For a long time in Austin, vegetarian cooking, or at least the type found in restaurants, erred on the side of caution. This town may have been fertile breeding ground for the counterculture, but it was still largely fueled by chili con carne and thick slabs of brisket. Most folks imagined meatless plates as a thicket of sprouts and a few squares of tofu, certainly not something that could be filling. Convincing them otherwise required a whole lot of cheese.
There's still reverberations of that in the hearty fare of our oldest plant-based restaurant – Mother's Cafe & Garden. But diets have changed since that Hyde Park stalwart first opened. Veganism has become more common, various permutations of the Atkins diet remain in fashion, and food allergies are now as much of a badge of upward mobility as oversized bags. And although this era has brought about a rise in noxious meat substitutes, it has largely been for the better – the restrictions have forced plant-based chefs to be creative, pushing local vegetarian cuisine to new heights.
Citizen Eatery owners Michael Moyer and Aimee Waldon have cheese on their menu, but their Burnet Road eatery is very much contemporary vegetarian, offering a wide variety of entrées, bowls, and sides in a space that completely washes away all the Memorex chic of former occupants 416 Bar & Grille with whimsical paintings and architectural plantings. Sprouts and tofu still don't cut it, but neither do the beans or rice of old.
Veggie burgers – a collaboration with Spirited Food's chef Andrew Brooks (the creator of P. Terry's veggie burger) – are Citizen's raison d'être. The base for most is a smoky mixture of white beans, chickpeas, mushrooms, kale, and various grains that avoids the crumbly dryness all too epidemic in the category. There are also a couple of specialty burgers, a paleo version made with sweet potato, cauliflower, mushrooms, onions & toasted pecans and a chickpea & potato-based version spiced with curry. Barring any dietary considerations, though, it is difficult to beat the Homestyle Original – adding cheddar to the basic patty mix. Piled high with avocado, pickles, and a fried egg (all extra but worth it), it's a rejoinder to the notion that plant-based eating can't be decadent.
The entrées from chef Jason Sales are internationally inspired, including a slightly deconstructed Israeli shakshuka (the eggs are on top instead of poached in the tomato sauce) and an Asian-inspired parsnip pancake with barbecue soy shreds. The rustic massaman curry could use a little more assertive spice, but was comforting and paired well with the pile of nutty brown rice. The Bolognese sauce, served on squash noodles, was lighter than a traditional ragù, but the texturized vegetable crumbles gave it the correct bite.
But with so much finesse with flavor, we wish the sourcing was just a little more fresh. The addition of asparagus to avocado toast is interesting, but the wheat toast was obviously store bought. The power bowl was nicely dressed in a sprightly vinaigrette, but the chickpeas still had a sheen from the aquafaba in the can (a quick roast would have taken care of that). When we asked about the sweet ketchup, the server played coy. But the large can of Heinz near the door had the receipts. Vegetarian cuisine especially relies on the integrity of its ingredients. Although I understand margins make using all local cost-prohibitive for many eateries, it would have been nice to see more of the early summer bounty on the plate.
And the restaurant was also understaffed on both occasions. That was particularly unpleasant on a lunch visit where the same server was making involved (quite good btw) "smart spirits" like the spicy Gem & Bolt mezcal-based Diablo Rita and the befuddling "mystery whiskey" concoction of the day (surprise, it's an Old Fashioned!), that resulted in sluggish service and a missed order. It's hard to blame the restaurant for that, when even top restaurants are having staffing issues. But an apology would have gone a long way.
Still, with a little tightening of the ship, Citizen is just what Austin needs more of – vegetarian restaurants that serve the neighborhood and think beyond the basic comfort food that dominates the landscape. For now, I'm willing to grade on a curve.
The concept: Plant-based neighborhood eatery with international flair
What to eat: The Homestyle Original burger – Morningstar, it ain't
What to drink: The refreshing paloma, made with hibiscus-infused Dulce Vida
Best splurge: Nothing is over $12, so order another drink
Best time to go: A weekday dinner when it is more fully staffed
Expect to pay: $25-30 with a cocktail
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