Take Out the Heat
How to Dine Sensibly
I know, I know, complaining about the heat only makes it worse. A long string of 100-degree days presents an unsolvable problem, but it just so happens that there's one summer problem we can solve. What to do about dinner on a day when the ambient blast furnace is stuck in the triple digits and operating any appliance hotter than a microwave is a sure sign of madness? Where to go, what to buy, how to put a tasty meal on the table without working up a sweat? We've done the research for you, all you need to do now is shop and then bask in the praises of your significant other persons.
Central Market South4521 Westgate, 899-4300
Those of us who live south can attest to the fact that the second local outlet of the country's best grocery store offers hundreds more prepared food options than the original store on North Lamar. Not to disrespect the original store, mind you -- we love the cooking school, the music on the deck, the Grab n' Go case filled with interesting local culinary creations. However, when it comes to a genuine diversity of prepared foods, the south store absolutely rules! Starting with the various choices of Prep-less Produce, complete with recipes and directions, pestos and sauces, all the way to the daily changing romantic "Dinner for 2" options, you can shop here for weeks and never eat the same thing twice.
Take, for instance, the Boiling Pot and Rotisserie departments. In the Boiling Pot area, make your seafood selection and the capable staff will boil shrimp, lobsters, crawfish, or blue crabs (whatever is in season) in the mild or spicy Zatarain's mix of your choice. This turns out to be a very popular idea for parties, we're told. The seafood counter will pack the fillets of your choice in any one of several marinades so that all you have to do is slap the fish on the waiting outdoor grill and, presto, dinner's ready. In the rotisserie area, longtime local chef Chris Shirley is busy preparing a variety of meats every day. While the biggest seller in this department is still the ever-popular rotisserie chicken, Shirley and his team sell plenty of baby back and spare ribs, pounds of toothsome Sirloin Tri-Tips, ducks, turkey breasts, lamb racks, game hens, delectable hams from a producer in upstate New York, pork loins and tenders, and pound after pound of roasted garlic. If you want it roasted, they'll give it a shot.
Moving through the store, there's an impressive selection of freshly made sushi and packages of delectable smoked trout, salmon, mackerel, and herring. The salad bar offers plenty of fresh greens with every imaginable garnish plus salads made with pasta, noodles, tuna, chicken, grilled vegetables, etc., so cold salad suppers of every combination are easily accomplished. Chef Suzann Garde keeps the Chef's Case packed with tantalizing entrées, soups and side dishes, an ever-changing menu featuring 55 items every day from meat and fish to flatbread pizzas, wild mushroom strudels, asparagus vinaigrette, rosemary potatoes, pistachio baklava, and dainty quiche Lorraine.
At the cheese department, it's possible to assemble a dynamic cheese board for cocktail noshing or a dessert platter to enjoy with fresh fruit and wine. The bakery offers a broad selection of artisan breads where our current favorites are sourdoughs packed with chipotle and smoked gouda and breakfast loaves studded with raisins and pecans or dried cranberries and pistachios. Dynamite! As a friend who's been without a kitchen all summer due to moving and remodeling exclaimed "if it weren't for this store, we'd have starved." Don't starve, don't suffer, just shop and smile.
Portabla1200 W. Sixth, 481-TOGO (8646)
Breakfast, Mon-Fri, 7-11am; Sat, 7am-2pm
Lunch, Mon-Sat, 11am-2pm
Dinner, Mon-Sat, 2pm-7pm
Portabla, the newest venture from Patricia Bauer-Slate and Jim Murphy, the partnership behind Sweetish Hill Bakery, is off to a flying start. This smart West Austin takeout shop opened earlier this month with a few seats to eat in and plenty of food to take home. The breakfast and lunch menus are packed with croissants, egg dishes, stuffed flatbread sandwiches and gourmet pizzas, great Boar's Head hot dogs in fresh challah buns, and salads. The dinner menu changes daily, offering appetizers, main courses, sides, and a dessert. Shelves are lined with bags of Tuscan Toasts (perfect for bruschetta) and bags of delicious Sweetish Hill cookies. A reach-in case is loaded with cold salads, sandwiches, and entrées, as well as a choice of locally produced food items such as gnocci and tortellini from Bottega dela Pasta, White Mountain Yogurt, Good Flow Juices, and Don Leon's Tomato Tonic from Boggy Creek Farm. A freezer case is stocked with scrumptious Binasco gelatos and sorbettos. "We're very interested in supporting local producers," reports owner Patricia Bauer-Slate, adding that all the turkey, bacon, and sausage they're using are hormone- and antibiotic-free products from Austin's White Egret Farms.
Portabla is just getting its bearings and very eager for customer feedback, especially where the takeout dinner offerings are concerned. Recent dinner menus included shrimp cakes, beef stroganoff en bouchee, spaghetti squash and asparagus with three-plum upside-down cake for dessert; arugula salad, tuna steak and veggie kabobs, couscous, roasted peppers, and a Texas chocolate sheet cake. We've yet to make it for dinner, but our favorite midday items so far are the excellent hot link sandwich ($4.25), a very spicy Boar's Head link nestled in a fresh roll with a choice of sauerkraut, grilled onions, or peppers (50 cents extra), and a truly remarkable carved roast turkey sandwich ($6), large slabs of 6th Street Sourdough bread loaded with fresh, hormone-free turkey, slightly sweet cranberry mayo, a little cornbread stuffing, lettuce, and tomato. This one is destined for the local sandwich hall of fame, believe me.
The Kitchen Door2504 Lake Austin Blvd., 236-9200
Mon-Fri, 7am-7pm; Sat, 7am-6pm
The Kitchen Door is Austin's oldest bakery/ gourmet takeout shop, having operated for more than 20 years in several different locations around West Austin and Northwest Hills before settling in their current home on Lake Austin Boulevard, just west of MoPac. The Kitchen Door's reputation was built on a selection of giant sandwiches served on slightly sweet homemade bread, a deli case full of tasty signature salads, homestyle desserts, and pastries, plus a freezer full of family-pleasing entrées and sides. These days, the World Famous Chicken Salad sandwiches sometimes take a back seat to the mighty Hot Meat Loaf Sandwich but the big, pecan-studded sweet rolls and Italian cream cakes are as decadently delicious and popular as ever. The freezer case is stuffed with reliable versions of King Ranch casserole, broccoli rice casserole, chicken lasagne, Swedish meatballs, jambalaya, and cornbread dressing. Just thaw them out, zap them in the microwave, and serve them with your choice of field greens, fresh fruit, or marinated vegetable salads, an order of pillowy Parker House rolls and slices of Italian cream or carrot cake. Another day, another no-oven dinner.
Cipollina1213 West Lynn, 477-5211
As you no doubt gathered from Chronicle contributor Rachel Feit's recent rave review of Cipollina (June 30), this classy little spot from the team that created Jeffrey's is a big hit in its West Austin neighborhood. The flavors you'll find here are those of Northern Italy. The myriad takeout options in the deli case change daily. The regular menu of overstuffed panini, soups, salads, and delightful pizzas with your choice of eclectic toppings such as spinach, artichoke hearts, and goat cheese are sure crowd pleasers. A visit during the daily pizza happy hour (3:30-5:30pm) gets you a drastic price reduction on three pizzas of the day.
The talented Cipollina chefs keep hundreds of mouthwatering dishes rotating through the deli case every week, but stellar entrée choices include tender and flavorful osso buco and braised duck legs, seared ahi tuna, or grilled salmon with a choice of freshly made sauces. Sides such as thick slices of polenta with fresh basil and mozzarella, crisp haricots verts tossed with mushrooms and crunchy bacon, steamed asparagus with lemon and olive oil, or cold pasta salad tossed with gorgonzola cheese, grapes, and cherry tomatoes will definitely satisfy. The day we visited, the newly revamped menus featuring lower prices had yet to return from the printer but should be available now.
Food!Food!2727 Exposition Blvd., 474-8515
Mon-Fri, 10:30am-8pm; Sat, 10:30am-5pm
In addition to an appealing lineup of classic, grilled, and specialty sandwiches, Food!Food! has a reputation for serving up first-class lunches and dinners. Owner Susan Eggert publishes menus two weeks at a time, featuring such lunch choices as turkey tettrazzini, spinach (or sometimes beef) lasagne, King Ranch casserole, Frito pie, and a chicken pot pie so wonderful as to bring back sweet memories of childhood. Lunch entrées are $5 each or $6 paired with a field green salad and can be eaten in at the long communal table or packed to take home. Dinner items are available after 3pm and include an entrée and side dishes or dessert. Prices vary. Some of the recent dinner selections were pork tenderloin with vegetable fried rice and Szechuan green beans, parmesan chicken breasts with cole slaw and onion roasted potatoes, beef tenderloin with hash browns and garlic broccoli, and salmon croquettes with green beans and lemon ice box pie.
With a couple of days notice, the staff at Food!Food! will prepare trays of finger foods such as sesame chicken strips, ham biscuits, steamed vegetables with dip, butter cheddar cheese wafers, and flaky phylo triangles filled with spinach and feta cheese for worry-free entertaining. They'll also make trays of wonderful brownies, Hello Dollies, Nutty Buddies, lemon bars, or decorated cupcakes for any occasion. The salad case is packed with interesting choices, as well, offering such delights as pasta with pesto; a marinated Southwestern salad with corn, black beans, red bell peppers, and orzo; a tasty version of cowboy caviar with black-eyed peas, onions, and peppers; and fresh fruit and field greens. With a little careful planning, lunch and dinner entrées paired with cold salads and simple desserts from here could keep a family happy and the kitchen cool for weeks at a time.
Cafe Mia3573 Far West Blvd, 342-9570
Mon-Fri, 7am-9pm; Sat-Sun, 8am-4pm
Before coming to Austin, Cafe Mia chef/owner Adrian Creasey spent several years in the Brinker organization, opening their takeout food emporiums called Eatzi's. That job gave him a volume of experience providing the public with what it likes to eat. When he opened his new cafe in the busy Northwest Hills shopping center earlier this year, he designed an appealing Mediterranean menu and then worked long hours at the restaurant counter, talking to his clientele about what they liked and what they didn't. "The neighborhood told us what they want and that's what we're trying to do," Creasey explained. As a result, the relatively new business is already operating in the black, with plenty of repeat customers who purchase meals there several times a week.
Cafe Mia's appeal lies in the light, fresh aspect of the foods complemented by the bold flavors of the Mediterranean. It's possible to choose fresh salads (Greek, Cobb, field green, fruit) from the reach-in case or pick up entrées from the restaurant's hot line. Tuscan roast beef with rosemary potatoes and green beans is a current customer favorite, as is the hearty Meat Loaf Marinara. Creasey has plans to add a sauté line for prepared-to-order entrées and eventually hopes to feature a line of signature desserts plus beer and wine.
In the meantime, a great choice for summer entertaining would be one of the antipasto platters, combinations of Greek, Italian, or French cheeses and olives with toasted focaccia. They can make a satisfying meal in themselves or serve as great no-work appetizers with wine or cocktails. Another winning option is the bruschetta, a fresh tomato, basil, caper, feta, and mozzarella
concoction served with toasted focaccia, which is as close to summer tomato perfection as you're likely to get without actually growing the salad yourself. Enjoy an iced mocha latte or a sorbet-based fruit smoothie while they pack up the takeout and don't forget to bring along a cooler to transport home some Binasco Gelato while you're at it.
Tom's Tabooley2928 Guadalupe, 479-7337
Tue-Thu, 7am-7pm; Fri, 7am-3pm; Sat, 11am-6pm
Tom and Brigid Abdenour have been doing business in the campus area as Tom's Tabooley for more than 20 years, but their spiffy little takeout shop just north of UT is a relatively new operation. The simple menu is full of healthy Mediterranean vegetarian delights that are bound to please a hungry crowd. Load up on their various flavors of Dolmas (stuffed grape leaves with traditional, curry, rosemary, habanero, dill mint, or jalapeño fillings) or grab a container or two of their signature hummus recipes (traditional, roasted garlic, roasted red pepper, dill peppercorn, kalamata, or Southwest). Perhaps the best option here is the Mediterranean Platter ($4.75), which includes a sample of their delicious tabbouleh, hummus, a traditional Dolma, two falafels, some kalamata olives, feta cheese, a few pepperoncinis, and fresh pita bread. Round out the menu with an iced mocha latte or a homemade Italian soda and some of Bridgid's incredible baklava or fudge and the crowd goes wild!
Pasta & Company3502 Kerbey Lane, 453-0633
Mon-Fri, 10am-7pm; Sat, 10am-6pm
Pasta maker Mary Lou Morales built up a solid business and a loyal clientele over a period of more than 15 years in this charming little central city shop. When longtime employee Theresa Swan and partner Sheryl Simpson bought out Morales earlier this year, they were determined not to change the winning formula but to add their own embellishments here and there. This is a great stop for fresh pastas and elegant homemade sauces to complement them. In addition to a full line of handmade pasta delights, the freezer case here is stocked with lasagnes, ravioli, manicotti, and eggplant parmesan casseroles just waiting to be thawed, heated, and served. The pasta ladies advise that microwave cooking does not enhance the texture of their fresh pasta dishes, so some oven time will be necessary. The results will be worth it.