Reviewed by Rachel Feit, Fri., Oct. 1, 1999
Marimont Cafeteria623 W. 38th, 458-5944
It seems to me that one of the advantages of old age might be more than AARP discounts, Social Security benefits, and the freedom to opine with impunity. It seems to me that with age comes not just wisdom, but also a certain ability to distinguish quality originals from mass-produced imitators. Indeed, I am beginning to realize that the 60-plus crowd in Austin has long been privy to some inside info on good eats about which younger folks have been completely ignorant. Take, for instance, the Marimont, which has prospered without much hubbub since 1976. Step inside the restaurant and you will see a long, Luby's-style cafeteria; tables surrounded by large cushiony chairs set on casters; not one, but two semitropical plant gardens; and last, but certainly not least, a clientele composed almost entirely of retirees. Not exactly the hippest place in town, but look again. According to their manager, Marimont makes all of their food from scratch. Every day they offer a large selection of meats, vegetables, breads, and desserts from their cafeteria line. The food is hot and always fresh. And the price of dinner, vegetables, bread, dessert, and a drink usually costs less than 10 bucks.
After years of resisting my husband's pleas to stop at the funny-shaped building on 38th and Guadalupe, I finally broke down and agreed to try the Marimont Cafeteria. Although I have never considered myself a food elitist, there's something about the smell of a cafeteria, even a good one, that is just so institutional. I know it immediately, and I detected it as soon as I walked into the Marimont. But, once at the food line, my sensitive sniffer began to pick up on other, more inviting smells.
On the cafeteria line, the kitchen offered glistening roast beef in pan juices, crisp fried chicken, chicken-fried steak, baked fish, and roast turkey, which Marimont staff carved to order. Each meat comes with two sides. Some of the more delicious choices we tried were the super sweet baked yams, gooey macaroni and cheese, and flavorful, airy mashed potatoes -- just the way my mother-in-law makes. Another surprise hit was the eggplant casserole. Creamy, bready, and a little spicy, I honestly couldn't figure out what went into the thing to make it taste so good (a bit disconcerting to a food critic), but I nevertheless managed to lick the plate clean. I was equally surprised by the coconut cream pie. The Marimont staff make all of their desserts, and I could tell that this one was fresh and completely homemade. The Crisco crust was identical to the one my grandmother used to make, and the meringue topping was made with real whites, not from a package. Some of their other homemade desserts include lemon-meringue pie, pecan pie, and flan.
As I sat in my soft, rolling chair and held my stomach after the meal, I had to admit the Marimont was good. Of course, those who are trying the Marimont for the first time should not expect miracles. After all, the baked fish still comes in pre-frozen square portions, and the macaroni and cheese is still an unnatural shade of orange, but this is not haute cuisine we're talking about. Rather, this is mid-20th-century American-style cooking, made by natives who have learned the secrets of their art from their mothers and their mother's mothers. At the Marimont, geezers of all ages will discover the timelessness of Americana cooking.