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2011 February

A Different Look At San Antonio

On February 28, 2011, in Travel, by admin

 

Low Budget Review Guy hit the road again, this time, not to eat Texas BBQ, but to experience one of Texas’ crown jewel cities for travel:  San Antonio.  But while most go for the River Walk, LBR set out to do some different things a bit off the beaten path.  An interesting read indeed. Afterall, it cannot always be about the riverwalk.

Recently we took off down the road to San Antonio, a town much visited in the past. This trip was a little different than most—we were not headed to the famous River Walk and Margaritas.  This is quite unusual for us, as we have often been there to enjoy the Old World-style ambiance of the river.  This trip was focused on visiting the San Antonio Zoo.

 

We traveled down late on an afternoon and found a hotel just outside the 410 Loop.  This was also unusual for us as over the years we had stopped staying overnight in San Antonio, making day trips instead.  Hotels costs in The Alamo City are high, unjustifiably so, even outside of the city core.  Plus San Antonio hits visitors with a hotel tax of approximately 18%.  Outrageous.  I guess they figure to stick-it to all the tourists to help fund city coffers, but what it has done, at least to us, is to cause us to drive down and back the same day—thus the city  loses hotel, restaurant, and gasoline purchases at least from us.

 

After relaxing in the hotel for a while, I started reading the tourist brochures that I always pick up when I hit a new town.  We were not going to the zoo until the next day, so we had some options for the evening.  Instead of the usual River Walk or even El Mercado (great restaurants and shopping), we found a brochure for “Ghost Hunters” in the downtown area.  Having watched the various “Ghost Hunting” TV shows we thought it would be something different and kinda cool.  We had been on one years ago in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and had really enjoyed it.  No ghosts, but great history stories.  So we figured, why not? San Antonio is over 3 hundred years old—gotta have a few ghosts….So reluctantly skipping the siren call from the Bingo Parlor next door to the hotel, we drove downtown San Antonio to meet our Ghost Guides.  Parking was easy, at $10 –not cheap, but easy.  We had a few minutes before meeting the rest of the group, so we stopped at The Menger  Hotel for a drink at the Bar.  For you history buffs, the Menger was where Teddy Roosevelt hung out, while recruiting the hard, tough Texans who would go on to fame as The Rough Riders.  Small, dark, comfy, and with some Teddy memorabilia inside, the Menger Bar is very cool.  Outside of one rowdy Texan at the bar (and how appropriate is that) the crowd at the bar was quiet and relaxed.  A few minutes later, we were out the side door, and down the street, literally along the outside wall of the crumbling Mission De Valero—The Alamo.  Going around the corner into Alamo Plaza, the lighting striking the façade of one of the world’s most recognized buildings was spectacular.  I had seldom seen it at night, and it always takes my breath away.

 

Meeting our guides and the rest of our ghost hunting team, we were issued EVP’s, little electronic devices about the size of a garage remote control.  If the magnetic field nearby changed (supposedly an indicator of ghostly phenomena) it would register.  We were also given infra-red guns, about the size of a large squirt gun, that could measure the temperature of various surfaces.  “Cold Spots” are another phenomena.  Off we went to 13 sites, walking a little over an hour in the downtown area.  The Guide was informative, knowledgeable, and had many great grisly stories of the various locations we visited.  It was thoroughly enjoyable.  Did we see any ghosts?  No, but I did find one “Cold Spot” that registered about 8-9 degrees lower than the surrounding area.  It was in a “hanging tree” –one of several used in Old San Antonio during its wilder days.   I did have a freaky experience with a “Dowsing Rod” –more on that another day.

 

The next day was overcast and cool, good weather for the zoo.  We have visited almost all the zoo’s in Texas, and found that over the years, the San Antonio Zoo was our favorite.  Built into the side of an abandoned rock quarry, the limestone walls served as a natural setting for many of the zoo’s beautiful creatures.  We had not visited the zoo in a number of years, we visited often when our child was young and we were looking forward to see what changes, if any, had occurred.  One thing had not changed, the lack of sign directions on the roads.  If you go, get a map, as the signs, if posted at all, are small and hard to spot.  Located in Brackenridge Park, the zoo’s parking lot abuts the miniature train-ride and tracks that many visitors, especially the young ones, enjoy.  We had gone online and printed a two-for-one coupon, so entrance fee was a bargain.  We got our map with the layout when we entered the zoo, and off we went.  Very little has changed over the years, but it was still quite enjoyable.  My favorites are the cats.  The lions were already crashed and oblivious to the touristas, but the Siberian Tiger came over to  chat.  The cheetah was dozing, with one-eye open then shut, but following our movement with his ears.  I always talk to the cats.  Sometimes they talk back.  The other highlights were the marmosets (like little monkeys), the Rhinos, and the bears.  The zebras were behind an enclosure and could barely be seen.  There were no signs of any giraffes, although they used to have some.

 

After a little over 2 hours, we were done and off to a new experience—the area around the old Pearl Brewery.  They are in the process of turning the area into a really interesting place.  With shops, restaurants, loft apartments, a Cooking School, all in the Brewery area.  It is on the San Antonio River, and they have expanded the River Walk down to that area.  It is almost 2 miles to the main part of the River Walk—that journey will have to wait another day.  We ate lunch at La Gloria, a cool little place with seating overlooking the river.  The menu was mostly interior-Mexico dishes.  Delicious and good value for the price.  I recommend it.  After a short walk after lunch down the River Walk towards downtown, we reluctantly headed back to the car and our trip home.  A different kinda San Antonio trip, but a fun, fascinating time, in a place that Mark Twain called, “One of America’s four unique cities”.

 

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Bone Daddy's Is Smoking Something

The BBQ road takes us to a different destination than the usual. Usually our reviewers seek out the true BBQ joints in Texas, those who smoke up a brisket unique to this region’s great BBQ. On this trip, we review Bone Daddy’s House of Smoke.  This is a limited chain in the Texas area with four total locations throughout the state.  It is owned by a  group that also owns a cajun themed eatery called Razzos. Bone Daddy’s comes with a twist, in that it has a ‘Hooters’ approach to serving BBQ. And like Hooters, it is immensely successful with this concept. You cannot help but wonder if the food is any good or is it simply the female influence?

A stop to this eatery will answer this question. The menu, for a BBQ joint is quite exhaustive.  It ranges in plates that come with all kinds of meats with a limited choices of sides. The thing is, the BBQ is really good.  Not sure how they achieve this.  As you drive up there is no smell of mesquite wood wafting through the air.

Yes, they really do look like this

There is not the run down shack with the old geezer sitting in front inquiring how your day has been.  This is a slick operation. There are also a healthy dose of sandwich offerings, highlighted by the “Flying Pig”.  This thing, with a combination of ham, pulled pork and bacon will light up your taste buds and stop your heart. Top it with some of the BBQ sauce served warm in bottles brought to the tables, and you have a great sandwich which includes fries and a small dish of baked beans, all for $10. The meat plates come with a choice of sides from a limited menu.  The sides are good, but nothing to jump up and down for. The brisket here is done very well.  It is a hight quality brisket prepared slowly to produce a beautifully tender, and tasty plate.  The smoke ring is a bit scant, and the taste is not quite as smoky as one would hope. So the inclusion of their good BBQ sauce is helpful to to top off the experience. Pork ribs are also specifically good here.  Although they are drowned in BBQ sauce before charring in the oven, they are quite tender and tasty.  Once again, the smoky taste here is a bit distant, and of course, further masked by the bath in BBQ sauce before serving.  So this does not make it the true Texas BBQ we are used to, but still, a very tasty, and overall enjoyable plate. There are some specialty menu items as well.  There is the “Beer Can Chicken”  This is a marinated whole chicken with a beer can shoved up its posterior. Please cut around the beer can before jumping into your entree.

No, They Don't Look Like That, I Threw That in For You Perve Puppies

The prices are a bit on the steep side, no doubt due in part, to its branding with babes image. As is the case with most of these establishments, the bar scene is important.  A full, but limited bar is offered, but most of the mainly male population are sucking beers from appears to be about a 32oz. glass. Weaklings will have an issue hoisting a full glass of this, so when you get it to your lips for the first time, cannon ball about half of the glass so you can lift it a second time.

Service is friendly and efficient.  Of course, like all of these female based eateries, the girls go out of the way to be of good service, and tips in excess of 20% are expected and the norm.  Silly males.  We are such dumb shits, but there you go, it is what it is.

Overall, I give this place (for the food) a 6.5 out of 10. Add the chicks in, and well, go there for yourself for those of you local to Dallas area, Austin, and Houston, and judge for yourself

The BBQ Road continues, hopefully back to a true joint next time.

Barbecue, vodka, barbecue, vodka, rum, barbecue, we are like a broken record here at redd…..but we love our passions that keep us altered and fat, and we love bringing you our reviews.  Another for LBR Guy and his Barbecue Road travels:

Recently, we heard about a great BBQ place, so ever in search of outstanding BBQ places, we took  a short trip down HWY 79 to Taylor.  Having tried Louis Mueller’s BBQ years ago we were searching for another spot—The Taylor Café.  Housed in the oldest building in Taylor, in the shadow of the highway overpass, and literally within a horseshoe throw of the railroad tracks, lies Taylor Café.  Don’t look for a sign giving directions, hell, don’t even look for anything that says Taylor Café, just look for the worn wooden door that states “BBQ—We’re open”.

Entering the building, you are met with a low ceiling and décor that reminds you of what the place really is, an old-style Texas beer joint that serves BBQ.  The Formica counter is long on an old wooden trestle.  Old tractor seats are the stools with a few tables lining the wall.  There is a pool table in the back and next to that a juke boxbigger than the pool table.   Behind the counter are some large ancient ice chests full of ice and beer.

Placing your order to the friendly staff, they bring you your tea, sweet or otherwise on request.  Most of the people coming in were getting their BBQ to go, but we are here for the whole experience—the whole hog as it were.  My companion ordered the chopped beef sandwich and I ordered the three meat platter.  While we waited for our order, a large plastic tray appeared with sliced white bread, pickles, onions, and saltine crackers (unusual) for my platter.  When my platter arrived it was overflowing with a large pork rib, sausage and brisket, covered with sauce. The Pork rib was very tender, meat falling off the bone, juicy and flavorful, a good choice.  The sausage was mildly disappointing.  Nothing special, a little spicy, but tasted mostly like Elgin sausage thrown on the grill for a few minutes.  But the brisket was masterful.   The char ring was very present, flavorful and very tender.  I cut it with my fork.  It was the best brisket I have found so far on the BBQ Road.  The sauce was tomato based, with a little kick and was outstanding as well.  The potato salad as a side was a little under cooked, and the beans were nothing special.  We found out later that their Turkey sausage is one of their featured items.  We will try that next time.   The owner, Vencil Mares, is 87, a WW II vet who has acquired a reputation praised by entities such as Texas Monthly and USA today.  Vencil was there, supervising everything and greeting everyone who came in, most by name.

Overall, I give Taylor Café an “ A”.  The sides and sausage were an “C”, the Pork Rib a B+, and the brisket an A+.   One thing I seldom mention in these reviews is price.  Prices can vary a great deal from venue to venue.  Also the amount of food received can vary.  Taylor Café had great process for the amount of food—a bargain for your hard-earned dollars.   We will be back.  Evidently Taylor has 3 well-known BBQ places in town.  We will have to compare them all, the sooner the better!

The Road goes ever on…

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Vodka Review: Belvedere

On February 19, 2011, in Low Budget Review, by admin

Belvedere, Breakfast of Champions

Normally we include our reviews under our Low Budget Review category, but today’s review of Belvedere Vodka just will not fit into that category. We continue on our road to inebriation with yet another vodka review.  Recall you will also fine many reviews of Rums on this site as well.  You cannot accuse us of not providing you with all the tools to tie on a great buzz.

It is correct that Belvedere does not come cheap.  This is a vodka that is in the premium corner of the marketplace.  A 1.75 litre bottle will set you back anywhere from $55-70, depending upon your region and competition in your specific market for alcohol sales. Despite its high cost, this has been my personal favorite vodka for years.

As many of you know, the popularity of vodka skyrocketed several years back leading to a wealth of new product offerings.  It became cool to consume martini’s. The market was driven by Grey Goose.  Belvedere stepped into the mix and quickly became a popular number two in the premium space. Pushed along also by wacky celebrity endorsement Chelsea Handler, the trash talking comedian who includes constant vodka consumption as part of her branding. Handler would always state she liked Grey Goose. Enter her thirst for more money, when she approached Grey Goose to sponsor due to all of the free aire time she was giving, Grey Goose refused opening the door for Belvedere who was only too happy to kick in sponsorship dollars.

Belvedere is Polish, potato based vodka. The packaging is slick and does well to promote the product. The pop of the cork of the bottle when opening is the first stage in a pleasant drinking experience. The initial taste on the lips comes across just a bit on the chemical side. This is true with most vodka, and frankly, one of the things that overall I do not like about drinking vodka.  The goal here is that first blast will have a slight smoothness to it. Belvedere has this. As you roll the vodka back into the mouth, the slight edge give way to crisp, clean taste. The smoothness extends into the finish. Belvedere has one of the best finishes in the vodka market.  The smooth and clean taste is very consistent throughout the experience, allowing for a second before you think to slow down.

The vodka, as is all vodkas are quite potent. So the buzz factor kicks in quickly.  I like to have Belvedere in a martini, straight up with a twist, no olives or dirt, well shaken served in a goblet that has been marinating in the freezer.  Further, I like to drink my Belvedere in stainless steel goblets.  These keep the goblet cold longer and seem to help the vodka breath more. When shaking, I expect to have ice slivers in the martini. Belvedere is good over ice as well.

I do not waste good vodka on mixes, such as that for flavored offerings.  I use the cheaper vodkas for this, so those of you who wish for you pink cosmos, I cannot comment here.

The vodka, in my book, is worth the price. I do not consider it an everyday vodka because of this. I reserve it for special times and events.  This makes the appeal of the drink and the cost balance out a bit more.  Out of ten stars as the best, I give Belvedere a 9.  And when I give this rating, I am not sure what would be a 10.  All I know, it is the best vodka that I have tasted to date, in my ever expanding drive to taste my way through the entire marketplace

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Low Budget Review: BBQ Road Revisited

On February 16, 2011, in Low Budget Review, by admin

At times I find it necessary to revisit BBQ joints that I have tried and reviewed in these fine pages.  I am looking for consistency, bad or good, in the product.  If an establishment improves, I feel it most be noted.  If it has fallen, the readers here need to know since we have a lot of local Texas readers in this blog. In this spirit, I returned to Tom’s Smokehouse, Bellmead Texas.  Bellmead is a burb of Waco, Texas.  I had previously been here for lunch and a brisket sandwich.  This time I thought I would try my normal order when reviewing BBQ. First off, this place is obscure.  it is in a non-discript building on HWY 84. This is OK, because as we Texan’s all know, Texas best BBQ often comes from holes in the wall. You walk in and it looks like someones kitchen and dining room, plush with the large screen TV on playing some fight show where they cage themselves in and beat eachother until someone bleeds.  I later found out that most of the clientele here thought this was “supercool”.  So now we know who we are dealing with here. I ordered, as usual for reviews, two meat plate consisting of brisket and ribs.  The plate came with two sides from a rather limited choice.  Now, hats off to old Tom and his pricing.  He is less expensive than most BBQ joints. I have always thought BBQ is over priced.  His prices are not only fair, but I appreciate the fact that everything is priced in whole dollars, tax included.  No more pain in the ass change.  My plate with a drink set me back $8. Very nice.

The plate is served rather quickly on paper plates. The portions are reasonable, not overwhelming. The sides I chose were Mac and Cheese and BBQ Beans. The Mac and Cheese was as bland as I had ever tasted. A total waste of calories. The BBQ Beans were reasonable, and served nice to dip the single piece of “Wonder Bread” into.  Both the ribs and brisket had a charred edge, a nice start.  Now remember, this is called a “Smokehouse” I expected a great smoke ring and taste.  Nothing. No ring beneath the charred edges and certainly not much of a smoke flavor. The meat was pleasantly tender making for ease of consumption.  But the base taste was missing somehow.  I am not certain how it is prepared:  I certainly did not have the normal mesquite or other wood aroma when I walked in, so I guess I should have known. The sauce was vinegar based. Again, very bland. All told, it made for just a boring and less than optimum dining experience. I am not certain how this work, locals around here like this place and the lunch crowd  confirmed this.  For a Wednesday, they were very busy including a group of local High School students who 1) loved the beat the shit out of each other programming, and 2) quite expectedly launched one of their drinks all over three seats.  Oh well, I guess they pay as well.

The owner Tom runs around assuring you have everything needed and frequently attempts to up sell you as you eat. The counter help was this side of rude. Not what ole Tom had in mind.  Sadly, I give Tom’s Smokehouse of Bellmead Texas a 4 out 10.  Don’t bother if you find your self in the neighborhood.

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Frozen Ghost Vodka

Well, I cannot continue to let The Rum Guy get plowed on a nightly basis in the spirit of bringing us the best rums, so I decided to jump on the Low Budget Review band wagon and review my drink of choice:  Vodka. The market for vodka has exploded as anyone knows who has been in a bar in the last decade.  Maybe the market prime has come and gone in main stream popularity.  Regardless, it is time to review some vodkas and pass on our observations.

Here we review Frozen Ghost Vodka.  In fact, The Rum Guy gave me this bottle as a gift on one of our live performances, so that I may have a bottle to go on stage with. Nice of him. With Frozen Ghost, the branding becomes of utmost importance. This vodka produced in Western Canada, presumably from the millions of miles of grain they have in central Western Canada (think Saskatchewan) is apparently all about branding. You really cannot find much about it on the Frozen Ghost Website. The PR, developed by Dallas firm Levinson and Hill, (and if you look at the states they distribute in, all southwest, you understand a bit better) has gone to great lengths to further the mystic of the brand aligning well within the supernatural theme. There is no mention of corporate on the website.  There is this silly story or legend of how the vodka came to be…..it is all brilliantly distant in shades of grey and black. Good going.  But it does nothing to tell me of the product.

The Mystic Is Played Up

Well let me do this for you. The packaging is consistent with the theme, and affective.  At approximately $45 for the larger 1.75 liter bottle, it is not the cheapest, nor most expensive in this crowded market. Rum Guy parted a few dollars for this gift, and I appreciate it. The aroma is standard for a vodka.  For most vodkas, if form your opinion based upon aroma, you will never drink it.  Frozen Ghost is no different. As with a lot of grain based vodkas, the goal is to produce a robust tasting vodka packed with good punch, yet with a smooth finish. Upon first taste of Frozen Ghost, the impression it leaves is a bit on the chemical side. A little rough on the front end. As you swirl in your mouth, it does create a smooth texture which leads to a quite pleasant finish. In the end, you are not aware you are drinking a potent alcohol. As you continue to sip, like most vodkas, the initial harshness wears a bit to settle into a nice relaxing  drink.  I prefer it over ice rather than martini style. However, when mixed with a slight of olive juice or vermouth, it makes a stellar martini. It does need to be well shaken, rather, violently shaken to form those thin ice slivers in your martini.  This is the optimuum set up. Let the martini air a bit in the glass after you have done the shakes.  You will be rewarded with a nice drink that goes well best prior to any meal or appetizer. Yes, this is best as its own appetizer or merely the party drink of choice when entertaining. Overall, I rate this a very pleasant vodka with a decent price point.  OK.  It is not exactly Low Budget Review friendly, but it is a good treat if you feel like parting with a few bucks.

Now  if you wish to play into the marketeer’s hands, you can go to the website at the link above and get the story of Tobias.  They try to sell this on the bottle as well. I must hand it to them, they are very stable in their approach to branding.  They will try to tell you that this vodka is from a srping on a farm in Western Canada.  Again, good stroy, but one anyone of us with half of a brain can come up with.  Don’t buy it, just judge Frozen Ghost Vodka for yourself based upon its drinkablelity, and maybe its potnetial for you to get lucky on St. Valentine’s Day.

After much deliberating, and finally finding the bottom of the bottle (a must for us reviewers), I give Frozen Ghost Vodka a 7 on a scale of 10 overall. It scores about a 6 on being drinkable, but the price point enters into the formula to raise its rating slightly.  Go out and try for yourself, and check back here often for more vodka reviews.

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Cold, Cold USA

On February 2, 2011, in Travel, by admin

With the cold snap that has invaded the entire country hanging on for several days, we thought we would post a pic of warmer times, only with a twist.  This is the airport at St, Maarten, where 747 nearly give beachgoers a haircut. Very cool.

In coming!

Now that you have that, enjoy the beach pic and hope for warmer times to return soon.  I personally believe Central America or some other destination around the equator is preferable.  I just cannot seem to find the funds to do this.  Peace and warmth

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