El Chile Cafe Y Cantina

1809 Manor RdAustin, TX 78722 • (512) 457-9900 • elchilecafe.com
There is a bit of a Floridian vibe going on here if you ask me, with its pastel, aqua green walls and the sizeable patio out front. But the menu is full on TEX-MEX from the puffy tacos to the margaritas, which make a long day all worth it.Speaking of puffy tacos, if you’ve never had them, they are essentially fried taco shells that puff up around varying ingredients. Of the three we had though, I only found the veggie to be great, made with portobellos as the star. So skip the chicken and the pork.

The guac is also good, but the salsa is just friggin’ weird. It’s NOT salsa. I don’t care what local custom this is supposed to be, but that is the poorest excuse for salsa I have ever had.

I also didn’t love the habanero carrot sauce, mostly because it’s extremely lacking in heat considering that it’s supposedly made with habaneros.

For dessert, I thought the tres leche was pretty good, but it is simply outmatched by the chocolate pecan pie, which just might be one of the best I’ve ever had. So dense and rich with dark chocolate that you will contemplate ordering a second slice to take home.

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Torchy’s Tacos

1311 S 1st StAustin, TX 78704 • 512) 366-0537 • torchystacos.com

Can 1458 Yelpers be wrong? Yes. Yes they can. Granted this local legend has multiple locations around Austin, so this is only an indictment of the one in the trailer, located at the address above. That said I have a hard time believing the food varies drastically from spot to spot based on the consistent, glowing reviews, so take this as you will…

Sadly, beyond the queso I can’t really say I was impressed. So let’s start there, since it was the only highlight of the meal. Thick and creamy and spicy, it blows away that watery qurap they serve over at Kerby Lane. This is stick-to-ribs perfection.

But in terms of the breakfast tacos, which was the whole reason we came, I was nonplussed. I can make better at home. Shit, my eight year old son can make better. No, seriously! Both the Migas and the Wrangler left me scratching my head, and not just because of the dandruff. They weren’t super spicy, or super flavorful or well-balanced or anything even remotely worth mentioning, despite decent attempts to load them up with interesting ingredients like pico de gallo, green chiles, smoked brisket and huevos, naturally. But try as they may, I still walked away muy disappointed.

Kerby Lane Cafe

2606 Guadalupe StAustin, TX 78705 • (512) 477-5717 • kerbeylanecafe.com

Just steps away from the University of Texas campus, Kerby gets a ton of business from students who are either nursing a hangover or feeding the munchies. And as a result, the reviews on Yelp are insanely skewed if you ask moi.

The queso is not the second coming. It’s just okay and nowhere near as good as the hype makes it out to be. It’s way too watery and compared to Torchy’s, let’s just say it gets torched.

The pancakes are crap. Dry and flavorless. Don’t let that picture fool you. The Cinnamon Roll being only marginally better than the Lemon Poppy, but that’s not saying much. In fact, I think Kerby owes my stomach a formal apology for these discs of disappointment.

Also unworthy of my jaw muscles was the Cuban benedict, which sounds great on laminated paper, but is so overcooked you’d think they were try to kill the chicken who laid the eggs.

The only thing I can say was even mildly decent was the green chili mac & cheese with fried chicken. It’s good. But even that needed extra chili to give it enough kick. I did like how the fried chicken remained crispy even though it sat in a bowl of creamy mac though. What I did not like is that the mac and cheese is school cafeteria grade. And what I actually hate is when a typical diner gets inflated into a legend.

The Salt Lick

18300 Fm 1826 Driftwood, TX 78619 • (512) 858-4959 • saltlickbbq.com

I haven’t seen a restaurant of this scale since Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa.

It’s like a compound with a parking lot that rivals most shopping malls and lines so long they could teach Disney a thing or two; the wait for a table was two hours long, yielding an outdoor waiting area that is the size of most large restaurants. Even the line to return your buzzer when you actually do get a table was crazy long. In fact, the only reasonable wait was to place a take out order, which only took a mere 35 minutes. And then we ate at our “waiting table.” Also, fortunately the line to get booze while you kill time is much more civil.

Naturally after all of that hype and anticipation, you have to be wondering if it was worth it? And my honest answer would be… ish. The sausage is a bit of a letdown. As are the pork ribs. And the slaw and bean sides are nothing more than placeholders. But hot damn are the beef ribs good. As is the brisket with bread as soft as a baby’s bottom and the pickles to boot.

For dessert the chocolate pecan pie is decent, but is no competition to the one at Chili (not the chain, the restaurant in Austin). Whereas the blackberry cobbler proved to pack some serious complexity in it. Mucho me gusto!

But food aside, that’s not why you have to go to The Salt Lick. It’s just one of those seven wonders, you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it kinda places. There’s a vineyard and a bocce court and live music and a grilling pit the size of a Sherman tank (pictured). Sure, it’s a bit of a drive and in the middle of nowhere, but the scale and awe will make it all worthwhile. Particularly if you stick with the beef ribs and the brisket.

 

Gourdough’s

1503 S 1st StAustin, TX 78704 • gourdoughs.com

This place has a sense of humor about it from the name, a play on the Spanish word gordo, which means “fat,” to the guy inside the Airstream dishing out jokes about as freely as they dish out calories. Even the menu items are one pun after another, and the price, while steep for a donut, is diffused by the light-hearted declaration in the form of pennies, which makes everything sound cheaper.

As a base, the donuts are not your cake-like variety. They are more akin to Krispy Kreme when they come hot out of the oven, the sweet dough evaporating in your mouth almost as if it were cotton candy. But what makes these donuts truly muy bueno is the stuff on top.

Exhibit A. The Squealing Pig. A shot put-sized doughnut smothered in cream cheese icing and strawberry jalapeno jelly, then topped with even more jalapeno’s of the candied variety and as the name would suggest, bacon. It’s about five different kinds of wrong that somehow come out tasting so very right. And I’ve had my share of bacon donuts in my past, but this one beats the livin’ pork out of ‘em!

My other fav was the Funky Monkey. Again with the cream cheese icing, but this one is topped with freshly grilled bananas and brown sugar. Just W-O-W-!

In third I would give it to Sara’s Joy. This time with a fudge icing, coconut filling and shaved coconut on top. Now I have no clue who Sara is, but I like the cut of her jib. And the topping of her donut. She apparently has a soft spot for coconuts and eating killer donuts that make your stomach its bitch.

Coming in a strong fourth, the Son of a Peach. Almost as fun to say as it is to eat. Blessed with a cake mix topping, filled with peaches and dusted with cinnamon. It’ll do ya right, and by that I mean you will feel like a donut just had its way with you. Granted that’s pretty much true of any of them. Every last one of them is a beast, so bring a big appetite if you want to tame it.

Emmer & Rye

51 Rainey St. Austin, TX 78701(512) 366-5530 • Emmerandrye.com Emmer-and-Rye-2015-Austin-restaurant-grain-salad_142903

Born from a French Laundry graduate and found on many a Best of Austin list, Emmer and Rye makes you earn your experience before you even arrive, proving to be quite the trek from the heart of town, located on the far fringe of the booze district, which makes it especially fun to walk to, passing a Mardi Gras-esque scene to get to your grub. But as off-putting as the journey is getting there, the setting is really quite lovely. Somewhere between chic and quaint, the décor nails it with rustic details like an herb garden out front, mixed with more contemporary elements like clean white subway tiles contrasted against oiled bronze hardware.

As for service, I’d like to say that it was great, because they were definitely friendly and accommodating, but when it came to their recommendations they seemed a bit out of touch. Also, while the dim sum cart concept starts off charming, it quickly turns extremely annoying because they are constantly interrupting you every two minutes, making it impossible to carry a conversation. Someone needs a rethink methinks.

Worse still, the intrusive dim sum went a miserable 1 for 4, the worst dish being the lamb tartar with green cherry tomatoes and charred fennel oil. It sounds as good as it looked with it’s beautiful crescent-shaped presentation, but texturally it was very chewy and it didn’t boast the kind of flavor one would hope. For more impressive raw flesh, try the Bison tartar at Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis. It rocks the wool off of Emmer & Rye’s. Then there were two completely unmemorable dishes in the middle and thankfully one resounding winner, which was not only the best dim sum of the night, but the best dish of the night. A green strawberry soup served in a meyer lemon sabayon. It might just be an ultimate for strawberry-kind.

As for things ordered off of the menu, I’ll work from high to low with the peak being the red fife spaghetti ‘Cacio E Pepe,’ made with Challerhocker cheese and chicory. Aptly referred to as an “adult mac & cheese,” it lives up to the description quite handily and deliciously.

After that I’d go with the soft polenta adorned with fermented mushrooms, fresh shiitake and mint marigold spuma (Italian soda). It’s definitely good, but I’m not sure if soft polenta is even capable of being bad.

I felt similarly about the burrata toast with straciatella, kale, mustard frill and black butter. A convoluted, self-indulgent chef’s (Kevin Fink) attempt to make something unique out of a dish that would’ve been every bit as good, if not better, had he just kept it simple.

So after a myriad of mediocrity I decided to skip dessert in favor of one last spoonful from the bowl of green strawberry soup. So good.

2 teeth

Walton’s Fancy & Staple

609 W 6th St. Austin, TX 78701(512) 542-3380 waltonsfancyandstaple.com

honey-bee-cake-delicious

I’m not really sure where the fancy is, because it’s definitely not in the décor. Not that it’s a shithole or anything, but fancy it ain’t. It’s your run of the mill counter service café with some prepared foods and several made-to-order options listed on huge boards overhead. Maybe they were going for irony?

As for the staple side of the equation, I think I get it. All of the dishes are your basic staples from sandwiches to French toast to shrimp and grits (a southern staple). But each of them has a little twist, which I suppose could be construed as “fancy,” but I still think that’s being generous with the term. Very caught up on this fancy thing as you can see. Lost a lot of sleep.

As for the “fancy” twists of which I speak, the shrimp and grits was actually the best I’ve ever had, fancied up with blackened shrimp placed over a bed of jalapeno, cheddar grits. It is a savory, spicy masterpiece.

The other fancied up dish was the crème brulee battered French toast, which was good, but not great. It’s just too damn big for its own good. It’s a fatal mistake I see time and time again. Restaurants all trying to get tricky with different batters, coatings, breads and portion sizes, when the only thing that really matters at the end of the day is to soak the bread through and through for fuck sake! How hard is it? Just do that and I could care less about the brioche, challah, raisin walnut, caramelized, bread pudding, burnt brown butter, cinnamon dusted, macerated apple topping.

Back on the plus side, their chai latte is pretty damn skippy.

3 teeth

 

Blue Dahlia Bistro

1115 E 11th St. Austin, TX 78702(512) 542-9542 • bluedahliabistro.com

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Just down the street from the painfully long line at Franklin’s Barbecue you’ll find a place that looks like it belongs in Berkley, CA with its granola vibe and granola-hipster patrons. Cozy, earthy, wood elements cover just about every surface with a large communal table in the middle, a la an LPQ (Le Pain Quotidien).

Unfortunately the food isn’t as good as an LPQ, which is disheartening that it can’t even best a global chain (granted a very good global chain), but Blue Dahlia isn’t a all-out miss per se, it just barely passes mustard. Speaking of which, the special frittata could’ve used some. Or habanero sauce, which is what I used to bring the gorgonzola, spinach, onion and peppers back from the dead. But even that wasn’t enough to mask the bad toast and lame salad they tried to pawn off with it.

The smoked salmon platter was also just okay, but I find it hard to fault a place in Texas for its lox when I’m coming from New York- #lowexpectations.

And the pomegranate lemonade, while also “just okay,” was not so okay because it was the compromise I was forced to make because they don’t have fresh squeezed juice. Not even the pseudo-fresh kind! We’re talking Tropicana! What kind of self-respecting, granola, Berkley-wannabe doesn’t have fresh juice?! I’ll tell you… The kind that’s “just okay.”

2 teeth

Odd Duck

1201 S Lamar Blvd. Austin, TX 78704 • (512) 433-6514 oddduckaustin.com

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I was in town for SXSW and had heard that Austin had some serious culinary game, so after doing copious amounts of recon before our travels, I came upon one recurring must, the Odd Duck. Over and over people said it was hands down the hottest, bestest place in townest. And being the little instigator that I am, I just had to waltz on over there packing chips on both shoulders.

Inside the duck, the décor is very casual, with not much to it, yet just enough cues to make it feel somewhat cool and contemporary, although I can’t honestly say why I felt this way. I just sensed it. Maybe it was our server, who started off with a chip or two on his shoulders as well, wanting to prove to the Yankee scum before him that Austin has skillz. Well, sadly he won, because these small plates packed some big flavor.

Starting things off, we enjoyed the goat brie with jam, a white balsamic syrup and multi grain crackers. It is bone simple and bone delicious. It can also be found on the dessert menu, depending on how you roll with the fromage.

After the strong start, however, it was followed up by two of the weakest dishes of the night, the sweet potato and the pig face buns. The pig face was rapped inside a Parker house roll sitting in a pool of mustard and it wound up tasting a lot like a pastrami sandwich from a kosher deli. Good, but not at the level of anything else we had. And while the sweet potato was also fine, with its green chile, nacho spice and fried skins, I’m really not gonna get into it, because we have bigger and better dishes to get to.

At the tippy top, an Ultimate two times over, was the jerk spiced pork belly, served over a cheddar rice cake and complemented with the genius addition of fresh strawberries, giving it a pop of sweetness to accent the heat, along with a little moisture to quench the fire. It was ire mon!

Another fantastic dish was the duck fat fried rice (duck had to be on the menu somewhere, right?) loaded with goodies like a soft egg that oozed all through the rice, Brussels sprouts, chile and ez cheese, which I am so conflicted about I can’t even tell you, but it was so good that when I later die from it, I need to go back and re-read this review to remind myself that it was worth it.

Keeping the interesting coming, the braised goat with masa (tortilla dough) , queso fresco, peanut pipian (a sauce typically found in Mexican food) and lime mayo was such a genius blend of Middle Eastern and Mexican flavors.

Now, after such artistry and inventiveness, I had to double down on dessert going with the sensational cream filled donut brightened with orange, sweetened with honey, dusted with pistachio and bested by no one. Yes, Doughnut Plant and Peter Pan, you just got served!

But as good as that donut was, the second dessert was every diet’s worst nightmare. A pear butter cake made with bran, pecans and topped with vanilla bean ice cream. It was moist and dense and packed with so much yumminess, it was as if every pecan in the state of Texas were summoned into this little, round disc of delicious.

Easily the best meal I had in Austin and a very Texas-big four knives.

4 teeth

Micklethwait Craft Meats

1309 Rosewood Ave. Austin, TX 78702 • (512) 791-5961 craftmeatsaustin.com

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There are several pockets of food truck restaurants throughout Austin, but some, like Michlethwait, are not your average bear. Meaning there is no brick and mortar location as back up. It’s just the truck. But even that isn’t entirely accurate either, because the truck is a permanent fixture on a pretty sizeable plot of land surrounded by picnic tables with an equally sizeable parking lot and a smokehouse with a trellis for shade overhead and a port-o-potty should nature call. So fancy it ain’t, but these are the kinds of places I love. No pomp and circumstance, locals only and off the beaten path.

So off, that it’s a bit out of the way, so if you don’t have a car, be sure to Lyft your way to and from. That, or maybe ride a bike to help burn off the gluttony. But however you choose to get here, it’s definitely worth the trek, especially if you’re in no mood to stand in line for eleven hours at Franklin’s for your BBQ. That’s not to say that there’s no line here, but it’s much more manageable, particularly before 1:00pm when things get more crowded.

For recommendations, I say go full on brisket. It is by far the most tender, moist brisket I have ever had, without having to rely on fattiness to get there. In fact, it’s so damn tender I think I might’ve teared up a little. So good, I would even forgo the bread and pickles and just go it alone with a drip or two of their crack sauce.

On the flip side, I found their pulled pork to be quite disappointing. Very dry and lacking flavor. I’ve had better at Salt Lick in the airport and Q in Westchester, NY. Yes, in Yankee Country! Them’s fightin’ words for sure, but I call it like I taste it.

The baked beans and lemon poppy coleslaw fell somewhere in the middle for me. Both definitely good, but I’ve also had better. For better beans try Daisy Mae’s in NYC or Sandfly in Savannah, GA. And for better slaw, I could go on for quite a while, but for shock effect, let me drop some knowledge on you about Fresh Direct’s spicy slaw. It’s killer with the Que.

For dessert, Mickle came back strong with one of the best pecan pies I’ve had since my best friend’s mother used to make it down in Florida (RIP). That and her spice cake were the stuff of gods. But now I’m starting to depress myself, so let’s get to the knife count…

3 teeth