In March this year, Matt and I visited Texas. “Why Texas of all places?” literally everyone who we told about the trip would ask.
Well, it’s a long story. It starts with a pimply Korean wannabe gangster who became a die-hard fan of the San Antonio Spurs NBA team because he mistakenly believed that one of the coolest guys at his high school was also a fan of the team. He stayed loyal to the Spurs despite persecution and ridicule, and his loyalty would be rewarded with four championships over twelve years. For this boy, the names “Tim Duncan,” “Manu Ginobili,” and “Tony Parker” take 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place in his heart after Jesus. He would eventually go on to marry a girl (she ties 5th place with Gregg Popovich) who had no interest in basketball (except for a brief stint in the finals winning Year 11 B-team, but that’s another story . . . ) and quickly shut down his genuine proposal to go to San Antonio for their honeymoon. He kept his dream alive however, and with every year that Tim Duncan became older, his urgency to see his idols in the flesh intensified. With his hero’s retirement on the horizon, he decided that 2015 would be THE YEAR to finally make his dream a reality. Some people dream of Disneyland. Others dream of the Northern Lights, the Himalayas, or the Pyramids. My husband dreamt of San Antonio, Texas.
And Matt has a real knack for getting what he wants. Before I even had time to give the idea much thought, he had bought tickets to three home games in March, and all I could say was … “Well, I guess we’re going to San Antonio.” I’m a sucker like that. A part of me resented him for not being a a fan of the Knicks, or the Bulls, or the Warriors… you know, a team based in a city that is at least in the TOP 100 places I actually want to visit in my life time. But Texas? And not even Houston or Dallas, but dinky little San Antonio?! As much as love and support my husband, I never really got on board with the Spurs mania. Honestly, I only ever cared about how the Spurs played because it would have such an effect on Matt’s emotional wellbeing. Loss to Miami in the 2013 finals: husband depressed and grumpy for about two months, not a fun time. 2014 championship win: husband over the moon, shouted me a steak dinner, happy days.
I needed to find a way to make this trip fun for me too. So I googled “Best restaurants in San Antonio” and started to build an itinerary of my own. But ultimately, I knew this wasn’t my trip; it was Matt’s and I was just along for the ride.
Now, about two months after our Texan adventure, a lot has changed. Texas has become one of my favorite places in the world, and I’m still recovering from that intense one-week love affair that now feels like a dream. In three games, the Spurs managed to turn this sport-hating nerd into a “DEFENCE!” yelling “GO SPURS GO!” chanting superfan and both Matt and I are nursing broken hearts after our beloved team were sent home after round one of the Playoffs.
So this blog series is kind of therapy for me. I just uploaded about 70 photos so I think this may stretch out to four posts. Don’t worry, it will mostly be about food but there will also be a lot of basketball because Texas is food and Texas is Spurs and those two things played equal parts in making this trip so memorable. Like Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich, they come hand in hand; one cannot be torn from the other.
We actually started our food adventures an hour and a half north of San Antonio in Austin. Austin is one of hipster capitals of the world – home to hundreds of food trucks, the South by South West festival, and the historic Sixth Street live music district. But being Texas, Austin is both undeniably cool yet unpretentious and approachable. Kind of like The Big Fundamental’s bank shot.
Our first stop was Chuey’s – a Tex Mex chain restaurant that’s a favourite with locals. It was hidden right in the back corner of a strip mall but was packed with people enjoying their Sunday night dinner.
The restaurant is colourful and kitschy – like an all-American diner meets a tequila bar meets a lucha libre museum.
Of course the meal started with tortilla chips and salsa!
Salsa is really just a dip, so it seems simple enough, but a TRULY great salsa is hard to come by. Chuy’s Salsa Fresca is perfect – ultra fresh tomatoes with plenty of kick courtesy of lime juice and green chilli peppers. I could just slurp this up a straw like a smoothie. It was early on the game but this salsa had already won me like…
This over the top beauty is the Queso Compuesto: a homemade blend of melted cheese, Green Chile sauce and Ranchero sauce, seasoned ground sirloin, guacamole and pico de gallo. Kind of like a taco exploded and fell into a pool of cheese soup. Welcome to Texas!
Matt couldn’t resist but order the famous “Big As Yo Face” Burrito. This would be menu puffery anywhere else, but this is Texas and when they say something’s gonna be “big”, they’re not exaggerating.
That burrito is no where near as big as my face. We expected it to be massive and bursting at the seams with sloppy, meaty fillings but it was a bit sad, flat and quite underwhelming. A bit disappointing for the “famous” dish at one of Texas’s favourite Tex Mex restaurants.
On the recommendation of our super enthusiastic and friendly waiter (“Southern Hospitality” is a real thing and it is awesome) I ordered the Chicka-Chicka Boom-Boom enchiladaaaassssss.
Yaaaaaass come to mama. Freshly-roasted, hand-pulled chicken & cheese smothered with “Boom-Boom” sauce made with cheese, roasted New Mexican green chiles, tomatillos, green onions, cilantro and lime juice. I’m not usually an enchilada girl but THAT SAUCE! Cheese, chillis, lime – all my favorites and surprisingly well balanced.
Felt kind of bad for Matt and his sad burrito…. but couldn’t hide my excitement at my menu selection WIN.
Our friends who took us out for dinner were local Texans, and they ordered the fajitas for two.
Fajitas were served as your choice of grilled meats on a hot plate, with flour tortillas, Mexican rice, refried beans and a bowl of fresh toppings.
Lettuce, guacamole, sour cream, cheese, and pico de gallo. I wasn’t sure whether Texans were as happy to share food as Koreans are, so I didn’t ask for a bite – but it certainly looked good!! I mean… just to see a big thick dollop of sour cream and an ice-cream scoop sized chunk of guacamole made me so happy (My tortilla chips may have snuck in a few dips at these when no one was looking.)
With the incredible service, perfect salsa, and yummy yummy boom boom sauce, our first experience of Tex Mex in Texas lived up the hype, only slightly let down by the limp burrito. Overall, I give it a jolly Pop double thumbs up.
The next day we had grand plans to go food-truck hopping but we woke up to miserable weather and changed our eating itinerary because it wouldn’t be very fun to eat breakfast tacos in the rain or inside the car. We headed to South Congress Cafe, a place that comes highly recommended as one of the best brunch spots in Austin.
We were, once again, greeted with exceptional service – seriously all the servers in Texas treat you like they want to marry you and it makes you feel really great. 15% tip? No problems – take all my money.
I was surprised by the interior, just classic and modern and not at all the hipster cafe I was expecting. It was late in the morning and I was bordering on hangry, thinking to myself “if the food here is as generic as a decor… I’m flipping tables.”
Complimentary bread came out with what seemed to be whipped garlic butter. I love when restaurants are creative and thoughtful with the little details like the butter that is served with free bread. This was looking promising… until the waiter came to inform me that their espresso machine was broken which meant I wouldn’t be getting the latte I ordered.
I actually didn’t know how to respond… I mean I know that an espresso machine is a machine and machines sometimes break… but this has never happened to me before. It just didn’t compute… you are a cafe and you’re telling me your coffee machine is not working… so why did you even open today???
I may have been overreacting but this is what happens when a caffeine addict doesn’t get her morning latte. They gave me a nice drip coffee with warm milk but it just wasn’t the same…
We asked the waiter for recommendations that were distinctively “Texan” (such tourists) and he suggested the short rib hash. It wasn’t until the dish came out that I realized that I had no idea what a “hash” actually is. When I read it I thought… “Hash… like hash brown? So maybe something like potato cakes or a rosti?”
Nope. It turns out that “hash” actually just means chopped up meat and potatoes. This is very sophisticated version, with braised short rib, fingerling potatoes, collard greens, red peppers, jalapeno, and the most beautifully shaped poached eggs I’d ever seen.
Just look at those perfectly runny yolks…. so sexy like a Danny Green Tar Heel Triple.
The hash was much heavier than the kind of brunch dish I’m used to, but I guess this is how they do it in Texas! Not that I’m complaining, this was packed with flavor – smoky short rib, squeaky potatoes, soft poached egg and a lot of heat coming from those jalapenos. I could definitely get on board with this kind of breakfast.
Our waiter also recommended the carrot cake french toast. Carrot cake and french toast are two perfectly good brunch foods, each one already quite decadent by itself. It seemed a little bit crazy and unnecessary to combine the two.. but hey
You can’t tell from just looking at it, but just think about the fact that this carrot CAKE (presumably packed with sugar and butter) has been battered with egg and FRIED into a french toast. And if that wasn’t enough of a toothache, they served it with PECAN CREAM CHEESE SYRUP on the side. This was BoBo level gluttony.
Matt loved it. It’s a sweet tooth’s wildest fantasy. But as someone whose sweet cravings are satisfied by an after dinner mint, I was done after two bites. I could see the beauty in it, but it just wasn’t for me.
Despite the lack of espresso, we had a really lovely, lazy Southern style brunch at South Congress Cafe. I give it a very enthusiastic Patty Mills towel wave.
In spite of the rain, we wandered down South Congress avenue (or “SoCo” if you’re cool) and walked off our brunch just happily browsing the many antique stores, second hand book shops, vintage boutiques, and novelty stores that fill this very hip part of town. Our favourite was the Big Top Candy Store, a gorgeous old fashioned candy shop where we stocked up on sweets to take home for sharing (… or not).
They even had a soda fountain! But sadly we were still too full of hash and cake to try it.
And here marks the end of the first quarter. Team Austin has scored some major points with its friendly Tex Mex and its classy Southern brunch cuisine, and I’m excited to see what else they have in their playbook.
See you in Q2. Until then, here’s Patty and BoBo with a short lesson in the art of “frogging.”