The Austin Chronicle

Review: J.T. Youngblood’s

Fried chicken joint still a little green

Reviewed by Brandon Watson, June 16, 2017, Food

Some restaurants seem like riddles. When it was announced almost three years ago that chef Todd Duplechan of Lenoir, Jeffrey's co-founder Jeffrey Weinberger, and former TRIO GM Jeff Haber were rolling back the stone of the beloved J.T. Youngblood's Fried Chicken chain, the concept seemed like a sure bet, even as Austin hospitality was starting to bloat. The brand still held a special place in the hearts of Texans of a certain generation, and young Austinites never seem to tire of having nostalgia for the imaginary past. I was shocked that on the first week of opening, our group immediately found a seat.

But a lot of things have happened since then, not the least of which was a mini-implosion of Austin's hospitality scene. The competition for the dollar is higher than ever, and there are scarcely enough people to fill the thousands of front- and back-of-the-house positions that are needed. Even the restaurateurs most committed to a living wage aren't able to pay enough to ensure their staff starts off with the experience necessary for a seamless operation.

I suspect that that's what's going on at J.T. Youngblood's, an imperfect concept that has all the elements of success – affordability, family-friendliness in a growing affluent neighborhood. And it has fried chicken, which Austinites have lately brought back from the vault like some forgotten glam rock record. Good chicken at that – juicy whether cooked rotisserie over an oak fire or fried with a well-seasoned crust. But on five visits, I have never seen a crowd.

That's certainly not the fault of the environment. The interior design team did a good job of referencing the past without looking like a set-piece, reproducing historical ephemera such as pop art and scattering the room with period detail (bent wood, aluminum table edges, tufted banquette backs) that doesn't read as dusty thanks to a wood plank skin. The use of cheery, primary colors (mimicking the tri-color palette of the original's matchbooks and takeout boxes) gives the interior a sense of timelessness, which is especially important for a restaurant trying to have cross-generational appeal.

And the food should be crowd-pleasing even if it is clear that the line still has some things to figure out. This is a place that serves delicate yeast rolls with butter and honey, organic soft serve, and the greatest hits of Texas pie making – all things that tend to defy criticism. And the sides – the sort you would find at a meat and three, some with slight variations to tradition – are made with ingredients that should satisfy most helicopter parents (the inexpensive draft cocktails should calm their nerves).

Mashed potatoes, whipped with buttermilk and served with a velveteen gravy, are a gussied up version of fast food spuds. The vibrant potato salad is a revival from another bemoaned restaurant, Dallas' Solly's Barbecue, where Duplechan worked as a teenager. The white mac & cheese is a sophisticated take with a butter cracker crumb and a hint of rosemary, but a classic version with sharp cheddar might have served the populist tendencies of the restaurant better. Order the smoked butter beans instead, a sharp rejoinder to the notion that all Southern vegetables should be reduced to mush.

Unfortunately, consistency is an issue. I ordered the mac three times; the spirals were only cooked to the desired al dente once. On one visit, I had Cholula ready to spice up the previously bland Hoppin' John, only to find it unnecessary. The service is just as confusing. I've experienced counter service, full service, and a baffling combination of the two over my visits.

Normally, such missteps would discourage me from giving repeat business, but I keep going back for quick lunches. The difference is that Youngblood's seems quick to correct their errors, and to meet customer expectations where they have not. That shows a lack of ego that is far too rare in Austin's hospitality scene. For now that – and the damn good fried chicken – are enough.

At a Glance

The concept: The rebirth of a Waco-based fried chicken chain that used to dominate the state

What to eat: The two-piece with a side of smoky butter beans and a chess pie for dessert

What to drink: The surprisingly well-balanced draft Mr. Caldwell's Old Fashioned

Best splurge: The Tower of Power, 21 pieces of chicken that will create an instant picnic

Best time to go: 2-6pm, Tuesday-Friday for the happy hour featuring $4 cocktails and $5 snacks like fried bread and butter pickles

Expect to pay: $40 for two with two cocktails and shared pie

J.T. Youngblood’s

1905 Aldrich, 512/649-8333
Tue.-Sat., 11am-9pm; Sun., 11am-7pm

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