Archive for August, 2008

Buenos Aires Cafe: the cafe part

It was between lunchtime and dinnertime. We just wanted some coffee. We drank some. And it was Good. How do I know? Just as I prefer my hamburgers without distractions to disguise their true nature, I prefer coffee black and without sugar. The espresso machine was down, we were told, before even asking, so it was coffee in big cups for us. Giant cups, in fact, and shaped to hold the heat. I like to see who produced the crockery and utensils on the tabletop. These cups and saucers were marked “Crate and Barrel” and were of a type of white porcelain. This was excellent coffee.

We saw handsome-looking sandwich plates going by. Someone at our table was very tempted by the pastafrola, which appeared to be a shallow tart filled with a jam or paste. The pastry was topped with a precise and beautiful hand-cut, hand-woven lattice; the filling, we were told, was made mostly from quince. Later, we learned that pastafrola is practically the national dessert of Argentina. Another temptation resisted was a small refined pastry trimmed with coconut. The eventual choice that came to our table was a chocolate layer cake or torte with a beatiful chocolate ganache coating. Extra forks were provided so that all at the table could share.

There’s something very comfortable about this place, and it is a friendly spot. A peek into the kitchen revealed it to be spotless and inhabited by two women in white working so quickly and professionally that they seemed to move in a blur. Two earlier visits by another Austin Metblogger were described in April 2007, complete with a photo of the bakery case. Fresh flowers can be glimpsed in that picture, and we enjoyed the profusion of giant yellow roses and golden sunflowers at the counter and on tabletops when we were there. The page for the Buenos Aires Cafe has a link to the menus for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We’ll be back for coffee and a snack, and we’ll be back for more than that.

Water waste and wastewater

Our local daily went to town this morning, giving its most prominent space to naming the ten largest individual water users, along with the ten largest commercial ones: No dry days at these homes: Armstrong tops list of Austin’s biggest water users for June, byline Marty Toohey. Commercial users are chip-fab outfits, hospitals, and the jail. To his credit, Lance Armstrong was willing to comment to the reporter, unlike most of the ten, who included Jerry Jeff Walker.

Again, as with electricity use, there are regressive factors in the water rate system. Before a tap is ever opened, there’s a residential customer charge of $5.35 for water and one of $7.10 for wastewater. The astonishing thing, though, is that, although the number-one water consumer is reported to have been billed for 222,900 gallons for the month of June, that person and all other high-volume residential irrigators are charged under the “Wastewater Service” portion of the bill only for the first 8,600 gallons used. For those first 8,600 gallons of water, the wastewater charges are higher than the actual water charges. If all were charged a wastewater cost up to the very last gallon used, smaller users wouldn’t be charged such regressive rates.

Local blog Zanthan has asked for comments on water use by gardeners during essentially the same billing period. Many of those comments are from Austin and nearby. Here at the adobe hacienda, where we maintain a garden, dozens of potted plants, and a habitat friendly to insects, birds, and four-legged critters, water use billed from June 2 through July 1 was 20,500 gallons, about as much as we ever use, no matter what the calendar month. That water does go to the garden. We inadvertently left a hose bib open for nearly an hour one day. All watering here is done via hose-end sprinkler and within the regulation hours on the regulation days, sometimes just one of the two days. Plants in pots and in a couple of ground plantings are watered more frequently, using a hand-held hose with a trigger cutoff on the end.

Remember; Architectural Digest showed us some of the Armstrong homestead in its July issue. The local daily does not report whether the information on water use was obtained pursuant to a public information / open records request. I know that it’s with difficulty, sometimes, that we’ve been able to obtain information about our own utility account. The comments at the on-line site of the story just keep a-comin’.

Update: information on Armstrong water bill for subsequent month now available If June consumption was evidence of profligacy, what’s to be said about July? Read all about it: Champion Cyclist and Now Champion Guzzler of Austin Water (byline James C. McKinley, Jr., NYT, 16 August).

Is that so?

The enclosure with the latest utility bill from the entity now calling itself Austin Energy leads with the question “why is my electric bill so high?” and goes on to furnish the reply “record hot weather.” The little article reports that some customers have been asking whether the increased fuel charge is the reason for high utility bills. The response: “But the fuel charge only represents about one-third of the average residential customer bill.”

The average residential electric usage in June is reported to have been 1,233 killowatt-hours. At our establishment, we used 453 kWh in June and we used 483 in July, with “energy charges” of $16.05 and $17.15 respectively. In both months, the fuel charge exceeded the energy charge, being $16.51 in June and $17.64 in July. The regressive flat-rate “customer charge” for electric service of $6 represented over 14% of our June bill and over 15% of our July electricity bill (more, were the sales tax to be excluded). The $6 goes on the bill before a single light is turned on. We use electricity chiefly to power lights, fans, a computer, a radio, a washing machine, and a refrigerator that’s not new. In the winter, the oven takes a lot of power because, when it’s cooler, we use it a lot for baking and for the occasional roast.

I think it’s funny that the little monthly newsletter enclosure, which used to be called EnergyPlus, is now being called PowerPlus and bears a trademark sign. Where’s the money going that we don’t spend on utilities? In the summertime, especially, we do a lot more dining out (often recounted here) and also movie-going.

Street Event Closure Task Force

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction

// Monday I attended the Austin City Councils’ Street Event Closure Task Force meeting. I wrote much of this post during the meeting, but decided that reflection was called for. It seems others would have done well to do the same.

I learned about the taskforce from a widely circulated email, that must have gone to almost every runner, cyclist and triathlete in Austin, and probably a lot wider afield. You can see a copy of the email here on Brandon Marshs’ Get out and do something blog. The problem is something near 100 people turned up to speak, and as per city rules, only the first 10 to register got to speak. The rest left frustrated, not understanding the process, and not understanding what to do next.

What’s clear is that the city is caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to events. They need events, we need them. Events(not just races, triathlons and crits’) form a core than binds and attracts many people to downtown Austin. The current rules, and city staffs ability to implement them, is a wash. 60-days, 30-ways, waivers, Police costs, road closures, City council overrides – these are all a fact of life for the events than run downtown.

The city has a process for coming up with new rules and processes; the task force is part of that. However, mob rule doesn’t work, unless applied at the time a decision needs to be made. Monday’s performance wasted an opportunity to get some valuable input from the stakeholders, not just a reason for people to speak passionately about their introduction to running.

Lobbying works. You might not like it, but it does. Witness members of the task force, many are effectively lobbyists for special interests groups. Lobbying has only become a dirty word since the bribery and payola cases from the 80’s and 90’s. My fellow Austinites had better get used to this. If we waste the next 4-5 meetings of the task force, each arriving increasingly earlier to sign-up and speak for their allotted 3-minutes. We need to elect a spokesperson, we need to have solutions to offer, not just complaints, and opposition.

I attended with a tongue in both cheeks, a foot in each running shoe, and splitting my time between T1 in Bouldin Creeek, and T2, a downtown race course for an event I want to take part in. Having been an organizer of some 10-domestic events in the UK, and part of the team for two major international triathlons, I can assure the neighborhoods that a race organizer that doesn’t care about them won’t be a race organizer next year. I can tell the runners and triathletes the same.

All parties need to recognize that the only solution IS compromise. We have to work together. On Monday, there was much discussion about events clashing on the same w/e and the problem this causes, for example closing all possible roads leading to a Church or business. Nothing was said about the week-in, week-out closure of the same roads for different events.

One solution postured is having a set of graduation courses away from downtown. Imagine, for four of eight weekends in April/May next year, the city will grant permission to close the access road you need to drive down to Ladybird Lake for your run, or to go meet with your cycling group to ride. It’s disruptive, it effects your planning, it breaks your routine. That’s how the Churches, businesses and public feel about your events. No matter how much that downtown 5k changed your life, you had no more right to run in it downtown, than a business does to have it customers come and buy that life changing couch(ask me about mine from Your Living Room!)

Sports participants need to also accept that the neighborhoods and business suffer in non-obvious ways. You’d never consider urinating on someones lawn first thing on Sunday, yet it regularly happens; you’d never throw your used gel packets on the ground when you get back to the car, but it regularly happens; no one minds as you discard your old top on S1st during the marathon, but we do; you always go to downtown restaurants after the race to refuel, but in reality, it doesn’t happen much, everyone else gets in their car and goes home.

This years Bat Fest will go ahead, despite the protestation of my neighborhood. We got no notice that the Bat Fest would be moved from South Congress to South 1st for this year only. Nor did any of the businesses or others affected. How can you plan around that? It’s not unreasonable to ask what is going on down at City Hall and demand change.

A few of the speakers on Monday were excellent. But while others might have made you feel good, they didn’t contribute much to the hard job the task force has to do. The time for mob rule, if needed, is at the end of the process. Let’s let the Task Force make their recommendations to city council. Then, Task Force chair Paul Carrozza can get the public meeting that he desperately wanted to placate race organizer and fellow task force member John Connley, whose email drew in the mob.

At that time we will know what is proposed. Under city rules, everyone that signs-up, should get to speak. The best part, is that you can sign-up to speak and donate your minutes to a spokesperson. So, get your thinking caps on.

What good ideas could help the city run events, find ways to enable our fellow citizens go about their lives and routines without undue disruption from us. These are the ideas the task force needs. Next meeting should be August 25, location and time TBC. I’ll be the guy in the sleeping bag outside the day before. If you really have something to add, come along.

If mob rule is needed, then it will be when the time comes to vote. Your council member needs to know how you feel about the final recommendations, given the low voter turn out at city council elections, a decent size group against any specific city resolution or process change ought to be able to gain the support of the council member. This will be especially true when it comes to the council vote of the outcome of the task force.

Ace Mart open southside

Ace Mart Restaurant Supply, the one that used to be just west of downtown, has now reopened at the former Bealls, across South Congress from the H-E-B at Oltorf. It’s been open all month long, but each day more stock arrives and today the Web site reflects that the opening is official.

I’ve already been by once and picked up some items. Weekday hours are from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm; Saturday hours are from 9 am to 2 pm. I didn’t find the manager when I was there, but others have done so and report that the grand opening will be Friday and Saturday, August 18 and 19, with various factory representatives there and demonstrations scheduled. The rumor is that everything in the store will be discounted by 10% on those two days.

Ace Mart is well worth a visit at any time, for any cook or party-giver, professional or not. Ace Mart is where to find heavy-duty aluminum foil on the biggest rolls produced. Serveware in massive quantities is another bargain. Head here when your friends are setting up housekeeping with a new partner or in a new location and you need ideas for housewarming presents.

Someday I will decide which is my favorite straw dispenser, and Ace Mart will sell it to me. We’ve bought a lot of Fiesta dishes here; although Ace Mart won’t sell open stock these days, anyone buying in multiples of a dozen will find good prices and a good selection here. The same’s true for the semi-equivalent bright Cantina china by Syracuse. This is a fine place to acquire sets of classic Libbey Gibraltar drinking glasses and barware. Stacking chairs of good quality and at good prices? They’re at Ace Mart. If you love your tabletop and kitchen or shop for those who feel the same way about theirs, Ace Mart will become a favorite haunt. I’m so glad it’s open again.

Mesa Ranch now southside

Open less than a week, Mesa Ranch at the Clarion just south of the river is a most welcome addition to the southside dining scene. The lunch enjoyed there today ensures that I’ll be back soon to try supper. I’ve never been to the original Mesa Ranch in North Austin.

There are on-line versions of lunch, lunch-special, and dinner menus. At our table, we enjoyed, and I do mean enjoyed, the plate of three sliders and a plate containing eight ounces of the finest mesquite-grilled chopped steak. That plate contained outstanding “not-French” fries that were thin, gilded rounds of potatoes delicate and perfect from the deep-fryer. The biscuits were great, too.

It took a token charge of $3 to bring a large and excellent order of chips and salsa to the table. The salsa is fine and fresh-tasting, but another time I’d wait for the order itself, if only to save room for it. I’m really eager to try the dinner menu. Because it was Sunday, there were some egg entrees available up through mid-afternoon, at least, and I think that the dining room opens at 10 on the weekends and at 11 on weekdays. Music of a low-key sort runs from 6:30 to 9:30 pm on weeknights and from 7 to 10 on weekends. The bar looks like a serious one and there was a no-volume tv over it tuned to Olympic events. I think that the daily happy hour is from 4 to 7 pm daily. Food service is continuous from opening to closing and changes over from lunch to dinner at around 4:30 or thereabouts, I understand.

Outside after we’d left, someone asked us how we’d liked our food. He said he’s always thought of the burgers at Casino el Camino as the best, but now he’s a partisan of the ones at Mesa Ranch. I don’t know about those at CelC, but I’m willing to proclaim the greatness of the ones at Mesa Ranch. I look forward to returning in the evening and trying quail or lamb or venison or fish from the grill. On the way out, we picked up a post card from a basket by the door; it contains a coupon for 20% off food on any weeknight from Monday through Thursday. In the restrooms, Mesa Ranch follows the practice of the Four Seasons: stacks of loose paper towels are available. There’s pleasant, not-noisy dining in the shade outdoors. The lighting indoors is sophisticated, and the acoustics make for good conversation. The telephone number for Mesa Ranch south is 916-8787.

Pleeze, no cheeze: episode 237

This is an image from the customer-service rating form. We didn’t turn it in. It was the second one received; the first one had already been completed, by somebody else.

I love Chuy’s, I love the food there, and the waitstaff does amazing work in very close quarters and under adverse conditions. The margarita was ordered straight up; then came the questions in succession: frozen? (answer “no”) on the rocks? (answer “no”). Mercifully, the Mexican margarita question was not asked. The plate came slathered with cheese; the beans were not charro; and there’s more to be said, but I won’t say it.

I did think it was funny that the pico de gallo arrived without the pico; in other words, it was complete in every way, but for chiles: fresh diced tomatoes, cilantro, lime juice. This is no doubt one of the sequelae of the salmonella scare and only what I expected; delicious as it was in its incomplete state, however, it would be good if the omission were to mentioned when an order is placed.

Chuy’s, as always, is a bargain for the quantity and quality of food. My piquant green chile sauce was wonderful. A chile relleno here remains among the best in town. I didn’t take advantage of the current photo booth today, but always love watching those who do. The adept little kids working the toy grabber for plush creatures are always fun to see, also. If Chuy’s has a any time of the day or night when it’s not just as busy as it can be, I’ve never been fortunate enough to happen upon it. Despite forlorn hopes, the rush was as heavy as ever, as we found when we dropped by hungry from non-stop laughing at Singh is Kinng. I’ll always be one of those making up the throngs at Chuy’s, watching and being watched.

888 on 08/08/08

It seemed like the thing to do today.

Refreshing aguas frescas

At the recent Tejano Fest, the best cooling beverages were not to be found at the beer stands, fine as they were; the winners were aguas frescas from Fonda del Sol.

At the Tejano Fest, the selection included five flavors; the other day, when we stopped in at 1912 East Seventh Street, the flavors included our favorites, the lime and the pineapple, plus coconut. We couldn’t resist and were happy to succumb to their allure. I forgot to note the price, but I think it was two dollars, for a huge, tall cup, straw included, and plenty of chilling ice, but not so much as to dilute that fresh-fruit flavor.

We were late for the buffet, which was soon to be removed (at about 3 pm, I think), but there were groups finishing their selections from the buffet, and the chile relleno looked especially appealing. Lingering in the air-conditioned room to enjoy our beverages, we also enjoyed a television variety show via a Latin dish or cable service. The show itself, Lujan en vivo, was unfamiliar, but all the songs were old sentimental favorites. I could barely resist singing along, and the ladies at the table behind us didn’t even try; we all laughed.

Fonda del Sol adjoins the Acapulco record shop, which has always sold music, but which used to be called Acapulco Video when it was located across the street in the old Schlitz Beer Distributor building. Now, it seems to be music only, from what could be seen through the open door.

Frisco feasting

Frisco open again at lastWe took the last two available seats at the counter. It was 11:05 am and the Frisco was jumping. The menu has all my favorites on it, so I didn’t note any changes, or at least not any that matter to me. There’s a big open window into the much more spacious cooking quarters, so those sitting at the counter and in the same room have plenty to entertain them.

Among today’s vegetables were Brussels sprouts, pinto beans, black-eyed peas, and more. I was too late for biscuits. There were beautiful pies in the case. My Chop’t was as good as ever and seemed to be a great favorite of the other rejoicing patrons as well.

The parking lot was full and people reported parking up and down the street and even across it. There was much table-hopping and shaking of hands. The local daily sent a reporter and photographer to the Frisco yesterday and has posted a couple of evocative Ralph Barrera photographs, along with a clear map showing the new location. I’ll be there at the Frisco for breakfast very soon, I hope, and early enough to enjoy those heavenly biscuits.

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