Two Austin Cafes that seem more like hideaways
Reviewed by Rachel Feit, Fri., Jan. 18, 2002
Azul1808 E. Cesar Chavez, 457-9074
Monday-Friday, 7am-3pm; Saturday, 8am-3pm
A few years ago, Azul owners Mark Vera and Margaret Tindall began transforming a dilapidated and barren piece of real estate in East Austin into a quirky property that they hoped to live in. The property had been in Mark's family for years but was left vacant until one day Margaret's mother called her and told her that she had bought a truckload of antiques in Mexico and needed her to get rid of them. In a strange ripple of kismet, one of Mark's uncles called him a few days later and told him that he too had some furniture he wanted to sell. Taking this as a sign for them to go into business, the couple decided to renovate the vacant two-story building on the Vera property not just to live in, but to use as an antiques store. Somewhere along the line, though, they thought "Wouldn't it be great to also sell coffee?" So as they set about investigating a license to sell coffee, they began to consider offering a limited food menu as well. After all, what good is a coffee shop that doesn't serve food?
Soon the project began to assume a life of its own. As the store opened and people from around the neighborhood began to drift through, customers offered suggestions, requested more food items. The antiques store that became a coffee shop now became a lunch destination, serving innovative, wholesome sandwiches to a neighborhood that was apparently under-served in its craving for anything other than Mexican. Today Vera and Tindall consider their shop to be primarily a lunch cafe and rotate about 15 different sandwiches through their menu. They also offer a limited roster of extras, such as scones, coffeecakes, and a simple-yet-delicious sesame coleslaw with vinegar dressing.
The backyard seating area at Azul is truly inviting, with wrought-iron tables set onto a garden patio shaded by towering pecans. Whimsical metal and found-object sculptures bedeck the gardens both behind and to the side of the restaurant. Inside the cafe one is greeted by smells of freshly brewed coffee and just-baked bread. The tiny spaces within feel less cramped than comforting, crowded with armoires and cases that hold interesting trinkets -- almost like a cabinet of curios.
Customers order from a handwritten chalkboard that occasionally changes. Azul's inspired chicken salad sandwich ($5.95) is made with sun-dried tomatoes and toasted pecans, bound together with mayonnaise and yogurt. An original take on the tuna melt ($5.95) combines tuna with capers, vinaigrette, and Gruyère cheese. Unlike its greasy namesake, this tuna melt is light and tangy, served on its crispy toasted Italian bread. Other sandwiches include a vegetarian baguette enclosing potatoes, mushrooms, eggplant, and goat cheese ($5.75) and a roasted chicken breast with dill Havarti and fresh greens on a fresh cranberry English muffin ($6.25). Azul roasts all of their meats, bread comes in fresh daily from Whole Food's Bakehouse, and the recipes spring from Vera and Tindall's own imaginative palates. It is a cafe that is simply enchanting.
Still, Azul's limited menu of sandwiches left me feeling slightly unsatisfied. Not because the food wasn't delicious. On the contrary, their sandwiches are excellent, but it seems a shame to me that such fine sandwiches shouldn't accompany an equally fine soup, salad, or dessert. Although Azul usually sells brownies, on my last trip, even these seem to have missed the chalkboard.
This antiques-store-turned-coffee-shop-turned-lunch-cafe is anything but predictable. And even today it is still in the process of becoming. Vera and Tindall have vague plans to extend hours, offer a greater variety of desserts, and to sell off some of their eclectic merchandise -- tablecloths, toys, and some of the original antiques that served as the impetus for Azul. Meanwhile Vera and Tindall seem to be in no hurry to finalize their plans, and are remarkably casual about Azul's development. "We're just letting it become what it wants to become," says Tindall. Therein lies its unique charm. Azul is a cafe that seems wondrously organic, and as it continues to evolve, it continues to delight the senses.