Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Eating Austin

I should get this out before what I'm eating here in Cajun country blocks the memory out. In all, Austin has been pretty good to eat in, and I still haven't had a bad meal there. Or, I should day, I haven't had any bad food.

The first night I was in, I naturally headed to Mexican food, and, on the basis of a report from a generally reliable source, the choice was El Mesón, a new place on South Congress, in the same group of buildings as the venerable Horseshoe Lounge. It was very spacious, well-designed, and had a gargantuan selection of tequilas, to which I am violently allergic. There was also a huge problem: there was no light. One tiny tea-candle the size of a quarter was all the illumination you get and, as you can see from this foodie site, the menu is printed on paper with a fake texture on it, rendering it totally illegible in the dark. I didn't want anything too fancy, so I got cheese enchiladas. They were luke-warm. I wasn't too happy. I went back later in my visit and figured I would get something fancier. I ordered tlacoyos, which can be fantastic: little "boats" of corn masa with beans in a little well, topped with salsa and onions, something I remembered from the long-vanished Elda's. Then I ordered pescado mojo de ajo, the fish in question being the now-ubiquitous tilapia. The waitress put down a small complementary dish of nopalitos in a red chile sauce, although she appeared not to know how to pronounce the word. "I'd better learn my grammar!" she chirped as she disappeared. They were okay, but nopalitos (cactus pads) are, by nature, very bland, which is why you scramble them with eggs and dried shrimp. The chile sauce was pretty good. Unfortunately, the grammar-deprived lass also forgot to put the tlacoyo order in to the kitchen, so they never arrived. The fish was okay, the accompanying rice had hard bits in it, and the pinto beans were soupy. I'll try them again on my next visit, but I suspect this won't become a favorite.

* El Mesón, 2038 S. Lamar. Open daily for lunch, Tues-Sat for dinner, Sat-Sun for brunch. 512-442-4441.

Saturday night, a couple of friends joined me for dinner at an old favorite of theirs I'd been recommended, T&S Seafood Restaurant. From the menu, this would seem to be Chinese-ethnic Vietamese food, since several dishes have Vietnamese names  appended to them. We started out with "shrimp roll," which appears to be a baguette-shaped pastry made with ground shrimp, green onions, and maybe powdered rice, baked and then fried and sliced, served with a sweet ginger sauce. It was astounding. Other dishes were salt-and-pepper shrimp, nothing like the ones I was familiar with, having a breaded crust, but delicious anyway; an eggplant clay-pot dish, also tremendous, and one other dish I can't remember. This place is now on the list, although a few days later when I was in the area I dropped by to see if I could get a dim sum lunch and was made to feel distinctly unwelcome. There were also no other customers. Stick to dinner, stick to seafood, and you'll be happy.

* T&S Seafood Restaurant, 10014 N. Lamar, Open 11am-2:30pm, 5pm-1am except Tuesday: 11am-2:30pm, 5pm-10pm. Tel 512-339-8434. 

Somewhere in the first couple of days, I lost my jacket at a restaurant, so I toured back to these two looking for it, with no luck. Discouraged and still wanting lunch after T&S, I saw what looked like a good place to get a Vietnamese meal, it being Tuesday, the day when my favorite, Tâm Deli, inexplicably closes. This tiny hole-in-the-wall proved to be an excellent substitute, with lovely, flavorful, packed barbequed pork spring rolls and a beef phô that was redolent of cinnamon, quite different from the others I've had, and, unlike at other places, a "small" portion was available, making this combo a great lunch. The owners seemed scarily anxious to please, to the point where I was a bit nervous, but don't let that put you off if you're in the neighborhood.

* Thanh Nhi Vientamese Restaurant & Sandwich, 9200 N. Lamar, #104. Open Mon-Sun 10am-9pm, Sandwiches 9am-10pm. Tel: 512-834-1736.

Austin has a plague of "fine dining" restaurants these days, some of which started out as one of the 1300 food trucks now infesting the city. The biggest buzz was for Foreign and Domestic, and I had a weary grad student to feed whose only requirements were interesting food and cloth napkins. It's in a weird location, at 53rd and Avenue G, so it's real easy to find. It was also one of the most bizarre eating experiences I've had recently. We started with beers, a Southern Star Pale Ale from nearby (but in a can!) for me, a Session Lager from the UK for her, mine more interesting, in my opinion. Then appetizers: a salad of celery and chicory with pickled beets, boquerones, orange, and mint for her and for me a smoked beef tongue croquette with carrot remoulade, cocoanut vinegar caramel, and dried shrimp. The salad was amazingly greasy, and I clearly won this round, since the tongue was nicely smoked, and the "remoulade" made a nice contrast. The server then deposited a free plate of the venison heart tartare with pig ears, yolk confit, and white chocolate on the table. I can see why it was free: I doubt it gets ordered a lot. It was just plain a bad idea: venison heart is an extremely assertive taste, not completely pleasant, but I'd use it in a snap if I were doing a terrine. Pig ears, which feature on other menu items, are like doggy chew-toys, all texture, no taste, but weird, right? And what the white chocolate, with a dusting of pepper, was doing on the plate is beyond me. Awful idea. Just awful. As for the main dish, she had the waygu steak with orzo, soft egg and ham-hock broth, and I had the "pork pie" with hard eggs, peanuts, and tamarind chutney. The steak itself was good enough, but why drown it in ham broth?

The orzo was undercooked to the point where some of it was raw, there was a smear of Chinese chile paste along one side of the bowl, for no good reason, and, well, what a way to ruin steak. I again scored the best: the "pork pie" was nothing more than a big slab of pâté en croûte, and a very good one. (It was the cornichons in the salady thing that tipped me off).

The peanuts were negligible and the chutney was a good idea. Verdict? These people are more into weird than good. Ingredients, technique, service impeccable. Thinking: muddy in the extreme. What a waste of good ingredients -- and expensive at that: a clean $100 with tip.

* Foreign & Domestic, 306 E. 53rd St. Open Tue-Thu 5:30-9:30pm, Fri-Sat 5:30-10:00pm. 512-459-1010

I also checked out, at a friend's recommendation, the Bombay Bistro, almost impossible to find in the Brodie Oaks Shopping Center on far south Lamar. The Goan curried mussels were interesting, but I need another visit to see why he's raving so much. I also went to Uchi on a night when my goddam sinus polyps decided to shut my taste down to about nothing, improving to about 10% as the meal went on. There are subtleties at work here I'd like to write about and can't, so a rematch is indicated. Incredibly friendly service from a knowledgeable staff, stunning presentation, and, if you're careful not to go bazootie with the alcohol, cheaper than Foreign & Domestic (where we did not go bazootie with the alcohol). I also want to try Uchiko, their "farmhouse cuisine" joint.

Yet to come -- because I haven't tried it yet -- Franklin's, the new barbeque sensation. Stay tuned. Meanwhile I hear a link of boudin calling my name.

1 comment:

  1. Extremely entertaining and uplifting as usual. Even the disappointments enlighten. Skipping dinner tonight (dieting), so perhaps it was a mistake to read this before tomorrow morning. Curtis Roberts


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