Category Archives: Everyday Eateries

Lula Jane’s: A Taste of Grandma’s Love

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View from Lula Jane’s front porch

There is a little place on Elm Street in Waco, Texas that bakes some of the best cookies, cakes, and cinnamon rolls north of the Brazos. For this west coast transplant, walking into Lula Jane’s was like walking into a local Mendocino eatery – fresh baked goods, locally harvested produce, and farm fresh eggs – all served with Texas hospitality.

Below is one of my many must-have recommendations  –  a slice of Lula Jane’s blueberry pie. The flakey crust’s buttery layers melted away to reveal the subtle sweet taste of ripe blueberries just warm enough to raise the bite to near perfection.

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Lula Jane’s blueberry pie

My other favorite bit of pure perfection is found in the Lula Jane oatmeal chocolate chip cookie.  Each one I have had (and I have had many over the last thirteen months) is as delicious as the one before.  Oatmeal texture sweetened by chocolate chips combine to create the perfect bite whether taken straight off the round or after a quick dunk in coffee. The consistent goodness combined with the homemade feel are indicative of owner Nancy Grayson’s philosophy, “We’re here to make people happy.”

Just walking into Lula Jane’s can make a person happy.  Chatter of friends and smiles from staff and customers let a first timer know that this bakery is something special.  Though

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Nancy frosting a Chocolate ‘Dirty’ Cake while the Thursday Cake waits to the left for slicing and a baker works on fresh baked bread.

named after Nancy’s grandmother Lula Jane, the bakery recipes are all Nancy.  Of her grandmother, she says, “She was a wonderful woman, but a terrible cook.”  Summer days of sitting on her grandmother’s porch laughing and eating are the template to what she’s created at Lula Jane’s.

To create the southern sweets, she makes certain her team of bakers replicates her recipes with exactness and joy so that each bite of your favorite is as good as you remember whether those bites were taken from the same sweet or tasted months apart.

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Elvis cake – so rich half came home.

However, when those rare Thursday cake delicacies are announced Wednesday afternoon on Lula Jane’s Facebook page, call quickly because they sell out faster than you can say Lula Jane’s.  I was lucky enough to obtain a slice of Elvis cake – peanut butter, chocolate, and banana — and would have traded in my blue suede shoes for another piece, but I’ve been too slow for delights such as their Eclair Cake or their Lemon Cake or their recent  Summertime Mojito Cake.

If you’re looking, instead, for a delicious home made lunch, Lula Jane’s is still the place to go. They serve one lunch special per day, the creation of chef Stacy Russell. Chef Russell creates each meal based on what is fresh for the week. Each creation is worth trying, especially if it comes with a biscuit.  Have you ever had tomato pie?  This Californian had her first slice from the Lula Jane kitchen and  it was divine. Still, the meal I can’t wait to have again

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Left to right: Polenta Ratatouille, Chocolate ‘Dirty’ Cake, and Key Lime Pie Thursday Cake.

is the polenta ratatouille pictured to the left.  The creamy base was perfectly off- set by the seasoned garden fresh vegetables. Somewhere on the table is a fresh biscuit, definitely worth walking a mile for (so is that Key Lime Pie Thursday Cake).  One item not worth the walk, the breakfast pie – order the oatmeal instead or enjoy a bacon cheddar scone while waiting for lunch.  If you’d like a full dinner in a place that feels like home, I recommend trying one of Lula Jane’s new First Friday Dinners .

Though hard to achieve, even better than the food at Lula Jane’s is the sense of community created by the indelible force known as Nancy Grayson. She decided to make a positive change in Waco – first with Rapoport Academy and now with Lula Jane’s. You can find her hospitality Tues-Fri 7:30-3:00 and Saturday’s 8:00-3:00.  Stop on in to say hi and enjoy a slice of that blueberry pie.  Happy eating!

 

 

 

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Wolfgang Puck’s Bar & Grill: Divine Dining in a Grand Location

The interior from the casino floor.

The interior from the casino floor.

I have been dining at Wolfgang Puck’s Bar&Grill intermittently for nine years.  My four most resent experiences have occurred in the last four months.  What I can say is that this fixture tucked behind the MGM Grand’s main gaming floor and across from the KÀ theatre, is one of the most consistently delicious restaurants in Las Vegas.  Nine years ago, when I first tasted cuisine from this kitchen, I was wowed.  Its contemporary ambiance, stellar service, and delectable dishes, still wow — a consistency hard to find on the ever altering Vegas Strip.

In December I took a couple of Wolfgang Puck rookies to his Bar & Grill, a restaurant I had not visited in over three years, but was confident the meal would be delicious.  One of them is a hamburger aficionado and so he ordered the Grilled Prime Burger with Vermont cheddar and smoked onion marmalade. I followed suit and what arrived was, he declared, the best burger he had ever tasted. After tasting what was put out at Gordon Ramsay’s BURGR, I agree (but that’s for another review).  Wolfgang Puck’s burger delivers layers of flavor; from the

After . . . the first taste.  Layers of perfection.

Crab Cakes after the first tastes.

flavor of the beef to the smokiness of the cheddar to the savoriness of the bun, the meal was so good that he ordered it again when we stopped in January before the Lady Gaga concert. Even the fries – shoestring and seasoned – were perfect crisp bites of potato that did not even need the garnish of ketchup.

Our appetizer, the Sautéed Maine Crab Cakes with tomato relish served on a bed of basil aioli, has been consistent perfection, so much so that they are a mainstay of every meal I have here. And the Crispy Chicken Milanese, served with an arugula and cherry tomato salad and grain mustard, is served with the salad covering the chicken so that what arrives looks deceptively green; however, when all elements are tasted

Split for two with perfect presentation.

Chicken Milanese split for two with perfect presentation.

together – chicken and salad – just as served, the result is a a pop of crisp freshness blending the organic chicken with the plump tomatoes and slightly tart arugula.  The portion is generous enough to split and each of us devoured the meal in spite of the knowledge that chocolate beignets were on their way.

Of course no meal is complete without dessert and we ordered two: the Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée and the Chocolate Beignets with the caramel dipping sauce and vanilla ice cream.  The beignets arrived warm and perfectly fried – just enough to crisp the dough without any excess oil; when bitten, the center oozed chocolate delight. Though I have enjoyed crème brûlée in many venues before, the one that this kitchen serves is one of the most delectable I have tasted – the vanilla pops and the berries sweeten the spoon just enough to provide brilliant contrast to the crisp top.

Last week I returned for a lunch service and though this Thursday afternoon was packed because of the PAC 12 Basketball Tournament, we were immediately seated and, within three minutes, had our server at our table explaining the specials and taking our drink order.  Not only was our server attentive, her friendliness and knowledge of the menu perfectly complimented the food.  My companion had not had the crab cakes before and, when they arrived, his response was, “Oh, my.  That is delicious.”  He savored every bite, pacing his eating so that his portion of the appetizer lasted until the main course arrived fifteen minutes later.

An appetizer fit for a main meal.

An appetizer fit for a main meal.

His main meal was the Mesquite Grilled Steak Skewers – strip steak marinated twenty-four hours until the pieces are grilled and basted and placed upon a bed of creamy celery salad.  On our server’s recommendation, my plate consisted of  Barbecued Chicken Panini with creamy coleslaw, balsamic grilled onions and chipotle aioli. (I was torn between the Barbecued Chicken Panini and the Fish & Chips, but she raved that the chicken was phenomenal.)  The chicken was phenomenal.  The panini was pressed just

Barbecue Chicken Panini.

Barbecue Chicken Panini.

right, giving it a golden hue that told of a slight crust which, when bit into, yielded to the louder crunch of the coleslaw. Combine the texture with the flavor of the balsamic grilled onions and the chipotle aioli and each bite became a luxury.  The barbecue sauce was spicy and sweet and enhanced the delicate flavor of the juicy organic chicken breast.  The fries were the same herbed perfection as before, and though they come with the sandwich, our server readily offered up a salad or vegetables or whatever I wanted instead.

I could rave about the apple pie or the pineapple upside down cake or the smoothness of the Vespa speciality cocktail, but I won’t.  Instead, I’ll simply point you away from the Fish & Chips (the server was right) and to any other item they offer.  I should also let you know that this Wolfgang Puck’s, like all of his restaurants on the Strip, offer locals complimentary dessert.  How sweet is that?

Apple pie with cinnamon ice cream - a delicious pairing.

Warm apple pie with cinnamon ice cream – a delicious pairing.


The Crema Cafe – Crème de la Crème

Arrive early to avoid the line.

Arrive early to avoid the line.

Benny the Pug

Benny saying hello.  Isn’t he adorable?

Before I tell you about the food’s flavors and the staff’s professionalism and the café’s charm, let me tell you about Benny. Benny has been waddling into the café every Sunday for the past six years, he has been taking his place of honor beneath an outdoor table and under a red umbrella, and he has been waiting patiently for delicious scraps to come his way. Okay, Benny waits not so patiently: he is not above a bit of begging or a little whimpering, like a neglected soul, for one succulent morsel.  Let me be clear – Benny is not neglected. The six year old pudgy pug is a well-fed gourmand. And,  in my humble opinion,  Benny’s favoritism for The Crema Cafe is spot-on.  (His discerning taste could be due to his lineage: his grandsire is the none other than Tugboat Willie, the first and only pug thus far to win Pug Dog Club of America’s National Specialities three times.)

On my first trip to The Crema Cafe, as on my second, the place was packed inside and out.  Though I had perused the menu online, the options left me wanting one of everything so I turned to the cashier/barista/waiter for help.  I only have one meal, I told him. What do you recommend?  He suggested the Breakfast crepe because of its uniqueness (scrambled eggs inside) and yummy goodness (with cheese, chorizo, avocado, sour cream).  When I was leaning toward the fresh fruit as a side, he shepherded me towards the roasted potatoes. He was correct in doing so – the potatoes were crisp and spicy, middle-hot and flavor-layered, and the crepe crisp and perfectly fixed – just the right amount of each ingredient so that every fork full was a blend of each flavor. I would have devoured it all except I wanted to try a sweet Simple crepe for dessert – cinnamon and

Simple crepe with caramel sauce that might make you wish you had some privacy.

Simple crepe with caramel sauce that might make you wish you had some privacy.

sugar drizzled with homemade caramel and a side of fresh whipped cream with a beautiful ripe strawberry for decor.  None of this went to waste.  On my way out, I picked up a chocolate croissant and a baguette for the five hour drive home.  Both were divine, though the croissant was not quite as good as the one back home; however, the baguette tasted like one I bought my first time in Paris – only this time I had no Toblerone bar to melt between it on the train to Calais.

To taste The Crema Cafe this time, I organized my trip so I could enjoy an early Sunday morning breakfast. The Sunday regulars (Benny and company among them) give the café a welcoming atmosphere and, with the exception of this solitary writer, the tables were buzzing with laughter and talk – signs of good food. Patrons lingered over their meals, enjoying another cup of coffee from the self-serve carafes, or talking for a bit with passing friends.  Their canine companions lounged about the outdoor tables, greeting canine and humans alike with a smile or tail wag.

Gas heaters and red umbrellas make this outdoor space warm and welcoming.

Gas heaters and red umbrellas make this outdoor space warm and welcoming.

Seating is indoors and out, and when the mornings are chilly, free-standing heaters dot the patio to ward off the crisp air.  My server this Sunday morning was Jennifer. Attentive and conscientious, she smiled the entire time, whether she brought meals or bussed tables or simply walked back inside for the next order up.

Wanting to try something different, my breakfast was a spinach and mushroom and cheese crepe.  Though good, it lacked in comparison to the Breakfast crepe.   Its

Spinach Mushroom Crepe with a side of fruit.

Spinach Mushroom Crepe with a side of fruit.

edges contrasted well with the perfectly browned middle; however, the filling did not retain its heat, and by the time I was a third of the way through, the crepe had cooled.  I also made the error of ordering the fruit in an attempt to have at least one healthy item on my plate.  Next time I will throw health to the wind and order the roasted potatoes or the Belgian Waffle with whipped cream or the Buttermilk Pancake or the Roasted Vegetable Benedict  smothered in hollandaise – and, of course, a sweet crepe for dessert – maybe the Caramelized Apple & Pear à la mode.  Of course, I had to try a sweet crepe for dessert, and, of course, I opted for the one carrying the café’s name, the Crema Crepe. This one’s every bite delighted.  Shamelessly, I combined the caramel and the whipped cream to create my own bit of heaven. While I was savoring the deliciousness, stacks of waffles floated out of the kitchen only to be inhaled by waiting diners.  In fact, all food that came form the kitchen disappeared and plates were left too clean for Benny to find any scrap to lick.

Should you be in Seal Beach for a day, or passing by on your way to somewhere else, take a moment to turn down Main Street and have a delicious meal at Benny’s favorite spot, the Crema Cafe.


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