The Austin Chronicle

Favorite Finds

Restaurants You Shouldn't Miss

Reviewed by Pableaux Johnson, March 17, 2000, Food

Casino El Camino

517 E. Sixth, 469-9330

Daily, 4pm-2am

As untold thousands of SXSW folks descend on Austin, the Big Man will be very busy indeed. Between SRO showcases, closed-door industry parties, and endless rounds of barroom schmoozing, conference attendees will approach the bright kitchen window at Casino El Camino in search of Austin's perfect bar food. And if they're lucky, persistent, and -- above all -- patient, they'll get their wish in the form of a monstrously large Casino burger, prepared by the Big Man himself.

Even though Casino isn't a SXSW performance venue, this Sixth Street barroom will probably stay packed all week -- partially because of its location at live music ground zero, partially because of its light-free quasi-Gothic ambience, and partially because of its hard-working one-room kitchen. Inside this tiny makeshift grill, the Big Man turns out individual works of mostly carnivorous art -- huge hamburgers, chili-drenched hot dogs, fire-hot Buffalo wings, and big baskets of fresh-cut fries -- at his own leisurely pace.

Over the years, Casino's kitchen has garnered a good amount of local buzz where burgers are concerned. These 12-ounce beauties, hand-pressed and grilled to a perfect medium-rare, achieve nearly Flintstonian proportions. Depending on your tastes, they can be ordered with standard toppings (bacon, lettuce, and tomato on the Chicago Burger) or more adventurous garnishes like the Buffalo Burger's combination of pungent bleu cheese and tangy hot wing sauce. But regardless of the topping choice, the burger arrives pre-cut into heavy halves -- you'll appreciate the added leverage. The Big Man also brings out huge helpings of hand-cut French fries -- crispy, salty, and soft in all the right places.

Since everybody can't be in a burger mood, the menu also features a limited range of quality short-order foods such as Buffalo wings and chicken breast sandwiches for poultry people. The gloriously messy hot dogs start out with foot-long Hebrew National links nestled in a good-quality French roll which is -- naturally -- drenched with homemade chili and topped with gooey cheese. And since the kitchen is open until 1:30am, it's the midnight snack or late supper for the pre-post-party crowd.

All good things come with a price, and the commodity at Casino is time. Keep in mind that the Big Man runs a tiny kitchen where nothing can be rushed. On a slow non-festival night, there's about a 20-minute wait, and when the orders back up to an hour, the Big Man's been known to refuse additional tickets until the backlog clears. So if you've got a half-hour before the Finnish punk-polka showcase across town, a Casino burger definitely won't fit into your schedule. But if you've got a little time and the need for serious (and conveniently located) bar food, grab a cocktail and settle in for the duration. One big burger basket and you'll be fueled up for the rest of the festival.

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