Restaurant Journey Deep in the Heart of You Know Where

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Before you click the comment box, I know, I know: I missed some phenomenal eating opportunities this week. I was on the road reporting a feature story, which meant interviews and transcription sessions took precedence over meals. Had I structured my itinerary around restaurant visits, I surely wouldn't have showed up in Austin the night Uchiko was closed or lunched on gas station almonds in San Antonio.

But I still managed to coax a few edible highlights out of my trip. Here, four of my favorite culinary experiences - and one surprising disappointment.

Smoked quail with jalapeño cheddar grits, Reata, Fort Worth

Reata is justly famed for its delicate quail appetizer, which strikes an uncommon equilibrium between sweetness and smoke. But I discovered the dish is even better when ordered to go and eaten aboard a moving train. There's a dining car on the Texas Eagle, of course, but a partially thawed frozen pizza deals a sucker punch to the romance of rail travel. I darted downtown during our Fort Worth layover, and, for $20, made a satisfying picnic of quail, a wedge salad and a complimentary box of corn muffins and biscuits: The food was neatly packed in a bag so large I feared Amtrak might require me to check it.

Kick-ass sandwich, Alamo Drafthouse, Austin

It's impossible to write about the many watch-and-eat movie theaters around Dallas without at least one transplanted Austinite piping up to defend Alamo Drafthouse's honor. I finally had the chance to visit, and tried the newest vegan item on the menu, a banh mi riff layered with tofu, daikon, red onions, bell peppers, sunflower sprouts, jalapeños and pickled carrots. The mess of heavily fried wonton wrappers accompanying the sandwich was grim, but the tofu was expertly seared and the vegetables were crisp.

Burger, Alamo Springs Café, Alamo Springs

I was on the brink of ordering the chicken-fried steak special at this iconic roadside café, but my server persuaded me most Alamo Springs pilgrims don't travel twisty Hill Country roads for pounded cube steak. The hand-patted burger, which was featured on the cover of Texas Monthly's 2009 "best burger" issue, was as good as promised: Tremendously beefy, the sandwich nearly fell apart beneath the weight of its own juices, making for a messy moment of burger revelation.

Pad Thai, August E's, Fredericksburg

My timing was lousy throughout my trip, except for the night I stumbled upon August E's, a terrifically sophisticated dining room on the backside of Main Street. The standard menu features $55 steaks and $46 lobsters, but Tuesday nights are Thai nights, when executive chef Leu Savanh gets to do his homegrown thing. The bartender refused to relay my request for very spicy pad thai -- "I put it in as medium, because hot would have blown you away," he told me later -- but I enjoyed the tender noodles, and still regret letting one of the plump shrimp slip onto the floor.

Chocroute garnie, Luke, San Antonio

Since my German food craving went unstaunched in Fredericksburg, where the mainstay German restaurants were shuttered for winter vacation, I carried my desire down to celebrity chef John Besh's new restaurant on the Riverwalk. Luke's essentially a gastro-biergarten, a good concept only slightly tarnished by its placement in an Embassy Suites.

The three-month old restaurant's real undoing is the food and service: I ordered the chocroute, a giant platter of pork shank and housemade bratwurst strewn with sauerkraut, partly to spite the server who insisted I'd be most interested in a salad (after calling me "sir" when I ordered a martini.) Halfway through my meal, a beleaguered-seeming diner at an adjoining table looked up from his identical plate. "Did he force you to get that too?" he asked. Evidently the server's sexist attitude ran both ways. Worse still, the sausage was dry and the pork shank was severely overcooked.


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