kolaches, hickory smoked sausage, and Praha

It’s been a really hot summer here in Texas; more than twenty days over one hundred degrees, no rain, and no relief in sight.  Not exactly the picture our ranchers have been dreaming about all winter.  Fields are dusty, dry, and brown: scorched by the harsh sun.  Driving from San Antonio to our bi-annual family reunion in St. Mary’s, there are only pockets of fields with a hint of green.  Granted, it has looked this way the past few trips. The cattle lay under trees, looking thin and haggard.  When will we get a break?

St. Mary’s is a small Czech community just east of the infamous Shiner, Texas.  My maternal grandfather’s family settled there in the late 1870s; there are still remnants of the original village, including a small elementary school named after the homeland.  The Mozisek Reunion is one in which my whole family looks forward to every year.  Mostly because we get to see our extended family: countless cousins, Aunts, Uncles, and others who share in our Czech heritage. Sometimes there can be more than 200. Even more, however, because a trip to St. Mary’s means a full serving of local homemade Texas Czech dishes, using recipes passed down by generations.

This year, we had Janak’s Czech sausage for our family meal, made fresh just days before.  Old fashioned and hickory smoked, this sausage is the best tasting you can find in Texas, less you make it yourself.

You can’t go wrong with country potatoes, made simple and clean.  Boiled and tossed with sweated onions, these potatoes are finished with butter, salt, and pepper.

Every reunion one of our relatives brings garden fresh green beans; a small amount of acidity keeps them crunchy and vibrant.

It just isn’t right to serve country sausage without homemade soda bread.  My grandma used to make homemade bread on special occasions; wrapped around a sausage link with a little mustard, it’s heaven on earth.

Even the desserts are done right.

My great Aunt makes these famous kolache rolls, using cream cheese and poppy seed.  After our family meal, we have an auction to raise money for the hall rental.  Every year these baked layers of goodness sell for at least $35 each.  You can’t find this quality anywhere else.

There are so many ways to celebrate being a Texan these days; I say being Czech is one of the most rewarding.  From festivals to kolaches, sausage to Praha inspired beer (think Shiner); you can’t go wrong rejoicing in the heritage.  Every bite brings me back to the small ranch where my grandparents lived. Where cattle lined the fences my sisters and I would help mend in the summers.  Where I can still hear the locusts at sunset.  Where every meal was made with love.  This is Texas.  This is Czech.  This is our family.

the eclectic character of The Monterey

I can still hear the clanging pots and pans that came from my childhood kitchen on Sunday mornings. I remember the pouring of the batter, the melting of the butter, and viscosity of the syrup that accompanied the brewing coffee. Although I did not drink the bitter caffeine as a child, the smell of the brew would awaken me to morning cartoons. As I watched the latest Scooby Doo or Snorks, Dad would be pouring pancakes and scrambling eggs. Sundays soon became my favorite, something to look forward to week after week, throughout my childhood.

Now, Sundays are my favorite for different reasons all together. The sommelier and I can sleep in, take in our CBS Sunday Morning News, and gather little Rhea for our Sunday family outing. We try to provide a variety of food adventures for Rhea to look forward to, but one of our most favorite brunch spots has quickly become Southtown’s The Monterey.

The developers of The Monterey really did their research. San Antonio has been lacking where Austin has excelled: eclectic fare made with local ingredients, served in an alternative atmosphere, with a kicking patio, and staffed by genuinely cool people. The moment you walk into “El Monty” you find yourself transported. And for those of us who covet South Congress on a weekly basis, it’s been a long time coming. While recent guests include famous foodies such as Gail Simmons and Chef Tom Colicchio, the sommelier and I have noticed several local San Antonio bon vivants in attendance throughout the past year. The Monterey has quickly become a gathering place of industry workers, local chefs, and food enthusiasts alike. There is even a late night menu. And it doesn’t hurt that the El Monty brand is so well managed, as exhibited by relentless banter found on social media sites. Character: it’s what’s for dinner. Regardless, it’s all about the food, right?

The trick to dining for brunch is to arrive early. Because the indoor section of The Monterey is cozy, it can fill up fast, especially during this extensive summer heat. This weekend we grabbed a table outside in the shade, with plenty of room for good wine, shared food, and Rhea’s toys. One of the things I love about El Monty is the beverage menu: the wine list is lengthy, varietal, yet affordable, and the beer list is comprehensively spectacular. This weekend, the sommelier chose the 2010 mas de la dame Rose. The wine dazzled with a color of faint melon and salmon, with aromatics of orange zest, peaches and pears. In the mouth, the wine was light, slightly acidic, and gave pale reminders of rhubarb and strawberry. It was a perfect summer wine to complement our upcoming feast.

The first to arrive: biscuits and gravy. The biscuit had a touch of honey and was somewhat crispy. The gravy country white with bits of sausage, pepper, and topped with green onion. The sommelier and I both enjoyed the flavor of the dish, even though it may have benefited from a dash of kosher salt. All in all, a good addition to the brunch menu, and since The Monterey is known for its small plates, the portion of two biscuits is perfect for sharing. In addition, the use of local ingredients is standard for all of their dishes. From vegetables to beef to free range eggs, the quality of Texas farm fresh is evident throughout your experience. The next plate was no different.

The egg casserole was beautifully surrounded by fresh vegetables and topped with arugula salad and parmesan cheese. The soft quiche style casserole was full of flavor and cooked perfectly. The romesco served alongside provided a robust kick of zest, and had hints of tomato and peanut. The heirloom tomatoes served were slightly pickled and tasted like they were just taken from the ground. By far, this summery brunch item was my favorite, as it provided a light and fluffy fare for us to savor. Even the arugula salad seemed airy, yet furnished a textural contrast to the egg. My compliments to the Sunday morning Chef, this dish had me at “hello.”

Before I knew it the sommelier was pouring me another glass of wine, and I was feeling pretty full. However, you can’t leave El Monty without trying the best burger in San Antonio, so our final tasting consisted of a bacon cheeseburger served with fresh cut fries. The taste of the burger is by far one of the best I’ve had in a long while, which makes sense once you find out how it’s prepared. The burger itself is sous vide in brisket fat, which gives the meat a naturally smoky flavor. It’s then topped with a smoked gouda cheese, thick crispy bacon, and served with lettuce and crispy onion rings. It is a very popular dish on the late night menu, and often sells out on Sunday mornings. It is definitely a must have at The Monterey, so get out there and make sure it ends up on your table.

Even though we frequent El Monty for brunch, some of the best times had are on the patio in the evenings. The lighting, music, and atmosphere all make for an experience in itself, and paired with the amazing food, including beef heart tartare, pork belly, and fried barbecued chicken, The Monterey is a current hot spot on the Southtown scene. With the continued brand intelligence of management, ever-changing menus, and incredible staff, I won’t be surprised to see El Monty a mainstay in San Antonio trends. Top Notch. Two Thumbs Up. First Rate….you get the point, right?