The Strip Club: Northgate Shopping Center

Getting bossed around by meat, and liking it

Lahmbiajin and more at Usta Kababgy – the ultimate Meat Boss (photos by John Anderson)

Welcome to The Strip Club, highlighting Austin’s destination strip malls. Where else can you have your eyebrows threaded while wiring money? Get halal Mexican food stuck in your new mouth grill? Gaze at a cool dictator over a warm pupusa?

I was warned: Northgate Shopping Center is a little sketch. My friend goes there to buy clothes for her costuming job and tries not to go alone. Rolling into the parking lot, I can see her point. The strip mall sign is half-full of long-lost businesses, there are several cars parked sideways across spots, and two down-and-out fellas are loitering behind some emergency vehicles lit up in front of the Action Pawn.

But rough edges aside, this place has exactly what I’m looking for: immigrant businesses supporting burgeoning immigrant communities, a setup that usually means affordable, delicious food.

Usta Kababgy, which loosely translates as “Meat Boss,” is a Turkish-ish restaurant, but it could probably be from anywhere in the Levant. I never find out exactly where, because when I query my friendly Algerian waitress, she refuses to dish about the owners. I try to charm her by speaking clumsy French, mais non.

She does, however, let fly that the other two people working her shift are Cuban and Mexican, which tracks, because there’s an ice cream counter by the register with flavors written in Spanish, and a section of the menu featuring what has to be Austin’s only selection of halal Mexican food.

A spicy michelada is Victorina’s House’s secret

Forgoing that section, I opt instead for the more adventurous lahmbiajin, or “meat with dough.” This one is less bready than others, and presents more as a floppy hamburger pizza, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s a Turkish delight of well-seasoned ground beef topped with parsley, red onion, and thin, long-sliced cucumber pickle.

Ready to get bossed around by meat, I dig into the “1 lb Mix,” a platter of grilled kofta, lamb tikka, and chicken tikka, served on a half-piece of flatbread with grilled tomato and onion. It’s the beast of the Middle East, and pairs exceptionally well with their impressive and economical veg platter, which is four pieces of falafel, hummus, baba ghanoush, dolma, roasted cauliflower, and salad served with a full piece of flatbread. It’s perfect, particularly the crunchy falafel balls and baba ghanoush.

The entire meal is served with three dipping sauces: garlic yogurt, tahini, and a green sauce that looks and tastes a lot like the verde salsa at Tacodeli, which, when paired with the bossy meat, evokes the Lebanese-immigrant origins of al pastor.

I love this place, but the beverage situation leaves something to be desired, as there is (understandably) no alcohol on the menu, and water comes in those hard-to-open, probably toxic, tiny, thin plastic bottles. On the upside, there are free self-serve tea bags (Earl Grey, but no mint?) and a kettle.

For dessert, I’m gifted a ma’amoul date cookie best described as a sandy Fig Newton, but an oasis appears in their spectacular honey-dripped baklava. Opa!

Next door at Dollar Fiesta – “Over 10,000 Items” – I’m greeted at the door by a small partitioned area with a barber’s chair and a sign reading “Diva Brows by Sita.” Threaded eyebrows ($10) will have to wait for another day, because this place is a bargain-basement junk shop for the ages, with enough plastic to blanket the Gulf of Mexico, alongside a particularly large selection of affordable kid’s-birthday-party supplies and a wire transfer service.

Pupuseria Usuluteca dishes out the people’s pupusas

Speaking of party supplies, I need a drink, and Victorina’s House delivers, because her micheladas have all the spicy salt. Heavy on the fútbol flex, her dolled-up waitresses cater to men, pushing this bar well into "breastaurant" territory, with a selection of typical bar food, but it's their full tequila and mezcal selection that ramps things up for the passable aguachile I devour at the bar. This place is a glorious hole in the wall where it seems like no one speaks English and everyone is wondering what the hell I'm doing here. Golazo!

SPORTSKINGDOM PLUS advertises everything from DVDs and scales to belts and cologne, but what shines is the glass case full of cubic zirconia grillz. I ask how they work, and the nice lady explains they come with a water-based mold that forms to your teeth. One is brass, has fangs, and the price is right, but I decide ingesting petrochemicals probably isn’t worth the ensuing joke, and opt instead for a Sanford and Son ballcap with Redd Foxx’s face stitched into it that says “YOU BIG DUMMY.” Lamont!

Hats at SPORTSKINGDOM PLUS (Photo by Taylor Holland)

After popping into La Michoacana Meat Market for some mole poblano fresco, a handful of Glorias, and a peek at their taqueria counter’s enticing caldo de res, I walk across the parking lot to see if the original El Tacorrido offers their remarkable taco de hongos, which I’m familiar with from their Riverside location – sublime when coupled with their addictive molcajete salsa. ¿Tiene? No.

Still hungry, I’m seated at Pupuseria Usuluteca under a portrait of El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele, who once called himself “the coolest dictator in the world.” Bukele, of Palestinian/Greek Orthodox descent, has become well-known for ridding his country of gangs at the expense of thousands of wrongly jailed civilians. But Salvadorans are reportedly happier now that they feel safe going out at night for pupusas, which come here in triplicate: bean and cheese, chicharrón, and cheese with loroco – a climbing vine native to El Salvador that produces an edible flower. Served with salsa and vinegary slaw, they are best in show here outside the hearty tamal de pollo, a beautiful old bird rivaled only by a Oaxacan abuela.

The mojarra frita, a whole fish advertised as “crispy outside, but tender and juicy inside,” was actually crispy outside and in, to the point of being fleshless and nearly inedible. Empanadas de plátano is a dessert that is a mix of plantain and leche poleada, a thick, mealy filling I could do without. Again, the beverage situation is lacking, as the melon agua fresca is made from a mix, there’s no alcohol, and the water is again, bottled, which leaves me wondering if there’s a water-quality issue at Northgate Shopping Center.

Like she said, it might be a little sketch, but so is the P. Terry’s at Sixth and Congress, so don’t let that stop you.

Northgate Shopping Center

9300 N. Lamar

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Usta Kababgy, Victorina’s House, Pupuseria Usuluteca

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