Restaurant Review: Restaurant Review

El Chile collaborates with a well-seasoned chef

El Alma Cafe y Cantina

1025 Barton Springs Rd., 512/609-8923,
Mon., 11am-9pm; Tue.-Thu., 11am-10pm; Fri., 11am-11pm; Sat., 10am-11pm; Sun., 10am-9pm
Restaurant Review
Photo by John Anderson

El Alma Cafe y Cantina

1025 Barton Springs Rd. 609-8923
Sunday-Monday, 11am-9pm; Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-10pm
Happy hour: Monday-Friday, 3-7pm; Saturday-Sunday, 3-6pm

The two corner buildings on the south side of the intersection at Barton Springs Road and Dawson have housed various restaurants, bars, and businesses since the Eighties, although nothing has really flourished long-term at either location. The steep lot on the southwest corner is perpetually for sale and seems to defy development, but the small, flat-roofed building just across Dawson has a new tenant that could finally redeem it. Carlos Rivero's restaurant group tried both its El Chilito and El Chile Cafe concepts in the spot before creating a completely new restaurant called El Alma Cafe y Cantina, with accomplished local chef Alma Alcocer-Thomas as executive chef and partner. Now that I've tried El Alma for lunch, brunch, happy hour, and dinner, I predict it won't be a well-kept secret much longer.

Chef Alma Alcocer-Thomas of El Alma Cafe y Cantina
Chef Alma Alcocer-Thomas of El Alma Cafe y Cantina (Photo by John Anderson)

El Alma resides in a small, comfortable space with bright Mexican folk art on the walls. The interior staircase that leads to the lovely rooftop patio bar is set against a rock facade with a waterfall and tropical plants. Now that the hot weather has finally subsided, El Alma's rooftop patio with its breathtaking view of the Downtown skyline is likely to become a popular happy hour relaxation destination. Alcocer-Thomas describes the cuisine as her interpretation of the fun and casual Mexico City food that she grew up eating. I've found her menu to be approachable, affordable, and, for the most part, really delicious.

On our first lunch visit, my guest and I sampled the guacamole al chipotle ($8.95), a tangy mixture of avocado, lime, cilantro, and tomatoes surrounded by a smoky chipotle crema and topped with crunchy sunflower seeds. Served with house-made tostadas, it's a very tasty version of the classic appetizer. My friend chose a taco plate ($7.95), any two tacos with fillings from a list including pork or shrimp al pastor, pollo asado, veggies, fish, or carne asada, served with rice and beans. I opted for the camaron relleno ($12.95), a beautiful roasted poblano pepper stuffed with shrimp, corn, and mushrooms and paired with a delicate round of corn pudding in a bright-red pool of smoky chipotle-tomato sauce. The shrimp and vegetables were cooked perfectly, and their mild sweetness complemented the more assertive flavors of the poblano and spicy sauce. Our only disappointment during this meal came with dessert. We tried the Mexican chocolate-pecan cake with ice cream ($6.95) and the tequila-lemon-cream cake ($5.95) and found the textures of both to be crumbly and unappealing. The coconut-lime flan ($5.95), on the other hand, was a velvety, smooth delight.

A recent brunch visit revealed more dishes worth recommending. The Huevos Fran­ceses ($8.95) are perfectly poached eggs and spinach nestled on top of the delicious house corn pudding, napped with a mild chipotle hollandaise. The huevos revuel­tos ($8.95) are El Alma's take on migas, with scrambled eggs, chorizo, sautéed mushrooms, cheese, and crispy tortilla bits dressed in a tangy tomatillo salsa and paired with crispy slices of skin-on potatoes. In addition to egg dishes, the brunch menu offers several à la carte choices (bacon, steak, potatoes, fruit cups) that can be added to plates, as well as breakfast tacos and drink specials (Mimosa Feliz, $3; Bloody Maria, $4; Michelada del D.F., $5). With food this good and prices this reasonable, why this place isn't packed during brunch is a mystery to me.

Returning for a happy hour that progressed into dinner, my girlfriends and I stuffed ourselves on tostaditas al pastor with pineapple ($7.95), the guacamole al chipotle, and the Shrimp Chelada ($9.95) – and we were delighted to discover they were all half-price during happy hour. The tostaditas are crunchy little rounds of corn tortillas topped with toothsome house pork al pastor, melted jack cheese, and a sprinkling of pico de gallo served on a platter with crisp vegetables (carrots, onions, cauliflower, and green beans) pickled in escabeche as an edible centerpiece. The menu description of the Shrimp Che­la­da was a little misleading – I was expecting shrimp that had been prepared in a chile-beer marinade, but instead, our server poured the spicy shot of a Michelada over the poached shrimp once they were on the table. This presentation drowned the shrimp in a messy puddle of beer with a very strong flavor that didn't exactly appeal to everyone at our table.

Once our entrées arrived, the small glitch with one appetizer immediately faded from our memories. The chuleta de puerco ($15.95), codorniz con mole ($15.95), and duck relleno ($13.95) all came with picture-perfect plate presentations and delectable flavors to match. The Coke-marinated pork chop in a pool of sauce made with the Coke marinade and pasilla chiles was truly marvelous – moist and flavorful. The two lovely quails were nestled against a pile of bright, refreshing slaw and white rice, which provided a great balance to the dark, earthy mole sauce, though we speculated that perhaps the quails were rendered so salty by a brining liquid. The vivid forest green of a whole roasted poblano stuffed with tender, shredded duck meat mixed with nuts and raisins was a stark contrast to the bright-red chipotle-tomato sauce under the chile relleno. The flavors complemented each other well, and the dish was as delicious as it was beautiful. We finished the meal sharing orders of strawberry empanadas with mango ice cream ($6.95) and ice cream, cajeta, and cookies ($6.95). The fruit filling in the warm, flaky empanadas was not overly sweet, making it the perfect foil for the silken mango ice cream, and the bowl of vanilla ice cream with cajeta and cinnamon-sugar cookies was pure childhood delight. I've now identified my two favorite desserts here. El Alma has definitely earned a regular spot in my Interior Mexican restaurant rotation; I suggest you add it to yours.

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El Alma Cafe y Cantina, Alma Alcocer-Thomas, Carlos Rivero, El Chile, El Chilito, Interior Mexican

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