Dining around Central Texas: part II
Fri., July 27, 2007
The small communities north and east of Austin are transforming: Once-quiet farm towns are now rapidly growing bedroom communities with historic downtown areas surrounded by brand-spanking-new neighborhoods. Georgetown has earned the distinction of being one of the fastest-growing small cities in the country: It now boasts sushi bars and fine-dining locations alongside well-established eateries. People generally think only of barbecue when discussing dining out in Taylor and Elgin, but our writers discovered other reliable options -- both old and new -- in each place. Even the old country dance hall at tiny Coupland is being revitalized with new energy. There was plenty of ground to cover, so Chronicle Food staffers Claudia Alarcón, Barbara Chisholm, MM Pack, and Kate Thornberry were assisted in this endeavor by Georgetown native Monica Koenig, as well as Sarah Hamlin, who often keeps us posted on culinary happenings on the far north edge of the Austin area. -- Virginia B. Wood
For part 1 of 'Dining around Central Texas, ' see Exit Here to Eat.
Cafe 29011011 U.S. 290 E., Manor, 512/278-8780
Monday-Thursday, 6am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 6am-10:30pm; Sunday, 7am-10pm
The classic diner is alive and well in Manor at Cafe 290, a longtime establishment on Highway 290. A few years back, chefs Robert Guillory and Liz Lynch took over the Manor landmark after working in prestigious restaurants in Singapore and Manhattan, as well as in the kitchen at Austin's Four Seasons Hotel. With a focus on keeping the diner as a down-home establishment, they brought traditional roadhouse food to a new delicious level. Guillory has now left the operation, leaving Lynch and husband Eugene as proprietors. Thankfully neither the food nor the atmosphere has skipped a beat.
On the Saturday morning of our visit, it proved to be a popular stop for local regular customers and travelers alike, and it was absolutely packed for breakfast, with a stream of people coming and going. The menu offers American and Mexican options such as huevos rancheros, breakfast tacos, eggs-any-style with a variety of meat choices including chicken-fried steak and pork chops, plus pancakes, French toast, and omelets. After much deliberation, I chose the mushroom-and-cheese omelet, filled with sautéed mushrooms and onions, topped with melted jack cheese. The grits on the side were creamy and comforting. My husband could not resist the day's special: green eggs and ham! Two fried eggs topped with an excellent tomatillo sauce, served with a thick slice of grilled ham, refried beans, and house fries. Both dishes came with homemade, flaky, buttery biscuits and jam.
For lunch and dinner, the menu turns to comfort foods: meatloaf, smothered steak, and chicken and dumplings, along with chicken-fried anything. Their fried green tomatoes are famous around these parts. The lunch buffet features two or three entrée specials per day, with a variety of sides to chose from. Stop by when you're in Manor, and have a taste. -- Claudia Alarcón
City Cafe19 N. Main St., Elgin, 512/281-3663
Monday-Thursday, 6am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 6am-10pm; Sunday, 7am-9pm
It is every traveler's dream to encounter a small-town cafe peopled with locals and serving up honest and tasty home cookin'. Just about every small town boasts places to eat, but too many now are either parts of a chain or serving up grub fresh out of a can. Our hearts have been broken too many times to have our hopes too high when we ventured into the lovely City Cafe in nearby Elgin, but oh how skepticism faded as we gazed upon the gorgeous desserts in the viewing case! Coconut cream with a mile-high meringue on top! Two different chocolate pies! Cakes of chocolate and vanilla! If the entrées were half as tempting, we had hit pay dirt. And bingo! The lunch buffet offered several entrées prepared in small portions that kept their quality high. On this Monday afternoon, the buffet featured a savory meatloaf composed of beef and pork, the obligatory and delicious grilled Elgin sausages with peppers and onions, and a variety of sides including mashed potatoes and mac and cheese. We also gave the chicken-fried steak a try (the small portion) and were met with an enormous slab of battered and pan-fried cube steak. It was the essence of Texas eatin' and one of the better ones we've encountered. Despite the he-man entrées, we couldn't resist the desserts we had ogled, so we tackled the two chocolate pies and the coconut meringue. Only moans and slurps were heard for the next 10 minutes. Around us we spied an elderly couple in pressed Wranglers and cowboy hats, a trio of what appeared to be high school football players, and a guy with spurs on his boots. Yep, our dream had come true: City Cafe is a bona fide find and only a short drive away. -- Barbara Chisholm
Quaffer's Pub117 N. Main, Elgin, 512/281-0999
Monday-Saturday, 3pm-12mid; Sunday, 3-10pm
In order to plan our trip to check out Quaffer's Pub, we rang up the joint and were informed by a friendly chap with a genuine English accent of their hours of operation. With their hours in mind, we sped out Highway 290 on a Sunday evening to tuck into the pub grub. We arrived in Downtown Elgin to find Quaffer's to be one of, if not the only, businesses open. Such are the downtown hours of a small town in Texas. But while not exactly hopping, Quaffer's had a handful of patrons perched at the bar. The pub is housed in an old storefront no doubt dating from the 19th century. Brick walls and wooden floors lend it an amiable air, and our barkeep, although not the proprietor as we expected, also hailed from Great Britain. We ordered up a couple of pints and asked to peruse the menu. Ahh! No food service on Sunday evenings. We had failed to specify we'd be wanting beverages and food. The menu looked interesting enough with the predictable burgers and sandwiches and the Scotch egg tossed in there as a nod to the homeland. And given the completely amiable ambience of the place, we'll be game to try it next time we're passing through. Despite the lack of dinner, our stop at the pub was still a lovely one. The beer was tasty, the surroundings friendly, the television tuned to a sports channel not too loud, and after a rousing game of flip the coaster, we headed back to Austin in search of dinner and with a note to ourselves to return to Quaffer's Pub. -- B.C.
The Old Coupland Inn & Dancehall101-103 Hoxie, Coupland, 512/856-2226
Restaurant: Thursday, 5:30-9:30pm; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-10pm
Dancehall: Friday, 7pm-12mid; Saturday, 7pm-1am
Billed as "the eatinest, drinkinest, dancinest place in Texas," the Old Coupland Inn & Dancehall is exactly that and then some. Built in 1910, it served as a mercantile store before turning into a tavern. New owners Rick and Ronnie Smitherman are slowly remodeling the dance hall, inn, and restaurant complex. Their goal is to "clean it up a bit" without losing any of its old Texas charm and hospitality. My husband and I dropped in for a night of good food and good fun.
The restaurant was packed for Friday night's dinner. The menu is small, featuring barbecue, steaks, and classic Texas home cooking. The portions are hearty and the flavor down-home. Most everything is made from scratch, including the huge, hand-pounded chicken-fried steak. Its crunchy, flavorful batter is speckled with black pepper and dill seed, and it comes with mashed potatoes and bacon-studded green beans. The crisp, cornmeal-battered fried catfish is excellent, served with a sweet coleslaw. Instead of the french fries, we asked for potato salad, which was creamy and tangy, with great crunch from fresh onions and pickle relish. Since we'd had the Coupland smoked sausage -- served with a spicy barbecue sauce with bacon in it -- as an appetizer with a frosty mug of Shiner, we were entirely too full to try the blackberry, peach, or apple cobbler.
After dinner, everyone heads next door to the dance hall for the night's entertainment: entire families with kids and grandparents, couples, and teenagers looking to shoot some pool under the watchful eye of the bar staff. The two bars are more than 100 years old. The larger, beveled mirrored one is dated 1886 and still has buckshot holes intact. Now that's Texas!
We spent the night in one of the rooms at the inn. All are appointed with antiques and furniture in early 1900s style. There's a small kitchenette where guests can find juice, coffee and pastries, and a fridge. The communal bathroom is traditional of the time when the inn was built. But former Austinite Rick Smitherman likes to jokingly call it "European-style." He plans to add private bathrooms in two of the rooms as the remodeling progresses. -- C.A.
RiCoco's Latin Grill121 E. Third, Taylor, 512/352-9300
Tuesday-Thursday, 10am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 10am-10pm; Sunday, 10am-3pm
When Austinites think of destination eating in Taylor, 15 miles east of Round Rock on Highway 79, barbecue probably first comes to mind; the town is known for Louie Mueller's venerable joint, as well as Rudy Mikeska's next door. However, Taylor is also home to RiCoco's Latin Grill, offering a different kind of spicy dining.
Once a busy rail depot for the region's formerly vibrant cotton industry, Taylor is making a valiant effort to revitalize its now rather deserted but movie-set-picturesque downtown. To reach RiCoco's, housed in a 19th century building just off Main Street, diners must pick their way around and through major street-and-sidewalk construction, but the food and hospitality are worth the effort.
Owners Richard and Coco Torres are California transplants, and the menu reflects some distinct Cal-Mex influences. While supplying a wide range of the reasonably priced, hearty Mexican-restaurant fare that we expect in Texas -- varieties of tacos, enchiladas, and fajitas; chile rellenos, tamales, and numerous combination plates; and a fresh red-chile table sauce -- there is also a full bar and some pleasant surprises on offer.
The Coctail de Camarones ($7.99) is a huge footed glass of beautifully cooked bay shrimp swimming in piquant tomato sauce with fresh onion and cilantro. It's a meal or an appetizer generous enough for two. House specialty dishes ($11.99) are called molcajetes for the traditional grinding bowls of black lava rock in which they're served. Best described as a sort of fresh stew served volcano-hot, they are mammoth portions of grilled chicken breast (or steak or shrimp), onion and bell pepper strips, splashed with light chile gravy, garnished by grilled scallions and fresh tomato and orange slices, topped with melting queso fresco, and accompanied by a plateful of beans, rice, guacamole, and plenty of fresh tortillas to mop up the sauce. ¡Que rico! -- MM Pack
Chantal's Bistro & Wine Bar204 E. Eighth, Georgetown, 877/662-2011 or 512/535-6143
Lunch: Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30am-2:30pm; dinner: Thursday-Saturday, 5-10pm; bistro dining: Tuesday-Wednesday, 5-8pm
If you're craving a dinnertime break from the noise of the big city, you don't have far to go. In Georgetown, on a peaceful corner stands the century-old restored home that is now Chantal's Bistro & Wine Bar. The night we were there was particularly peaceful -- just plain quiet, really. It is midsummer, after all, and many regulars are away for the season.
At other times of the year, Chantal's could be a lively place. The old home itself suggests a progressive dinner. Act one: appetizers at the wine bar. Act two: a quiet table for dinner. And for the smashing denouement: dessert and coffee outdoors on the wraparound porch.
The menu at Chantal's defies definition: bits of French, Spanish, Southwestern, Asian. Eluding the confines of a single tradition was intentional in the design of the menu, the owner maintains, and he offers up a rather liberal "continental" label.
Appetizers are mostly maritime: Tuna Carpaccio ($13), shrimp in two different guises ($7-10), crab cakes ($11). For those unacquainted with true continental practices, a cheese plate ($12) is also offered as an appetizer. (Reassuringly, the chefs know what's what, as the cheese plate reappears for dessert.)
Entrées are all manner of meats and seafood. We tried the Salmon Ahumado ($26), smoked, then seared, and served with hopeful little baby leeks and a saucy Israeli couscous. We also tried the pork tenderloin ($24), which is a rather happy dish, having spent time first in a beer marinade, then in a pear wine brandy reduction. Enough to make any tenderloin tipsy, and quite tasty.
Indulge your vanilla cravings in a crème brûlée ($6) for dessert. The Chocolate Liqueur Cake ($6) is not for those seeking a real chocolate bonanza but is a fine specimen of the Bundt family and is served with a redeemingly chocolatey sauce.
At Chantal's, we shared a perfectly delicious meal in a lovely setting. Make an occasion of it, or come like the regulars for a quiet and elegant dinner. Either way, it's worth the short drive. -- Monica Koenig
Monument Cafe1953 S. Austin Ave., Georgetown, 512/930-9586
Sunday-Thursday, 7am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 7am-10pm
With a street number of 1953 and a flat, wide building with curved corners, the Monument Cafe reminds me of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, but instead of starkness and loneliness, the place is all about warmth and togetherness.
The food is classic: Feast on piles of knock-out onion rings ($1.95), a killer BLT ($7.25) stacked generously with peppered bacon, chicken-fried steak ($10.95), straightforward pan-fried pork chops ($13.95). Sometimes on special there's even meatloaf or turkey and dressing. To top off such Americana, expect nothing less than superb pies ($3.95 per slice). I've heard raving over both the black-bottom banana cream and the chocolate pie with pecan crust. A regular told me his personal heaven is at the granite bar: At breakfast time, order a fried pie and douse it in milk.
The Monument has always been dedicated to serving local produce and farm eggs. So proud are they of their local producers that a new chalkboard now announces the farms supplying the week's produce. It follows that vegetables are carefully and lovingly prepared at the Monument. Entrées come with three vegetable sides. A slightly lighter alternative is to order the quiche of the day ($7.95), which also earns you three of the tasty vegetable dishes. Squash casserole is a personal favorite. Roasted asparagus has a concentrated flavor with just a slight crunch. Fried zucchini has plenty of crunch from a thin cornmeal crust. In honor of summer's bounty there's a cucumber-and-tomato salad. Recently, the special was a tasty all-vegetable black-bean casserole, layered with pasta and ricotta.
It would be hard to name another restaurant where such honest, homey dishes feel so right with the place and the people. The Monument Cafe makes the kind of food we remember, or just wish we remembered, coming from the kitchens of our Southern grannies. Darned good stuff. -- M.K.
Hayashi Sushi and Grill1019 W. University #205, Georgetown, 512/868-9686
Lunch: Monday-Sunday, 11am-3pm; dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 5-11pm
Hayashi Sushi and Grill sits near the back of the new Wolf Creek megaenormous strip mall in Georgetown -- not exactly where you'd expect to find a sophisticated, upscale sushi house. Though Hayashi only opened in June, already the residents of Georgetown and nearby Cedar Park are gratefully flocking in. The dining room is elegant, with subdued coffee-colored walls, modern geometric lamps, and lots of polished wood. The sushi bar, manned by three attentive chefs, sits to the left, adjacent to a full bar offering signature cocktails and many varieties of sake. When not actively making sushi and rolls, the chefs are absorbed in preparing the fresh, never-frozen fish that is flown in daily from New York and Japan. These guys are serious about sushi, and the menu is as ambitious as any in Austin, featuring such dishes as Jalapeno Fresh Hawaiian White Tuna Sashimi ($12), New Zealand Lamb Chop With Miso Macadamia Cucumber Mint Sauce ($22), and Benito Crusted Salmon in Carrot Sauce With White Asparagus Salad ($20). In addition to a full standard sushi and sashimi menu, Hayashi offers 14 signature rolls. The Bomb Roll ($14), one of the most popular, consists of tempura shrimp encased in fresh king crab meat, rolled in rice, and wrapped in paper-thin slices of crisp, sweet cucumber. Accompanied by spicy mayonnaise and kabayaki sauce, it is absolutely first-rate. Thin slices of ripe, golden mango wrap the tempura soft-shell crab of the Amarillo Roll ($15), showcasing the contrast between the bright flavor of the fresh mango and the crunchy fried crab. Standard dishes including teriyaki, tataki, salads, soups, and tempura round out the menu and are prepared to the same exacting standards; the tempura vegetables, for example, are light and crisp and include okra along with asparagus, taro, sweet potato, and zucchini. For dessert, Hayashi offers mochi ice cream (including green tea, red bean, vanilla, coffee, sesame) and sorbet. -- Kate Thornberry
Nonna's Cucina124 E. Eighth, Georgetown, 512/863-3442
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11am-3pm; dinner: Thursday-Saturday, 5-9pm (reservations suggested)
Nonna's Cucina has been in Georgetown for about four years, nestled in the Eighth Street area of the quaint Georgetown Square, with front windows that look upon a Mayberry-esque avenue. Opened as a pizza and sandwich shop, it now offers dinner three nights a week. Cozy and comfortable -- and filled with the wonderful aromas of grilling, garlic, and fresh bread -- the unassuming atmosphere belies the delights that await you. Billed as "Mediterranean Fusion," the key ingredient is uniqueness brought to the table via family recipes and chef Dave Osmar's commitment to perfecting the simple yet sophisticated tastes inspired by the matriarchs of his childhood.
The flamboyant Greek appetizer Saganaki ($8) entices diners with brandy-induced pyrotechnics, ending in smoothly melted Gruyère cheese, surrounded by garlic-sautéed lemony spinach and warm crusty bread. Cheese heaven. Other appetizers include variations of shrimp, calamari, stuffed mushrooms, and bruschetta, ranging in price from $6 to $10.
The Pear and Gorgonzola salad ($8) also makes the Georgetown trek worth your while. Along with the greens, Gorgonzola, and pralined pecans, this version includes a most marvelous, warm-yet-firm pear soaked in a delectable sauce of subtle spice. A delicate pear vinaigrette pools to the side, not overwhelming the pancetta-topped tossed greens.
The entrées range in price from $11 to $23 and include Wild Mushroom Manicotti ($16) with its earthy curry kick and shapely variety of tasty mushrooms. The Cheese Tortellini Arrabbiata ($13) includes fennely sausage, juicy mushrooms, and a lightly creamy and spicy sauce unlike the heavy Alfredo-type sauces often served in this type of dish (any leftovers will not solidify in the refrigerator!).
The Tortelloni With Brown Butter ($13) has a rich yet snappy butter sauce that complements the homemade, cheese-filled pasta pillows and strawberries. A recent addition to the menu, the Shrimp Hierbabuena ($17) offers marinated shrimp on saffron risotto presenting a peppery, almost Caribbean appeal.
Other enticements include about 10 vegetarian dishes, homemade desserts, complimentary sample appetizers (homemade sausage and corn relish on a toasted pita chip), and chocolate cookie complimentary dessert. The friendly waitstaff includes a talented singing server who takes requests. Chef Osmar often visits the tables after the meal -- always a nice touch. If you enjoy a good wine with your dinner, however, you'll need to bring your own, as Nonna's awaits its liquor license. -- Sarah Hamlin
Paisano Pizza and Pasta1211 Leander Rd., Georgetown, 512/863-6344
Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, 11am-2:30pm; dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, 5-9pm
The storefront dining area of Paisano Pizza and Pasta is unpretentious in the extreme, but don't let that fool you. The tables may be vinyl-covered and the counter help teenage, but in the back are Rosa and Giuseppe Bebe, an elderly old-country Italian couple who will prepare you the most authentic pizza and pasta you have ever tasted. Because they find most domestic ingredients to be sadly lacking in flavor, they import the bulk of their ingredients directly from Italy. They make their own Italian sausage and meatballs, and each day Rosa concocts an enormous vat of tomato sauce from scratch, simmering it for seven to nine hours. Nowhere in Central Texas have I tasted such a perfect combination of crisp, yeasty crust; tomato sauce; and melted cheese: Their pizza is, without a doubt, the best around ($11 for a large cheese; toppings extra). The Ensalada Caprese ($6), made with imported fresh buffalo mozzarella, fresh oregano, fresh basil, marinated onions, and ripe Roma tomatoes, will make you think you are in Italy. The pasta dishes are equally fine and are not an afterthought as they often are in pizzerias. The Spaghetti de Sorento ($8), a classically balanced dish of pan-sautéed spaghetti with tiny fresh shrimp, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, basil, wine, and Parmesan cheese, is a specialty of the house and is surpassingly delicate and flavorful. Lasagna, baked ziti, eggplant Parmesan, and other pasta dishes are also offered, and with Rosa's homemade sauce, you know they are going to be wonderful. Paisano Pizza is a joy and a surprise, and it is absolutely worth driving all the way to Georgetown just to have a pizza. -- K.T.