Restaurant Review: Restaurant Review

Russell and Laura Arnold take the "handmade" moniker seriously

ZuZu Handmade Mexican Food

6317 Bee Caves Rd. #200, 512/732-2117, www.zuzuaustin.com
Daily, 8am-9pm
Restaurant Review
Photo by John Anderson

ZuZu Handmade Mexican Food

5770 MoPac N. #500, 467-9295;
6317 Bee Caves Rd., 732-2117
www.zuzuaustin.com
Sunday-Thursday, 8am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 8am-10pm

All of ZuZu's signs and menus proclaim in large block letters: "Handmade Mexican Food." It's not just an empty slogan; proprietors Russell and Laura Arnold are quite dedicated to the concept and have zero interest in preparing food any other way. "Virtually everything we serve is prepared on the premises," says Russell, "and we make it all the freshest, healthiest way we know how." Not only are all the salsas, sauces, and side dishes made in-house daily; ZuZu goes the extra mile and bakes its own double-cream flan, mixes its own signature rosemary-lime vinaigrette, and pats out its own fragrant corn tortillas.

The Arnolds are equally serious about keeping it healthy. ZuZu does not use lard; instead, the refried black beans are made with olive oil, epazote, and vegetable stock. The Spanish rice is also made with vegetable stock and is studded with peas and freshly diced carrots. In addition to enchiladas, tacos, burritos, and other favorites, ZuZu offers entrée salads topped with grilled fish, chicken, and steak. These things have made ZuZu a favorite with the health- and fitness-conscious, as well as with parents of young children.

The flavor, happily, remains pure Mexican; both ZuZu locations are staffed largely by the extended families of sisters Maria Hernandez and Fausta Cornejo. The sisters, both managers at ZuZu, originally hail from the Michoacán region, and their skill keeps the authentic flavor of Interior Mexico in every dish.

One look at the fresh salsa bar, and you know you're in for a first-rate meal. Nestled in a huge quantity of crushed ice are huge bowls of salsa: roasted poblano red table salsa, well-balanced and versatile; dried cascabel-chile salsa, very mild, thin, and smooth; chunky pico de gallo; and ZuZu's unimpeachable roasted tomatillo salsa verde. Truly, the salsa verde is perfection: mild yet robust, complex, flavorful, and unforgettable. Along with the salsas are bowls of freshly chopped onions, generous lemon and lime wedges, minced fresh serranos, heaps of fresh cilantro leaves, and chilled sour cream.

When ZuZu opened in 1984 on Bee Caves Road, it was part of a small chain of franchises. As the chain grew, the corporate bosses wanted the stores to move away from fresh ingredients and use cheaper, mass-produced foodstuffs. The Arnolds rebelled and convinced the ZuZu chain to cut them loose. They relocated to North Austin and ever since have been an independent, locally owned restaurant. (The rest of the chain, deservedly, went under.)

What they did retain from the early days are clean, brightly colored dining areas and speed. Every dish is handmade to order; nevertheless, the food comes out very promptly. The ZuZu ambience is low-maintenance, flooded with sunlight, and kid-friendly, whether you're inside or on the patio. (Every time I've been in, there have been families with children, no doubt because ZuZu offers a sizable, inexpensive children's menu.) The regular menu is extensive, as well, even before you add in the daily chalkboard specials. Nearly all of ZuZu's entrées offer two of their five side dishes: rice, black beans, roasted corn relish, ancho-roasted potatoes, and green salad. After a lifetime of Spanish rice and refried beans, I'm impressed (and grateful) when there are other choices. The roasted corn relish is starchy and sweet, served chilled, and dressed with rosemary-lime vinaigrette. The green salad is dressed with the same dressing, which is light and pleasant. The roasted potatoes, however, get the gold star; diced into bite-sized pieces, lightly seasoned, and hot from the oven, they are delightful.

The ZuZu queso and chips ($3.75) is a nice big tub of smooth, deceptively thin queso with intense cheese flavor and undertones of roasted poblano. The migas platter ($5.25) holds its own against any in town: The eggs are scrambled with sautéed red bell peppers and onions, chopped poblanos, corn chips, and mozzarella cheese, and served with a side of roasted potatoes and fresh fruit. The queso-topped chimi­changa ($6.95), filled with rice, beans, and mozzarella, is the perfect size and has a wonderful texture – the flour tortilla crisp yet slightly softened by the hot queso. But it's the Catfish BBQ Tacos ($7.95) that will keep me coming back. The soft corn tortilla contrasts sublimely with the crunchy exterior of the sweet catfish. Nestled alongside the spicy fish are slices of cool avocado and daubs of tangy barbecue sauce. It's a flawless blend of flavors and textures.

ZuZu's flan was voted Best Flan by The Austin Chronicle in 2001, and once you try it, you'll be loathe to leave without ordering it. It's outrageously creamy, with a dense texture and pronounced vanilla flavor. Both locations serve iced tea, mango-peach caffeine-free iced tea, a variety of soft drinks, fresh lemon- and limeade, coffee, and beer. The newly opened West Lake location has frozen margaritas, as well.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

ZuZu Handmade Mexican Food, Russell Arnold, Laura Arnold

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