Restaurant Review: Counter Cafe East
Counter Cafe East gives a solid performance
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Feb. 27, 2015
When we visited the new Counter Cafe location during their soft opening back in November, owner Debbie Davis compared the kitchen workouts in each of her Austin diners to dance moves. Running the busy grill at the tiny original diner on Lamar is the result of a well-practiced two-step, she pointed out, while the bigger line at the new location requires a jitterbug to get food out to the customers. From that moment on, I began to see everything about the review experience as a season of Dancing With the Stars.
On our initial visit to the new Eastside outlet, I was very impressed with the venue – a large, very efficient cooking line sits open in a dining room defined by high ceilings, plenty of sunshine, and comfortable seating. It's snug, but not claustrophobic. The business looked good on the bright new stage, like costumed dancers in the early rounds figuring out footwork sequences to a different beat every day. When we'd returned more recently, the pros on the line were moving through their paces much more steadily. The longer ticket times, occasional cold plates, and product outages we experienced at first had evolved into more streamlined service, with food firing off the line efficiently and tables turning in a timely manner. Weekend days here are by far the busiest, and partner Doug Kissner described the situation on Valentine's Day as "controlled chaos." The last day we were there, a steady crowd was happy and the staff was on their game.
Counter Cafe is one of the few places in town where it's possible to get breakfast and lunch all day, every day. The small-ish list of eclectic diner fare is based on quality ingredients, many of which are sourced from local and national purveyors known for all-natural and organic products, listed right on the menu. If your day needs to start with a standard American breakfast, the cooks here will dish out big, sunny yellow, farm fresh eggs, nine-grain toast, crispy bacon or spicy sausage, creamy artisan grits, or big biscuits under a mantle of velvety sausage gravy in whatever format suits your fancy. I'm a fan of two eggs, over easy, with extra-crisp bacon, the cheesy grits, and a biscuit, though bigger breakfast appetites may gravitate toward a hanger steak ($16), a bone-in pork chop ($13), grilled quail ($13.50), or crab cakes ($14) with eggs, cottage potatoes, and a biscuit. At the judges' table, I'd have to say the somewhat heavy and flat-footed biscuits remind me of the lumbering, good-natured guys with limited musicality who get eliminated in the middle of the season, and the potatoes could do with a crisper execution and more seasoning, like the kicks and flicks that make a good jive come alive.
Where lunch is concerned, there are key elements that make several presentations stand out. The house version of pimento cheese ($8.50) features a stout, sharp Cheddar on rustic, nine-grain toast that's dressed with Bibb lettuce, tomatoes, and onions before being kissed by the grill. The Counter Burger ($13) is often included in a list of the best burgers in town, and they can steal the show here. It's no wonder, with a performance that includes the rich beefy flavor of the cooked-to-order grass-fed beef patty complemented by a sharp note of Cheddar with the counterpoint of a sweet sourdough bun. More deep fryer space on the new cooking line makes the polenta-crusted fried oysters ($15) the hottest rising star on the menu at Counter Cafe East. The plump, briny oysters play off the sweet corn crunch of artisan cornmeal, and they're embellished with a frilly costume of spring greens and two tasty dipping sauces. The oyster lover at our table gave them an enthusiastic 10. The only choreography misstep on our last visit involved a richly flavored cup of tomato Brie soup ($4) with the gloppy texture of cottage cheese rather than the smoothness of a Viennese waltz.
Because they've got more prep, refrigeration, and cooking space at this new building, the regular cast has more opportunity to experiment with special dishes. Be sure to check the blackboard for daily food and drink specials, such as the Cranberry Kiss ($5), a sparkling concoction of cranberry juice, hard cider, and a splash of orange juice that jazzed up Valentine's Day. The seasoned hospitality pros at Counter Cafe East may not have the kind of unique and creative dance moves that take home the mirror-ball trophy, but they are solid performers who know how to please the public, destined for a long career.
Counter Cafe East1914 E. Sixth, 512/531-9961
Sign up for the Chronicle Cooking newsletter
If you want to submit a recipe, send it to email@example.com