Outstanding in Their Field

Like father, like son: Two very different restaurants reflect a lot of the same values

Jack Allen's Kitchen

7720 Hwy. 71 W., 512/852-8558, http://www.jackallenskitchen.com
Mon.-Thu., 11am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-10:30pm; Sun., 10am-10pm
Jack Allen's Kitchen
Jack Allen's Kitchen (Photo by Gerald E. Mcleod)

Jack Allen's Kitchen

7720 Hwy. 71 W., 852-8558
Sunday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Satur­day, 11am-11pm; Sunday brunch, 11am-2pm; happy hour, Monday-Friday, 3-7pm; Saturday-Sunday, 3-6pm
www.jackallenskitchen.com

Every city has them – locations where several restaurant ventures have failed. Buildings that seem to exist under an invisible decree that no one will make a living in that particular space. The swanky modern building a couple of blocks west of the "Y" in Oak Hill was one of those seemingly snake-bitten locales, but now it appears that longtime local restaurant professionals Tom Kamm and chef Jack Gilmore have vanquished the cosmic curse. Southwest Austinites have enthusiastically embraced Jack Allen's Kitchen since Kamm and Gilmore opened in late 2009. The affordably priced eatery has a busy bar and a full patio pretty much every night of the week, and we discovered it's a good idea to make reservations if you want to eat between 6 and 8:30pm. Though the bar here does a brisk business, families are always welcome, especially for the well-stocked $12.99 Sunday brunch buffet.

Locals will remember Jack Gilmore as the corporate executive chef of the popular homegrown Z'Tejas Southwestern Grill chain, where he was one of the foremost practitioners of Southwestern cuisine. Gilmore's menu at the new spot still reflects some Southwestern spicing, but the focus is much more on the use of local ingredients to prepare down-home fare from Texas and the American South. Start the meal with a complimentary dab of homey pimento cheese, and then look for mason jars of pickled local produce, burgers, tacos, Gulf seafood, and chicken-fried anything served alongside beers, wines, and distilled spirits from Texas. Gilmore proudly posts a list of vendors on the restaurant's website and is a weekly fixture at area farmers' markets.

Without first realizing our luck, our group of four showed up for an early dinner one Saturday only to discover it was still happy hour and all the appetizers were half-price. It would be easy to make a complete and very affordable meal from this mouthwatering list. Unsure when we might encounter good Gulf seafood again in light of the current oil spill disaster, we chose Texas blue crab gratin ($9.99/$5) and individual baked oysters ($2/$1) plus bacon-wrapped Texas quail ($11.99/$6), crispy catfish with slaw ($7.99/$4), and layered queso ($7.99/$4). Each dish offered something unique and delicious: The creamy gratin was chock-full of sweet lump crabmeat that was wonderful slathered on buttery ciabatta toasts; the oysters were huge, plump, and juicy, quick-roasted over rock salt in their own little cast-iron skillet; as tasty as the little bacon-wrapped quail legs were, matched with spicy jalapeño jam, the revelation on that plate was a tiny salad of beet micro greens tossed with bits of figs; the crunchy catfish fillets were nicely complemented by a colorful, brightly flavored slaw and chipotle tartar sauce; and contrasting flavors, textures, and temperatures of the queso with green chile pork cubes and spicy guacamole made satisfying bites atop fresh, house-fried tortilla chips.

We shared appetizers around the table before moving on to entrées and desserts, discovering more winners along the way. That evening's dinner special was a platter of grilled Gulf shrimp ($18.99): four huge beauties on a pool of creamy achiote sauce paired with a medley of rice and local vegetables and a spinach enchilada. The Country Club Fancy Chicken Salad ($9.99) is another lovely study in contrasts, with hot cubes of achiote-grilled chicken breast on a bed of cool, crisp local greens tossed with whisper-thin slices of pear, sweet bits of fig, candied walnuts, and chunks of tangy blue cheese in an assertive Champagne vinaigrette. Our favorite desserts were the sophisticated chocolate bombe ($5.95), a rounded half-cup of luxurious chocolate mousse on a chocolate cookie crust enrobed in shiny dark chocolate ganache, garnished with Florentine cookie shards and raspberry coulis, and banana toffee pie ($5.95), a voluptuous serving of dense custard and sliced bananas on a graham cracker and toasted pecan crust, gilded with sweetened whipped cream, caramel sauce, and more pecans. The verdict in both cases: decadently delightful.

So, how have two seasoned restaurant professionals managed to dispel the nine-year cosmic curse on an attractive restaurant location? By providing a fast-growing Southwest Austin neighborhood a comfortable gathering place with a welcoming staff and a menu that provides good value for the money – quite a recipe for success.

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