Kerbey Lane Cafe
Kerbey your enthusiasm
Reviewed by Kate Thornberry, Fri., April 27, 2012
Kerbey Lane Cafe3003 S. Lamar, 445-4451
Open 24 hours, seven days a week
Established in 1986, Kerbey Lane's South Lamar location has earned the adjective "venerable"; the only Kerbey location before it was the original, tiny location on Kerbey Lane itself. So it's a little startling to see the familiar building shuttered with a "for rent" sign on it, and intriguing to see the new, modern Kerbey Lane Cafe sign directly across the street. In my case, a few moments' reflection on how sadly, badly beaten up the old location had become under relentless, 24-hour-a-day traffic for over 30 years was enough to cause me to release all nostalgia completely. The new location looks and feels like a dream come true for staff and customers alike. First of all, everything is new, sturdy, and in great condition: the booths, the chairs, the kitchen equipment, the computers, the flooring ... everything. The aura of cleanliness is deeply satisfying. The design of the new place was done by Richard Weiss, the architect who also designed the Alamo Drafthouses and the HighBall, and the effect is a kind of mid-century, fun diner look, crossed with perhaps a touch of mid-century elementary school. But most importantly, every problem experienced at the old location has been addressed, from the waiting area on.
To begin with, the restaurant itself is more than twice as large. The old location seated 97; the new one seats 240. Brunch at Kerbey Lane has always been incredibly popular, and waits used to get into the two-hour range, especially for larger parties; now, with so much more seating, the wait is never more than 10 to 15 minutes. And should you have to wait, the waiting area is large and comfortable. "The waits were always our weakest point," says shift manager Austin Weber. "It is just a joy to have solved that problem."
To accommodate so much seating, the kitchen is twice as large as well, and has gone paperless with an automated ticketing system designed to get a table's entire order to come into the window simultaneously. (In my experience, it worked, too.) A long dreamt-of, dog-friendly patio has been added, surrounded by concrete walls topped with bamboo plants. Instead of one, there are eight beers on tap (seven of them local), and there is finally an honest-to-god espresso machine as well as the whole array of coffee drinks. Another wish fulfilled: a private room for 20-40 people.
Kerbey Lane has always cared about quality, and it was one of the first adopters of local sourcing (I often see its Executive Chef Joel Welch scouting meats and produce at area farmers' markets) and sustainability (all appropriate restaurant wastes are composted). In the rush to appreciate the fine-dining establishments that embrace local farms and dairies, good old Kerbey Lane Cafe is often overlooked despite its well-documented dedication. All of the eggs served at its marathon brunches are pastured and organic (from Vital Farms), all the coffees are from Third Coast Coffee, breads and pastries come from the New World Bakery, and tortillas from El Lago. Wherever possible, meats are sourced from Thunder Heart Bison, Richardson Farms, Pederson's Natural Farms, and Twin County Dorpers. A large portion of its produce comes directly from Engel Farms of Fredericksburg.
The menu hasn't changed with the move; all of the favorites – from pancakes to sandwiches to curiously impressive Mexican fare – are still there, and the best word to describe it all is "reliable." At Sunday brunch, I enjoyed the French toast platter ($7.15) featuring four triangles of French toast sprinkled with powdered sugar, two eggs, and bacon. Served with whipped butter and maple syrup, it's tasty and filling. The medium glass of orange juice ($3.65) is, by restaurant standards, enormous – a full 12 ounces (!) – and the bottomless cup of Fair Trade coffee ($2.55) is an aroma-rich delight. Classic queso ($6.25), served with heated thin tortilla chips, is a natural color and very fresh and good, and the table salsa holds it own against any in the city for authenticity, flavor, and heat. The Cobb Sandwich ($7.25), made with smoked turkey, bacon, bleu cheese crumbles, avocado, lettuce, tomato, and garlic ranch dressing on toasted sourdough, served with fresh, hot fries, is well-made and delicious, as are all the sandwiches I have ever sampled there.
In addition to its regular menu, Kerbey features a seasonal menu of dishes including fresh, local ingredients. From that menu, the smoked-salmon crostini ($7.95) are a very pleasant surprise in that the portion of salmon is extremely generous and the tomatoes are vine-ripened. The steak vermicelli bowl ($9.95) is a bit of a conundrum: It's more like a cross between a bowl of pho and a vermicelli bowl, with the vermicelli swimming in broth. But the flavors of the grass-fed flank steak, fresh carrots, jalapeño, and especially the snow pea pods carry the dish beautifully despite its hybrid nature.
But Kerbey Lane Cafe is not (and hopefully never will be) fancy. When I asked why it is that Kerbey Lane is so beloved of parents with children, Weber explained: "What parents of little kids want isn't toys or coloring books. What they want is to get the kids in and fed before they melt down. That's why they love us. We'll get that food out to you quick."