Gourmet takeout markets and groceries are establishing themselves less as luxury than necessity
VALUES, AESTHETICS, AND TASTE BUDS
Farm to Market Grocery
1718 S. Congress, 462-7220
What makes a neighborhood a community? There are as many answers as there are vibrant communities. Gathering places, accessible amenities, pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares. Things can make it difficult for communities to thrive, too: cul-de-sacs that lead to nowhere, goods and services that can only be accessed by cars, gates, and walls.
Angela Atwood and Peg McCoy know a thing or two about communities and have spent the better part of their lives developing them. Angela has more than a dozen years' experience in development of housing and homeless services programs in Austin/Travis County and served as the senior director of community affairs for SafePlace. Peg worked with housing projects on the border and also served on the Homeless Task Force here in Austin. Their latest venture, Farm to Market Grocery, might seem at first like a severe departure from their activist roots, but the duo's commitment to building thriving communities is evident in their jewel of a grocery store.
Housed on South Congress, a street that sees extensive foot traffic, Farm to Market embodies neighborliness in its wares as well as in its location. Atwood and McCoy are committed to working with local growers and producers and have stocked their shelves and refrigerators with a wide variety of Austin's goods. From the sweet baby squash and crisp apples to the jars of salsa, salad dressings, and other condiments, the best of Austin and the surrounding area is available.
The needs of shoppers are also on their minds, and despite its petite size (fewer than 2,000 square feet), an enormous variety of staples and necessities is at hand. Out of tomatoes just when the pasta pot came to a boil? No sweat. Experiencing a cheese squeeze? Not to worry. Sunday morning, and you're short on milk, eggs, and bacon? They've got you covered. It's an ideal stop on your way home from work to pick up just about everything from wine to toilet paper. And every item is choice: Organics abound in every department, and foodie favorites fill the shelves. The discriminating palate of consultant Faye Greenberg (former buyer for Central Market) is evident in the fine selection. At every turn we marveled: "My salsa! My tortilla chips! My butter! My salad dressing!" While fresh meats are not offered, prepared meals from Gina's Kitchen, Tom's Tabooley, and others make grab-and-go meals an option, as do a number of high-quality frozen entrées.
Farm to Market is a reflection of the women who run the place: their values, their aesthetics, their taste buds. Heaps of colorful flowers from local growers entice pedestrians from an outside table. Once inside, warm red walls make for a cheery environ. And shoppers are greeted and welcomed like the neighbors they are. Says Angela Atwood, "We wanted to do something different [from their previous social service work], but neighborhood- and community-based." Their goal is to be a resource for the community. They've succeeded in more than that; they've created a cornerstone for one. Barbara Chisholm
THE THREE P'S AND MUCH MORE
1610 S. Congress, 441-7672
Monday-Saturday, 8am-10pm; Sunday, 10am-3pm (brunch only)With its reputation firmly in place as one of the city's top dining destinations, Vespaio has stretched its wings into the adjacent space formerly occupied by Rock n Roll Rentals with its new wine-bar/cafe, Enoteca. A Top 10 restaurant reputation often goes hand in hand with a reputation for top dollar expenditure destinations, and while Vespaio arguably offers great value for the price, it's not a cheap eat. Enoteca offers a less expensive, breezier, more casual experience without compromising on Vespaio's well-deserved reputation.
Enoteca has a convivial feel with its tiny tile floors, golden undulating walls, and curved burnished wood bar. As with its predecessor, diners are greeted with an antipasto case of glistening choices ($4 each) from haricots verts salad to smoked roma tomatoes to pepper shooters. A dessert case of tempting treats also beckons, as does a deli case of salamis and other meats. The east wall facing South Congress is stocked with shelf stable items like olive oils, olives, pastas, capers, etc., which makes Enoteca a good choice for supplying your do-it-yourself dinner at home. Grab an antipasto or two, some top-shelf pasta, meat, top-of-the-line olive oil, and a panna cotta or two, and you're set for an outstanding meal.
But most of us dine in, and clearly that's the intention. Three P's dominate the menu: pasta, pizza, and panini. Salads and a fritte (fried) selection and the aforementioned antipasto selection round out the simple menu. But simple should not be confused with mediocre. In several visits, we've sampled and slurped from around the menu and have been delighted with all our selections. They've recently added a Sunday brunch to the dining option, too an experience we haven't had a chance to sample yet.
On our first foray, we began with Verdure Fritte ($6), a generous portion of fried zucchini and eggplant spears served attractively in white paper inside a chic, chrome cone. The veggie fries were searing hot and super crisp and were served with a tasty, but not especially spicy, red chile pesto. Ê
Next, we tucked into the Insalate Nicoise ($8), in this case a particularly lovely rendition of the tuna salad featuring tuna confit with the traditional hardboiled egg, haricots verts, potato, and kalamata olives. All this sat atop a bed of arugula and radicchio dressed with a fantastic lemon citronette. It was an utterly satisfying meal, made rich by the silky and sublime tuna.
The "P" sections of the menu fared equally well. One of the city's classiest BLTs is served up Italian style and therefore a PAT (pancetta, arugula, tomato, $8). This pressed panini was served seconds off the grill, resulting in a super crisp as well as delectably hot sandwich. Rustically simple Spaghetti Aglio Olio ($6) satisfied the pasta jones that was going on at the table with the al dente pasta and garlicky olive oil. Perhaps the standout, though, was the Funghi & Taleggio Pizza ($13), a pungent 12-inch pie on thin and delicious crust. The earthy mushrooms were beautifully offset by the aromatic cheese, and, again, the dish was popped on the table seconds out of the oven.
In 1998, when Vespaio opened its doors on South Congress, the success of the venture was far from certain. The avenue wasn't the epicenter of hipsterdom that it is today. But Alan Lazarus and Claude Beneyoun were perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist of South Congress, and their venture has been a success practically from day one. Their finger seems once again perfectly poised on the pulse: Enoteca is casually chic and deliberately delicious and already a South Congress success. Barbara Chisholm
JUST LIKE HOME
Wheatberry's Gourmet Market and Catering
2422 RR 620 S. #114, Lakeway, 512/263-7188
Monday-Saturday, 10am-8pm; Sunday, 11am-5pm
Jennifer Allen came to Austin five years ago from a catering career in Toronto. When she arrived, the first thing she did was set up a personal chef service, preparing her specialties in people's homes and leaving the food in ready-to-heat containers. When business grew to the point she could no longer keep up with the schedule, she created the Wheatberry's Gourmet Market concept.
Wheatberry's is not a fresh market. Instead, it is Jennifer's way of letting more people in on what she does. "This is just an extension of what I've been doing in people's homes," she explains. "But I've added some things. We now offer catering, and for the personal chef service, they now come here and pick it up. But the big change is we're now offering gourmet-to-go." The opportunity here is for folks who don't feel like cooking very often but also don't feel like sacrificing their health to a nightly diet of fast food or takeout. A quick stop at Wheatberry's and you can pick up dinner for a single person or a family, and for an evening or for a week's worth of meals.
The shop is just outside of Lakeway in a strip shopping center. It is small, with a fresh counter directly in front, holding about six or seven salads. To the left is a large freezer with about 50 items ready to go into your oven or microwave. Conspicuously absent are any Tex-Mex dishes. Instead, creative-sounding labels like Sweet Potato, Cauliflower and Roasted Garlic Soup; Bavarian Beef Roladen; or Mashed Potatoes With Buttermilk and Bacon.
Just to test the quality, we tried five of the salads and three of the main courses. The best salad was Wild Rice Salad with Cranberries and Raspberry Vinaigrette ($5.99/lb.), a great mix of meaty wild rice along with the tangy cranberries that also had a nice richness from the dressing. The Marinated Chinese Noodles and Vegetable Salad ($7.99/lb.) used the acidity in the dressing to slightly cook the veggies, providing a nice muted crunch to go along with the well-textured noodles and the ginger/sesame dressing. Wheatberry's Summer Tabbouleh ($7.99) is a lovely version, redolent of summer citrus. Their Green Beans With Shallot Vinaigrette ($6.99/lb.) features delightfully crispy beans with a good dressing, which, like all of their vinaigrettes, was rich rather than too tart. The most popular salad at Wheatberry's is called Our Most Requested Potato Salad ($4.50/lb.), a fresh-tasting concoction with big chunks of potatoes that, for once, are not overdone, and dressed with a light touch.
Jennifer told me that the main courses were all made with good-quality fresh ingredients she singled out the fact that she uses good fats like real butter and extra virgin olive oil and that "Since we aren't a franchise or a corporate place, we can go anywhere our culinary muse takes us."
The Shepherd's Pie ($7.99) is her No. 1 seller; Wheatberry's goes through almost 50 lbs. per week. It's good comfort food with garlicky mashed potatoes, but a little light on the seasoning and using ground beef in place of the classic lamb. Beef Roll-Ups With Risotto ($8.99) were a tender pair of roladen with a scoop of cheese-infused white rice. Not quite risotto, but delicious nonetheless. My favorite entrée was the Beef Pot Pie With Puff Pastry ($8.99) with big chunks of melt-in-your-mouth beef topped with buttery puff pastry.
Everything I tried at Wheatberry's was good, and both the Wild Rice Salad With Cranberries and Raspberry Vinaigrette and Beef Pot Pie With Puff Pastry would have made me smile in a high-end restaurant. If you're out in the Lakeway area, Wheatberry's is a good respite for the overburdened home cook and a valuable alternative for the cooking-challenged who find themselves forced into dining out too often. Wes Marshall
TWO SIBLINGS, NO RIVALRY
Cooper's Meat market and Royer's Round Top Take-out Market
1601 W. 38th #12, 467-6700
Monday, noon-6:30pm; Tuesday-Friday, 10am-6:30pm; Saturday, 10am-4pmwww.coopersandroyersmarket.com
There are some situations in which putting two young siblings together in the same small space would be a mistake. However, the West Austin joint venture that combines Lee Morrison's Cooper's Meat Market and the Royer family's Royer's Round Top Take-Out Market in a cozy Jefferson Square shop is anything but. Lee Morrison opened the Austin sibling of her brother's successful San Antonio custom meat shop in July of 2001. She quickly developed a loyal clientele selling top-quality meats, comforting casseroles, hearty deli sandwiches, and prepared takeout meals for holidays and special occasions. Fast forward to the spring of 2005: Morrison is now the mother of two very young children, looking for a way to keep her successful business running and spend more time with her family. Enter Bud and J.B. Royer, owners of the popular country destination restaurant Royer's Round Top Cafe. Though they still operate the cafe on the square in the tiny hamlet of Round Top, the Royer family has relocated to Austin. Father and son are looking for a small, turn-key space in which to spin off a local sibling of the cafe, selling takeout menu items and their fabulous pies. After settling in West Austin, they strike a deal to place their pies in Lee Morrison's shop, and it soon becomes clear to all concerned that they've found their solutions.
Entering into a partnership with the Royers has freed up more mommy time for Lee Morrison, expanded and enhanced the offerings in her shop, and put the Royers' considerable customer-service skills and marketing energy at her disposal. Her freezer case is still stocked with homey Chicken Pot Pies ($5.95) and casseroles such as King Ranch and Chicken Spaghetti ($13.95, $23.95, $39.95), while the fresh meat counter offers excellent cuts of beef, pork, lamb, veal, and game. Some, like the Beef Tenderloin Marinated Kabob ($9.95) are Cryovac-packed and ready to take home and slap on the grill. The newly expanded menu now includes several of the most popular dishes from the Round Top Cafe: Peach 'n Pepper Grilled Pork Tenderloin ($12.95/lb.), Semi-Boneless Quail Stuffed With Shrimp ($8.95), Grilled Marinated Quail ($4.50), the Shrimp BLT Sandwich ($10.95), Jalapeño Cheese Soup ($3.95), Creamed Corn Casserole ($6.95), Garlic Mashed Potatoes ($6.95), and their flavored butters, meat rubs, and marinades.
Many of the old and new menu items are prepared fresh daily, meaning it's possible to drop by and pick up a hot lunch of hearty sandwiches, substantial soups, festive salads, divine deviled eggs, and slices of several different kinds of pie. Another alternative is to sit down with the considerable menu and plan a week of meals, mixing fresh cuts of meat and voluptuous side dishes, homey casseroles with salads. I recently brought home two large bags of carefully chosen comestibles from the new business and ate like royalty for more than a week, feasting on pork tenderloin, quails, beef kabobs, green chile chicken casserole, and chicken pot pie paired with sides of corn, green beans, pasta salad, and slices of pie.
Now that the new deal is in full swing, master marketer Bud Royer is busy making sure the new aspects of the venture attract plenty of attention. Some of his marketing ploys include a Comfort Food Baker's Dozen Club, wherein the purchase of 12 casseroles or pies per household earns a free one of either, and there is also the upcoming weekly Dinner4U2 Menus that will feature entrées, salads with dressing, vegetable sides, two slices of pie, sourdough rolls, and flavored butters for two diners. The shop is also now offering expanded catering services, some business lunch delivery, and they're gearing up to promote prepared meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Plus those famous Royer pies can be ordered fresh or by mail order for family or corporate gift-giving. Virginia B. Wood