A comfortable, reliable neighborhood restaurant is the kind of amenity that helps build community by providing a gathering place for families and friends. Austin has been blessed with several over the years – places such as the old Holiday House in Tarrytown; Nau's Enfield Drug soda fountain in Clarksville; the Frisco in Allandale/Crestview; the conglomeration of restaurants, a bakery, and a grocery store at the corner of 43rd and Duval in Hyde Park; Cherrywood Coffeehouse; and Chez Zee for the Northland/Balcones set. The Mueller development in Central East Austin is one of the city's newer addresses, and it already has its first well-established neighborhood hangout. Contigo opened quietly at the south end of Mueller in April and has been busy ever since. Neighbors have embraced the new spot wholeheartedly. Couples, families, and large groups relax for hours on the fan-cooled patio and in the shady yard.
This instantly popular eatery is the brainchild of young friends Ben Edgerton and chef Andrew Wiseheart, who used Edgerton's family ranch as the inspiration for their first restaurant venture. Contigo Ranch is a popular hunting spot in the coastal plains brush country west of Corpus Christi – home to doves, deer, and feral hogs. The rustic outdoor ranch atmosphere is reflected in the decor at Contigo restaurant, while the ranch's wildlife population has some influence on the menu. Edgerton and Wiseheart took an old, east-facing welding shop and turned it into a tree-shaded, open-air restaurant with a simple, utilitarian decor of wood, metal, and leather. Silverware and dish towel napkins arrive at the table atop tin pie plates; some of the small-plate items are served in paper baskets, and the friendly service perfectly matches the casual ambience.
The casual concept at Contigo extends to the bar and the kitchen. But make no mistake: Casual does not mean careless. Both the food and drinks are well-executed, with a focus on fresh, local ingredients. The signature cocktails are creative and refreshing, and the beer selection includes many local craft brews on tap, plus a respectable offering of bottled and canned beers. The wine list is very small but features about a dozen labels by the glass or bottle. The drink-friendly food menu is designed for snacking and sharing. That's exactly what we did on a recent visit.
Our group of six diners chose randomly from the bar and small-plates list, trying ox-tongue sliders ($3 each) and house-made pickles ($4), plus dishes of lightly blistered shishito peppers ($6), a bowl of marinated Texas okra with tomatoes and walnuts ($7), a bowl of purple hull peas and arugula dressed with a soft-poached egg ($8), a basket of tempura-battered crispy green beans with sambol aioli ($6), and Contigo's ranch-inspired take on hot wings: fried quail legs ($8 for eight) with a fiery sauce and good bleu cheese dressing. We chatted and noshed over this summer garden banquet, marveling at Wiseheart's light, deft touch that had coaxed such flavor from the vegetables while leaving their texture and vitality completely intact. Thin slices of pickled green tomatoes are the perfect foil for the richness of the crisp slices of tongue on the sliders, and those tiny quail legs are destined to become a lip-smacking addiction.
Moving on to entrées, we chose a burger and fries ($10), a grilled cheese ($7; add bacon for $2), an order of the daily fresh sausage ($8), individual skillets of rabbit and dumplings ($13), and the evening's special, a porchetta sandwich ($13) made with Richardson Farms pork loin and pork belly. Pastry chef Kendall Melton's exemplary brioche buns and heavenly challah are excellent foundations for the hearty, filling burgers and sandwiches, though I'll question the pork preparation on the bacon that was added to the grilled cheese sandwich as well as the pork belly wrapping on the porchetta. I understand that breaking down whole hogs, utilizing everything from oink to tail, making sausages, and curing one's own bacon are points of pride for today's young chefs. However, it's my opinion that tough, thick little slabs of chewy pork belly are no match for thin slices of well-crisped bacon on a sandwich or burger, and the serious rendering of fat from pork belly is essential to making it truly palatable.
The star at the table that night was the marvelous rabbit and dumplings, a pastoral stew of tender shreds of rabbit meat bathed in a rich broth with toothsome carrots and cipollina onions, topped with homemade biscuits. I've made myself a mental note to order it again and again once the weather cools off.
Desserts at Contigo also reflect a classic, comforting simplicity. Melton whips up fascinating new flavors of ice cream ($3) frequently, offering a crunchy pistachio, a subtle Earl Grey with chocolate shards, and a lavender honey the night we dined. Each luscious bowl comes with a crunchy pine-nut cookie. You can also order two larger cookies warm from the oven with a glass of milk ($4), a kid-pleasing dessert if there ever was one. To celebrate my birthday, I ordered a slice of delicate chiffon cake ($4) elegantly dressed with sweetened Texas peaches – the perfect ending to a fresh, local summer meal.
I'm as sold on this new neighborhood jewel as any Mueller dweller, and I'm especially curious about how Contigo's menu and open-air seating arrangements might change through the seasons.
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