Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Top 5 Tuesday

Tuesday, January 6, 2009
I tackled perhaps my most difficult Top 5 this week. Oh the lists I made, the qualities I considered, the overwhelming pros and few cons, the wealth of options to revisit...Yes, this week I have selected my Top 5 restaurants. I was inspired by a random blog that I stumbled across this week-I wanted to rush right out and sample the delectable dishes the author mentioned. Unfortunately, I do not live in the Houston area. Oh well, on to the next best thing-writing about my own favorites.

As you can imagine, it takes some time to whittle down a top 5 list for restaurants, particularly for someone like me, who loves food and finishes breakfast only to dream about lunch. I mean, I could make top 5 lists for every meal of the day, for every genre of food, for all my favorite regional cuisines, for every restaurant feature…it could take years! I eventually had to settle for this select few. As you’ll notice, with the exception of one, they’re all found in my wonderful home state of Texas. That’s just where the best food is located. I should know, I have lived in a veritable food capital of the world, New York City, and I am a mere hour’s drive away from yet another food mecca, San Francisco. My opinion should be highly valued! Now for the list:

5. Palma, New York City. My fifth choice was particularly thorny. I was very confident about my top 4, but it took a while to figure out, among many, which eating establishment truly deserved the last spot. I finally chose Palma, not so much because of the wonderful food, but because of all the happy memories it evokes. My husband and I found Palma on a lazy Indian summer afternoon. It was just a street over from his apartment in the West Village, but as is usual when faced with a plethora of choices for eating out in New York, it had heretofore been easy to miss. It’s a tiny place, with a beautiful postage-stamp sized garden in the back (incidentally, I almost always ate at Palma during the colder months, and never actually got to enjoy the garden). The sparse d├ęcor is actually quite nice; the cream-colored walls are nicely softened by luminarias and the few tables, while fairly close together, still allow for intimate, romantic dinners. We always ordered the fried calamari to start-it comes with a generous sprinkling of parsley and several large lemon slices. We always had to ask for a bowl of marinara for dipping, because the waiters inevitably insisted the calamari was so pure and delicious, it didn’t need any sauce. Our main course was usually one of the pasta dishes, bolognese or gnocchi-they were always rich and decadent, arriving at our table in steaming bowls. On many a wintry night, we could be found indulging in a meal, and we invited many of our friends. In fact, the husband and I had starring roles in the place cards for a wedding we attended out in the wine country on Long Island. The couple, our dear friends, had a wine-based story for each table. Our table was named after a wine they had enjoyed at Palma, and we were mentioned in the little story attached to the table card. New York representation on the list!

4. The County Line, Austin, TX. Now, if you had asked me how high BBQ was on my list of favorite foods before I moved to Austin, I might not have seemed too enthusiastic. Besides home-cooked brisket and the amazing sandwiches at Lum’s, a hidden gem in Junction, TX, I’ve never really felt much passion towards BBQ. I don’t even like ribs. My opinion was changed the very first time I stepped out onto the riverfront deck at The County Line. It’s usually packed, no matter what time you go, but it’s pretty much impossible to mind waiting out on the deck, observing the turtles swimming in the cool green water and families tooling by in small boats. Once you’re finally seated, you can dive into a basket of warm homemade wheat bread, made even better with the addition of honey butter. I usually ordered a brisket platter, which comes with a generous portion of thickly sliced, tender brisket, and spicy beans. Delicious. My husband thinks it’s the best barbecue he’s ever had, and he always ordered a giant combination platter with all sorts of barbecued items, sausage, ribs, brisket, turkey…they’re all good.

3. Chuy’s, Austin, TX. Chuy’s is an eclectic, funky local chain restaurant (and by chain, I mean it has a few locations in Austin, and I believe one in San Antonio-it’s no On the Border!). It has the absolute best Mexican food, excepting the tiny hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop establishments from home. Again, its popularity ensures that it will always be crammed full of people, but you don’t even think about it, because you can enjoy drinks and the self-service chips and salsa bar-crisp, perfectly salted tortilla chips and divinely spicy salsa.. One of the best things about Chuy’s is the inclusion of New Mexico green hatch chiles in many of its menu items. It’s a flavor I love and grew up with, but not all that common to find. I usually order the oddly named “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom”, chicken and cheese enchiladas with roasted green chile sauce. I always struggle to finish the meal, but every bite is precious, so I manage!

2. Kincaid’s, Fort Worth, TX. Whenever my mom and I talk about the one food that is most satisfying and crave-able, she inevitably mentions a good, old-fashioned hamburger. I’m always scanning through various dishes in my mind, like steak, salmon, Mexican food, a hot bowl of pasta, but Mom always knows what she wants! She says there is nothing like a good hamburger, and I’m inclined to agree. No hamburger could hit the spot more than the homestyle burger from Kincaid’s, housed in an old grocery. There is nothing fancy about the place, but it’s undeniably charming, retaining the old painted wooden shelves from the days when it was a real grocery. I always order a ¼ lb. burger with a side of onion rings-they’re perfectly crispy, and light on the batter, so not too heavy. A simple meal, but a great one.

1. Shady Grove, Austin, TX. Yes, I saved the best for last. My husband and I lived in Austin for almost a year before we experienced the wonder that is Shady Grove. It’s located just down the road from Barton Springs, the natural spring-fed pool that Austinites love to immerse themselves in. I could actually devote a post to the bliss of Barton Springs-there is nothing like a dive into the clean, cold water on a 90 degree Texas afternoon! Anyway, back to Shady Grove. It has a great outdoor patio surrounded by an old-fashioned wooded fence. There’s a small stage for live music on Thursdays and colored lights dangling from the trees. Bathrooms are cutely located in a gleaming silver Airstream trailer parked conveniently next to the outdoor bar. All in all, very aesthetically pleasing. And I haven’t even gotten to the food! I’m a bit ashamed to give Shady Grove the number one spot considering I’ve only actually eaten two of their dishes. The truth is, I had the tortilla-crusted catfish the first time, because I can’t resist any sort of “crusted” fish. It was really delicious, but it apparently didn’t hold a candle to my husband’s meal. He had been given a little inside secret from the waiter-the green chile black bean burrito can be made with the addition of brisket. Promptly, he ordered the burrito, which truth be told, is never what jumps out at me when I scour menus. After that first bite, I was a complete convert. Every time I’ve returned to Shady Grove, I’ve ordered the same burrito, and every bite is as incredible as that first one. That combined with the ambiance is why my “keep Austin weird” shirt is from Shady Grove, and why it’s my number 1.

I'm already working on next week's Top 5. Pretty excited about it. Oh, it's so wonderful to be able to create these memorable lists for myself, even if I'm probably the only one that revisits them! That's just one of the joys of having one's own blog!

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