Friday, June 3, 2016

Uncle Julio--I love you! Tex Mex in the Metroplex

There is a chain of Tex-Mex restaurants that is my absolute favorite among all Tex-Mex places in the world...Uncle Julio's. This review is only about the Dallas and Fort Worth locations as they are the only two I have visited. The chain started in Big D in 1986. Most of the time, I go to the Fort Worth location.

Roasted salsa and tortilla chips
Let me get some of the obvious criticisms out of the way. Yes, they get crowded and there can be a long wait. Yes, the service can be "iffy" or slow, particularly when they are slammed. Yes, sometimes it is noisy. But I love U.J. anyway. The roasted salsa and tortilla chips are divine. The fajitas are fabulous, best I have ever eaten. The house-made flour tortillas--yum. This is the standard by which I judge ALL other Tex-Mex restaurants and I have loved it for over two decades.

The challenge every time is not fill up on the chips and salsa. The salsa has a wonderful smokey taste and is spicy enough to please but not so hot that it causes pain. You can see the little bits of veggies and cilantro. The chips are nice and light. Addictive, without question.

My sister and I stopped for lunch last week in Fort Worth on the way back to Abilene from East Texas. It was a Tuesday at a little around 11:15am and we were seated right away. It was cool enough to sit on the patio but we ended up inside on the other side of the window. The server came by and greeted us about 5 minutes after we were seated which was a bit on the slow side but we were not in a rush. He took our beverage orders. Shortly thereafter chips and salsa arrived. I enjoy that we each get our own salsa cups.

When the server returned with our drinks (another 5-6 minutes later) we put in an order for some queso and my sister asked some questions about the menu. He went to get the queso while we made up our minds.

Mamacita's lunch nachos with beef fajitas
I wasn't hungry enough to go for  the fajitas so I got steak fajita nachos instead ($8.99). My sister went for the chicken honey chipotle fajitas ($14.99). The beef fajitas have a great "crust" on them and are never stringy which can be a problem with skirt steak and why I often don't order beef fajitas anymore because lots of places tend to skimp on the quality of the meat.

The queso was a little disappointing at $5.99 for a cup. It tasted fine but nothing that I can't easily make at home with Velveeta cheese and some pico de gallo. It did function as a nice topping for my nachos after I had eaten the steak off of the tostada though. The nachos also came with sour cream and tasty guacamole, garnished with fresh sliced jalapenos. I asked for some pickled peppers and was accommodated. I would have liked a bit more steak but it turned out I couldn't finish it all anyway.

Honey Chipotle Chicken Fajitas (lunch portion)
My sister enjoyed her fajitas. She describe the sauce as more "bbq-ish" than glaze which she prefers but said some people may not like it. Too sweet for my taste. It was served with the usual fajita fixins', charro beans and rice. She didn't even bother with the rice and beans and went straight for the meat (after picking off the cilantro--she's not a fan of that herb). They were juicy but not overly drippy as many places try to disguise dry chicken with lots of oil.

The food came out pretty quickly and the server checked back a couple of times to refill our drinks and see if we needed anything else. The bill did arrive at the end and we were dismayed to have to drive back to Abilene instead of being able to take an after lunch nap. I can't ever recall not leaving this place satisfied and stuffed. The prices may be on the high side but it is worth it.

My favorite location is at I-30 and Camp Bowie in Fort Worth. Only a 2 hour and 15 minute drive from Abilene! You can us the "find a table" option on their website to reserve a spot during busy times.
Uncle Julio's 
5301 Camp Bowie Blvd.
Fort Worth, TX 76107

Friday, May 13, 2016

Pizza By Design--Create your own "fast" pizza

Menu board

Pepperoni, bacon, black olive, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes
Pizza by Design brings to mind the familiar sandwich and burrito places. You know what I'm talking about...pick your crust, sauce, cheese, add toppings of choice, they run it through the conveyor belt oven and off you go. The 9-inch individual pizzas (the only size for adults) are $6.99. I also got a fountain drink and a side salad (romaine or spinach, cheese, grape tomatoes and carrots) for $3 more which brought my lunch total to $10.81 with tax. Even at that price, I predict they will become a lunch staple for folks on the north side, particularly during the school year when the college students are in town. They opened in late April 2016.

This being said it wasn't outstanding pizza. Better than frozen but not up to the standard of a traditional pizzeria. The sauce and cheese were not very generously applied but the upside is that you can get all the toppings you want and there is quite a variety. They also serve beer and wine.

Side salad and drink
My pizza was original crust which was a bit chewy in texture. Other crust options were thin, wheat and gluten-free for $2 more. For sauce, I choose the spicy tomato sauce. It really is spicy and I'm not wimp when it comes to heat. They also have non-tomato options for sauces such as Alfredo, pesto or olive oil. Cheeses included buffalo mozzarella, in addition to traditional shredded mozzarella, cheddar, feta, and Parmesan rounded out the cheese choices.

Get in line to create your pizza
Once you choose the basics you can go wild with the other toppings. They advertise "unlimited" for the same price as one topping. I went for pepperoni, bacon, black olives, artichoke hearts, and sun-dried tomatoes. I could have added a lot more veggies and more meats. They also have some specialty creations if you don't want to bother with choosing your own toppings.

The decor is modern; yellow, red, blond wood, and metal. There is not a ton of seating but I imagine there will be a lot of "to go" business. Ordering to consuming took about 10 minutes, a little longer than Subway but the pizza has to cook so that is to be expected. The restaurant is located in a strip shopping center on the east side of highway 351 south of the E. Lake Road intersection. This part of Abilene is booming right now with eating and shopping options (and road construction).

Pizza by Design
1811 Hwy 351
Abilene, Texas 79601
(325) 704-5450

Hours: Monday-Saturday 11 am to 10 pm. Closed Sunday's.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Friedhelm’s Bavarian Inn--a little bit of Germany in Fredericksburg, Texas

Friedhelm’s Bavarian Inn is a favorite spot of mine for German cuisine in Fredericksburg, TX.  It has been around for as long as I can remember visiting the town. Yes, the prices are a bit high but everything in this little tourist town seems to cost too much. My husband and I stopped in for an early lunch on a Saturday before our 3 hour drive home.

Bread and Vegetable Soup
The atmosphere is faux Bavarian and many of the wait staff are in German outfits. We sat in a booth close to the bar area. I recommend that section if you can get it. More comfortable than wooden chairs. 

At Friedhelm's the generous entrees come with black bread with real butter, a cabbage and carrot heavy vegetable soup, a green salad, and one side of your choice. There are nine kinds of schnitzel (one of which is chicken) , a breaded sauteed meat cutlet usually topped with some type of paprika sauce and many other Bavarian dishes such as sausages, Sauerbraten, steaks and various non-German dishes. I ordered the Jager Schnitzel ($19.99) which is topped with a mushroom sauce and my side was the pan fried potatoes. My husband had the Holstein Schnitzel ($21.99) which is the Jager with two fried eggs on top with spatzle (soft buttered noodles) for his side.  You could also choose vegetables, baked potato, sauerkraut or red cabbage as sides. By they way, the schnitzel at Friedhelm's is pork not veal. The schnitzel was quite good but this a heavy meal so be prepared to need a nap. Everything is cooked in butter. I couldn't finish mine. Keep in mind that chicken fried steak is listed on their "lighter side" menu. I love their mushroom sauce, so many mushrooms! This is one of the main reasons that of all the places that serve traditional German food in Fredericksburg, I keep coming back to Friedhelm's even if it is a bit kitschy.

Jager Schnitzel
Holstein Schnitzel

Our server was very friendly, efficient and knowledgeable. She was able to answer all my husband's questions about their beers and recommended a German wheat brew that he loved. From previous experience, not all the servers are as skilled. She also brought us a side of spicy mustard to go with our potato skin appetizer. It was a great addition. I would have never thought of using it since we didn't order any sausages.

For dessert my husband had the carrot cake. I also got an apple strudel ($7) to take home.

Note: Weekday lunch menu prices are less expensive. You can also book a room there.

Address: 905 W Main St, Fredericksburg, TX 78624

Navajo Grill--fine dining in Fredericksburg, Texas

The Navajo Grill in Fredericksburg, Texas, is one of the upscale dining options in that rather small but very tourist-laden city. They have dinner service only and reservations are recommended, particularly on weekends. Our reservation was at 7:30pm and the restaurant was about 3/4 full.

The restaurant is a house that has been remodeled. The ambiance was welcoming if a bit loud. The sound of conversations bounces off the wood floors or we had very loud people around us--one or the other. There is also an inviting patio area.

The service was fine but could have been a little more attentive. We had to wait a while to request fresh drinks, though the water glasses were kept filled by the bus person. Also, the plating of the food was haphazard in a couple of the dishes.

Marlin (where's the artistry?)

For an appetizer, we shared a Baja shrimp cocktail ($10) served with slightly stale tortilla chips that were supposed to be seasoned but I could not detect any on the chips. The appetizer was a roasted tomato salsa with chopped shrimp and two seasoned whole shrimp hanging on the side of the glass. The shrimp were well chilled and spicy but a bit rubbery. I liked the flavor except it was a bit heavy on the cilantro for my taste.

My husband also ordered a cup of the Santa Fe ratatouille soup ($5) which consisted of roasted tomato broth, white beans, quinoa, squash, flavored with basil. He loved it. No question, he should have had a bowl instead of just a cup.

For our entrees, I ordered the filet ($39) which was served with Yukon Gold potatoes and grilled asparagus. My husband had the Hawaiian marlin (swordfish) with it came pineapple rice and heirloom roasted carrots as sides ($34). My filet was delicious, perfectly cooked, and the sides were fine if a little uninspired. The swordfish was flavorful if a bit dry. The sides with the fish were very tasty, particularly the carrots, but not plentiful. The steak was the standout of the entire meal for me. For my husband, it was the soup.

Filet--looked appetizing
Dessert consisted of creme brulee with berries and pecan bread pudding. Both were decent but overpriced at $8 a piece.
Bread Pudding

All in all, we expected a bit more. The experience just didn't "wow" us. Perhaps they are too used to serving tourists who may never return. The Navajo Grill needs to step up their game in several areas to justify their prices.

Address: 803 E Main St, Fredericksburg, TX 78624
Phone:(830) 990-8289

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Culinary Events Catering

This morning I had a chance to sample some goodies from Culinary Events Catering owned and run by Chef Dustin Snook.

Chef Snook is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Austin. He made a name for himself in Hays County but has now returned to his hometown of Abilene, much to our benefit, and has started a catering outfit.

This morning I tasted some roasted garlic hummus with red pepper sauce served with quinoa and chia seed chips and some smoked lamb bites with tzatziki sauce or a balsamic reduction and pickled red onions. Both dishes were very flavorful. I had to go back for seconds (maybe thirds...shhh). For those in this area that do not have much exposure to lamb, this smoked version had a similar flavor profile to lean brisket. 

Preparing the lamb pita bites

If you have an event and are in need of a caterer or a personal chef, get in touch with Dustin. You won't regret it.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Famous Big Texan Steak Ranch on I-40 in Amarillo

Big Texan Exterior
My husband finally talked me into eating at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo. If you have ever traveled on Interstate 40 during the past 55 years across the Texas panhandle you must have seen the billboards for it. There have been numerous travel and food shows that have featured the Big Texan and their "eat a 72oz steak and sides and get it free" challenge. The place is so over the top Texas kitsch that you almost have to see it at least once if only for the gift shop and the opportunity to watch some carnivore take on that eating challenge.

Interior--clock and stage for those taking the challenge
The food is pretty average overall and overpriced. The interior is cavernous. A busload of teenagers were seated not long after our party of three. The service can be unpredictable. In other words, it caters to the tourist crowd.

I ordered the lunch special half-pound burger and fries ($9) and a Dr. Pepper ($3) served in a plastic souvenir cup. My husband ordered the 30oz Trail-boss T-bone with cowboy beans and mashed potatoes ($36.00). His cousin went with a Dallas cut 18oz rib-eye ($25) also with beans and mash. As an appetizer we got a full order of fried mushrooms ($12), which tasted great with their slightly spicy breading, and they were served with ranch dressing but something about them did not agree with me later. I ate more of those than anything else.
Fried Mushrooms

My hamburger was nothing special but I liked the steak fries. If they had been hot they would have been even better. The men loved their meals but I'm not sure if it was because the steaks were especially tasty or the guys were just really hungry. Either way they want to return and my husband thinks he could eat the 72oz steak. I think it is $72 if your don't finish it in the allotted time. Unfortunately, when we were there no one even tried.
30 ounce T-bone

Our server was good but we heard another couple say they were leaving because no one ever came to take their order. Most of the workers looked kind of "done" with the whole dress up like a cowboy and be Texas-friendly to folks.

We did enjoy the singing cowboy who was walking around with his guitar performing for tips. He sang Abilene and London Homesick Blues for us.

If you are passing through, at least go in to take a look around, snap some pictures and maybe have a beer (from their brewery) or even a steak if you so desire. It is the reason they are famous after all.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Rancho Pizzeria in Coleman--So worth a road trip!!!

The owners of the celebrated Rancho Loma in Valera have opened a contemporary pizzeria in downtown Coleman called Rancho Pizzeria. As Rancho Loma is one of my all time favorite dining experiences, you know I had to make the 100 mile round trip to try some of their pizza.
Exterior--no outside signage at the moment

The decor is industrial chic with some West Texas nostalgia mixed in. Inside there are about 8 high backed booths, 3-4 tables for two, a large group seating area at the front and a private dining room in the back. All this to say, it isn't all that large of a restaurant. Peak times may mean a wait, especially as word spreads about them. A bar with some additional seating runs along one sided adjacent to the chef station and brick oven. Service was friendly, prompt and professional.
Art above the bar

We ordered the olive tapenade with goat cheese ($7) as an appetizer. It was served with toasted bread. Loved it!!! My favorite item of the night. I believe that Chef Trueblood, that owned the now shuttered Bonterra Blu in Clyde, where I adored the olive tapenade on his salads is part of the Rancho Pizzeria team...pretty sure it was him making the pizza when we were there. Yes, you can see them preparing the food which is fun. One of the owners was also around chatting with customers.
Olive tapenade with goat cheese

I also got a small Cesare salad and my husband ordered a small house salad. Both were very good made with super fresh, high quality ingredients.  The Gorgonzola cheese on the house salad was gorgeous and plentiful. The dressing on my salad was super flavorful, if a bit heavy on the capers. The romaine was crisp. Both a bargain at $5 and $4 each. Larger entree sized salads are also available.
Caesar salad

The 12" pizzas are wood fired in a brick oven and are big enough for two to share, particularly if you have an entree and a salad as we did but we tried two of them anyway.  My husband got the carne pizza with  crushed tomatoes, prosciutto, Italian sausage, pepperoni, fontina cheese, and Calabrian chiles ($18).  It was the highest priced on the menu. It also had fresh shaved Parmesan on top.  I had the fungi ($14) pizza that was topped with roasted shiitake mushrooms, bechamel sauce, fontina cheese, roasted garlic, and white truffle oil.

Carne pizza

The crust on my husband's pizza was crisp yet tender and the taste of the meats really popped with the addition of the peppers. It was simply delicious. The mushroom pizza had an expected earthy flavor, with the shiitake and tuffle oil, and the unexpected arugula. The garlic was subtle. However, the crust was just a little underdone. You need to really, really like mushrooms if you order this pizza. I like mushrooms but shiitakes are not my favorite. The surprise arugula topping was too bitter for me and, admittedly, I missed the tomato sauce. Maybe if the roasted garlic had been more pronounced I wouldn't have missed it as much. The menu also includes a classic Margherita (tomato sauce, mozzarella, fresh basil) on the menu as well as the pepperoni, sausage, and arugula with prosciutto. Next time, I'm getting the Greek salad, a pepperoni pizza and my husband is hankering for the meatball appetizer.  There will DEFINITELY be a return trip!

Fungi pizza
The meal was certainly worth the drive from Abilene and if you are passing through Coleman on a Wednesday-Sunday during their open hours, you should eat there. You won't regret it. We had leftovers for the next day.

Please note that substitutions are not allowed on the pizzas and there is no "create your own" option. However, at times there are specials for the lunch or dinner service such as lasagna or steak if pizza is not your favorite. Check their Facebook page for current offerings. Reservations are not accepted, unless booking the private dining room.

There is a small but thoughtful beer and wine selection available and occasional live music. The do takeout if not slammed with dine-in patrons.

  • Monday: Closed
  • Tuesday: Closed
  • Wednesday: 11am2pm, 5pm9pm
  • Thursday: 11am2pm, 5pm9pm
  • Friday: 11am2pm, 5pm10pm
  • Saturday: 11am10pm
  • Sunday: 11am3pm
If you are traveling on 84 between Abilene and Brownwood, you will need to make a detour to get to Commercial which is right off 153 and 206.

414 S. Commercial
Coleman, TX 76834
(325) 726-9307