El Mercado South – Thumbs Up

We enjoyed our meal and are planning to go back soon. I also noticed during our visit to El Mercado that they have a great looking quick lunch menu. I was working nearby El Mercado tonight so I decided to have my wife meet me at El Mercado for dinner. The décor was great; the restaurant was bright, colorful with neat decorations.

We were a little disappointed in the music which was an 80’s mix rather than Hispanic or South American. However, we were fortunate to visit El Mercado on Sunday evening because the margaritas were on special for $3.50 and the dinning room was slow and quiet.

House Park BBQ

I highly recommend House Park BBQ. It is fast cheap and pretty good BBQ. We love a good Texas barbecue joint that is rich in tradition. House PARK BBQ is a total dive which is part of its appeal. It has been in the little shopping center on 12th and Lamar next door to Flora and Fauna and the Tavern for over 30 years. They are only open for lunch. During our visit we tried both the brisket and the sausage. Both were good, but the sausage in combination with their BBQ sauce is very special and we will be back for more. The lunch was also very affordable, which my wallet appreciates. Oh yeah, bring cash! House Park Bar-B-Que doesn’t accept anything else.

Taco Xpress Taqueria

This was our first trip to Taco Xpress since the big relocation with the pharmacy many years ago. We were very impressed with all of the changes and additional decor. I can see how this place is so Austin eclectic. The restaurant was very well decorated and it has a great feel to it. It’s like your walk into a taco joint in Key West Florida. Everything seemed to slow down a bit and we felt really relaxed. There were a couple of disappointments on our trip but nothing that should stop anyone from visiting Taco Xpress and bringing their friends from out of town for the experience.

Gueros South Congress (thumbs way way up)

Gueros has been one of our favorites for years. Everything on the menu is dependably excellent. Gueros is a great place to take a date, family or friends. There is seating outdoors, a private party area and a courtyard for parties and live music. Gueros also has really good Margaritas. There Margaritas may look puny in the little glass they are served in but they really pack a punch. The open kitchen atmosphere of Gueros makes the experience even better. You can smell all of the great food being prepared and if you sit at the taco bar you can even watch the food being prepared. Gueros must treat their employees pretty well because I usually see a lot of the same wait staff people every time I visit. The food is always delivered promptly and the wait staff is always very courteous and on top of their tables.

I recommend anything on Guero’s menu but my favorite must be the El Presedente. This is a huge dinner so be sure you’re hungry when you order this treat. I also love Guero’s Enchiladas with Salsa Fresca which is a sour cream and avocado sauce. But be sure to order dessert when you visit. Gueros has an ice cream and praline with a brandy sauce that is absolutely killer.

Steiner Ranch Steakhouse

5424 Steiner Ranch Blvd.
Austin, Texas 78732
Phone: (512) 381-0800
Website: www.steinersteakhouse.com
Hours: Sun. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Mon.-Thurs. 4-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 4-11 p.m.

Perched high upon a hilltop at the front of the Steiner Ranch neighborhood is Steiner Ranch Steakhouse. This spot is a multi-leveled eatery with a clubby ranch meets Austin modern feel.  The numerous, generous rock decks offer lots of room for musical performers and amazing vistas of the Hill Country and Lake Travis.

It would be simple to dismiss Steiner Ranch Steakhouse on the assumption that its patios and best-of-the-city views substitute for quality food.  But such an assumption would seriously underestimate the delicious meals being served out of Steiner Ranch Steakhouse’s kitchen.

We visited on a Sunday afternoon, greeted by a sunny patio that provided seriously stunning views of Lake Travis.  As we were seated, Drew Womack played guitar and sang favorites from the likes of James Taylor and Steve Miller Band.  We grabbed mimosas and checked out the menu.

One thing we noticed immediately and consistently throughout our meal was the impeccable, friendly service.   Every person we encountered from the hostesses to our waitress to employees merely acknowledging us in passing were extremely friendly and helpful, lending a welcoming charm.

We started off our meal with two appetizers–the Buffalo Quail Legs and the elk toronadas.  The toronadas featured tender grilled elk slices atop crispy Asiago cheese crostini with pico de gallo.  The elk was perfectly prepared, smoky and tender, and the creamy sauce and zesty pico were the perfect complement to the elk.

The Buffalo Quail Legs were also delicious. The sauce was a smoky mingling of barbecue and buffalo sauces, with hints of roasted garlic. The batter on the legs was so delicate as to almost appear grilled, and the smoky sauce was the perfect off the gaminess of the quail. The smoky-sweet sauce was further complemented by a stout, creamy gorgonzola dip. As we finished up our appetizers, we were treated to a multi-song performance by an operatic duo.

Our party also grabbed a couple of salads. The Caesar was fresh and crispy, with a salty anchovy resting atop and a tart, creamy dressing.

The wedge salad was scattered with tomato, green onions, applewood bacon, and Gorgonzola crumbles. The salad was finished with a creamy blue cheese dressing. Both salads were remarkably fresh and crispy and very large (definitely large enough to share).

We next sampled three entrees. First up was the chicken fried Denver elk. The elk was carefully tenderized, then lightly battered and fried. The elk was covered with a surprisingly light gravy with hints of red and black peppers. The elk was paired with a generous portion of skin-on mashed potatoes that were creamy and rustic. The plate was finished with asparagus, which was a bit on the undercooked side, but the elk and potatoes were so massive and delicious, that we did not miss the asparagus anyway.

One person in our group opted to sample the kabobs from the appetizer menu as an entree. The kabobs on our visit featured skin-on grilled mahi mahi medallions, paired with red bell pepper and onion slices, and mushrooms. The kabobs were grilled just to done, and dusted with zesty seasoning.

We grabbed one side for the table (which we really did not need, in light of the huge entree portions). We opted for the lobster mac and cheese (again, a surprisingly generous portion), which arrived bubbling in a skillet. The penne pasta soaked in a peppery cheese sauce, and was coated with ample amounts of grilled cheese atop the dish. Throughout the pasta were huge chunks of succulent lobster. This side was filling and large enough to serve as an entree in its own right, and was downright delicious.

Finally, we tried the Austin Ribeye, a 10 oz. cut that was prepared to a perfect medium rare. The Steiner Ranch ribeye was topped with an herbed butter with shallots and chives. The steak was seasoned with restraint, letting the meat stand on its own. The steak was paired with the same mashed potatoes and asparagus that came with the elk.

We left Steiner Ranch Steakhouse wondering why it had taken so long for us to seek out this spot. Between the amazing views, delicious food, and welcoming atmosphere, Steiner Ranch Steakhouse is the type of place you want to make your go-to special meal spot. We will definitely be returning.

Supper Friends

Austin is lucky to have a thriving foodie population, which offers lots of unique opportunities for new and surprising food experiences.  One of the more interesting hidden gems I have encountered lately has been the Supper Friends experience hosted by 2 Dine 4 Fine Catering.

Located on East Side near East 7th and Pleasant Valley Drive is 2 Dine 4 Fine Catering’s facilities, which include a beautifully renovated and totally charming bungalow called The Swoop House.  This spot plays host to 2 Dine 4 Fine’s Supper Friends experiences, multi-course meals designed by either the company’s own culinary team, or by guest chefs.  (An upcoming event on February 8, for instance, features Perla’s sous chef, Josh Venne).  The dinners are open to the public, with reservations available by phone at (512) 467-6600 or email at superfriends@2dine4.com.

We checked it out on a recent Friday night, and found ourselves pleasantly surprised by the beautiful setting, delicious food, and unexpectedly welcoming atmosphere.  We arrived at The Swoop House around 7 p.m. for appetizers and cocktails.  We were total strangers to the event, and did not know anyone else who was attending.

The Swoop House itself drips with warmth, thanks to lots of cozy lighting, beautiful wood, and charming appointments.  The bungalow includes a small bar with a handful of chairs as you enter, which shares a room with the first of three large tables for guests.  The tables, scattered between three rooms of The Swoop House, were decked out in white linens with charmingly mismatched white wooden chairs. Guests names await on place cards, as the catering team begins greeting them with trays of appetizers and a welcome cocktail.  (Be advised, though, that the rest of the evening is BYOB, so alcohol for dinner is up to guests).

The Supper Friends events evolved as a more interesting method for offering tastings to would-be customers of the catering team.  The team noticed that people enjoyed the tasting experience more where more people were sharing the experience, and the setting felt a little less rigid.  Thus, the Supper Friends events emerged as a way for potential catering customers to try out the meals for their upcoming events in a festive atmosphere, while also having the opportunity to see others experiencing the potential menu.

The night of our visit, a bride-and-groom-to-be were having a tasting of a Latin-inspired menu.  We sampled tasty items ranging from tangy sofrito nachos to an absolutely delicious pork carnitas tamale.  The dinner conversation was lively, and guests seemed truly excited and enthusiastic about the experience.  The chef and catering team did a great job of keeping guests informed about their offerings, and welcomed input about the quality of the meal.

The Supper Friends experience was one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable food experiences I have had in some time.  The menus and dates are announced by email on the Supper Friends mailing list, and are also available on the Supper Friends website.   The menu prices change, but generally run anywhere from $45-$75 for a multi-course meal. I highly recommend signing up for the mailing list, or checking out the menus online, and selecting one that tempts your palate.  I will definitely be checking out another Supper Friends event soon.

Bar Mirabeau

00 West 6th Street
Austin, Texas 78701
Phone: (512) 436-9633
Website: www.barmirabeau.com
Hours: Breakfast: Mon.-Fri. 7 a.m.-10:30 a.m.; Lunch: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Dinner: Mon.-Sun. 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Bar: Mon.-Wed. 4 p.m.-12 a.m., Thurs.-Fri. 4 p.m.-2 a.m.

A few years ago, when Restaurant Jezebel closed its doors after succumbing to a fire, many Austinites mourned the loss of the inventive, delicious dishes created by chef Parind Vora and his team. After forays into the East Side (with Braise) and casual tapas/wine bar (with Simplicity), Vora and his team are lodging a serious comeback with a revamped Restaurant Jezebel, as well as its more casual sibling, Bar Mirabeau (named for the second President of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau B. Lamar).

Bar Mirabeau, like the new incarnation of Jezebel, makes its home in the sleek new Cirrus Logic space on West 6th Street, just across from the Whole Foods flagship store. The space is equally sleek, modern, and loft-like, with a feel that is definitely more urban contemporary than the former Jezebel spot.   The focus at Bar Mirabeau is handcrafted–from breads, to gelatos, to lox.  We stopped by for brunch on a recent Sunday morning to taste what Bar Mirabeau had to offer.

We started out with the chilaquiles. Bar Mirabeau’s spin on this Tex-Mex favorite was a lovely dish served up in a stack reminiscent of pancakes, of house-made tortillas loaded with savory black beans and delicate goat cheese. The flavor was amped up with jalapenos, green onions, and roasted red peppers. The dish was finished off with a tangy tomatillo salsa verde.

Next up, we sampled the huevos rancheros enchiladas.  This dish included the usual fried eggs, but these huevos hid a spicy duo of cheese enchiladas.  This dish was much spicier than the chilaquiles, which I loved, but it could be too much for those who like to go easy on the heat.  The accompanying black beans and fresh pico de gallo were the perfect complement, and the roasted red pepper tomatillo sauce finished the dish off with a great, zesty kick.

Finally, we indulged our sweet tooth with an order of pumpkin pie pancakes–perfect for a cool fall morning.  This generous plate of fluffy pancakes truly captured the earthy spiciness that marks the best fall pumpkin dishes.  The accompanying pistachios offered a nice crunch, and the dollops of mascarpone cheese provided a touch of decadence.

In all, the meal was quite tasty, and the dishes looked fresh and lovely.  The service at Bar Mirabeau was polite and attentive.  The manager of the restaurant himself visited our table, asked after our meal, and handed out business cards with his contact information.  This spot will be a welcome addition to the still-sparse dining options on this leg of West 6th.  I am eager to visit again to sample the evening wares.  If the brunch was any indication, lovers of the old Jezebel have much to look forward to at these new spaces

Spin Modern thai

4005 N. U.S. Hwy. 183, Suite 1000
Austin, TX 78717
Phone: (512) 258-1365
Website: spinmodernthai.com
Hours: Lunch: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Dinner: Sun.-Thurs. 5-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-10 p.m.

Austin’s Asian fusion scene has received abundant, well-deserved accolades.  But, when you think of inspired, beautifully crafted and plated Asian fusion, chances are, you are not thinking of a strip-mall location far north on Hwy. 183.  Well, I am telling you now, it’s time to recalibrate your mind set, because there is a new kid on the block that is offering up some beautiful, exotic, complex tastes that belie its unassuming location.

SPIN Modern Thai Cuisine is a bustling spot near Lakeline Mall on Hwy. 183.  Despite the suburban locale, the restaurant offers a very downtown feel, but with remarkably reasonable prices.  The dishes at SPIN are creative, unexpected, and made for sharing.  But be forewarned… you won’t find your run-of-the-mill Pad Thai at SPIN.  Instead, expect striking tastes, uncommon flavor combinations, and dishes that would have much larger price tags at many other spots around town.

The best way to  experience SPIN is with an adventurous group, letting everybody pick dishes to share family style.  The menu at SPIN regularly changes, and the kitchen regularly whips up daily specials based on availability and season.

First up, we sampled the Gai Tot Nuggets.  These crunchy, tangy bites married fried chicken with a spicy salted soy and ginger vinaigrette.  The nuggets were finished off with sesame seeds and fresh cilantro.  This dish was tender yet crispy, and the perfect mix of sour and sweetness.  We ended up ordering a second order because we polished them off so quickly.

We also tried the Baby Octopus Yaang.  This dish featured chargrilled baby octopus, which managed to be surprisingly tender.  The chewiness of the octopus was offset by crunch, julienned green apples and sliced cipollini onions and shallots.  The plate offered a zest of freshness from baby spinach, mint, and fresh cilantro.  A tangy tamarind sauce finished things off with a touch of heat.

Next up, we sampled the Panang Curry Fettuccine.  This dish was dramatic, hearty, and delicious.  Of all of the dishes we sampled, it was easily the spiciest.  Despite being designated as only 1 pepper on SPIN’s heat scale (suggesting it was on the milder side of their spicy dishes), some in our group were surprised by the punch of the heat in this dish.  If you like spicy dishes, however, this dish will hit the spot.  The Panang Curry features a coconut-milk based curry over buttered pasta with tender cubes of stewed sirloin.  The heat from the dish comes from serrano peppers.  The dish is completed with fresh Thai basil.  I absolutely loved this dish.

The star of our dinner at SPIN, though, was the Pad Cha Soft Shell Crab.  First, the presentation of this dish is beautiful.  The colors are vivid, the textures are unexpected, and the plating simply feels adventurous and exotic.  This dish takes fried soft shell crab, and kicks up the fire with Thai chili, basil, and very potent green peppercorns generously draping the dish.  The tangy sauce and fresh cilantro finish the dish.  The Pad Cha dish was unusual, complex, beautiful, and very tasty.  We have ordered it every time we have gone back since our first trip.

Make sure you leave room for dessert on your trip to SPIN.  Depending on your order, your mouth might welcome a bit of cool by the end of the meal.  On our visit, SPIN’s menu included two dessert options, both of which provided a nice, refreshing palate finisher after the melange of flavors during the savory portion of the meal.

First up, we sampled the fried ice cream.  SPIN’s version features ice cream surrounded by pound cake and tempura batter that is deep fried.  Crush peanut toffee and toasted marshmallows topped off this dessert.

Even more delicious was the Coconut Panna Cotta.  This dessert provided the perfect cooling and refreshing end to our spicy SPIN meal with cooling coconut milk panna cotta, a soothing ginger consomme gel, and mint.  Preserved lemon provided a zip of tartness, and candied pecans offered a salty crunch.  A caramel tuile offered a crispy finishing touch.

SPIN is the kind of place you want to visit again and again because the food is exciting, unexpected, and truly delicious.  Despite its location, SPIN easily feels like one of the more groundbreaking, experimental kitchens in the city, and offers up food with price tags that are a fraction of what the plating, creativity, and tastes suggest.  It’s worth a drive up Hwy. 183 to check out this inventive, tasty spot.