Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Weekend Gourmet Hits the Road...An Overnight Austin Getaway!

Living in San Antonio, one of our favorite cities for a fun, overnight getaway is Austin! It's a quick 90-minute drive up I-35, which makes it a perfect weekend destination for us when we want to have a lot of fun, but are short on time. Austin has a vibrant music scene, fantastic nightlife...and an amazing food scene. Last month, we zipped up to north Austin for a quick overnight stay to have some fun and take advantage of the cooler September evenings. We arrived at aloft Austin at the Domain and quickly settled in. If you've never stayed at an aloft property before, definitely check them out. The feel is like a modern urban loft with lots of natural light and bright colors. We immediately noticed it offers tons of amenities to make it family-friendly, business-friendly...and dog-friendly! The lobby features a well-stocked area that sells snacks and light meal options 24/7. There's even a microwave if you want to heat something up -- how convenient.
We loved the modern, colorful decor in our spacious room. The room featured a wall-mounted big-screen TV and a large bathroom and dressing area. Free in-room WiFi and bottled water were the perfect touches for staying connected and hydrated. I also loved that they feature Bliss Spa toiletries and soft water. Those little extras really make a difference to me! We freshened up, then headed out for a quintessential date night: dinner and a movie.

We are huge fans of Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas. They offer first-run and special-event movies, along with great food and cocktails. For this visit, we opted to attend the Saturday evening Animal House Quote-Along at the Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline location. We had a blast since this is one of our favorite comedies from our teenage years. It was so fun to quote aloud the movie's most famous line with fellow fans -- some of who even came dressed in togas! As we watched the antics of the boys from Delta Tau Chi, we enjoyed some great snacks. We shared an order of their Fried Dill Pickles with Buttermilk Ranch, along with a duo of shakes. I had the Salted Caramel Shake, while Michael had his favorite: a Strawberry Malt with extra malted milk powder. Both were the perfect movie snack...much better than the usual popcorn and sodas!
After the movie was over, I had a bit of fun in the lobby with somebody who was channeling a Delta Tau Chi brother, complete with a toga and faux least, I think it was faux! In case you're wondering...the yellow item in my hand has one of the movie's classic quotes, "Thank you sir...may I have another!" printed on it, and it made a popping sound when it was hit. We had such fun at this event and would happily attend another quote-along movie in the future.

We came outside to find that the weather had turned quite nasty...but we didn't let a little rain (ok...a lot of rain) and lightning dampen our spirits! We headed to our dinner reservation at Benji's Cantina in Downtown Austin. This restaurant opened this Summer, serving up Tex-Mex food in an upscale setting. The food is familiar, but the ingredients are locally sourced, with some great innovative touches. The decor is modern and inviting, with great bursts of color. We ate in the main dining room due to the storm, but they also over a fabulous upstairs patio that's perfect for al fresco dining on pretty evenings while enjoying night time views of the Austin skyline!
We came in from the storm and ordered a cocktail and appetizers. The Clasica Margarita comes frozen or on the rocks; I selected frozen, with the addition of strawberry puree. We coupled that with the Shrimp Diablo: Texas Gulf shrimp stuffed with goat cheese and chiles, then wrapped in pecan-smoked bacon before being grilled. They were smoky  and spicy...the perfect way to kick off our meal! The manager also brought out their signature Mexican Corn, flavored with cotija cheese and lime. It was amazingly fresh and full of my favorite big flavors!
For our entree, we decided to share an order of Benji's Signature Beef and Chicken Fajitas. They were brought to our table on a parillada grill to keep them warm while we ate. The fajitas were perfectly cooked: juicy and full of flavor. They came with sour cream, cheese, guacamole and hot flour tortillas so we could customize our fajitas. We were pretty stuffed by the time we finished our fajitas, but out came a surprise: dessert! The manager sent out their decadent and creative Cheesecake Sopapilla. This dessert featured a cheesecake filling in a cast-iron serving dish...topped with a soft sopapilla topping, Mexican vanilla ice cream and cajeta topping. Oh. My. Word. Even though I was about to burst, I couldn't resist a couple of bites of this treat!
With that, we collected our car from the valet and headed back to our spacious room at Aloft. After getting caught in the rain on our way inside from the parking lot, a hot shower and a comfy bed was just what I needed. It was time to get some rest...because we had another day of adventures waiting for us in Austin!

We woke up Sunday morning and bid goodbye to the wonderful aloft Austin at Domain, then we headed up the street for breakfast at one of Austin's favorite spots: Tacodeli. This casual restaurant has three locations around the city that specialize in breakfast tacos, and they must be doing something right. As the picture shows, the lines are literally out the door on weekends. It's no wonder they're popular -- Tacodeli offers a huge variety of creative breakfast tacos, along with some killer queso. As we waited in line, we looked over the menu and decided which tacos we wanted to try. We knew we wanted to start our with some chips and queso since we've never met of bowl of queso we didn't like! For tacos, I selected a dynamic duo: the Otto and a Mojo Fish Taco.  The Otto is a breakfast taco featuring refried black beans, bacon, avocado and monterrey jack cheese. It was my perfect taco: creamy, smoky and salty! The Mojo Fish Taco was served on a corn tortilla and featured grilled Texas drum, garlic mojo sauce, guacamole and pico de gallo. It's the best fish taco I've eaten, hands down. 
Michael opted for a trio of tacos: Cowboy Taco; Sirloin, Egg & Cheese; and Al Pastor.Cheese; and Al Pastor. The Cowboy featured beef tenderloin, grilled corn, caramelized onions, roasted peppers, guacamole and queso fresco. It was a flavor explosion! The Al Pastor featured pork cooked in flavorful adobo sauce and topped simply with onions and cilantro.  And the queso? It was cheesetastic, with a nice consistency and spice. To top your tacos, simply visit their fresh salsa bar and pick your favorite. You simply can't beat fresh, quality ingredients perfectly cooked so their natural flavor shines through. You can't beat a restaurant with a cheeky sense of humor the picture of Mr. T on the tea canister proves!

After Tacodeli, we spent the afternoon doing a bit of shopping. Our favorite shopping area is on 6th St. in Downtown Austin. It's the perfect location to spend a weekend afternoon. On one side of the street is the Whole Foods flagship location -- offering 80K square feet of foodie goodness for dining, shopping or even just people watching. On the other side of the street is Waterloo Records. It's considered one of the very best record stores -- not just in the US, but the world! In an era when record stores are closing down, Waterloo is a key music lover's destination in Austin. They support local artists, host in-store performances...and it's just an all-around cool place to people watch and shop for CDs, vinyl and DVDs/Blu-Rays. We find things at Waterloo that we can't find anywhere else. It's such a rush to find something cool there and take it home to listen to! Around the corner from Waterloo is Amy's Ice Cream and LUSH...where I always spend a bit of time while Michael leisurely browses over at Waterloo! Before we knew it, it was time to head to our final Austin destination: dinner at Taverna.

Taverna is centrally located in Downtown Austin and offers risotto and other Italian specialties in a rustic, welcoming environment. Any restaurant that features risotto is high on my list of must-tries, so I was really looking forward to dining at Taverna. We were seated and brought out some warm house-made bread to enjoy while we looked over the menu. The manager suggested that we start out with a couple of shared appetizers and made two great suggestions. We enjoyed the Taverna Focaccia and the Scampi & Polenta Cake. While the focaccia was being made, Michael went over to snap a picture of Taverna's wood-burning oven and the open-concept kitchen.
The focaccia featured pancetta, mushrooms, red onion, pine nuts, arugula and shaved parmesan. It was simply amazing, full of flavors and textures that worked so well with the wood-fired crust. It was a hybrid between a pizza and traditional focaccia, and we absolutely loved it. The Scampi & Polenta Cake featured shrimp and cherry tomatoes cooked in a white wine-caper sauce, served on top of a seared polenta round. It was a fantastic combination of flavors that really let the sweet shrimp shine through.
Since our appetizers were quite substantial, we decided to share an entree and dessert to round out our meal. Since Taverna specializes in risotto, we knew that we had to give one of them a try. Being seafood lovers, we opted for the Risotto con Capesante. It was flavored with artichokes, roasted grape tomatoes and lemon confit...then topped with a duo of perfectly seared scallops. Holy about amazing! The risotto featured perfectly cooked carnaroli rice (my favorite for risotto), and the ingredients worked so well with the sweet scallops. 
For dessert, we went with the decadent Budino di Cioccolato with Warm Chocolate & Raspberry sauce. This was a rich chocolate lava cake topped with vanilla ice cream and the two sauces. It was perfect for sharing, and it ended our dinner on a perfectly sweet note. From there, we headed back to our car for the drive back to San Antonio. We had a fabulous overnight getaway to Austin, and I hope my Texas readers will enjoy some of our suggestions for fun things to do and great food to eat!

Disclosure: Aloft Hotels provided us with a complimentary overnight stay during our visit to Austin. In addition, Alamo Drafthouse and the restaurants featured in this article hosted our visits to facilitate inclusion in this article. We received no further compensation, and all opinions give are my own. All photographs are copyright Michael K. Garcia and may not be copied or otherwise used without prior permission.

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