Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Wine Corner Review #51: 14 Hands Cabernet Sauvignon

Deep in the Pacific Northwest, down near the base of Washington State where it joins forces with the forests of Oregon, lies the winemaking appelation of Horse Heaven Hills. Not surprisingly, wild horses once roamed these hills, frolicking in the dry, windy meadows, drinking from the mighty Columbian River and generally just doing what horses do naturally. Recently, the Horse Heaven Hills appelation was carved out of the much larger Columbia Valley appelation which still surrounds it. In appreciation of the tough little horses that once populated this region, a new line of wines was created, named after their approximate height. (Horse heights are always measured in hands, and 14 hands is considered quite small.) You know, I could continue to horse around some more and talk about boring stuff, but maybe I should proceed directly to the discussion of the bottle or glass of vino at hand, specifically the 14 Hands Cabernet Sauvignon.

The robe of the 14 Hands Cabernet Sauvignon is magenta flecked with a touch of maroon. The nose suggests minerals, black cherries, and currants. Berries, cherries, and more currants wash playfully over the palate, finishing lightly with Melba toast points. Cabernets are often notoriously difficult to pair with food; not so this one, for by blending the cab sauvignon grapes, with cab franc, merlot, and a touch of syrah, winemaker Keith Kennison has created a quaff that can stand up to most red meat and pork, yet is quite fruit-forward and friendly enough to enjoy on its own. Website is www.14hands.com, where you will learn that Wine and Spirits Magazine has named 14 Hands Cabernet the fourteenth most popular wine by the glass in restaurants, which suggests a double dose of good luck to me. Horse around with a glass yourself soon, and remember:


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Quickie Review #39: Jakes Hamburgers

In mi casa, the after-concert feast is a Food Czar tradition, and I bet it's a tradition in your household as well. There's nothing like live music and beer to bring on a serious case of the heart-attack munchies, so we usually follow up with a nice, leisurely meal; that way, we can unwind and swing a lot of cats, so to speak. My lovely wife the Rock Star, her sister the Wild Thing, and myself had just wrapped up Sunday afternoon at the Wildflower festival (for my money, the best festival in the entire Metroplex), and as usual, our thoughts turned to food. Also, I don't know why burgers always seem to hit the spot in times like these, but I guess it's the serious comfort factor. At any rate, since the Wild Thing wanted to dine close to her casa, and since we love her company so much we usually let her pick, we decided on Jake's Hamburgers, and duly made the rather short drive over there posthaste.

Jakes interior is one of those "C" shaped jobs, with tables and booths arranged in a semicircle pattern around a central bar, but since alfresco season is almost over, we decided to dine on their expansive patio. When I check out a new place, I often try the unusual to see what a place has to offer that's unique, but after carefully considering the Jake's Special and the Texas Chili Burger, I opted for the single cheeseburger, substituting chipotle mayo from the daily special for the mustard. Jake's burgers are rather large (that's an understatement) and the bun tops are literally peppered to death with sesame seeds, but it was quite tasty and worthy of award-winning status. Yes, it was cooked too long for me (I'm liking my beef rarer and rarer these days), but it wasn't dry, and I loved the tater tots as well. (French fries are not all they could be in this city because most cooks refuse to blanch them before frying.) The girls ordered the same burgers (with mustard instead of mayo) and quite enjoyed them. (I love to see women who enjoy beef; it means they just don't follow the herd, so to speak. Or maybe they do.) We chatted happily into the night, and enjoyed the fireflies when they came buzzing 'round. Website is http://www.jakesburgers.net/. Start your own post-concert tradition soon, and as always:


Wednesday, May 13, 2009


He started cooking in his family's kitchen as a mere boy. A lifetime of success later, he had prepared meals for Presidents Bush and Johnson, introduced Julia Child to Chicken Fried Steak, was featured on Oprah, and generally advanced the cause of Tex-Mex cuisine by preparing incomparable meals for just plain folks like you and me. Today, Matt Martinez smiles beatifically down from on high as an angel, no doubt paying particular attention to his restaurant pride and joys, Matt's El Rancho in Austin where he invented the classic Bob Armstrong Dip to please a Texas Land Commissioner, and Matt's Rancho Martinez, his Lakewood gem, still going strong after all these years. With his recent passing, my lovely wife The Rock Star and I felt that there was no better way to pay tribute than to enjoy brunch at his place, and so we motored down to Lakewood, the delightfully retro city-within-a-city, one recent windy Sunday.

Atmospherically, old-school Tex-Mex places generally fall into two camps: homey and intimate, like dining in someone's kitchen, or ramshackle and rambling (in a good sense) with multiple dining areas. Matt's Rancho Martinez definitely fits the latter profile and adds the extra touch of fiesta with its large banners on the patio and lots of good-times signage. We were showed to one of the metal tables on said patio and began menu perusal, taking special care to anchor napkins and other blowable things so that they would not escape in the brisk breeze.

As far as our meal selections, what can we say? After all, we were paying tribute to one of the greats, and felt that the most proper way to honor him would be to select his signature dishes. At Matt's, this means starting with a cup of his legendary Bob Armstrong Dip, named for the man who showed up at his door in Austin one day and demanded Matt create a special dish for him on the spot. Rich and creamy and not too thick, loaded with ground chuck, guacamole, sour cream, and lots of queso, Matt's version of the now-ubiquitous chain classic layered dip puts all imitators to shame. We would have loved more, but we had other fish to fry. My bride chose the Monster Chicken Fried Steak Tampequeno Style and was presented with a massive slab of very tender meat covered with zesty tomatillo sauce, Monterey Jack cheese and sour cream, and served with rice and borracho beans. After stealing a bite, I understand why Julia Child raved about it, because Matt's dish would do any truckstop proud. For myself, I knew that his chili rellenos had won numerous honors and made my selection accordingly. Matt uses Anaheim rather than Poblano peppers in his rellenos, because Anaheims are slightly milder and will be more of a canvas for the other ingredients in the dish, rather than letting the pepper take center stage. Stuffed with beef and topped with tomatillo, sour cream, mixed cheeses, raisins, and Texas pecans, this version was a lesson in the values of culinary restraint. In one bite, the nuttiness of the pecans were featured, in the next bite the tomatillo shone, and so on. Uniquely tasty, and probably unlike any other chile relleno you've ever had. After such a repast, we felt that Matt's bracing margaritas were the only dessert we needed, and we indulged happily.

Service was quite accomodating, as our charming waitress was careful to inquire whether I wanted all the goodies on my dish (she reported that many people like the raisins and pecans on their relleno, while others don't so she always asked) and made sure to give my wife the total rundown of all the chicken fried steak possibilities. There are two websites for more info: www.thetexmexchef.com will give you all the details of The Man Himself, while the restaurant-specific URL is www.mattsranchmartinez.com.

In sum, I can think of no nicer way to pay a tribute to Matt Martinez and his Tex-Mex legacy than by visiting Matt's Rancho Martinez in lovely Lakewood. Pay your own tribute yourself soon, and remember:


Sunday, May 3, 2009

Adventures in Tasting #1, Continued: Screen Door Restaurant

If you recall our last installment of this tasting post, my lovely wife The Rock Star and I had just finished discovering the joys of Cruzan Rum with our delightful new friend Andrea. We sampled Cruzan and a name-brand rum straight up, then enjoyed Cruzan cocktails. In our minds, Cruzan was the clear winner, and this was no idle boast, as my lovely bride went to the liquor shoppe just a few days later and bought some for home consumption. Tasting over, we decided to proceed with a proper dinner outdoors on Screen Door's lovely patio, with the stars shining brightly overhead.

Executive sous chef Terrance (he of the streetwise attitude and ever-present fedora), started us off right in the bar with an order of that old Southern classic fried green tomatoes, plus some fried quail. Sadly, the tomatoes were a bit rubbery, although the red pepper jam they were served with was quite good. The Southern fried quail was much more palatable, crispy-crunchy, with savory onion-thyme gravy on the side. A great starter indeed. Once we arrived out of doors, we decided to try yet one more appetizer: Crispy fried oysters and okra with smoked tomato remoulade. Oysters proved every bit as crispy as the quail, and the remoulade added a touch of New Orleans to our Southern feast. Some of the best remoulade I've ever had. The fried okra was, well, fried okra. You either love fried okra, or like me, you try some from time to time and wonder what the fuss is about. Luckily, my wife loves it. When entree time rolled around, she selected the daily special: Roasted spring chicken atop a bed of grits. The chicken was free-range, and you could obviously taste the fresh, roasted flavor, but the grits were a revelation. In my opinion, grits are not usually very tasty because they are ground very coarse and cooked until almost flavorless. Not so these grits. They were smooth and buttery, like polenta (in fact, food-savvy Andrea thought they were polenta), and had melt-in-your-mouth goodness. Andrea decided on the boneless rack of lamb. Very tender and juicy, but once again a sidedish stole the show, in this case a fricassee of black eyed peas, tasso ham, and pearl onion confit. The ham and onion really brought out the flavor of the black eyed peas, showing once and for all that Executive Chef Fitzgerald Dodd really knows how to prepare Southern food, both classic and newfangled. My own meal was chicken-fried veal, which added a nice twist to an old classic. If every chicken-fried steak was this good, it would be the star of every diner in Texas. We finished our lengthy repast (we took over two hours to dine because we were having such a good time) with milk and cookies, and pastry chef Erica Nicholl deserves credit for her inspired pairing of snappy ginger and luscious triple-chocolate cookies with a jug of cold milk. All too soon we took our satisfied leave, and my wife and I can't wait to dine with Andrea again.

Service was (what else?) Southern, down-home and friendly, and Terrance was often on-hand to offer his personal touch. Website is http://www.screendoordallas.com/. In short, Screen Door is a true Southern belle gussied up for today's diners. Try her charms soon, and remember:


Saturday, May 2, 2009

Wine Corner Review #50: Cross Timbers Cabernet Sauvignon

Honestly, in this world the only thing more lovely than visiting a winery on a crisp weekend afternoon is visting a winery located in a historic old farmhouse. In 1874, a gentleman named Dr Dorris moved from Starville Mississippi to Grapevine, Texas and built a family farm. That structure has been recognized as one of the five oldest structures in the city and today houses Cross Timbers winery. Why is it named Cross Timbers? Longtime residents of the metroplex know that Grapevine, Arlington, and the Mid-Cities are located in the Cross Timbers Ecological Region of Texas, while the Grand Prairie region does not encompass the city of Grand Prairie but instead envelopes Fort Worth. Finally, Dallas is the largest city in the Blackland Prairie. If all this ecospeak has you seriously diverted and bored, then please join me in a simple glass of vino such as the Cross Timbers Cabernet Sauvignon.

The robe of the Cross Timbers Cabernet Sauvignon is jeweled midnight onyx. The nose is chock-full of minerals and dusky currants. Black cherries and cassis deliver a swift kick to the palate, and the finish is long and lingering. Consider calling this cab when you are serving steak, game, or lamb shank. Website is www.crosstimberswinery.com, but it contains precious little information about the wines as of this writing. Find your own historic farmhouse soon, and remember: