There's room for improvement at Freedmen's
Reviewed by Claudia Alarcón, Fri., June 21, 2013
Sunday Brunch: 11am-3pm;
Freedmen's2402 San Gabriel, 512/220-0953
Mon.-Sat., 4pm-12mid; Sunday brunch: 11am-3pm; cocktails, 3-5pm; dinner, 5pm-12mid
When I lived in West Campus in the early Nineties, I would often walk past an old building at the corner of San Gabriel and 24th and think how cool the historic landmark would be as a restaurant. When I heard the news that a group of service industry veterans were taking it over, I was overjoyed. After the usual permit delays and construction woes, Freedmen's opened its doors on New Year's Eve 2012. We have visited a few times and, while the experiences have mostly been positive, there are still plenty of kinks both in the front and back of the house that need ironing out.
Joel Mozersky did a bang-up job of restoring the interior to its 1869 aesthetic, honoring its many occupants over the years and creating an atmosphere of home. I love the historic feel and intimacy of the cozy quarters indoors and am enchanted by the dog-friendly patio, especially at night when low lighting casts a nostalgic glow.
The bar specializes in classic cocktails and special craft creations. Smoke permeates every aspect of Freedmen's, and the bar is not an exception. The Smokin' Cactus ($8), made with mescal, grapefruit, lime, jalapeño-infused agave syrup, and smoked sea salt, and the Three Day Weekend, made with gin, basil, and fresh-squeezed, smoked lemon, are great examples, both refreshing and unique. We have also enjoyed a very respectable Sazerac; Freedmen's barmen take great pride in their Whiskey Wall, with extensive offerings from around the world and a special whiskey of the month. The wine selection is limited, but features better than garden-variety offerings.
However, one problem that seems to plague Freedmen's is their inconsistency in keeping items in stock. On our first visit a few months ago, we ordered the Holy Trinity Plate ($17), consisting of brisket, pork rib, and sausage, but they had run out of ribs. It was late on a Friday night, so it was understandable, and the kitchen let us substitute chicken for the missing ribs. We were pleased with the moist, succulent brisket and homemade sausage, but the chicken was tough and underdone. Politely, the manager came to tell us she would take the chicken off the bill, but assured us that it wasn't underdone: "This is the way it is with smoked meats, they stay pink on the inside," she explained. Pink, yes; tough and bloody, no. Nevertheless, we enjoyed ourselves, service was very friendly, and we were especially impressed with the smoked beets ($8) served with a dollop of creamy goat cheese.
My husband and I returned for dinner on a recent Monday night. We started with a couple of excellent cocktails while we perused the menu. We began the meal with a bone marrow appetizer ($8), which came in its own cute, cast-iron skillet with soft, warm French bread and a side of orange marmalade that was tasty on its own, but the unctuous wonder of the marrow is best enjoyed all by itself. We were enticed by the Pit Chili ($6), served over Fritos with shredded smoked cheddar and chopped onions, but the chunks of nicely spiced brisket were too large and a tad greasy, which made the chips soggy quickly; I prefer my Fritos chili pie with finely chopped meat and crisp chips.
At this point, problems began piling up. I ordered a bottle of sparkling wine, but the barman said they were out of all sparkling wine. I assumed they must have done crazy mimosa business during the Sunday brunch, but he went on to say they were out of most of their wines. We settled on a Sauvignon Blanc that was not our first choice, but had enough acidity to cut the fat and smoke. The next item they were out of was the beef short ribs, so we ordered the pork spare ribs ($11), which came with more of that awesome bread, a sweetish sauce not to my liking, and homemade assorted pickles. We found the ribs a tad too peppery, but they were tender and nicely smoked. I pictured the Smoke Stack ($9) – advertised as pork belly and brisket served with house sauce and pickled jalapeños – as a combo plate, and thought it would be great to try two meats instead of just one. Out came a chopped brisket sandwich, pork belly undetectable, barely tossed with sauce, and no jalapeños anywhere. "We are out," said the barman in a now-familiar refrain. Out of pickled jalapeños on a Monday night? I pointed out that based on the menu description, we hadn't expected a sandwich. He read the menu and agreed, but didn't think to offer to send us anything else. Had I known what the dish really was, I would have ordered something other than a nine-dollar, so-so brisket sandwich. Thankfully, the sides were good. We chose the German potatoes ($5), hot and bacon-y, with a nice tang and lots of caramelized onions, cleverly served in a canning jar. We also enjoyed the arugula salad, a refreshing contrast to all the heavy meats and starch, with grapefruit sections, crunchy cucumber slices, and a light balsamic vinaigrette. Minor quibble: We had to serve the wine ourselves since our friendly barman was always off doing something else.
After finding out they were also out of the special dessert, we opted for the Salted & Smoked Chocolate Mousse ($5), which I gladly polished off while my husband discussed and sampled the Whiskey Wall with the barman. I wanted to like Freedmen's for so many reasons, but they simply must correct their inconsistencies and pay a bit more attention to detail where par levels are concerned. Right now, I'd describe it as a very nice bar with above average food, rather than a contender as a serious restaurant.