The Puffy Taco Invasion
Two San Antonio-influenced Mexican restaurants are the newest residents of Manor Road's Restaurant Row
El Chile Cafe y Cantina1809 Manor Rd., 457-9900
After spending a decade across the parking lot from Güero's and two blocks off the South First Mexican food mile, I experienced culture shock last year when I relocated to a Central East Austin neighborhood with very few Mexican food options. Luckily for me, it was just a few months before two new Mexican eateries opened nearby, taking over abandoned locations within a block of each other on what can certainly be called Manor Road's Restaurant Row. Both new restaurants have roots in San Antonio, and both feature the Alamo City's signature puffy tacos. That's where the similarities end, however, making for two distinct dining experiences for Mexican food lovers.
San Antonio native (and Jeffrey's alum) Carlos Rivero struck out on his own last year, enlisting the aid of his childhood friend Orlando Sanchez, along with former Jeffrey's sous chefs Jeff Martinez and Kristine Kittrell, to create El Chile Cafe y Cantina. The talented quartet took over a sadly dilapidated building that had housed a fair share of failed coffeehouses and reimagined it as a tasteful, casual restaurant. If ever there was a situation that defines the old adage about getting a silk purse from a sow's ear, this has to be it.
The building is painted in muted colors of orange and olive green, with the addition of an inviting wooden deck cleverly disguising the unattractive old facade. The deck is wisely enclosed with removable window sections and offers bright red metal taqueria tables with folding metal chairs, each equipped with a folded serape to ward off a chill or cushion metal discomfort. (What a great idea!) The multilevel interior is painted in the same muted colors with Mexican retablos and santos as artistic accents. The overall effect is very inviting. We gave them an A-plus for urban renewal before we'd ever eaten a bite.
Based on several visits to El Chile, we found the food every bit as inspired as the renovation and very reasonably priced, as well. The restaurant serves both lunch and dinner with a happy hour daily from 3 to 7pm. The bill of fare features some Tex-Mex dishes, several Interior specialties, and a number of good vegetarian options. Lunch prices range from $3.75 to $7.95, with most entrées at $5.99. Happy hour means half-priced appetizers and $1 off frozen margaritas, sangria, and Lone Star beer. Prices on the more extensive dinner menu top out at $9.95.
The bar menu offers a full complement of popular Southwestern thirst quenchers like sangria, Bloody Marys, frozen margaritas, and frosty schooners of Micheladas, a spicy Mexican cocktail made with beer, chile powder, and lime juice. After some very unscientific eavesdropping on the patio, we'd say the clientele at El Chile is pretty evenly distributed between folks from the neighborhood, state workers, UT faculty and staff, and even a few students in the mix.
We began lunch at El Chile with a small order of Rajas con Queso ($3.95), roasted strips of poblano peppers and caramelized onions with melted Chihuahua and Monterey Jack cheeses that come with fresh tortillas and a bowl of Alma's Sopa de Tortilla ($4.95). The gooey cheese and vegetable mixture made a hearty filling for handmade tacos, though thinner strips of both peppers and onions would have made them easier to eat out of hand. The house tortilla soup is a dark, rich version spiced with guajillo chiles, chock-full of chicken, avocado, queso fresco, and tortilla pieces. Unfortunately, the day I tried it, the kitchen had attempted to balance the bitterness of the chile with sugar, and the end result tasted more like a thick, sweet chutney than any tortilla soup of my experience.
We fared better with entrées. The Enchiladas de Queso ($5.79) are a less greasy rendition of the traditional Tex-Mex truck-stop favorite, three big cheesy enchiladas smothered in a tasty chile con carne with sides of rice and beans a comforting, familiar option for Tex-Mex lovers. A reliable Interior Mexican choice is the Chile Relleno ($5.79), a savory roasted poblano pepper stuffed with chunky pork picadillo, nestled on a bed of rustic ranchero sauce very good flavor combinations on this dish.
Returning for dinner with big appetites recently, we had the same hit-or-miss experience with appetizers. The Nachos de Camarones ($8.95), grilled shrimp topped with pico de gallo and cheese, were really excellent, but the house Ceviche ($7.95) was merely ho-hum, large, flaccid pieces of fish seriously in need of salt and spice. But once again, the stellar impression made by the entrées and desserts completely eclipsed the little appetizer misstep. The Carne Asada a la Tampiquena ($8.95) is an excellent version of this traditional dish from the Mexican state of Tampico, with thin strips of steak seared to perfection and smothered in a marvelous sauce made with poblano rajas and grilled onions. This hearty plate is finished with a cheese enchilada, rice, refried beans, and chunky guacamole in a presentation that's very appealing to the eye. Chef Martinez offers one of the best renditions of this particular dish that you're likely to find around Austin, and it's a genuine steal at this price. Don't miss it.
I opted for the Camarones Enchipotlados ($9.95) and was amply rewarded again. Even though it's the most expensive dish on the menu, this platter is another true bargain. Six plump Gulf shrimp are taken direct from the grill to a bed of hot, smoky chipotle barbecue sauce with a pleasant sweetness as a background accent. The dish comes with plenty of toothsome white rice to mix with all that delightful sauce, plus guacamole, a chiffonade of leaf lettuce, and pico de gallo to use in the tacos you'll want to make with the homemade corn or flour tortillas. One of the tenets of restaurant reviewing is that it's not necessary to finish every dish you order when researching a restaurant's menu, but we couldn't resist becoming members of the clean plate club where these two choices were concerned.
The desserts at El Chile are made in house by pastry chef Matt Weaver, who came here after a two-year stint at Vespaio. Weaver brings with him a definite skill for making ice creams and confections, and he has developed a fine hand with traditional Mexican desserts. The Flan ($3.25) is a dense, velvety triangle of richness in a pool of golden caramel. Weaver's version of Tres Leches ($3.25) cake is one of the moistest we've encountered around town, with a square of milk-soaked white cake sitting in a creamy puddle, topped with sweetened whipped cream. Our favorite choice this night was Cajeta Ice Cream ($3.25), three luscious scoops that can hold their own with the best ice creams and gelatos in the city. By all means, when dining at El Chile, save room for dessert.
With years of experience working the front of the house in fine dining establishments, Carlos Rivero obviously knows good service, and his El Chile waitstaff is well trained. While I'll admit that I've never been in the restaurant when it's under the stress of a capacity crowd, I have observed the staff on several occasions and always found the service to be friendly, professional, and well-informed about the food. The best things I can say about El Chile Cafe y Cantina are that I am pleased it's open in my neighborhood, and I'll gladly spend my own money to eat there. Virginia B. Wood
Vivo Cocina Texicana2015 Manor Rd., 482-0300
When you add it all up, I might have consumed as many Mexican meals in San Antonio as I have in Austin. Although I didn't grow up in San Antonio, my mother is a native, and as a result my family made frequent excursions there from whatever point on the globe we resided. My parents retired to San Antonio while I was still in high school, and I even lived there for several months before moving to Austin. Between weekly visits home and family reunions, which always entailed Mexican food fixes, I've gained a respectable knowledge of the city's extensive offerings. In a city lousy with choices, the restaurant we visited most often was La Fiesta Patio Cafe on Pat Booker Road outside Randolph Air Force Base. My brother, a strict vegetarian and Mexican food enthusiast, turned us on to the place. My mother, a strict carnivore and Mexican food fiend, was immediately enamored of the place. It satisfied her lust for old-time chile/beef sauce while meeting my brother's requirements of no lard and brown rice. When I heard a rumor that a San Antonio restaurant with healthy inclinations had opened on Manor Road, my mom (who now resides here) and I had to check it out: Could this be a relative to our well-loved Fiesta?
One scoop of salsa confirmed our fervent wishes: Fiesta is here! There is no mistaking the smoky, garlicky sauce that is utterly addictive. A glance at the menu offered further, although now unnecessary evidence: puffy tacos. Long before Sean Combs became a media staple, puffy was where it was at at Fiesta, and they have made the migration north on I-35 to Vivo.
What has changed in the expansion (Fiesta is still open in San Antonio) is the ambience. The Manor Road spot is chic and casual and arty with a sun-dappled (or twinkly lit at night) deck furnished with sunburst wrought-iron chairs, a water-fountain wall that provides privacy and noise reduction as well as atmosphere, and tile-topped tables. Indoors, vibrant colors and even more vibrant art makes for a stylish setting. The restaurant has caught on quickly; it appeared to be bustling during both daytime and nighttime visits. My 11-year-old was not impressed though: She missed the enormous aquariums that provided diversion at the San Antonio location.
Vivo prides itself on using brown rice and canola oil and no lard, Velveeta, or MSG in its preparation. This doesn't make the food low-fat by any means: The tacos get puffy from their immersion in oil for crying out loud. But still, you gotta give them credit for taking Mexican food off the banned list and on to the "in moderation" category. You will not feel even the teeniest bit cheated, either: Gooey cheese enchiladas are a featured item, and refried beans accompany entrées throughout the menu.
The menu is not extensive. Puffy tacos with a variety of fillings, enchiladas, and few grilled items make up the main courses. It's filled out with tortilla soup, a couple of salads, and basic starters like nachos and queso. You can combine the choices in dozens of ways, which is the most popular way to go ($9.95-10.95). So far, we've tried the Chile Enchiladas ($7.95 with cheese, $8.95 with beef picadillo), the Chicken Enchiladas ($8.95), the Enchiladas Rojas ($9.50), and every variety of puffy taco ($7.95-8.95) in one plate or another. Not a loser in the bunch, but favorites varied by person. My mother and other devotees of classic Tex-Mex love the chile enchiladas. There is no substitution for the beef-studded sauce smothering cheese-filled corn tortillas on a finger-searing hot plate, which is exactly what you'll get in this version. The vegetarian sauce that tops the chicken enchiladas and the rojas sauce have their charms, although I find them surprisingly tame especially when compared to the robust salsa. More successful in my book are the puffy tacos. These messy beauties are never greasy, and the puffed masa provides an exceptionally tasty conveyance for the well-seasoned fillings. The guacamole taco ($8.95) is a special vegetarian delight, with tofu providing some balance for the rich guacamole.
All plates come with their signature brown Spanish rice and canola refried beans, which isn't as radical of a departure from the standard variety as one might guess. The short grain rice is fluffy, chewy, and nicely seasoned with the nuttiness from the whole grain coming through. The beans may lack the denseness of the lard-fried version, but I consider that a plus with food as hearty as this.
The margarita options are wide and varied ($6.95-8.95) and include prickly pear, mango, and a version that includes olive juice (an unexpected winner for the martini lover at our table for $8.50). This was a welcome sight, as the San Antonio location offers only beer and wine, which was the primary reason we sometimes opted for other destinations. The usual suspects of beers (with the unusual option of a michelada), wines, and soft drinks are the other drink options. All of this is served with friendly and breezy, if not exactly exacting service.
With its San Antonio roots still firmly in place, Roger Diaz has successfully adapted his family's proven formula to suit Austin's style. And with open arms, Austin embraces and welcomes this South Central Texan to town. To paraphrase the King, Viva los Vivo.