Where to eat in January: Fried birds, burger joints, banh mi and more
In the coming months, Austin’s looking to welcome a slew of new restaurants to the scene. We’re happy that a few of them squeezed in during the last few weeks of December. We’ve got a few spots — new and old — worth checking out this January.
Elizabeth Street Cafe
At last, the long awaited Vietnamese-French concept from chef-restaurateur Larry McGuire of Lamberts and Perla’s fame has opened its doors and is firing on all cylinders. Located on South First and Elizabeth, this cozy little cafe serves a delectable menu of banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches), pho (noodle soup) and bun (vermicelli noodles in broth). Oh, and a fantastic array of French pastries from sweet-tooth Queen, Alexandra Manley.
On a recent mid-week visit, this chic little spot was jam packed. (Can’t imagine what it’s like on weekends.) My dining companion and I nabbed one of the cozy little tables arranged tightly in a row along the far wall of the cafe. By “tightly” I mean you can easily rub elbows with the neighboring party, but considering how small the space is, getting to know your fellow diners is all part of the charm. Speaking of charm, waitresses are cleverly decked out in matching tailored dresses in individual brightly colored patterns with comfy Tom’s shoes to complete the look. They look so cute all lined up against the order bar like a bunch of Vietnamese car hops, minus the roller skates.
We ordered a starter of fresh shrimp spring rolls and a salad of julienned mango and cucumber in a tangy vinaigrette. The spicy pork meatball banh mi on a fresh baguette was a divine indulgence but the veritable pots of gold arrived in the form of the beef pho and the signature spicy beef and pork Bun Ho Hue (soup) with lemongrass, chili oil, cilantro and sambal. The pho alone was spot-on with its silky, beautiful broth and tender morsels of flank steak. But the spicy beef and pork bun with thick, soft airy noodles has a kick that could cure any common flu or head cold. For dessert, a banana pot de creme with malted creme fraiche balls that had me wanting to hop in the pot and bathe!
The wine list is short and sweet, but brimming with perfect French-only wines that pair beautifully with this cuisine. (When in doubt, order the Chateau Le Freynelle white Bordeaux).
The cafe is open daily serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, an endeavor that hasn’t served other great Austin restaurants well in the past. Could this be the kiss of death? I’m not sure, but I certainly doubt it. Either way, Elizabeth Street has banh-ed mi over.
Drawing a steady crowd since its opening early last summer, this little corner spot deserves a visit, or two, or three. Named for chef Alma Alcocer Thomas of Jeffrey’s fame, El Alma brings the heart of interior Mexico to Barton Springs Road. Whitewashed in crisp white paint with colorful accents and artwork throughout, the bar alone is worth an end-of-day visit for a spicy Michelada or a sweet and creamy pinarita — ideal if you’re dreaming of the perfect island getaway. Built into the side of a limestone hill, the bar’s staircase is set a against a rock wall adorned with tropical plants and a waterfall and leads up to an expansive outdoor patio. The patio itself may be the best reason to visit El Alma, but the food takes that honor.
Start with thick handmade flour tortillas served warm with melted Monterrey Jack cheese, salsa picos and guacamole. You can get them with caramelized onions and mushrooms, but we loved them with pork al pastor with pineapple. The Veggie Verde enchiladas stuffed with spinach, mushrooms and poblano peppers are luxurious in their own right, but the camaron relleno with shrimp, fresh corn and sautéed mushrooms was divine. (We’ll soon be back to try the duck relleno, one of the restaurants top sellers.) To finish, I’m a big fan of the coconut-lime flan, but you can’t go wrong with ice cream and cookies and cajeta (sweet cream).
Brought to you by the same owners of El Chile, El Chilito and Red House Pizzeria, El Alma is a refreshing answer to authentic Mexican fare at a good price and without the typical Tex-Mex standbys.
Flat Top Burger Shop
Speaking of the family behind El Alma, El Chile, El Chilito and Red House Pizzeria, the Manor Road neighborhood east of I-35, recently welcomed yet another one of their winning restaurant concepts. Just before the holidays, Flat Top Burger Shop rolled open the large garage-door bays of a former filling station serving up a limited menu of what else? Burgers. But not just ho-hum burgers or even gourmet, over-the-top burgers, these are your “old school,” flat top grill, order-and-serve burgers made the old fashioned way. Fresh-cut fries, house-battered thin and crispy onion rings, sweet and tangy fresh lemonade and diner-style milkshakes — thick, of course, and made with Blue Bell ice cream — round out the menu.
The “original” burger is a delicious straightforward version of what you’d get in the 1950s, but the big hits on the menu are the grass-fed burgers and the vegan burgers. Both are offered with cheese as an option, which sort of negates the vegan selection, but the general public ordering them doesn’t seem to mind. With clean white walls accented with All American bands of red and blue and stark white wooden picnic tables spread throughout the two main rooms (and eventually outside), this veritable open patio has the sleek, updated modern twist that only the talent of interior designer Joel Mozersky could bring combined with a distinct laid back neighborhood feel.
Burgers come in white paper bags with your standard array of condiments, buns are soft and buttery, burgers are juicy but not greasy, and the fries are some of the best in town. The onion rings are, too. BYOB until this corner joint gets its liquor license. At which time, look forward to a broad bar along the back wall offering ice cold long necks and local brews icehouse style.
A well established Westlake spot for the past few years, the Grove continues to deliver on the primary pillars of great restaurants: consistency, good food and a great wine list. Not living in the area, my standard restaurant selections tend to hover in the downtown and South Austin realm. especially when I’m pressed to pick a reliable spot to eat at the last minute. But a good friend recently reminded me that heading west on Bee Caves every once in a while is worth the effort, especially for this place.
In the summertime (and pretty much any part of the year with a clear, sunny day), you can’t beat the large outdoor dining deck with one of their signature pizzas — I like the “Popeye with olive oil” with spinach, roasted peppers, bacon and goat cheese. The appetizer list includes crab cakes, steamed mussels, artisan cheese plate and a list of ten different bruschettas with pastas and gourmet sandwiches rounding out the menu. (There are a few entrees from the grill as well. Potato crusted salmon with lime-feta vinaigrette and sautéed broccolini is not only heart healthy, but delicious.)
Now that we’re in the colder months of the year, a meal here isn’t complete without a hearty cup (or bowl if you’re really hungry) of the venison chili rich with a spicy kick and topped with crisp house-made tortilla strips.
But let’s not forget that this place is a wine bar, after all. And not only that, but a wine retailer as well. The wine list is modest and deliberate — no large book binders to deal with here — but you will find an amazing range of wines from tropical New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs to crisp Austrian Gruner Veltliners to robust Italian Nebbiolo D’Albas and juicy Argentine Malbecs. Managed by wine expert Matt Berendt, the wines at the Grove are, in many respects, the best part of the restaurant. I like coming here for dinner, but to be honest, if you find yourself with some leisurely time for lunch someday soon, grab a table here from some great food — and perhaps a nice glass of wine.
Lucy’s Fried Chicken
Building a restaurant solely based on fried chicken isn’t something just any chef should do. But when you're James Holmes (of Olivia) and you can fry chicken better than a fleet of fifty Southern grandmothers, it may not be such a bad idea. At least Holmes didn’t seem to think so. Lucy’s opened a few weeks ago in a sleek Michael Hsu-designed spot tucked away on a side street (College Street) off of South Congress, Lucy’s is the namesake of Holmes’ second daughter — though he’s going to be in a lot of trouble if his sweet little girl grows up to look anything like the provocative buxom brunette on the restaurant's street sign.
It’s tough to single out just a few “must-haves” on the menu, but if you walk out of this Southern-style beer garden without trying a bucket of chicken, you’re making a mistake. Don’t look for big, Texas-sized pieces of chicken here. (The kind injected with growth hormones and heaven knows what else.) You can trust that these crisply fried birds are all natural and Texas bred. These all natural little nuggets are brined, battered and deep fried to perfection. If you must diverge from the crispy bucket of love, I’d recommend the grilled venison plate or the smothered pork chops. For sides, I’m partial to the crab-boil potato salad, but you can’t go wrong with cabbage braised in Pearl beer or oyster cornbread dressing.
Though you can enjoy a full bar at Lucy’s I’d like to give the restaurant a heartfelt pat on the back for serving a diverse line of local Texas brews including selections from Thirsty Planet, Real Ale and of course, Lone Star. And for loading the jukebox full of Texas tunes. Come summertime, there will likely be nothing but great beer and buckets o’ chicken for a packed patio of loyal Lucy’s fans.