This month’s Austin’s Best Bites takes on something real old, something real new, and something …. Well, I’ll leave it a surprise. Without further ado, we present — Austin’s Best Bites, July ’16.
Matt’s El Rancho
Texas visitors certainly are aware of our unique indigenous cuisine that’s called a variety of names. Tex-Mex is probably the most common usage for our popular food as it spreads across the country. Even this Austinite will defer to San Antonio as the birthplace, with a clear lineage to the chili queens of San Antonio’s plazas. The unmistakable flavor of cumin, so clearly identified with Arabic and Middle Eastern food, came with the Canary Islanders that brought to San Antonio as Spanish colonists. But no other restaurant in either city has the longevity and consistent superior execution and creativity of Austin’s Matt’s El Rancho.
The scions of the Martinez family, Matt and Janie, opened their restaurant in 1952. Today, despite a mid-80’s relocation, their family continues on, with a menu solid on the classics. And while those Texan comfort food examples are perfectly prepared, they are comfortable enough to take a one standard creative deviation. They incorporate our iconic barbecue meat in smoked beef tacos, or grill catfish, then cover it with sautéed vegetables and ranchero sauce. A standard lunch stop for me, there is much I like on the menu. But my favorite is the lunch chile relleno. This classic takes a dark green, mildly spicy poblano pepper, and stuffs it with either ground beef, shredded chicken, shrimp, or cheese. There is even a vegetarian version. The pepper is lightly breaded, then fried. It is plated, covered with pecans, raisins and sour cream in the classic fashion. Served with beans and rice, the crowning touch is the still warm house made tortillas, in flour or corn. Finish it off with the traditional praline candy, and I am seven years old again, eating at Matt’s, as we did on every trip to Austin.
Located at 2613 South Lamar, just south of downtown, Matt’s is open daily except Tuesday for lunch and dinner. Thursday nights feature live mariachi musicians. In good weather, ask to sit outside on the tree covered patio. An evening there, with a Mexican martini and an “only at Matt’s” Bob Armstrong dip is hard to beat.
East Side King
Austin’s explosion onto the national foodie scene had several root causes. A big one was when a local chef, Paul Qui, took top honors on Food Network’s Top Chef. At the time, Paul was executive chef at a branch of what many considered at the time the town’s #1 – Uchi. But he always knew he wanted his own place, and had already begun with his version of another key to our recognized food landscape – a food truck. Paul Qui and his partner, Moto Utsunomiya, met at Uchi and started the truck as a way to express their “creative freedom” and have some “fun with food”. The empire grew from a single truck behind an East Austin bar, to multiple trucks, to their first brick and mortar location where we headed one recent noon. Because July in Austin isn’t the time to sit outside for lunch.
The ESK menu has classics, with a following built over years. The sit-down location has combined three of them in a bento box. Thai Chicken Kara-agé is a fried chicken thigh with a characteristically Thai sauce combining sweet, spicy and sour elements, garnished with basil, cilantro, mint, onion, and jalapeño. Next up is another Qui staple, a single Poor Qui’s bun. Here, roasted pork belly peeks out of Chinese steamed bun, slathered in tart and sweet hoisin sauce, with cucumber kimchee. The third item is a Top Chef winner – fried Brussels sprout salad. This dish combines fried Brussels sprouts with shredded cabbage, basil, cilantro, mint, onion, and jalapeño, with a wonderful sweet and spicy dressing. The best part of the box is that it works. The sum of the whole is better than the parts.
ESK South Lamar is at 2310 South Lamar, and the florescent green of the building is hard to miss. They are open daily from 11:00 to 10:00 except on Sundays when they close at 10:00 PM
For years, the ultimate Austin putdown for the pretentious was “that is sooo Dallas”. No quip was more cutting, or produced quicker behavior modification. Weeeel, that ship has clearly sailed. We can pretentious with the best of them, and at no place more so than the W hotel and its restaurant – Trace. Housed in the center of Peter Pan and Wendy Austin, this foreboding black box is the hipness center of the hippest part of Austin, the Second street district. So what else would be on the menu than edible hipness?
Actually, despite my cri de coeur for Austin lost, the food is excellent. So when Susan proposed brunch there recently, she got no push back from me. Nice summer day, it was too warm to sit on the patio and get our funk/soul groove on with DJ I Wanna Be Her. So we snuggled together on a banquette and examined the menu. I knew immediately what I wanted – Barbacoa Benedict. Pretty sure it wasn’t made in the traditional way with a whole roasted cow’s head, the chili braised beef was moist and deliciously flavorful. The black lime hollandaise was tart and rich, and was perfect poured over the too-firmly cooked fried eggs. I so looked forward to the runny yolks flowing down into the beef shreds. But I have come to realize that proper cooking of an egg is a lost art. We both had room for dessert, so we split the white chocolate citrus bread pudding. It was perfection, with the white ganache drizzle punctuated by the raspberry sorbet. Relaxed, yet competent service just added to the faultlessness of the food.
Trace is at Lavaca and Second in downtown Austin, and is open for dinner seven days a week, breakfast weekdays and brunch on the weekends.
Ok, that’s it for July. See you next month!