Foodie Field Trips, Denver Edition: Lucile’s Creole Cafe

Hello, and welcome to another edition of Foodie Field Trips! Today’s post is the first in a series of FFT posts dedicated to our summer trip to Denver, where we ate a lot of really good food guilt-free because when we weren’t eating, we were hiking our butts off!

While it’s no Houston or Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, Denver has a pretty interesting food scene. Its position in the landlocked Rockies in the middle of the West means that while there aren’t a ton of fresh seafood restaurants, there is a lovely cultural patchwork quilt of foodways. There are Native American restaurants, truly legit Mexican restaurants, Vietnamese places, and fantastic breweries and coffeeshops and bakeries (my friend Kelli swears by the Spring Fling cake at The Market). That said, the presence of major professional athletic teams means that there is also a preponderance of dude-bro sports bars trafficking in overpriced burgers and fries (in general, my rule of thumb is to avoid restaurants situated near Coors Field).

Today I want to talk about Lucile’s Creole Cafe, one of my longtime Denver/Boulder brunch favorites. (Full disclosure: I have never dined at Lucile’s for lunch. It’s only ever been a breakfast/brunch place for me.)

I was first introduced to Lucile’s when I was in graduate school on Boulder, when my friend Aaron took me there for breakfast one day. I was completely wowed by the delicious chicory coffee and the towering buttermilk biscuits that could, quite frankly, constitute an utterly satisfying breakfast, especially when slathered with butter and the housemade strawberry-rhubarb jam served in all-you-can-squirt squeeze bottles on the table.

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Helloooooo, gorgeous.

Now then, prices at Lucile’s are rather dear, but everything is a bit pricier in Denver than in Austin, where we live. There’s always a bit of sticker shock when we go up there and see that they’ve got no problem with asking $10 for Eggs Benedict. Then again, you get one of those massive biscuits with your meal, so there are some value-adds. I usually opt for Eggs Eisenhower, a very simple breakfast of eggs and homefries ($6.25; add bacon for another three bucks) which, if eaten around 10 or 11 in the morning, provides sufficient fuel for a few hours of hiking in Chautauqua or Flagstaff Mountain.

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Lucile’s is rather busy, especially of a weekend morning, so expect a wait when you go (this applies to the Boulder, Longmont, and Denver locations, and I assume the Ft. Collins location experiences similar traffic). While the Zydeco and jazz music and Mardis Gras beads hanging from every spare corner lend the restaurant a festive feel, the hectic pace means that you might not get as many coffee/tea/water refills you might hope for or expect from a calmer environment. Even though there are some frustrating elements to the Lucile’s experience, I can’t go to Colorado and NOT eat there. It’s just too ingrained in my experience of the place.

Next time: Pinche Tacos. The best margaritas in Denver or the best margaritas EVER?

Foodie Field Trips: Houston!

It seems ridiculous to write a Foodie Field Trip post about Houston, given that it’s one of the nation’s best cities for dining out. But I thought I’d share our experiences dining out as a family with two picky eaters on our recent trip to Houston.

When I lived in the Bayou City about 10 years ago, I had my favorite haunts, from Cafe Adobe to the Hobbit Cafe to Barnaby’s and The Grotto. And Mai’s and Mo Mong and Niko Niko’s and, and, and … the list goes on. This time around, I wanted to check out some restaurants that had popped up since I left Houston since we don’t make it down there very often.

We arrived around lunchtime on a Saturday and, after a few false starts, wound up at Shiva, which was a favorite place of mine back in the day. I won’t say much here other than I reckon that absence makes the heart grow fonder. I wish we’d gone to one of the more legit/less dubious places on Richmond/Hillcroft. Moving on.

After our trip to the Natural Science museum, we met some good friends for dinner at El Real, which is co-owned by Robb Walsh. Walsh is the food critic for the Houston Press (where I got my start in this crazy, mixed-up alt-weekly world) and is an expert on all things Tex-Mex. In fact, a friend of ours got us his Tex-Mex cookbook as an engagement present.

Despite the fact that it is probably a touristy-kind of location (it’s right on Montrose in the space right next to Mo Mong; it used to be a Hollywood Video store and there was a gay bookstore right next to it), I found El Real to be pretty awesome. I got the puffy tacos with black beans and guacamole (being off beef, white flour, and dairy sort of limits one’s options, but corn masa is your friend) and really, really liked them. The Big Kid had his first-ever Frito Pie, although he eschewed the traditional Frito Pie consumption methodology of just dumping everything into the bag of chips (please forgive the low quality of this photo; I took it with my phone and the lighting was craptacular):


Our friends got some very sexy-looking enchilada plates, including the Roosevelt, which features a fried egg on top. Decadent! I decided to go out on a limb and order a “behaving myself” margarita called La Flaca, with tequila, lime juice, and agave nectar and it didn’t taste any different than a regular margarita (I will resist the temptation to suspect that this means I didn’t actually get a skinny margariata). My one suggestion is that you avoid filling up on chips because 1.) they are pretty average and 2.) there will be less room in your belly for your delicious puffy tacos or enchiladas. Why waste valuable stomach real estate on mediocre chips?

The next morning, we went to the Avalon Diner in River Oaks. Despite the fact that it’s in a pretty chichi ‘hood, the Avalon was very comfortable and VERY kid-friendly. It was also VERY busy; we were lucky enough to arrive ahead of the Sunday-morning rush and were seated immediately, but there was what looked to be a very long wait by the time we left. It has a pretty retro feel from the booths down to the milkshake machine behind the lunch counter. The portions were generous and quite delicious, and the price point, while reflecting the neighborhood, was pretty fair considering the linebacker-pleasing amounts of food piled onto our plates.

My “behaving-myself” breakfast of dry whole wheat English muffin, scrambled eggs, hash browns, and bacon (much of which was poached by the Little Kid).

The Little Kid’s silver-dollar pancake plate.

Finally, before heading out to the Woodlands for an obligatory visit to Trader Joe’s, we stopped by Pondicheri, just around the corner from the Avalon in the Upper Kirby district, for some pastries to take home. We had wanted to eat there for lunch the day before, but after checking out the menu, we decided that our kids wouldn’t really go for anything there and we’d end up not enjoying ourselves. Stopping for pastries on the way out of town was our compromise. I was disappointed to not get to try a frankie, but there’s always next time.

The space at Pondicheri is sleek and elegant, and the air smells like chai spices. There is a large chalkboard at the entrance listing all of the local farmers from which they source their ingredients, which is an ethos close to my heart. The two adorable guys behind the counter were effusive in their recommendations (and really, really, really wanted me to take home a piece of chai pie, but I feared it would be dead by the time we got back to Austin).

I ended up with a couple of brioche, a dote cookie (oatmeal and dates and DELICIOUS), and some luscious pistachio cookies redolent of cardamom. Oh, and a blueberry scone for Mr. Rubberbandball, which made his Monday breakfast very special indeed. Pondicheri, we will definitely be back.

So, since we only had 24 hours in Houston, we weren’t able to sample much of the city’s culinary wares. But it’s comforting to know that some really top-notch food is right down the road in a city that’s busting with cool things to do (and eat).

Austin City Guide: The Top 5 Barbecue Joints Outside Austin

This post is the first in a series of entries dedicated to the Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide 2012, aimed at helping visitors and newcomers sort out the city’s most notable food establishments. Over the course of the next week, I’ll be covering a broad array of topics dedicated to the best places to eat and drink and socialize in Austin.

You can’t visit or live in Austin without experiencing the centerpiece of Central Texas foodways, barbecue. (I might know a little bit about the topic.) While Austin certainly boasts a number of remarkably delicious barbecue restaurants, there are a number of long-established, iconic barbecue joints beyond the city limits. Long before Aaron Franklin, the brisket ninja, took Austin by storm (indeed, long before he was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes), these folks have been smoking brisket and sausage to great acclaim.

Opinions differ on what constitutes excellent barbecue. For me, it’s brisket that’s tender and moist (nothing gets under my saddle like dry brisket), with a bright smoke ring and a dark, flavorful bark. Sausage should have a nice snap from the casing, a slightly coarse grind, and a peppery bite. Ribs should have a nice caramelization on the outside from the rub, and the meat should be fall-off-the-bone tender. Sauce is a sacrilege; if you serve me a plate of barbecue smothered in sauce, you’re dead to me. Again, though, this is all a matter of opinion. Some people — people who are wrong, wrong, wrong, I should note — think sauce is important. Some people prefer lean brisket. Some are vegetarian. (I can joke because I’ve given up meat for Lent and am totally okay with that.)

The rankings here are the result of a survey taken of the Alliance’s approximately 100 members. As such, I should note that these rankings do not reflect my personal opinions about what constitutes the best barbecue beyond Austin city limits. That said, I do offer my personal opinions on the restaurants because, well, I have opinions about barbecue.

5. Kreuz Market

Kreuz Market photo courtesy of Matt Abendschein,

Located about 30 miles southeast of Austin in the small town of Lockhart, Kreuz has long been a beacon on the Central Texas barbecue landscape. Indeed, Lockhart is home to so many fiercely loved barbecue joints that it has long been a destination for out-of-towners looking for an authentic barbecue experience. Kreuz Market started out as a grocery store and meat market in 1900, where the proprietor, Charles Kreuz, would smoke the meat to help prevent spoilage. It has been a dedicated barbecue restaurant and meat market since its second owner, Edgar Schmidt, converted it in the 1960s, and is a very popular stop for barbecue road-trippers. (Seriously, go to any of these spots on a weekend and you’ll see great clumps of pudgy, red-faced, middle-aged fraternity brothers in khaki shorts and Robert Earl Keen t-shirts sat at large tables, surrounded by giant Styrofoam cups of iced tea or a dozen six-packs of crappy beer, going at huge mounds of brisket and sausage. It will likely be their first stop of many for the day/weekend.)

It’s been a while since I ate at Kreuz, but I really like their jalapeno sausage. It’s got a nicely textured grind and the zing of the jalapeno is a message from the sausagemaker that says, “Yeah, you’re a grownup. You can take the heat. Don’t be a pansy.” Kreuz is cash-only, and plan to stand in a long line of a lunch hour. Also plan on using your hands (no forks!) and being offered saltine crackers with your meat.

4. City Market, Luling

Meat at Luling City Market. Photo courtesy of Cooking For Engineers,

Head about 15 miles farther south from Lockhart and you’ll find yourself in Luling, home to City Market, another general store converted into a barbecue restaurant. When you walk in, you’ll probably feel some dismay when you realize that not only is the end of the line about six inches from where you walked in, but all of the tables are full. Good luck getting to the bathroom! As you get closer and closer to the pit room at the back of the space, where you will order your meats by the pound, you will have had plenty of time to inspect the display of various chips, homemade pralines, ice cream, watch the cashiers in action, and so on. People watching is part of the fun of a trip to City Market; not only will you see fellow city slickers like yourself, you will get to watch the locals in their natural habitat. (Pro tip: if the locals outnumber the tourists, you’ve found a winner.) But then when you get your meat and you’ve knocked over a little old lady to get your bum in a seat at a recently vacated table, you’ll forget the wait. Brisket, sausage, ribs: you can’t go wrong. (I’m partial to the brisket, tho.)

Part of the charm of Luling City Market is the small-town Texas experience you get as part of the barbecue meal. Another pro tip: if you time your visit for late May/early June, you will be witness to the aggressive campaigns of ambitious high-school girls angling to be elected the Watermelon Thump Queen. (Luling’s trademark crop is watermelons, and they hold an annual Watermelon Thump in the summer. The entire town is decorated with a watermelon motif.)

3. Smitty’s

Smoking sausages at Smitty's. Photo courtesy of Cooking For Engineers,

Smitty’s was established in 1999 by Nina Schmidt Sells, the daughter of Edgar Schmidt, in the wake of a bitter split with her brother, who now owns Kreuz Market. Smitty’s is situated in the original Kreuz space on the square in Lockhart. I’ve never been to Smitty’s, but I hear the brisket is the star here. Smitty’s also offers a smoked pork chop, which is pretty unusual for a barbecue place.

2. Louie Mueller

Wayne Mueller, son of the late, lamented Bobby Mueller

This is hands-down my favorite barbecue outside Austin. If you love Franklin Barbecue, you also love Louie Mueller, because Aaron Franklin learned from the masters. Located in Taylor, about 30 miles to the northwest, Louie Mueller’s, like so many other barbecue joints in Texas, started its life as a grocery store in the 1940s. Bobby Mueller took over operations at the barbecue place in the 1970s and established himself as a major player on the Texas barbecue scene. When he died suddenly in the fall of 2008, he had worked more than 150,000 hours at the pit, and his loss was keenly felt. His sons, John and Wayne, were forced to contend with the business; Wayne took over the business in Taylor, while John foundered for a while before opening his new trailer in Austin. (The February 2012 issue of Texas Monthly has a very moving profile of John Mueller and Aaron Franklin, and I highly recommend you check it out.)

At any rate, the brisket at Louie Mueller in Taylor is the best brisket I’ve ever had. Period. Hands-down. Yeah, if you get there too late in the morning, you’re going to wait in line, and it’s smoky and the sticky brown patina on the walls and photographs bear testament to decades’ worth of that smoke. But the brisket, my god, the brisket.

1. The Salt Lick

Finishing pit, The Salt Lick. Photo courtesy of Cooking For Engineers,

Okay, here’s where I part ways with my AFBA peers. I don’t think that the Salt Lick has very good barbecue. But, whatever. It’s a fun experience to drive the 22 miles west out to Driftwood (BYOB, by the way), hang out with your friends and family while you wait for a table, and eat family style at the same picnic tables I scrubbed down as a drink girl (and waitress) in high school. But just know that when you go to the Salt Lick, you’re not getting the same quality of meat that you would at Mueller’s. I will say, though, that the blackberry cobbler is the best I’ve ever had. The bottom line? Go for the experience, not the food.

Foodie Field Trip: Eating (in) Arizona

One thing I like to do when we’re traveling is check out the local food scene. Yes, this is a big NO DUH, but go with it, yes?

We spent a week in Arizona (mostly the Phoenix/Scottsdale area) over Christmas, and Matt and I made it a point to check out some new places and old favorites while we were there. I didn’t really have much of a bead on Arizona’s food culture, apart from the research I did for an entry on Native American foods for this encyclopedia, before heading out, and I didn’t have time to conduct research via the area’s scant food blogs, so I was pleasantly surprised to find an article in the local paper spotlighting the best new dishes in Phoenix in 2011.

One of the dishes on the list was a salmon rillette at the Arrogant Butcher, but after some research which included a Yelp review that said that two salads and two iced teas at lunch had cost $50, we scratched that place off our list. So, we decided to check out Big Earl’s BBQ instead, whose hot link hoagie had also made the cut on the list in question.

Located in old town Scottsdale, Big Earl’s has only been around for a little less than a year, and I suspect that the good press had led to an unexpected uptick in business, as the two waitstaff were slammed. They were out of hot links, so Matt and I split some brisket sliders and an order of mac and cheese, which was good, but not as good as what I make at home. The brisket in the sliders was tasty, and highly recommended (with the caveat that no brisket touches what you can get at Franklin. The end.).

Of course, no trip to the Phoenix area is complete without a trip to Fry Bread House and Chompie’s. While you can get all kinds of Indian tacos at Frybread House, from ground beef to a green chile pork, because I am picky about meat, I went with the vegetarian Indian taco, which is basically beans, cheese, and your typical veg on a large piece of fry bread. It is really, really tasty but simple food (and we always share an order of fry bread with honey for dessert), and there’s something deeply satisfying about supporting a local- and Native-owned business that has turned a food of suffering into a profitable business.

We first learned about Chompie’s when we saw Adam undertake the Jewish sliders challenge on Man v. Food. I will say that on the whole, the food at Chompie’s is fairly average, although the Jewish sliders and the fries are terrific (if a bit on the heavy side).

I also really like their rugelach, although I couldn’t get my hands on any this time around because the line at the bakery was so long. We actually ate there twice on this trip and while I was underwhelmed by our first visit, I was deeply happy with the chicken soup with matzoh balls on our last lunch in town.

It wasn’t all dining out, though. There was a lot of cooking, including the meal I made for the family on Christmas Eve. I got the Brussels sprouts for that meal at the Mesa Community Farmers Market, which, while small (it was Christmas Eve, after all!), was a sweet little market with a lot of handmade goodies like bakalva, pierogi, and lots and lots of preserves. I am particularly excited about the large jar of blackberry rhubarb butter that I got from Made by Bees.

One purchase I regret skipping over was the pickled Brussels sprouts from Urban Survival, which sprung up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. My rationale was that I never would have been able to transport them back to Texas intact, but who am I kidding? I would have eaten them all before how to get them home was even a question. And seriously, there were DOZENS of pickled veggies and salsas on that table. It was such a complete collection that I was happily reminded of it (and also kicking myself all over again) when I saw this sketch on Portlandia Friday night:

I’m not sure what my next Foodie Field Trip will be. Maybe Boston? Seattle? Providence? Raleigh? We’ll see where the year takes me!