The Secret Recipe
Journeyman chef Charles Mayes knows how to run a restaurant
1200-B W. Sixth; 322-9226
Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, 11:30am-2pm
Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday, 6-9:30pm; Friday-Saturday, 6-10pm
During the past five years, Austin has seen its fair share of chefs with substantial publicity and local, even national, renown. With all the hoopla surrounding these chefs, we sometimes forget to celebrate the folks who have been working in our kitchens, turning out delicious food year after year, happy just to see a full house and satisfied customers.
I bring this up because Cafe Josie celebrated its eighth anniversary a month ago. In a business that generally chews up its owners and spits out the remains at auctions, Cafe Josie still packs in the cheery diners. Chef-owner Charles Mayes might have figured out the secret of a successful restaurant. He has certainly had the time and experience to try different ideas. He started in 1979 as the chef at Mother's, making some strikingly spicy vegetarian fare; in 1986, he moved over to the Treaty Oak Cafe to participate in the burgeoning Southwestern food rage; by 1991, Mayes was looking for something different, so he went to work with Stan Adams at Gilligan's, where he perfected his signature spicy seafood. By 1997, Mayes had a group of investors willing to back him, and he started Cafe Josie, naming the place for his daughter.
People who loved Gilligan's will find much to like at Cafe Josie. Like Gilligan's, Cafe Josie focuses on what they call "ingredients from nature's Equatorial Pantry." That means spices and herbs from the Mediterranean, Central America, the Caribbean, North Africa, and the Asian tropics. This celebration of spice means Cafe Josie's foods have some bite: usually not enough to bother even the most tender-tongued, but you should always be prepared for felicitous combinations of big flavors.
We went twice for dinner. Both nights, the place was almost full, but we were able to walk right in and get a table. The ambience is casual with interesting art on the walls and an open feel. Good table spacing allows you to have an intimate conversation, and the sound is so well managed that, even when sitting next to a boisterous crowd of 12 women, we could speak quietly and hear every detail.
Our waiter was friendly and knowledgeable and carried the ideal amalgamation of being available when you wanted him and leaving you alone the rest of the time. The first night, we started with his recommended appetizers. The Lobster Cakes ($10) were a great start, crispy and filled with lobster and set off nicely by the piquant chipotle aioli. Fans of goat cheese should love the Herbed Crusted Goat Cheese ($7), a delicious concoction with a couple of sauces and some very tasty grilled bruschetta. We finished the first course with the ubiquitous Fried Calamari ($7), perfectly crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, with the same delectable chipotle aioli.
Our next course provided the only disappointment of the evening. Three of our four diners ordered the Caesar Salad ($4) and all agreed it was soggy and overdressed. The ingredients and the dressing both seemed good; the preparation was the problem.
Everything else was excellent. The Ginger Tamarind Glazed Beef Tenderloin ($24) was cooked exactly right, the beef on a bed of garlic-infused mashed potatoes with the zesty Ginger Tamarind sauce. Two in our group were eager for some comfort food, and they zoomed in on the Mesquite Grilled Meatloaf ($19). If that price sounds a little high for meat loaf, consider this: It's made from tenderloin! This, too, comes with garlic mashers, and the combination of its rich mushroom sauce and the flavorful beef was indeed comforting.
One thing struck me as I looked around the tables. Nearly everyone had a bottle of good wine. At first, I thought maybe everyone who dines at Cafe Josie must know their wines, but as I looked more closely at the wine list, I figured out the deal: no bad wines. Cafe Josie has a small but nearly perfect wine list, and you could almost close your eyes and point and get a good wine to match with Mayes' food. The first night, with so much beef on the table, I chose a brilliant Malbec from Altos in Argentina. Their Las Hormigas ($27) is bargain-priced for its quality and made a perfect wine for the food with its rich, jammy texture and intense berry flavors.
We returned a few weeks later. We ended up with the same waiter, and again, he struck just the right balance of professionalism and friendliness. This time, we were interested in trying the Kim Crawford Dry Riesling ($36), a delicious wine that Crawford himself thinks is the best he makes. Consequently, we built our meal around the wine. Queso Fundido ($7) sounded like fun. Given Mayes' obvious love of the spices of Mexico, we wondered what he might do with this warhorse. His version features a good quality queso and decent tortillas, but the crowning achievement was the addition of raisins and cajeta glazed walnuts. Wow! I started to ask for a plate of the nuts all by themselves. We also tried the Crispy Gulf Oysters ($7), which came with a delicious honey and chipotle sauce. All of these spicy flavors really opened up the palate for the Crawford wine, making a delightful combo.
The best combination I found for the Crawford wine was with Mayes' Pepita Redfish With Mango Habanero Butter ($22). For this preparation, they coat the fish with herbs and sauté it till crispy, then put a spicy sauce and pepitas on top. Again, the green-apple aromas from the wine brought out the aromatics of the fish and all of its spices. Just a smidge behind, but still an excellent match, the Salmon With Fresh Roasted Garlic Dill Butter ($22) had a slight bit of heat from a little jerk sauce and the delicious aioli blended with cracked mustard. The salmon was perfectly done, moist and fork-tender.
So, then, back to that secret of longevity in a tough business that Mayes seems to have discovered: Draw your customers, as much as possible, from your local neighborhood you don't have to focus on being the big-name chef if the folks in your neighborhood support you; surprise their palates, but give them a style of food they can expect; put people in the front of the house who know what they are doing and have a good attitude (it's also a good idea for the owner to spend a little time going from table to table and asking for a report); and keep everyone smiling. Seems simple enough, but how often do you find these things in balance in a restaurant? You will here.