If this is diner food, then it's from the best diner in the universe
Reviewed by Kate Thornberry, Fri., April 23, 2010
The HighBall1142 S. Lamar, 383-8309
Monday-Friday, 4:30pm-2am; Saturday-Sunday, 1pm-2am
The HighBall is the newest venture by Tim and Karrie League, the owners of the three original Alamo Drafthouses. Located in the same shopping center as the Drafthouse on South Lamar, the HighBall is a somewhat high-concept "grownup" recreation spot, with eight lanes of bowling, seven themed karaoke rooms, four lanes of Skee-Ball, an enormous and very well-stocked bar, and a diner.
The decor is reminiscent of 1960s Las Vegas, with modernistic starburst chandeliers, red leatherette upholstery, mirrors, and sparkling gold lamé – it's like walking onto the set of a Jerry Lewis movie. It's anachronistic (literally!) to walk in and experience the posh Sixties ambience while simultaneously noting that every chair, table, and fixture is brand-new.
The bar, headed up by bar manager Ryan Schibi, is impressive for more than its daunting proportions. Schibi is a master, possessing a rare talent for balance and combination in his cocktails. The signature cocktails he has crafted for the HighBall are dazzling. I sampled the 10 Pin ($10), a blend of cucumber-infused gin, strawberry, and fresh basil, with a smoked salt rim. It was sublime: beautifully balanced, the distinct flavors of the muddled strawberry and fresh basil coming forward in each sip.
The HighBall bar also uses high-quality well liquors, including Tito's and Tanqueray, and keeps a comprehensive collection of scotch and tequila on hand. "It's super-important to us to use as much local stuff as we possibly can," says Executive Chef Trish Eichelberger. "We use the locally made vodkas and rums, of course, and as far as the beer goes, we have all the good local stuff." She laughs: "We are selling more alcohol than anyone else in town right now. It is no small thing to outsell the topless bars!"
Eichelberger got her training as a young chef at the original Mars restaurant, working closely with chef John Bullington. When Bullington left Mars to work for the Alamo Drafthouse five years ago, Eichelberger came along, little guessing the opportunities that would open before her. Both gifted and indefatigable, Eichelberger has risen to the position of executive chef as the Alamo empire has expanded.
The high volume of liquor sales has landed Eichelberger in an unusual position for an executive chef: She doesn't have to fret overmuch about food costs. "We are running on a kind of 'Vegas' model at the moment," she explains. "The bar sales are carrying us, so we can do more premium local sourcing, like Loncito's lamb, Dewberry Hills Farms, and San Miguel seafood."
The restaurant in the HighBall terms itself a "diner," but the food is largely reimagined, 21st century versions of diner fare. The HighBall Hot Wings ($12) are a perfect example: The wings are flash-fried Texas quail quarters, crisp and succulent, tossed in a Sriracha-and-bacon emulsion that's just spicy enough to require the side of buttermilk ranch dressing. Served with mild pickled okra and fresh celery and carrot sticks, they newly define hot wing perfection. The fresh hand-cut onion rings ($6.50) are equally peerless. Brought to the table piping hot, these rings of fresh yellow onion have been dipped in a thin Shiner Bock batter and quickly fried. They emerge sweet and fully cooked, with hints of malt flavor and breading as light as tempura. The delightful fresh hand-cut fries ($6) are also hot, thin, and crisp, and served with both a side of demi-glace and ketchup. Because they're cut from actual potatoes, they do wilt a bit as they cool. The Dr Pepper Ribs ($12) are another HighBall original: Dr Pepper-glazed pork ribs with a crushed peanut crust. The glaze is terrific, not terribly sweet, and the salty peanuts are a nice foil, though the pork itself is quite mild.
The wedge salad ($6) is an old-fashioned wedge of crunchy iceberg, topped with halved cherub tomatoes, red onion, bacon crumbles, and house-made Thousand Island dressing. Cold and crisp, it is singularly suited to pair with the rest of the menu. The HighBall Caesar ($6.75) is a leafy version of the classic, but with the addition of halved cherub tomatoes (either a travesty or an improvement, depending on your point of view); in a novel break with tradition, the anchovies are battered and fried, adding a crunchy texture and pleasantly reducing their overpowering saltiness.
The menu features both hot entrées and sandwiches, and the prices are beyond reasonable. The seared scallops ($15) are a triumph, featuring four enormous scallops in an orange-chile sauce, served with a hot vanilla/jasmine rice cake, fresh tangerine sections, and fresh vegetables. The piquant contrast between the sweet orange and the mellow vanilla, with the firm, mild scallop taking center stage, brings out the unique flavors of all three. Dewberry Hills Farms' fried chicken (market price) is another outstanding entrée. The local, sustainably produced yard bird is soaked in buttermilk for 24 hours, then fried in a cast-iron pan, resulting in tender white meat with intense flavor. Served with creamy mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables, it is an incredible value.
The desserts are a little bit retro and fun; there are two tableside flambés, two homemade pies that change by the season, a peanut butter brownie, and cake. The HighBall Jubilee ($12 for two people) consists of a bourbon bread pudding topped with a Grand Marnier-and-cherry flambé and is crowned with whipped cream. Prepared tableside on a classic polished-wood flambé cart, the bread pudding is as tender as a baked custard, with a nicely crisped exterior. The tart cherries and mild, melting cream take it into orbit. The Mile High Coconut Cake ($4) is an enormous slab of cake, three layers tall, with a lavish exterior of meringue icing profusely mantled with lightly toasted coconut. The best thing, even better than the stunning appearance of the cake, is that the layers within are spread with rich coconut custard, making every crumb richly moist.
If this is diner food, then it's from the best diner in the universe.