review: galaxy cafe south

Highlights from Galaxy Cafe’s South location last night:

Salad. Crunchy romaine lettuce with lots of cabbage, fresh tomato, and onion. I was so in the mood for a crunchy salad, not a spinach or mesclun greens salad a lot of restaurants have taken to serving these days. I love shallots, so when I saw they offered a roasted shallot vinaigrette I had to have it. The verdict? I probably could’ve drank the stuff if given the opportunity, it was that good. I would go back just for the salad.

Pesto & Mozzarella Polenta Cakes off the dinner specials menu. It did look like sort of a small portion when it came, but once I was done I was decidedly full. The polenta was cooked to perfection and seasoned with italian spices, topped with mozzarella, grilled tomato, and grated parmesan. To top it off, all of the cheesy, tomato-y splendor was bathed in a roasted red pepper sauce. Next time I make polenta at home I’m going to attempt to replicate this, but something tells me I won’t be able to…

Whipped Sweet Potatoes for “dessert”. Light, perfectly cooked, with a good amount of brown sugar and (I suspect) nutmeg. No lumps! It was like eating a cloud made of sweet potatoes. I can’t even begin to tell you how good these are. Galaxy also offers sweet potato fries, which I have a particular affinity for, but I don’t think I could resist these whipped sweet potatoes even for something fried. Which says a lot.

Places that do standard American fare with inventive twists on them just have a special place in my heart, and for that reason alone I’ll definitely be back to Galaxy South, because they do it extremely well. Second reason for going back: to dip sweet potato fries in whipped sweet potatoes. Don’t judge.

Hop on over to Hopdoddy

In between classes today, I drove down to check out the new addition to South Congress that everyone has been fussing about, Hopdoddy.

Being the progressive burger virtuosos they are, Hopdoddy offers a veggie burger aptly named the Janis Joplin. Now, I’m a fan of the veggie burger that screams “I’m fake meat!” rather than “I’m a bunch of vegetables squished together!” so I was a little wary of the “hemp seed vegetable patty” the Janis featured. But once I tried it, that was that. The patty was moist, like a real burger would have been, and the hemp seeds gave the patty a really nice texture without tasting grainy or (gasp) healthy. It only got better from there. Nevermind the fresh avocado, melty cheddar, overflowing sunflower sprouts, tomato and onion- Hopdoddy has the best bun I’ve had on any burger. Baked fresh, naturally. I’ll just let the photo speak for itself:

deliciousness

The Janis Joplin

Oh, and the condiments! I am such a sucker for condiments, and Hopdoddy puts the perfect twists on classic ketchup and mustard. The chipotle ketchup had just the right amount of spice and acidity, but the horseradish honey mustard was my favorite, and I ended up giving it sole french fry dipping rights about halfway through. If you’re a stark traditionalist, not to worry, there are countless bottles of the regular stuff to bring back to your table. And for the truly Texan, there’s many a bottle of hot sauce right alongside the standard condiment fare.

Another happy discovery was the sight of Buddha’s Brew kombucha on tap right next to a smattering of local beers from 512 Brewing Company, Thirsty Planet, and Independence Brewing Co. And, of course, there was also good old Shiner. I was intrigued by 512 Brewing Company’s Pecan Porter, which I will be sure to seek out at a later date, pecan-lover that I am. In addition to conventional sodas, Hopdoddy also offers Maine Root sodas on tap.

The food aside, this place is beautifully designed and just has a great concept overall. The layout really lends itself to a heightened dining experience. There’s something about having to walk all the way through their busy dining room to place your order at the counter, which adjoins to the open kitchen. There are little mini-booths made for two, and all the tables have a purse hook under them, which I (and I’m sure every other lady) greatly appreciate. Anyway, I could go on all night about all the great stuff Hopdoddy does, but I’ll let them summarize in their own words why they’re so great- with the sign that hangs proudly in their dining room.

Sushi Niichi

While Uchi and Uchiko are definitely worth the price, I feel I enjoy my sushi more when I’m a) wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and b) not worrying about the bill at the end. I never have to worry at Sushi Niichi, my affordable and tasty sushi standby. Tucked away in a little corner of West Campus off 24th street, Sushi Niichi is not only easy on the wallet, but perfectly charming.

Sushi Niichi has a pretty expansive menu, with all the standard fare plus some inventive rolls to boot. Although veggie sushi is pretty difficult to mess up completely, Sushi Niichi offers the most flavorful veggie rolls I’ve ever come across. The Garden and Jade rolls are my favorites, both at $4.95 apice. The Garden roll is pretty much what the name suggests, containing avocado, carrot, cucumber, and daikon. The Jade roll is a simple avocado and cream cheese, but Sushi Niichi’s chefs do it up right, with a substantial amount of cream cheese and big chunks of fresh avocado. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve eaten an avocado and cream cheese roll with brown avocado and a tiny smidgen of cream cheese, I’d have at least a buck by now.

Although I can’t speak to the taste of their sashimi and nigiri personally, I shamefully admit I ogled the boyfriend’s giant plate of raw fish tonight. In addition to being quite large, the color was beautiful, and judging by the dreamy look on his face after he ate each piece I bet it tasted quite nice too. I think it’s safe to conclude that while it might not be the absolute best sushi in town, whether your inclinations involve roe or tofu, Sushi Niichi will give you large, delicious portions of it at a fair price.

Quite possibly the best part: they are even willing to let me Americanize my sushi with gobs of that spicy orange mayonnaise without judgy-wudgy looks. The super nice Niichi waitresses give me a giant dish of it every time every time I ask without even batting an eye, and I love ’em for it.

As an added bonus, it’s located right next to Momoko, a popular bubble tea spot that looks like a Japanese kawaii bomb exploded all over it. If they’re still open by the time you finish dinner, I highly recommend popping over there for dessert!

it ain’t your ordinary convenience store: the live oak market

From the outside, the Live Oak Market looks like it could be just another generic convenience store branded with an Austin-y name. Even though I could walk to the Live Oak from my house, it took a recommendation from a friend to get me to go- but once I did, I kept coming.

Good businesses start with good people, and the people who run this place are awesome, which is more than one can usually say for any other convenience store. I knew this would be a great place when the employees recognized and chatted me up after I had only been in the store a few times, and even though I don’t get in there as often as I used to, I’m still welcomed every time. One of the guys that works at night even gave my then-roommate supplies for an art project she was working on! If you were to cut out the food, the Live Oak Market would still be a great place to have an engaging conversation with great people (or, if you’re there at night when they turn the music up, have a dance party through the aisles.)

But hey, this is a food blog, so let’s talk food. Excellent food, to be exact. Convenience store food often brings up images of hot dogs on a rotisserie, crusty pastries, and frozen blue drinks from a machine. This is not so at the Live Oak. In the morning, they offer a variety of breakfast tacos with two vegetarian options, egg/potato/cheese and egg/black bean/cheese. They offer a salsa that is unlike any I’ve ever tried on a breakfast taco before, fire-roasted with hints of citrus and just the right amount of spicy-ness for the morning. Breakfast tacos are meant to be portable, and these are well put-together and made with love. I often eat them in the car on the way to school in the morning and I’m not covered in pieces of taco by the time I’m done. For lunch, the Live Oak offers a variety of unique panini sandwiches, including a plain ‘ol grilled cheese. They have happily let me customize my meat-free sandwich to my heart’s content on many occasions. The paninis are large and fairly priced, grilled to perfection, and have fresh in-house ingredients.

Besides the great food, this place offers a smorgasbord of funky products. Their non-alcoholic beverage selection rivals the nearby Central Market. In addition to Mexican Coke and Jones sodas, you’ll find Dublin Dr. Pepper, sodas sweetened with Agave nectar, Kombucha, a variety of Yerba maté drinks, flavored iced teas, and natural energy drinks- all local whenever possible. You could probably try a different drink every day for a few months and still not have tried everything. For what it’s worth, their beer and wine section also runs outside of the regular convenience store scope. You’ll be sure to find some good IPA’s and lots of local brews here.

Don’t get me wrong, the convenience store basics are still there if you need them. But you’re going to have a hard time getting to them, as you’ll be wonderfully distracted by the dizzying array of funky local products. Even though you just went in there to grab a quick drink, you’re likely to walk out with a handmade bar of soap or some goat’s milk ice cream. They even have WiFi and outdoor seating! It’s almost redundant at this point to say that the Live Oak Market goes above and beyond what you’d expect from a normal convenience store, all while keepin’ Austin weird.

all-vegetarian restaurants even meat-eaters will love.

In a similar vein as my last post, I wanted to focus on some all-veggie restaurants that everyone seems to love, meat-eater or not. Nobody can deny that Austin is a great veg-friendly city. At any given restaurant, there are usually one or two vegetarian options- so if it’s a meat-eater you’re dining with, at least you’ll have something to eat, even if it is just a salad. But why should we have to choose from just a few “special” items on the menu?

Luckily, in all fairness, there’s an alternative: all-vegetarian restaurants that boast food so good even carnivores will happily eat there. Although there aren’t as many of these around, Austin still has a handful to choose from.

At the top of the list is Mother’s Cafe & Garden. Although a fire damaged the neighborhood Hyde Park restaurant in 2007, Mother’s never suffered any setbacks upon their re-opening, remaining at the top of Austinites’ list of favorite restaurants. Mother’s will show any skeptics that vegetarian dishes don’t have to be any different from those you would normally eat, offering a variety of different cuisines that range from Italian to Asian. Although meat-eaters may turn their noses up at the BBQ Tofu, they’ll be surprised at the complex flavors of the Jamaican Stir-Fry or just how good that Spinach Lasagna tastes without meat. Even with the garden not yet restored to its’ pre-fire glory, the restaurant’s ambiance is almost talked about as much as the food. Mother’s is cozy and inviting as can be, with all the conventions of an upscale establishment without feeling too formal. A true Austin classic.

On the other end of the spectrum, Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse is a bit quirkier. Despite what the name suggests, they actually offer an expansive menu of vegetarian food, as well as a selection of vegan options. This place is always packed on Saturdays and Sundays during the mornings for their breakfast, which is made with as many local ingredients as possible and served as piping hot as their excellent coffee drinks. Whatever breakfast item you choose, be it an omelette or one of their inventive breakfast tacos, be sure to ask for a side of hashbrowns- they are the best you’ll ever have. If you aren’t in the mood for breakfast (which is served all day, by the way) there is always a lunch special usually featuring local ingredients. The Kool Summer Sandwich is a lunch menu favorite, and meat-eaters will be almost fooled by the special recipe tofu bacon that can be added for a small upcharge. If you’re lucky, you might even spot Leslie, but if you happen to miss him they sell his magnet set in-house.

eats for veggies and carnivores alike

It isn’t just the omnivores who have a dilemma.

Picture this: it’s Friday night. Not in the mood to go out on sixth street again, you make casual dinner plans with a new friend. But where to go? An arsenal of restaurants in mind, you give them a call, only to find… they’re vegetarian. Oh, the horror! You might be dragged to a place where nothing is cooked over 115 degrees, and similarly, they have visions of eating iceberg salad while you chow down on a sirloin. Fear not, for Austin has a multitude of restaurants to satisfy both veggie and meat-eater. Easy to afford on a college student budget, here are my current faves:

Torchy’s Tacos. In a place where tacos equal fear of lard and other animal ingredients, Torchy’s offers two imaginative and truly vegetarian taco options. By far the favorite, the fried avocado taco is served with vegetarian refried beans, pico de gallo, lettuce, jack cheese, and poblano ranch sauce- a perfect marriage of spicy, creamy, and crunchy flavors. They offer up a creative taco of the month, and in good weather, their South Austin Trailerpark location on S.1st street is a fun date to go on.

P. Terry’s. A locally operated burger joint that opened in 2006, P. Terry’s offers a veggie burger that is not frozen, but handmade from brown rice, crimini mushrooms, black beans, oats, onions, and cheese. For the meat-eaters, they offer a patty made from Black Angus beef that is raised on an all-vegetarian diet, hormone-free, and antibiotic-free. Paired with locally grown tomatoes and hand-cut french fries fried in non-hydrogenated oil, P. Terry’s offers up a fantastically fresh-tasting burger at a great price.

Tarka Indian Kitchen. Tarka, meaning spices or seasoning, is the creation of the folks behind the famed Clay Pit restaurant. While it doesn’t have the rustic feel of the Clay Pit, Tarka has a bright ambiance and great food for a fraction of the cost. Vegetarians certainly don’t miss out on flavor here. The basmati rice, which comes with every meal, is cooked to perfection and subtly spiced with traditional Indian spices- you will occasionally find a whole cinnamon stick in there! Tarka offers a whopping six vegetarian options, including well-known dishes such as Channa Masala (chickpeas in a spicy tomato sauce) and Aloo Ghobi (potatoes and cauliflower with north Indian spices.)

Avoid the steakhouses and the raw food restaurants, know that nearly every food stand and restaurant in Austin has some kind of vegetarian option that is actually decent; and you, dear reader, will know true balance.

good coffee in the 78745

I’ve lived in South Austin on the other side of 290 for over a year, and one thing I’ve noticed is the lack of coffee houses in the 78745. If you want good coffee and a place to study, your closest zip code for that is likely the coveted region of 78704, which houses Austin greats Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse, Flipnotics, Jo’s and the newer (but tasty) Irie Bean. If you get the urge for some caffeinated studying at, say, 3 am, Epoch and Bennu are at least 15-20 minutes away (depending on how far south you live- I’m at s.1st and William Cannon, and it takes me 20 on a good day to get both places.)

For me, the whole appeal of a coffeehouse depends on three key things:

1) Proximity to home and hours open. If my home is feeling particularly distracting and I have a lot of homework to do, one thing I don’t want to do is spend 40-45 minutes of travel time round-trip to get somewhere to study, only to have to leave a few hours later because they close at 10.

2) Good coffee, of course. Secondary to good coffee comes a good selection of pastries for brain power. I’m a snob, what can I say?

3) Ambiance and seating arrangements. I need an outlet, a comfy chair, and some not-too-distracting but still upbeat tunes and I can churn out some papers no problem.

Unfortunately, no coffeehouse in my immediate vicinity supplied all three of these things- until Strange Brew and Red Table Coffee made their way onto the scene this summer.

Strange Brew is located in a… well, let’s say “quirky” shopping complex off Manchaca, and since they opened they just keep getting better and better. If I didn’t know already, I’d guess they’ve been open a few years rather than just a few months. They offer organic & fair-trade coffee from Third Coast Coffee, Zhi Tea, Torchy’s breakfast tacos, a variety of pastries from local businesses; and now panini sandwiches designed by Mike Rypka, the taco mastermind behind Torchy’s. Not only do they have excellent coffee and food options, the sense of community is strong with this one. Everyone seems to know everyone, and the owner is routinely seen doing his business about the shop. Even though the space is on the small side, it is utilized incredibly well with great attention paid to it. I’ve seen it re-arranged at least three times, with each setup better than the last. I never have to worry about getting a comfy spot or an outlet here. The best part: they recently extended their hours to 24 hours a day. Many a fancy IKEA-ed out coffee shop opens in Austin with great promise and promptly falls flat soon after, and I know Strange Brew won’t be one of them because they’re doing their coffee and community right.

Drink to try: The Strange Brew. Too predictable? Get over it and try it immediately.

Red Table Coffee has more of an upscale vibe than Strange Brew, but it’s the kind of hoity-toity where you can have your beautiful latte art and listen to No Doubt and Radiohead, too. Even though it’s located on the ground floor of a multi-use office building off South Congress and Stassney, the place doesn’t have the corporate feel I suspected it might before I visited. The space is beautifully well-lit in the daytime with lots of natural light, and at night time large lamps provide just the right amount of glowy light. Wraps and sandwiches are provided by The Green Cart, coffee is supplied by Katz, and tea by Mighty Leaf. Excellent food, coffee, and tea all at a good price + glowy light + good barista-DJ makes for one happy lady. I can’t wait to see what this place does as they get more traffic.

Drink to try: The Wilner. I have not tried this one for myself, but all reviews I’ve read suggest it is akin to liquid chocolate crack.

78745’ers, I know the greats are pretty, well, great. I’m a Bouldin Creek gal myself. But if you live in the neighborhood, save your gas and support these new businesses not because they’re simply there, but because they stack up against any 78704 coffee shop.