Archive for March, 2010

Car2go a go-go

Your chariot awaits you, courtesy of car2go. These little Smart cars (Smart car fortwo) are surprisingly roomy, with capacious adjustable seats set well off the ground, and the car2go Web site has a complete instruction video, welcomed by today’s chauffeur, who has operated nothing but manual transmissions since forever.

Cars may be reserved, of course, but for those of us who live and work in close-in Austin, there’s always one to be found for the taking, it seems. Look near City and County offices; libraries are also a good bet.

The Web site is a bit disorganized, but the FAQs are helpful, and the actually process is even simpler than it’s described as being.

Everything worked exactly as promised, in a simple and logical way. All who have the cards required in order to access the vehicles say that they arrived with two or three days, a tiny miracle. Along with the card comes a map of the current service area and a two-sided sheet of things to do and not to do. Parking couldn’t be easier. The fun is cheap and no cost is incurred until a car is actually rented.

This service represents a delightful and practical service, and this beta pilot program is for us in Austin only. If we use it well, perhaps other towns will have an opportunity to benefit as well.

Austin City Limits Taping – Cheap Trick

Cheap Trick opened the 36th and final season for Austin City Limits in its current location on the University of Texas campus. They’ll be moving to block 21 just north of city hall sometime near the end of this year or beginning of next year.

I had an amusing moment before the show at Terra Burger across the street. I saw a guy with platinum blond hair decked out in cowboy rocker gear and just wrote him off as a SXSW hipster wannabee. I passed him as I got a drink refill and headed out to wait for the interminable light to cross The Drag back over to the communications building. He came out at the same time and stood next to me. I looked over at him and it dawned on me that it was probably Robin Zander, Cheap Trick’s front man. Turns out that I was right that it was Robin and wrong that he was a wannabee. If anybody’s entitled to walk around like that, it’s him.

If Robin was inconspicuous with his presence in the Terra Burger, Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos is conspicuous by his absence on this trip through Austin. He wasn’t at the taping last night or at an interview with CNBC on St. Patrick’s Day and he hasn’t been mentioned in any of the interviews that I’ve seen so far (including an interview from Austin360 where they give a shout out to Sam’s BBQ on east 12th street). It’s almost like they’re trying to avoid talking about it (is this punishment for that Hanson/James Iha side project?). Guitarist Rick Neilsen’s son Daxx filled in admirably during the taping. He’s definitely of the Bun E. school of drumming. The band is rounded out with amazing 12 string (!?!?) bass player Tom Petersson and two keyboard players, Phil “Magic” Cristian, who’s played with them on and off since the 80s and Roger Manning from Jellyfish and Imperial Drag.

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Shoreline Grill: peaceful lunch with view

The Shoreline Grill now bills itself as “Austin’s first sustainable seafood restaurant.” Today’s crowd seemed to be half business meetings (law-related, to judge from what was overheard) and half conventioneering (really, also mostly business-related).

At our table, we sampled the soup of the day, a very complex and subtle preparation involving oysters and fennel and many mysteries. It was delicious. The lamb sliders were rich enough on their tiny toasted buns without the addition of a mayonnaise. They were tasty, and intended to be shared, I’m sure, since the three little lamb-burgers were a bit too much for one person. The unanimous choice for the entree was the fish of the day, loup-de-mer accompanied by watercress or a similar green in vinaigrette and by tiny, tiny potatoes.

The post-luncheon coffee was excellent, as was the expresso. The man-magnets quail and fried chicken remain on the menu, but chocolate intemperance, alas, is no more. In its place was another chocolate dessert, chocolate mousse cake, which those who ordered it happily downed, but the flavor was not so subtle or intense as the old standby dessert and the texture was more like a solid mousse with a bit of custard, or something like that. The fish was hot from the pan and exactly as it should have been, for the most part escaping the heavy hand with the salt-shaker that seemed to prevail everywhere else but for the soup.

Parking in the underground garage is still free with a stamped validation from the Shoreline. The music today was California-style pseudo-jazz loud enough to mask conversations but not so loud as to overpower them. Service was attentive and professional. This is still a great place for a business meeting and still has entrees, including vegetarian and salad specialties, to suit everyone, but I’ve decided it was really the chocolate intemperance that was the draw.

We were out and around during the noon rush-hour in order to buy bus passes and conduct some other business. Our plan had been to dine at Chez Nous if possible or, if not, at Louie’s 106. The pedestrian traffic jams were irritating in the extreme and that’s why, after leaving Capital Metro, we headed for the Shoreline. Even on Rainey Street and at the MACC, congestion is the rule.

Cafe Josie: now with outdoor seating

Cafe Josie is just as wonderful as ever (it wouldn’t be possible to say that it’s better than ever, because I’ve never seen any room for improvement). The menu can’t even begin to describe the intensity of flavor in what is brought to the table.

It would be a delight to try something new, but at lunch I can never bear not to order what’s described like this: “pepita redfish with mango habanero butter: Pepita and Spice Crusted and served on Poblano Rice and Cotija Black Beans with Tomatillo Chile, Ancho Chile, Spicy Pepitas and fresh Vegetables.” Today’s vegetables were sweet carrots and snow peas. I think that asparagus was one of the vegetables the last time around. The appetizers always seem to be just as generous as the entrees, and at our table today the following were ordered to be served in that way: (1) grilled lobster cakes with lime cilantro aioli and (2) crisp gulf oysters served with the same aioli and with a honey chipotle sauce. Others raved about the fish tacos. Diners on the patio appeared to be enjoying this new venue.

We found that the ideal “hot cross buns” from Sweetish Hill are available on weekends only, so we did without them, consoling ourselves with poppyseed kaiser rolls instead.

And because we had the rolls, we found it necessary to go to Kash-Karry Fresh Plus for delicious items to put in and on the rolls. And because we were next door to Sledd Nursery, we treated ourselves and our pleasure grounds to some additional geraniums.

All this was necessary to compensate for the spring-break dental visit, not anticipated or experienced with pleasure. But the aftermath described above made up for it. As we hustled around, we enjoyed the sounds of live music everywhere and the sight of so many people walking, wheeling on bikes, and riding the bus. Thank you, SXSW!

Hearing myself think

Sometimes it’s fun to be admidst the tumult; other times it’s nice to be able to talk to your visitors and hear what they have to say in return.

We’ve been sticking with what we stumble upon in the way of music and so it was that we came to follow the sound of New Orleans mysteriously embodied downtown Saturday by experts in brass and percussion dressed in yellow and black attracting a second line.

Beyond that, so far we’ve hit Recycled Reads, Maudie’s on South Lamar, Tien Jin, and Fran’s Hamburger’s and also The Richard Jones Pit for BBQ (lean brisket a favorite) on South Congress. These latter two make for great people-watching without any line-waiting. It was plain that there were SXSW people at Maudie’s, but they weren’t new to the establishment, being returnees in the company of Austinites.

Adaptive reuse at St. Ed’s

The March issue of Metropolis magazine highlights the conversion of Doyle Hall and additions to it at St. Edward’s University. Credits go to Austin architectural firm Specht Harpman, which made extensive use of aluminum solar sunshades manufactured by Austin American Awning (on St. Elmo Road, a great unknown street for exploring), using stock parts. Also mentioned is Sasaki Associates, responsible for the campus’s master landscape plan as well as the part of it encompassing the Doyle Hall project and nearby Premont Hall.

The Metropolis issue is not on line yet. Browsers at a magazine rack will find this two-page article beginning on page 34 (byline Marc Kristal). This complex is on the map at the northwest corner of campus, toward South Congress.

Sometimes it seems that all we ever hear about or read about are the Forty Acres, and it’s easy to forget that St. Ed’s and Huston-Tillotson both enjoy enviable views of all Austin from their hilltops, one south of downtown and one just east of it, and that they both can be seen themselves from many vantage points around town.

I think it’s funny that there’s mention of a live oak tree, described as “an object of reverence in Texas.”

The Raid on Steve Jackson Games: 20th Anniversary

As nice local pre-event to the upcoming SXSW insanity starting Friday, I attended a 20th anniversary panel on the secret service raid of Steve Jackson Games last night at Independence Brewing. If you’re unfamiliar with the landmark case in cyberlaw, Steve Jackson maintains a page about the case on his company’s web site and Bruce Sterling’s book, The Hacker Crackdown, was written in 1992 and has been available as an ebook (also here) since 1994. The raid led to the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The panel was hosted by EFF-Austin (The original idea was to have local chapters of the EFF, but that never panned out. The Austin chapter has continued on independently since then.), attended by Steve Jackson, Bruce Sterling & Pete Kennedy, and moderated by Jon Lebkowsky. The panel went over the basics of the case and why it’s important, followed by a Q&A session. Sterling became pretty impassioned during the talk. He said that he’d thought he was over his anger with the issue, but the two hour panel brought it all back. Pete Kennedy was very measured. Steve Jackson looked back on it with a bit of humor, but 20 years ago, it nearly killed his business. Kennedy brought up the interesting trial detail that the government’s main basis for the sealed search warrant executed on SJ Games was a local security professional affiliated with UT who wouldn’t corroborate half of the things that the federal government alleged. Sterling thinks that the Chicago US attorney at the time, William J. Cook,  had career ambitions that made him reckless. He also brought up the Obama administration’s current cyber security czar, Howard Schmidt, served under Cook at the time of the raid. Sterling also contends that we missed an opportunity at the time to be the standard for law on the Internet and that things are much worse now.

As a aside, I’m kind of a beer snob and haven’t been a very big fan of the Independence Austin Amber or Bootlegger Brown, but I had the opportunity to try their Stash IPA last night and liked it quite a bit. I’m partial to IPA’s anyway, but still. I think it’s only available on draft right now, so check with your local beer pub.

It sounds like EFF-Austin plans to become more active than it has been lately, so be on the lookout for more events from them.

It’s what’s for breakfast

That’s here in Austin, and the breakfast of champions is tacos. In just one of the features focusing on Austin in SxSW season, today’s NYT makes this announcement to the world at large: “When it comes to breakfast tacos . . . , Austin trumps all other American cities.” “A Mix of Cultures, All Folded Together,” by John T. Edge, talks about breakfast tacos in general and about the Tamale House, Porfirio’s, Tacodeli, Taqueria La Flor, and Torchy’s in particular. Other outfits make a brief appearance. So does Armando Rayo, of Austin’s own Taco Journalism blog.

There’s a wonderful photograph of Mr. Vasquez of Tamale House fame. For me, the true Tamale House will always be the one in the small establishment beneath the billboard at the intersection of what was then First Streeet (now Cesar Chavez) and Congress, where a bank now stands, but of course we’re all glad that the Tamale House lives on.

I’m a person who demands a large sitdown breakfast and have never eaten breakfast tacos at breakfast time. There was an era when all downtown offices were on regular routes of people who meandered through carrying baskets of foil-wrapped breakfast tacos in every possible permutation of eggs, beans, chorizo, potatos, cheese, and other less common mainstays, along with examples of all the possible custom additions. This service was for the benefit of those who neither ate at home nor had time even to stop on the way to work. Heightened security measures have made a difference in this practice, the the taco trucks are still out there at outdoor workplaces.

On the East Side, Porfirio’s is always especially busy at mid-morning break time. On one of the days off that I hope soon to enjoy, I long to try Torchy’s fabled pork-and-green-sauce specialty. I wonder whether breakfast tacos are a big segment of the aluminum-foil business. I also wonder what outfits were overlooked in this piece, which is sure to inspire discussion, over breakfast tacos.

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