El Gringo & the Red House
Amid lounging hipsters, comfort food with a sophisticated spin
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Jan. 12, 2007
El Gringo & the Red House
1917 Manor Rd., 391-9500
Monday-Friday, 11am-10pm; Saturday, 5-10pm; Sunday, 11am-9pm
Lounge: daily, 5pm-midnightwww.elgringoaustin.com
The savvy entrepreneurs with an eye for turning derelict Manor Road properties into hot restaurant attractions have gained knowledge and confidence with each new venture. Success at El Chile Cafe & Cantina in 2004 and at its younger sibling, the taco shack El Chilito, taught Carlos Rivero and his partners the value of protected outdoor dining spaces and the advisability of providing a waiting area for eager patrons. When their newest spot, El Gringo, debuted in early 2006, it wasn't long before there was a covered patio behind the restaurant to increase seating and accommodate Austinites who favor al fresco dining. Most recently, the covered patio behind the squat cinder-block restaurant on Manor Road connects it to a refurbished Arts & Crafts bungalow facing Poquito Street the Red House Lounge.
Ambient heaters and molded metal lawn chairs draped with Western blankets invite patrons to sit in the front yard, while there are several conversation areas with low tables inside around the bar. The Red House, with its retro-Western design courtesy of Joel Mozersky, is a comfy, inviting space where potential diners have ample room to wait for a table and bar patrons can enjoy appetizers and drinks until midnight a rarity in this neighborhood. The whole package works well together, and the Red House at El Gringo is currently the hippest new destination on the Eastside.
While I'm certainly not part of the hipster lounging crowd, I do frequent El Gringo for the food. The restaurant is in my neighborhood and serves as a reliable place for lunch meetings. After much investigation of the menu designed by chefs Jeff Martinez and Kristine Kittrell American regional standards with some definite Latin flourishes I'm well-versed in both the hits and misses. My current favorite among the appetizers is the Oxtail Barbacoa ($7.95), a flavorful mass of moist, braised, and shredded oxtail meat paired with a smoky charred onion relish on a pool of creamy cheese grits. It's comfort food with a sophisticated spin. Down-home Chili Cheese Fries ($4.95) with lean, house-made chili and queso are very good without being too greasy, and the Texas Chevre ($6.95), wherein balls of local goat cheese are served with a dynamite piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar) sauce, crisp green-apple slices, and homemade bolillo toasts, is a more upscale cheese offering. Best to avoid the Pâté de Pato ($5.95), which is not really a pâté at all, but a ramekin of dry, stringy duck confit with sangria jelly and the good bolillo toasts.
On my first visit to El Gringo, I lost my heart to an elegant Poblano Corn Chowder ($3.95/$4.95). It was rich and thick, with the delicate sweetness of corn and a delightful back-heat finish from the pepper, accented with a crunchy tangle of salty bacon. I raved about it to friends, recommending it to everyone I sent to the restaurant. Alas, consistency problems forced changes in the soup recipe, and a drastically different albeit perfectly acceptable version masquerades under the same menu title. Now, I go for the Duck Pozole ($4.95/$5.95) instead: It's a much better vehicle for the duck confit, combined with toothsome hominy, onion, and a brightening tweak of lime.
I'm always in the market for a good sandwich, and there are several worthy offerings here. Paramount among them is the Chorizo Burger ($7.95), with a moist patty that's a delicious mixture of ground chuck and lean, spicy Mexican sausage. The meat is dressed with jack cheese, jalapeño mustard, rich slices of avocado, and a zippy pico del gallo on a Mexican bolillo roll. (I found two chorizo burgers around town in 2006 boy, what a great Tex-Mex spin on the hamburger!) I'm also partial to the Texas Frank ($4.95), a beef hot dog smothered in the very good house chili, jalapeño mustard, and queso sauce with a side of hand-cut fries. The Arrachera Steak Sandwich ($8.95) offers seared skirt steak dressed with grilled strips of poblano peppers and onions, and the Pulled Pork Sandwich ($6.95) has the pleasant tang of mango barbecue sauce and pickled onions. All sandwiches come with either fries or the house special yucca chips I say try 'em both.
El Gringo's dinner menu features many of the same options available for lunch, as well as greatly expanded entrée choices. I've thoroughly enjoyed the Chicken Fried Ribeye ($11.95) under a mantle of creamy peppercorn gravy. The steak comes with sides of smoked mashed potatoes and green beans tossed with the zippy house pico de gallo, the beans offering a very crisp, bright counterpoint to the other voluptuous items. I really liked the tender, grill-kissed skirt steak and perfectly sautéed serrano garlic shrimp on the Downtown Charlie's Special ($14.95, the top entrée price here) but found the limp, gritty pico spinach and yet another side of fries pretty forgettable.
Regardless of what you have for lunch or dinner at El Gringo, be very sure to save room for dessert. Pastry chef Alex Manley's menu is very much in keeping with the rest of El Gringo's offerings: You'll find American regional comfort food dishes with a definite personal flourish. Her Banana Pudding ($3.95) is laced with rum, the Lemon Chess Pie ($5.95) is topped with coconut sorbet, the ice cream sandwiches ($4.95) are homemade, and the warm fruit crisps ($5.95) change with the season. (Summer was peach/blackberry; the current flavor is a marvelous lemon/apple/ginger.) The homemade cookie and ice cream options change frequently, so always ask your server about the current selection. Bourbon aficionados will not want to miss the Manhattan Ice Cream ($3.95) when it's available. Servers here are knowledgeable about the entire menu and will likely make enthusiastic suggestions. They'll make you comfortable at El Gringo, whether you're a hipster or not.