Archive for May, 2011

Peaches!

The season has begun. The freestone peaches have yet to appear, but the early-season cling peaches leave nothing to complain about. Today’s finds came to Austin from Pittsburg, in Camp County. The most recent finds before that were from Fairfield, in Freestone County. We’re seeing peaches from many easterly locations this year; weather events made difficulties for orchards on parts of the Hill Country, word has it. We’ve seen little stands all over town this week; the one in the picture is in front of the vacant building at West Elizabeth Street and South First, across from Cantu’s and Capitol Cleaners.

Outdoor Patio for dinner?

Picture Some rights reserved by gak on flickr.com

Except, and perhaps even in the sweltering 100f+ days in Austin, eating outdoors can be a really pleasant experience and a real money maker for restaurants. You only need to go out and see what has happened at the Oasis over the last 3-years to see how true that is. Admittedly the Oasis has a unique position but the number of restaurants offering outdoor seating is exploding, that comes at a price, or should and not just for the customers and the city,

Vivo’s on Manor Rd is apparently, according to their Facebook campaign to write-in to Councillors and the mayor, in court today for non-compliance with the City’s restaurant parking requirements. Vivo’s campaign is the first I’m aware of that is actively using social media to “lobby”, a.k.a bully, coerce, or shame Councillors and the mayor into doing something so that the restaurant can “stay in East Austin”. According to Vivo’s, if the city forces them to close their outdoor patios because they don’t have the appropriate number of parking spaces, they’ll close. Since the case was already on the court docket, I’m at a loss to see what the point of writing to elected officials is at this point though, apart from to create and unfair, biased view of the process. It’s not clear why else they’d be asking people to email now.

It’s a common tale, a restaurant buys a lot, as part of their opening they have to get an approved site plan from the city which makes sure that they are in compliance with the rules. Everything from electrical, drainage, access, parking are checked. It’s one way the city makes it fair for businesses, they all get to adhere to the same set of rules; it’s also how the city attempts to make restaurants safe for the customers, both from a hygiene, access and fire perspective. At least in the urban parts of the city, regulations are also there to try to limit the impact on direct neighbors.

Yet all the time, we hear the of the “battles” between the restaurants and the city over parking. The neighborhoods and residents hit back with the only tool they have, first complaining to 311, then eventually given no respite, Residential Parking Permits[RPP]. But mostly, it isn’t about the parking, except in one or two specific cases.

What often happens is this, after the restaurant opens, and we’ve all been there, in it’s first few months it is the “hot” place to go. This either persists or not. When it persists, the owner looks for ways to capitalize on the success, since building a bigger building or extension to the existing building would both incur cost and impact their compliance, they start by putting a few extra seats outside. Wahoo’s on South Congress is a prime example of this. Personally their additional seating out on the sidewalk has made the place look a mess, if they continue to get away with it, in compliance or not, other restaurants will want to follow and over time the wide sidewalk that has made SoCo a fun place to “parade” will become littered with obstacles and difficult for pedestrians to pass.

By Vivo’s own admission, they were told by the city they couldn’t use part of their land for parking, hey so why not use it for extra seating then? Causing a non-compliance problem to get worse. The same scene is also playing out at Polvos on South 1st right now, they have half their outdoor seating not in use while they try to get special treatment from the city for the unpermitted, unzoned changes they’ve already made. Back in the 2002 Bouldin Creek Neighborhood plan the junction of S 1st and W Johanna was called out as a problem, but apparently according to the restaurants attorney at a meeting at City Hall last week, they were in non-compliance with the outdoor seating when they bought the restaurant years before that.

Lets be clear, there are a set of rules, the City Councillors approve the rules, created by City staff, with a LOT of input/lobbying from the commercial sector and variable input from the citizens; when city staff, usually years after the fact, become aware that a business is potentially breaking the rules, usually because of citizens complaint(s) they investigate; the City gives the business ample opportunity to come into compliance(often years) and when they don’t, staff reluctantly take zoning, fire and safety violations to municipal court.

What often then happens is the businesses get fined such small amounts that it doesn’t cover the cost of the citys code compliance and legal work. Austin and by association its tax payers, depend of businesses to keep in compliance voluntarily, when they don’t it’s often because the business has decided it can make more money by not being in compliance, which in the end hurts everyone, not just the restaurant.

Contrary to the popular portrayal of the City code enforcement, there are not legions of inspectors combing neighborhoods and visiting business looking for the slightest problem. Most businesses who operate within reasonable limits and don’t unduly impact their commercial and residential neighbors are unlikely to ever see code compliance inspector. It’s only when they expand beyond that, AND someone or organization complains, that code compliance will be sent out.

The city doesn’t single out a restaurant, they don’t change the rules(well rarely), the restaurant is often just taking commercial advantage of Austins voluntary compliance and slack enforcement to do business on the cheap, expanding a lot beyond what is reasonable, and legal, and impacting neighbors. When the city does get involved it is costing each and everyone of us money that could get better used elsewhere.

Just because a restaurant you visit has outdoor seating doesn’t mean it is legal and permitted; just because you can park on city[public] streets to go to the restaurant, doesn’t make it OK. As few as 20 extra seats can bring-in $250,000 per year on a modest tab per diner, that shouldn’t allow the restaurant to become a burden on neighbors, and the tax payer and give them the right to complain about rules that were in existence, when they opened up.

[Update: According to Vivo’s facebook campaign page, they’ve been given 6-months to come into compliance and get an approved site plan.]

2nd Street uptick

Picture (C) ALL Righs Reserved, used by permission - Gregg Cestaro of AustinTxPhoto.com

Last week saw the opening party of Teddies for Bettys. Teddies has moved down to 2nd St from it’s former home on S 1st Street, where I first came across them. “Teddies” is a self described “upscale intimate apparel boutique where luxury is an everyday experience, not just a special occasion”.

The store has actually been open for a couple of months, and apart from an excuse to move amongst some exquisite underwear, I wanted a chance to catch-up with owner Ashely Kelsh and see how business was going. Ashley reports that trade has been good and made an interesting observation that I hadn’t considered. Many of us “in-towners” regularly visit the 2nd Street district in the evening, when traffic and parking are easier, but I rarely make it down from the distant confines of Round Rock, during the day.

I’m inclined to agree with Mike Dahmus aka M1EK when it comes to the workers in downtown, the “fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree”. Meaning, that because of the heat, travel and time, office workers don’t much venture out of their direct building vicinity. This is one reason Mike asserts that the redline doesn’t work, is that the station and the line terminate too far from the bulk of the offices people work out of and the buses don’t make up for it. So, like most, I’d assumed that overtime the 2nd Street business district would fail for the same reason, it’s just not close enough to the centre of the action.

Anyway, Ashley from Teddies for Bettys says that business has been brisk and that they get a lot of customers from the W hotel. Thinking about it. the W could indeed be the blessing in disguise for day time traffic for the 2nd street district. First it’s right there; second, when visiting a new town people generally will wander around the local streets; and third, when visiting a new city for business or pleasure, you are inclined to shop in stores that you might not normally visit. Add to that the new ACL live studios and maybe together these will drive enough new foot traffic for the 2nd Street district to thrive.

Shade and those signs

[see update at the bottom]

There’s a bit of a stink going around on email over those signs making “fun” of Randi Shade for the election. Apparently someone has reported Shade and staff members for removing them, even a “press release”, whatever…

I do find the use of the signs, and their ilk by defending them as free speech, puzzling. I understand that free speech is something you either have or don’t have, you can’t allow for people to decide the use of free speech otherwise its slippery slope into censorship.

That said, I know nothing of Randi Shades background before her time in city hall, but I assume at some point Shade was just a normal person. If someone other than Shade had been taking the signs, its questionable, but for if reports are true and Shade herself was taking down these signs, I should imagine this is a pretty depressing episode. The issue isn’t the signs, it has nothing to do with free speech.

The question is who do we want to stand for local office, and what example does this set? Do we want a bunch of people who don’t care when they are personally attached? Who take no notice, and thumb their noses? Well mostly those people are too busy running cut throat businesses and making more money than they could ever make as a city of Austin politician and they won’t need the leg-up that might give them, to bother standing for office to help the “little” people.

Imagine the next round of elections, if your candidate were treated in a similar way! How many of you would not take down the signs? Yes, you can claim they were humor, but really they were nothing more than a personal attack that exploited the law. If the reports are indeed true, personally I say good on Randi for having the gall to take these down herself, she must have known she’d be seen by someone. Some civility is surely called for in a civil society?

Turn out for voting in locals councils here in Austin is abysmally poor for a country that is trying to encourage the same local democracy in places where they don’t have something as “good”. If the proposed run-off between Shade and Tovo does go ahead, it’s likely less people in Austin will vote than will have paid bribes to a certain Afghan minister…

Anyway, what is it with these political signs littering all over town? It’s one thing to put them on your own property, but how is it free speech when they are left littering all over private property all over town? Tradition?

Update: After this afternoons Share press conference, Sarah Coppola is reporting on her Statesman blog: “Shade campaign manager Katherine Haenschen said because the makers of the signs have said they’re not political advertising, they are not subject to the protections of political speech and anyone can remove them.”

*For the sake of transparency, I am a Tovo supporter and a listed sponsor*

HOPE Farmers Market

At HOPE Farmers Market, it’s a transitional time for vendors of vegetables, with tomatoes yet to come, but great selections of onions, potatoes, beets (the finest! thank you, Johnson’s Backyard Garden), broccoli, and other treats. Today, at least, we arrived early enough to taste that smoked jalapeno sausage from Salt & Time. Wow! No mystery ingredients here! And that’s all that it’s necessary to say about this demonstration of the wonders of small batches and local sources. A member of our party was very sad indeed to have overlooked Pie Fixes Everything. But there’s always a next time. HOPE Farmers Market also issues very handsome posters about the market and sells them at very reasonable prices, and they make great souvenirs of Austin for visitors from afar and for friends and family wherever they may be. See more pictures from today, and don’t forget HOPE Farmers Market next Sunday at Pine Street Station 414 Waller Street, from 11 am to 3 pm, friendly and in the shade.

Joy East quick-lunch

The visit to Joy East is, in a way, following up on the recent visit to Buffet King. Buffet King was a first-time experience; Joy East was a return after quite some time (since so much of the East Riverside area has been demolished). Both are chiefly all-you-can-eat establishments.

These days, all the Joy East staffers seem to be fluent speakers of Spanish. The big-screen TVs are tuned to Telemundo, which, during breaks in the futbol games was playing a repeat commercial for China Star buffet. Joy East is just as busy as Buffet King, and just as child-friendly. The children at Joy East seemed to be split down the middle when it came to selecting dessert, with half choosing self-serve soft ice cream in cones and half choosing fruit plates with three kinds of melon.

Freshly made pico de gallo still holds its place on the buffet line, as it has done from the very beginning. We dined quite quickly, yet saw at least three turns of tables while we were there. The entrees were constantly replenished to meet the demands of the capacity crowd of diners. Mussels, crawfish, and a dish of spicy octopus appeared to be among the most popular. My favorite dish this time was the sesame chicken, which I preferred to that at Buffet King. Again, as at Buffet King, sweetened iced tea appears to be the default version, so be sure to request unsweetened tea if that’s what’s wanted. Joy East plain steamed rice has a delicious nutty flavor. There were five kinds of soup, with cayenne pepper and fresh rings of green onion to be added at will.

There’s a bar, but, crowded as Joy East was, not one place was taken. Nevertheless, there was much beer being imbibed at Joy East, and pitchers of beer were seen at many of the tables. There are big illuminated signs on the wall near the entry for three different Mexican brands of beer.

Children are charged at two different rates, differentiated by their heights. I didn’t notice whether there’s a measure or height bar similar to those at amusement parks governing eligibility for various rides or whether the members of the staff can estimate height visually.

Find Joy East at 2410 East Riverside in the old movie theater (telephone 693-8833).

Conjunto fest today: dance your heart out ’til 10 pm

Head right over to Fiesta Gardens and you’ll be in time to take part in the dance contest at the Cinco de Mayo conjunto event. Santiago Jimenez, Jr., has taken the stage and there are more conjuntos to come. Entrance is $7 for adults. Parking is free. There are free carnations for the ladies, in honor of Mother’s Day. Other freebies were fans, frisbees, and pencils. There’s no need to dine ahead of time, because there’s plenty of food to accompany the various liquid refreshments. Bring a folding chair or be seated on the bleachers under the pavilion roof sheltering the stage and shading the dance floor. The Cinco de Mayo souvenir tee-shirts are just $10. See more pictures on Flickr. And go dance, for happy feet and happy spirits.

La Patisserie: macaron central

La Patisserie is immaculate. Found today in the glass display case were several elegant varieties of macaron (the selection changes daily), opera cake, flaky mille-feuille, strawberry tartlets, chocolate-coffee eclairs, petit pain au chocolat, and more. The petit pain was light and contained excellent chocolate, as well as some snappy, flavorful almond.

And the macaron? The one chosen was orange, cardamom, and honey. So it was green; so what? What a truly delicious flavor and texture, not over-sweet, and with each ingredient blending with the others yet retaining its own intense individual character. These have a certain initial degree of chewiness and then just melt away. Wow! The pistachio macarons are reputed to be superlative, also, but today they weren’t in the case. Never mind; those orange, cardamom, and honey items provided enough wonderment for one day.

The little bungalow housing this attraction is larger inside than it first appears to be. There’s even a separate playroom, also immaculate, for small children. There’s ample parking behind the building. There are often chairs and tables set out in the shady front yard. 600 West Annie Street does not suffer at all from traffic noise.

Pastry selections vary daily and according to the season, and there’s also a lunch menu of sandwiches and salads offered. La Patisserie is open six days a week, from 8 am to 4 pm on Tuesday through Friday, and from 9 am to 5 pm on Saturday and Sunday.

La Patisserie (by Luxe Sweets) is teaming up with Mercedes Flowers and Schatzelein to offer a “Sweet Suite” of fine gifts for Mother’s Day. Orders for the trio of macarons, custom earrings, and an artistic floral arrangement must be placed by May 5, but La Patisserie imposes no deadline for those who enjoy the finer things of life.

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