Saturday, January 7, 2012

Elizabeth Street Cafe

When Bouldin Creek Cafe announced last year they were moving a few blocks south, I wondered what would become of their old home (it's actually the house that my friend's grandparents used to own many years ago) at the corner of South First and Elizabeth. I was excited when I heard it would become Elizabeth Street Cafe, an upscale Vietnamese boulangerie, brought to us by the folks from Lambert's and Perla's. And then even more excited when I heard rumors (and I think they have been substantiated -- renovations and parking lot paving are underway) that the long-vacant building on the north side of Elizabeth would become a Thai spot, from the La Condesa people. ESC opened about two weeks ago, and I was giddy with excitement -- as were my three companions! -- to go eat dinner there on Friday night. We were not disappointed!
I had heard good things and long waits at ESC through the foodie rumor mill. I anticipated a lengthy wait on a Friday, and was almost shocked when the hostess said it would (only) be about 30 minutes. Fortunately, it was a beautiful, warm January night, so sitting on the front patio to wait with a cocktail was no issue at all. We had the champagne punch, which comes in a large beaker with a strainer and stirring spoon; it's comprised of champagne, Lillet Blanc Passion Fruit, some lime, grapefruit and bitters, and had strawberries and blueberries in it. It needed a good stir to get the passion fruit flavor, but once I found that, I was happy. 
We had remarked on how nice it would be to eat outside for our dinner, as we noticed tables on the north side as we waited. Lo and behold, that's where we were seated! About six small round tables dot the patio. A little tight for a table of four, but we're a cozy bunch, and had planned on sharing items anyway. Starting with a few apps, we had the #16 Niman Ranch Pork Belly Steamed Buns. I promise, there was some very tasty pork under all that cilantro! The bun part was a little doughy, and I can tell now from the picture, they are a little uneven in thicknesses; pretty sure I had the thicker one on the right.
Followed by the #10C Ginger Marinated Tofu with Radish, Thai Basil, and Serrano. These could have used more "oomph" to use a technical term. However, the dipping sauces are killer! Peanut (heavy on the coconut milk) on the right, sweet chili vinegar the clear one, and ginger-jalapeno the green. The green one I think may have some avocado in it, because it's very was hard for all of us to resist not licking the little bowl!
And the #27 Kaffir Lime Fried Chicken Bahn Mi. Loved the presentation on the newspaper! To start with, this the most perfect baguette for this sandwich, and they make them in-house. It's got a nice crust to it, but it doesn't tear up the roof of your mouth, nor is it too thick. The chicken was nicely fried, but I thought it lacked in kaffir flavor. Would I eat it again though? Yes.
We then got the #31C Pork Belly, Pork Meatballs, and Soft Boiled Egg bowl of Pho, done in pork broth, of course. We had been smelling the pho as it had been delivered to other tables, and it was really tasty. It has a fairly strong scent of Chinese five spice powder, or at least the star anise, but the flavor of it is not over powering. There were a few slices of pork belly, which was nice, but what was totally amazing was the meatball -- so tender and flavorful. (They actually do a bahn mi with the meat balls....hmmmm....) I have some runny yolk issues, so my friends split the soft boiled egg in their bowls, and they said it really made it even more amazing, so next time, I will have to try it!
And the #40 Grilled McAllen Ranch Flank Steak Bun (noodle) bowl (pronounced boone) -- look at those vibrant colors! There was a small bowl of nuoc cham (seasoned fish sauce) that we poured over, but next time, I would ask for an extra bowl of it. The meat was a little salty (and you know, I LIKE salt!), and a little bit on the tough side, but it was cooked beautifully, and had good flavor, once you got past the saltiness. I just think the dish in general needed a bit more contrast from the fish sauce. Now, each table does come with a tray of condiments -- chile paste, sambal soy, hoisin,and  fish sauce, so you can do some doctoring on your own.
Though we were ALMOST at our tipping point, there was just a little room left for Puffed Rice Profiteroles, with Vietnamese Coffee, Dark Chocolate, Creme Anglaise, and Candied Hazelnuts. Hell yeah! These were perfect, and when split amongst four people, it's just right.
Our server Kathleen was great. Very open with the suggestions, but totally understanding when our pregnant lady didn't show as much enthusiasm for the recommended octopus dishes (#18 grilled octopus salad and #48 octopus bun -- apparently the octopi is very nice and tender) or the bahn mi with pate. All the waitresses were in cute retro-ish print dresses. And what I will assume is a Vietnamese rice basket for a trashcan in the women's room, along with some Asian prints and an orchid on the counter to round out the Asian feel.

We also had one more round of punch cocktails, the Sake and Plum Wine Punch, which was maybe a little more cucumber than I was expecting. But all told, four people had Friday night dinner and drinks for $108 before tip. That's $27 each, and I really don't think that's at all unreasonable. We didn't leave feeling hungry, but Gourdough's and Izzoz's are in the lot next door if anyone was.

And then we walked back to my house, a mere five blocks away from Elizabeth Street Cafe. Very excited for such a great addition to the Bouldin 'hood! Oh, and they're open for breakfast!


  1. A visit soon after ESC opened was one of the greatest disappointments imaginable, since I had also looked forward to the reputation of Lamberts and Perlas being replicated. It was not. Food was lukewarm, bland or salty (pick one), portions were small and prices were unimaginably high for what was delivered.

    So I chalked that up to "recently opened" issues and decided to try again in mid-summer. I figured the chef and staff would have worked out the kinks. But they haven't. Then why the crowds? Location, location, location. Yes, South Austin is cool. Yes, SoFi is up and coming. Yes, you can "see and be seen here" but your reputation becomes that of someone willing to spend too much money to "see and be seen" rather than paying a fair price for quality food. I don't think the chef OR staff have read any of the reviews posted online that suggested ways to improve their fare. I guess the attitude is "I'm in charge and this is the way we make it." So MY attitude becomes "no, I'm in charge, and your food is lackluster and prices too high, so I won't be going here again!" ---and I WANTED this to be a successful place!

    Still lukewarm and tasteless pho. Still small banh mi with skimpy ingredients at twice the price of other places. It isn't that this is "Americanized" Viet food. It's just BAD food for which you pay too much. There is better, cheaper fare at 888 on Oltorf, which isn't saying much. Lulu B's is in a trailer and makes a better, bigger, cheaper banh mi. Or spend your money on the drive to North Austin.

    If you want to go out in SoFi and flaunt your real or imagined wealth while clearly communicating to everyone that you don't know good food from ordinary food, make this place one of your stops. But if you are IN to good food (and you aren't trying to show you can afford any price), skip ESC.

    1. Thanks, Anonymous for your opinions. I have been back several times, and have not had a bad meal. Is it the best food I've ever eaten? No. Is it overpriced when there are other "cheaper" options? Sure. But they are using locally sourced meats, and in general, high quality ingredients. Yeah, it's Americanized, but I don't think they ever labeled themselves as "100% authentic Vietnamese." I had this same conversation with someone on Facebook recently who didn't care for them. I am happy for ESC and their success, and it does the neighborhood good.