Neo-Mexicano has arrived in Austin via La Condesa
Reviewed by Claudia Alarcón, Fri., May 1, 2009
Daily, 11am-3pm, 5-11pm;
continuous bar service
La Condesa400-A W. Second, 499-0300
Monday-Sunday, 11am-3pm & 5-11pm; bar service all day
Colonia Condesa is one of Mexico City's hippest neighborhoods, where legendary taquerias stand next to cool bars and restaurants that serve cutting-edge cuisine and cocktails, reflective of Mexico's regional diversity and current culinary trends. This style of cuisine, known in Mexico City as neo-Mexicano, has arrived in Austin at the aptly named La Condesa restaurant and bar in the 2nd Street District.
The modern building, designed by the dynamic local architect-designer duo of Michael Hsu and Joel Mozersky, screams cool from every corner. Inspired by Latin American architects and modeled after some of Mexico City's trendiest eateries, the ample space features concrete, stone, metal, and glass, softened with hanging drapes and lovely plant arrangements. The bar, situated on a second level to the right of the entrance, includes a mini lounge and a tiny balcony for alfresco cocktails. The coolest part of the building, however, is the carefully restored, historically protected underground vault, which belonged to the original J.P. Schneider general store, built in the 1860s. Be sure to ask for a tour.
The bar boasts a small but carefully curated wine list, a selection of more than 80 premium tequilas, and insanely good cocktails created by renowned mixologist Junior Merino. The cocktails feature a balanced combination of salty, sweet, sour, and spicy and are garnished with a variety of house-made infused salts. My personal favorite (at least at the moment) is the Alma Blanca: habanero-infused Chinaco blanco tequila, ginger essence, aloe vera-lemongrass syrup, pineapple juice, hoja santa, and a hibiscus-rose-infused salt rim. For those looking for something a little simpler yet just as delicious, the Margarita La Condesa is made with fresh lime, Damiana liqueur, fresh pineapple juice, agave nectar, and a cactus salt rim. With the premium mezcales, the restaurant serves a shot of spicy sangrita and sal de gusano, a very traditional Oaxacan accompaniment of salt ground with dried agave worms. It's smoky, earthy, delicious.
La Condesa's cuisine draws from various regions throughout Mexico, using both traditional and current cooking techniques and ingredients, many of them locally sourced. Dishes range from authentic street food to classic cantina staples to sophisticated specialties. Chef Rene Ortiz, a native Texan who grew up in San Antonio, has honed his skills all over the world, including Europe, Australia, and New York City, where he opened db Bistro Moderne with Daniel Boulud and worked alongside Alain Ducasse at Mix and at Pallidan with chef Jean-Louis Pallidan. Before returning to Texas to open La Condesa, he was at La Esquina restaurant in New York, Time Out New York's Best New Restaurant of 2007.
His menu begins with a variety of botanas meant for sharing. The huaraches de hongos y huitlacoche ($14) are crispy, oval masa boats topped with wild mushrooms, huitlacoche, Oaxaca cheese, epazote, and truffle oil. All the taquitos are exquisite, but here's your chance to be adventurous and order the chapulines ($12), a Oaxacan specialty of tiny fried grasshoppers (not crickets!) served the traditional way: on a hot tortilla with guacamole and green salsa (those Oaxacans sure like to eat their insects). The taquitos de médula con queso ($8) are sinful and yet 100% traditional: roasted bone marrow with poblano strips and chile morita salsa. Another of my favorites is the tostadas de pulpo ($11), three tiny, freshly fried tortillas topped with perfectly grilled octopus in a Veracruz-style sauce of tomatoes, green olives, capers, and chile piquín. A variety of ceviches is available, from the traditional Acapulco ($12) to the nouveau hamachi y toronja ($14), sashimi-style yellowtail with grilled grapefruit, lime, cilantro, and chicharrones – buttery, crunchy, citrusy, and refreshing.
I have also had a couple of stellar entrees. The costillas de puerco ($18) are one of the least Mexico City-like dishes, but finger-licking good nonetheless: sweet-spicy guava-glazed pork ribs, served with pickled red onions and a side of fried plantains topped with salsa verde, queso fresco, and cilantro. The killer upscale version of barbacoa ($26) is the real Central Mexico deal; no cow head here. Instead, spiced lamb chop and shoulder baked to tender perfection in a maguey leaf, served with a side of esquites (a common street dish of corn kernel, onion, epazote, and lime juice), nopalitos salad, and a jalapeño-mint recado for a non-traditional touch. For a special occasion, with 72 hours notice, they will make cochinillo, a whole roast suckling pig served family style.
Pastry chefLaura Sawicki is also creating some incredible desserts. A Culinary Institute of America graduate, she worked at various NYC restaurants before relocating to Austin. For something completely different, try her tarta de chocolate salada: a caramel and ganache tart with coarse salt, crunchy sweet amaranth, and coconut ice cream. Brunch is served on weekends, and although I have yet to go, I am looking forward to it. I usually spend my time at the bar noshing on botanas and getting to know the fantastically efficient and friendly staff. Take it from a native of Mexico City – comparing La Condesa with any other Austin Mexican restaurant is comparing apples and oranges. They're actually resetting the bar for any eatery in Austin.