FoRay's Experimental Austin Cuisine Forging Food Paths

Sometime in the mid-Seventies, a new cuisine developed in our city. Known as "Austin Food," the style basically fused Tex-Mex and traditional diner fare with the "health food" so popular in that era. Classic examples would include soft black bean tacos in whole-wheat tortillas with sprouts and mild salsa, or meatless "grain burgers" served on whole-wheat buns garnished with eggless mayonnaise, a large mound of sprouts, and a pile of corn chips, ready for dipping in that same mild salsa. The style flourished at such establishments as Kerbey Lane Cafe, Magnolia Cafe, Mother's, Martin Brothers, and the Omelettry; and indeed, items like the ones described above still sell like hotcakes (another Austin Food staple, available in tasty gingerbread and inevitable whole wheat).

Yet even as the cash registers of these places clinked and chimed, the Austin style itself somehow went bankrupt. What longtime Austinite can relish the idea of waiting two hours on a Sunday morning for a plate of pancakes or a spinach omelette at the Kerbey Lane Cafe? Only innovation and fresh talent can rescue Austin Food from its (admittedly profitable) doldrums. Deep in South Austin, a small new eatery known as ForRay's has earnestly taken up this onerous task. Although it bills itself as a "cafe and espresso bar," the place is more properly thought of a South First Street greasy spoon (unsaturated grease, of course) that, in lockstep with the times, owns the obligatory espresso machine.

First let it be said that the espresso drinks therein are decent, and the drip coffee is quite good. Now to the important aspects of ForRay's: ambience and food. This is no fashionable Little City clone: no distressed walls, no raw-concrete floors, no medieval-looking light fixtures. Rather, the place has the homey feel of a neighborhood diner, with a huge front window overlooking the street, unapologetically plain walls, a long bar lined with classic stools, and a waitress who roams the joint with a good-natured authority. It all adds up to a relaxed and funky environment, the kind that Kerbey Lane and Magnolia could still muster maybe six years ago.

Foray's food has the experimental feel that must have defined those eateries in their early days. The breakfast menu encompasses the Austin style but adds new twists. Migas with chipotle or tomatillo sauce ($5.25) and breakfast tacos ($.75 per ingredient) are slightly expensive but solid versions of Austin standards. Crepes ($4.00 for two; $5.00 for three) add a French accent to the menu; the ForRay's kitchen turns them out properly light and airy, wrapped around your choice of two ingredients and dusted with powdered sugar. Try them with blueberry, cream cheese, and walnut (third ingredient, $.35 extra), a happy combination of flavors and textures.

From there, the kitchen turns east for inspiration. The eggs with green curry sauce (with potatoes, $3.75) has to be one of the most intriguing ideas to hit Austin Food in years. Unhappily, the dish didn't quite work for me. The sauce tasted harsh and unnuanced, and didn't complement the bland scrambled eggs it covered. If the sauce could be refined and perhaps incorporated into the egg scramble (which would actually produce the "green eggs" promised in the menu), this dish would be excellent.

The taco menu continues in this experimental direction, and stands as ForRay's main contribution to the Austin repertoire. The ideas are daring, and the results both hit and miss. The Bad Ass Taco ($2.50, as are the other tacos) places crisp falafel with scrambled eggs and sautéed vegetables, adding a welcome Middle Eastern flavor to the mix. The dish works well, as does the She-Ra Taco (spinach, mushroom, tofu) and the Scott Taco (Kale, egg, and poblano pepper strips). These dishes successfully combine interesting and disparate flavors and textures in novel ways, producing food that you won't find elsewhere and wouldn't think to make yourself.

Other tacos were equally original but less savory. The Thai Taco, featuring sautéed vegetables, peanuts, and a Thai-inspired sauce, tasted unfocused and lacked seasoning, and the the Raj Taco (vegetables, eggs, and green curry sauce) committed the same sins against my palate that the green eggs did. Again, the ideas are enticing, and the dishes could be made excellent by improving the sauces. The diner also offers Asian-inspired entrées ($5.25-$6.35) and a classic Austin Food sandwich menu (i.e., hamburgers, grainburgers, grilled chicken sandwich, $4.50-$5.10). The falafel sandwich ($4.50, with chips) strays from that standard course.

The sweets all look good and are made on the premises. This distinguishes ForRay's from the vast majority of Austin coffee houses, which typically farm out the dessert-making task. I recently spent an afternoon lingering at the bar with an excellent, warm-from-the-oven chocolate brownie ($1.50) and a cup of dark-roasted Sumatran coffee. Too many local espresso bars serve lousy, stale, drip coffee; this cup tasted as fresh, smooth, and haunting as Indonesian coffee always should, and it kept perfect time with the bittersweet notes of the brownie.

All in all, ForRay's provides a much-needed alternative to the old pillars of Austin Food, even as it pushes the cuisine they pioneered down new paths. n

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