Elizabeth Street Cafe
Reviewed by Kate Thornberry, Fri., March 2, 2012
Elizabeth St. Cafe1501 S. First, 291-2881
While eyeballing the progress of the massive remodel of the vacated Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse location, I was informed that the new tenant would be a Vietnamese place. An upscale Vietnamese place, the brainchild of Larry McGuire and Tommy Moorman, the chefs who steer a restaurant group that includes Lamberts and Perla's. McGuire and Moorman have a method (and it's a good one) of taking a popular type of cuisine such as barbecue, preparing it from the very highest-quality ingredients, charging accordingly, and consequently enjoying critical, popular, and financial success. Vietnamese food is a good fit for this game plan; it is a fantastic, flavorful cuisine – very popular where it is known – that tends to be served at economical, threadbare strip-mall locations that vie with one another for the most rock-bottom prices. As a result, both the ambience and the quality of ingredients (especially meats) tend to suffer. Turning that around and making this stellar cuisine with grass-fed meats, eggs from pastured chickens, locally grown organic produce, and San Miguel Seafood fresh from the Gulf is a concept so totally up my farmers'-market-addicted alley that it could have been a fevered dream fresh from my personal wish-fulfillment fantasyland.
Apparently, I'm not the only person in South Austin who feels this way. From the minute the Elizabeth St. Cafe opened its doors, it has been jammed!packed!overflowing! with eager customers, long waits at peak times, and parking mayhem. "We didn't intend to open a 'destination restaurant,'" says McGuire. "We were trying to open a cool little neighborhood place, a place that would last and slowly get better over time." The overwhelming response was a surprise they are still dealing with. "We are still in the process of tweaking the menu," says McGuire. "So we're just coping as best we can!"
Elizabeth St. Cafe serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and has an in-house bakery that makes classic French pastries and desserts, as well as the baguettes for its bánh mì, the trendy Vietnamese sandwiches. The dainty à la carte pastries are generally very good, though the cream puffs and eclairs tend to be soggy if not made within the hour. The bar serves beer, wine, and sake in addition to a full array of espresso drinks and Vietnamese drip coffee (hot and iced). The menu breaks down along classic lines, with appetizers such as rice paper and vermicelli spring rolls ($6-$9), steamed pork-belly buns ($8) and fried shrimp-and-yam fritters ($10), 10 types of bánh mì ($6-$8), 13 types of pho ($11-$22), and 10 vermicelli bowls ($12-$18), as well as specialties of the house.
The restaurant has caught a lot of flak for its prices, which are easily twice what you would pay for strip-mall Vietnamese fare. But it's more than worth it when you taste what this cuisine becomes when made with the ingredients it deserves. The green mango and cucumber salad ($8) is shockingly delicious, a mound of julienned mango and cucumber threads drenched with a sweet-and-sour rice wine vinaigrette punctuated with delicate flakes of dried beef. The braised McAllen short rib pho ($14) is, like all the pho, a veritable cauldron of clear, richly spiced stock served with cilantro, sliced jalapeños, mint, sacred basil, rice noodles, and delectable chunks of meltingly tender short ribs. The Bo Luc Lac ("shaking beef," $26), a specialty of the house and one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, is made with a grass-fed Niman Ranch New York strip steak prepared in the classic charring-and-shaking style and served on a bed of organic tomatoes and spinach topped with marinated onion, making it the best rendition of this dish available probably anywhere. The kaffir-lime fried-chicken bánh mì ($7) on a house-made fresh baguette with marinated vegetables and house-made mayonnaise was also superb, although comparatively not very filling. The desserts are exceptional; the profiteroles ($8), three firm rice puff pastry shells filled with coffee ice cream and topped with melted dark chocolate and candied hazelnuts only edge out the pineapple tarte tatin ($8) by a few groans of pleasure.
Add the incredibly fresh, sublime flavors to the cheerful, colorful, new atmosphere complete with comfortable tables and chairs, outdoor heat lamps, and overall spick-and-span newness, and the difference in price is handily accounted for. Again, I am not the only person in Austin who thinks so: Try to walk or bike or carpool when you come, and aim for a nonpeak time unless you want to wait for more than an hour.