El Gringo / Red House Bar
My search for something "warm, cozy & casual" turned up several suggestions, with El Gringo being the chosen place. All in all, a positive experience.
First - they don't take reservations, it's first come first serve. As it turned out, that wasn't really a problem for us. When the six of us arrived at 7:00 PM, the place was only about 1/4 full - so instead of taking a table right away, we decided to go have a drink in the Red House Bar first. The bar, as someone previously noted, is very "hokey" in decor, but the service was fast and the drinks made well. The wine list is spartan, but I wasn't really expecting something extensive. It's a good place to hang out, have a drink, socialize and wait for your table.
Around 7:30 I walked up and told the hostess we'd like the next available table. I'm glad we didn't wait any longer, because by 8:00 PM the place was packed, with people standing in line waiting to put their name down. We stayed there until around 9:30, and it was full the entire time. The clientele is young (at 40, I'd estimate I was older than 90% of the other patrons), so if you don't want to wait, get there around 7:00. It definitely seems to be "the place to go".
Because it was so full, the place was also noisy, which is surprising since it doesn't have lots of glass or stone, or other sound reflecting surfaces. Nonetheless, if you're looking for a place to have a intimate dinner with conversation, this really isn't the place, at least not on a Saturday night.
But how was the food? In all, pretty good. Subtlety is not a word to describe this menu - everything is all about bold flavor. For a starter I ordered the Duck Pozole, which I thought was very tasty. It had a rich spicy broth with nicely cooked hominy and pieces of duck meat. I wouldn't have minded a few more pieces of duck meat, but it was enough. My wife ordered the house salad. They didn't skimp on the lettuce, which was nice, but I was surprised at no tomatoes (maybe I just think all salads should have tomatoes) - but it did include goat cheese, apples and pecans. The dressing has a maple flavor, which I liked but wifey didn't care for it. It's noticeable, so if you're not a fan of maple, probably want to look at other options.
For the entree, my wife ordered the Shrimp & Grits, and I chose the Braised Spare Ribs. The shrimp are cooked by wrapping a peeled shrimp and sliver of jalapeno in a piece of bacon and then deep frying it (they're not breaded). I suppose that makes them little nuggets of cholesterol, but they tasted pretty good. I really liked having the jalapeno in there - it was just large enough of a slice to give it flavor without creating something too spicy hot. The cojita cheese grits were also really tasty, cooked well - not soupy at all, and the cojita cheese gave them a nice flavor. The pineapple salsa wasn't bad but unremarkable. My Braised Spare Ribs were quite good, but be warned - this is a heavy dish. After eating this all you're going to want to do is take a big nap, but I digress. They were very good - well cooked, not too fatty, tender and tasty. I really liked the poblano cumin sauce and the pico spinach that came with it, the spinach not being at all bitter or grainy. It also came with the same grits as the shrimp dish.
The other dish I tried (had a bite from one of my companion's place) was the Pan-Roasted Chicken. While it wasn't bad, it had a lot of garlic in it (see above about bold flavor). The chicken was cooked well, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you really like garlic.
The restaurant made a major hiccup with one of the dishes, however. My other friend ordered the daily special, lamb loin chops, asking for them to be cooked medium. When he received the dish, they were raw. Not just rare, raw - the sides had been barely browned. Our server, who had a full section, was quickly back to check if we liked the dishes and immediately took the plate back to the kitchen. A few minutes later she returned with the plate. Unfortunately, the meat was still woefully undercooked - I like meat a little on the medium rare side, and I wouldn't have eaten this. The manager came by about a minute later - and my friend showed him the undercooked meat. Again, they immediately took the plate back, where he had the kitchen make up a brand new plate for my friend. This unfortunately, took a little bit of time the second time around, so most of us were halfway through our dishes before he finally got his food. I didn't taste the final dish, but my friend really liked it. He joked that once they finally cooked it, it was delicious.
I'll give the restaurant credit, though, for being on-top of the situation. The server and manager both acted fast and without any sort of huffy-ness. Without asking, the manager took the lamb dish off our bill and gave us two free desserts as compensation. And when he brought the lamb back the final time, we waited and made sure it was cooked to my friend's liking before leaving. A very professional handling of the situation.
The deserts we chose were a lemon chess pie and a chocolate cookie cherry ice cream sandwich. The lemon chess pie was really good, nice and tart. The flavor of the ice cream and the cookies were great - but the cookie was cooked pretty hard, which made it had to eat. A softer cookie would be a better solution, but the dish still tasted good.
Overall, everyone enjoyed both hanging out in the bar and the food they got. El Gringo's closest comparison in Austin, to both food style and price, is Moonshine. The prices run $10 - $19 for the entrees, and are hearty enough to please most people. Based on this dining experience, I recommend it for a fun night out when you're not necessarily looking for fine dining experience. Just make sure they cook your lamb. :-)
I visited El Gringo on New Year's Eve with an out of town guest and had a great experience. I had the vaquero ribeye wich was served with a sweet chipotle sauce and mixed greens on botillio toast. Without a doubt this was one of the best meals I've had in quite some time. My friend ordered the chicken fried ribeye, which sadly was a bit undercooked when it was brought it out. Upon bringing this to the attention of the waiter, the plate was quickly and professionally whisked away and within a few minutes a fresh plate of food was provided. Pleased with the way this was handled we continued our meal and my friend raved about his meal, and especially loved the smokey mashed potatoes that accompanied the steak. Then to top the evening off, when the bill came the manager came out and informed us that since my friend's steak was undercooked at first, he was going to take care of not only my friend's meal but the entire table including our drinks. This kind of service is unheard of these days, and has won El Gringo a customer for life. To quote my visiting friend, "I guess this is that Texas hospitality that I've always heard of!".
Man - I hate having to eat crow, when there are so many tastier items around, but I'm going to have to. Since we enjoyed it the first time, my wife and I took another couple there last week. Because of traffic, we were a little late arriving, and I guess that pissed off our waitress (the other couple arrived earlier) because she was none-too friendly. None the less, I settled in for what I hoped to be a good meal. Not this time.
I got the Downtown Charlie's Special. It was ok. I could probably have made it at home with the same success. The seared steak was either a sirloin or some other cheap cut, and it was chewy as a result. Shrimp - ok. Spinach - that was pretty good. My wife had the Chile Crusted Tuna, and I have to let you know - that was probably the worst dish I've had in a long time at a restaurant. She's put EG on her "will not return" list as a result. It was basically a poorly cooked cheap piece of tuna slathered in a overly sweet chile bbq sauce. Once again, EG took the tuna off the bill, but I have to wonder - if they keep having to take items off the bill there's obviously an inconsistency problem.
I still like the bar, and the food was good the first time I went. Still, with other options I like, I think I'm going to start looking elsewhere. Not willing to deal with the inconsistency a third time.
I have enjoyed the food each time I have had it. Nothing out of this world, but adventurous enough without being outrageously expensive. In fact, I fell that a few of the dishes are darn good deals. Funny enough, my favorite thing there was the cactus salad. It comes with steak, cactus on some spinach. Very nice with a soup. The bar in the back is a great place to hang out as well. Also, if you are even considering getting the chicken fried ribeye, slap your wrist, walk across the street and walk into Hoover's.