Working-Class Heroes

The restaurants on the resurgent Airport Boulevard are solid, simple, and affordable

Grouping restaurants together is a well-established business technique, and Austin has several "restaurant rows" that attest to its success. Think Barton Springs Road between Lamar and Zilker Park, the Mexican Mile on South First, the busy SoCo strip that runs from the river all the way to Ben White, and Manor Road east of I-35 to Cherrywood. Driving in my East Central Austin neighborhood, I've discovered what could be the city's newest restaurant row along an unassuming stretch of Airport Boulevard that twists under I-35 and runs north from 45th to Koenig Lane. Here, the busy four-lane thoroughfare is populated with a series of small independent businesses, convenience stores, auto shops, gas stations, county offices, small restaurants, and former fast-food outlets left over from the days when it was indeed a major traffic artery to and from the old Mueller Airport.

Changes at some of the former fast-food outlets along this roadway actually sparked this story: The sign above the old Gaylord's Hamburgers/6-Napkin Barbecue announced the opening of the Stallion Grill; someone reclaimed an abandoned KFC building and opened a wing joint; and there was a bright new coat of orange paint on the former Tastee Freeze long since known as Alonzo's. These new developments captured my attention. The idea of local independent businesses reclaiming fast-food outlets has always appealed to me, and I was dying to know if the new Stallion bore any relationship to the legendary family restaurant that was beloved by the working families and hungry college students of days gone by. I also couldn't help but notice these changes were taking place in a neighborhood that is home to four of Austin's oldest surviving food businesses: the Lammes candy factory, Quality Seafood, and the last remaining Mrs. Johnson's Bakery and Tamale House outlets. I realized there were plenty of ingredients in place for a different kind of restaurant row. It's a no-frills, decidedly unglamorous but solid group of eateries where folks open and close early and stay home on weekends; where the food is simple and affordable with no culinary architecture, no misted patios, and only one wine list; and where the parking lots are full of pickups, city and county utility vehicles, and the older cars of blue-collar families.

Alonzo's/Jalapeño Joe's
Alonzo's/Jalapeño Joe's (Photo By John Anderson)

Alonzo's/Jalapeño Joe's

4905 Airport, 451-3326

Monday-Saturday, 6:20am-3pm

When Ernest and Grace Duran took over this little roadside drive-in last year, they knew it had a well-established reputation for good burgers and that it had originally been a Tastee Freeze outlet. Their vision was to build on the burger menu slowly, first adding their versions of Tex-Mex mainstays, and somewhere down the road, to bring back the shakes and ice cream. They will eventually change the name to Jalapeño Joe's. "We knew the place already had a clientele, and we didn't want to scare them off while we are building the business we want to have here," Duran explains. Pull up to Alonzo's for a burger (now made with certified Angus beef); an Alonzo Platter (a satisfying pile of lean carne guisado, refried beans, guacamole, lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese); or a plate of Ernest's Enchiladas (a generous serving of two enchiladas with rice and beans). The service here hearkens back to the Tastee Freeze era: Order at the window and eat in your car or at a nearby picnic table, and leave with change in your pocket.

Mrs. Johnson's Bakery

4909 Airport, 452-4750

Daily, 7pm-noon

Every year, a new supply of UT students discovers the middle-of-the-night ecstasy of gorging on fresh, hot donuts and ice-cold milk while sitting in a parked car enveloped in the yeasty aroma emanating from this busy shop. The parking lot here has recently been resurfaced, but everything else appears to be the same as it ever was.

El Dorado Meat Market

5001 Airport, 419-0300

Daily, 6am-12mid

Currently in a state of transition: New owner Atticus Macias, of Centex Produce and El Mesón restaurant, tells us he hopes to appeal to the Hispanic population of the neighborhood by developing an inventory that will include the following: a meat counter (carneceria); fresh produce (fruteria); grocery items imported from Mexico; a stand-up taco bar (taqueria) featuring some of the same Interior Mexican fillings served at El Mesón; plus a terminal for bus rides to and from Mexico. Once the changes are complete this fall, this place could become a regular stop in our shopping circuit.

Tamale House

5003 Airport, 453-9842

Monday-Friday, 6:30am-3pm; Saturday, 7am-3pm

Robert Vasquez is the last member of his family still operating a Tamale House, a local Tex-Mex landmark eatery founded by his parents at the corner of Congress Avenue and First Street (now Cesar Chavez) in 1959, and continued by the second generation in the Airport location since 1977. Vasquez has seen plenty of restaurants come and go on this strip of Airport over the years. He's survived the Eighties' famous "taco wars" with a neighborhood competitor and weathered society's changing dietary considerations that encouraged his longtime clientele to forsake his handmade tamales. He stays busy serving mildly flavored, traditional Tex-Mex dishes, such as hearty breakfast tacos; creamy migas; plump, crispy beef tacos; and plates of enchiladas, at very affordable prices. Considering this could just be the last place in town where you can stuff yourself for less than $5, it's no wonder folks line up at Vasquez's place every day.

Casey's New Orleans Snowballs

808 E. 51st

Mid-March through October: Daily, noon-9pm

Owners Suzy Gallagher and Kit Thompson spend six months of every year dishing up divinely refreshing, multiflavored, New Orleans-style snow cones to a very devoted clientele of overheated Austinites. We are eternally grateful for the convenience of their stand in the ongoing battle against global warming.

Leo's Tasty Wings

5111 Airport, 377-3677

Monday-Thursday, 11am-8:30pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-11pm; Sunday, noon-5pm

Houston contractor Leo Watson took over this abandoned KFC building several months ago, spruced it up, and opened a wing joint bearing his name. The first menu offered wings in a variety of flavors, Angus beef burgers, and a full line of fried fish, chicken, and beef platters paired with country side dishes and a selection of fried appetizers. We tried a delicious, juicy cheeseburger and some spicy wings one day and determined the place was well worth a second visit. When we called prior to that second stop, manager Tommy Wilson explained they were in the process of changing the menu based on customer tastes. The fried appetizers and most of the fried dinner platters will be going, though they'll still offer catfish and tilapia. In the coming weeks, look for 12 varieties of wing flavors, a solid burger menu, some traditional sub sandwiches, and an all-you-can-eat wing promotion during lunch hours.

The Stallion Grill
The Stallion Grill (Photo By John Anderson)

The Stallion Grill

5201 Airport, 380-9433

Monday-Friday, 11am-3pm (soon adding breakfast, starting at 6 or 7am)

When caterer Rick Collier leased this former burger and barbecue joint on Airport, he saw the venture as a convenient commercial kitchen for his successful corporate catering operation. Since the kitchen was already set up for serving barbecue and burgers and was once again full of working cooks, Collier decided to open for lunch and dinner. His menu features barbecue with country sides; Angus beef burgers with hand-cut fries and onion rings; homestyle meals (including a one-, two-, or three-patty hand-breaded Angus beef chicken-fried steak); and homemade hamburger buns, dinner rolls, and desserts. He called the restaurant the Stallion as an homage to the popular Austin family restaurant he remembered from his youth.

Before long, the working folks who travel Airport Boulevard every day, as well as the nearby neighbors, were packing the place, chowing down on Collier's simple, hearty fare: All satisfying and all made from scratch. We found the brisket to be juicy and flavorful. The one-patty chicken-fried steak is enormous (and a little heavy on the breading), swathed in very good cream gravy. Everything we've sampled has been solid, tasty, and affordable. The restaurant got so busy so quickly that Collier soon had to find another catering kitchen. Driving down Airport this week, I noticed the sign announcing the Stallion is now only open for lunch weekdays from 11am-3pm. Manager Rodney Hale explained they are in the process of adding a full country breakfast to the already popular menu and should have it ready to debut in a few weeks. We'll keep an eye on the Stallion and let you know when breakfast is ready.

Lammes Candies

5330 Airport, 453-2899

Monday-Saturday, 9am-5:30pm

Lammes has been doing business in Austin for 120 years, and this storefront candy counter has been the official face of the local factory since 1957. There are Lammes stores all over town these days, some mall kiosks, and a very successful catalog mail-order operation. However, we prefer the very accessible factory store, where there is no extra charge for the seductive scent of chocolate and sugar when you drop by for some mint taffy or chewy pralines.

Burger Tex

5420 Airport, 453-8772

Monday-Saturday, 10:40am-9pm

Anyone who says a fresh-baked bun doesn't contribute to the overall superior quality of a classic hamburger hasn't eaten at Burger Tex. The aroma of bread baking and meat cooking certainly adds to the pleasant sensory experience while you build your own 6- or 8-oz. burger here. This original Burger Tex was once part of a three-store local chain that were all sold to separate operators some years back. These days, it's the flagship store of a three-outlet franchise with restaurants in Oak Hill and Pflugerville. Burger Tex operations on the Drag and on Research Boulevard are independently owned, but all five spots still serve Bulgoki, a Korean-inspired beef dish you are unlikely to find at any other burger joints in town.

Quality Seafood Market

5621 Airport, 454-5827

Monday-Saturday, 10:30am-9pm

Austinites have trusted Quality Seafood for their fresh fish since the late 1930s, and the store has been a mainstay on this stretch of Airport Boulevard since the early 1970s. The business was passed down through two generations of a local family and then purchased by the Eaves brothers in the late Eighties, but it always maintained a reputation for quality fresh fish for retail and wholesale customers. Over the years, some prepared foods were added for takeout, and the Eaves eventually added a few tables for a makeshift restaurant serving good gumbo, fried fish, and well-stuffed po-boys. The newest owner, Paul Huntsberger, has gone a step further and expanded to a full-blown restaurant within the store. Food is ordered at the counter, and there is ample seating at booths, tables, or the new oyster bar. There's plenty of ice-cold beer, and this could be the only eatery on this particular stretch of Airport that serves wine by the glass.

The only raw oysters served at the oyster bar are mild-flavored certified Louisiana Gulf oysters. (Bivalves from both the East and West coasts are flown in for the store's restaurant customers.) We're partial to the Shrimp Diablo with jalapeño slices and crisp bacon, the buttery Crawfish Étouffée, and the perfectly fried shrimp and catfish. Po'boys dressed in their homemade tartar sauce never fail to satisfy. Several varieties of fish fillets are available to be fried, blackened, grilled, or broiled and paired with such à la carte sides as fries, hush puppies, cole slaw, and potato salad. We topped off a substantial seafood meal with a huge steaming bowl of cinnamon-scented peach cobbler and grabbed a quart of étouffée to go.

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