Thursday, March 26, 2009
When faced with an unfamiliar city, especially at the end of a long day, I often find myself going back to places that I’ve been before, even if they were middling and tired to begin with. Familiarity tends to whitewash memory a bit. Case in point: Azio, downtown Atlanta.
I should have known something was amiss walking in. The formerly attractive little waiting area was worn and tired. Once cool oversized armchairs were rubbed dirty and threadbare, the walls dinged and gouged, the hardwood floor in need of a refinish. It was passable in the low light of the restaurant, but I think it would have been pretty jarring by the light of day. As I stood there waiting for someone to show me to a table, I had flickers of recollection of the two meals I’d had there before. They were a little scary. Had it been another 15 seconds I would have bolted, off to a happier meal.
The place itself is nicely arranged, if a little dated. Large murals depict Diego Rivera inspired agricultural scenes and iron railings spiral around the floor, elegantly separating the dining room from the kitchen from the bar. The architecture, coming in somewhere between Roman Grandeur and Italian Countryside, was pretty 4 years ago, and it’s pretty now. And the place was crowded and happy, which lends its own light and warmth.
The food? Neither pretty nor light nor even warm. The bruschetta was edible, but uninspired. Dollops of chopped tomatoes atop 4 triangles of sweet flat bread were the highpoint. Presentation of these around a mound of blah lettuce with a giant, tippy ramekin of balsamic goo was the low. The blur of my no-flash cell phone camera maybe makes this look worse than it was, but not much. Presentation means a lot. It suggests that someone views this thing they’re sending out as food, not as the order for table 12. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but it needs to be honest, and in proportion. This was none of those.
I was hungry though, and I dutifully dug through the salad and sipped my Sangiovese. The entrée was another step downhill. I ordered the Rigatoni Rustica. It seemed appropriate and safe, a simple easy country-inspired pasta dish. What came to me was a strange mountain of unpleasantness. Rigatoni: overcooked. Sausage: Tasteless and in vast, wretched quantities. Red Peppers: Cut into chunks as big as my palm. The list goes on, but I did not. After a handful of bites, I reached across for the bread basket, had another couple of focaccia cubes, and called it a night.
Friday, March 20, 2009
Update: Little Chicago is gone - Trailer before trailer was cool, we wish Chris the best in whatever he does next and hope it involves sausage. The best bet for a killer Chicago Dog in Austin is now Frank.
Chicago knows how to eat. Everything from Charlie Trotter’s wine list to Giordano’s Pizza is just a little bit over the top, just a little bit more than it has to be, and a whole lot of good eating.
Case in point: The Chicago Dog. A real Chicago Dog elevates the hot dog into culinary territory other dogs can only wistfully imagine. The formula is immutable, unsubstituable and far greater than the sum of its parts:
• Poppy seed hot dog bun
• All Beef hot dog (Vienna Beef is the gold-standard here)
• Yellow mustard
• Chopped white onion
• Neon Green Relish
• Sport peppers (often overlooked)
• Tomato wedges
• Crisp kosher dill pickle spear
• Celery salt
And here’s where to get one in Austin: Chris’ Little Chicago. Austin actually has a pretty sizable list of places that give the dog a go (Dog Almighty, Lux Café, Lucky Dog), they're all good, but most cut a few corners – no sport peppers, dill relish, missing poppy seeds. Chris cuts no corners. Well, OK, maybe he cuts a few corners on tables-and-chairs, but the dog is out of this world.
Chris’ is housed in a cheery little red trailer at 3600 South Lamar, just before the Brodie Oaks shopping center. The menu is pretty much there on the sign: Chicago Style Hot Dogs and Italian Beef Sandwiches. File this one under niche dining.
The dog itself is on the large side, and Chris is so generous with the toppings, it’s nearly overwhelming.
Because Chris is a Chicago-only place, there’s no attempt at passing non-Chicago relish or buns or tomatoes off in place of the good stuff. It’s all in there. And it’s all good. And while the seating is limited to a couple of plastic chairs at a folding card table out back, the view over Highway 360 and out into the Hill Country is as good a setting as you’re going to get to kick back, pop open an Izzy, and enjoy a little bit of Chicago, right here in Austin.