Texas Take Two

I began and ended the first month of 2016 in Texas.

Partially because of fondness, mainly out of a commitment to travel more (so I can eat more; which should lead to writing more). Here are the foods (many new, some old favorites) that promise many more Texas trips for ashleyraeturner.com.


To start, I met a friend who is simultaneously the worst person but the best at finding really good food to eat. He recommended Sissy’s and told me not to waste my time with anything but the fried chicken to start. Chicken and waffles (dark meat) it had to be then with sweet tea and a side of mac & cheese to share. The brined and pressure fried chicken was at once moist and juicy with the prerequisite crispy exterior. Would have liked a bit more pronounced flavor but sometimes, chicken just needs to be freshly fried chicken. The waffle was sufficiently fluffy and held it’s own against the chicken, butter syrup barrage I put it through.

The mac and cheese was a creamy, cheesy baked pan of great. I found the choice of noodles interesting, but a good call as it held on to the creamy sauce perfectly.A great start to my mini Dallas/Ft. Worth mini adventure.  

That night, back in Forth Worth my friend, her boyfriend and I set out in search of an authentic Mexican taco truck. We’ve all had Torchy’s and other “chain” taco shops but the lure of authentic, straightforward Mexican cuisine took hold that night. After a quick stop to get cash we located a truck so authentic, nothing on the menu or truck was even in English. I will probably never recall the name and will always rely on them to remind me where it was these tacos were everything you could want. I tried barbacoa, carnitas, pork and chicken; all perfectly cooked and not overwhelmed with more than onion and cilantro. Their green and red salsas were spicy enough to require some thought before slathering them over everything in sight.


To really make this a night out we also stopped at the Southern Classic Daiquiri Factory. Under advice I misguidedly took I got both a 12 oz and 32 oz daiquiri. One a “Twerk Sum’n” and one a special listed on a little board on the counter. The vibe inside the shop was festive Friday Night with a packed party room and a line before 10. We took ours to go so they provided little convenient tops so no open container arrests needed to be made. And as blasphemest as it sounds both daiquiris I ordered (one with an extra shot one without) were stronger than all the ones I had when I visited New Orleans.


The next morning, we paid Shipley’s a visit. By far the lightest donuts (doughnuts) I’ve ever had in life I went with a cherry glazed and strawberry glazed. They were unfortunately out of country sausage kolaches, yielding my Shipley’s mission unfinished.  

After some other random errands and my first experience with eyebrow threading (nowhere near as painful as I expected) we headed to Steel City Pops (another recommendation from the worst). The fact that it was warm enough for us to eat popsicles while walking outside should be lost on no one but I was grateful for the opportunity. Micks went with peanut butter covered in chocolate; me, a strawberry lemonade pop. At once super tart and juicy I could see why it’s a favorite. You could literally see the strawberry seeds in the pop, affirming the presence of strawberry puree. A Pop bag is coming home with me next time.  

If you know me (or have just read my previous Texas trip post) you know I can’t enter the Lone Star State without at least one visit to Whataburger. This time would not be the exception.


I should probably be ashamed of this next part, but I have never had bbq in Texas. Not even in college when I visited Austin. None of my trips to Houston. That had to change so off we trekked to Deep Ellum for a night at Pecan Lodge. Initially, we thought the lines would be too crazy and we’d end up turning around but we were at the counter in less than 30 minutes.  

Because it is very hard for me to decided one thing to eat I went with the two meat platter. Brisket was an obvious choice and fried ribs were the perfect wildcard item. Add a side of their mac & cheese and collard greens and I was good to go. I also snagged a Blood & Honey Pale Wheat Ale while waiting for my food, brewed locally in Granbury, TX. Perfect for all the smokey goodness I was about to enjoy.  

The brisket was by far my favorite. SUPER juicy and buttery, it had the right amount of fat and wasn’t covered in distracting sauce. The fried rib was an interesting experience. I did like the nice crunch to the outside, but the ribs weren’t very meaty so you got the feeling that most of the rib you would enjoy, got fried up. Would love this technique employed on meatier ribs. The mac & cheese was good, far better than most I’ve tried at bbq joints. The bacon was a nice touch but baking them would have raised it up a notch. The collard greens, however, were not good. They were super sweet as if a pound of sugar was introduced while they simmered. Nice tenderness and it had bacon, but I could not get over the sweet juice leaving it all on my platter in the end.


Brunch was the next day, at Brewed Forth Worth. After waiting ages we were seated near the bar. I started with a poinsettia which is a pomegranate juice version of the mimosa. Loved it since it wasn’t 85% juice.

I was quite excited for the scotch eggs I ordered as I’ve wanted to try this dish in general for a while. Overall a fabulous dish that was super filling. I wished the eggs were a little softer in the middle but I’m sure that’s just part of the process in making sure the sausage exterior is fully cooked. The aioli was really good, I only wished there was more of it and the arugula was a nice contrast as well.

The serrano grits I ordered as a side weren’t as impressive. Don’t get me wrong they were a great consistency, smooth and creamy, but since I was in the South I expected good grits. These did not have the flavor punch I was expecting from serrano peppers. My bowl barely had any, my friend had a bit more. Could be improved with some sort of spicy cheese as well. Micks ordered the chicken & waffles with a side of grits. She loved her waffle, was less impressed with the chicken as it didn’t have much flavor.


After a harrowing day that included my flight getting cancelled and talking to various people on the phone to end up paying $380 to return to Omaha before a blizzard that never appeared, I stopped at Green Door Public House before heading to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. I got an Irish Mule featuring my favorite whisky, Jameson, and a baked avocado (a whole avocado halved and stuffed with goat cheese, bread crumbs, bacon, pico de gallo and topped with balsamic reduction.  

The mule was delicious as expected. I really liked the avocado in concept. The balsamic reduction was just such a contrast to the pico that it ended up being weird, especially against the slight tang of the goat cheese. I think I’d really enjoy it without the drizzle, substituting a hot sauce in instead.


I always enjoy getting away to Texas and with my mother and NaNa potentially moving there within the year there will be more tasty trips to come. A few on my list for next time: Rudy’s, a Shipley’s kolache, Whiskey Cake and a return to Austin finally.

You probably won’t turn green with Burrito Envy

A change happened shortly before Christmas in Benson. Baxter’s Pizza closed its doors and a new kid took over the small space by Infusion Brewing. Burrito Envy & Tequila Bar specializes in just that. Assorted burrito and taco options alongside tequila based cocktails and tequila variations.


Being the #TacoTuesday obsessive I am, I was quite excited about BE initially. My first visit was quite promising, the staff was much nicer than Baxter’s and food came out quickly. I tried the Mediterran Burrito Bowl (mediterranean chicken with rice, beans, lettuce, olives, tomatoes, feta cheese & tzatziki sauce) which was quite good. The olives made it a little salty but the tzatziki was perfect and the chicken had a nice flavor.

Next was the veracruzana (agave nectar, lime, tequila & pineapple) or quite possibly the best tequila based cocktail I’ve ever tasted. The agave nectar made this mucho refreshing and the pineapples are there just long enough to soak up some of the goodness. The presentation was a little confusing but it is still my go-to drink recommendation for this place.

Next visit was a to-go order. I went with the namesake Envy burrito with carnitas, beans, rice, lettuce, cotija cheese & sour cream (cucumber pico on the side). After the burrito bowl I was excited about this burrito and to try out a new pico — sadness met me instead. There were hardly any carnitas in this burrito. Bite after bite came back with just rice or beans. In theory, the cucumber pico is good, but really it comes across as both refreshing and bland — no real flavor profile can be found.


On my last visit for this review, I went for light snacks. I ordered the chips and queso which came out in a nice sized metal bowl. I didn’t much care for the chips they serve at BE, something about the flavor is off. The queso itself was pretty good. A good consistency and you can tell it was real cheese. There wasn’t much spice or kick to it which is something I prefer in queso. Would be a good addition to one of their burrito bowls.

I also tried a quesadilla with sour cream. The tortilla was really good and it’s pretty hard to mess up a quesadilla so five stars there.

I also tried a strawberry margarita. A far cry from the veracruzana, this marg was very syrupy-sweet. It reminded me of Don & Millie’s margaritas only D&M’s is stronger and $5 cheaper.

I’d like to see Burrito Envy get better with time. It’s in a prime location and adds something nice to the Benson corridor. They’ve added different specials like their #TacoTuesday three tacos and a Tecate for $8. Maybe soon they’ll have something other burrito shops in town can be envious about.

A Texas New Year

Last year I made a vow to myself – never spend another New Year’s in Omaha. While I’m not among the “Omaha is the worst” crowd I just couldn’t handle it anymore. NYE is the one holiday I actually celebrate. Whether it’s the starting fresh and making improvements aspect or just the drinking, New Year’s is on the top of my Top Five.

So when a friend absent-mindedly asked if I’d like to go to Houston I said yes before even thinking about the logistics. I knew I had the whole week off from work so that was all that really mattered. After a bit of time and a few group chats the plans were finalized. We’d leave on a Tuesday night, staying in Dallas for one day then driving the few hours to Houston on New Year’s Eve. With two bags packed and flask in hand I was ready to eat all the things I’d missed the last time I was in Texas.

True to form, my hunger couldn’t be contained and Whataburger happened before I even crossed Texas state lines. I don’t care what you say – I will always be here for a honey butter chicken biscuit or spicy ketchup on fries (I hate ketchup). The only In-N-Outs we acknowledge are located in California.


I’m so dedicated I dragged everyone to an H-E-B to buy spicy ketchup and honey butter to take home.


Our time in Dallas was short so we ended up only having dinner and breakfast. The trip’s organizer had only one food request: that we stop at The Boiling Crab that night. So after the almost mandatory two-hour wait I sat down looking to be impressed.

The atmosphere is very casual at BC. Large tables covered in paper, no real plates or silverware and everyone gets a plastic bib for protection. They were out of blue crab by the time we were seated (shakes fists) so I went with a pound of shrimp: medium, the whole she-bang (rajun cajun, lemon pepper and garlic spread) with half a pound of sausage and cajun fries. Unless you order one of the fried meals your food comes out to you in a giant plastic bag (again no frills).


The shrimps were huge and whole so not for the squeamish types who don’t like the heads on things. Was a little disappointed that the seasoning wasn’t spicy – they must reserve the really good spice for their fries which were great. The meal was still really tasty and fun to eat.


Before heading to Houston we stopped at The Original Pancake House a much nicer version of iHop, Village Inn, etc. After a little bit of a wait we sat down and ordered, having already read through the menu in the front. I got a bacon waffle, homemade sausage patty, scrambled eggs with cheese and some of my friend’s hashbrowns.


The worst dish had to be the eggs which were a little rubbery. I really enjoyed the spice in the sausage and the hashbrowns were the perfect mix of crispy and soft. The bacon waffle was also a treat. The bacon pieces were good-sized and still crispy, giving the whole thing a sort of chewy texture. It came off a little salty so I would ease up on the butter. Worth a try for anyone liking new twists on old favorites.

We headed to Houston and after a night of NYE shenanigans woke up hungry. While waiting for a missing party and the car my friend and I had brunch at the hotel bar. Despite the mimosas being $12 dollars (the bartender did make the second one STRONG, probably because she knew we didn’t know how much they were) they had a pineapple juice option so I was sated. I went with the chicken and waffle sliders which were good-sized. The chicken itself was really tasty and the coleslaw that came on it had a honey dressing which helped tie the dish together. Because the waffles were slider sized they ended up being just a bit dry but not to bad when you dipped it in syrup.


Next we went to Boudreaux’s Cajun Kitchen and yes I ordered food within 30 minutes of eating brunch because I’m a food monster. It was happy hour so I got a Cajun Twist for $6 which is a mix of their hurricane and ragin rita’. This drink was big and strong and frozen happiness in a glass.


I also ordered their boudin balls which came with fries and a honey creole remoulade. I am in love with boudin so I jump on any chance I get to eat some. Again, Boudreaux’s didn’t skimp on size with this perfectly cooked appetizer. I wasn’t a huge fan of the remoulade, the honey just made it a bit too sweet for this savory item.


Later that night (well technically the next morning) we made a stop at Dreams so I had to get an order of wings and fries. Traditional thinking would have you believe you shouldn’t order food at a strip club. Well they are wrong. They don’t want you to get some of the best wings you’ll ever eat. Dreams wings are major 🔑🔑🔑.


On our last full day in Houston my friend and I met her dean for lunch. We drove to City Centre to try out Yardhouse. Their patio was heated and covered so we were seated there with little protest, despite it being a chilly, rainy mess outside. We split an order of duck fat potatoes which I was expecting to lean more towards fries. The dish was mainly chips with a few chunks of fried potato. The caramelized onion bacon dip was a good complement although the bacon was a bit sparse.


To drink I got a sparkling blood orange with ketel one orange vodka, monin blood orange, orange juice, orange bitters and zardetto prosecco. Basically a mimosa on steroids it surprisingly didn’t taste overwhelmingly orange-y.


I went big as it was my last big meal in Texas, choosing the surf & turf burger. Lobster, grilled asparagus, arugula, tomato bearnaise and a substitution of swiss for their house truffle cheese all atop a medium well burger. After a smear of garlic aioli I requested on the side this treat was ready for consumption. It felt so over the top because it was so rich – I’m sure my cholesterol is still paying for this day.


In theory the addition of the asparagus is a sound choice but the grilled execution just didn’t cut it. It was hard to take a bite and just get a little asparagus – the whole spear had to come along. The fries were thin and crispy, just how fries should be. Possibly the best fries I’ve ever had and the chipotle mayo I ordered on the side gave them a nice kick.



After four days it was time to head back to Nebraska, but you an’t leave anywhere that has a Waffle House and not get Waffle House. Although this location didn’t check off all of my “this will be the best WH food” boxes (really it just needs to look suspect or have cooks who look like they probably might could kill you) the food got the job done. Waffle House is simple and offers you good food for so cheap you just wonder how it works. There’s a pseudo campaign to bring one to Omaha and Dear Lawd I hope it happens so I can get grits I didn’t have to make myself and smothered & covered hashbrowns.


While there were a few spots on my list that I didn’t get to make (mainly Frenchy’s, Torchy’s, Velvet Taco and Shipley’s) I will definitely be back. Some of those checks will be marked later this month when I go to Dallas for more than a day, but I’m leaving the rest to add to the many reasons I will be back to Houston asap.

Mantra: a review

If you’ve ever driven down Maple, past 72nd towards Historic Benson — you’ve seen Mantra Bar & Grille (6913 Maple Street). A small space that ordinarily would get overlooked, its neon trees catch your eyes no matter how focused on the road you are. With its modge-podge parking spots (pro-tip: always aim for the garage doors facing Maple first), intimate patio area and open bar next to the interior dining space Mantra nails the hole-in-the-wall  vibe without crossing over into divey.


Larger parties get the privilege of being the center piece in Mantra, flanked by smaller groups along the back wall and patio entryway. Food comes out quickly for the most part and Mantra has a good selection of cocktails, wines, beers and other libations to take your mind off of how hungry you may be. Their bottomless mimosa special is standard fare (pro tip two: ask them  to add pineapple) jazzed up by the promo “penny a piece mimosas after purchase of two”.


My first Mantra visit was for a birthday dinner. As we waited for everyone in the party to arrive the bartender let us order a drink while we waited. I started with a peach julep because it was one of the few bourbon based specialty cocktails. Ended up being just a little too sweet for me.


Someone at the table ordered spinach artichoke dip to share. Creamy deliciousness in a good sized ramekin that wasn’t overpowered by any one ingredient. It came with both pita crackers and crusty french bread. The french bread was definitely the better choice for this appetizer.


I decided on the seafood enchiladas, which I knew could be risky. The scallops were definitely fresh and the cumin cream sauce would be good on quite a few things. The filling did come across very bland, the strongest flavors came from the cream sauce and beans (which weren’t choke full of it either).


I also tried the black and blue Manhattan that night. A much stronger drink choice than the julep, the blackberry jam didn’t make the Manhattan too syrupy sweet.


My next visit to Mantra was for brunch. We started with the obligatory mimosa which had a good ratio of booze to juice.


Although I’m not a huge crepe fan I tried their special that day — a crepe with chorizo and jalapeno hollandaise. The crepe was fabulously done and there was enough filling to give it real substance. The hollandiase wasn’t too spicy and the side of potatoes were just crispy enough. The English muffins were the best I’ve had at a restaurant in a while.


If you find yourself driving down Maple and have a few hours to spend Mantra is definitely worth a visit. While their menu isn’t huge, they take the time to get many things right. And who doesn’t want to eat dinner by neon tree light.



Hello holidays: Spicy cranberry meatballs

Yes, it’s that time of year again. Yet another work potluck, Ugly Christmas Sweater Party or shin-dig that you need to make something for. If you’re anything like me you either prepare something fancy because of proper planning or…. you forget all about the party until the day before. These meatballs are perfect for the last scenario. Only seven ingredients, all of which you could buy, and thirty minutes until you’re the owner of everyone’s favorite appetizer at the party. Read on to see how these meatballs come together.

To start, combine the chili sauce, brown sugar, cranberry sauce, chili powder, cumin and cayenne together in a pot. Bring to a low boil and stir until the sugar is dissolved and most of the jellied cranberry is reconstituted.


Next, and this is the most important part, add the meatballs. Let them cook and get covered with the chili cranberry sauce for about 20 minutes and YOU’RE DONE. Yes you read right, these babies are now ready to be enjoyed.


You can make these ahead of time and transfer to the party in a microwavable bowl. Just warm them up when you arrive. Or you can make the sauce then throw it in a crockpot the day of. Simmer them there until everyone’s ready to eat.


If you are just a bit more prepared than I usually am you can even make homemade jellied cranberry sauce (worth the effort, just make in a bowl instead of a mold) and/or make homemade meatballs. Combine ground beef, bread crumbs, eggs, milk, ginger, salt, garlic, onion and pepper then form little balls. Bake in a 400 degree oven then add to your sauce.

14 ounces jellied cranberry sauce
12 ounces chili sauce
3/4 cups packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 32 ounce package frozen meatballs


2 pounds ground beef
1 cup breadcrumbs
1/3 cup dry minced onion
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup of milk
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons garlic powder

  • Step 1
    If making the meatballs from scratch. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine all the meatball ingredients and roll into small balls and place on lined baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes or cooked through. Set aside.
  • Step 2
    Combine first six ingredients in large pot and bring to a low boil. Stir occasionally until sugar is melted and cranberry sauce reconstitutes.
  • Step 3
    Place meatballs into pot and stir sparingly. Letting cook through for about 15-20 minutes.
  • Step 4
    Transfer to serving dish; if making ahead place into microwave-safe bowl or crockpot. Enjoy.