Dining del Lago 2014
Looking for water? Bring your own!
Time was when the sparkling water of Lake Travis was the prime attraction in western Travis County, but if several years of exceptional drought have proved anything, it's that people want to live, work, shop, and eat in the lake area regardless of the actual water level. Chronicle contributing writers Wes Marshall, Gracie Salem, Anna Toon, and I struck out to investigate the dining situation around Bee Cave and Lakeway last week and discovered that homegrown chains (Maudie's, Fuddruckers, JuiceLand, and Madam Mam's) and independent eateries alike are servicing increasing numbers of hungry diners in this burgeoning, full-blown suburb. The Hill Country Galleria and Shops at the Galleria offer a smattering of ethnic eats, plenty of quick, casual options, excellent barbecue, and some fine-dining outlets, plus culinary enhancements such as Whole Foods, an H-E-B Plus, Con' Olio, the Candy Jar, and Faraday's Kitchen Store. As for Lake Travis, all but one of the restaurants actually on the water have closed; the former Shades was reborn as the Sundancer Grill (16410 Stewart) last week, but not in time for us to check it out for this story. There's plenty to eat and drink in the neighborhood, whether or not you can get a boat in the water. – Virginia B. Wood
Cho Sushi Japanese Fusion2422 RR 620 S. Ste. 100-A, Lakeway, 512/263-0400
Mon.-Fri., 11am-2:30pm, 4:30-10pm; Sat., noon-10pm; Sun., 4-9pm
Cho Sushi offers excellent takes on traditional Japanese dishes such as yakisoba noodles with shrimp ($12). As for the word "fusion" in their name, we loved a special of sea bass with shredded crab ($20) along with a medium-hot sambal chili butter. While I am not about to place Cho on the pedestal as one of Austin's best, they do have a secret weapon that will have me going back: sushi chef Po Lee. Make a beeline for a very valuable seat at the sushi bar, then pull the trigger on the best bargain in the house. Any day but Tuesday (Po Lee's day off), show up late for lunch, say 1:30pm or so, and tell him that you are a sushi fanatic and have heard he's good. Then order the sushi-and-sashimi lunch combo ($18) and tell Po Lee that you want him to pick the components. A feast will ensue. This area already has one of Austin's best Chinese restaurants in Pao's and a premier Thai restaurant in Madam Mam's. Add Cho Sushi's immense potential and you have an Asian trifecta. Now, if the area could just attract a decent Vietnamese restaurant, there would be an amazing clutch of restaurants to make the area worthy of Asian destination-dining. – Wes Marshall
M N & J's Rocky Creek BBQ17499 Hamilton Pool Rd., 512/264-3330
Thu.-Sat., 11am-8pm; Sun., 11:30am-6pm
Discovering good barbecue can often be about timing. Hitting the joint at just the moment the ribs are done and the brisket falls apart is part of the fun of making a stop at a double-wide with a smoker in the back. Five miles off Hwy. 71 on Hamilton Pool Road is Rocky Creek BBQ, and we hit it at just the right moment on a recent Saturday at 11:30am. I usually judge barbecue on brisket and sauce, but here the smoked turkey – so often a dry afterthought on a mixed meat plate – was the star of the show. Juices would run at the tiniest pinch. It was smoky, tender, perfect. We dunked it in little plastic cups of tangy sauce and ate it with our fingers. Classic sides include slaw, potato salad, and pinto beans. Surrounded with clever, Texas-friendly signage and picnic tables under the trees, this side-of-the-road joint is the real deal. – Gracie Salem
We Olive & Wine Bar12800 Hill Country Blvd. Ste. 130-G, Bee Cave, 512/382-6517
Mon.-Thu., 10am-9pm; Fri.-Sat., 10am-10pm; Sun., noon-7pm
Is the Hill Country Galleria big enough to support two olive oil stores? We'll find out soon enough now that We Olive has moved into the mall to do head-to-head battle with Con' Olio. We Olive has a concept that they hope will carry them forward. Not only are they selling a limited selection of olive oils, but they also carry a good number of vinegars and craft food items in jars, all of which they offer to taste. In addition to those items, they have a diminutive kitchen for simple tapas and a selection of small-batch wines available by the taste, the half glass, the full glass, or the bottle. The place feels both casual and sophisticated in a California wine trail kind of way. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly. Despite the fact that this is a franchise operation, the owners are local and aim to make it feel like a little bit of Texas. – W.M.
Two Saints Baking Co. & Cafe13011 Shops Pkwy. #600, 512/263-1166 Mon.-Fri., 7:30am-6pm; Sat.-Sun., 8am-4pm
With an extensive menu of sweet and savory – everything from macaroons to a French dip – this large corner spot has something for everyone. Self-serve drinks and a cupcake display case fill out the order-at-the-counter-and-find-a-seat setting. Plenty of tables inside and out. Croissants are made in-house and can be ordered plain or stuffed with roasted turkey and cheese. Sandwiches come on house-made sourdough or ciabatta bread, and gluten-free bread, though not made on the premises, is available. Salads are plentiful on the menu – a yummy Oriental chicken choice was a standout. A simple red velvet cupcake hit the spot. Friendly order-takers and swift to-go service make it a quick lunch spot to hit any day of the week. Custom cakes and catering also offered. – G.S.
Sweet2127 Lohmans Crossing #310, Lakeway, 512/373-8685; Tue.-Sat., 10am-6pm
Former Four Seasons event planner and home baker extraordinaire Heather McClure built up a loyal following in this area selling special-occasion cakes and cupcakes from her home kitchen before making the move to a brick and mortar space in April. Now she's settled in the comfortable space vacated by Ate Cafe, using the kitchen as her commissary and the shop's retail area as a pick-up spot for her made-to-order wedding and special-occasion cakes, rotating flavors of cupcakes, petit fours, and elaborately decorated sugar cookies. Based on the limited amount of product in the display cases on the Saturday we visited, much of McClure's baking is still done to order. While the three flavors of cupcakes we sampled were delicious, the product line here needs to be more bountiful and diverse before it feels like a real bakery. – V.B.W.
Bee Cave Coffee Co.13420 Galleria Cir. Ste. 110-A, 512/263-9900
Mon.-Sat., 6:30am-6pm; Sun., 8:30am-6pm
Tucked deep into the Hill Country Galleria maze of shops, this local, modern coffee company has much to offer. Early morning hours should please picky caffeine-seekers with Cuvée Coffee as the house blend, featuring all-locally roasted beans. Specialty drinks, such as their white chocolate latte or the turtle mocha latte with caramel and hazelnut syrups, are a step over the top. The main attraction, however, is an awesome Cuvée cold brew dispensed from a kegerator. Once the coffee is slightly nitrogenated, it emerges looking just like a creamy pint of Guinness. Skip the slightly stale basket of baked goods at the register and go for a made-to-order breakfast taco with free-range eggs. Everything is cooked on a large griddle stove right at the back of the big, open kitchen. A traditional migas taco is the way to go, piled high with jalapeños, onions, and peppers – a steal at $2.25. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly; I'd start my day here anytime. – G.S.
Little Greek Restaurant2422 RR 620 S. Ste. 120-A, Lakeway, 512/276-2519
Greek food in Lakeway? Inside, Little Greek Restaurant looks like a fast-food joint that just happens to have a few tables. It's largely staffed by local teenagers and, if you have been spending your sunny day on the lake, you might actually think you have walked into a Subway. Luckily, the recipes are simple and the raw ingredients are garden-fresh. Their tzatziki is tasty and their pitas are fresh, so start with whatever flavor of pita wrap appeals. On the advice of the cashier, we chose the chicken pita ($6.99), a huge sandwich with juicy chicken breast meat. We also enjoyed the tender Lamb Souvlaki ($13.99), though the rice underscoring the dish was rather bland. Two items that any self-respecting Greek restaurant should master are dolmades and baklava. The dolmades ($1.79 each) were tasty and nicely spiced, but so loosely wrapped they were hard to hold. The baklava ($2.99) had all the right flavors, but thick sections of phyllo made it less than delicately flaky. Verdict: I wouldn't travel across town for this food, but if I was close by and hungry for Greek food, the Little Greek Restaurant would do just fine. – W.M.
Plate by Dzintra12717 Shops Pkwy. #100, 512/358-4776; Tue.-Sat., 5-9:30pm; Sun., 10am-3pm
Dzintra Dzenis is the chef/owner of this delightful little restaurant. Back in 2010, she was a finalist on the Food Network's prime-time show, The Next Food Network Star. Before that, she also picked up a Grand Diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, where she graduated with honors in both cuisine and pastry. Her operation in Austin started as a cooking club and teaching facility, but soon she started to open for dinner and occasional lunches. Every week she creates a new menu with perfectly fresh ingredients. A couple of weeks ago, her menu listed a salad called the Savory Heirloom Tomato Tart ($15). It was a concoction of puff pastry with goat cheese, basil, and heirloom tomatoes baked until crispy and set on top of baby greens dressed with a citrus vinaigrette. Dzintra usually has some form of ribs on her menu and that week it was classic braised short ribs ($28). They were so tender that the meat fell off the bone onto decadent mashed potatoes. Personally, I have little interest in reality TV competitions, but Dzenis' restaurant deserves its strong reputation, and a dinner there will surprise you. Between the magnificent Artisan Bistro and Plate by Dzintra, lake-area dwellers can hold their head high in any discussion about Austin fine-dining destinations. – W.M.
Don Mario Mexican Restaurant1700 RR 620 N. #110, 512/266-3319
Mon.-Thu., 9am-9:30pm; Fri., 9am-10pm; Sat., 8am-10pm; Sun., 8am-9pm
The busy Hudson Bend Road taquería with the great reputation has moved uptown to a full-service restaurant space vacated by Sobani earlier this year. The new spot offers plenty of parking, a full bar, and a patio. However, based on our experience, the new incarnation of Don Mario's has a ways to go before they are completely ready for prime time. Granted, the new place has only been open a scant few weeks, and that could explain some of the service issues, but the management really needs to tighten things up here, starting with closing the gates to the overflowing dumpster that greets guests as they pull into the parking lot. There didn't appear to be a guiding presence in the restaurant when our group of six arrived for Sunday brunch, and service deteriorated from there: Food came out slow and in spurts; water glasses, chip baskets, and salsa bowls were replenished slowly, if at all; and an inedible chile relleno was not removed from our bill as it should have been. The house table sauce was excellent and the majority of the food we tried was very satisfying, but Don Mario's is not quite a restaurant yet. We'll give them another shot the next time we're in the area. – V.B.W.
Oasis, Texas Brewing Company6550 Comanche Trl.
Thu., 5-10pm; Fri., 2pm-12mid; Sat., noon-12mid; Sun., 2-10pm
"Don't cross her, don't boss her." One look at the tagline for Oasis, Texas Brewing Company's Luchesa Lager, and I knew I'd encountered a brewery after my own heart. Housed in the Mansfield private event venue at the Oasis, Texas Brewing Company's Lake Travis development, the recently opened brewery and taproom stand out as a must-visit lake destination. Offering exquisite views from its third floor location, the brewery's rustic architecture pairs perfectly with the modern brewhouse. The beers, created by head brewer Spencer Tielkemeier, formerly of Live Oak Brewing Company and Uncle Billy's, are highly-sessionable (less than 5% ABV) and equally delicious. Flagship beers include Slow Ride, an American pale ale made with Cascade, Chinook, and Columbus hops; the above-mentioned Luchesa Lager, an unfiltered pils brewed in the traditional German Kellerbier style; and London Homesick Ale, an English-style ale. While the recent addition of a canning line means beers can soon be enjoyed from the comfort of home, the attentive staff, expansive views, plus affordable pints and beer flights make this a necessary stop at the lake. – Anna Toon
Briarcliff Bistro & Bacon Bar108 Pace Bend Rd. S., Spicewood, 512/264-0029
Mon., Wed.-Fri., 4-10pm; Sat., 11:30am-10pm; Sun., 10am-8pm
Briarcliff Bistro and Bacon Bar (hereinafter "BBBB") is a fun place, and it's not just for bacon addicts. It's a neighborhood watering hole that welcomes strangers with open arms. It's also a small kitchen that keeps things simple so it can deliver the goods on every order. Most of all, it's a pleasant place to get a respite from a hot day on the lake. We tried their Mexican Martini ($9.50) and were surprised at what a nice cocktail it was. They avoid the two cardinal sins of MM making: It is not cloyingly sweet, and they are not stingy with the tequila. Their sandwiches are huge. Two of us split their CuBBBBano Sandwich ($12.95) and felt like we had plenty to eat. Its combination of pulled pork, ham, Gruyere cheese, and pickles was deliciously tangy. Even better is the BBBBLT ($9.95), with about a half-pound of bacon stacked on a bed of lettuce and tomato slices, all on buttered Texas toast. Their bacon is thick and incredibly flavorful, making the sandwich a work of bacon art. I don't count myself as a true bacon devotee, otherwise I would have tried the BBBBacon Bloody Mary ($8) or the Maple Bacon Cheesecake ($6.95). Maybe next time. – W.M.