Austin's newest restaurants are making 'mi casa es su casa' a way of life, one menu at a time
It's no secret that Austin is well-known for the caliber and sheer number of Mexican restaurants located in the city. According to Texas Restaurant Association statistics, Austin boasts 168 Mexican restaurants -- excluding fast-food chains -- and the number swells to nearly 250 when chains are included. Our local family of Mexican restaurants posts some impressive numbers in terms of longevity, as well. One of the all-time favorites, Matt's El Rancho (2613 S. Lamar, 462-9333), just celebrated its 50th anniversary during the Fourth of July weekend, and the venerable campus-area mainstay El Patio (2938 Guadalupe, 476-5955) will reach the half-century mark in 2004. Cisco's Bakery (1511 E. Sixth, 478-2420) has been a power breakfast spot for politicos and UT athletic supporters alike since the early Fifties. Jaime's Spanish Village (802 Red River, 476-5149) has been serving hungry UT students under the same ownership for close to 50 years, and the Guerra family has been welcoming local Democrats and Mexican-food-loving vegetarians to the outstanding Tex-Mex spread at El Azteca (2600 E. Seventh, 477-4701) since 1963. Even a relative newcomer like Austin's (and the country's) premier interior Mexican restaurant, Fonda San Miguel (2330 W. North Loop, 459-4121), is two years into its second quarter-century.
Considering the number of Mexican restaurants already in existence and the loyal client base of the more established eateries, why would anyone in their right mind decide to open yet another Mexican restaurant in Austin? This question occurred to me this spring when I became aware of several new Mexican places in the general area of my own South Austin neighborhood. Over the past couple of months, I've dined in all four of them and visited with the owners. Some of the owners are Austin natives, while others are more recent immigrants. Each restaurant features distinctive menu items worthy of investigation. All these friendly family operations are willing to gamble that their particular interpretation of Mexican cuisine will attract enough Austin diners to render them successful. For your dining pleasure, may we present El Mesón Taqueria, Garibaldi's, Azul Tequila, and Casa Garcia's II.
El Mesón Taqueria5808 Burleson Rd., 416-0749
Monday-Friday, 6am-3pm; Saturday, 7am-2pm
In late March, I'd noticed El Mesón while driving east on Burleson Road looking for another business in the area. It was already closed that day, but I made a mental note to return sometime soon. Weeks went by, and I never found the time to return until new Chronicle contributor and Mexico City native Claudia Alarcon raved about the food she and her husband had enjoyed there. She assured me that the food at El Mesón expertly represented the melting-pot cuisine of her cosmopolitan hometown. A friend and I went for lunch the very next day, and what a wonderful lunch it was. The special of the day was huitlacoche quesadillas, fresh flour tortillas slathered with a bountiful serving of the earthy corn fungus delicacy and melted white cheese. El Mesón is only the second restaurant in Austin in which I've encountered huitlacoche (Fonda San Miguel being the first). After that auspicious beginning, we considered the lunch menu that offers the option of ordering plates of 10 different entrées or simply requesting tacos made from the meats featured in the entrées. In order to try more dishes at one seating, we chose tacos: tinga-chicken shredded in a spicy chipotle sauce; cochinita pibil -- the achiote-marinated baked pork garnished with tangy red onions; desebrada -- shredded beef in a sauce of dark morita peppers; and chilorio -- shredded pork in a mild, smoky ancho pepper sauce. Wrapped in fresh tortillas, each was delicious, but the tinga and cochinita pibil were my favorites.
Breakfast at El Mesón features a wide variety of affordably priced tacos, plus such interior Mexican egg dishes as the house rendition of huevos motuleños, a tortilla topped with black beans and two fried eggs, one napped with ranchero sauce, the other with tomatillo. The freshness and variety of the food can be attributed to the fact that owners Atticus and Yves Macias and Yves' wife Marisela Godinez also own Cen-Tex Produce, just down Burleson Road. If you have a taste for a particular interior Mexican delicacy -- say, stuffed flor de calabaza or huitlacoche -- just discuss it with Marisela, and she'll be glad to call you when it's in season and available to appear as a special. The restaurant has finally begun to accept credit cards, and is eagerly awaiting a beer and wine license that they hope will attract even more customers to their lonely stretch of Burleson Road. Long-range plans include opening for dinner when business volume warrants that addition. If the owners and staff at El Mesón look familiar, that could be because they've all earned their restaurant chops working at such high-profile spots as Manuel's, Antonio's, the Bitter End, and the Driskill. The excellent training received in those venues is apparent here. Good service, hard work, and mouth-watering, authentic food make El Mesón well worth the effort it takes to find their out-of-the-way Southeast Austin location. Mexican-food lovers should make visiting this remarkable taqueria a top priority.
4201 S. Congress, 326-9788
Monday-Thursday, 8am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 8am-10pm;
Garibaldi's owner Carmen Sims spent years as an award-winning customer service representative in a series of government and retail jobs, and her only restaurant experience was as an enthusiastic diner with a discriminating palate. More recently, she found herself a single mother who was tired of working for other people but nevertheless still needed to make a living for her family. Descended from a line of good cooks, the enterprising Mexico City native and her sister came up with the plan to open a restaurant. At the last minute, Carmen's sister had to abandon the plan, leaving Carmen to run the charming little restaurant named for the legendary Mexico City plaza where people gather to dine and listen to strolling mariachi musicians.
Food-savvy South Austinites who appreciate a personal touch have been gathering at Garibaldi's for a while now. Several of them e-mailed and phoned urging me to find the small restaurant on Congress just south of Ben White, and I'm glad they did. Garibaldi's is a comfortable, attractively decorated little gem, sparkling clean, with personable service often delivered by Carmen Sims herself. The menu offers fresh, flavorful Mexican fare (chile con queso, enchiladas, carne guidado, tacos), as well as several distinctive interior items. One signature dish is birria ($5.75), a stew of shredded lamb in a rich, hearty broth that you're not likely to find on any other Austin menu. The cochinita pibil ($7.95) here is also one of the best in town, arriving at the table still wrapped in the banana leaf in which it was baked, redolent of the juices and spices used to marinate the tender pork. Don't miss it. Hearty breakfast tacos and affordable lunch specials are featured on the menu earlier in the day, and Carmen has been known to stay open late on weekends for customers who are having such a good time that they aren't ready to go home. Once you've visited Carmen Sims' little corner of Mexico, you're likely to return again and again.
4211 S. Lamar, 416-9667
Monday-Thursday, 10am-10pm; Friday, 10am-11pm;
Saturday, 9am-11pm; Sunday, 9am-10pm
After years of working their way up to management jobs in such diverse Austin businesses as Cisco Systems, the Palmeras, and Cafe Serrano's restaurant outfits, brothers Sergio, Eric, and Eduardo Varela decided to strike out on their own with a restaurant called Azul Tequila. They speculated that Austinites would enjoy a menu equally divided between established Tex-Mex dishes and items that they had learned from their mother and grandmother growing up in Tejupilco in the Federal District of Mexico, near where the south central states of Guerrero, Michoacan, and Mexico come together. Their gamble appears to be paying off. The first Azul location in a shopping center at South Lamar and Ben White is going strong after 16 months, and the Varelas eagerly await the debut of a second location in the Round Rock West Plaza on Hwy. 79 near the Dell Diamond.
Azul Tequila's original South Austin location is a happening spot for weekday happy hour, with half-price appetizers from 4 to 6pm every day. According to Sergio Varela, Mariachi Estrella packs the place from 7 to 9pm on Friday nights, and Los Embajadores offer more romantic stylings on Saturdays during the same time period. The bar offers a wide selection of tequilas and makes margaritas in many colors of the rainbow. I've only managed to hit Azul during the afternoon hours when tables are few and service can be slow and spotty, but my guess is that things have to move faster when the house is full. While I had some problems with a few items -- such as fried foods that hadn't been cooked at a high enough temperature to keep them from being greasy and a couple of cream sauces with a pasty, undercooked taste -- I also found plenty of good food at Azul Tequila.
One item that immediately caught my eye was Albondigas en Chipotle ($8.99), a traditional Mexican meatball dish where balls of lean ground beef are formed around rice seasoned with mint and floated in a rich chipotle chile broth. I'd seen this dish in interior Mexican cookbooks, but had rarely found it on an Austin menu. It's very good, as are the Enchiladas de Pipian ($7.99), a unique pumpkin seed mole, and the Tostadas de Tinga ($4.99), crispy corn tortillas topped with shredded chicken mixed with a spicy chipotle sauce, dressed with lettuce, tomatoes, and the house avocado cream sauce. The lunch menu is loaded with Tex-Mex favorite plates for $5.50 each, and the Tex-Mex portion of the regular menu features very popular beef, chicken, or shrimp fajita plates for one ($8.99/$10.99) or two ($16.99/$18.99). Go with a crowd, listen to the music, and have some fun.
1000 S. Lamar, 851-8684
Casa Garcia's Restaurant & Cantina No. 2
Tuesday-Thursday, 7am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 7am-10pm;
For some inexplicable reason, there are always certain restaurant locations that appear to be snakebit, where the hopes of one operator after another die slow and painful deaths. After the Trudy's folks abandoned the converted pizza parlor in this small South Lamar neighborhood shopping center, a wide variety of restaurants tried and failed to make a go of it there. In the past year, the center itself looks busier with the addition of a Fiesta grocery store, and the good news is that the corner restaurant location appears to have been redeemed by the good food and smart business practices of the Garcia family, whose original location is at 1901 W. William Cannon Dr. The restaurant has undergone a complete interior renovation and exterior facelift, complete with an eye-catching paint job and a pleasant new deck. The extensive menu offers a wide selection of traditional Tex-Mex favorites as well as an enticing array of interior Mexican dishes. The bar does a brisk happy-hour business, lunches attract plenty of hungry business diners, and Mariachi Nueva Estrella packs the house on Thursday nights. The management has reached out to support events in the nearby Zilker neighborhood, and has been embraced by their neighbors in return. Everything looks positive and prosperous.
A friend and I dropped in for lunch recently and found many items on the large menu that interested us. We began with Queso Flameado ($5.25), a small hot skillet filled with chorizo, sautéed onions, and peppers topped with melted Monterrey Jack cheese. The skillet dish comes with plenty of hot flour tortillas with which to make messy and delicious tacos. Casa Garcia's is one of only a few Austin restaurants that feature cabrito (kid goat), and I was pleased to see it on several plates as it is a particular favorite of mine. The Cabrito and Mole Enchilada ($14.95) platter offered a generous serving of goat plus two chicken mole enchiladas, rice, and beans. While the mole was just a bit sweet for my taste, the cabrito was perfect, moist and tender, full of flavor. Manager Jaime Hernandez informed me that the cabrito is prepared by an accomplished cook named Martin Vega, and he certainly does excellent work. The cabrito is definitely worth a return visit, and it piqued my interest in some of the other interior dishes. Based on the enthusiastic lunch crowd the day we visited, I anticipate that Casa Garcia's will be serving good cabrito at this location for many years to come.