Restaurant Review: Holy Roller

The personal is edible at Callie Speer’s new hot spot

Holy Roller

509 Rio Grande, 512/502-5119,
Sun.-Thu., 10am-8pm; Fri.-Sat., 10am-10pm
Review: Holy Roller
Review: Holy Roller

When I first began reviewing restaurants for the Chronicle, some three years ago, I was frequently disheartened by how frequently our town's obsession with nostalgia killed innovation. We were then in the thick of a twee period in Austin food, covered with enough sprinkles for a ticker tape parade. It all seemed borrowed somehow, perfunctory and hollow.

Review: Holy Roller

Desserts were often the worst offender, even though Austin has always been blessed with more than our fair share of pastry talent. But that talent was beginning to be wasted on an assortment of Little Debbie redux that seemed to cater more to the eye than the palate. But Callie Speer's Popcorn and a Movie at Swift's Attic was something those other trifles were not. It was a callback, sure. But it was also simultaneously personal (she reportedly "ripped off" the idea from the popcorn sorbet made during husband Philip Speer's stint at Uchiko) and universal (the shared promise of romance) – redolent of how the best pop songs turn small moments into whole universes.

Review: Holy Roller

With Holy Roller, Speer has now gone punk. Or rather the punk spirit that has always been a hallmark of her unfussy, DIY approach now plays the main stage. That starts with an interior that references rebellion – the black leather jacket palette, tongue-in-cheek religious iconography, the blinking marquee from Club de Ville – without paying homage to, say, the restrooms at the old Emo's. (Lest you worry about abrasive hospitality, the front of house, led by general manager Sarah Bevil,  is decidedly not punk.)

Review: Holy Roller
Photos by John Anderson

The food follows suit by ignoring the more precious trends of a rapidly homogenizing Austin food scene. As one might imagine from Speer's CV (she has been the pastry chef at essential Austin restaurants ranging from Mars to Geraldine's), the pastry arts play a key role in both the savory and sweet sides of the menu. A good chunk of the menu is devoted to various types of sandwiches, led by an instant cult classic of a burger piled with shaved ham, hash browns, and a fried egg. The other offerings are just as decadent. Casbah rocks a honey-buttered biscuit, slathered in tangy comeback sauce and topped with fried chicken and a fried egg. Liberty Lunch reinterprets bánh mì by way of Wheatsville Co-op's popcorn tofu sandwich. Both assuredly mix seemingly discordant ingredients, and I would order them more often if not for the Grilled Cheesus – a monster Gouda, mozzarella, and cheddar sandwich that is both an exemplary example of the form while gently nudging it forward.

Those are joined by a selection of haute junk food. Trash fries, as messy as they sound, borrow from Mexican street corn and poutine – slathering thin fries in gravy, cotija, corn, and lime. An apple bun (Time Bomb) has a smattering of shaved ham that plays up the sweetness of the fruit. And the Waldorf salad is reimagined with arugula and grapefruit cream. There's a sense of humor in all the offerings. See the rotating struggle snacks – an interpolation of Bagel Bites imagined for kids whose parents shop at Central Market.

As the "Brunch so Hard" sign in the main dining room suggests, however, Holy Roller really hits its stride on Sundays. The restaurant offers brunch anytime, serving dishes like a queso-topped migas kolache and yellow cake pancakes crowned with various toppings (get the sriracha butter and fried chicken), but the Lord's Day offers the addition of Sunday School, a seven deadly sins-themed mini-menu of ever-changing pastries from pastry chef Britt Castro (her desserts, like a not too treacly version of a Choco Taco, are from the same thoughtfully nostalgic camp as Speer's).

And the drinks cement bar manager Jen Keyser as one of the most imaginative beverage professionals in town. Here, she and assistant bar manager Nicole Cruz get weird with a concise program that nods to everyone from the Ramones to patron saint Iggy Pop. Much-maligned Jägermeister becomes the unlikely base of the tiki-like The Heretic, Black Flag mixes whiskey with red wine and a balsamic reduction, and Lust for Life subverts two very popular ingredients – Tito's vodka and Ancho Verde – with tamarind soda. There's plenty for the nondrinker, too, with the herbal shrubs especially bringing everyone to the party.

And that party couldn't have come at a better time. The Austin restaurant scene feels like it is entering another low, fueled this time by the need to play it safe in an unsteady environment. The idea of a punk rock diner might seem alien in an Austin currently in a race to see how much counter space it can wrap in Carrara marble. By going against the grain, Speer has again shown us the way forward.

Holy Roller

509 Rio Grande, 512/502-5119
Daily 10am-10pm

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Callie Speer, Jen Keyser, Nicole Cruz, Sarah Bevil, Britt Castro

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