Monday, January 31, 2011

Cooking with Coal!

Pizza and pizza restaurants are probably my most frequent blogging topics. I can’t help it. Where ever we travel we are compelled to seek out the best in a given city or region. So the San Marcos/Austin area was no exception.

My research led us to a place in Bee Cave, TX, which was a forty-mile (or so) drive from our campground to an address our Lady in the Dashboard (GPS) didn’t recognize. But I knew it was just off Route 71 in the Hill Country Galleria. This is one of those new-fangled shopping centers that is not an enclosed mall and is intended to be reminiscent of a small town Main Street. That is, if you’re Main Street has an Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Coldwater Creek, Eddie Bauer, et al.

We were looking for Tony C’s Coal Fired Pizza—the only place in or near Austin baking pizza with coal. Why coal? According to Tony C’s web site: “Coal fired, hearthstone ovens are the only ovens that can deliver a true New York style pizza. When Italian immigrants first came to New York City in the late 19th century, they used coal as a heating source because of its availability and low cost. Coal burns twice as hot as wood and provides an even burn producing a charred crust and perfectly caramelized toppings.”

Tony C’s is owned by Tony Ciola, who is part of a local restaurant family and whose cousin Louie Ciola is the chef. They are joined by Cliff Abraham as General Manager. Cliff is from New York, home to Lombardi’s and Grimaldi’s, and knows a thing or two about coal-fired pizzerias.

The interior combines the warm (exposed brick walls) with the sleek. Table tops are black; the bar top is marble; the pendulum lights are bright orange; and, perhaps most striking, the exhaust duct work is shiny metal.

The menu is not just pizza and offers appetizers, salads, subs, and pastas. But we wanted pizza, which came in three broad varieties. Specialty pizzas included: the Prosciutto and Goat’s Cheese roasted garlic, shaved prosciutto, arugula, fresh mozzarella, and goat’s cheese; the Primopesto with sun dried tomato pesto, fresh mozzarella, roasted chicken, artichoke hearts; and the Mulberry Meatball with homemade meatballs, coal-fired peppers, caramelized onions, pizza sauce, and fresh mozzarella.

From the list of New York Style Pies you can select; the Mama Mia with pepperoni, Italian sausage, and extra cheese; the Eggplant with parmesan crusted eggplant, pizza sauce, basil, and ricotta; the Donato with sausage, coal-fired peppers, black olives, fresh mozza-rella; and Pepperoni. And, under the heading “Neapolitan Style Pies” were the Bianco with cream, olive oil, ricotta, fresh mozzarella, roasted garlic, and fresh basil; the Marinara with pizza sauce topped with cheese; and the Margarita with fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, and fresh mozzarella. Of course, the latter was our choice.

The advantage of coal over wood is the higher cooking temperature which produces a crisp, charred crust. Tony C’s crust was magni-ficently crisp all the way to the center of the pie. Every bite had crunch and the moisture from the toppings didn’t soak through. Olive oil had been brushed over the edges, which became deliciously crispy. But the char was missing. Why? From what I have read, the pizza eaters in that area complained about the almost burnt edges so the owners have cut back on the heat and/or cooking time to eliminate the char. That’s too bad, but it is understandable that they want to keep the customer happy.

Over the crust was a film of olive oil, a layer of sandwich-type tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and fresh basil. This latter was fortunately applied after the pie came out of the oven. This was very good (not great) pizza, but I have two minor complaints. First, I wish they had used sliced Roma tomatoes, which have a lower moisture content. The sandwich tomatoes became a bit watery and mushy from the high baking temperature. Second, there was something missing, and I think that was garlic. Should I return to Tony C’s I would order some roasted garlic (from the list of build your own fixings) to liven up the taste.

Just as you come through the doors, you see a refrigerated case with a selection of about eight flavors of gelato. What better way to finish the meal? None I can think of. So we shared a medium dish of the Butterfinger flavor (on the left) and the toasted almond. Of the two, I liked the toasted almond. I didn’t get much Butterfinger flavor (or crunch for that matter) from the other.

We have agreed that this is the third best pizza of the year (behind Settebello in Salt Lake City and Pomo in Scottsdale) and earns a 4.5 Addie rating.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Backstage at the Baker

We continued our tour of the historic Gaslight Baker Theater in Lockhart, Texas, under the guidance of Dave Schneider.

A theater's history can come in large forms--architectural and artistic works--as well as in small forms tucked away behind or below these larger forms. Dave led us backstage to see some of those small forms.

It seems to have been a custom for actors appearing at these older theaters to leave a signed message following their appearance.

"The earliest date we've found in the theater is on this note (left)," Dave proudly noted.

I think above the date "Sept. 28, 1921" are the words "Baker Theater," but even if that is true, the words above that second line are unclear.

However, the message and signature in black ink are much more recent: "Love and Light to Everyone," Shirley Maclaine. "She signed this when she was filming some of the scenes in the theater for the movie Bernie," was Dave answer. "When she began her signature, the people with her gasped and warned her not to write over the 1921 note."

Nearby were two other names (right) of significance. The lower one, "Pee Wee," in all likelihood refers to the wife of the couple who owned the Baker at one time. (Dave mentioned it, I have forgotten their name.)

Above her nickname is the name "Buck McMillan." "We're not sure what his connection to the theater was, but he has signed his name in many places in the theater," Dave reported. (I didn't ask about "Corky.")

Dave showed us this small piece of wallpaper. Since its surface seems to have a colorful embossed pattern, it is possibly from the 1933 renovation, which brought in colorful, exotic carpets and draperies.

We also came across some examples of the pressed tin pieces that covered a portion of the ceiling.

Even though we had taken Dave away from his work preparing for the appearance of the Glenn Miller Orchestra in nine days, his desire to restore the Baker to its position as the centerpiece of the downtown's arts and music life was very apparent.

"Watch your head as you come down these steps," he advised.

The four steps brought us to a position under the stage. "That whole lighted area is now under the stage after it had been expanded. The space from where the stairs started out to this 'sweetheart' chair (seating for two) was the orchestra pit. And just to the left of this chair was where the organ was and where the organist sat when playing for the silent films," recounted Dave as he and I sat crouched in a space less than four feet high while I maneuvered my camera and tripod to get these shots.

After a 45-minute tour, Dave had to return to the renovation work; we returned to many of the scenes we had just visited to take photos.

This banner on one side wall apparently recognized local businesses that have supported the theater.

At the back wall of the theater were these two original seat backs. On them were mounted the names of Seat Sponsors who had contributed to the purchase of the seats in 1998.

Heading out to the lobby, we passed through this door which seemed to have a padded covering and buttons forming the letter "B."

The brown door marks the Ladies Room, which was original to the theater. The Gentleman's Room was "out back."

Our last stop was at the vintage popcorn machine. A bag of hot buttered popcorn would have been perfect for viewing the latest Charlie Chaplin movie from a sweetheart seat with Kate.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bringing the Baker Back

It was two days after we had inquired about the possibility of touring the Gaslight Baker Theater in Lockhart (TX) when we received an invitation to stop by.

Not only could we tour the theater, but we could also take all the photos we wanted to.

We stopped by Saturday morning with camera and tripod in hand and were directed to Dave in the balcony. Several people, whom we later learned were volunteers, were painting, drilling, and sawing. We found Dave trimming new carpet at the top of the stairs.

Dave Schneider, an accountant by day, is the President of the Theater's Board, a painter, an electircian's helper, an enthusiastic tour guide, and . . . an actor.

He began the story of the theater's history with a reference to the balcony. "There used to be a low dividing wall in the middle of the balcony. The African-Americans sat on that side and the Mexicans sat on this side of the wall."

As we walked down the stairway on the far side, he continued, "This entrance was for the Blacks, and an entrance on the other side of what is now the main lobby was for the Mexicans. We've decided to leave the entrance here just because it is part of the theater's history."

We were not taking notes nor photos as we followed Dave as he continued his explanation about a theater he clearly loved. "After we finish the tour, you can come back and take all the photos you want."


Dave took time to elaborate on a couple of original items on the stage. One was the curtain and the other was the plaster column which arched over the stage.

"The curtain is delicate--we can't have it dry-cleaned because it has so much dry rot that it would just fall apart if we tried to have it cleaned."

"But look here. You can still see the name 'Schubert' in this corner." Jean Schubert was the interior designer who brought an exotic look--twisted Solomonic columns, Italian travertine tiles, and rich carpets and draperies--to the theater during the Depression-era renovation.

Walking around the various stages of construction, we couldn't help but wonder if the work would be completed in about nine days when the Glenn Miller Orchestra would be appearing for two nights (Feb. 7th and 8th). As we walked around chairs and painted panels, we almost felt guilty for not stopping and grabbing a paint brush. But we had our own deadline to meet.

The theater will see seat nearly 300 patrons once the work is completed. This is considerably fewer than the number when the theater opened in late October in 1920: "(The theater) will seat about 700 people in the auditorium and balcony. By some extra preparation, 1000 can be accommodated" (Lockhart Post-Register, November 4, 1920).

Dave remarked that in addition to losing several rows of seats due to expanding the stage, "there was only 22 inches between the back of a seat and the seat in the row in front of the seat. People had to get into some uncomfortable and awkward positions with space that limited."

The "B" in the center of the curtain in the center of the stage stands for "Colonel" A.D. Baker, whose company, The Baker Show Company, built the Baker Theater. (Baker had claimed to have carried the flag up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Rider--but he never served in the military.)

Baker had arrived in Lockhart in 1910 and a year later had "experi-mented with a walled, roofless, outdoor theater, or 'airdome' for summer presenta-tions. During the first World War, Baker opened a more elaborate airdome, but it closed after only a few presen-tations" (The History of the Baker Theater).

The Baker underwent two major renovations. The one in 1933 resulted in the theater being redecorated in an exotic style--Spanish Moorish. Colonel Baker died in 1936, but little is known what his company did between his death and the renovations completed in the 1950s removed nearly all the decorations of the 1933 remodeling.

One remnant of the theater's past is this aisle seat plate. It is indeeed unfortunate that more bits of history are not available.

We will go backstage tomorrow to reveal some remnants of the theater's past.

Friday, January 28, 2011

One More Try

Was it just coincidence? Two nights ago, Duff Goldman (“Ace of Cakes” on the Food Network) was arguing that the brisket at The Salt Lick (right) in Driftwood, TX, was the best barbecue he had ever had. The next night, there is Adam Richman (“Man v. Food” and “Carnivore Chronicles” on the Travel Channel) rhapso-dizing over this same brisket.

Since we are only thirty miles south (and a little east) of Drift-wood, a trip was in order. And what a trip. Up I-35. West on RR 150. North on FM 1826.* Drive through a gate with “Salt Lick” in large wrought iron letters. Completely miss the “Private Property/No Trespas-sing” sign. Find out that this is not the place.

Drive further down the road and over the creek.

There it is. Finally.

A sprawling complex with limestone buildings, rustic wood fences, and an outdoor special event picnic area.

We entered through the wooden double doors and were immediately met by a young man who handed us real printed menus and told us we could sit wherever we liked. As I am walking toward the back of the indoor dining room (there is also a side enclosed porch), I suddenly realize that I am walking alone. My Favorite Traveling Companion had been sidetracked by the huge open pit full of ribs, briskets, and sausages.

There he was, with the encouragement and guidance of management, photographing the pit from the position favored by the magazines. I hope this doesn’t go to his head.

We found a seat at one of the large wooden picnic tables from which the paint or varnish had been worn eons ago and were immediately greeted by our server Hallie. (More on Hallie later.) “Was this our first time at the Salt Lick?” she asked. When we replied in the affirmative, she stopped to explain the menu.

They are known for their Family Style special—heaping helpings of beef, sausage, and pork ribs, served with potato salad, cole slaw, beans, bread, pickles, and onions. Maybe in our youth we could have tackled this much food. Not today. You can order barbecue plates with up to three choices of meat (beef, turkey, pork ribs, sausage) with potato salad, cole slaw, and beans and bread, pickles, and onions on request. Or you can have a sandwich (sliced beef, chopped beef, sausage, or turkey) either by itself or with potato salad, cole slaw, beans, pickles, and onions. And the brisket comes as lean, moist, or burnt.

To maximize our sampling, we decided to order two plates—one with moist brisket and sausage (photo below) and the other with burnt brisket and turkey. A prize to the person who guesses who ordered the burnt brisket.

Let’s start with the sides. The cole slaw was shredded, crisp, and tossed with a very light oil-based dressing. If I were to come back and order one of the sandwiches, I would make sure to put some of the slaw on the sandwich. (As an aside, a woman seated at the table next to ours ordered the turkey sandwich, and it must have contained an inch-and-a-half of thin sliced smoked turkey. I don’t think she finished it all.)

The potato salad was served warm—not hot—and included whole potato cubes and mashed potatoes. This had a slight taste of vinegar that I later learned comes from seasoning the salad with some of their house barbecue sauce. It was described as their version of German potato salad.

The beans were good. Not too soupy and had a slight hint of chile powder or cumin.

Did you guess that I ordered the burnt brisket? This was brisket nirvana. Smoky flavor. Moderate chew. And just enough almost melted fat to make it juicy. This may have been better than the place in Kansas City, MO, where I had the burnt ends all those years ago.

The turkey was also divine—thick slices of ultra-moist and tender breast meat that weren’t so over-smoked as to lose the natural turkey flavor—as was the coarse-grind smoked German sausage. I learned that the sausage, while not made in house, is their proprietary recipe and the sausage is made for them by an outside processor.

Now the brisket. It was tender. It was moist. It was good brisket. But it was brisket. As I said to Chuck, “No matter how good, it’s still my mother’s pot roast except it's smoked and not braised.” We have concluded that we are just not brisket eaters.

All of our meats came bathed—lightly—in the Salt Lick’s barbecue sauce, which was described at forkintheroad/2010/ as “…mustard based, and you'd have to go 1001 miles to the east, to Columbia, South Carolina, to find other examples of mustard-based sauces. What's more, Salt Lick slathers it on the 'cue just as the smoking is finishing up, and keeps brushing the sauce on in the holding pit, which makes for a thick concen-trated coating by the time the 'cue hits the table. Friends, in Central Texas that's barbecue blasphemy.”

But we weren’t finished yet. The dessert list is short—pecan pie, blackberry cobbler, and peach cobbler. Or the “Half and Half”—half servings of both cobblers. We shared the half and half with vanilla ice cream. This was served warm and the tart berries contrasted with the very sweet peaches.

Did you think we forgot Hallie? No. For a place that is so hard to find, The Salt Lick was extremely busy that noon, and Hallie was juggling multiple tables. But she was absolutely on top of the situation—even anticipating Chuck’s need for a refill on his root beer. So as we left, Chuck made a point of praising her to the manager on duty. Hallie was standing right there, and I am not sure when I last saw someone blush that vibrant shade of pink.

Well, this was an entirely different experience. We had menus. We had a server. We had plates. We had forks.

We had really good food. We had a 4.5 Addie lunch.

As we left the parking lot, we noticed a two-passenger helicopter and a two-passenger "Official Pace Corvette" from the 2007 Indianapolis 500. We have no idea who they belonged to, but we prefer to think of the travelers as real barbecue afficio-nados.

*–“in Texas, the terms "Farm to Market Road" (FM) or "Ranch to Market Road" (RR) indicate a road that is part of the state's system of secondary and connecting routes, built and maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). This system was established in 1949 as a project to provide access to rural areas. The system consists primarily of paved, two-lane roads.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Maybe It’s Us

One of the reasons we chose San Marcos for our Texas stop is that it is less than twenty miles from Lockhart, TX. If, like me, you have seen too many reruns of Barbecue Paradise on the Travel Channel, you know that Lockhart is home to three of the temples of Texas barbecue—Black’s Barbecue, Smitty’s Market, and Kreuz Market.

We spent December of 2008 in Kerrville, another Texas Hill Country town, and had the chance to sample maybe six barbecue restaurants in that area. While we had some great smoked German sausage and very good smoked turkey, we felt that all of the brisket—the king of Texas barbecue—to be lacking. But we were sure that Lockhart would be the answer to our brisket quest.

We started our search with Kreuz Market, “…started in 1900 by Charles Kreuz as a meat market and grocery store. To prevent wasting meat by letting it spoil, most markets would cook the better cuts on barbecue pits and use the lesser cuts to make sausage. Customers would buy their barbecue and sausage (which was wrapped in butcher paper), then buy some items from the grocery store to go along with it, and eat it off the butcher paper with their hands and a pocket knife with NO SAUCE.

“Charles passed the business along to his sons and son-in-law, who ran it until 1948, when Edgar Schmidt, who had worked there since 1936, bought the market from the Kreuz's.... In 1984, Edgar sold the business to his sons, Rick and Don Schmidt, and they ran the increasingly popular restaurant until Don's retirement in 1997” (from the restaurant’s web site).

Here things get murky. “…Several years ago, owing to a complicated family feud, it moved out of town (from the place that is now Smitty's) to an immense roadside dining barn with all the charm of an airplane hangar” (

When you walk through the doors, a vast, dark, and empty (that day) dining area is to the left. You walk about a hundred feet to a sign reading “Wait here for next available counter person” (or something to that effect). Then you enter the smoking room to place your meat order and pay for your meat. If you are taking the meat out, they wrap your order in three layers of butcher’s paper and tape it shut. If you are eating in, they lay your meat on three layers of butcher’s paper and fold the four corners up into a pouch. This is your tray and plate.

Oh, and you get plastic knives.

The meat choices were shoulder clod (lean beef), beef brisket, pork chops, pork ribs, and beef ribs, and these are sold by the pound. The sausage, regular or jalapeno cheese, are sold by the ring. We ordered a pound of brisket and one regular sausage ring.

Then you proceed to a dining room where you can also order your sides and/or beverages. The sides include cheese, jalapeno cheese, dill pickles, sweet pickles, tomatoes, avocados, jalapenos, chips, German potatoes, sauerkraut, and beans. If you are ordering any of the sides, you will be given plastic spoons. You will not be given a fork.

For sides, we chose the beans and German potatoes. The beans were pretty good and contained bits of green pepper and tomatoes. The potatoes? Well, we ate about twenty percent of the order and tossed the rest away. I thought that German potatoes would be similar to German potato salad. You know, with a little vinegar and a little sugar and a lot of fried bacon. I was wrong. These were basically boiled potato chunks with some smoked meat shreds mixed in. OK. We didn’t really come for the sides. How about the meat?

First a note on no forks (as the owner famously says, ‘God put two of them at the end of your arms’). You use your knife to cut off slices of sausage or brisket and then either use the knife as a spear or you use your hands as utensils. So we cut some slices of sausage and with began to eat with our fingers. At first we really liked the sausage.
It was a finer grind than most German-style sausages and was full of black pepper. But about half way through the small ring, it began losing its moisture and the casing got tough and hard to eat.

On to the brisket. I was encouraged when I saw the large amount of burnt ends—those dark and crusty ends and edges that have an intense smoke flavor and are inclined to be tougher and drier. I first dined on burnt ends at a barbecue place in Kansas City, MO, whose name I can’t remember, but whose burnt ends I will never forget. You expect these to be chewy and a light touch of sauce (Kreuz’s sauce was a cross between North Carolina and hot sauce) eases the dryness. But we didn’t expect the interior meat to be as dry as the burnt ends. This is Lockhart? This is the epicenter of smoked beef brisket? What a disappointment!

Well, folks. We have reached a milestone. After thirty months on the road, we have had our first 0.0 Addie meal. Our expec-tations were so high.

Were they too high?