Sunday, February 27, 2011

Aster's Ethiopian

Aster's Ethiopian
How would I describe Ethiopian food to a person who has never tried it (beyond saying, "It's delicious")? Well, for those who have yet to try Ethiopian food, let me start by saying that if you like Indian food you will probably like Ethiopian food as well. That's not to say that it tastes like Indian food, but it is prepared in a similar fashion, in particular - the layering of flavors. With Indian food, the base layer of flavor is provided by the masala for that particular dish. Then, layers of other spices are added. With Ethiopian food, dishes often start with a spiced clarified butter called niter kibbeh, to which berbere (an Ethiopian spice mix) and other spices are often added. The resulting dishes are rich and deeply flavored, worthy of a place among the leading cuisines of the world.

So how does Aster's measure up to this standard? Well, if you had to judge a book by it's cover, you would probably drive right past it just as I did for years. It is a humble, unassuming place on the corner of Dean Keaton and IH-35. But don't let that fool you because inside is some of the best food in Austin. In fact, for the last year I've ended up going at least once a month - even though I live about 20 miles north in Cedar Park. It's that good!
So what did we have? Let's start with Ethiopia's national dish: Doro Wott. Doro Wott is chicken that has been simmered in a sauce made from onion, garlic and ginger, sauteed in niter kibeh, to which berbere and other herbs and spices are added. It comes served with a hard-boiled egg which has also been simmered in the sauce. Why the egg, you may be wondering? I can think of two reasons off the top of my head: 1) It is traditional. 2) Why not? Being a big fan hard-boiled eggs reason number 2 is my favorite. Doro Wott is a very spicy and complex dish, one of my favorites.

Finally, we tried the Menchet Abesh. Menchet Abesh is a spicy dish of ground beef, which may sound a bit pedestrian; after all there are some people who add Hamburger Helper to ground beef and call it good. But rest assured this dish is about as far away from that as day is to night. Menchet Abesh is simmered in berbere sauce along with garlic, ginger, black pepper and other Ethiopian spices. I highly recommend this dish. If you have a low tolerance to spice you might prefer the similar Alicha Menchet Abensh. 

Each dish is served both on and with injera. Injera is a type of sourdough flat bread made from Teff, a grain commonly used in Ethiopia but that is now being cultivated in parts of the U.S. It has a somewhat spongy texture and a very bright, tangy flavor. Imagine a porous sourdough pancake, perfect for sopping up stew. Please note that Injera is also served as the edible utensil, so if you want silverware - be sure to ask. Finger-eaters will feel right at home at Aster's.

Prices vary depending on whether you show up for lunch or dinner. Lunch is $6.95 for everything unless you go for the buffet (recommended) which is $9.99. The dinner menu starts at $10.95 and caps out at $14.95. At dinner each meat dish comes with two vegetarian sides, all of which are great. And for our vegetarian friends out there, they also offer a good variety of dishes that don't use meat. But let's face it, the cuter an animal is usually the tastier it is too.
This is one of the best restaurants in Austin, definitely one not to be missed. 

AFJ rating: 4 Lone Star Points
General information:
Aster's Website
Google Maps Location

2804 N IH-35
Austin, TX 78705
(512) 469-5966
Hours of Operation:
11-9 Tues/Thurs & Sunday
11-10 Fri/Sat
Closed Mondays



Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Big Easy Cafe

Big Easy Cafe
This week’s review takes us a bit outside our normal area to our sister city of San Antonio. Alex had been talking about this great Cajun place in San Antonio for a while and since we happened to be in the area we thought, why not try ‘em? 

For anyone in Austin, I know you’re probably thinking, you mean there’s more than just Mexican food in San Antonio? Yes there is. There is much, much more than that one of these places is the unassuming Big Easy Café. Located right off a busy intersection, this place is easy to miss but you’ll regret it if you do. The staff is friendly and the food is authentic and very tasty. Here’s what we had-

Fried Oyster Po’Boy
Fried Oyster Po'Boy
It may seem sacrilegious to some, but I’ve never been a huge fan of oysters. I’ve always thought them to be a bit overrated. The fried oysters here however are well worth trying. The oysters themselves are perfectly tender and flavorful and the batter is good and crunchy, providing a nice contrast to the texture of the oysters within. It comes served on a large roll with lemon, tomato, and lettuce. Dave also got the dirty rice as a side. A very generous and filling plate, well worth trying. 

Fried Shrimp Plate
Shrimp Plate
Fried shrimp are one of my favorite things eat, especially when tossed with some nice Cajun seasonings. The shrimp were good sized (no puny popcorn shrimp here) and fried to a nice tender texture. Like the oysters the batter is nice and crunchy, providing a nice contrast of textures. This plate comes with three sides; I chose the potato salad, green beans, and the mac and cheese. The potato salad and green beans are as good as any I’ve had anywhere else. As far as the mac and cheese goes, you have to understand that I am a bit spoiled here. I realize that with mac and cheese, the variations are nearly endless and it can spark rather passionate debates over whose is the best. Personally I’m used to my mother’s and Alex’s and quite frankly no other mac and cheese can measure up. There is no further discussion on the matter. All differing opinions are simply incorrect. Having said that however, I have to admit that this one ranks among the better alternate versions I have tried. It may not be mom’s or Alex’s but you certainly can’t go wrong with it.

Next time you're in the area, give 'em a try!

AFJ Rating- 2 Lone Star Points

San Antonio, TX 78233
(210) 653-5688


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Taco-Mex: Aqui se venden tacos

The taco — one of the world's greatest creations. How does one improve on the idea that is the sandwich: two pieces of bread, some meat and some sauce of one kind or other? I posit they take the filling and wrap it in a tortilla. One of my favorite things about visiting Monterrey, Mexico is when my friend's mom makes tacos from the leftover barbecue we always eat. In fact I have trouble finding a satisfying taco north of the border; decent taco places are few and far between for me. Our subject today, Taco-Mex on Manor Road, is most definitely one of my favorite places in Texas for a taco.

The owners of Taco-Mex are from Monterrey, Mexico or Nuevo Leon at least, which may explain why I love their take on tacos as dearly as I do. All of their meat is well seasoned, the tortillas nice and tender. Their salsa verde (green sauce) may just be the best I have had, other than that made by anyone in my friend Patricia's family. The spice is just right and doesn't drown out the other flavors in the salsa, nor does it over power your palate and the meat in the tacos.

We were joined this time by our close friends Colby and Janai as well as their son Josiah, who is like a nephew to me. I ordered one picadillo, one barbacoa and one migas taco. Picadillo, a mixture of ground beef, onion, potatoes and spices, is one of my favorite dishes. The seasoning is perfect, the potatoes soft, in all a well balanced dish, I love it.

Barbacoa- So good I couldn't wait for Matt to take a picture!
Their barbacoa is perfectly tender with just a little sweetness from the meat and topped with a great pico de gallo salsa. What is barbacoa, I hear some of you wondering? Barbacoa, at least on this side of the border, is the meat from the cheeks of a cow, braised to perfection. Some folks will tell you barbacoa is a whole sheep, slow roasted in a pit overnight, which is also fantastic. So who is right? Well I put this to you: in Spain a tortilla is an omelet, not a flour or corn flat bread, so it really depends who you are talking to, doesn't it?

The migas were wonderful, a mix of tortillas, jalapeños, cheese and eggs also called chilaquiles in various regions of Mexico (there is that regional food naming again). These are good, the eggs not too wet or too dry and the jalapeños are a nice touch. And the chips are added in right at the end so that they stay just a touch crunchy.

Carne Guisada
We also tried the carne guisada plate. The plate comes with re-fried beans, rice, and of course the carne guisada. Carne guisada is simply beef stew. At Taco-Mex it is rich, flavorful and just a touch spicy. The meat is cubed and slow cooked in the sauce until it is nicely tender. The beans are made, as any proper refried beans are, with a little lard to fry them. The result is a rich and slightly meaty flavor. I have always felt that carne guisada is usually a good measure of the quality of a Mexican restaurant and this is some of the best. The carne guisada at Tacomex tastes like home cooking: simple and full of flavor. 

So, how are the prices at Taco-Mex? All breakfast tacos are $1.75 and all lunch tacos $2. You can have a tasty lunch for about 5 bucks, so prices are fantastic to answer the question. All things said, if you want an authentic Mexican taco this is the place to go get it.

AFJ Rating: 4 Lone Star Points

2611 Manor Road
Austin, TX 78722