Thursday, February 14, 2013

El Alma Cafe

El Alma Cafe is the latest reincarnation of the corner spot at Dawson (South 5th) and Barton Springs Road. I've stopped counting how many different restaurants have opened in this spot, and I thought we finally had a winner with El Chile. Then, in summer 2011, it seemed somewhat abruptly El Chile announced they were turning the kitchen and hence menu over to Chef Alma Alcocer-Thomas, a veteran of places such as Jeffrey's and Fonda San Miguel. So El Chile morphed into El Alma. I was invited to an opening tasting, and I had drinks and apps last summer, but not a full meal.
It was a warmer February night so we took advantage of their great rooftop patio. El Alma has generous happy hours, from 3 - 7 pm on weeknights, and 3 - 6 pm on weekends; there are some drink specials, and the regular appetizers are half price. And while the pricing of the sangria and house margarita was good, neither were exceptional drinks; the sangria really didn't have any kick to it, and the margarita had too much -- all sweet and sour mix. (My sangria from last summer was certainly better!) Our friendly waitress told us of some evening specials, which turned out to be quite delicious!

There was a creamy mushroom soup special, with cauliflower and scallops, which we all thought was pretty killer! Great deep flavor from all those umami mushrooms, and just super creamy. Not sure what else was in it (almonds?), but all three of us agreed we'd eat it again in a heartbeat. 
The shrimp chelada from the regular menu was less successful, as the shrimp were "overcooked" by the lime juice (it's ceviche-style), and were tough and very salty.
The other appetizer special was gorditas with chorizo, potato, crema Mexicana, and topped with chicarrones. The flavors were really good, as the chorizo did not overpower the other items. The gordita shells were crispier than I have had them before, but it was a nice texture contrast with the other ingredients. They kind of filled me up for the time being though, and I knew I wanted to try more of their food.
I ended up ordering the Duck Enmoladas to go -- duck enchiladas with their mole sauce. Yes, I am on the quest to find the best mole in town! El Alma's was quite good, but I am still searching! ;) Theirs is made from pasilla chiles, almonds, and the waitress said they use ground animal crackers as the thickener! It had a nice sweetness, some chocolately notes, and some heat to it! I also loved the pickled onions that were on here as well as the shrimp chelad, and at $15, a reasonable price, given that it is duck.
The upstairs patio practically doubles their seating space, and I know from past experience it can get a bit loud in the main room. The colorful artwork gives a nice visual pop to the interior stonework. It's also a good spot if you're coming to an event at the Long Center or Palmer Auditorium, as they are right across the street. Go sit upstairs while the weather is nice and enjoy the views of downtown. And pay attention to the dishes on the daily specials, or you might just miss something quite tasty! It's nice to have a semi-upscale interior Mexican spot in the neighborhood.