Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Ah, load-out day. Sigh. Another wonderful weekend getaway about to end. This one I feel followed the usual pattern of such getaways: Day One filled with anticipation and travel tensions, Day Two chock-full of wonderful discovery and healing, Day Three a whistful sadness at departure. My lovely wife the Rock Star and I spent the morning leisurely packing, with more good coffee after another very good nights sleep (love those comfortable beds!), then with quick stops for gas and ATM, left New Braunfels vowing to give Lockhart another shot. Which would it be this time? Kreuz? They were closed and sauceless to boot. Blacks?? Possible, but too many mixed reviews. City Market in Luling??? I really regret not trying their recommended pork ribs, but we were coming in to Lockhart by another road and it would have entailed an extra side trip. No, we decided to stop for lunch at a local's favorite place. You see, whilst lunching the day before at Gruene River Grill, I happened to mention our desire to revisit Lockhart to our lovely waitress Scarlett. (Yes, that was really her name, and no, I did not ask about Rhett and Tara.) Serendipity! Turns out Scarlett is from Lockhart and recommended two places, one of which was Kreuz, and the other was a place named after a historic cattle drive route.


When I was doing pre-trip research for this roadtrip on Chowhound, someone mentioned this place, saying that they heard Chisholm Trail had great side dishes, and I somewhat rudely replied that going to a great BBQ place for sides is like going to San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf and ordering steak. I distinctly recalled that exchange as I was dining on Chisholm Trail's (you guessed it) excellent sides. Chisholm Trail is a newcomer to the Lockhart scene, having only been in business since the 1970's, and yes indeed, they are a local's favorite. The parking lot to this rather trailer-like building was almost full about Sunday noon, but there was still plenty of room inside. You go thru a cafeteria line, dishing up the sides yourself (three to an order are allowed), then you tell the friendly counter folks what kind of 'cue meats your needs, and they slice it for you. My brisket and pork ribs were quite good and full of flavor, but I do feel the sides are the thing here, particularly the tangy, well balanced potato salad. The BBQ beans were full of deep, rich smoke flavor, and the corn-on-the-cob was very good as well. The Rock Star, I must admit, continued her persnickety ways, and wants me to be sure and tell both of my readers that in her opinion the best barbecue in Texas is found in Taylor (Louis Mueller's) and Llano (Cooper's), not Lockhart. I feel she enjoyed the meals we had in Lockhart, especially Smitty's sausage, but is rather dismayed that Lockhart gets all the hype, while other Texas Meccas do better, in her opinion. For the record, she had Chisholm Trail's brisket and turkey. Under cross-examination, she admitted both were fine, but her enjoyment was tempered by the fact that the temperature inside the restaurant resembled an icebox in Antarctica, so much so that she made a quick end to her lunch and retreated to our car for warmth. Chisholm Trail Barbecue is worth exploring in warmer times, however, and unlike other Lockhart eateries, they do take credit cards. I could find no website, so call 512 398-6027 with any questions or temperature updates.

After lunch, we stopped briefly at a Dairy Queen for a dip-cone dessert, which restored my lovely wife's mood nicely, and duly chugged home. On balance, a very successful roadtrip. Visit Lockhart, New Braunfels, and Gruene soon, and as always:


Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Day Two of our rehabilitive roadtrip got off to an auspicious start, helped in no small part by the very good coffee served by Hampton Inn both in room and at their breakfast buffet. (The breakfast itself was unexceptional; the one we enjoyed at a Hampton in Seattle one year ago was much better.) We have learned, over our years together, that the first day of traveling is almost always the worst, and vowed to put yesterday's unpleasantness behind us. So after a leisurely morning spent with coffee, newspapers and internet surfing, we screwed on our heads and headed out to a place where we were sure to find old-fashioned therapy. A message joint? A spa?? No, it seems my lovely wife the Rock Star and I needed quality time with some four-footed healers.


I visited Natural Bridge Caverns (conveniently located right next door on Natural Bridge Caverns Road, seven miles west of IH 35 in Greater New Braunfels) many years ago, and since my family had determined that it was one of the better subterranean attractions in Texas, I reasoned that the Wildlife Ranch must be of similar stellar quality. Following a rather good map found at, we made our way to the park's door in short order, paid the very reasonable fees, received our bags of animal feed (you will want more than one) and proceeded slowly into the drive-thru park. Several rules for enjoying this oasis of fauna should be mentioned. One: DRIVE SLOW! Five MPH is the MAXIMUM speed allowed, and for your own safety and enjoyment, you should never exceed it. Trust me, if you feel the need to hurry thru, please do us all a favor and visit another attraction. Two: Frequent stops are encouraged. This is not one of those places where you see the animals from a distance; this is a truly in-your-face (literally), interactive experience. Three: Respect horns and teeth. Key to a great animal experience? Just drop a little of the food out of your window, watch as they come up to your car, and offer your arm so they can smell and become familiar with you. Then, you may pet. (Again: Respect horns and teeth!) Some animals are standoffish, others, such as the zebras, can be quite aggressive. (A threesome had our vehicle surrounded at one point, and one of the dear fellows grabbed the Rock Star's half-full feed back right off her lap and consumed it on the spot! Since zebra's have teeth, she did not contest ownership.) Other animals you may see include llamas, emus, ostriches, springboks, giraffes, and rhinos. (These last two animals, thankfully, behind fences. I do not fancy the notion of playing chicken with a rhino in a PT Cruiser!) After our lovely drive was complete, we took time to visit the gift shop and even the petting zoo, where we proved quite popular with the young goats and kids of the human species. (One young lady came to my aid when she discovered a goat trying to ascend my leg like an Alpine ski slope. Thank you, dear!) In short, our time wandering amongst the animals proved to be quite theraputic indeed, and prepared us spiritually for the next stop on our trip.


Located just a few minutes from the Wildlife Ranch, Dry Comal Creek Winery is one of those businesses intent on placing the Texas Grape firmly in the minds and tasting rooms of wineheads the world over. David and his colleagues conducted an irreverent, spirited tasting of their finest, and we were so impressed that we bought half a dozen bottles to take home, which I'm sure will form the basis of one or more Wine Corner Reviews in the very near future. I'm especially impressed by their nontraditional offerings, not only the blends but their unusual varietals such as the bone-dry French Colombard (truly an underappreciated white grape, with notes of pear, tangelo, and pineapple on the finish) and the native-to-Texas Black Spanish (Jam For Days!), which may well be their signature tipple. After the tasting, we even bought a glass of wine apiece and shared a lovely half-hour under the trees around a natural stone table. Quite a delightful time indeed, contributing mightily to restoration of our wellness. URL is

Quite restored, we then pointed the car back toward New Braunfels, determined to see firsthand a highly-acclaimed historic district for sightseeing and a late lunch.


Gently resisting change since 1872, Gruene, Texas bills itself as "conveniently located between Austin and San Antonio and a little behind the times." Judging from the crowds flowing thru it's streets like the nearby Guadalupe River, folks like it that way. Simply put, if you like authentic Texas-German history, you will love Gruene. A delightful old-town center with plenty of shops, restaurants, antique stores, rock & fossil shops, a genuine Texas dance hall, and gift places galore await your perusal. After parking in the centrally-located lot, we spent only a few minutes strolling the square before hunger called and we made our way to the Grill. Perched dramatically above the river, Gruene River Grill is similarly positioned in a culinary sense to make a major impact on the local dining scene. My wife had the Chicken Fajita Salad and raved about it, and since I stated in the previous day's post that she is a Certified Fajita Expert, her opinion is high praise indeed. I chose to open my very late lunch with a cup of Jalapeno Corn Chowder, deservedly touted on the menu as a specialty, and redolent of sweet corn, cilantro, spicy jalapenos (not too spicy!), and crawfish tails. After this ambrosial mixture, I made a play for the Queso Chicken. Pan-fried tortilla crusted breast of chicken topped with Monterrey Jack cheese, spicy queso, and fresh cilantro, served with sauteed black beans and rice, was probably the very best Mex meal I've had to date all year. With the sunlight flashing beautifully off the waters below, this stop may very well have been the highlight of our roadtrip. Website (still under construction) is

After a little more shopping and sightseeing, we decided to check out Gruene's most fabled tourist attraction.


Not only is Gruene Hall Texas oldest operating dance hall (since 1878), but it still boasts a full schedule of live music. As we passed this historic edifice on the way back to our car, we heard sounds of a kickin' live band inside and decided to investigate. To properly describe the wonderfulness of this genu-wine Texas honky tonk would take pages and pages of dialogue, with it's rather smallish wooden interior, separate bar for longneck sippin, and large rear biergarten complete with barrels and ancient ReadyMix ice machine. Suffice it to say, we stopped in just long enough to enjoy the excellent music and a round of brew before heading back to our hotel for much-needed rest. Website for this glorious emporium of living Texana is

After a nap at the hotel and a little more TV and internet surfing, we decided to motor back to Gruene for dinner at yet another historic structure.


Situated on a bluff overlooking the Guadalupe River directly under the Gruene water tower, the Gristmill Restaurant has been serving meals inside this restored cotton gin since 1977. Ten separate dining rooms give the feeling of dining in a turn-of-last century bank with its stone, distressed walls. The Rock Star was very pleased with her old-fashioned chicken-fried chicken, done to a turn, with excellent cream gravy. I was mucho pleased with my Guadalupe Chopped Steak, medium-rare with queso, red onions, jalapenos, and jack cheese. (Although my stomach often objects, I do love south-of-the-border-influenced cuisine.) Website is Don't pass up the chance to dine at this historical site (complete with historical marker out front).

Before we left Gruene, we paid one more visit to Gruene Hall for a final round of brew and more great live music, then puttered happily back to our inn to sleep. A much better day, with much less friction, theraputic and much needed by us both. Please look for the third and final installment soon, and:


Monday, February 25, 2008


Friction. Man, what a drag! Seriously, though, friction is great for starting fires and sanding surfboards, but can really grind away at a relationship. My lovely wife the Rock Star and I have been married quite a few years, and even the best of couples need to get their batteries recharged every now and then. Sensing the need for some certified Central Texas BBQ and good times therapy, my bride and I scheduled a roadtrip and on the appointed day set off down the well-worn path (Interstate 35, a path that in some places is just a little too well-worn for my taste) toward New Braunfels, a town I must admit I can never remember visiting, although, as I was born in San Antone, I'm sure I've been there before. After a brief pause at Starbucks for some caffenated refreshment (aren't drive-thru windows great?), my wife and I headed first to an old friendly place where we could break our fast.


Despite other food lovers insistence that there were better kolaches to be had in the thoroughly Czech town of West, when push came to shove, my spouse and I proceeded straight to that old reliable bus-and-tourist magnet that is the Czech Stop. Luckily, we were traveling mid-morning on a Friday, rather than a Saturday afternoon, so the expansive bus lot was almost empty. The lack of lines also meant that we could enjoy our modest but oh-so-wonderful fare in one of the few tables inside the bakery itself. (Last time, we had to eat on the road as all spots were occupied.) This time, at my wife's urging, I tried the smoked sausage and cheese kolache. Excellent quality and thoroughly smokey, but not quite as good as my usual breakfast sausage and cheese option. (A breakfast sausage patty works much better texturally that the oversize link of the smoked option.) My bride, of course, got her usual pecan rolls, as she is quite fanatical about this most Texas of nuts, so much so that you debate with her on this point at your peril. I tried a bite in the interest of journalistic accuracy: delightfully sweet, as always, rather than cloying, making for the perfect frontier Continental b'fast. Website is Since this visit, I have since learned that Gerik's is the name of another great czech stop in this blessed hamlet (thanks, Soulslinger!) and I vow to czech it out myself next time thru.

Our first experience of the trip having resolved itself into a smooth conclusion, we putt-putted back on the highway on the way to Austin. Since it was late morning when we finished breakfast, we felt we could safely bypass the Capitol City and wondered aloud where in San Marcos we would like to stop for lunch. Suddenly, the perfect opportunity presented itself: while stopped for traffic at Hwy 183, we noticed a sign which read Lockhart: 30 Miles. Lockhart! Of course!! We had planned to visit this genuine Barbecue Mecca on the morrow; why not try it for lunch today? After a quick stop for gas, we did just that, arriving at the lovely burg within half-an-hours time, determined to eat at one of the Holy Mosques of 'cue.


A couple of months ago when first planning this trip, I posted a thread on Chowhound (, an absolutely essential site for All Things Food) requesting feedback on the best Lockhart/Luling BBQ places. The clear winner of my informal poll was Smittys, so my wife and I determined that we would lunch there. Set right on 183 at the opposite end of a gravelly parking lot, Smittys is without doubt one of the most atmospheric of joints: A brick-lined pit room with fire-darkened walls attached to a large, utilitarian dining room with long tables. My wife and I duly placed our orders at the pit and paid, the 'cue looked and smelled delicious, and the pittmen were helpful and eager to please. We proceeded to the dining room, where friction unexpectedly began simmering souplike under the surface of my spouse's disposition. You see, the Rock Star, though a very hearty gal (she is a Texas native, like myself), she does have her dainty side, and Smitty's is truly a no-frills place. Translated: Butcher paper plates (no problem there), eating communally at long tables (a practice that helps you make friends quickly), and you had to ask for such amenities as sauce. All very Texan, and to her way of thinking, all good. Then, the detail that killed her serene mood: NO FORKS. SMITTYS DOES NOT, AND WILL NOT, GIVE YOU FORKS FOR YOUR MEAL, EVEN IF YOU ASK! My wife promptly put on a very sour face as if she had swallowed a whole lemon, and refused to cheer up, even though she readily admitted that Smitty's had some of the best sausage she had ever tasted. I must agree. Served in short links with the tail still attached, this sausage was perfectly balanced in taste and texture, pure hawg heaven, with just enough spice to provide a nice finishing kick of delight. For my money, the brisket was almost as good, incredibly moist and tender, but proved too fatty for the Rock Star, who prefers Louis Mueller's brisket just up the road in Taylor Texas. Still, Smitty's is stellar stuff to be sure, and I can say they deserve their hard-won accolades for the most part. (In closing, I feel I must add that perhaps Smitty's could keep a box or two of plastic forks behind the counter in case patrons ask, as I feel it's not an unreasonable request at all. I'm sure other diners don't like getting their hands dirty as well.) URL is

Thus sated, we drove the rest of the way to our digs in New Braunfels, a Hampton Inn right on the Interstate. My wife is a member of the Hilton Honors program, and loves the comfortable beds and complimentary breakfasts at Hampton Inn, so we often stop there. After a couple of errands and a few hours of rest, we headed out to dinner to a place recommended by one of our colleagues.


Sporting almost two dozen stores in Houston and Central Texas, Los Cucos is a warm, convival place, the kind of place where Girl Scouts pitch their tents (so to speak) in the front foyer and sell their famous cookies. Unfortunately, the Rock Star and I had trouble locating the place, and it took us some forty-five minutes to make the ten-minute trip from our hotel. Thus, the stew of our friction soon reached full rolling boil, and greatly diminished our enjoyment of an otherwise excellent meal. For myself, I chose the El Bonito Mixed Plate from their wonderfully expansive menu (if you can't find something to like on Los Cucos menu, then, brother, you just may not like Mexican food atall). Fully half a chicken breast breaded and topped with sauteed poblano peppers and shrimp creamy sauce, served with a beef fajita taco topped with queso and tortilla soup. The soup was delightfully fresh, the fajita meat tender and spiced perfectly by the queso, and best of all, the chicken breast meticulously prepared and executed, the fire of the poblanos cut nicely by the slightly sweet creamy sauce. For me, a very satisfying meal, although in all honesty, the salsas weren't all that great, particularly the very bland salsa verde. My wife was frankly disappointed by her fajitas, finding them quite unexceptional, although it must be noted that she is a true fajita expert, and has rather exacting standards for them. Still despite our waiter's and the kitchen's best efforts, they could not break our mood, and at length we decided to call it a night. Website is, and I for one would love to give them another chance someday. For now, we motored quietly back to our hotel, feeling that a night of rest would be the best cure for what ailed us. The next day would be much better. Please read the next installment soon, and remember:


Saturday, February 16, 2008

Wine Corner Review #16: Coppola Diamond Claret

Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I just don't get people. The human race puzzles me. For instance, if I ask a person if they like excellent, value-oriented wines with serious chops and they say yes. I may ask that same person if they like wines with a definite Italian feel (whether or not those wines come from that most ancient of lands), and they again say yes. Then, I ask if said person enjoys the movies of Francis Ford Coppola. Oh yes, they say, often going into exaggerated Brando impressions or flights of ecstasy about The Godfather. Finally, I have no choice but to ask: Dude, then why haven't you tried Coppola wines??? Person in question usually flails about wildly, and stammers to the effect of I Don't Know, I Was Walking the Dog at the Time of Tasting, or some such rot. My point is obvious. If you have not sampled Coppola wines up to this point in your life, such as the Coppola Diamond Claret, your life has been sadly incomplete.

The robe of the black-labeled vino is midnight with intense lavender overtones. The nose may reflect many things depending on the bottle and the tasting (remember that wine is a living creature); on this occasion, I detected sediment and a distinct touch of pencil eraser. (No, it was actually quite pleasant and brought back memories of school.) The taste? A Mike Tyson fist of blackberry that connected a straight right hook to the jaw. Pairings? The URL in question, suggests Porterhouse steak. Well, of course, as it is a claret. (In case you didn't know, beef and this cabernet-based, Bordeaux-style blend are a match made in heaven.) Oh, and from personal experience, I know that if you were to enter a Studio Movie Grill as of this writing, Coppola wines are featured, as well they should be. Let our filmmaker-winemaker make you an offer you can't refuse, and remember:


Friday, February 15, 2008

Food Czar Revisit #1: The Bear, The County Line & The Solid Gold Cadillac

The Solid Gold Cadillac was a smash sensation play of 1955 later made into a delightful 1956 movie starring Judy Holliday, the quintessential dumb blonde of Born Yesterday fame. This dramatic vehicle has absolutely nothing to do with the first Food Czar Revisit Review in history, except that I was treated like such a VIP on that visit that I felt like I was driving said Caddy Del Oro. Specifically, Bear Kirby, the ever-vigilant manager of the County Line BBQ Harbor Point in Garland, Texas had found my original review of a month or so ago, noticed there were some service issues that required his immediate attention, corrected them, and then sent me a VIP invitation to reassess the place on his dime, so to speak. Truly a Man of Action! Needless to say, I was quite flattered and impressed by his offer, and after a flurry of email exchanges, my lovely wife the Rock Star and I received our Backstage Pass, and planned a surprise visit one recent Saturday Evening.

The County Line Harbor Point, as I said in my previous post, is located hard by the shores of peaceful Lake Ray Hubbard, and you would be quite remiss, indeed, if you passed up a chance to sit on the lovely patio, especially at gloaming (dusk). Views of swimming ducks, buoys, and boats abound. (Directions and other pertinent info to this and all other County Lines are easily obtainable at My bride and I were led to a nice spot; unfortunately, a loud party was in progress nearby, and we had to strain to hear ourselves think. No problem, said our ever-amiable server Seth, and relocated us away from the action. We started with specialty margaritas, ice-cold and well-made. Then, an oversize platter of meats and veggies was brought in due course, after we had enjoyed the sights and sounds of the children running on the patio and squealing after the ducks. (The County Line is family-friendly and proud of it, pardner.) The beef ribs were once again a standout for me, and my spouse really enjoyed her sausage and brisket, feeling that both were better than on the previous visit. (All meats at The County Line are smoked over wood like all true Texas BBQ. I think that says it all for the quality here.) Sides were excellent as before, particularly the tasty potato salad and the almost sinfully-rich, cakelike bread. Finally, we turned our attention to dessert and, surprise, surprise, the proferred vanilla bean ice cream turned out to be the highlight of the evening, rich and creamy whereas vanilla bean is often tart and unsatisfying. Moral: Do Not Miss Dessert Here!

Throughout our lovely stay, Randy "Bear" Kirby worked the room like a nightclub comedian in the Catskills, putting out fires rather than telling one-liners. Finally we met and I was very impressed. Here is a man who cares deeply about his job and his customers and will do whatever it takes to make them feel at ease and at home. He could not stay long, as there were other pressing concerns, but it was long enough to convince my wife and myself that we must return soon. Test drive your own Cadillac soon, and remember:


Saturday, February 9, 2008

Wine Corner Review #15: Toasted Head Cabernet Sauvignon

We Americans are picky creatures. Dang it, if we rise up as one and demand Quality And Value, we often get it, especially in these oft-troubled times. America had this collective Strange Idea just a few short years ago: Why can't we buy certified, bonified, genu-wine Good Wine at prices easier on the wallet that if we purchased it at our local wine shoppe? Response: America (sayeth Free Enterprise, in the form of Walmart, HEB, Kroger, etc) Here is the wine you requested: Quality With Value. Idiomatic Expression: Well, I Swanney, but I do believe I have broken a few of the Rules Of Grammar, really I do. (Orchestra: Warning Cue #87 for More of Scarlett's Pithy Sayings, and I don't mean Scarlett Johannsen the erstwhile New York Doll.) If any of you are still with me, know that such very good vinters as Chateau St.Michelle, Coppola, and as in this case, Toasted Head (a non-de-plume if you like for RH Phillips) took up the challenge and continue it to this very day, as embodied in Toasted Head Cabernet Sauvignon.

The robe of the Toasted Head Cabernet Sauvignon (red, not blanc) is a thunderously rich reddish-purplish maroon. (Many Good Reds boast a variation of a maroon robe or color.) The nose is many-noted, like The Call in Jack London's immortal Call of the Wild, with cavendish and cherries among it's treble clef of music. The palate is thoroughly rewarded with tobacco, coffee, chocolate, and the slightest touch of currant. (Yes, this last assessment bears remarkable similarity to the tasting notes, plus anise, plum, noble rot, raspberries and blackberries. Taste it: I dare you to deny that one could easily conclude such notes on their own.) Why such complexity in one so young and foolish (foolish as in, under $15)? Furthur research at reveals answers: Touches of Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Merlot make this here tipple a Bordeaux Claret American Style. All that, and it's readily available at grocery store prices. Try one of the uniquely-labeled bottles soon, and, yes,


Quickie Review #17: Chilitos

Devil Dog is a colleague of mine and a true warrior, with actual time spent in the service of his country overseas. (I'll leave you to guess which branch of the armed services by his nickname. Hint: Google your way from the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli, USMC. There you go. Made it easy for you. You're welcome.) As with many of my other colleagues, when I see that he is in need, I'm quick to respond. He told me recently that his family is in the restaurant business, to which I posed a few questions. 1. Since the restaurant in question is a Mexican restaurant and since you are a proud Hispanic, do you dine regularly in said establishment? Answer: Yes. 2. How is the food? Answer: Delicious. 3. Do other members of your ethnicity dine in this restaurant with great frequency and in ever-increasing numbers? Answer: Yes. Devil Dog went on to add that the Corinth Constabulary considered Chilitos to be one of their regular hangouts. Now he had me hook, line, and sinker, as the Police (of whatever city) tend to shy away from mediocre food. I promised Devil Dog there and then that I would journey to Chilitos and write a review, the better to help his family and give me a new review and, hopefully, a new hangout of my own as well.

Tucked away in a nondescript shopping strip hard by I35 (warning: if you're not quick to turn left at exit 457 off the freeway, you'll miss it. I did.) in the rather tiny hamlet of Lake Dallas, TX, Chilitos is without question a family-run neighborhood hangout. Smallish, utilitarian dining rooms made warm by familial friendliness, it has an inviting vibe and many patrons are obviously regulars and are greeted as such by the staff. After some research, I discovered the key to getting a very good meal: integrate the food rather than eating each item separately. Example: If you were to order (as I did) the excellent carnitas, you will discover they are best enjoyed by placing the crunchy-yet-tender morsels firmly inside one of the tortillas (corn in this case; flour is also available), perhaps adding a touch of the side rice, beans, and guacamole, and topping it off with the zingy salsa, your end result is quite the quality dish. I also enjoyed homemade meatball soup, queso with beef, and the fresh chips and salsa and finished the evening's meal quite satisfied. Chris was my waiter and was quite good (he suggested the carnitas) and other family members pitched in as well during my leisurely-paced repast. No website: Please call 940 321-5522 with any questions. See if Chilitos can become your hangout as well, and remember:


Sunday, February 3, 2008


I must ask a question of all my readers out there in Czarland: Have both of you seen Iron Chef America? Well, if not, then a primer is in order. Basically, Iron Chef America is the legitimate, Uncle Sam offspring of Iron Chef, a Japanese TV show which featured resident Great Chefs squaring off in culinary battle against Rising Upstarts in a sort of jazz cutting contest to determine who is the best on that particular day. Oh, sorry, but I feel a vision coming on! (It often happens whenever I eat onions.) Picture an Old West movie, something with John Wayne in it, or better still an episode of Gunsmoke. A dusty, dusty street. A big, bad black-hatted dude comes riding into view. He halts and without dismounting, says to the local street urchin, in his most fierce voice: "Prithee, dear boy, knowest thou where your Top Gunslinger abideth at this moment, and if so, would you kindly fetch him for me? I have at this juncture the proverbial itch to play at pistols. Run along now, there's a good lad, and by the by, here's a shilling for your trouble." (I've just got to cut back on those onions!) All of this folderol is my way of leading up to the chief point at hand: I believe I may very well have found the next Potential Upstart for Iron Chef America. His name is Brandt Evans at he currently plies his pots at the newly-opened Blue Canyon Kitchen, Tavern & Wine Bar at The Harbor in the humble burg of Rockwall, hard by the shores of Lake Ray Hubbard. A dear man named Shawn very kindly arranged a tasting for me; unfortunately my lovely wife The Rock Star was unavoidably detained elsewhere, and I had to go it alone this evening. Therefore, I duly drove my car (the Mazda, as the Duesenberg was in the shop) to Rockwall, only to discover the madhouse that parking at The Harbor can be on a Friday night. (Yes, there is plenty of parking, but you will most likely either have to valet or hike.) After receiving directions from a kind valet, I successfully located Blue Canyon on the far side of a simply gorgeous fountain.


In a word: stunning. First of all, there is That View. Lights merrily twinkling, reflecting off the water, and generally doing whatever lights do on a starry, starry night. Next there is the structure itself, supposedly designed to resemble a Rocky Mountain lodge, as impressive in it's own way as a medieval castle but much more inviting. Finally, the interior is quite warm and cozy, with lots of wood, and of course That View. (I warn you: This could get monotonous!) I was warmly received by the black-clad hostess staff and conducted with only the shortest of delays to one of the best seats in the house. (It's actually quite nice to be me on occasion.) In due course Shawn, my waiter Loren, and The Man Himself Chef Brandt presented themselves to me and prepared me for a sumptuous repast.


If you've never been to a tasting, you're in for a real treat. (Wineries have them all the time, they are quite lovely, you should try one. Speaking of which, my wine for all courses was a lovely Astancia Pinot Noir.) Specifically, my tasting on this eve was presented very much like an episode of Iron Chef, with Chef presenting the dishes himself, describing their ingredients and preparation, then leaving me to feast on his latest creation. For starters, my appetizer was Asian Barbecue Shrimp with Lobster Fried Rice. The big, prawnlike creatures were incredibly fresh, and so good that the rice became rather unnecessary, although it was well prepared. For the fish course, I was given the Cedar Plank Tasmanian Salmon, which had literally been swimming in the ocean just a few short hours before, so I knew it was fresh. Chef apparently made the decision for Texas to change from root beer sauce to roasted vegetable bacon broth, and I applaud this decision, as the broth made for some good down-home sopping, indeed. The salmon? Simply the best I've ever had, period, and I'm not a salmon freak. (I prefer tuna and snapper, usually.) In due course, the game was literally afoot, and I was given the Duck Two Way. No, it wasn't at all kinky, but merely a breast and confit presented side by side. Chef is truly a great chef because he is a skin-on, bone-in man with his cooking, and the skin on the confit was literally crackling with flavor. (The confit meat was, sadly, a bit tough for my taste, but duck can be a tricky bird to master in the best of circumstances, so I wasn't too disappointed.) The breast itself was quite marvelous, as was the smoked tomato corn spoon bread near which it resided; however, I must admit I once again ate very little of the side as the breast meat was so scrumptuous. Then, a bone-in Cowboy ribeye made it's appearance, and I thoroughly enjoyed the juicy flavor, helped not a little by the accompanying smoked Gouda maple butter sauce. I must admit to being a little discomfitted at first glance: I order my steak medium-rare these days, and since the cut, though very attractive, was quite thin, I was afraid it might not quite work for me. One bite, however, convinced me otherwise and I was quite pleased at the result. Finally, at meal's end I was delighted by the Blue Canyon S'more, whose Graham-crackery goodness thoroughly reminded me of days gone by singing around the campfire. (For the record, the White Chocolate Malt Mousse which was also presented was quite delicious as well.)


Service was all that it should have been and then some, with Loren playing a key part in the evening's success. I think my favorite part of the entire experience was in meeting so many lovely people particularly Chef Brandt. He is truly a great artist, and like all great artists, is quite humble. ("I'm living the dream every day," he confided. My friend, it shows! Trust me!) When you assemble the right people and then treat them well, they will, in turn, treat customers well and bring a place lots of return business. When Chef was notified of the Rock Star's desire to sample some of his cuisine, he even made her a pretzel-crusted trout to go, complete with skin-on for added flavor. (Said skin peeled off quite nicely when we enjoyed the fish the next day for lunch with a glass of Texas blush. This dish, too, was quite wonderous.) Website is; pleased be advised that the menu displayed is not the one for the Rockwall location, as all concerned have been rather busy with getting Blue Canyon open.


Before I conclude, I must thank all those involved, particularly Shawn, who made the whole thing happen, and Chef for being Chef. Visit our newest Iron Chef candidate soon and sample his wares, for as always:


Saturday, February 2, 2008

Quickie Review #16: Le Peep

Dang these New Year's resolutions! Grumble, Grumble!! You see, my lovely wife the Rock Star and I recently noticed our pants not fitting us as well as they should, and I don't exactly think they were shrinking in the wash, if you know what I mean. So we decided to make a few changes: more vegetables, more walking (We even bought pedometers: Try them! They are great subtle motivators. My wife's even has a tiny radio and headphones. How cool is that?), and most important, making a conscious decision to go to a brunch-and-dinner system of dining on the weekends. On a sudden inspiration (We get lots of those), my spouse and I decided on a recent morning to brunch at that venerable old standby: Le Peep.

Le Peep has stood the test of time for a score of years, probably a result of management keeping their peepers fixed constantly on it. (All right, quit groaning, it wasn't that bad, was it?) A number of chains that have survived that long have suffered a noticeable drop in quality, not so this chain. Omelettes have long been a Peep strong point and in the past, I have almost automatically selected the Sir Benedict simply because I dote on hollandaise. (When properly made, hollandaise is indeed a sauce to dote on.) However, I'm an even bigger fan of South of the Border breakfasts and the Desperado, a delightful alloy of chorizo, eggs, chilis, onions, and potatoes, almost had me shouting OLE!! for joy. My bride opted for the Hen Pen, a classic bacon, eggs, and English muffin combo that she found rather pleasing. (She did not really care for the Peasant Potatoes that came on the side.) The coffee (I had the vanilla, she chose unflavored) was quite good, and Brooke was everything you could want in a waitress: sweet, unaffected, and eager to please. Website is Keep your New Year's resolution there soon, and as always: