Friday, December 18, 2009

Buenos Aries Cafe

As the saying goes, you can't judge a book by its cover, and that would certainly be true of the Buenos Aries Cafe on S. First Street, just south of Oltorf. For four years, this little Argentinian gem has operated out of a fairly non-descript cinder block-ish building between a pawn shop and liquor store. But from the moment you walk in, its intimate setting and smells from the kitchen immediately let you know it's gonna be all okay.

The place only seats about 30 inside; there is some seating on the front patio, and fortunately, they have some heaters going. My two companions and I arrived a little past 7:30 on a weekday night, and there were only two tables available, and fortunately, one was a four-top. We were seated, and began perusing the menu. It's been a year maybe since my last visit (Why has it been so long since I've been there?? it's only down the street from my house!), and I have a warm place in my heart (and stomach) for the Pastel de Papas (shepard's pie), and have tasted some of tender pillows from the magnificent Gnocchi Quartet. But then the Milanesa a la Napolitana was sounding tempting as well. What do to? After perusing the menu, one of the two waiters came over and asked if we had heard about the evening's specials. We hadn't. One was an osso buco and the other a surf & turf. After a little more agonizing, all three of us made some decisions.

We started with two of the empanadas, the carne picante (spicy beef) and pollo (chicken). To me the dough on their little pockets of goodness is quite good, as it's a nice flaky pie dough-type recipe. There have been some other places in town over the years that serve empanadas, but to me their dough has always been like a tasteless cardboard. These are baked to a nice golden brown, and again have a nice flakiness about them. The beef was quite good, little bit of kick to it; the chicken didn't do as much for me, but it could also be because as we split them, I cut each one into three pieces, and since I took an end piece, it didn't have much filling in it. I would be tempted to try it again though, but I can certainly vouch for the beef!
After much deliberation on my part, I decided on the osso buco special, and my companions both got the surf & turf. Neither dish disappointed. My veal shanks were just how you want them to be: totally tender and falling off the bones. They prepared it with carrots, celery & onions in a tomato-based sauce, but the richness of the meat really shone through. Really just divine. The perfectly round ball of mashed potatoes struck me as sort of funny, given the sort of "floppiness" of the meat, but they were a fine accompaniment. My companions' steak was cooked to a perfect medium rare, and given they both cleaned their plates, I'd say they were happy too. The Argentinian red wine we picked, the Cava de Weinert Carrascal blend of Malbec, Merlot, and Cab, was a great wine for all of our dishes.
Feeling full, but not wanting to miss out on a dessert opportunity, we decided to share one, going for the Pionono, but it was sold out for the evening. We opted for the Panqueques, which I recall being scrumptious, and the little crepes stuffed with dulce de leche mousse did not disappoint either.
This past year, Buenos Aries Cafe has opened a second location in east Austin. Don't know if the building is any more aesthetically pleasing on the exterior, but surely one hopes the food is as memorable as it is in their original location.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ranch 616

Ranch 616 is kinda a guy's place. There are dead stuffed things on the wall (bison, something else with antlers), and the silverware is completely over-sized and heavy. Comfy leather booths, and various western-themed paraphernalia decorate the walls. But then there are the funky chandeliers, modern-retro light fixtures, and a plethora of glittery ball ornaments hanging from the ceiling. The women's room has a deer head mounted in one of the stalls, with rolls of toilet paper on it's multi-pointed rack. A longhorn steer head is mounted in there too, with tp on both of its horns. Very tongue in cheek. (Speaking of which, I sat directly under the bison head in the corner booth, and couldn't help but feel like I was going to get slobbered on all throughout my meal.)

When we arrived around 6:15 pm, I think there was one other table seated, and a few patrons at the bar. Our server was friendly and helpful throughout the night, but unfortunately, the food was not always up to par. I started with a $9 sangria, and while it did have a smidge of brandy and Paula's Texas Orange liquor in it, it wasn't exactly large or potent enough for what I consider a good $9 cocktail. All of the drinks seem to be on the pricey side.

For apps, we ordered the fried oysters (apparently one of their signature dishes) and calamari. Both come with a chipotle tartar sauce (I'd call it aioli) and a green goddess dressing. The calamari was thicker sliced tubes, but no tentacles that I could tell, but fried well. The oysters though, were a bit on the soggy side, like perhaps they'd been sitting around a bit. And they needed salt.

There were a number of dishes on the nightly specials list. The most intriguing was Lamb Three Ways, which I opted to split with a friend. Two of each Australian lamb chops, in three different styles, a rosemary grilled, a tamarind glazed, and a chicken fried, on "fresh mint mashed and roasted fingerling potatoes, with demi-glace, and sauteed green beans." We asked for the chops to be medium-rare. What came was a huge disappointment. Only the 2 chicken fried were tender and approaching medium rare. The other 4 were well done, and a bit tough. Furthermore, there was not a hint of tamarind to be tasted, nor mint in the potatoes. The rosemary one was fine, but again, over cooked. The demi-glace was rather tasty, but when 2 people split a plate (which we had told the waiter up front), it would have been nice to bring the plates out already split, because someone (in this case, me) is going to miss out on the demi, as it's not really something you can spoon onto your share. I did dip one chop into it as my companion raved about it, but certainly didn't get to experience enough of it. Not sure I understand the description of the potatoes; there were no roasted fingerlings on our plate, so were the potatoes first roasted THEN mashed? But that's not how the menu description read. At least the green beans weren't overcooked....

Two diners had the Tenderloin 616, which they both proclaimed to be fabulous, and another had the Jalapeno Maize Trout, in which the skin was left on, then the fish was breaded & cooked. The skin made it a bit unappealing, and slightly hard to remove from under all the tortilla chips it was crusted with.

We discussed it, and ultimately did tell the waiter about the lamb issues when he came by to pick up our plates. In retrospect, I wish we had told him sooner, and had the plate redone, but we were a group of 6 and had such a fun-filled evening, that it would have been a buzzkill all around. We had previously arranged for two of their dessert specials (Callebaut chocolate & banana fried pies with Amy's Mexican vanilla ice cream) to be brought with candles for a birthday surprise for one member of our party. They were tasty! The waiter told us at the end that he had spoken to the chef about the lamb, and they comped the desserts as an apology, which was gracious and appreciated.

It was a fun evening, with 5 dear friends and a lot of laughter. Our waiter was patient and helpful, but if the food isn't 1) what was advertised 2) prepared how you asked for it, and 3) really remarkable, what is my impetus for returning? The decor was worth it though!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Red's Porch

There's a new kid in town, one certainly worth paying a visit to.

You know the non-descript Citibank building on South Lamar, between Enterprise Rent a Car and Chris' Little Chicago hot dog trailer? The back side of the bank building used to be a State Farm Insurance training facility, but has been empty for quite some time. Red's Porch, named for the owner's red 1964 Lincoln convertible, has renovated the spot, giving it a great modern, yet retro feel, and added on a huge upstairs porch with great views of the greenbelt below. (You could actually see water running! I think our drought is over.)

I got an invitation to attend a tasting; there were a couple of dates and times, and I RSVPd and said I was bringing two guests. What I expected was a casual buffet-style tasting, with a bit of explanation about the dishes. What we got was a private tasting with two other people and the undivided attention from the owner, Davis Tucker, the man behind North by Northwest up by the Arboretum. All of the staff couldn't have been nicer, and while Davis gave us background info & stories on many of the dishes, he honestly wanted feedback on what we were trying. They consider their food "1/2 Tex Mex, 1/2 Cajun, 1/2 Southern" (that's a lot of halfs), or as Davis said "It's just food I really like to eat!" No harm in that! And so on the whole, I am happy to proclaim the food was great! Some of the mixed drinks missed their mark a little bit, but there's a ton of stuff on tap. What follows is the play by play of our tastings.

First, a miniature version of their Porch Rita, with Sauza Hornitos, Grand Marnier, oj and sweet & sour. Nice, not too sweet. Would certainly be good on a hot day. Blue cheese stuffed green olives and chili cheese fries followed. Olives were milder, with a great crust, and not greasy; served with marinara. The chili (no beans!) on the fries was tasty, a very dark brown color, with a bit of cumin taste, but not overpowering. On the menu, it said the fries are tossed in parmesan before getting the cheese & chili treatment; we didn't taste any parm, and asked Davis about it. He confirmed that they were not done with parm (though if you order fries from the sides menu, those are), and he would get it corrected for the final version of the menu. They are still undergoing some tweaking, and also because of that, they don't have the menu online yet. He said give them a week or two.
Round two was the South Austin Red Sangria, my favorite of the cocktails. It just goes down easy. Might be nice to offer a pitcher of sangria on the menu... just sayin'! The veggie enchiladas came with, a good blend of grilled zucchini, mushrooms, & onions with a spicy chile de arbol cream sauce, that I think would go well with a lot of things! Beans (refried or charro) and rice accompany all the Tex Mex dishes; they brought us the charro beans, and I have to say, they taste like what my grandmother in Las Cruces, NM (and subsequently my mom and aunts) used to make. The pintos are stewed with a ham hock (ooops, don't tell the vegetarians, hee hee!), and take on almost a creamy consistency. Davis said that's how he used to have them growing up in south Texas.
Next up was the Diablo -- Basil Hayden's bourbon (which I found out is small-batch bourbon made by the Jim Beam family), amaretto, cranberry juice, a splash of Maine Root Ginger Beer, and raspberries. I didn't get a ginger beer taste, and unfortunately, this one tasted like cough syrup to me. One of the men at our table who is a bourbon fan, commented "It's a girly touch to a man's drink." Sorry! The Smokey Goat burger though, was fantastic! Served on a sourdough bun, this nice fat burger had house-smoked bacon (the magic word!), tiny, crispy fried onions, and goat cheese. And served with fries. This was one of my favorites.
But, it's a toss up between the burger and the chicken fried ribeye. With bacon cream gravy (again, bacon!). The batter for this was crisp and flavorful, and fried perfectly. They come with a side of smashed potatoes, which have the lightest hint of horseradish. Apparently the same gravy is on their homemade biscuits too.... next time... (Sorry, the picture doesn't do it justice at all!)
Not that we weren't satiated already, but the last cocktail was the Eleanor Rigby, made with their own fig & vanilla infused Tito's vodka, Mathilde cassis, and oj. Davis said that Rigby's was a liquor store in London, and he's a fan of the Beatles, so it all fits as a cocktail name. The Tito's was very smooth, and very vanilla-y; didn't really pick up on the fig, and not sure I got the cassis flavor either. It kind of reminded me of sipping on an orange creamsicle. But, it did seem to go with the dessert course, which was one of everything on the menu! Kahlua pecan pie, peach cobbler, chocolate bread pudding, banana pudding, and.... fried Snickers. I could tell it was a premade pie shell, but surprisingly, it had a nice taste & flakiness you usually don't get with those. The Snickers are coated in a funnel cake batter, and could have been a touch crispier on the outside, but great semi-melted pieces of Snickers on the inside. Davis did say they are tweaking that one a bit.
Then, he took us on a tour out back and upstairs. There's a 27' silver trailer off the side patio, which is available for private functions. The patio is currently tented, and the back of it is where the trailer sits. Adjacent are the stairs to the upstairs porch, which is about 95% finished from the looks of it. By the time we went up, it was getting dark, and it had been windy all day, but you do get a great view to the west over the greenbelt. A full bar is available up there too, and they are going to put some sides up on the porch so it won't be so drafty.
Leaving around 6:45 pm, it was nice to see the place filling up, with families, happy hour folk, and other diners. They've made great use of the existing architecture; as it was an inspection garage for State Farm, they've kept (and no doubt updated) the garage doors, which in warmer times, can easily be thrown open, leading to the patio. One wall back in the lounge area is covered with slicks from old board games. The place may seat close to 300 when in full swing, but it doesn't feel vast, it's got a very comfortable feel. So combined with great food and an experienced owner, it should lead to good times in the neighborhood.