It almost feels unfair to review Cluck-N-Burger's new brick-and-mortar location at this early moment. After opening quietly in September, the food truck-turned-restaurant has been steadily working out the kinks in operations while word of mouth has slowly spread in nearby neighborhoods.
But maybe an earlyish visit is warranted, especially since the space at 5111 Airport Boulevard has proven challenging for some restaurants, despite the corridor's slow-growing restaurant row. From chicken to chicken we go – the space housed no one's favorite, Kentucky Fried Chicken, until the late but still beloved House Pizzeria completely renovated the fast-food joint and opened in 2009, specializing in Neapolitan-style pies, a solid beer list and neighborhood vibe, and those wood-fired olives. In May 2018, Barfly's owners opened what could've been the natural next iteration with Turntable Eatery, a pizza spot with a jukebox, if it weren't for that pesky Home Slice on North Loop showing everyone who's boss. Turntable could never quite compete and shuttered in late July 2019, making Cluck-N-Burger's early fall opening all the more impressive.
Chef/owner Aaron Esserman is no stranger to the food truck business, serving as chef for the now-defunct nonprofit gourmet grilled cheese truck Melted in 2016. He and his wife then opened the Cluck-N-Burger food truck in early 2018 and won $10,000 at the Trucklandia food truck fest later that year. Esserman is also no stranger to the restaurant business, having run kitchens in Florida and Colorado before coming to Austin. As such, he may just have the perfect confluence of skills and experience to translate Cluck-N-Burger the Food Truck into Cluck-N-Burger the Restaurant.
The offerings here are interesting and creative and reflect a bold approach to casual American food. Among the snacks and sides we tried, the Weird Guac stood out: a very lime-forward guacamole stuffed with corn kernels and brunoise apples, topped with a generous portion of pickled red onions, and served with a giant bowl of house-made potato chips. The chicken corn dog was also a favorite – a whopper of a side dish of State Fair proportions, it made for an excellent main for our tween daughter. The sausage was enveloped in a thick, nostalgic cornmeal batter that evoked Granny's cornbread, but on a stick. (I recommend cutting the corn dog off the skewers, which have pointy ends that can result in a nasty, painful surprise.)
Among the bombshells on the menu was the Broken Wedge salad. Esserman clearly has access to some magic that makes iceberg lettuce palatable. This is probably half of a large head of iceberg, topped with super powerful Shropshire bleu cheese, marinated tomatoes, and a soft-boiled egg, along with an overly generous mound of pickled red onion (I held the chicken-skin chicharron). People like to hate on the wedge salad, but this is an exemplar of a wedge done right.
Moving on to the "Cluck" portion of the menu, the wings had all the elements you want in Buffalo wings in that they were plump and juicy and the skin was crispy, but the sauce was underwhelming – so much so that my husband thought it had been left off.
Burgers are well-represented here, with a variety of beef and chicken combinations available. My husband chose the 7 AM, a bacon and egg cheeseburger on a brioche bun. The 5-ounce patty ended up being just the right size, completing a balanced interplay of egg, bacon, cheese, and beef. I opted for the Woody, a vegetarian patty composed of sweet potatoes, beets, and brown rice. The exterior was crisp and the flavor was fine, if a little bland, but the interior was mushy. It's difficult to find the right textural balance with a veggie burger, and this one didn't quite get there. I did love the excellent, buttery-crisp, griddled Slow Dough brioche, though, and the mounds of arugula and tomato served with it were bright and fresh.
Indeed, there's a relative dearth of vegetarian options at Cluck-N-Burger (vegans are pretty much out of luck, unless you're cool with guacamole as a main with a pickle plate on the side). That's probably to be expected at a restaurant that evokes animal products in its name, but there are lots of meat-centric restaurants in this town that are inclusive of this relatively mainstream dietary preference (in Austin, anyway) without relegating diners to one veggie burger or a couple of sides or a heavily modified salad. Maybe it's a quibble, maybe not, but if I'm making the call on where to have dinner when we go out, I'm always going to choose the place that has a wide variety of vegetarian/vegan options available.
The dessert selection here is rather small, and is the least impressive portion of the menu. We tried the gargantuan Not a Little Debbie cupcake, which, had it been served at room temperature, probably would have been a gut-bustingly perfect end to a satisfying meal. Instead, we made a few effortful attempts to cut through the frozen ganache and cold cake, then gave up. Similarly, the cookies-and-cream milkshake was runny and was made with chocolate chip cookie dough instead of the standard Oreo-style cookie associated with "cookies and cream."
Service, while pleasant and friendly, hasn't quite jelled, and the space could be used more effectively and could feel a little cozier by adding more booths and creating a more intimate feel. (We did get a kick out of the inspirational messages over the toilets – "You've Got This!" and "She believed she could, and she did.")
Sometimes it's hard to take the food truck out of the restaurant. Cluck-N-Burger, as it transitions into a brick-and-mortar, has a food-truck-with-walls vibe. And there's nothing wrong with that; it's just a matter of adjusting your expectations accordingly.
Copyright © 2022 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.