Up the hill on South First Street, Tony Villegas has purchased the former used car lot across from his original El Mercado (1302 S. First, 447-7445), cleaned up the environmental hazards, and is turning it into a much-needed additional parking lot for his popular eatery. Phil Newton, owner of High Times Tea Bar & Brain Gym (1501 S. First, 445-5405), reports that Irish chef Patrick Gannon has left the popular little Bouldin Creek spot to take his young family on an extended vacation to the Auld Sod. Good food and great milkshakes should continue at High Times, however. Farther south on First, the newest business to occupy the hallowed walls of the former Virginia's Cafe is a perky little Mexican joint called El Nopalito (2809 S. First, 326-2026). Open six days a week, it serves plump, flavorful breakfast tacos and tasty plate lunches, both to eat in and take out.
Swinging around to the Avenue, just north of Oltorf, new operators have taken over existing restaurant locations at the intersection of South Congress and College Avenue. Rebecca Clements has named her first Austin venture Zoe's Kitchen (2218 College, 326-4199) for her young daughter. Zoe's, a small Mexican restaurant on the site of the former Tamale House, offers fast, affordable Tex-Mex food, such as hot, juicy tamales at $6 per dozen. The new owners of the Tree House Grill (2201 College, 443-4200) completely refurbished the former Aldo's location, capitalizing on one of the biggest, most beautiful oak trees in South Austin as the centerpiece of a lovely patio adjoining the dining room. The menu is still evolving, but there are soups, salads, sandwiches, a list of simple Italian entrées, a full bar, and a wine list. And up at 1610 S. Congress, Alan Lazarus, founding chef of one of Austin's longtime favorite Italian restaurants, Basil's, and partners Claude Benayoun and Scott Bolin, hope to locate Trattoria Congresso in the former Lariat Ranchwear store. The proposed restaurant will be in the tradition of real Italian trattorias, informal, family-run restaurants with rather rustic home cooking. Lazarus says the new venue will be open only in the evening, and the partners are working with the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association to address concerns about parking.
Looking for an dynamite meal before the Fourth of July fireworks? Zoot (509 Hearn, 477-6535) will be open its regular hours on Independence Day, with menu specials such as Grilled Pork Chops with red, white and blue salsa, Smoked Rib Eye with BBQ onions, apple pie á la mode, and strawberry shortcake.
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