed, dessert was never really in the cards.  However, we each received a plate of petit fours that was more than we could handle (since we were still digesting lunch, let alone dinner).  Overall, we were pretty satisfied with our visit to Knife.  Most of the dishes were good and the service was really attentive.

The Good:
- My steak was perfect
- Excellent service
- Pricing was okay IMO

The Bad:
- Salmon could've been less cooked
- Pasta was a little overdone