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low budget review

Installment 3 of Big 12 Tourney

On March 11, 2011, in Low Budget Review, by admin

How will YOU catch the Lady Bear v. KSU game at noon this Friday?

by Karen Schexnider Tracy on Thursday, March 10, 2011 at 10:10pm


This is a gratuitous note:  a public service announcement if you will.  I understand that not every Lady Bear fan can take a week off of work to attend the Big 12 tournament and cheer on our favorite team.  Let me tell you the many ways that you can enjoy the game at NOON tomorrow:


1.   If you have an i-phone, download the free ESPN app, add NCAAW as one of your sports and the Big 12 as your conference, Baylor as your team.  You will see an icon with the game.  Push that icon and then go to the “gamecast” button and you will get a live feed of play by play.  This is the most discreet way to track a game and I have used it with great success during weddings, funerals, and court appearances.  I only wish that this technology would have existed when Jordan was in school and I “got to” go to all of those school programs and awards ceremonies.


2.  Noon is your God-given, and Fair Labor Standards Act protected time for a lunch break.  If you don’t have time to get home, then have lunch as BWW, or BJ’s brewhouse, or Hooters, or Fox and the Hound.  Get those chick-ball hating establishments to turn on the game.  If they say they can’t find it, then tell them that is is on FOX SPORTS SOUTHWEST.


3.  If you can’t get to a TV and you don’t have an iPhone, then go to

http://www.baylorbears.com/sports/w-baskbl/spec-rel/031011aaa.html and click on the link to listen to the game over the internet.  It is free.



Sorry the photo is of a prior year tournament. It is all that I have handy at the moment.  SIC EM BEARS!!



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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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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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Editors Note:  We continue with our Low Budget Review Guy who not only travels Texas, but apparently stays smashed on rum.  Check his great review, and he keeps it everything Texas

My newest entry in the ever-continuing search for the best rums brings to the bar a Texas-made product, Railean Rum.  I always like trying “Made In Texas” products, supports local economies, and business people.  Foods have been by and large a very positive experience, BBQ and BBQ  sauces, salsa’s, etc.  However, historically Texas made alcohol products have been an uneven result at best.  Some Texas wines are very good.  Texas booze, however, has had largely poor results for my taste-buds.  Probably because it is a new industry here, and learning to make good products takes time and patience.  That brings me to Railean Rum.  Owned by one of the few women in the business, Kelli Railean has a passion for good rums.  She founded Railean Distillers in San Leon, Tx on Galveston Bay.  She describes San Leon as, “A small drinking community with a large fishing problem.”  Sounds like my kinda place….their website advises they use Gulf Coast Sugar Cane Molasses.

Railean Rum. Very Cool

They offer three rums, Texas White, Reserve XO, and Small Cask Reserve.  My review is on the Reserve XO.  The Small Cask Reserve is produced from single barrels, which is rare.  The XO is blended as most rums are.  First, the bottle.  It  features the Railean mascot, a brightly-feathered Monk Parrot.  Evidently there is a large colony of these birds in San Leon and they have been adopted as the company logo.  (Do they get a cut?) The label is easy to read, well designed, and allows the  golden amber color of the rum to entice potential buyers.  Indeed, it was the rum’s color that caught my eye, and then the parrot on the label.  I picked up the bottle, read the label, and they had a customer.  Well done.  The label does state this is an ultra premium rum.  I am unsure what that really means, but in most establishments , that means a higher price.

Upon opening the cork top ( a good sign), I could smell the warm molasses based alcohol softly calling.  The amber color pours gently into the glass like a slow hill country rain.  The first sip was quite smooth, no harsh bite, with some chocolate and light pecan aftertaste.  It “finishes” very well, the oak barrels giving it a very smooth ride.  This rum makes you think of just sitting and watching the sun go down or hearing the tide come in.  It is an OK rum for sipping, I prefer the darker rums for that, but it mixes very well with coke or cherry coke zero.  Mixed with fruit drinks it blends well.

Overall grade:  I give this rum an “A”.  For about $18 a bottle, this is a good value and a good product.  I will buy this rum again and recommend it to friends looking to get something different than the large commercial distillers.   At this time, I am placing this rum in my ever-changing top-5.   I look forward to trying the Small Cask Preserve in the future.

My top 5:

So many Choices, So Little Time for Over Indulgence


Plantation Grande Preserve (Barbados)

Old Monk

Mount Gay Extra Old

Railean Reserve XO

Just dropped: Flor De Cano 12 yr

The Quest Continues….

The Rum Guy

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Editors Note:  This BBQ  joint is one of the ‘famous Texas’ BBQ joints.  I have never been, but apparantly Low Budget Review Guys stopped in recently.  Read on:

A recent trip through central Texas brought us lunch-time pangs and a billboard advertizing a BBQ place I haven’t tried….seemed like a natural magnet drawing me to exit 294 and Central Ave in Belton, to Schoepf’s BBQ.  Just a few blocks off I-35, while looking vainly for the sign announcing the establishment, I noticed a low-slung ramshackle stone building with a crowd lined up outside. Could this be it?  Lowering the window, the heavenly smoke of meat in a BBQ pit wafted to me—this has gotta be it.  Pulling into the large parking area just past an auto parts store, the sign was barely visible leaning against the front of the building.  This family owned business has been serving for 16 years.  Ronnie and Staci Schoepf bought the business from Ronnie’s parents in 2007.  Everyone in the family has worked there at one time or another.   Evidently, they had some flood damage but at the time of our visit, the restaurant was fully open and jammed with customers.  Parking in the back we walked past several outdoor BBQ Pits being manned by several employees, keeping the wood going and turning the delicious smoking and roasting meats.  Behind the restaurant is a large wooded area with numerous picnic tables and a stage for warm-weather concerts and performances.  Love that live-music option.

Another Famous Texas BBQ Schoefs, Belton, Texas

Finally making our way inside, we got a chance to see the many offerings.  Brisket, ribs, steaks, pork chops, sausage, chicken, turkey, pork.  These had been transferred from the outside smokers to inside smokers, what they call a serving pit, to keep warm for serving.  A great idea!  Like many BBQ places, there was a long serving line where you placed your meat order.  Watching the servers slice the meat fresh in front of you was like watching artists at work.  They were quick, decisive with no wasted motion.  With the BBQ meat piled on our plastic tray, we proceed into another room where the varied sides were offered. In addition to the usual tater salad, coleslaw and beans, were green beans, baked potatoes, “cheesy potatoes” (like au gratin) and bags of chips.  Along with the obligatory bread loafs were homemade rolls, jalapeno and regular corn bread.  Pickles and Onions offered as well.  (in Texas, I think the law requires pickles and onions)  Deserts offered were homemade pies and several fruit cobblers.

The inside décor was “Texas BBQ joint standard”  There was wood paneling on the walls, wood picnic tables, some Formica tables, with a stand-along drink stand for tea and soda.  Various pictures and stuffed creatures lines the walls.  There was a separate “Event Room” for larger groups that was well done.

For this visit, we tried the two-meat sampler, brisket and sausage, with several sides.  The sauce came served on the side.  The brisket, while very tender and moist, had no smoke ring and no char, with little smoke flavor, making it appear as if it had been roasted on the fire instead of slow smoked.  The sausage came in four options, regular, a little spicy, spicy, and venison.  Unusual, and pleasing.  We elected for the lightly spicy version and were very pleased from the first bite.  The sausage was moist without being overly fatty and sopping with juice.  It was tender with just the perfect blend of seasoning.  It was the best BBQ sausage we had tasted in several years.  The BBQ sauce was warm and molasses/ketchup based with just a perfect blend of spices.  The potato salad was good, chunky, with just enough mustard to make it interesting.  The coleslaw was fresh, with perhaps a little too much mayo, but that may have been because they were adding mayo to the pan as we walked up.  The beans were good, slow cooked and tender.  We were too full to try the desert, but did pick up a bag of their own home-made beef jerky as a present for a family member.

Overall, I give Schoepf’s an “A-“ (A-minus).  The food was fresh, the service quick and very friendly.  The brisket, while tasty, loses some points for the lack of smoke ring and char that I expect from slow-smoked BBQ.  The sausage gets big points.  The multitude and flavor of the sides very good,   The sweet tea was good, and that is always an issue with me.   We will be back to try some of their other offerings.

The BBQ road goes ever onward!

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Once again, Low Budget Review Guy is out and about in Texas

On a recent business trip my spouse and I headed to east Texas, the city of Nacogdoches.  Having never been there before I was looking forward to this visit.  A beautiful day greeted us as we headed out HWY 79 to Centerville where I-45 crosses it path.  We were not headed towards Dallasnor Galveston this trip but picked up Hwy 7 through the Davy Crocket Natl Forest.  As we headed continuously east, the changing soils became apparent with the appearance of towering pines trees mixed in with the stately Oaks, and Sycamores lining the road.  The National Forest’s myriadhiking trails and lakes beckoned but must wait for another time, perhaps on the way home.  Through the hilly town of Crocket, and finally, after just under 4 hours we arrived in Nacogdoches.   This city of 29,000+ is a hub for east Texas.  It bills itself as “the Oldest City in Texas”.    Archeological evidence seems to indicate human presence older than 9000 years.   The Spanish were in Nacogdoches before 1542 when DeSoto explored the area. However,  descriptions of the town date from Frenchman LaSalle  in 1685.  DeLeon, in 1690, made an effort to colonize.  When the French mapped out El Camino Real from the Rio Grande to Nacogdoches in 1713 and 1716, the Spanish decided to set up settlements in the area.   Don Antonio Gil Y’Barbo built the Old Stone House in 1779, and laid out what would become the city streets.  It became a center for timber, cotton, and later oil.  In 1861 the first oil well in Texas was here.

The city was a hotbed of Texas Independence and hosted such famous luminaries as Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Thomas Rusk, William Travis.  The New Orleans Grays stopped on their way to the Alamo and legend.  The city actually had 9 different flags hoisted overhead at one time or another: France, Spain, Mexico, the Magee-Gutierrez Republic, The Long Republic, The FredoniaRepublic, The Lone Star, The Stars-and Bars of the Confederacy, and The US Flag.

Entering the city, we headed for our night’s lodging, to check in before exploring.  Our stay this visit was at the beautiful Fredonia Hotel, built in 1955.  The lobby was spacious and inviting, the light coming through the windows accented the grand piano in the corner.  Our corner room was very comfortable and relaxing.  The sports bar, at the opposite end of the lobby from the wine bar,  was a perfect place to either root on your favorite team, or enjoy a quiet glass of wine with friends.  The restaurant, J McKinneys, is well known as a delicious place for meals with an enticing menu for all tastes.  They advertize the best breakfast in town.  Just steps from the lobby, the pool area was surrounded by trees with a patio for outside relaxing.  A wide variety of live music is frequently heard on the patio, lit by Tiki torches and soft lighting.

But now it was time to explore lunch.  Always interested in BBQ, we got recommendations for several places, but settled on The Barbecue House.  (see my earlier posting for that separate review)  After lunch, we headed to the campus of Stephen F Austin University.  The beautiful campus of approx 12,000 students, was well-laid out, with lots of huge trees framing the buildings in green.  A visit to the recreated Old Stone Fort museum was worth the short time spent.  From there, it was out about 20+ miles on Hwy 21 to Caddo Mounds State Historical Site.  This site, while perhaps not appearing to be much more than some small distinct grassy hills, was fascinating once we learned the history behind the mounds from the visitors center.  The mounds all had different functions and were well over 1000 years old.  Some were burial mounds, others ceremonial mounds.  The area had been abandoned by the time “civilization” found them.  After a brisk walk around the area, we noticed the weather was turning colder, it was January after all.  Heading back the warmth of The Fredonia Hotel, we relaxed before our business meeting.

The next morning brought winter to Texas.  It was cold, raining, dark.  The forecast called for ice and snow later in the day.  Given the conditions, we packed the car and headed out.  Home-bound? Well, not yet. We still had things to see in town.  We drove around the historic city cemetery, whose oldest grave dates to 1837. We drove around the downtown square, with numerous historical markers.  We promised ourselves next visit we would take a walking tour of the area.  Many beautiful old homes lines the city streets, quiet for now, being early Sunday morning and the city hunkering down for the oncoming storm.  We drove to the Sterne-Hoya house, still closed, but felt history’s pull from the outside.  Also saw several ancient Caddo Mounds that were in the city proper, and drove past the Zion Hill Baptist Church, built approx 1879 and a state historic site.  Impressive.

However, time and Texas Winter storms wait for no one, so we headed west towards home.  The Davy Crocket Natl Forest would also have to wait for another day.  We stopped in Crockett for a break and some maintenance on our car tires, and stopped in Centerville, when I couldn’t resist “Country Cousins BBQ” (see earlier review).

Overall—a very nice first visit. Cool small town vibe, energetic but not hurried, with very friendly people.  The hotel was fabulous and we are looking forward to a schedule return trip in April.

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Low Budget Review Guy Eats BBQ?

On December 9, 2010, in Low Budget Review, by admin

Now here is a new one from the Low Budget Review Guy.  Many of you know on this web site that our LBR guy is an expert on travel reviews, rums of the worlds or regions, and a few other low cost items. But here, he offers us a review of the Texas Best BBQ….a link that I had embarked on earlier in my drives back from Central to North Texas. This review comes from his Low Budget Review on his trip to historic Texas.  All you Russians and Polish folk spamming this site, read carefully, you may learn something.  With out further ado, the Low Budget Review Guy on Texas Best BBQ

This lunch review took place last month in Cuero,Tx.  We were just passing through and stopped for a late lunch.  I love trying new places to eat, from the occasional high-dollar, to the dives, to the mom-and-pops’ places, especially BBQ.  Some of you may know that I have a few things in my life that I obsess over. Rum, football, and BBQ are three of my top 5. The other two are best discussed around a fire after a football game, eating BBQ and with a Rum-and-Something in my hand….While passing through Cuero on the main street of town, next to the railroad tracks was, “Barbecue Station”.  The building it was housed it looked as if it was 100 years old, and may have been.  The Texas memorabilia and bric-a-brac on the steps as we climbed them was not necessarily encouraging.  Some places use ambiance as the main course instead of the food.  The restaurant was bigger on the inside than it appeared.  It had long wood fence railings directing the incoming traffic to the ordering/serving line.  The menu was encouraging, written on some grease board were the daily specials and a brief non-nonsense description of the sandwiches, and plates.  Like many BBQ places you could order separately or order a two or three-meat plate that came with two sides and bread. My companion ordered the pulled pork sandwich (which is relatively unusual in beef-oriented Texas) and I ordered the 2-meat plate.  They offered a number of sides, including a rarity in BBQ spots, real baked potatoes.  However, as a somewhat traditionalist (more on that later) I asked for Potato Salad and Coleslaw.  My spouse ordered the beans.  I was offered (free) pickles and onions (yes to the pickles, no to the onions) and then was asked about BBQ sauce. (Ed Note: Good choice for this one on skipping the onions, if you know what I mean)

Now at this point I am going to digress a bit, and discuss one of my pet peeves about BBQ and some BBQ enthusiasts.    Over the many years I have lived in Texas, I have run across what I consider “BBQ Snobs”.  These folks are of the strictly “No BBQ Sauce” allowed cultists.  While I understand that the smoking of the meat, so the brisket is juicy, yet has that beautiful red smoke ring on the outside, with the crunchy char edges is damn near heaven on earth.  I understand that some folks think people should ” eat the meat, not the sauce”, and I applaud your choice, if that’s what you want to do.  Me? I like sauce, lots of it. All different kinds, from the Carolina-style vinager based, to the more tomato/molasses based.  But it ticks me off, when BBQ places/people state, “No sauce here—don’t even ask”.  I will generally not do business with them more than once.  Give me a choice.  And that’s what I applaud Barbecue Station for.  They asked, “you want sauce or not?” Imagines, actually asking the customer what he wants!  That way, both sides of the sauce/no sauce argument can get what they want.

Now I am off my small soapbox, back to the sides.  The brisket was tender but firm, great texture and flavor. Not the most tender I have ever found but very good.  The sausage had an interesting spice added that kept us guessing.  Good, but not great.  The pulled pork overflowed the warm bun and was covered with a vinegar-based sauce that was flavorful and very tender.  The mustard potato salad was fresh, crunchy, delicious.  The coleslaw was vinegar-based, and a little too stout for me. Not their strong suit.  The beans were wonderful, full of flavor (and sauce!), cooked just right.  Add a couple of slices of white bread right out of the bakery loaf, home-made Texas Sweet Tea, and friends, you’ve got some good eatin’.  Hard to get much more traditional Texas than that.

And that brings up another thought.  Like most people (Certainly Texans), I order iced tea just about every time I am out to eat. But as my spouse put it so accurately, the best sweet tea in the world is found in Texas BBQ places.  I don’t know why or how, but it is true.  If you set out 10 glasses of sweet tea, with 5 from BBQ joints and 5 from restaurants up and down the spectrum, I bet I could name 4 of the 5 from the BBQ places.  And those would be the ones I would drink.  They do it well, people.  No brag, just fact.

In summary,  Barbecue Station gets a very good grade—an A.    I would go back again next time we are in the area, and try some of their other sides.

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To pick up where we left off, from Blue Diamond it was back to the hotel to cash in my few winning sportsbook bets, take a nap, then  head out to one of the best things to do in Vegas—cocktails at the top of The Stratosphere Hotel.  This towering structure at almost 1200 feet is not only one of my favorite places to stay in Vegas, great for the budget traveler, good clean rooms, $5 table games, good restaurants, but the tower itself has many attractions.  One of the best is also the cheapest. WE refer to this hotel as the Motel 6 of Las Vegas. Cheap, functional, clean, no frills. A good stay. While you can buy tickets to go to the 109th floor (scarily high) for the thrill rides (no thanks) you can ride up to the 107th floor lounge for free. While cocktails are approx $12-$13 apiece, at least there you are paying for the atmosphere.  The lounge looks down onto the restaurant a floor below. The restaurant rotates, the lounge does not-so it’s great for people watching.  The best time is to get there about 30-45 min before dusk.  Have a drink, chat with friends and watch the sun set over the mountains to the west, and watch the incredible lights of Las Vegas appear.  We tried a couple of appetizers and were very impressed. There are usually some happy hour specials.

From there we drove downtown to the Golden Nugget.  Dinner was at our favorite steak restaurant, Vic and Anthony’s.  This was our top-dollar meal for this trip and worth every penny.  Have been there a number of times and never disappointed. The wait staff is very attentive and the best, most tender steak I have ever had.  The sides are extra, but the marinated mushrooms were spectacular, even for non-fans.  Dinner there is truly a special experience and is highly recommended.

After dinner, we hit the slots and waited for the Fremont Street Experience, the dazzling overhead light/sound show that takes up several blocks downtown and shows several times a nite. Each show focuses on different bands, from Kiss, to The Doors, to the Rat Pack.  The people watching is primo.  They usually have several live bands, street musicians and performers, vendors, and everything in between. Cheap drinks and good cigars can be had in a number of directions.   Although we didn’t get to it this trip, a very cool biker bar, Hogs and Heifer’s is just a block away. Here the girls dance, uh, sometimes, fall off the bar.  Very entertaining.

The next day, we hit another new favoirite for a late breakfast/early lunch:  Hash House a Go-Go.  I ahd seen them on the Travel Channel and we stopped last year and loved it, so this year we had to take the spouses to enjoy, “Twisted Farm Food” is their sound bite,—and twisted it is.  My favorite—Chicken and Waffles.  Two large pieces of tender golden fried chickennestling on two huge buttermilk waffles with applewood bacon cooked into the waffles.  I can eat, but I couldn’t even get halfway through.  The prices are not cheap, but the portions are unbelievably large.  There can be a wait at either location, west of the strip on Sahara, or on the Strip at the Imperial Palace, but the wait will be worth it.  If you are into  delicious large breakfast/brunch, this place cannot be beat.  I wish I had a franchise. A new location has now opened in the M Resort, on the far south side of Las Vegas.

After we waddled to the car we drove up to Mt Charleston, approx 45 min away.  This refuge from the desert terrain is seen by very few Vegas tourists and they are missing a treat.  The road steadily climbs from the valley to well over 9,000 feet to a mountain lodge where native Americans sell handcrafted jewelry and pottery.  Cactus and desert scrub gives way to bushes and then pine trees.  On this visit we were granted a special sight.  The stands of Aspen trees in the draws and creek beds had changed to their brilliant golden hue.  We took a hike up a stream bed and took many pictures of the beautiful scenery.  There was even a picture of some strange squirrel-type creature hanging from a tree.  The temperatures at that altitude were 20-30 degrees cooler than the valley.  Looking at a number of incredible mountain homes in the area, we stopped by several that were for sale and checked the prices.  Might be a little high for a second home, but gorgeous just the same.  From there we coasted downhill 14 miles, in neutral, back to Hwy 95 and headed back to Vegas.

On the way back from Mt Charleston we stopped at the famous Pawn Shop from TV’s “Pawn Stars”.  It is on the Strip almost to downtown.  There was a line waiting to get in—to a pawn shop—are you kidding me?  They had security at the door, security directing traffic.  After about a 15 min wait we walked in. Although they had a few interesting items (Antique Slot machine anybody?  A $20,000 portrait of Jim Morrison?). They seemed more interested in selling “Pawn Stars” t-shirts and coffee mugs.  They did have some of the items that were seen on episodes of the show, which we love. The civil-war style mortar (that they actually shot a bowling ball out of during one classic episode) and the Top-Secret WW II map of the invasion beaches at Iwo Jima were two of the best that were on display.   We were glad we went, but don’t necessarily have to go back.

The rest of that day was spent playing some blackjack and roulette and getting my tail handed to me at the slot machines.  Still full from our huge breakfast at Hash House, for our last night’s dinner in Vegas we elected to hit Del Taco, a fast-food chain based out of California for a late dinner. Good taco’s , with fresh Cilantro, and cheap prices were just the ticket.

All in all, another great Vegas Vacation with great friends, great food, great fun.  Vegas appears to have rebounded nicely from the previous year or so.  The crowds were up, prices were up,  hotels were booked, restaurants were busy, traffic was awful. We tried the new (hotel Vdara and Aria Casino), the traditional (Vic and Anthony’s, In-n-out Burger, Pasta Mia) mixed in with new favorites, (Stratosphere Lounge, Hash House a Go-Go, Blue Diamond).  I am looking forward to my next trip back to my favorite American Playland–  Viva Las Vegas!

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Low Budget Review Guy on Las Vegas, Part 1

On October 12, 2010, in Travel, by admin

This was the 4th trip for  me to Vegas in the last 12 months.  I am still not tired of this fascinating city.  This was our annual fall trip we take with great friends Jay and Karen and marked the 7th ( 8th ?)year in a row.   We always stay in different hotels making each year a different experience.

This year we stayed a VDARA, one of the new hotels at City Center, a vast collection of hotels, shops, restaurants packed between Bellagio and Monte Carlo on the strip.  This is a completely non-smoking hotel, which was very much appreciated.  This hotel has only one restaurant, one main bar, (not counting the pool area) and no casino.  It is blissfully peaceful, serene, quiet.  The staff is attentive and responsive.  This is not a hotel for the budget traveler. There is an electric tram that connects it to several resorts.  The rooms are all suites, with a small, but efficient kitchen area, a living room area with couch, several chairs and large flat screen TV.  That area is separated from the bedroom and  bath, by the entertainment center holding the TV.  The king size bed was very comfortable.  The large bathroom had a tub and separate shower area.  The room had numerous electronic gadgets that were mostly wasted on us.   We never did figure how to get the nightstand lights to work.   The view from the huge windows was simply amazing.  We had an unusual north view from our 30th floor room.  We could see the mountains to the west, the Strip to the east and could see the pool area of Bellagio and had a 75% view of the Fountains at Bellagio.  Numerous times we just opened the shades to see the spectacular fountain show.  One night, Jay and Karen brought a bottle of wine and appetizers for happy hour and we set our chairs to look out our windows at the view.  That is the first time in all my 20+ years of Vegas I have ever done that.

The pool area is small, but very pleasant, and graceful.  The hotel is very much a modern-design lover’s place.  The sculptures, the layout, the fixtures, the carpet and flooring, the lighting, are all modern and impressive. The only negative grade VDARA gets is the bar.  Prices in Vegas are high, food and beverages, unnecessarily so.  Cocktails in Vegas start at $10, and go up from there.  Sometimes you can find a happy-hour with half-price or two for one, but at what they charge, the mark-up and profit-margin are huge.  VDARA charged $14 a drink.  For specialty cocktails to the house Chardonnay. Really?  $14 for a house Chardonnay?  Needless to say, one visit was more than enough.

As we arrived late in the morning, after checking in at the hotel, we went to lunch at Diablo’s, one of our new favorite hangouts in Vegas. It is perched right on the street, connected to the Monte Carlo.  This is a two-story open-air establishment with great views for people watching as they stroll up and down the Strip.  While their menu prices are high, you get a lot of food and they have outstanding Mango Margarita’s.  They also had a $5 margarita special going, so what can you do?  Ya gotta take advantage of it….After relaxing that afternoon, Saturday night brought us to our favorite Italian restaurant in Vegas—Pasta Mia.  Located in a strip center a few miles west of the strip past the Palms, this restaurant looks unimpressive from the outside, but a delight inside.  The cozy dining room with its white linen tablecloths, the pictures on the walls, the music on the sound system (Sinatra, Tony Bennett, etc) always makes us feel welcome.  The wait staff is impressive, knowledgeable and attentive.  But the food, well that is what we are there for.  Outstanding.  I had the best Chicken Marsala I have ever tasted.  Jay and Karen love the Gnocchi.  This is worth the trip off the strip. (See other recent posts about this restaurant)

Sunday morning, we walked over to the Bellagio to enjoy their fall decorations.  We then walked over to Paris and their French Bakery for some hot tea and a morning pastry, a pear muffin with walnuts. Delicious.  After playing some slots and getting my football bets down at the sportsbook, we met Jay and Karen for the day’s adventure.  After an early lunch stop at In-and-Out Burger, one of our Vegas traditions, we drove 45 min west to the small town of Pahrump to visit a winery we had seen advertised.  The beautiful buildings and grounds were well maintained.  The winery offered several free tastings as well as a more substantial tasting flight for $5.  We enthusiastically participated.  The wines were very nice and several bottles were purchased.  On the way back, we stopped in the little town of Blue Diamond, a quirky little place with a population of about 350, a library, two nice city parks, one general store, where we always stop and get snacks.  There was a house for sale, that we had seen on an earlier trip and was having an open house, so we stopped and checked it out.  Nice place, built in the 1940’s.  Large, shady, back yard with a pool.  Unfortunately, still had a California/Las Vegas price tag. (Editors Note:  We acknowledge that that prices in CA and LV have fallen dramatically, but this house just did not get it, it is an estate sale and the kids are trying to ring our the estate for every penny they can get….house has been for sale since April.) On the way out we saw 6-7 wild burros that like to hang out in Blue Diamond.  There is a spring in the town, so the animals like the availability of fresh water and greenery.  The burros are generally not shy around tourists and numerous pictures were taken up close and personal.

The rest of the trip will be recounted in Part 2, to be submitted later.

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