Austin’s The Roaring Fork: What Am I Missing?
I first tried the Roaring Fork when I was visiting a colleague who was staying at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel. We had drinks and shared a “Big-Ass Burger.” I remember thinking that the place was pretty good. Since then, I’ve been back to sample different starters, sides, and main courses. Overall, I’ve found the presentation and the descriptions to be more compelling than the actual food. Am I somehow missing all the good stuff? What, specifically, are the best dishes there?
Starters I’ve had [all recommended as “the best” by enthusiastic servers]:
Southwest crab cakes with green-chile butter (not spicy at all) and a “spicy remoulade” sauce (ditto). The Southwestern part must refer to the inclusion of corn kernels, the so-called spicy elements, and the non-traditional inclusion of Saltines to bind the crab cakes together. These weren’t bad, but they weren’t very good, either.
Guacamole that was served with thick, slightly stale, yellow and red tortilla chips that looked great but lacked flavor. The guacamole was made up of cilantro, onions, and tomatoes, with Mexican white cheese sprinkled on top and lime wedges on the side. Their version was okay, if you love guacamole that has cilantro and onion as the dominant flavor, but the avocadoes themselves weren’t good. Thus, the guacamole itself wasn’t good.
Duck breast and duck confit. I thought the duck breast was good; the skin wasn’t crisp enough on the tender confit. Neither was superb. The duck was accompanied by sweet hollandaise and demiglace sauces.
Big-Ass Burger. Though not the best in town, this is a decent burger option for those who prefer their burgers with a thick, twelve-ounce patty that’s encased in cheese or who want to enjoy all that beef in an upscale, downtown restaurant. The toppings include some nice touches, like bacon and remoulade sauce, though the whole thing's a bit unwieldy, due to both the size of the patty and the inclusion of a half-inch-thick onion slice on one side of the bun. Since the onion is hard to bite through, and the lettuce arrives limp from all the grease, I ask for the cold toppings on the side. Though I've had this burger several times, I can understand why some might say that it's bigger than it is good. The fries are not bad—crisp outside, mealy inside—if you think of them as texturally like steak fries, despite their shoestring shape.
Sides [paid for a la carte, at $5.50 a pop]
Green-chile mac and cheese. At first, the bread-crumb topping and bland Monterrey-jack cheese called to mind bad pot-luck-supper tuna casseroles. RF’s mac and cheese was made with heavy cream, bell peppers, onions, still more corn kernels, and green chiles (which tasted canned, not fresh). Whatever kind of chiles were used, the mac and cheese was only faintly spicy and lacked salt and garlic. In other words, it was bland. When dishes are billed as spicy, I like them to be spicy. In “upscale” takes on mac and cheese, I also like a more-straightforward cheese (rather than milky) texture, a more robust-flavored cheese, and/or a béchamel sauce. To me, RF’s version was okay, but not great. I liked the leftovers better the next day when the flavors had time to meld.
Southern-style green beans with bacon. These were Southern-style in the sense of limp and falling apart, though with more onion than bacon in them. There was a faint smokiness, but otherwise I couldn’t taste the bacon.
Desserts [all $6.95 each]:
These and the appetizers have been the worst parts of my meals at the Roaring Fork. The chocolate lava brownie tasted like it came from a mix—probably that Ghirardelli one that many restaurants use. It was gooey and too sweet, and it came with mass-produced vanilla ice cream. We were told that the pastry chef made the one-dimensional (sweet, surprisingly) cascabel-chile-caramel sauce that was drizzled over it. Did that indicate that he or she hadn't made any other part of the dessert? The peanut brittle that came on the side was a nice surprise.
I’ve also tried the “seasonal fruit pie,” which that particular night was a cherry pie that actually looked more like a Danish. The buttery puff-pastry “base,” or round, seemed like it was made from frozen dough; the cherry filling tasted canned. This dessert was not terrible, but it was not up to what we expected from the "new pastry chef" our server told us about. The coffee has been consistently weak.
The duck breast and the skillet corn “cakes” that come with every dinner have been the two most memorable items—according to those in our party who like their cornbread sweet. (I like savory cornbread that tastes of cornmeal, buttermilk, and bacon grease.) But, even these two dishes were hardly amazing. Management is always very attentive to what’s happening in the dining room, and the white-table-clothed tables with booth seating are both comfortable and stylish. However, things like the slapped-together quality of the desserts and the timid spicing of the mac and cheese and the sauces make me feel like I’m eating at an upscale chain restaurant. Based on my visits, I’d say that the Roaring Fork is “better than Moonshine,” which to me is faint praise, but not a destination restaurant for those who want delicious chow.
Is this all I can expect? If the RF is just not for me, I’ll simply cross it off my list. Or, have I ordered badly, so that my experiences are not representative? Rene has mentioned the occasional appearance of good (and free) jerky at the bar. RF’s green-chile stew is often touted as a signature dish.
I'm sure Rene will provide input on many things you are missing, however, I don't think you're missing anything at all. I confess that I haven't had the much-revered "Big-Ass Burger", but I have tried the crab cakes which I found a bore (agree that there was no spice or chile complexity). I've also had the green chile stew, and I actually quite liked it, and it did have some spice, although I wouldn't proclaim the dish great. The warm buttered tortillas with the stew were nice on a (rarely-seen) cold day. And I also dug the cornbread, and IIRC it was of the sweet(er) variety. I've also had the "New Mexico Fondue Pot" which I don't really remember, except for that the lamb chops were a tad on the chewy side.
I went to the RF a couple of times mostly because they pour good drinks, and I was able to sit at the bar and watch the World Series while staying downtown at a hotel. I can't see myself returning much, unless I have no other options for a green chile stew.
The Roaring Fork isn't the best food in town by any stretch, so what you've tasted is probably representative of their menu. We have mainly gone b/c the happy hour price for the big-ass burger is good, and I personally love the beef jerky, but I've always had to request it (usually multiple times).
You said it reminded you of a chain restaurant, and in fact, I think it is. Last time I was there the music was load and horrible. I complained and the waiter said they had just been visited by the out of town corporate owners, who had told them to change the music to what we were hearing. He said they all hated it too, and would change it back when they thought they could get away with it. We go sometimes for a business lunch, because we work downtown, the service is pretty good, and you often see some notables in there. I enjoy the tortilla soup. Its different. They bring a pile of chicken, avacado and other stuff piled in a little lump in a bowl, then at the table they pour the broth over it. Also love those little cornbread muffins. A long time ago, they were always on the table. Now you only get them at lunch if you ask. I assume another corporate policy.
Okay, it looks like a trip to the dining room is in order. I must confess that it's been a couple of years. I still frequent the bar (about six times over the past year) and stand by my opinion of the bar and bar menu.
I love the green chili pork, pan de campo, tortilla soup and crispy shrimp dish on the bar menu. I've been recently(December 8th) and these items remain stellar. I think that the beef jerkey is the best in the world! It's true, though, that you have to ask for the jerkey now as they run out early.
I like the atmosphere and the crowd, as well as the service.
Until I return to the dining room, I'll not post the recommendation.
I've only eaten at the bar, and their ahi tuna tacos are one of my favorite ahi tuna dishes in town.
Also, I've met their pastry chef and had an opportunity to sample all their desserts one afternoon. I don't have much of a sweet tooth, but enjoyed most of them because they weren't too sweet. At the time, she made all the desserts in-house so maybe that's changed in the past year.
I'll have to make a run for the dining room, or maybe I should just stick with the bar.