Exit Here to Eat
Dining around Central Texas
One result of the Central Texas population boom of the past few years is that once sleepy rural hamlets surrounding the capital city are now bustling with growth: new houses, new people to live in them, and new places for those folks to eat. The Chronicle Food staff spent some time dining in the rural environs earlier this summer and discovered some pretty good eats, plus the promise of more to come. We've got two weeks' worth of stories here. Since they live southwest of the city, Mick Vann and Wes Marshall were assigned to cover the Lake Travis area, Spicewood, Dripping Springs, Driftwood, Buda, Kyle, and Highway 71 east toward Bastrop. The rest of us went north and east and will report next week. The news is good: There are reliable meals in each little boomtown. Virginia B. Wood
1) Tutto Gusto
4300 North Quinlan Park Rd., 266-2221
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30am-2pm; Saturday-Sunday, noon-2pm
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 5-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 5-10pmwww.tuttogusto.com
Successful Austin restaurateur Stan Adams (Siena Ristorante Toscano, Brick Oven) owns the new Tutto Gusto in Steiner Ranch. His goal is to bridge the gap between the casual Brick Oven and the fancy Siena. Tutto Gusto is a place affordable enough that you can take the whole family yet nice enough to feel like you're dining out instead of just eating.
The food is simple Italian. Their calamari ($5.95 lunch, $6.95 dinner) is crispy on the outside and tender-sweet on the inside, with a very mild tomato dipping sauce. Spinaci al Forno ($6.95) is a mixture of spinach and artichoke hearts in a gratin made from very intense Romano cheese. It's best spread on some of Tutto Gusto's delicious bread.
The best main course we tried was Joey's Favorite ($7.95/9.95), a brimming plate of fettuccine with prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, and a few red chili flakes, all in a cream sauce. We also liked the Walnut Chicken ($10.95/12.95), which was like an Italian version of chicken-fried chicken, with sage cream sauce substituting for the cream gravy. It was perfectly crunchy and moist.
One thing that really sets Tutto Gusto apart is its kid-friendly atmosphere. Children can eat for $5.95, and that includes a drink. For tired parents, there's a nice play area just outside, so you can dine inside in peace and watch your children through the big plate-glass windows. If you want to be even closer, there's also dining outside.
Tutto Gusto successfully offers a relaxed place you can go to spontaneously, where a hardworking family wanting something a little nicer than usual can have a comfortable dinner. Wes Marshall
2) Opie's Barbecue
9504 Hwy. 71 E., Spicewood, 830/693-8660
Daily, 11am-7pm (starting in September, 6am-7pm)
Last time we reported on Opie's Barbecue, we raised a big holler from the folks at Cooper's in Llano. They took exception to my idea that Opie's was offering food just as good, and it was closer to Austin. That was seven years ago, and it's still just as true today. Only Opie's is just about to take a big step forward: They're moving to a new, nicer facility right on Highway 71.
Owner Todd Ashmore tells me their new facility should be open by Aug. 1, and he's made some positive changes. "I'm gonna have a real kitchen for once," he laughs. The pit master gets a little more comfortable, too, with the serving pit moved inside the restaurant.
The big change for the customers will be in the seating. If you've ever had trouble scootching in and out of their picnic tables after a slab of baby back ribs ($20), you'll be happy to know that the new Opie's will have real tables and chairs. My favorite food at Opie's is the huge pork chop ($10.99). It's smoky and tender with real pork flavor. Fridays at Opie's are Butter Bean Day, when Ashmore puts out a huge vat of butter beans for all customers. Whatever day you come, don't forget to save room for the blackberry cobbler ($3.25). W.M.
3) Angel's Icehouse
21815 Hwy. 71 W., Spicewood, 512/264-3777
Tuesday, 4pm-closing; Wednesday-Sunday, 11am-closing
Are you old enough to remember what an icehouse is? You would go either to get beer and ice or to while away an afternoon sitting in the breezy shade. Cold beer was the order of the day, with occasional food at the fancier places. No air conditioning. Neighborhood types crowding the bar. Texas used to have thousands of them until the clientele got sucked away to Friday's and Applebee's.
Spicewood is one of the last bastions of the icehouse. We had two until Elmo's burned down (for Elmo's fans: He's cooking again, now at Blue Moon). At least temporarily, Angel's is carrying the torch alone. The motto at Angel's Icehouse is "What you LOVE about the Hill Country! Good Friends, Great Food, Live Music and Ice Cold Beer!" Judging by the huge crowds packed in almost every night, they must be doing something right. Actually, they are doing a lot of things right.
Take their cold beers. Now this is not a froufrou place with all sorts of obscure alembic ales. You've got your Bud, your Miller, and beers made by Bud and Miller. There's also a few good Mexican beers. The main thing they've got going for their beer program is it's c-o-l-d. My Dos Equis on draft ($3) was icy, and given the expert service, your beer comes to your table about 20 seconds after it leaves the tap or the cooler.ÊPlus, every waitstaff communication is punctuated with a "darling" or a "sweetie." This is old-time Texas hospitality.
The food is better than we expect from an icehouse. Their crab cakes ($6.99) are a bit too bready, but they taste great. No excuses are needed for their top-notch chicken-fried chicken ($9.49). A huge breast is covered with crispy, spicy batter, and the cream gravy tastes homemade.
If you go to Angel's, note the only reserved parking place says, "Willie's Place." Turns out Angel's is about the only place in Spicewood Willie hasn't been, so they're hoping a free parking spot will get his interest. Who knows? It might work. In the meantime, Angel's is a great reminder of the way things used to be. W.M.
4) Cafe Castro Nova
900 RR 620 S., Lakeway, 512/263-3322
Tuesday-Thursday, Sunday 11am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-10pm
When Cafe Castro Nova first opened, it was a nice, unobtrusive little casual restaurant. Recently, they decided to convert to a white-tablecloth place with upscale surroundings, top-level service, and more creative cookery.Ê
The best place to start is their Hand Breaded Coconut Shrimp ($9.99) served on a cranberry and orange coulis. Six big, crispy shrimp arrive around a bed of baby greens with the coulis spread around the edges of the plate. The play of the coconut, sweet shrimp, and tart fruits is wonderful. The biggest surprise came in the form of a filet mignon ($35.99) that could stand with the best steak-house versions. The meat was fork-tender, flavorful, and cooked precisely to order. And instead of the old-fashioned way of wrapping the outside in bacon, the fresh asparagus is wrapped in bacon and served on the side.
Given their Lakeway location, they knew they couldn't leave completely the hamburger-and-wrap crowd behind. Best of these is the Nova Burger ($9.99), which is basically a burger with all the trimmings and a little aioli.
Cafe Castro Nova also added a closed bar aimed at the remaining cigar aficionados among us, and it's loaded to the brim almost every night. The bartender knows his drinks, and as long as the smoke doesn't bother you, it's a nice, intimate, and relaxing place to have a drink. W.M.
5) Rolling in Thyme & Dough Bakery
333 Hwy. 290 W., Dripping Springs, 512/894-0001
Business partners Fabienne Bollum and Marsha Shortwebb discovered their shared passion for fresh, seasonal foods working at a farmstand near Fredericksburg a few years back. When the farmstand closed, the friends developed a business plan and found a congenial roadside location in Dripping Springs for their new venture. Rolling in Thyme & Dough Bakery is at home in a cozy cottage surrounded by cheerful gardens. (The property was home to a nursery in a former incarnation.) The owners are committed to featuring fresh, local products as much as possible and at one time even sold local eggs and produce in the shop. "Since Timpones opened, we don't do that much anymore but we use the local eggs and produce in our own cooking," Bollum explains.
The freshness is apparent in every bite. The busy bakery/catering outfit serves up scrumptious pastries. We sampled flaky Danish studded with area peaches, a black- and blueberry turnover, and a divine slice of moist poppy-seed cake under a puckery lemon glaze. At lunchtime, indulge in a sandwich made on their bread loaded with quality meats and local goat cheese, farm-fresh egg salad with silky homemade mayo, or grilled garden vegetables. Put together a truly filling road meal by pairing the sandwiches with a cup of custom soup or a garden salad, or sample weekday specials such as the 290 Torte (roasted vegetables and goat cheese in a pastry crust) or pizza on a homemade rosemary-garlic dough topped with seasonal vegetables. This attractive little roadside gem is worth a stop. V.B.W.
6) Timpones Market
700 Hwy. 290 W., Dripping Springs, 512/829-2200
Monday-Saturday, 7am-8pm; Sunday, 10am-5pmwww.timponesmarket.com/location.asp
Every once in a while, you come across a commercial establishment that's so homey and inviting that it's like you just walked into your best friend's house. From the moment you walk through the door at Timpones shopping at the market, perusing the holistic health items, or picking up some freshly made food you see nothing but smiles, and the only attitude you get is a seemingly endless desire to give you exactly what you want.
The food is good, too. For the pizzas ($17-19), they have a wood-fired oven operating at more than 750 degrees. "You really have to be on your game when you use one of these ovens," owner Patrick Timpone told me. "It's a real artisan pizza. If you don't get the dough exactly right roll it out perfectly and watch it carefully while you're cooking you won't get a great pizza. When you do it right, it's wonderful. But there's a reason the big chains won't use theses ovens: It's too risky." Timpones' pizza has that wonderful wood-fired flavor. The crust is crisp on the outside and tender on the inside, with just a hint of smokiness.
Sandwiches also get tender loving care. When a dish is named after the owner, you should expect the best in the house. So I also tried the Timpone Sandwich ($8), a heaping meat lover's treat with pepperoni, salami, and provolone all stacked high. Both the sandwiches and pizzas are made with what Timpone calls "authentic foods," i.e., foods grown or produced within 150 miles by people he knows using methods he approves of. Not everything is organic, but his motto is: "Know the source," and the payoff for us is good food you can feel good about.
Timpone is well-known in Austin for his sauces, his radio show, and his longtime commitment to informing the public about the perils of the monetary system. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he doesn't end up better known for the soon-to-be chain of Timpones Markets. Wes Marshall
7) Gigi's Java & Donuts
2400-B Hwy. 290 W. #1, Dripping Springs, 512/858-1700
Monday-Friday, 5:30am-5pm; Saturday, 7am-5pm; Sunday, 8am-2pm
Gigi's is at the very edge of Dripping Springs, almost out of town. The place has a very "old-Austin" feel to it, like a cleaner Les Amis. They bake everything fresh each day, including delicious cinnamon rolls ($1.90) that would have placed very high on our cinnamon roll shoot-out two years ago. Coffee is expertly made, and for those of us who pay attention to such things, their single shot of espresso ($1.25) had a nice head of crema.
If you go by later in the day, soups and sandwiches rule. I asked the counter person for her pick as the best sandwich in the house, and, without a moment's thought, she pointed at the Honey-Cured Ham and Swiss ($5.99). I took her up on the recommendation and got a nice, thick sandwich made from impeccably fresh ingredients and obvious loving care. So what can you do to make an ordinary ham & cheese into something special? Start with dense bread (wheat-berry nugget in this case), eschew the mayonnaise in favor of good honey-mustard dressing, and dress it with crispy pickles and onions. The difference between a good sandwich and a great one is in the details, and Gigi's gets them right. W.M.
8) Trattoria Lisina
13308 FM 150 W., Driftwood, 512/894-3111
Tuesday-Thursday, 4-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-10pm; Sunday, 11am-9pmwww.trattorialisina.com www.mandolawines.com
If you haven't been for a tasting at Damian Mandola's gorgeous new winery located about halfway between Driftwood and the first low-water Onion Creek crossing, you're missing a treat. Set on one of the prettiest plots of land in the area, they are in full vine-growth mode, with 20 acres planted and many more to come. The compound will remind you of a Tuscan farm on the hills near Florence, Italy. What has the denizens of Driftwood excited is the planned opening on Aug. 14 of the second phase of the compound, Trattoria Lisina, a rustic Italian restaurant. Knowing Mandola's lust for quality, freshness, and authenticity, the food is sure to be excellent.
Chef John Lichtenberger is in place; a 25-year veteran of the New York restaurant scene, he relocated to Wimberley and is ready to make a big impression. We got to take a stroll through the space with him and Mandola, and it will be magnificent: a large open dining room with sunset views of the vineyard and the hills beyond. A covered stone patio will provide additional outdoor seating. The kitchen is the stuff of a culinarian's dreams: curing rooms for the homemade charcuterie, a chilled room for meat-cutting, blast chillers, rotisserie, and a wood-burning oven.
The menu holds high promise: hot and cold antipasti ($4-10), 10-inch pizzas ($10-11), fresh pastas ($10-12), mains ($14-28), a wealth of sides ($6-10), and a long list of desserts and cheeses ($6-9, including sorbettos and gelati). When I can drive just a few miles and get a house-made prosciutto-and-arugula pizza, a bowl of minestra with escarole, white beans, and house-made sausage, some real carbonara with no cream, braised oxtails or osso buco, I will be a very happy diner indeed. Mick Vann
9) Cedar Grove Steakhouse
9595 RR 12 #11, Wimberley, @ the Junction (RR 12 & FM 2325), 512/847-3113
Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 5-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 5-10pm
Set in a striking stone and wood compound in a roadside grove of oaks, with views of the Wimberley Valley, Cedar Grove has established itself as the venue for upscale eating in the area, with a full bar and a comprehensive wine list to match. Chef John Galindo III exhibits talent well beyond his 25 years, and the service by the staff is impeccable. This is mature and dynamic food in a gorgeous setting that will impress even the most jaded world traveler.
A recent visit found Galindo III preparing a tasting dinner pulled from the regular menu, leading off with a spectacular first course of tender calamari with charred marinara and lemon aioli; a smoky duck breast and poblano quesadilla with a lively blackberry concassé; asiago-glazed bruschetta with Romano slivers, tomato, and garlic; and succulent rare-grilled tuna with porcini powder and a smoked paprika beurre blanc (menu prices $9-17).
The salad course was a combination of their Caesar ($6) and a crab meat and goat cheese salad with mandarin slices on tomato gelée ($12). Both fantastic.
The entrée plate combined three dishes: the fork-tender NY strip Toscana with capers, roasted red pepper, and goat cheese with a balsamic reduction ($28); luscious slices of peppered duck breast with a port wine demi-glace ($24); and the smoky salmon cooked with alder wood smoked salt with a subtle jalapeño-shallot butter sauce ($19). Sides were portions of grilled asparagus, poblano polenta, white truffle oil orzo, and a grilled red pepper.
Dessert was a minispread of their papaya gelato with diced papaya and strawberries with balsamic syrup, chocolatey pot de crème with Chambord whipped cream, and a very light key lime cheesecake with strawberry sauce and raspberries. A perfect finish that wasn't too sweet. M.V.
10) Marco's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria
303 Wimberley Square, 512/847-0742
Wednesday-Monday, 11am-3pm; 5-9pm
In a stone and stucco cottage in the center of the Wimberley Square sits Marco's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria. Owners Eva and Marco have 20 years' worth of experience with Italian food, moving here from Germany and opening their restaurant some 14 months ago. The interior reinforces the menu, with tile floors, rustic wooden tables and chairs, red-and-white-checkered cloth linens, and candles. When you open the door, the smell of fresh bread baking lures you inside. An open kitchen offers views of Marco tossing pizza dough into the air with aplomb.
The menu opens with huge specialty salads, all $9.95: Scampi or Chicken Supreme, Insalada Italiana, or a Chicken Caesar. Our side salad was crisp and excellent, with romaine, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, and a house-made creamy Italian dressing. A list of baked pasta dishes, all made with spaghetti, is next: Vegetable Combo (broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, cheese), Broccoli al Forno (broccoli, garlic, béchamel sauce, cheese), Pepito (shrimp, mushrooms, meat sauce, cheese; ours was superb, with perfectly cooked sweet shrimp and a robust meaty tomato sauce). Also offered are lasagna, cannelloni, and eggplant marinara ($8.95) and chicken fettuccine Alfredo ($9.95). Salads and baskets of bread with dipping sauce accompany entrée orders. Pizzas are perfect, made with thin, crispy dough in 10-inch ($7.50), 12-inch ($10.50), and 14-inch ($14.50) versions, with 25 different toppings offered. We chose the Pasquale's Special, which featured mozzarella, feta, sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, and onion and could not have been happier with the result.
By the time you read this, the menu at Marco's will have doubled in size, with the addition of an antipasto section and many more timeless pasta dishes. This is classic homemade Italian food, prepared with love. M.V.
11) The Leaning Pear Cafe
111 River Rd., Wimberley, 512/847-7327
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday: 11am-3pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-8pm; BYOB
The Leaning Pear resides in an ancient stone building nestled in a big tree grotto right at the start of River Road in Wimberley. After the Mexican restaurant that preceded them failed, Rachel and Matthew Buchanan redid the interior, producing a rustic but modern feel, complete with a covered stone patio with a misting system. They opened up in March of this year, and the response has been fantastic.
The keyword at Leaning Pear is fresh. They scour the farmers' markets in San Marcos and Wimberley to purchase from and to make contacts with local growers and cheese makers.
We started our meal with cups of each of the day's soups ($3.75): a spicy pureed corn and roasted poblano chowder with bits of fresh corn and diced tomato, garnished with white cheese and tortilla strips and a very tomatoey cream soup with chunks of rich melting Maytag blue cheese, diced ripe tomato, and shreds of basil (purchased as a combo with a side house salad, $7). The delicious salad is made up with crisp microgreens with spiced pecans, sliced Anjou pear, goat cheese, and a shallot vinaigrette. The next table was feasting on two huge entrée salads ($6-7.75), which looked inviting.
We tried a pair of sandwiches: the BBLT (peasant bread with double-cream Brie, Nueske's bacon, lettuce and ripe tomato, $6.50), and the Reuben (fresh marble rye, house-made corned beef, fresh kraut, and Swiss, $7.25). Both were served with thick kettle chips and were exemplary.
Every day there is a more substantial special, this day a Jumbo Lump Crab Cake on Chayote Slaw With Cilantro Dressing ($10.25). Other days it might be duck breast, pork tenderloin, or flank steak. Desserts are made in-house and usually include an ice cream or sorbet. Leaning Pear offers what Wimberley needs: bold flavors, fresh ingredients, great food, and nice prices. M.V.
12) Luvianos Restaurante
804 Center St., Kyle, 512/268-4380
Sunday-Thursday, 7am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 7am-10pm
I was shocked to see a new place on the corner of Main Street and FM 150, where the pizza place used to be, and even more shocked to see it overflowing with customers. Esthela Jaime, of the Luvianos Restaurante on Cameron Road in Austin, has opened a second location in Kyle. One factor of the fandom in Kyle is that Luvianos has a full bar, perhaps the only one in town, if not the area. The other factor is the low prices for the great food.
For breakfast, we tried the Machacado ($5.99, dried shredded beef with scrambled eggs), and the Nopales con Huevo ($4.50, cactus pad strips with scrambled eggs). Both hit the spot.
For dinner, we've tried the Favorito ($6.50, choice of two meats; we chose the pastor pork and barbacoa, both nice), the beef fajitas ($6.99, tender and flavorful), Tex-Mex enchiladas ($5.99, good, cuminy chile con carne and cheese on top), the Torta Cubano ($4.99, excellent bread, pressed and grilled, with loads of ham), Sopes with pastor meat ($3, loaded with lettuce and cheese on top), the Gordito ($3, topped with succulent carnitas, the dough was a little tough), and the Napolitos Salad ($4.50, a nice portion of fresh cactus strips, tomato, cilantro, onion, and cheese).
More menu adventures await: There's a whole section of fish and shrimp dishes (most $8-9) I've yet to try. I'll definitely return if I can get in the door, that is. M.V.
13) 2 Mamas Cafe & Bakery
206 N. Main St, Buda, 512/295-4748
Buda used to have a run-down Laundromat that I frequented, and almost three years ago, it became 2 Mamas Cafe & Bakery. Owners Elizabeth McMillin (also known through her Cafe 290 in Manor), Eugene McMillin, and Teresa Garza have transformed the space into a bright, warm cafe opening onto Buda's Main Street. When they opened, there were nine restaurants in the Buda area; now, there are 22. With the solid, fresh flavors coming from their kitchen, I know that 2 Mamas is in Buda to stay.
The food is centered on fresh-baked desserts and breads, sandwiches, salads, and home-style daily specials, with recipes handed down from all of the respective grannies. Pastries and coffee provide the morning fare, and the place starts to fill around lunch: Monday through Saturday, there are substantial blue plate specials for $7.25 (call for offerings). Monday's meat loaf with mashed potatoes and corn was as delicious as Mom's (and that speaks volumes) and could have fed two. Creamy and rich homemade chicken and dumplings is available daily ($2.95/3.95).
With sandwiches, you can create your own combo on house-baked bread from the 20-plus offered components ($5.95), or choose from the cafe's menu subs; our muffuletta ($6.95) was overstuffed and pleasantly filling (the Meatball and the Thanksgiving are next in line). There is a salad bar: broccoli salad, slaw, pasta salad, and the makings for a deluxe green salad fill it to the brim. You have the option of a single trip or multiple ($2.95/5.25) and can opt to include it with many of the combos.
The bakery counter groans with an assortment of tempting jumbo cookies, pies, cakes, and various pastries (for morning or afternoon tea). A megaslab of sinfully rich carrot cake almost did me in before a recent meeting. M.V.
14) Oaxacan Tamaleo
1634 Hwy. 71 W., Cedar Creek, 512/289-9262
Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 8am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 8am-11pm (or later)
Gone from the eastern half of the La Chica minimart on Anderson Lane, Oaxacan Tamaleo has resurrected. Bill, Leo, and the brood have a much larger space, with a bandstand in one corner and a room with a pool table. Beer and wine are now served as well, and in case you wondered, the food is better.
All of the scrumptious standbys are on the menu: the wonderful daily specials Monday-Friday, the amazing lamb barbacoa, the melt-in-your-mouth pork in green sauce, the tender chicken in red mole (all $8.45), the rich posole ($4/5.50), the luscious banana-leaf-wrapped tamales ($2.75, two for $5). But, because the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission requires a bigger menu for a permit, there are new treats!
Enchiladas (four with rice and beans, $8.45) are incredible: overstuffed with moist chicken and loaded with red mole. You'll also find flautas (four for $8.45, chicken or bean), and enfrijoladas (four for $8.45, smothered in refried black beans, cheese, and onions), as well as quesadillas, tostados, Tamaleo salad, and fried plantains. Breakfast remains the same, except that now you can get two eggs on top of two pork tamales with black beans ($3.98). Add some plantains to that, and you have a breakfast!
They are adapting to the new space slowly, and when bands do come through, they tend to play on Saturday nights, so call first. Leonor usually can be persuaded to dance with something balanced on her head, so no change there. It's a bit of a haul to get there now, but we've said it before ("Oaxacan Tamaleo," June 2, 2006), and we'll keep on saying it: hands down, the best interior Mexican around Austin for the price. M.V.