Wed September 3, 2014 1:25 pm By Kate Groetzinger

Just when we think we’ve seen every bit of clothing, every knick-knack, every tchotchke that can possibly be splashed in burnt orange and adorned with the Longhorn logo, someone comes up with an original idea to showcase some pride for the University of Texas. Case in point: the “Hook ‘em donut,” a deep-fried dough ball shaped into the famous hook ‘em hand sign before being coated with an orange, sugary glaze.

The pastry is Pisey Seng’s pride and joy. Seng—or Angel, as she prefers to be called—co-owns Donut Tacos Palace, a small bakery tucked away in a strip mall in Southwest Austin. It may not be as palatial as its name suggests, but Donut Tacos Palace has developed a bit of a cult following. Seng moved from Boston, where she worked as a nail technician after immigrating to the United States from Cambodia, to Austin, in 2006. “One day my brother-in-law says come to Texas. They do good on the donut shop,” she said in English, her second, self-taught language. Seng and husband, Marc, took the advice, moved to Austin, and bought a little shop called the Donut Palace within the year. (They later revamped the store and its menu, and re-named it Donut Tacos Palace.)

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Wed August 20, 2014 6:32 pm By Layne Lynch

One could argue 2014 is the year of Texas restaurants. Earlier this year, one Austin chef and three from Houston were deemed finalists for James Beard’s Best Chef Southwest Award. Next, three chefs were named to Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs. And now, Bon Appétit magazine has sent accolades our way.

Two establishments, Thai-Kun Food Truck, in Austin, and Hot Joy, in San Antonio, were named to Bon Appétit’s list of the Top Ten Best New Restaurants in the U.S.

Andrew Knowlton, the magazine’s restaurant editor, described Hot Joy (number seven on the list) this way:

Chef Quealy Watson has never been to Asia. Everything he knows about Chinese, Japanese, Indian, or the rest of that vast region’s cuisine he picked up from cookbooks and the Internet. But who cares anymore? Authenticity and rigid adherence to tradition are overrated. Deliciousness is king. That’s the only way I can explain the wide-ranging, irreverent, and profoundly irresistible menu at Hot Joy.

Thai-Khun (number eight) isn’t a restaurant (rather, it’s a popular food trailer parked at the back of an Austin dive bar), but Knowlton was impressed by the trailer’s mastery of flavors.

To make an evening of it, grab some tall boys at the bar, head out back to the picnic tables, and order everything on the eight-item menu (grand total: $56). Then prepare to have your senses obliterated… Better hurry, though—it’s only a matter of time before Changthong finds his way back to a kitchen without wheels. Till then, you’ve got a compelling reason to believe in the mobile revolution.

For the full list of Bon Appetit’s Top Ten Best New Restaurants in the U.S., click here

Fri August 15, 2014 11:06 am By Patricia Sharpe

Though she has lived in Hawaii for decades now, chef Amy Ferguson was a key figure in the development of the culinary movement known as Southwestern cuisine. 

A style and philosophy of restaurant cooking that emphasized regional Southwestern American and Mexican dishes, combining them in original ways, Southwestern cuisine began in several different states—Texas, New Mexico, and California—in the mid-eighties and in a few years had spread across the country.

Ferguson grew up in Houston and, as a twenty-something, found herself thrust into the spotlight thanks to the popularity of the Southwestern movement. Best known for her work as executive chef at Charley’s 517, a small, clubby Houston restaurant popular with theatergoers, Ferguson found that she was not comfortable with the media attention that she was suddenly receiving as a prominent chef.

She moved from Texas to Hawaii at the height of the Southwestern movement, returning briefly to Dallas to work at Routh Street Cafe and Baby Routh (both Southwestern restaurants) before moving back to Hawaii to pursue a career there. Although she lives on the Big Island, in Hawaii, Ferguson says she’s a still a Texan at heart.

Were you interested in food from an early age, or did that come later?

I grew up in a house that was devoid of “gourmet” food, but I found the “Larousse Gastronomique,” which is a French culinary encyclopedia, when I was eleven and read it from cover to cover. My mother would say, “Why don’t you go out and play?” And I would say, “No, no, Mama, I’m reading this. I’m reading about cooking.” I cooked with my grandmother and always looked over my mother’s shoulder,  but I still had a desire to learn more. My brother had a paper route with the Houston Chronicle. He would bring me home these little international “cookbooks,”  when I was about 9 or 10. They actually were pamphlets of recipes that the Chronicle produced but honest to God they were really good! I would play with those recipes. I faithfully watched Julia Child on TV, and Graham Kerr, too, who was known as the Galloping Gourmet.

How did you get your start in Southwestern-style cooking?

At Charley’s 517 I drew on everything that I experienced as a kid growing up: barbecuing, smoking, preserving, pickles and such. I also was smoking quail and venison and working with wild game. I had area farmers and gardeners bringing herbs to me, so I had a farm-to-table thing going on. It was very cool. For the smoking, we used everything from hickory to grapevine to oak, back in the alley behind Charley’s. I thought of my style as Texas cuisine, although of course it was also Southwestern, because that’s where we were.  

Aside from learning from your grandmother and the Larousse Gastronomique, how else did you explore cooking and food?

I learned a lot from traveling. As an adult, I’d say, “Hey mom, do you want to go down to Mexico for the weekend?” And because we were in Texas, it was easy to go down to Cuernavaca. We’d eat in Cuernavaca and I’d go, “Oh my god this is delicious what’s in this?” and I’d come back home and do some experimenting. I’d head over to Las Cazuelas, which was a popular restaurant in Houston, and see these peasant-y dishes and go, “Wow, what can we do with that?” I’d eat my way through New York and I’d come home and put a Texas twist on different things. That’s how I gathered my inspiration. I absorbed everything around me.

What was it like to belong to the first generation of  celebrity chefs?

I would say it kind of freaked me out. I was so young. My relationship with food is personal. I do it from the heart out of love, and that’s pretty intimate. I felt exposed. Don’t get me wrong, I was lucky to get so much media attention. Gee whiz, I wish I had been a little older. I wish that it could have happened today; I would’ve handled it a little differently.

As a young chef, what was one of your most memorable experiences?

Julia Child came to visit me at Charley’s 517 because she had heard that I was an up-and-coming young woman chef. I must have told her at some point that I was self-taught, because she said, very kindly, “Honey you cannot be self-taught because you don’t know anything.” I said, “All right, then what am I?” She goes, “You’re well read. You experiment, you practice.” I said, “That’s exactly what I do! I practice until I get it right.”

How can women promote themselves in the male-dominated culinary industry?

Women have to speak up for themselves. Women don’t have to stay in the ranks, they don’t have to be pantry cooks, they don’t have to be bakers or pastry chefs. When I hear female culinary students say, “I want to be a baker, I want to be a pastry chef,” I say, “Why? Don’t you like butchering? Don’t you like sauces? How about being a chef that does everything? Why do you want to be a baker?” I ask them that, I push them further. I lay out steps for them so that they can get to where they want to be.

What are you doing now?

I became a private chef for a very large family in Hawaii, so I’ll cook for anywhere from five people to seventy people. I’m not retired from cooking but I have time to travel and to learn new things. Right now I’m working on an idea I have for west Hawaii which would entail a community center educating people about sustainable crops and how that idea relates to their life on an island. I’m active in in the Slow Foods organization, I still travel the globe, and I still learn. I guess I’m a perpetual student, and I give back wherever I can.

Interview by Patricia Sharpe. Q&A prepared by Claire Landsbaum. 

Thu July 24, 2014 11:55 am By Layne Lynch

Most proud Texans are happy to trumpet the benefits of eating local, and this week, with the seventh annual GO TEXAN Restaurant Round-Up that runs until Sunday, July 27, foodies have an excuse to dine out and enjoy homegrown ingredients.

The event, supported by the Texas Department of Agriculture and hosted by Farm Credit, draws nearly 400 restaurants, each of which incorporate local ingredients and ranch meats on their menus.

“When you dine out, make sure the restaurant is GO TEXAN certified and serves fresh food straight from a Texas farm or ranch,” Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples said in a press release. “The GO TEXAN Restaurant Round-Up brings together the best offerings of Texas produce, meats, cheeses, and beverages through the creativity of our local chefs.”

Both upscale and casual restaurants have elected to participate in the affair, including Eleven: XI, a critically-acclaimed Houston restaurant that features an assortment of Gulf Coast dishes and drinks.

“We are damn proud to participate in GO TEXAN Round-Up. From our beverage program, to our food menu, to our non-alcoholic beverages, we source everything we can from our home state,” Joseph Welborn, managing partner at Eleven: XI, said. “Whether it swims in the Gulf, grazes in the Panhandle, grows in the Hill Country, was brewed here in Houston, Dallas or Austin, bottled in Dublin, or stone ground in Waco, if it’s from Texas, we are buying it and supporting it.”

Drew Curren, executive chef of Austin-based restaurants Easy Tiger, 24 Diner, and Arro, has crafted a selection of dishes that include Broken Arrow Ranch-sourced venison sausage (Easy Tiger), a stew prepared with mussels, clams, grilled Gulf shrimp, Texas Gulf amberjack (pictured above), and numerous Texas vegetables and herbs (Arro).

“Partnering with GO TEXAN was a natural fit for 24 Diner since our menu is built on classic dishes that are elevated through the use of local and seasonal produce. One of the things that makes 24 Diner unique is its ingredient sourcing, considering that we use products from more than seventy different Texas farms. 24 Diner and Easy Tiger have both participated in Go Texan in the past, and we were thrilled to sign up Arro this year,” Curren says.

For more information about the GO TEXAN Restaurant Round-Up, a list of participating restaurants, or the opportunity to enter featured giveaways, please visit the GO TEXAN website.  

Thu June 5, 2014 4:03 pm By Patricia Sharpe

A team of notable Dallas chefs will host a locally sourced dinner at the Dallas Farmers Market on Thursday, June 12, at 6:30 p.m., kicking off a fundraising effort for the bipartisan Legislative group known as the Texas House Farm-to-Table Caucus. A menu prepared by Graham Dodds (with Hibiscus), Sharon Hage (SHage Consulting}, Adam West (The Porch), and Mark Wootton (Garden Cafe) will feature dishes such as red snapper ceviche, smoked beef short rib, jalapeño cornbread, and peach and blackberry cobbler. The purpose is to raise money to help educate members of the Texas House of Representatives on issues such as supporting family farms, sustainable farming, and nutritious foods. 

The following morning at 10 a.m. at the Market, local farmers will partake in an open forum discussion with legislators. The market is located at 1010 S. Pearl Expressway in Dallas.

The Caucus was formed in 2012 and is led by Representative Eddie Rodriguez (D-East Austin) and Representative Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham). It is comprised of House members from across the state.

Tickets are $100 per person and can be purchased here.