Tag Archives: Houston

ICE CREAM SAMMIE

Making Sugar Cookie Ice Cream Sammies

Down in Houston a few weeks ago, I got the urge to bake, so while my mom and sister were napping one afternoon, I drove over to Kroger and bought all the materials to make simple sugar cookies (plus some ice cream).

I was craving crispity crunchity sugar cookies, a la middle school recess snack, so after Googling “crispy sugar cookies” I landed on this easy-peasy recipe from Taste of Home.

Sugar cookies really are the best because they are generally so easy. This particular recipe calls for rolling out the dough super thinly and using a cookie cutter so that all the cookies are the same size, shape and cook evenly.

Me, being the lazy baker I am, decided against this method, and instead went with the Scoop and Pat Method (trademark pending…jk). This is where I 1. take a scoop of cookie dough from the bowl with a teaspoon, 2. pat the ball to flatten it between my fingers.

chillin' sugar cookie dough
chillin’ sugar cookie dough
me, scooping
me, scooping
mounds of sugar cookie dough, pre-patting
mounds of sugar cookie dough, pre-patting

It doesn’t yield the thinnest, crispest, prettiest cookie (in fact, the cookies are none of those things), but darn it if they don’t taste just like sugar cookies!

sugar cookies
completed sugar cookies

Being the sharp shooter that my sister is, she took that vanilla ice cream, spread it between two lopsided cookies, rolled the whole thing in rainbow sprinkles and BAM: delicious ice cream sandwich achieved!

ICE CREAM SAMMIE
ICE CREAM SAMMIE

Done and done. Now you go try the Scoop and Pat and let me know what you think. Be sure to pat as thin as possible to achieve that crunch!

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Houston Pizza (Bagel) Review

Doesn’t a good pizza bagel just make your day?!?! It’s warm and gooey with a chewy, salty, dense bagel underneath! What’s not to love?!

Side note: I always choose a salt or everything bagel for my pizza bagels, but my sister says this is “gross” and that one should only get a pizza bagel on a plain bagel. You decide.

Did you know that originally bagels came in only plain or salt? Then they started branching out into all sorts of other flavors in the 1950s. And with the rise of Lender’s – prepackaged and frozen bagels – so too more flavors and more diverse consumers across America, for instance, the cinnamon raisin bagel, which was created to appeal to the non-Jewish “breakfast food” market.

I just got done reading Maria Balinska’s The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread which is a fascinating look at the creation and rise in popularity of the bagel. Bagels have a fuzzy origin story, in that many ethnicities and countries have similarly shaped bread products so it’s hard to pinpoint one beginning point for the bread with a hole phenomenon. But it’s also a food whose history is intertwined with stories of political, economic and labor battles. The book is a quick read for anyone interested in food history and/or Jewish food history.

But anyway, back to the pizza bagel at hand. This particular pizza bagel was procured at New York Coffee Shop, a crowded Jewish bagel and coffee joint in the Braeburn neighborhood of Houston Texas.

“Decorated” in the 1980s, walking in reminded me of the formica counter top diners we would go to as children, perhaps after Hebrew school on Sunday for a matzah ball soup and pickles.

My mom did indeed have the matzah ball soup which looked traditionally delicious. And I of course had the pizza bagel, on an everything bagel, with a cup of coffee.

pizza bagel

It was all really good. The coffee was above average and totally came in above expectation. They definitely knew how to do a good pizza bagel with toasted bagel, fully melted cheese and not too much sauce.

Personally, I don’t see how one could mess up a pizza bagel, but you’d be surprised.

If I had it to do over, I’d choose a salt bagel just to kick things up a notch.

And the personality of the place was charming and nostalgic too. Would I want to lick the table? No. Did we run into people our in-laws knew from the community? Yes. And isn’t that really what these old-school Jewish diners are all about in the end? Thumbs up.

make-your-own veggie pizza

Houston Pizza Review: BLAZE

My mom and I visited my sister in Houston a few weeks ago and took a lunchtime trip to Blaze Pizza on Westheimer. Blaze is a fast-casual pizza chain, where you stand in line and either choose a standard personal pizza from their menu or do a create-your-own pizza from a smorgasbord of ingredients, Chipotle style. The staff assembles the pie and then rapidly cooks it in their huge wood-fired oven and calls your name when it’s ready to get at the counter.

There was a Blaze in Royal Oak when we were living in Michigan that I always wanted to try but never got around to it, so I was happy to go there in Texas!

I ordered the off-the-menu Red Vine pizza which is red sauce, fresh mozzarella, basil and tomatoes, and I also added shredded mozzarella to it.

red vine pizza with extra mozzarella
red vine pizza with extra mozzarella

My sister did a make-your-own with lots of veggies including mushrooms and arugula.

make-your-own veggie pizza
make-your-own veggie pizza

Both pizzas were delicious and we devoured them both. The ingredients were fresh and flavorful and the crust was pretty good – not dry or cardboard-like, which can often be the case.

The only issue I had (which is unfortunately pretty standard these days at this kind of restaurant) was that I was SUPER parched afterwards. Even after drinking lots of water, I could still feel the effects of the saltiness from the pizza.  They were yummy going down though 🙂

The staff was very friendly and knowledgeable about the ingredients and food prep. My mom has a lot of dietary restrictions, and they were incredibly helpful directing her in terms of what she could or couldn’t eat. For instance, they don’t use cornmeal on the bottom of the pizza to prevent sticking; they use semolina, which she can eat. They also swapped out her Italian salad dressing for oil and vinegar and made her salad fresh, instead of directing her to the case of pre-made salads, to ensure no cross-contamination with items she can’t digest. I thought the customer service was excellent, especially for a fast-casual establishment whose business model is based on volume, standardization and quick turnaround.

In terms of fast-casual chain pizza, I would definitely rank Blaze near the top.

Blaze
Blaze

 

Pizaro’s Pizza: Houston TX

A few weeks ago, my mom, aunt and I went to visit my sister in Houston to work on some of her wedding to-dos (um, yes, cake tasting).  Craving some pizza (obviously), I searched online for Houston’s best pizza, and while many came up, we chose Pizaro’s Pizza Napoletana (http://www.pizarospizza.com/), for the sheet fact that we would be driving out towards the burbs rather than into the city on a Saturday night.

It’s a wood-fired brick oven fast casual concept, where you stand in line to order, pay and take a number. And very quickly afterwards (the pizzas only take 90 seconds to cook in a 900 degree oven), your piping hot pizza arrives at the table!  BYOB.

photo 1 The oven is that mosaic dome in the back. It was made in Naples and shipped to the US, according to their website. The guy up front is making dough.

photo 2The interior – not anything spesh, very crowded, very kid friendly.

photo 3

photo 1The dough rounds being prepped for pizza!

Okay, let’s start with the negatives.  It was crowded (a given on a Saturday night in the city that is known for eating out). It was cold – since we couldn’t be picky about where we sat, we grabbed the only available table, which happened to be right underneath a very blowy AC unit. Brr. We scarfed that pizza down – it was cold by the last slice.

The good news: the pizza was really tasty!! Crust that wasn’t soggy and not burnt either – perfect chew, with a few good dough bubbles. (My sister claims I always wanted the slices with the bubbles growing up, but that was actually she.) Fresh ingredients, and the perfect size for a personal pizza.  My sister and I split a classic cheese (always a good baseline) and an arugula and parmesan white pizza.  Both were delish and we demolished most of them before my mom and aunt’s pizza even came out to the table.

photo 3 photo 2The cheese pizza was really more of a Margherita minus the basil.  I was a bit put off by seeing the chef squeeze oozy mozzarella out of what looked to be a giant pastry tube, but it did seem to be quite fresh and milky and tasted like homemade mozzarella. Definitely different than the dry pre-shredded part-skim bagged mozz I get at the store.

All in all, a good choice; I would do carry-out next time though to avoid the shiver.

TX Pizza Review: Coppa Ristorante

This past weekend in Houston, we went to dinner Coppa, an Italian restaurant that seemed to me to epitomize much of the Houston restaurant scene.

Clearly I don’t live in Houston nor have I spent copious amounts of time there, but I’ve eaten at a my fair share of establishments on my semi-annual trips.  Here are the broad generalizations I’m going to make, and feel free to disagree (but please cite examples):

1. Lots of upscale or “finer” dining restaurants (notches above fast casual and family friendly) are situated in strip malls.  They could be very nice, new, stone strip malls, or they could be run-of-the-mill.  Either way, you may not realize that there’s a nice restaurant tucked on the side next to Kroger.  You pull up to the parking lot thinking incredulously, “Huh, where are we?”  Then you open the trying-to-be-historic-but-is-really-a-new-restaurant-trend obligatory heavy wooden door and boom! you’re in a white tablecloth restaurant.  Surprise!

2. Once you enter said strip mall fine restaurant, the dining room(s) will be large, potentially cavernous, and have an eerie similarity to lots of other restaurants, and you may think that you have actually been to that place before.  However, while the placement of the bar, bathrooms and kitchen may be reminiscent of other establishments, the decor will vary, and hopefully, as in the case of Coppa, be warm and inviting.  When I walked into Coppa, I thought I had been there on an earlier trip, remembering the large wall of windows lined with long tables and the placement of the entryway and bar.  I had in fact never been there.  The bar was welcoming with large framed mirrors hanging over yet another mirror mounted on the wall, and I liked how the opposite back wall and secondary dining alcove were lined with the wine selection.

IMG_1925 IMG_1926

3. Tables will be crowded together and it will likely be loud.  Because these dining rooms tend to consist of one very large room with high ceilings (and maybe a secondary room like at Coppa), there’s not much in the way of interior structures, such as half-walls, pillars (there were a few at the far end of the room at Coppa) or other alcoves in which to sit.  Everyone is in one large room, where the tables are placed apart at the minimum socially acceptable distance.  You think your waiter is walking away after only having placed half your party’s order, when you realize he’s just making his away around 12 other tables to get to the opposite side of your table to be able to hear the rest of the orders.

These are the sweeping stereotypes I’ve gleaned about the set up of many Houston restaurants.  But on to the food at Coppa specifically:

I ordered a pizza margherita (as you can see, this is my go-to for assessing the true quality of pizza….crazy toppings may be good, but can you make a deliciously simple pie?) and the burrata appetizer.  I thought both were done very well.

IMG_1928

The pizza was well-balanced in terms of ingredients, and I liked how the crust under the toppings was stiff and didn’t flop.  I don’t have much else to say other than I ate the whole thing and will let the photo speak for itself.  I also enjoyed that they brought the condiments over on a small plate from which you could take a pinch (or hand-full) and sprinkle it on to your heart’s content.

IMG_1929

The burrata was also delicious.  It was served with arugula, coppa (an Italian cured pork, that was thinly sliced), campari tomatoes (bright, sweet and juicy), olive oil and sea salt.  The sea salt stuck to the cheese via the olive oil and added some crunch to the bites.  I liked how it wasn’t uniformly salty, but here and there you would get a little kick.  The fresh arugula and tomatoes laced with bits of coppa gave those bites eaten with the burrata a slightly bitter, sweet and salty taste and some added texture.  Delightful!

I can’t speak for the meals of my dinner companions, but I would definitely recommend the pizza here, and wouldn’t mind getting some carry out from Coppa next time we’re in town.

First Time to Downtown Houston: A Weekend In Pictures

First Time to Downtown Houston: In Pictures

Market Square Park

IMG_1895 Sculpture in Market Square Park

IMG_1896 Close up you can see these pine-coney spikes are made of beautifully smooth amber-colored wood.

We went to The Pastry War in the Market Square neighborhood, a new(ish) tequila bar that is getting some hype (read about upcoming tastings on Eater.com) because they are holding cocktail classes led by the award-winning bartenders at Anvil, another Houston bar, which made Esquire magazine’s best bars for 2012 (but which fell off in 2013 much to the chagrin of some local publications).  It is also one of many new bars and restaurants opening in the area hoping to revitalize the neighborhood.  It was a really cool little part of town, and I highly recommend checking it out.

IMG_1915 Sort of hidden bar, as this was the only signage at the front.

We only did one pre-dinner drink at The Pastry War, but I would love to go back to Market Square to make a night of hot-spot hopping and people watching.  Here, a margarita on the rocks made with mezcal (from agave like tequila only smoky like scotch).  I’m really liking mezcal right now; I got a delicious concoction at Isalita, a Mexican tapas restaurant and ultra-cool night spot in Ann Arbor, which turned me on to it.  At The Pastry War, it was definitely a different twist in a tart limey (what one might consider refreshing) margarita, and I think I’ll stick with regular tequila in my margaritas.

IMG_1914

Other photos from The Pastry War (named after the First Franco-Mexican War about which you can read on Wikipedia here)

IMG_1920Walking in through the outer seating area

IMG_1921 Obviously into the mezcal here

IMG_1900 A whole side of the menu dedicated to beverages distilled from the agave plant

IMG_1906 Agave plant memorialized as a single tile embedded into each table

IMG_1909 IMG_1901The bar area with friendly bar staff

IMG_1904 Behind the bar: some unusual taxidermyIMG_1903 A cozy corner of the bar with bric-a-brac

IMG_1908 Colorful mural in the booth seating area

IMG_1923 Skull motif on the ceiling

IMG_1907 Looking out to the outer seating area

IMG_1919 Mexican Coke!

Some other photos from the weekend:

IMG_1889 Ugh, this is what you get for running across the street with your sunglasses tucked in the V-neck of your shirt.  I wasn’t about to dodge back into traffic to try to retrieve the lens before it was run over.  And this is why I don’t buy expensive sunglasses.  Bye-bye.

IMG_1967 IMG_1968 A delightful lunch at Tiny Boxwoods (extremely popular restaurant attached to a plant nursery) with my sister.  When we arrived, there was a line out the door (you order and then they bring it to you at your table) and all the tables were full, but they were closing soon, so I held down two seats at the bar, while my sister stalked an outdoor table for us: success!!  White wine mojito for her and straight Pinot Grigio for me.  Along with my “French picnic” platter and the sunshine, it was a perfect afternoon. IMG_1969

IMG_1972Ugh again: This scared the sh** out of me in our hotel bathroom the morning we were set to leave.  Still gives me shivers.  Is this a roach?  I have no idea, but it’s disgusting.  I had called for a late check out, but once this was spotted and trapped under a cup, I got the hell out of there ASAP.  Something to be said for the winter chill in Ann Arbor I guess.

IMG_1979 Bye bye Houston sunset.IMG_1983 Hello Detroit 🙂

Everything’s Bigger in Texas, Like A Bridal Extravagaaaaaanza

You won’t blame for wanting to get away, right?  I mean, on Tuesday, January 7, The Weather Channel said Ann Arbor was -3 degrees with a wind chill of -26.  This isn’t what I signed up for in moving here.  Oh wait, I guess it was.  So let me try to take advantage of my surroundings: Never having been outside when it feels like -26 (that I can remember), I went out in the morning and did some science experiments. First I slowly poured a cup of water out to see if it would freeze before it hit the ground.  It didn’t.  Then I threw the rest of the cup into the air to see if it would turn to snow before hitting the ground.  It didn’t.  I may have seen a few white wisps come off the water pellets.  But it also could have been my eyes seeing what my mind really wanted to see.  So there you go!

Oh, you wanted to hear about the other ways I took advantage of the sub-zero weather?  There aren’t any.  Not that I was lazy and decided to avoid the arctic tundra (although I wouldn’t blame you for making that assumption).  There just literally are no other advantages to this temperature besides doing sixth grade science experiments.  So if anyone has any other “earth science” tests I can run with minimal equipment, I’m ALL EARS.

Instead we went to Texas!  Yay!  It was like summer there.  Not really, but by comparison.

We were in for a low-key weekend of  hanging out with my sister and going to dinner with some work friends.

But also….

The Houston Bridal Extravaganza Show!!  Woo woo!!

A bridal expo is not normally a place I would ever consider going, and I may have even laughed at other people (probably behind their backs) who would think about attending such a debacle.  So when my sister asked if I wanted to go, of course I had to say YES!

What better place to go to a bridal extravaganza than in Texas, right?  Preconceived notions:  1) It’s going to be a cattle herd  2) It’s going to be tacky  3) I will get lots of free samples  4) There will be a lot of cheesy bridal tiaras worn  5) It will be AMAZING people watching.  Sounds like an excellent way to spend the day.

We signed up for the more expensive ticket ($20 vs. $12.13 – yes: 12 dollars and 13 cents – tax included I guess) so that we could see Darcy Miller, Editorial Director for Martha Stewart Weddings, speak.

Our tickets said to arrive by 10:30am for the 11:30am talk, so I’m thinking, Whoa, this place is going to be packed and this woman must be presenting to an auditorium or something.

Nope.  We got there around 10:45 and breezed right in.  Literally, we were the only people entering the special “VIP” area for those who had bought the more expensive tickets, and thus we were bombarded with “helpful” volunteers wielding clipboards asking us to fill out detailed information about ourselves and our wedding plans (sorry for the ensuing junk mail, Mark).

We were then led up to a kiosk where we could have what looked to be envelope return labels printed.  They were like, “You get 30 labels for free, and then you can buy more for $5.”  My sister and I were like, “What are you talking about?  Why would I need address return labels, and why would I ever consider buying these?”  It was as if we were bridal show experts and should know ALL about labels.  Um.

It was explained to us that they printed these labels so when we were going to various vendor booths, we wouldn’t have to write out our information over and over again, we could just affix an address label to the sign up sheet, and voila, we’d be added to whatever mailing lists we wanted!  I used a total of 3 labels.  My sister used 1.

We were then hustled into buying a $2 synthetic tote bag to schlep around all the “giveaways” we would be receiving.  And by “giveaways” they meant sales brochures and tins of mints.  Look at this huge bag, I must be getting lots of stuff!! What’s in it?  A tiny tin of mints.  Fail.

Luckily, by getting there so early, the rows of booths were fairly empty and we didn’t have to contend with any crowds.  Unluckily, by being some of the only people there, we were the sole targets of every vendor’s hawking cry.  We mostly got away unscathed because we weren’t looking to book any local farms or country clubs for our affair.  Nor were we in need of photographers, lighters, or cake decorators.

We did get sucked into David’s Bridal, where in exchange for a $25 gift certificate, you physically had to make an appointment at your local shop, including an actual date and time that you would be there to try stuff on.  You sidle up to the counter and say, I want my $25 gift card, and they then point to calendar and say, what day can you come in?  I was like, “Uh, I’m not actually going to come in for like, a prescheduled appointment.”  The girl looked at my slyly and quietly said, “It doesn’t matter, just pick any day so I can write it down.”  So I picked January 30th at 11:30am.  “Which store do you live closest to?”  “Uh, the one in Michigan?”  “Oh.”  Pulling out her binder, she located the David’s Bridal in Ann Arbor and booked the appointment.  Damn.  I thought I had thrown her for a loop.  Well, maybe I will go in and see what sort of accessories they have.  But I refuse to go at my scheduled date and time.

Next, I kinda really wanted this white tote bag from Men’s Wearhouse (fyi, I JUST realized this store is spelled Wearhouse and not Warehouse…clever) with a heart on it that was made up of various words like “Fun” and “Love”.  But how do I get said tote bag?  Obviously by giving out all of Mark’s personal information including social security number and eye color.  Sorry babe, I really wanted that bag!

Two large and empty tote bags in hand (well, we did have the $25 David’s Bridal gift card in one), we made our way over to the Darcy Miller area, which was boxed off with some white pipe and drape and contained maybe 50 chairs.  Much smaller than anticipated.  The space doubled as the “couture” runway area for the high-end fashion shows to come, for some who’s-ever-heard-of-these-designers designers, as opposed to the “regular” runway area, where the David’s Bridal fashion show would take place.

Darcy Miller was a cute little woman who seemed a little bit anxious and dove right in to the topic at hand – how to make your wedding personal with these ideas-that-now-everyone-in-this-room-is-going-to-use-and-will-no-longer-be-personal – without much of an introduction or background.  She had some good practical ideas too, such as putting out cellophane bags so that guests can take home some of the centerpiece flowers.  We didn’t take notes like some people (I know, that’s so unlike me), but that was fine because most of the ideas were either currently or previously featured in the Martha Stewart Weddings magazine, a current copy of which we were each given, which was the most exciting giveaway of the day because those wedding mags are expensive!  We just got half our money back!  Score.

I did like seeing the photos of her own wedding: a Jewish ceremony at the Four Seasons in Manhattan (a venue that both my sister and I immediately recognized without being told, due to its featured prominence on various Bravo reality TV shows).  Black tie, 300 people, obviously so out of anyone’s normal price range, but beautiful nonetheless.  She HAS been the Editorial Director of Martha Stewart Weddings for 20 years so she clearly knows what she’s doing.

After she answered some benign audience questions, everyone evacuated the area as if it were on fire to get to the pending David’s Bridal runway show across the convention center.  Alternatively, some people jumped up to stand in line to meet Darcy and buy her wedding planning/scrapbooking book.  I think I can figure out how to glue pictures of wedding dresses into a binder without having to be told that this is the page for wedding dress pictures, thank you very much.

Which reminds me that there were women in the room with serious color-tabbed binders.  My sister pointed to a girl wearing a Maid of Honor sticker who was involved with writing in her oversized organizer and questioned whether or not I was disappointed that she too didn’t have a MOH wedding planner.  I think I’ll live.  Of course, we were not wearing our free designee stickers (Bride To Be, Maid of Honor, Mother of the Bride), since my sister has a serious sticker phobia and cannot even be near them.  Also, it’s embarrassing and we are obviously too cool for cheesy stickers.

After the presentation, we wandered down a few uncharted aisles, and then called it a day. It was starting to crowd up a bit, and we had pretty much seen what we’d come for.  We didn’t stay for any of the fashion shows, but we did find one craftswoman who makes beautiful paper flowers.  I may just order some from her to have at home rather than incorporating them into the wedding somehow.

image_8 These are paper flowers on this cake!

We wished there had been more crafty things or cool design elements, rather than mostly vendors from whom you could rent lighting, linens, Rolls Royces, or venues, or those selling flowers or cakes.  There were, however, some truly amazing cakes: towering ones, ones shaped like a animals, football helmets, Starbucks frappucinos, and more.

image_7 Huge!

image_4 These cakes would be good for a Superbowl party.

image_1 Fish cake with Frappucino cake behind it.  And then that lame little white cake that looks so sad next to them.

image This deer head with the shotgun shells was my absolute favorite cake.  I feel bad for the deer.  So morbid.

There also weren’t as many silly people as I had expected there to be.  Yes, there were a few veils (one involving Mickey Mouse ears), and some matching t-shirts; one white stretch limo with a bride decked out in a white mini dress, complete with satin pageant sash, but for the most part, people were disappointingly normal looking.

image_3 image_9

It was a fun experience overall, and I’m glad we went, just to have done it once in my life.  If my sister wants to go back one day when she’s planning her wedding, I suppose I could be convinced 🙂

Some other fun photos:

image_6A seriously glittery tablecloth, neon flowers and black and white striped chair covers:  Circus wedding?  Bat Mitzvah?  (Actually there was a fair amount of propaganda targeted at the Quinceanera crowd, so I suppose this would appeal to 15 year old sensibilities.)

image_5 This shiny-suited slickster was a “magician” meaning he did one card trick to get you in the seats and then proceeded to sell you a “magical” lighting, DJ, flower package deal.  His barker tried to rope us in.  I just wanted a photo, Lady!

image_2 One of the “runway” models.

Austin Politics + San Antonio History + Houston Cuisine = Texas Vintage

Mimicking the shape of the ubiquitous five-pointed star of Texas, I recently returned from a five-town tour of Texas.  The Texas Star is everywhere (note the State flag for one): granted all three of the following photos were taken within the Capitol building in Austin, where of course you would expect to find the star.  It was a fun game trying to find them – like in Disney where the Mickey head is woven into the wallpaper, carpeting, railings, etc.

IMG_1026Looking up under the domed ceiling of Capitol.IMG_1025Close up of domed ceiling – clearly showing TEXAS written between the star points.

IMG_1034Light fixture in one of the Congress chambers, also spelling out TEXAS in the lit star points.

IMG_1040Stars on yet another light fixture, and if you look closely, you can see one letter of TEXAS inside each metal point sticking out from the center of the chandelier.

Our route was actually more like two sides of an isosceles triangle: Austin to Gruene to San Antonio to Luling to Houston (and then to NYC for me, which just throws the whole star analogy out the window).

My dad recently celebrated a milestone birthday and wanted to take a family vacation to commemorate it.  Since my sister couldn’t take a whole week off, we came to her in Texas.  We all met in Austin (my first trip there) on Saturday and stayed until Tuesday, when we split up: my sister and her boyfriend going back to Houston to go to work, while my parents and I drove to San Antonio (also my inaugural trip there), by way of Gruene (I think it’s pronounced “Green”), and all meeting back up in Houston (by way of Luling for us) on Thursday afternoon.  It was quite the whirlwind trip, flying and driving to and fro.  I took five flights (Detroit-Chicago-Austin, Houston-NYC-Chicago-Detroit) and drove almost 300 miles (since the rental car was only in my name…another story there).

Between Austin, San Antonio and Houston, I was wowed by how dissimilar each place was. Austin seemed to be very new, with super-long blocks and expansive office and apartment buildings of glass and poured concrete that could be in any city from Atlanta to Charlotte to Baltimore.  I didn’t see many buildings I would consider historic, or even old looking, unless you count 1960s architecture to be old.  I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at the city’s scale (everything’s bigger in Texas, right?) but I was expecting to be able to walk everywhere, when driving was clearly the better choice.

On our first day, we visited the Lydon B. Johnson museum and library on the University of Texas campus.  Massive:

IMG_0964This was the first Presidential library/museum I had ever been to, and besides just having read The President’s Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy (which was a sometimes slow but captivating book about the behind-the-scenes relationships and interactions between the Presidents from Hoover on, which I highly recommend if you are a political history buff), I didn’t know too much about Johnson: became President when JFK was assassinated, failure to end the Vietnam War overshadowed the his progressive domestic policies, including civil rights, Medicare and environmental protections.  (FYI, the book has an eye-opening chapter on the Johnson-Nixon relationship that basically says Nixon is responsible for dismantling Vietnam peace talks such that Johnson would not be able to end the war before the elections of 1968, which Nixon won.)

The museum focused predominantly on Johnson’s Texas upbringing (the only President to be born, educated and pass away in Texas, and so they say the only “true” Texas President; ouch for George Bush), his assertive and sometimes pushy way of getting things done in government, his never-ending drive and work ethic, and of course on his domestic policies. Not having lived through his era in order to form a first-hand opinion, the museum did a good job of creating a positive image of Johnson in my mind: obviously the point.

IMG_0970 Johnson in his classic finger-pointing pose.  (Imagine he’s pressing that finger into your shoulder; you’d agree to do whatever he wanted.)

Another interesting note was that Johnson installed recording devices all over the White House, even in the bedroom, so that he would have thorough records when it came time to write his memoirs.  Hours of recorded phone calls between him, Jackie Kennedy, world and civil rights leaders, and many others are available for listening on wall-mounted phones set up within the exhibits.

My favorite part of the museum was the wall of portraits of every President and First Lady (or other female figure if there was no First Lady).  If there were TVs back in the day, some of these people definitely would not have been elected.

My second favorite part was Lady Bird’s office.  She and President Johnson worked from the library after his term in office.  I love these orange-pink love seats and the “Can Do” motto on her desk.  I think LBJ and Lady Bird were optimists, and they would have excited those around them to work hard and do better…or at least that’s what the museum would have you believe.  I’m sold.

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Next it was off to the Blanton Museum of Art, the UT art museum.  The main entryway had been painstakingly mosaicked with tiny blue and grey tiles creating this amazingly beautiful water effect: IMG_0989

While I found the contemporary exhibit by Brazilian artist Waltercio Caldas pretty cool (think suspended pieces of yarn and fish bowls filled precisely to the top with water), the museum shop was the highlight, filled with wonderful goodies (as museum shops are wont to be), from crafty accessories to architectural utilitarian pieces like salad tongs.  Mom bought me a motivational book, Steal Like an Artist, for creative inspiration.

The next day we toured the State Capitol with all those stars pictured above.  What I found most interesting was learning about the recent 11-hour filibuster by Senator Wendy Davis in June against a proposed bill that would shutter most abortion clinics in the State.  She triumphantly made it until the close of session without water, food, sitting, leaning, speaking off topic, or a bathroom break.  And then they turned around, called two special sessions and passed it anyway.  Damn.  The whole tour got me kinda excited about making changes for the betterment of society.  Maybe I would be a good public servant?!?!  I have drive and good judgement.  Okay, Hannah, slow your roll….Here are some pics instead:

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IMG_1035Even the door hinges were Texas proud. IMG_1031 Look at those corded phones they have attached to the desk legs!  Apparently they are just chatting away the whole time anyone else is talking.  Wouldn’t they just use a cell phone?

IMG_1013 Probably the most architecturally interesting building I saw in Austin – the Capitol.

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What I found most creepy was that the Congressmen’s kids are Congress “mascots” and they have these sorority-like composites with each Congressman’s picture in a bubble.  All the kids are pictured too…I didn’t post the photo I took, as I thought it was already too much child exploitation hanging in the chambers.

That night we went to South Congress (SoCo) for dinner at a quaint Italian place with excellent thin-crust spicy arrabiata pizza.  SoCo is an awesome street for all kinds of food trucks (Thai crepes, everything bratwurst, anything else you can think of), flea markets and vintage shops.  I was seriously tempted by a ’70s sequined butterfly top but was brought back to the reality of having nowhere to actually wear it.

Then there were the bats.  Austin has a 1.5 million-bat colony that lives seasonally under the South Congress Bridge and flies out en masse at sunset to eat 20-30 thousand pounds of insects each night.  Walking under the bridge during the day, you can smell them and hear their chirps from the crevices.  I was amused by this “Bat Facts” sign that debunks bat myths like bats are blind (note picture of bats wearing sunglasses) and that bats get stuck in your hair.  Um, was this really a widely-held belief?  “Bats can catch tiny insects in total darkness.  They are certainly able to avoid blundering into people’s hair.”  This is an actual sign.  Probably paid for with taxpayer dollars.IMG_1048 IMG_1050 IMG_1049Hilarious.

IMG_1060 These dark clouds of what looks to be smoke are really clouds of bats. IMG_1063 IMG_1062

IMG_1061IMG_1065See if you can spot them over the tree line to the right in this last pic.

Of course you cannot go to Austin without seeing some live music.  Mom’s preference was bluegrass, so we headed out to the coffee shop by day, teeny tiny concert venue and bar by night, Flipnotics, to see The Bluegrass Outfit.  They were an awesome band made up of at least six guys of all ages, playing the guitar, banjo, mandolin, violin, bass and singing.  I’m not familiar enough with bluegrass to know if all bands are like this, but they were excellent at harmonizing and improvising and taking turns showcasing their instruments individually.  Very cool.

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My sister, her boyfriend, and I headed out to Sixth Street after the concert.

IMG_1079It was a Monday night, so the typical lively bar/music scene was pretty dead, with a few happening bars full of businesspeople in suits and names badges attending some conference.  I don’t think this girl riding the mechanical bull was attending a conference (or at least I hope not for her sake):

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There was this random Saran-wrapped carrot however (no idea):

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Also this sign that suggested this bar was open, which it clearly was not:

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Another interesting placard:

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And with that, on to Gruene.

Dad and I got dropped off at Enterprise to pick up our prearranged car for the trek around the State.  We were all set to go when the guy at the counter realizes we want to drop it off in Houston, not back in Austin, and proceeds to inform us that they aren’t doing one-way rentals at this time, nor is any other Enterprise in town.  (Mind you, this is not a walk-in off the street rental, my dad had reserved it in advance.)  Wellllllll, we’re going to be in Houston, soooooo….yeaaahh.  We quick did some Googling and found a Hertz that would do a one-way rental, and the Enterprise guy was nice enough to drive us over there.  Sigh of relief.

About an hour southwest of Austin, Gruene is a quaint, touristy town, with a well-known restaurant, The Gristmill, where we ate juicy pulled pork sandwiches and super-fried super-sized peppery onion rings, washed down with cold Shiner Bocks.

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Gruene is also home to the oldest dance hall in Texas, antique stores, a general store (read: souvenir shop) and other gifty boutiques.  I found this strange but cool LOVE bracelet in a basket of $15 bangles in the antique shop (where everything was well-curated but not cheap).

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Gristmill overlooking the river:IMG_1094 IMG_1098

IMG_1102 IMG_1110 Huge wind chimesIMG_1113Coffee break IMG_1114 IMG_1115 Random rubber ducky with wings.

IMG_1116Cotton balls?

IMG_1117 IMG_1118 IMG_1120Oldest continually running dance hall in Texas

After that lunch-and-wander stop, Mom, Dad and I pressed on to San Antonio, 45 minutes to the southwest.  We checked into our Hilton Homewood Suites, noshed on the free dinner buffet (complete with frozen margaritas!) and then took an evening stroll along the Riverwalk.

IMG_1122Loved this punctured tin chandelier in the hotel lobby – reminded me of Santa Fe.

IMG_1125Free margaritas are the best margaritas.

IMG_1126 Also loved this ladies’ room nook for “supplies.”IMG_1128 Riverwalk by night.IMG_1130 Mariachi band along the Riverwalk.IMG_1132

San Antonio was not at all as I had imagined it would be.  I was thinking rustic, Southwest-style town.  It did have the most interesting architecture out of the Texas cities to which we traveled and certainly the oldest history, but it was overwhelmingly touristy.  Of course, we were tourists too, and mainly stuck to the downtown areas, but between the Riverwalk and the Alamo, it was kind of like a theme park.  All along the street across from the Alamo (which springs up on you in the middle of a city block) were those cheesy suck-you-in-with-how-bad-they-are establishments like Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, t-shirt souvenir shops, ice cream stores and a wax museum.  I could have been on the Ocean City boardwalk….or Inner Harbor Baltimore…either way. Those really aren’t the types of things I expect next to a historic landmark and battle site.

During the day, we saw businesspeople bustling about, and I’m sure they were rolling their eyes are our incessant picture taking.  But actually I think they were a lot of out-of-towners too, as San Antonio is definitely a bit of a convention hub.  At night, the city seemed to shut down and turn off all the lights.  Besides the Riverwalk, it was kind of spooky dark, and the people loitering along the sidewalks crazily shouting out to passers-by didn’t make me want to explore farther afield.

We obviously spent the first day at the Alamo.  Frankly, I hadn’t known a damn thing about the Alamo or the history of Texas before going there.  As our family tends to do, we spent hours upon hours covering every inch and reading every sign, before finally calling it quits for lunch on the Riverwalk (some very yummy shrimp and grits for me) and taking a touristy boat ride through the canals.

I’m not going to try to recount the whole Alamo history here because you can just Wikipedia that yourself, so here are some photos from San Antonio:

IMG_1136 IMG_1137 We went to The Briscoe Western Art Museum, which is brand new and had just opened that weekend.  They had a replica of a Wells Fargo mail stagecoach, the real Pancho Villa’s saddle, Santa Anna’s sword, a model of the battle of the Alamo complete with tiny soldiers, and wonderfully dynamic bronze sculptures of cowboys wrangling steers that actually looked like they could leap off the plinth and charge away any moment.  I especially liked the early 20th century sepia photos of stoic Native American chiefs.

IMG_1139 You can just make out the strings of holiday lights hanging from the trees.  They won’t be lit at night until the holiday season but it takes them months to hang each strand from the upper branches.  That would be a scary job for those afraid of heights.

IMG_1140 Window washers on the Riverwalk – also a scary job. IMG_1147 IMG_1149

Sculpture in the square

IMG_1152Old hotel and trolly meet modern Bud Light truck. IMG_1154 IMG_1158 Guard at the Alamo wearing a cowboy hat natch.

IMG_1159 IMG_1163 IMG_1164 IMG_1165 Inside the AlamoIMG_1166  IMG_1168 IMG_1172

IMG_1175 IMG_1178Lunch at Boudro’s on the Riverwalk.  Look at those yummy shrimp and grits – spicy!

IMG_1184 Our riverboat guide.

IMG_1194Gargoyle rain spouts.

After two nights in San Antonio, we set out Thursday morning for Houston.  Some crazy storms had rolled through the area with the threat of flooding, so we were closely watching the weather to avoid it in Houston.  Luckily it had come through San Antonio during the night and cleared out of Houston by the time we arrived.

For lunch we stopped in Luling, a town of about 5,000, east and slightly north of San Antonio.  Here we went to the famous City Market (apparently there’s an outpost in Houston too), a sell-it-by-the-pound BBQ joint with tender smoky brisket and limited choices.  Not like, “pulled pork sammy please;” more like, “a pound of ribs please” (and let me unbuckle my pants while I’m at it).

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IMG_1233 Here’s the smoker room where you ordered your meat, pickles and slices of white bread from the hard-hatted men; also where you get perfumed with meat smoke for the rest of the day until you shower again.  I tried to stealthily take this no-flash photo as these guys seemed like the no-nonsense, just get your meat and go types.  However, my attempt at low-key-ness was completely voided by Dad taking multiple flash photos while the burly men in front of us were ordering.  OMG Embarrassing.

Dad, if you have those photos, please forward 😀  Hehe love ya!

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IMG_1235At the front counter is where you order sides (potato salad or chips) and drinks.  Besides some of the people working behind the counter, Mom and I may have been the only women in there.  There were guys in cowboy hats, guys with corporate polos and large belt buckles, farm hands and oil men, all coming in for a lunch composed of giant slabs of brisket or ribs.  Feeling completely stuffed and smoked out, we strolled down the main street that looked like something out of an old Western, with those high front walled shops and a portico running along the sidewalk.  The only difference being the parking spots for cars instead of horses.

IMG_1229 I liked this coffee mug/oil rig logo.  Who’s their marketing team?  Should they really be comparing their coffee to oil?

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IMG_1237 IMG_1236 I’m glad they clarified that this is an unofficial map.

The high school team mascot is the Eagle…unfortunately we weren’t there at night to see a football game.  That would have been a true-small-town-Texas awesome experience.

After lunch, we were on the road again, heading to Houston.

IMG_1245Lovely sunset.

We met up with my sister, her boyfriend and his parents for dinner at Goode Co. Seafood.

IMG_1247Goode Co. is a Houston-only chain of various restaurants, including a BBQ place (been there, it’s great, love the traditional stand-in-cafeteria-style-line, order, pick-up, eat at outdoor picnic tables, big barn ambiance), a taqueria, the seafood restaurant and the Armadillo Palace (BBQ, bar, music…I must go there (said in robotic hypnotized voice)).  Still feeling completely overwhelmed by lunch, I had a Caesar salad with shrimp for dinner, which was fresh and light.

Thennnnnn my sister and I proceeded to hit up a coffee shop that sells Fluff Bake Bar goodies (a bakery that sells its products through local food establishments).  On the recommendation of a friend, we sought out these treats and had a nice little sampling spread.  From the top down:

IMG_1249Moonpie, snickerdoodle, fluffernutter, homemade Oreo with orange frosting, another fluffernutter.  My fav was the Oreo with crumbly chocolate cookie bits.  My sister preferred the moonpie.

Thennnnnn we went to Underbelly (trendy, Food&Wine mag type place) for a second dinner and glass of wine at the bar.  (Remember how I said I was still stuffed from lunch?  Right.  That didn’t stop me.)

IMG_1252Korean braised goat and dumplings.  Super spicy and good.  The dumplings were a little bit crispy on the edges but chewy in the center, and the pulled goat ragu was melt-in-your-mouth tender.

The next morning, my sister and I woke up early to head over to the Harwin district to shop the wholesale jewelry stores.  My sister wasn’t sure she remembered exactly which store she and her friend had been to before, but it didn’t matter because within a few block radius were multiple strip malls and warehouses selling wholesale handbags, clothes, jewelry and whatever other consumer goods you might find at the mall.

While we were boutique-hopping in Austin, I kept pointing out costume jewelry that I liked – a sparkly necklace here, a beaded bracelet there – and she’d say, “Don’t buy it here for $20, that same thing will literally be $5 in Houston.”  And she was pretty much right.  It’s amazing how in a store full of cheap items you can end up spending a lot of money.  J. Crew bubble necklace for $10?  I’ll take two!  Enamel bangles for $5?  Yes please!  $90 later…..It’s like my theory on Target: no matter the stated reason you go to Target, you can never leave without spending at least $100.  Oh, you just came in for a roll of toilet paper?  Well don’t forget to add on that sweater, pair of faux-suede booties, mascara and a new teapot, et voila, $100.

Super psyched about our bountiful takedown at the wholesale shop, we proceeded to pick up my parents and head over to Nordstrom for some wedding dress shopping.  Since I already wrote all about that here, I will proceed with our other shopping finds of the day.

Between our bridal appointments at Nordstrom and BHLDN, we drove over to The Heights neighborhood of town where my dad wanted to check out some vintage stores.

IMG_1261Now you might think it odd that a man in his 60s wants to browse some vintage clothing stores, but here’s the back story:  His grandfather (my great-grandfather in case you didn’t make that connection), Papa Joe, made western style shirts for a living in the garment district of New York back during the first half of the last century.  The shirts were the special-occasion kind with pearl snaps and were quite popular and widespread.  The company no longer exists, so whenever we are out West or have the opportunity to vintage-store shop, my dad is always on the lookout for the multiple labels under which they were produced.  Not that he wants to buy any; it’s just a fun game to try to spot them.  It’s been harder and harder to locate them over the years, and one of the store proprietors told us that really old shirts like that don’t come along very often (mostly you find stuff from the 70s and 80s) and when they do, they are typically very expensive.

My sister did, however, find this super cute, quilted denim vest (much better than “Denim Vest” from “Seinfeld”)

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Lots of glasses and boots:

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A quirky neighborhood, this bejeweled Aqua Net trash can made me think of my grandmother:

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Funky car and a pink bench with matching flower pot:

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We went to Eddie V’s high-end steakhouse (actually it’s a high-end seafood place, but we all got steak on another friend’s recommendation) for my dad’s birthday dinner celebration that night.  The filet I had was perfectly cooked, as were the sides of mushrooms and asparagus.  Think nice steakhouse a la Ruth’s Chris, but less butter, and even better than Capital Grille.  I would equate it to The Oregon Grille in Hunt Valley, although that’s about my all-time favorite restaurant, so I would never say something comes 100% to that level.

The dessert was out of this world, however: a key lime ice cream baked alaska!!!!  I can’t upload the video here, but here’s a shot of the flaming concoction (post-fire):

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Way too early the next morning, I hit the airport for my flight to NYC for a friend’s birthday (same friend that wisely suggested Fluff Bake Bar).  It was so nice to see her, and singing post-dinner karaoke in Koreatown was the perfect ending to the fun-filled and hectic week.  As an added bonus, my cousin happened to be out in Murray Hill when we were done with karaoke and we met up for a drink to ring in the end of daylight savings time (extra hour was a double bonus)!

What a fantastic trip full of funny adventures, delicious (and way too much) food, exciting shopping treasures and excellent company all around.

xoxo

I Got A Wedding Dress!

Okay, obviously I’m not going to post a picture of the one I’m actually going to wear – it has to be a surprise!  But keep reading to see some of the options 🙂

Two weeks ago in Texas, my parents, sister and I went to the Nordstrom Bridal Suite (the Nordstroms with bridal departments are so few and far between we had to go to the one in Houston) and BHLDN, the bridal store associated with Anthropologie, of which there are only 3 stores in the country, and luckily one of them is in Houston also!

I tried on lots of pretty dresses, and I was contemplating one at BHLDN and one at Nordstrom.  However it is shocking and disheartening how different a dress can look in the mirror versus in a photo.  (Sorry dad for getting annoyed at all the photos – they were quite helpful in the end.)  For instance, the one that I liked at BHLDN was a V-neck, ivory colored, sheath style with art deco-patterned beading.  It was different than what you might consider a traditional wedding dress and looked great in the mirror.  It was definitely the best one I had tried on during the day and because BHLDN creates sizes that you purchase and then have tailored at your own seamstress (as opposed to many bridal collections where the designer makes a dress to fit your measurements and then has fittings to get it just right…a process that can take over 6 months), the size 4 pretty much fit me and probably only needed an inch off the hem and tightening of the straps.  I was so excited to maybe have found THE dress!  Later in the day, I asked my dad to show me the photos he had taken of the various dresses, and I was distraught when I saw the picture of this dress.  The golden color, the empire waist and the very delicate beading on the bodice made it look like I was wearing a huge, nude-colored maternity bra!  Ew! Not flattering!  I will spare you an embarrassing picture and let your imagination run wild with this.  How disappointing that #1 in the mirror actually looks like poo in the pictures.

At Nordstrom, I tried on all sorts of cuts, from sheath to A line to modified ball gown.  Surprisingly, I really liked the full organza skirting and sheer straps on this Anne Barge “Emmanuelle” gown (this link will only get you to the collections page, then you have to hit “Anne Barge” under “Fall 2013,” scroll over to the right 7 clicks, and then the Emmanuelle style will be the dress farthest to the right at that point…the model is wearing a flower and net fascinator), which isn’t the style I was anticipating liking going into the day.  I think the wide cummerbund-style waist was very flattering, but the $3000+ price tag was not as attractive.  Next.

Here are some of the others I tried on that day:

dress 2This was the first one I tried at Nordstrom, and I really liked it for the beading and interesting sheer cut out pleats at the bottom.  The straps were thin and delicate so as to show off the back.  Contemplating the dress later, however, I didn’t love it, and I wouldn’t want to face buyer’s remorse, seeing as I have more than a year until our wedding.  That’s a long time to change your mind/find something better.

dress 3This is the first one I tried at BHLDN.  Sort of a ’20s art deco style (as were most of their dresses this season) with the silver beading in triangle patterns, translucent buttons down the front leading to a high front slit and flouncy cap sleeves.  I liked this for the artsy styling, but I don’t think it flattered my body all that well, and I would have nixed the cap sleeves, although looking at this photo now, I kinda like them.

Not feeling 100% confident about any of the ones I tried on that day, I figured I would keep thinking and keep looking, probably back in Baltimore next time I was home.

My sister came to visit this past weekend, and she said she wouldn’t mind, and would even be happy, to keep looking for dresses in Ann Arbor if we could get appointments.  I knew there was a gown shop on Main Street, but after looking at their website, it seemed that most of their dresses would be out of my price range.  They even said on the website that there is a separate showroom for dresses under $1500 and that most of those are short dresses or samples.  Not wanting to spend thousands and thousands on a dress, I didn’t get the most promising feeling from this shop’s website.  And how icky to separate out those of us whose budgets might not be all the huge?  I still want to look at the crazy-expensive ones!

The weekend after our Texas trip, I went to NYC for a friend’s birthday party.  Her good friend went to grad school at UMich and suggested a shop called The Brides Project.  She said one of her friends found a dress there.  The Brides Project is a volunteer-run shop of “pre-loved” dresses that are donated by previous brides, as well as new dresses donated by boutiques and designers that have overstock.  All the proceeds from the sale of the dresses go to support “families touched by cancer through the Cancer Support Community of Greater Ann Arbor.”  I thought it sounded like a place I should check out – at the very least because I knew the dresses would be reasonably priced.

My sister and I made an appointment for Saturday morning and were met by two super cute and friendly girls about my age.  The volunteer wedding stylists run the shop out of donated space so it’s not the fanciest of bridal salons, but it clearly serves the purpose of warehousing many many many dresses.  After washing our hands (because the dresses on the racks are the ones you buy – there’s no making dresses to fit your specifications here – and they don’t want them to get dirty), we started combing through the racks and racks of dresses, sorted by size.  We pulled anything that caught our fancy, no matter the size, because The Brides Project works with a seamstress who discounts her rates and apparently can work miracles resizing, tailoring and changing the dresses.

dress 1I really liked this one – especially the neckline and straps, – and would go so far as to say it was my runner up.  But it was a bit heavy for a beach wedding and I would have had to make some semi-major changes to the waistline, ruching on the front skirt panel and taken out some of the extra skirt material.

Here is another one I liked for the lower waistline (after realizing that empire waist is not my jam and just makes me look preggers) and low V-neck.  Also the back was beautiful with a little bit of draping falling to the waist: see the second photo below.

dress 4                               dress 4I think the back was my favorite part of this dress.

The straps would have had to be taken in a bunch and there was some weird stiff puckering in the boob area.  It would’ve been too much of a risk to see how the tailor could have managed that since you have to buy it first before tailoring.

Then I tried on a dress that seemed to be perfect (or as close as I’d gotten to date)!  It had the details I was looking for:  V-neck, not too long, very tiny train.  That’s all I will divulge, except that I do need the tailor to do a bit of touching up and shortening of the straps.  There’s no label in the dress, so I have no idea if it was handmade or what its story is.  I do think it was worn though and not a new overstock designer dress.

I also tried on an Amsale gown and a Pronovias dress (two well-known wedding designers that would have been a lot more expensive in a traditional bridal boutique), and apparently a Vera Wang gown recently came through that was obviously bought quite quickly.

My dress was $300, and I couldn’t be more excited about it and the fact that I’m helping a great cause in the process!  Also, they said they are always looking for volunteers to be wedding stylists in the shop and that they only come in 1-2 times per month when there are appointments (they are open by appointment only), so that may be a super fun volunteer activity for me.  The only downside would be if I saw some other amazing dress come into the shop.  Although at these prices, I perhaps could afford to change my mind one time! 🙂