Austin Trip Report - Tex-Mex and Mexican
We know that our choices for the trip weren't necessarily cutting edge, or even necessarily the best Austin has to offer. But this was our first extended trip to the Capital city and we wanted to get a taste of the places that define the Mexican and Tex-Mex food universe. These are our thoughts.
Note: for photos of the place and the food that we discuss in the post, click here: http://nochoiceatall.blogspot.com/2008/05/texas-road-trip-update-cinco-de-mayo.html
Fonda San Miguel
Self-proclaimed to be the best "interior Mexican" food restaurant in Texas, Fonda San Miguel is located in a beautiful hacienda-style building just North of downtown Austin. The doors to the restaurant were hand-carved in the Mexican state of Guanajuato and brought to Austin just for the restaurant. The artwork on the walls was created by a who's who of modern Mexican artists. The space is truly one of a kind.
At the same time, the restaurant, now in its 33rd year, does have its share of detractors. When the original founding chef, Miguel Ravago, left the restaurant in 1996 as a result of a partnership dispute, a new chef was brought in. This chef, Roberto Santibanez, added untraditional "nueva cocina" flourishes to the menu like blackberry mole, which the critics adored. The restaurant seemed reborn. Five years later, in 2001, Ravago returned to the helm and slowly reverted back to the old menu, causing some worry about the future of the restaurant.
This is the dichotomy that is Fonda San Miguel. Staunch, rigorous traditionalists when it comes to Mexican cuisine, from the beginning Ravago and his parter Tom Gilliland were considered daring innovators who insisted on serving only the traditional cuisines of Mexico, served in precisely the same way they were served in Mexico. (Diana Kennedy even consulted on the very first menu).
As the Austin Chronicle put it in 2002, "This meant that they were unable to serve chips and hot sauce and enchiladas stuffed with ground beef smothered in yellow cheese and ranchero sauce. This, in a state whose residents are so disposed to those old standbys they made up a name for it: Tex-Mex."
Instead, they served conchinita pibil, the classic Yucatan dish of shredded pork stewed in achiote wrapped banana leaves or pipian verde, a dish of pork stewed in a green sauce made of pumpkin seeds, nuts and other spices. Patricia Sharpe, senior editor and food writer for Texas Monthly notes, "Back in the Seventies, we practically didn't have things as exotic as flautas. It was just all very predictable, very cutesy, and not that Tex-Mex is bad or anything, but it was what it was."
Today, pibil, pipian, moles and many other of the more traditional dishes are available all over Texas. In the same way that diners flocked to Fonda San Miguel in the 1970's and 1980's, they are now are searching for something new to experience, which leads them to seek out dishes like the blackberry mole. It is safe to say, however, with Ravago back behind the stoves, the classics are as good as ever.
On our trip, we sampled the tortilla soup (same recipe from the original opening) the pibil (both the chicken and pork versions), shredded duck enchiladas, and a few margaritas. All were very good. Add to that the fact that the service was excellent and priced against a comparable meal in California the cost of the entire meal was very reasonable.
Las Manitas Avenue Cafe
What Fonda San Miguel is to high-end dining, Las Manitas, in downtown Austin, is to the casual lunch counter. Only the story of this restaurant isn't just about the food. For the past few years, the future of Las Manitas has been in limbo. Since you all know the story, we will skip over the history lesson and go straight to writing about the restaurant.
The food isn't the best in town. The facilities aren't that great. The chairs aren't that comfortable. You have to walk through the kitchen to get to either the back half of the restaurant or the restrooms. But none of it matters. There is something about the place that that welcomes all comers, from the financial and political elite to the cops, teachers, janitors and construction workers that keep the city running. It is Austin's egalitarian central meeting place.
The day we ate there was the day of the Austin Capitol 10K race, so the restaurant was filled with post-race runners looking to celebrate their run by chowing on what I consider to be the best refried beans I have had in a very long time. The beans, which are laden with bacon flavor and presumably bacon fat, come with practically every dish. They are one of the definite "must try" dishes on the menu. The rest of the fare, the tacos, enchiladas, chilaquiles, etc. is pretty standard, but it is definitely made with great care and very affordable.
Since we were in the back of the restaurant, we had to walk through the aforementioned kitchen to get to our table, an old rickety wooden picnic tables and accompanying bench that dated back to the 1970's. The small short order kitchen was filled with what looked like a battalion of old Mexican grandmothers. One woman was focused entirely on mixing masa and forming tamales. Another was reconstituting and blending buckets of dried red chiles. And yet another was forming and pressing fresh corn tortillas. Each woman was working slowly and quietly on their own specific task. They all seemed out of place when viewed in contrast with the line cooks who worked the restaurants flattop at an amazingly frenetic pace.
Las Manitas may not have world class cuisine, but it is a very special and iconic place that comforts the many people who call Austin home.
Polvo's isn't high end dining, but, like Las Manitas, it definitely fills a niche in Austin's eclectic food scene. While the message boards are filled with knocks on Polvo's level of customer service, the place is often packed because the food keeps people coming back time and again. Thankfully, perhaps, we were there late on a weekday afternoon. The restaurant was pretty empty and our service was fine.
The first thing you notice when you walk in is the large salsa "island" in the center of the restaurant. The highlight of the salsa selection is the homemade escabeche (mix of pickled jalapeños, carrots and onions), which is not to be confused with the fish preparation known as escabèche. These pickled onions have an amazingly sweet heat that comes from sitting in the spicy jalapeño brine. The various salsas were all pretty good and, believe it or not, they even had an similarly additive black salsa "a la Baja Fresh."
Polvo's is also famous for its queso, which is a bowl of lava-live melted cheese that comes garnished with spiced ground beef, tomatoes, fresh onions, fresh jalapeños, cilantro and guacamole. The bright orange color of Velveeta, Polvo's queso is Tex-Mex comfort food at its finest. It is so good, it is almost a meal killer.
For the unitiated, queso is an Americanized version of what is traditionally known in Mexico as "Queso Flameado." But don't think that this is ballpark nacho cheese sauce poured out of a can, there is an art to proper queso that is much debated among Austin's foodies. Polvo's often plays a prominent part in those discussions.
The other dishes we had that day included an al pastor taco plate (which was pretty good) and an unusual "chicken fajita" salad made with red chile sauced chicken, avocado, pineapple, carrots, peanuts, raisins, sun dried tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce (which was definitely enjoyed by the person who ordered it). The highlight of the meal had to be the chile relleno. Polvo's version is a poblano chile stuffed with shredded chicken and smothered in melted cheese. It was huge, stuffed with what must have been a double chicken breast that had been braised and shredded into tender submission. Polvo's is definitely worth a trip, and if you are worried about the service, just go when we did, late on a weekday afternoon. You will have to whole place to yourself.
Like California, the popularity of Mexican food and Mexican culture has spread throughout the food community. Neighborhood institutions like Kerbey Lane in Austin, famous for their buttermilk pancakes, have slowly expanded their breakfast and lunch menus to include classic Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes like chile rellenos, enchiladas and migas.
For those of you who haven't been back to Austin in a while, yes, the trademark Kerbey Lane sign is gone, having been replaced with the sign in the photo you see to the right. The 1950's style coffee cups used in the restaurant have also been replaced with cups that looks more 1990's now.
They day we went, one of us ordered Kerbey Lane's version of enchiladas verde with chicken, which were served with excellent black beans stewed for hours with what tasted like cumin and garlic and a standard Mexican rice.
It is interesting to think how once rare ingredients, like chipotle chiles, used to be when contrasted with how ubiquitous they have become. Just last year, McDonald's added a chipotle chicken wrap to its menu. How much more mainstream can you get?
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport
You might be thinking that, by now, we would have had our fill of Mexican food. Why not just get on the airplane and head home? You may be right. In fact, we were thinking the same thing, until we came across the taco stand run by the Salt Lick folks at the Austin-Bergstom Airport. Just to be clear, I am not talking about the actual Salt Lick outpost in the West Terminal of the airport. I mean the little taco stand parked next to the Highland Lakes Bar in the center of the airport near the security lines (The main restaurant doesn't serve tacos).
You wouldn't just let us get away would you... you had to tempt us with tacos. I mean, how can you pass up the perfect fusion of Texas barbecue and Mexican street food? These Salt Lick tacos are, in my mind, the ultimate in Tex-Mex food - shredded smoked brisket with a spicy red chile sauce or pulled pork in chile verde with shredded cabbage both served on fresh tortillas. Throw in a Shiner and some live music (yes, we now know you even have live music at the airport) and you have yourself a meal.
For the full post, see here:
We may be coming back in the near future, so if you have suggestions for other Mexican and Tex-Mex places to try next time, we are all ears...
Here are a couple of suggestions: Curras Grill, Sazon and El Chile are all great for interior Mexican. Curras has great Tacos al Pastor on red corn tortillas. Sazon has very good Arrachera of beef or chicken. El Chile has excellent Pescado Entortillado and a great Chilango margarita. Try them next time you are in town.
Great post, thanks! As soon as I saw ABIA I knew (at least hoped) that you went to the Salt Lick stand. The tacos are great; I get them every time I fly out (in the morning at least). I love the hybrid corn-flour tortillas they use.
Come back soon and try Las Palomas in Westlake. They have great pibil and mole.