This July, you can celebrate til your heart's content with backyard barbecues and poolside grilling. But when you need a break from your patio kitchen, here are a few of our top suggestions.
Vegetarians, vegans and even omnivores alike will find a little something special on the menu at this east side, hipster-style diner. With a coded menu identifying items as "raw," "vegan," "gluten free" and even "E2" (to indicate dishes that fall under Austin macro/plant-based/paleo diet devised by local fitness hero Rip Esselstyn).
Those who don't eat a strictly vegan diet may take pause at some of the menu items. You'll find a lot of "cashew cheese" to replace the creamy cow and goat originals, but many find it a perfect substitute. I find it exactly that: a substitute that can't really deliver on the flavor the "real thing" achieves.
While the vegan dishes left me wanting more, I love the dishes in the "raw" category. Especially the "rawvioli," which arrived as ultra thin slices of rutabaga blanketing a little cashew cheese with a little pesto. Delicious.
But at least it gives a wider variety to vegan and "lactose free" diets with dishes such as the "melt down," a spin on the classic tuna melt made with a garbanzo bean spread and melted cashew cheese. Considering the original mushy and smelly version made from canned fish and too much mayo, this is a really nice alternative.
However, the mighty cashew cheese failed to do wonders for "mac 'n cheese," which arrived as a bowl of dry elbow macaroni with a sprinkle of bread crumbs. (Though counter to a vegan diet, a little cheddar, asiago, parmesan and butter would have spiffed it right up.)
While the vegan dishes left me wanting more, I love the dishes in the "raw" category. Especially the "rawvioli," which arrived as ultra thin slices of rutabaga blanketing a little cashew cheese with a little pesto. Delicious. As was the spicy raw pad thai with kelp noodles, coconut and veggies tossed in a tasty ginger sauce.
Counter Culture may not satisfy every taste, but it certainly does a good job of offering a wide variety of flavors to those with a specific food aesthetic in mind.
New Chef, New Menu
You may know Trace for its commitment to sourcing most of the menu’s ingredients from local farms and purveyors. The restaurants recently welcomed Ben Hightower — formerly of Uchiko under Tyson Cole and Paul Qui — to the kitchen as Chef de Cuisine. As the bounty of summer ingredients has arrived through Hightower’s kitchen doors, he has used his Louisiana-born roots to create a menu that celebrates Southern comfort with a little spice as well.
My favorite is the redfish with a perky heirloom bean salad with a curried squash puree.
Crispy blue crab hush puppies are a "must," served with a spicy creole remoulade. Corn and fresh ricotta ravioli are the perfect comfort food dish balancing both sweetness and depth with the help of braised morel mushrooms and sautéed leeks. Hightower’s penchant for Gulf seafood extends through a selection of dishes including oysters, red grouper and redfish. My favorite is the redfish with a perky heirloom bean salad with a curried squash puree.
Of course, Hightower’s not the only shining star on deck at Trace. Start an evening off with a cocktail from Joyce Garrison — I like the Green Goddess with cucumber and Tru gin. And dessert from Janina O’Leary is a real treat as well, especially if it’s from the daily ice cream selection, which included simple lemongrass granita with berry sorbet and a dollop of dulce de leche on my last visit.
Ask Food and Beverage Director Sean Bradshaw to round out the experience with a few wine pairings. He’ll likely have you try a Mosel Riesling or a rosé from Southern France to add a little refreshment to the summer heat.
Earlier this year, Trio welcomed Chef Grant McDonald to the kitchen after celebrated Austin chef Todd Duplechan moved on to open Lenoir. And regulars to this lakeside locale at the Four Seasons couldn't be happier. While McDonald is definitely doing some great things to keep guests coming back, this summer he and his team have added something outside of culinary bliss to entice guests to dine here. It comes in the form of community contribution.
From June 19 through August 31, Trio is offering a special three-course dinner for $36 with ten percent of the proceeds benefiting I Live Here, I Give Here, a local non-profit aimed to inspire Central Texans to invest more money in the local community.
Though I’m usually a sucker for ceviche to start, we’re in peak season for tomatoes and the heirloom tomato gazpacho is not to be missed.
The menu allows you to choose from a selection of appetizers, entrees, sides and desserts not only to satisfy your palate but your good deed for the day, as well. Though I’m usually a sucker for ceviche to start, we’re in peak season for tomatoes and the heirloom tomato gazpacho is not to be missed. Seared grouper served with a tangy green mole and fresh pea shoots makes for a nice, light entree and peach crumble made from local Hill Country peaches if a perfect finish.
At least, that’s how I enjoyed my first “I Live Here, I Give Here” meal. Next time, I’m thinking the grilled quail with watermelon salad and the flat iron steak with potato puree will be my top picks.
Perhaps one of the real steals from this menu is the $14 wine pairing option where sommelier Mark Sayre offers a variety of hand-picked wines for each dish that takes the experience to another level — just as a dash of salt or a sprinkle of pepper might do. These wines are not your average Kendall Jackson or Robert Mondavi throwaways.
You'll taste generous pours of wines such as crisp and dry Hans Wirsching Silvaner (2010) from Germany; steely Domaine Sigalar Assyrtiko-Athiri (2011) from Santorini, Greece; and perhaps my favorite, the Stolpma Vineyards Syrah Estate (2009), which is one of the best American Syrahs I've ever tasted. If you like wine, this is an additional pairing, you won't want to miss.
Wholly Cow Burgers
New and Noteworthy
Originally located in the Zen Market on South Lamar, Wholly Cow has opened its own location at 6th and Congress serving up breakfast and lunch using all natural and local ingredients including grass-fed beef.
When it comes to burgers, the classic cheeseburger, or “Pure Single with Cheese,” sets a solid standard. Choose from cheddar, American, Pepper Jack or provolone to add to a juicy patty of grass-fed meat. It comes loaded with fresh lettuce, tomatoes, onion, pickles, and the usual assortment of red, white and yellow condiments. (Add a mix of hand-cut regular and sweet potato fries and you're set.)
If you’re not in the mood for burgers, you’ll also find a tasty assortment of chicken and veggie sandwiches including a spicy “Hellfire Cajun Chicken Salad Sandwich” and a real veggie burger made from grilled veggies served with a dollop of pesto between two portabello mushrooms.
Breakfast is served all day and though the French Toast is a fluffy Texas Toast sweet-tooth's dream, the breakfast tacos are some of the best around, stuffed with ingredients and served on slightly crisped flour tortillas with red or green salsa on the side. The “Letgo My Chorizo” is the best, but the simple "Cloud # Mine" taco with eggs, cheese and crunchy home fries is a close second.
Oldie But A Goodie
Definitely not a new kid on the block, Z Tejas has been delivering its Southwestern-inspired fare to Austinites since the 1990s. Of course, then it was an independent restaurant and now, it's part of a multi-location franchise. But that doesn't mean it doesn't still deliver good food. Go to either the midtown or north location for any weekday lunch and you'll still find a wait, and happy hours still attract a steady buzz.
This summer, they've added a few new things to the menu that are worth checking out. Of course, shrimp tostadas and Santa Fe smoked chicken enchiladas will always be a favorite in my book, but new items like citrus-glazed barramundi and creamy lobster ravioli give a little pizzazz to an otherwise very familiar menu.
If you miss one of their original entrees, the smoked pork tenderloin with a sweet potato hay stack, a newer version has arrived in the form of a grilled apricot-mustard glazed pork tender with a drizzle of cajun remoulade and a perky serrano-mint chimichurri. (Also served over chipotle rice with fresh grilled summer veggies.) The new barbecue duck tacos make a nice appetizer slathered with a thick and sweet barbecue sauce and crunchy cabbage slaw, they may not remind you of Central Texas barbecue, but they make a tasty starter nonetheless.
To finish, try something light, but indulgent with tequila-soaked sponge cake layered in tequila-spiked mousse with fresh berries. Sure, Z Tejas may not be in the lineup for top new restaurants to try, but it never fails as a reliable standby when you're just looking for something good to eat.