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Oreo Sundae – Sandy’s Hamburgers

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Before relocating to Austin, I lived in Virginia. Although overall I’m very happy with the move, there are some things from there that I miss. Among those is Uncle Rick’s Frozen Custard – hands-down the best frozen custard known to man, and a tough contender in my book for favorite dessert ever. I’m embarrassed to say how many times I made the almost hour-long drive from Williamsburg to Portsmouth just for it, but every single time it was worth it. It’s been almost a year since my departure for Texas, and I would kill for one of their concretes with Whoppers or some cookie dough.

I’ve been on the lookout for a local replacement since the day I got here, keeping a sharp eye out for places serving frozen custard. Those have proven hard to find; the few I’ve managed to discover have been franchises serving mass-produced stuff that seems no different from simple soft-serve ice cream. I was thus very excited when I heard about Sandy’s Hamburgers, a local burger stand that is known for its frozen custard. An invitation to some Saturday evening roller derby at the venue right across the street from it provided the perfect excuse to check it out.

Maybe it was the fact that it was so hot that the custard started to melt instantly, maybe Texans just don’t understand what frozen custard is, or maybe the fact that I’ve been deprived of Uncle Rick’s for so long has caused me to subconsciously elevate it it to some divine, impossible-to-match pedestal in my memory in comparison to which all subsequent frozen custards are doomed to pale. Either way, Sandy’s did not blow me away. It was good, and the part that I managed to eat before it liquefied had something of a custardy consistency, but it was still more like plain old ice cream to me.

And so, my search for frozen custard here continues. In the meantime, however, I do want to give props to Sandy’s for an amazing burger: my huge Chili Cheese & Onion Hamburger would’ve been good anywhere, let alone from a “fast food” joint. The roller derby bout that followed was also one-of-a-kind – a last minute upset resulting in an overtime win for the Putas Del Fuego against last year’s champions, the Rhinestone Cowgirls, made for an intense ending to a typically laid-back and somewhat slapstick (at least for the spectators) event.

Oreo Sundae

Had to act fast to get this photo before it started melting.


Sandy's Hamburgers on Urbanspoon


Sea Turtle Sundae – Joe’s Crab Shack (Round Rock)

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I try to keep the restaurant reviews in this blog mostly to local, independent places. Chains can be experienced by anyone, anywhere – I’d like for things here to be a bit more unique. However, a great dessert is a great dessert regardless of where it came from, and I’m not one to disregard that.

Enter the Sea Turtle Sundae at Joe’s Crab Shack. Two chunks of their chocolate cake, topped with vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce and candied nuts. With a little squinting and a lot of imagination, I’m guessing it’s supposed to look kind of like a sea turtle. I didn’t see it at all, but what I did see when our server set the glass in front of me was a well-arranged mound of deliciousness.

Sea Turtle Sundae

As the menu states, "no sea turtles were harmed in the creation of this".

The sundae tasted just as good as it looked. The caramel was surprisingly phenomenal – nice and gooey, and actually tasty, it was more than the mere decorative squirt with a slight hint of flavor that “caramel topping” usually seems to mean. The nuts were crunchy and plentiful, and the ice cream, although not high-quality, was at just the right levels of firmness and creaminess to not instantly turn the entire dish into soup and still balance out the cake nicely.

The cake was the best part. I’d dined at a Joe’s Crab Shack several times in the past, and each time had ordered their Chocolate Shack Attack, which is a full-sized slice of the same chocolate cake from which the pieces in the Sea Turtle Sundae come from. This cake is fabulous; it is fudgy, chewy and has an excellent chocolate frosting between layers and around the outside. Each time I ordered it, however, I was – believe it or not (and if you’ve ever been out to eat with me, you know just how difficult this is to believe) – never able to finish the gigantic, incredibly rich slice. The sundae was the perfect solution: I still got the really good cake, in an amount large enough to be satisfactory but also manageable, and with some additional items to break it up a bit. I don’t know why I didn’t think to order this before.

RATING: ★★★★

Joe's Crab Shack on Urbanspoon

Nutella Pie Crust Crescents

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Pie crust + Nutella + butter + cinnamon sugar = these little guys

This week I decided to put my baking hat on and make myself some desserts. I had a refrigerated pie crust left over from a previous recipe that I needed to use up (the fact that those seem to come exclusively in packages of two is a matter of great annoyance to me, as is everything else sold solely in quantities impossible for a person living alone to finish without consuming it for weeks on end – but I digress). I rifled through the recipes I have downloaded to my computer from my many aimless internet wanderings and, after taking a quick stock of the pantry, found one that would only require me to buy one additional ingredient.

The crescents were ridiculously simple to assemble and, as the photo above shows, came out looking cute – no small feat for an artistically challenged klutz such as myself. I also saved a bit of money by mixing together my own cinnamon sugar rather than buying the ready-made stuff. Easy peasy.

Taste-wise, however, they didn’t turn out to be all that. I expect anything and everything with Nutella involved to be nothing short of a mind-blowing experience, and these are decidedly not. Perhaps it’s that cinnamon doesn’t play so well with the chocolate-hazelnut blend; perhaps it’s that the pie crust became so crumbly on the outside that it falls apart if you look at it too hard, and at the same time still remained slightly undercooked in the center; perhaps it’s that these are so darn tiny (the picture is misleading – they’re about an inch in length, if that). They’re good enough, and I’ll certainly polish off the batch over the next few evenings, but I doubt I’ll be making them again.



Mascarpone Cheesecake – Enoteca Vespaio

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The initial Thursday of each month, the city of Austin celebrates “First Thursday” on South Congress. Craft booths are set up, boutiques stay open late and people wander up and down the street sampling their wares to the accompaniment of the ever-present live music this place is known for. It’s a chance to see some of the local color – and for me, it was also an excuse to check out Enoteca Vespaio.

Enoteca Vespaio's take on cheesecake

I’m always a touch skeptical about so-called Italian restaurants on this side of the Atlantic. In my experience, the harder they try to seem authentic, the less they actually are. Enoteca Vespaio, unfortunately, falls into this camp. Although I had expected as much coming in, an article I read on it and the extensive list of dessert offerings I found online convinced me it was worth a go.

After a main dish of Spaghetti Carbonara that was, although tasty, not “it” at all, I elected for the Mascarpone Cheesecake. Now, just to be clear, I’d like to acknowledge that cheesecake is in no way, shape or form a food traditionally found in Italy. It is simply a dessert I absolutely love and wish to try in as many embodiments as possible, and my notes on authenticity therefore end here.

I’d previously experienced another Italianized cheesecake, one with ricotta, in New York City’s Little Italy a couple of years ago, and had been wanting to try the mascarpone variety ever since. This version was, as I’d anticipated, moister and smoother. Its consistency was somewhat mousse-like, but dense. The taste was similar to that of plain whipped cream; nothing to write home about, really. There was no crust, which while maybe exciting for some, was for me somewhat disappointing. I found the choice of garnish truly odd: three fresh cranberries, placed at the outer edge of the slice. Who in their right mind serves fresh cranberries? Seriously, have they ever tried them? Don’t get me wrong, I am the first to champion anything involving dried, cooked or otherwise refined cranberries, but fresh those things are like little pellets of turpentine. Although it was still cheesecake – for which there will always be a big place in my heart – and for the most part tasted pleasant enough, this dessert failed to make much of an impression on my palate.


Enoteca Vespaio on Urbanspoon

Pastel de Banana com Sorvete – Rio’s Brazilian Café

When you hear “Brazilian food”, odds are your first thought is of the Brazilian steakhouses that have become so popular – the all-you-can eat selection of sizzling meats brought right to your table on a spear, and the endless buffet of accompaniments for it. You probably don’t think cream (creme de leite) sauces, hearts of palm (palmitos) and savory cupcakes (empadões). These are staples of traditional Brazilian cuisine, and these are what you’ll find at Rio’s Brazilian Café in Austin.

Dinner here was my first encounter with this particular culture’s culinary niche. I could not have asked for a better introduction. From the varied – yet not overwhelming – menu, to the wonderfully colorful décor, to the Brazilian waiter who kindly helped us through our clumsy pronunciations of the Portuguese words (and who asked me whether I took my water with ice! Someone on this side of the Atlantic that understands the desire to not get brain freeze while trying to stay hydrated, imagine that!), I was nothing short of delighted – and that was before the food even arrived.

When the food did arrive, both my companion and I were very pleased with our respective orders. As he polished off every last grain of rice from his plate, I turned my attention to the dessert menu and picked out the Pastel de Banana com Sorvete – a “sweet banana and cinnamon stuffed pastry, served with vanilla ice cream”. I was quite happy with my choice; it wasn’t as decadent as the sweets I typically go for, but it was something new and it was certainly satisfying. The pastry was similar in concept to the fried pies you sometimes see at fast food restaurants and the like, although I feel like such a comparison cheapens the dessert. The dish at Rio’s was far superior. The crust had a good consistency to it, and held up well to the mushy inside; the filling was both warming and fresh. The vanilla ice cream was topped with a few dashes of cinnamon, a truly genius idea that I wonder at never having experienced before.

For each item I decided on, I saw three others that I wanted to try. And with so much novelty for me and such a great atmosphere, I predict it won’t be long before I’m back for more.

The vivid color scheme of the place had me grinning all evening.


Rio's Brazilian Cafe on Urbanspoon

Coffee Panna Cotta – Uchi

This week I finally got the chance to try one of Austin’s most talked-about restaurants: Uchi, the original of two sister sushi restaurants. Recommendations from friends and general hearsay had put this place on my radar some time ago, so when a friend of mine suggested it I was all too eager to accept. Although Asian cuisine isn’t exactly well-known for its confectionery, Uchi practices a good deal of fusion in its menu, and I was interested in experiencing the award-winning chef’s take on dessert.

Sculpture or food?

The dish in the photo looks creative, right? Unfortunately, that is the only good thing you will hear me say about it.

That cream-colored oval that you see is not the panna cotta. That is white chocolate sorbet – which may as well have been plain vanilla ice cream, for all the distinctiveness of its flavor. Next up was the the white powder – also white chocolate, and just as tasty as the ice cream. My search for the panna cotta then moved over to the dark powder, where our server had informed me that macadamia nuts were to be found. The few, minute bits of these were so mired in what I strongly suspect was simply a pile of coffee grounds that they hardly counted as present. Finally, underneath everything, I found a small lump; presumably the panna cotta. A bite of it confirmed this, and liberated its mango filling from its center. While I pondered whether panna cotta was supposed to be chewy, the mango commingled with the coffee side and created a truly unpleasant mixture (seriously, people: do not ever put mango in your coffee) that constituted my next spoonful.

The overall issue, however, remained the powder components. There was such a large proportion of them that no amount of sorbet, panna cotta or mango (ha!) could provide enough moisture to keep me from literally inhaling some of each mouthful. As for that shard sticking up out of the whole thing? A perfect example of the fine dining pitfall I avoided in my last review. I truly expected better from such a highly regarded restaurant.


Uchi on Urbanspoon

“Cookies and Cream” – Paggi House

Even fine dining has a weak spot for this twosome.

Today I bring you another cookies and cream dessert; it would seem that my desire for the combination spanned the past couple of weeks. Although at first this dish may sound a lot like the one from my previous post, I see this as an opportunity to demonstrate how the same essences can be put together in differing ways. While last weekend I reviewed a casual milkshake version, with cookies of the chocolate chip variety, now I present a fine dining homage to Oreo-style confections.

I almost missed out on this particular dish due to its overly simplified description on the menu – all it read was “‘Cookies and Cream’ – Malt ice cream”. Now, I understand that minimalism is in vogue these days, but if there’s one place where it doesn’t belong, it’s in food explanations. Thankfully our server was very sociable, and knowledgeable to boot, and so with elaboration from her I came to understand that this referred to a plate with three chocolate sandwich “cookies”, one side crispy wafer and one side soft cake, with a mascarpone filling, served with the aforementioned malt-flavored ice cream. Chocolate, mascarpone and an ice cream variety I’ve never tried? I’ll take it.

As with all things on the fancier end, the plate was arranged just so – the cookies lined up across the middle, one carefully angled against the scoop of ice cream to display its vivid white center, all atop an artful streak of chocolate sauce and dusted with chocolate crumbs. Fine dining sometimes goes overboard with presentation, concentrating so hard on creating something ornate that it ends up being intimidating rather than appetizing, and with a taste that falls short of the expectations set. Paggi House did not make this mistake – the “Cookies and Cream” earned both my admiration and my salivation, and was absolutely delicious.

RATING: ★★★★

Paggi House on Urbanspoon