Ms B's Authentic Creole Restaurant

Whatever you do, order the sweet potato fries

Brenda McGowan (l) and Michael Taddeo
Brenda McGowan (l) and Michael Taddeo (Photo By John Anderson)

Ms. B's Authentic Creole Restaurant

1050 E. 11th, 542-9143; Daily, 11am-10pm

When I first walked through the door of Ms. B's, a smiling woman, on her way out, instructed, "Whatever you do, order the sweet-potato fries." This bit of friendly advice turned out to be right on. The fries are indeed a heavenly creation: greaseless, crisp batons of sweet potato, lightly dusted with cayenne and salt.

Ms. B's is the third local restaurant enterprise in the past 12 years for chefs/owners/spouses Brenda (Ms. B) and Billy (Mr. B?) McGowan. Brenda hails from New Orleans; Billy is an East Austin native who honed his chops at the Crescent City's renowned Chez Helene. The kitchen team is completed by Executive Chef Michael Taddeo, formerly of Castle Hill Cafe. The restaurant itself is a cleanly modern space painted in spice tones and graced by white tablecloths, flowers, candlelight, soft background jazz, and postcard views of Downtown and the UT Tower.

The excellent sweet-potato fries ($4) are but one of several inspired touches providing exceptional side notes to the numerous Creole menu entrées. Another is the creamy corn maque choux (pronounced "mock shoe") with traditional minced sweet red pepper and onions, updated with black-eyed peas and bits of crisp pickled okra. Another sweet touch is the off-menu iced spice tea that Ms. B makes in hot weather. When asked what went into this seductive concoction, the waiter brought me a printed list of ingredients: black tea, orange juice, cloves, cinnamon stick, black pepper, and sugar, garnished with mint and lime. This is an amazingly luscious summer libation: I'll do my best to reproduce it at home.

From the appetizer list, I loved the meal-sized portion of lump-meat crab cakes ($11) served with piquant Creole tomato sauce and yellow-pepper mayonnaise. Crawfish bisque ($4.50/cup, $6.50/bowl) seemed simple at first, but the subtly complex smoky flavors soon asserted themselves in the nicest of ways. You can also get platters of boiled shrimp and fresh oysters ($9/half dozen, $11/dozen). My only disappointment was in the bread basket – the corn-bread muffins were merely bland, but the biscuits left much to be desired – they were heavy, dense, and needed salt. I hope it was just a biscuit off-night.

The Smothered Pork Chops entrée ($9.95/lunch, $14.95/dinner) was one giant, thick, and fork-tender chop swimming in a deeply flavorful roux the color of Mississippi mud. Served with a chopped vegetable combo, rice, and red beans rife with spicy sausage, this is a hearty plate for a big appetite.

I thoroughly enjoyed a dinner special of beautifully prepared Blackened Snapper ($17.95) draped across a bed of soft cheesy grits and napped with a dark-rouxed crawfish étouffée. The only mild negative about this wonderful plate was the rather pedestrian steamed side of asparagus. If that had been some suitably summery vegetable, say, mirliton (aka chayote) squash, it would have been a perfect composition of regional, seasonal ingredients and flavors.

On a lunchtime visit, I swooned over a Soft-Shell Crab Po'boy ($11, fries included). The crab, dressed with lettuce, tomato, and mayo, was sizable and crunchy, the batter lightly seasoned and salted. I was impressed by the texture of the bread, soft on the inside, crisp on the outside, and not a bit chewy (which I hate in a po'boy). I look forward to trying the shrimp, crab, crawfish, and oyster sandwiches, too: Ms. B's kitchen certainly knows its way around a deep fryer. This is borne out by the fried catfish plate ($9.95/lunch, $12.95/dinner) served with vegetables and fries. I happened to be dining with a catfish connoisseur who deemed this up to the standards of her Mississippi River upbringing. I concur: The crisp, batter-fried fillets were fresh, flaky, and piping hot, just as they should be (although I might have preferred coleslaw alongside). I'll be ordering the popular crawfish enchiladas, an apt fusion representing two cultures crossing here in Austin. On one visit, an entire party at a neighboring table was devouring these with gusto.

On to desserts (all $5), and you'd better leave room. Ms. B's signature (for good reason) is a sweet-potato pecan pie dolloped with satiny Chantilly cream. I'm a pecan-pie purist and generally don't get excited by variations, but this flavor combination – dense, rich, and only moderately sweet – won me over. The bread pudding is also excellent, light and custardy, with white sultanas and a delicate lemon sauce. Peach cobbler a la mode with lattice piecrust is lush and comforting but not exceptional.

Ms. B's wine list is short but eclectic, clearly chosen to pair with spicy foods. There are a few $50-plus bottles, but most are less than $30, with wines by the glass for $8. The offerings are primarily from California, Oregon, and South America, which work well with the menu; however, in my broken-record refrain about Austin restaurants, I ask again, where are the Texas wines? We live in a flourishing wine region with an ever-expanding national reputation, so how come we don't see more local wines on local menus, particularly when so many are great companions to hot-weather, highly spiced food?

As well as wines, there's a variety of beers on offer ($4), and the restaurant contains an attached airy bar showcasing different specialty drinks on different days. On one stifling August evening, the daily special was a tempting mojito with basil and fresh strawberries, but feeling Southern-minded, I chose a traditional mint julep ($6.75) full of properly muddled fresh mint leaves and a generous measure of bourbon (it went wonderfully with those sweet-potato fries). If the bartender mixes everything so well, no wonder there's significant late-evening action in the bar.

The revitalization of the 11th-12th Street neighborhood has been both contentious and a long time coming, but if Ms. B's is any indication, I'd say we're looking at the dawn of an exciting new commercial and entertainment district. Check it out, cher, tout de suite.

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