The Austin Chronicle

Whip In

Reviewed by Rachel Feit, February 27, 2009, Food

1950 S. I-35, 442-5337
Daily, 10am-12mid; food served, 11am-11pm

Situated on a busy corner of the southbound access road along I-35 is a flat-roofed, cinder-block building that at first glance looks much like an ordinary convenience store. Look closer, though, and you might note a garishly painted figure that looks like a seated Hindu deity painted next to the doorway. This is the first clue that you shouldn't go to the Whip In expecting to pick up Pringles and Oreos. The next mental adjustment comes once you step inside, where you'll not find fluorescent-lighted rows of candies and snacks. There is no motor oil for sale here. Instead, what you will find are towering aisles of specialty beers, obscure wines, and locally packaged gourmet foodstuffs. To the left of the doorway, the cashier's station doubles as a lunch counter, with a handwritten menu on a chalkboard above it. Behind the counter, a row of beer taps pours microbrews, and a small kitchen churns out hot sandwiches and Indian-inspired meals. To the right of the door, there is a cozy dining space warmed by wooden church pews, antique tables, Indian wooden screens, and colorful printed textiles. The ambience is not unlike a college coffeehouse.

This is not your typical highway stop-and-shop. In fact, the Whip In has been evolving as a store since it was first purchased by the Topiwala family in 1986. What started as a typical convenience store soon blossomed into something bigger. With a nose for business, the Topiwalas first began altering their selection of beers and wines to meet the tastes of their largely South Austin clientele. For many years now, the Whip In has been known for its extraordinary beer and wine selection. However, a major change took place when one of the Topiwalas' grown sons, Dipak, returned home with his wife, Arden, and their infant daughter, after years of living in San Francisco, and began managing the store. Gone now are the standard convenience-store comestibles, replaced by locally made products and gourmet chocolates. And when customers began inquiring about whether Whip In sold Indian foods, the plan for a cafe took shape, to be finally realized this past year.

The menu, like the store itself, is an eccentric mix of flavors, a bricolage of national styles – Indian, African, European, American – reflecting the diverse influences of the family that created it. Take for instance the sandwich called the Periwinkle Delight ($5.99), a svelte combination of prosciutto, Gruyère, and truffle oil pressed inside two crisp pieces of naan. The thin pieces of homemade naan make a perfect, crisp panini pocket. Or consider the Travis Heights Sandwich ($5.99), stuffed with curried potato-and-pea filling, sprinkled with melted provolone and a little cilantro chutney. The turmeric-scented filling has all the flavor of a samosa but pressed into a sandwich. Dubbed "Panaani," all of the sandwiches are warmed on the Whip In's homemade naan.

In addition to sandwiches, the cafe prepares pungent stews, some more Indian than others. There is a heavenly concoction of stewed beef and peppers spiced with coriander, turmeric, and cumin whose taste falls somewhere on the frontiers of Indian, Central Asian, and American ($8.99). By contrast, many of the vegetarian dishes (all $5.99), such as the cauliflower-and-potato rasa and the garbanzo-and-carrot stew are taken straight out of the recipe collection of Mrs. Topiwala, a native of Gujarat.

But vegetarian or not, all the food comes with a conscience. Whip In's beef is sourced from locally raised cattle, while chicken dishes are made with Buddy's natural free-range chicken. Ingredients are, whenever possible, from local suppliers. A small stage in the dining area hosts homegrown live music where the likes of Michael Fracasso and Nathan Hamilton regularly appear. Beer and wine are served on the premises. All of these details converge to make the Whip In simply one of the coolest places in Austin.

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