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2007CriticsFood

Best Coffeehouse That's as Green as Its Walls
Progress Coffee

Top interior consultants will tell you that painting the walls of a restaurant green risks a certain queasy factor in dining ambience. Not so at Progress Coffee, where lime walls complement the generous sunshine streaming through the coffeehouse's many windows. The green is also a fitting symbol. The conscientious eco-practices of Joshua and Sarah Bingaman, owners and Okie transplants (via the Mission in San Francisco – danged left coasters), started with a focus on green-building principles in the rehabilitation of the old World War II-era warehouse and continues each day with the use of biodegradable cleaners and low-energy compact fluorescent lightbulbs (when the natural sunlight isn't totally illuminating the space). And of course, there's the delectable menu, chock-full of options organic, vegetarian, and vegan. Mmmm, vegan. Do not get us started on the vegan peanut-butter cups. They aren't green. But they are very delicious.

Progress Coffee, 3421 I-35 N., 512/334-9211, www.progresscoffeeroasting.com

Best Community Culinary Asset
Chef Elmar Prambs

German-born chef Elmar Prambs has been with the Austin Four Seasons Hotel for 20 years, an unheard-of one-property tenure in that company. Prambs has passed up promotions to more glamorous locales, because he and his family love Austin. Over the years, his contributions are a big part of what makes the Four Seasons one of our favorite venues for fine dining and successful high-profile charity functions. Chefs from around the state respect Prambs as the gracious host who opens his banquet kitchen for myriad annual tasting events. Kids at the Austin Children's Shelter don't know anything about charity galas; they just love Prambs because he cooks dinner for them one night a week. He's our kind of guy.

Four Seasons Hotel, 98 San Jacinto, 512/478-4500, www.fourseasons.com/austin

Best Couple o' Restaurateurs
Emmett & Lisa Fox

Emmett Fox has always been the kind of chef who likes to wander the floor to make sure his diners are happy. While working at the Wild Goose in Boston, he met Lisa, who was dining with a few of her friends and "invited her back for dinner." She took him up on his offer, and the rest is history. The couple moved to Austin in 1992, where they worked at popular Austin establishments (the now defunct Mezzaluna and Bitter End) before opening fine-dining establishments Asti in 2000 and Fino in 2005. Lisa usually works the back of the house, managing behind the scenes while Emmett is, not surprisingly, working the floor, greeting diners, making sure everything is coming out just right. Their tastes vary, but perhaps it is their happy medium that makes Fino and Asti such hits. But when they really disagree about a certain dish? "She's a bit more opinionated then I am," Emmett says, "which, at the end of the day, makes her the boss."

Fino Restaurant Patio & Bar CLOSED, 2905 San Gabriel, 512/474-2905, www.finoaustin.com

Asti, 408-C E. 43rd, 512/451-1218, www.astiaustin.com

Best Cup of Joe With a Side of Neighborhood Association
Hot Mama's Espresso Bar

photo by Sandy Carson

When this Eastside coffee shop opened up at the Pedernales, residents and retailers breathed a sigh of relief that the dream of convenient coffee was finally realized. No one counted on the hurricane of activity and community empowerment that would come along with it. Saturday morning cartoons? Pole-dancing lessons? Benefit concerts? Neighborhood open mics? This little corner cafe quickly turned into a bastion of events and bona fide neighborhood inclusion. Food - real, homemade, cafe comida - and tasty espresso served up with a smile from the Hot (hot!) Mama baristas. A long-awaited welcome to the neighborhood.

Hot Mama's Cafe, 2401 E. Sixth, 512/476-6262, www.hotmamascafe.com

Best Doughnut for No Dough
Mrs. Johnson's Bakery

Entering its 60th year of business, this Airport Boulevard institution still mints fresh doughnuts and delicious fritters through all hours of the night. Their drive-through is convenience personified – but for the full effect, order inside, where the aroma of hot oil and sugary dough permeates the air. Either way, with fresh doughnuts made at 9pm, 10pm, 2am, 3am, and 5am, you'll walk away with a free plain-glazed – still warm from the fryer – or a fresh fritter courtesy of their longtime, friendly staff. Me and Mrs. Johnson's! … We got a thing going on!

Mrs. Johnson's Bakery, 4909 Airport, 512/452-4750, www.mjbakery.com

Best Event Venue Host With the Most
Dave Whitney, Threadgill's

Regardless of what kind of event you are planning at either of Threadgill's distinctive party facilities, director of operations Dave Whitney will make sure things go right. Whether it means solving last-minute weather-related problems for a Texas Wine & Food Festival tasting luncheon or offering technical support to a star-studded musical fundraiser for out-of-work restaurant employees, Whitney is the go-to guy. The hospitable Whitney and the whole hardworking Threadgill's crew will make the event a success and the crowd feel right at home.

Dave Whitney, Threadgill's North, 6416 N. Lamar, www.threadgills.com

Best Food in a Mini-Mall
Sarah's Mediterranean Grill & Market

It can be a problem in this town, all the delicious restaurants tucked into low, unpromising stretches of commercial properties known as mini-malls. What's tantalizing about a mini-mall? Not much. But believe it or not, there are some treasures out there. Sarah's Mediterranean Grill & Market is at the top of the heap, with chicken kabobs to die for and falafel with crispy outer shells protecting the scrumptious spiciness inside. And it's perfect for the thrifty ladies-who-lunch, since the reasonably priced Sarah's shares a parking lot with Savers.

Sarah's Mediterranean Grill & Market, 5222 Burnet Rd. #500, 512/419-7605, www.sarahsmediterranean.com

Best Grownup Food Trend
The Cupcake Comes of Age

photo by Anne Harris

What started life on the left and right coasts as an inevitable outgrowth of cocktail-party kid-food has settled in our sweet city as anything but predictable. Birthdays, sticky fingers, buttercream comas, and, of course, Mom, are a few of the things that the people we asked reported as their first thought when they hear the word "cupcakes!" To pacify the craving for an authentic childhood experience, we hurry over to Hey Cupcake! – a shiny new Airstream on South Congress that reflects a Texas sky as enormous as it looked in childhood, gazing over the top of a little milk carton. When we require something more sophisticated, Quack's 43rd Street Bakery offers slightly larger cupcakes in our favorite flavors but also distinguishes itself with a wildly decadent lemon-meringue number, lemon-filled white cake complete with a browned top hat. If you can't dash out, dial up Babycakes online, and they will rush your cupcake "tree" over by car. On the west side of town, the Upper Crust Bakery is happy to transform the cake of your choice into single servings, Kneaded Pleasures makes the tangiest citrus-flavored and most properly Southern red velvet, and we like Russell's Bakery & Coffee Bar for traditional offerings and a fluffy crumb. Regardless of the usual clatter surrounding us on cupcake occasions, it remains a uniquely personal experience, like having your own miniature kingdom built of sugar and crumbs. And since purists insist they be consumed the very day of conception, we say, what the heck, any day can be a birthday. ¡Viva la cupcake!

hey cupcake!, 1511 S. Congress, 512/476-2253, www.heycupcake.com

Quack's 43rd Street Bakery, 411 E. 43rd, 512/453-3399, www.quacksbakery.com

Babycakes, online orders only, www.austinbabycakes.com

4 more locations

Best Icon Digging Out of the Ashes
Mother's Cafe & Garden

It seems that since March 7, when flames ripped Mother's Cafe from our lives, the Hyde Park area has experienced a cloud of craving for tempeh enchiladas. The ironic accident of one homeless man's quest for a steak has created a serious dearth of veggie delectables. In Mother's absence, the health-food heart of Austin has grown fonder. For this memorable appeal, we offer a shout-out not only for Mother's missed food but its ability to remain an old-Austin staple even currently covered in ash. With slow and steady progress, they hope to reopen by the time this issue hits the streets. Time will tell. Visit Mother's website to find out how to show your support and pour some carrot juice out for your lost homey.

Mother's Cafe & Garden, 4215 Duval St., 512/451-3994, www.motherscafeaustin.com

Best Picnic Food
Pollo Entero at El Pollo Regio

What do you get when you wrap a whole chicken roasted to perfection, a grilled onion, tortillas, some awesome salsas, and limes in butcher paper? The best picnic ready to go in Austin. The whole-chicken meal, Pollo Entero, at Pollo Regio is out-of-this-world tasty. Its effortless and easy clean-up packaging makes this the perfect one-stop finger-licking-good outdoor feast. Pair with some cold Topo Chicos and fruit for dessert, head to Zilker or your favorite shaded spot, and you're good to go.

El Pollo Regio, 730 W. Stassney, 512/423-3095, www.elpolloregio.net

El Pollo Regio, 9405 N I-35, 512/491-0822

El Pollo Regio, 1110-B E. William Cannon Dr., 512/215-0235, www.elpolloregio.net

El Pollo Regio, Hwy 183 S. I-12, 512/215-1024, www.elpolloregio.net

Best Relocated Snowcones
Sno-Beach Hawaiian Shaved Ice Snow Cones

The phenomenal snow-cone stand has become nomadic this year. Forced to move from their spot on the corner of Lamar and Barton Springs Road due to the construction of yet another mixed-use condominium project, Sno-Beach has relocated to a couple of different spots in the area, now residing (at the time of this writing) in the corner of the empty lot next to Wanfu Too, less then a quarter of a mile away. Little else has changed, however. Sno-Beach still makes its own ice, its own flavors, and its own low Austinite prices.

Sno-Beach Hawaiian Shaved Ice Snow Cones, 1806 Barton Springs Rd.

Best Smoothie Named After a Dead Icon
The King at Central Market

Were the ghost of pelvic-thrusting rock & roll icon Elvis Presley to appear before us now and croon, "Just come and drink from my fountain of love," we wouldn't blush, because we know exactly to what he was referring: a smoothie named in his honor, available at Central Market. The King, so named because it comprises the King's favorite sandwich ingredients, is a fountain of love disguised as a smoothie made with fresh, organic ingredients: apple juice, banana, blueberries, peanut butter, and strawberries all shook up for $4.29 ($4.64 with tax).

Central Market North, 4001 N. Lamar, 512/206-1000, www.centralmarket.com

Central Market South, 4477 S. Lamar, 512/899-4300, www.centralmarket.com

Best Spirit-ual Awakening
Paula Angerstein's Texacello

Handmade here in Austin, Paula's Texas Orange Premium Liqueur and Paula's Texas Lemon Premium Liqueur are delightful additions to every well-stocked bar in Texas. PTO is an essential ingredient in margaritas of the local variety, and PTL is as fine a sipping liqueur as there is. Texacello owner Angerstein is reworking a trail originally blazed by Tito's Handmade Vodka but adding a new twist, so to speak. A major sponsor of community and charity events, Paula's ensures that your cosmos, sangria, and mimosas will also have a Texas twang.

Paula Angerstein, 2100 Westlake Dr., 512/636-6389, www.paulastexaslemon.com

Best Tiendita
El Dorado Meat Market

To call El Dorado simply a "little store" doesn't begin to cover it. The cozy market on Airport is also a taqueria, serving up authentic pastor, barbacoa, and huitlacoche on a grill in sight, plus a fruteria and carneceria, which sells to the public as well as supplies wholesale to local restaurants like Moe's and Curra's. The market is loaded not only with the expected lines of Jumex juices and El Huache cheeses but a freezer full of La Michoacana paletas, two coolers full of harder-to-find Mexican brand drinks, shelves of fun snacks and dry goods, and our favorite: a whole row of great-smelling Mexican soaps and personal-care products including the yummy Siete Machos bath bar that has been known to have a similar effect on the ladies as Hi Karate or Axe.

El Dorado Meat Market, 5001 Airport, 512/419-0300

Best Way to Find a Decent Taco
TIE: Taco Town, Taco Journalism

We suspect these guys love tacos more than they love sex. Taco-passionate bloggers fulfill their destiny as pioneers in the quest for the perfect Mexican meal. The search starts in Austin and often ventures far beyond home. From Torchy's Tacos to Zuzu Handmade Mexican Food, from Brownsville to Seattle, these Austin gustatory guides take it in the gut, sample it all, and report back with their findings to all of our gastronomical delight. So straighten up, taco stands and Mexican restaurants, Taco Town and Taco Journalism are coming to critique your flan and fish tacos and tell it to the world.

Taco Town, www.tacotown.org

Taco Journalism, tacojournalism.com

Best Way to Go Organic on the Fly
DaVine Foods

In their infancy, DaVine Foods, at the entrance of the Enchanted Forest, is already Austin-renowned for their sprouted-seed veggie burger and knock-you-out waffles – ooh, and the hummus wrap served with tahini sauce and beet salsa: killer! But they are famous for defying the misconception that eating organic means eating expensive. In addition to their unbeatable prices and homemade goodness, they roll with the south-side flow, adding this caveat to their posted hours: 8 to 8, and sometimes late!

DaVine Foods Organic Cuisine, 1412 W. Oltorf, 512/448-3100, www.davinefoods.com

Best Wholesome Fix for Baked-Good Cravings
Living Arts Bakery

photo by Sandy Carson

From their gluten- and refined-sugar-free sweets, including flaky, alternative-grain cinnamon rolls and rich muffins, to their savory spelt-flour focaccia, gently tucked full of goodies like pesto and sun-dried-tomato sausage, Living Arts Bakery does the seemingly impossible by making scrumptious baked goods good for you, too. Their pastries are currently available at the Sunset Valley Farmers Market as well as at Royal Blue Grocery at Third and Lavaca.

Living Arts Bakery, 3005 S Lamar, Ste. D109396, 888/834-2605, www.livingartsbakery.com

Most Comfortable Comfort Food & Chatty Bartenders
Zax Pints & Plates

If you fancy yourself a character in a B-movie searching for deep, brooding discussions with world-wise bartenders … well, let's put it this way, Zax Pints & Plates probably won't be the inspiration for the next Richard Linklater talkie-thon. Instead, Zax is the kind of place where any everyday joe can pull up a bar stool and chitchat about current events, TV shows, and movies, all while scarfing down Zax's sophisticated form of comfort food like Cuban sandwiches, shrimp rémoulade, lunch omelets, fine wines, pint specials, and yummy desserts.

Zax Restaurant & Bar, 312 Barton Springs Rd., 512/481-0100, www.zaxaustin.com

Most Fabulously Affordable Breakfast Burritos
La Cocina de Consuelo

photo by Todd V. Wolfson

Growing disillusioned by the lack of originality, finesse, and/or love slapped between your morning tortilla? Look no further. The breakfast burritos at family-run La Cocina de Consuelo are there to get you out of your rut. One of these fabulous grande burritos is a whole meal in itself. The generous burrito includes the choice of three tasty ingredients ranging from the traditional bacon to the more adventurous machacado (dry beef) and calabasita (seasoned squash), as well as a homemade corn, flour, or wheat tortilla. Healthy or decadent, always fresh, these tacos rock!

La Cocina de Consuelo, 4516 Burnet Rd., 512/524-4740, www.consueloskitchen.com

Most Underrated Brisket and Chicken
Willie's Bar-B-Que

photo by John Carrico

This sweet li'l family-operated joint is so convenient to our commute and so high on our A-list. Yet it's so unassuming – stuck at the end of a wacky strip mall right next to the gas station mecca that is the intersection of MLK and Springdale – that we always forget to share the love. Well, this year is different. We luv Willie's! No plaster-of-paris cow skulls or kitschy Western crap or old commercial-sign reproductions here. Nope. Willie's is the real deal for realz. Plastic tablecloths, a walk-up counter, and TV in the corner. Pretty divey. But the food? Delectable. The sauce is a delightful broth, but you don't need it. This is some of the moistest, heartiest brisket in town. And the chicken? Perhaps the fowl does not rate as high a Texas barbecue staple as her mammalian cousins, but this chick jumps off the bone. Grab a slab of sock-it-to-me cake and a grape soda, and you are good to go.

Willie's Bar-B-Q, 4505 E. MLK, 512/926-9340

Critics: Entertainment
Critics: Kids
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