Portabla, you have made me so happy again!
I have been eating at Portabla somewhat regularly for about a year now. It all started when I read some publication proclaim their carved turkey club to be the "Best Turkey Sandwich in Austin." Now, since I have been romantically involved with a rather enthusiastic turkey sandwich connoisseur for going on 5 years now, this really meant something. I informed him of the declaration and we made the (very short) trek to verify the claim.
Now, I must interrupt to inform you, that while excellent, the carved turkey club is not the real story here. Pretty much everything here is at the very least "good," and on average "really really good." I'm actually here to tell you about the "holy crap this is fucking awesome" stuff. These happen less frequently but they haunt my dreams. I go in, praying that one of those things might be in the deli case, or if I'm a day or two late, in the cold case near the drinks.
The other thing that has permanently endeared me to this establishment is the passion and accessibility of the chefs. I have met both, Chase and now Mark, and their love shines through when giving simple explanations of the items in the deli case.
My first of these items was the duck taco. These were had a month or two before Chase's departure. Delicate corn tortilla, mango chutney, and a crumbled cheese that was somewhere between queso fresco and chevre. Oh man. Oh man. I got two of them and upon arriving home and warming them up, immediately called aforementioned turkey sandwich expert to inform him that he has to go get more on his way home from work. No dice. They were gone. Apparently they make them about once per month. I have yet to coincide with them again.
Today, I had another amazing lunch/dinner/probably breakfast tomorrow. Upon arriving, I was determined to finally try one of their pizzas. Usually, if there isn't something irresistable in the deli case I have to get either an Aubergine or Roast Beef panini. I walked in and ordered a 7" Margherita.. THEN I looked in the deli case. There they were. Golden, creamy, crusty bricks that I knew I could not resist. I canceled my order for the pizza and pointed at the case while I attempted to form words. "Oh man.. That? ... Maca - "
"Macaroni and cheese casserole. I used a béchamel base and -"
"YES. I need that."
I have been nibbling on that brick for most of my waking day and I am happy to say that I have about 1/3 of it left for tomorrow. It is gentle and mild, not gooey like most of your macaroni dreams (and mine) probably are.. But that's ok. The flavors are delicate and subtle, but still pleasantly rich. It's like mac'n'cheese crossed with a delicately flavored noodle kugel. As it warms, it softens but keeps its shape and most of its firmness. It doesn't smash you over the head with its "OMG CHEEEEEESE!!!!"... The cheese weaves gently between the tender elbows, baked into them. It has a lightly sprinkled layer of crumbs crisped on top. It has a slight amazing hint of something a little unconventional that I haven't been able to put my finger on and it's driving me crazy. So crazy that I've been eating one slow bite at a time, saving more for later when I might realize what it is. If I can't figure it out, I'm going back to as tomorrow.
I had some very bad experiences with Portabla when I first moved to Austin, so I hadn't returned since 2005. I also don't love the bread or most of the baked goods from Sweetish Hill, and since Portabla is their spin-off venture (and they supply the bread), I was extra-unmotivated to re-try Portabla's food. On the basis of this thread, however, I suggested take-out from Portabla for a business meal a couple of weeks ago. The place hasn't changed at all. It was also immediately apparent from the posted reviews that the sources of the media raves were the Austin Chronicle and the Fearless Critic, neither of which I consider at all trustworthy. Still, what did I have to lose? The good thing about this type of lunch was that I would get to try a little of everything in one meal, but I didn't have to eat much of any one item.
I'll start with the good stuff. I liked the cookie with white chocolate chips, dried cranberries, and raisins. The cookie was moist, and there was good flavor to the batter. This may seem like an odd flavor combo to some, but I thought it worked. It also seemed like it would be good with tea. This cookie seemed pretty fresh, but if it wasn't, I guess that proves the old adage about cookies keeping longer if they're made with dried fruit in them. One other item that was much better (and hotter) than expected was the green-chile-pork empanada. It wasn't a flaky empanada dough. It was more like a slightly underdone, cakey, pie-crust dough such as you see in some fruit pies (and fried fruit pies). It had decent flavor, though. One noticeable problem was that the dough was pretty darn salty that day, but I'm assuming that was just a fluke. The pork filling tasted slow-stewed and complex.
The other food items that I sampled from our group's order were the turkey "club," the carved-turkey sandwich, the meatloaf panino, the "margherita" pizza, the chocolate-sheet cake, and the chocolate-chip cookies. In my opinion, these items ranged from not so good to downright bad. Different chowhounds have different tastes, of course, and my chow report naturally reflects my own. Details on my experience follow, for those chowhounds who want to know the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The meat on both turkey sandwiches was awfully thin to be called "carved," which to me implies hand-carved. An old blurb from the Austin Chronicle claims that Portabla uses naturally raised, hormone-free turkey from White Egret Farms. I don't know who their suppliers are. What I do know is that their turkey tasted like the machine-sliced oven-roasted turkey breast made on-site and sold at the Whole Foods. At Portabla, a "club" sandwich apparently just means one that contains mayo, romaine lettuce, thin beefsteak-tomato slices, and a few strips of bacon. Their club isn't toasted or layered. The fairly thick slices of bacon weren't bad. I'd say that they were the best part of the sandwich, though their sweetness was a little jarring in this particular combo. The jalapeño-tinged mayo did add spice, but it reminded me a little of pimento-cheese spread or even Velveeta—and not just because it was orange. The real issue for me, however, was the poofy focaccia bread that this sandwich was served on. It was very bready, with a crumb more like cornbread or cake, and of a similar springiness. Focaccia is basically pizza dough; this dough was nothing like that. If you block out all thoughts of traditional focaccia and think of this instead as springy sandwich bread, you might enjoy it more. To me, it just didn't taste good. Overall, I didn't love the turkey or the bread, and that orange mayo didn't rock my world. In my opinion, neither the parts nor the sum of this sandwich merited its lauding (in the same Austin Chronicle blurb) as "the best" turkey sandwich in town.
I also tried their other type of turkey sandwich, which comes on sourdough bread. This sandwich is made with the same turkey; a very salty cornbread stuffing of the Stove-Top style (though the menu notes that it's homemade); more of their standard lettuce & tomato; and a pinkish cranberry-sauce-tinged mayo instead of the orange spicy one. Of the two turkey sandwiches, I preferred the turkey "club" because it came with bacon; plus, it wasn't as dry and unpleasant as this other turkey sandwich was. The stuffing was incredibly salty, but otherwise it had no flavor. Plus, it was loose and very dry. Actual cranberry sauce would have worked better in terms of making the sandwich moister. Or even gravy. Since I don't like Portabla's sourdough bread, either, there wasn't much improvement in that category. This sandwich was a chore to eat.
I re-tasted a few bites of their meatloaf panino, even though the last time I had it, I had loathed their sugary take on tomato sauce. The sauce has not changed at all, so I still don't like this pressed sandwich. A more assertively-flavored meatloaf might counteract the sauce a little better, but their meatloaf doesn't taste like ground beef. It's all filler (probably bread crumbs, given how much bread they produce at Sweetish Hill.) To me, this was so sugary that it was approaching a dessert meatloaf. My favorite tomato-sauce on a sandwich can be found at Hog Island Deli, where they do a great job with the sauce and the meatballs in their meatball hoagie.
Portabla's "margherita" pizza is not a traditional margherita, though there were some nice touches: roasted, blackened tomatoes; pesto (which was also oddly sweet); a generous amount of sliced, standard-issue, block mozzarella that at least had not been purchased pre-shredded. I didn't care much for the flavor combo, but what I really didn't like was the crust. They call their pizza "flatbread pizza," but it wasn't flat. In fact, it reminded me of those doughy, 1.5"-thick, French-bread Stouffer's pizzas that were so popular back in the day. It did seem like the same dough as their their "focaccia" bread, but with more oil added. Unfortunately, their focaccia bears little resemblance to most pizza crusts. I would never order this again.
Two more desserts were sampled before I was forced to give up my effort to taste everything we had ordered. The chocolate-chip-pecan cookie was quite bad: dry, flavorless, and tasting of plain sugar. I'd guess that they didn't use enough shortening in the cookie dough. This cookie smelled good, though. It was very redolent of vanilla. Thus, perhaps it was just really old. The chocolate-sheet cake looked beautiful but tasted awful. The cake itself was so dense as to almost resemble a flourless chocolate cake or even a too-custardy bread pudding. I know that, for some, the ideal version of this sheet cake is brownie-like in texture, but that doesn't work if the cake is also 3- to 4-inches tall. Usually, of course, the best part of the Texas sheet cake is the frosting. In this case, the best part was the pecans. The chocolate in the frosting seemed waxy, cheap, and tasteless, although the frosting's granular quality suggested that they did use real sugar in it.
All in all, there was not much to inspire me to return anytime soon, but I did find a couple of new items of interest. Since I didn't get to try the other flavors of empanadas, I hope that any chowhounds who have sampled them will report on the varieties that they like and dislike.
I actually haven't had a pizza or meatloaf panino there, so my tomato-based experience there is all soup related. These, too, though are pretty sugary.. The tomato soups I've had there were "smoked" tomato soups of some kind, and they tasted more like barbecue sauce, but in a decidedly good way. It was suprising, but then I couldn't stop eating it. It would be a great sauce for some sort of barbecue casserole (not that I've ever had one of these), where a straight BBQ sauce would be too much maybe.
I really really loathe ANY sugar in tomato sauces but in a barbecue sauce it's welcome. I'll need to try the meatloaf panino next time. I love a good meatloaf, but have never had it in a sandwich (though one of my favorites is in a Boomerang's meat pie). A sugary tomato sauce would definitely be a big black mark in my book.
The turkey, I can say, is better now than what you're remembering. Nice, moist white meat. Usually when I get a sandwich with any non-deli sliced white meat, it's disappointingly dry. When I have the pick of a whole bird (or any bird for that matter) I'm definitely a dark meat girl. Portabla's turkey breast has always been juicy and flavorful though.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, wrenfern. Since I sampled all this food at Portabla within the past 14 days (which is why I posted a new chow report), there doesn't seem to be much empirical basis for your statement that their turkey is "better now" than what I've reported. Instead it seems that, subjectively, you like their turkey more than I do, which is fine. What makes this board interesting is that each chowhound has his or her own version of deliciousness.
I also didn't care for their turkey & stuffing sandwich one bit. However, I did like their chicken salad with dried cranberries and almonds.
We ordered from there the other night (we have kids, so do a lot of takeout) and they were out of just about everything at 6 PM. Why bother staying open until 9 if there's no food left? If ya wanna be a lunch place, be a lunch place!
(BTW, speaking of takeout meals, the Central Market cafe on the run items we've gotten so far have all been great - http://centralmarket.com/cm/cmDinnerF... )
No Cuban here. They don't really do pork unless it's some sort of pork chop in the front case. Otherwise it's just ham and bacon.
Moderately off topic, but if you're looking for a new Cuban, the Porchetta Panino at Enoteca is pretty incredible. It's not a straight up Cuban (not actually a Cuban obviously) but there's hot pork and white cheese. It's provolone instead of swiss, and instead of ham and pickles you get cold tomatoes and lettuce. I really like the hot/cold contrast, and the freshness of the vegetables balances out the heaviness of the pork. Their mustard is also incredible.
I'm definitely going to be going for this when I feel like something a little lighter than a Habana Cuban... I think it will be my warm weather Cuban, and when it's chilly out I'll go down the road to Habana.