Monday, June 25, 2012

Fresa's - the Food Truck Without Wheels

Austin's food truck boom is the stuff of legend. Trucks sprout like weeds in vacant lots, surrounded at all hours by picnic tables, bicycles and mustachioed men in hats. In an effort to differentiate themselves in a crowded market, these places have taken on more and more ambitious cuisine. Lobster bisque, roasted tomato buffalo mozzarella caprese, and sous-vide pork belly all now come on wheels.

At the same time, Fresa's has been working the reverse angle. Fresa's, the newest outpost of the McGuire Moorman empire, is taking food that was born to be mobile - Mexico City style corn, chicken tortas, tortillas, agua fresca - and putting it inside a very solid building.

Fresa's is housed in the space formerly occupied by Emerald City Coffee Press on North Lamar between 9th and 10th. It's an awkward mid-century building, taller than it should be, with a massive overhang on one side, and a flat expanse of brick facade. Fresa's made it beautiful. A few raw wood accents, plenty of bright colors, beautiful typography, the best neon chicken sign in Austin; this place looks like it was born to be here. In truth, the lovely space is a mixed blessing, because as beautiful as it is, there's no way to spend any time there. A few stools work while you're waiting for your order at the counter, but that's it. No tables inside or out.

We opted for the closest picnic table we could think of, a quick drive away at 9th Street in Clarksville. It was a bit of an ordeal for lunch, but we were rewarded with very tasty goodies when we laid out the spread on the table. Tortas were a brilliant combination of creamy queso fresco, avocado, savory ancho-marinated pulled chicken and super fresh lettuce and tomato. Chips were well-seasoned, a little thicker than I would have liked, but were redeemed by a totally legit, slightly spicy, full on tex-mex queso. Corn was charred and slathered in mayo (sounds odd, I know), lime, salt and chili - a highlight for all of us. The horchata auga fresca was fragrant and lovely. In all, it was a formidable and tasty, if also pricey, lunch - well made, compellingly tasty, a solid step up from similar fare up the street at Zocalo.

I mention Zocalo for a reason there. Fresa's is an excellent place - no question about it - but it is so high-concept and so limited in what it does, that despite the better flavors at Fresa's, my next trip for some moderately healthy mexican-inspired goodness is likely to be Zocalo. I'd like a place to sit, something I can easily feed my kids, a couple more options on the menu. But that's just me - I'm hopeful that there are enough folks in Fresa's urban professional downtown-dwelling target market to make this place a success. I would hate to lose that neon chicken.

Special thanks to FairMorningBlue for help with the photos.

  Fresa's Chicken al Carbon on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 18, 2012

Lick Is King

Sometime over the last few years, someone doused the smoldering Austin food scene with gasoline. One after another, new places opened that set a new standard for long-stagnant categories. BBQ got upended by Franklin. Sweets got a new queen in Sugar Mamas. Uchi  lapped every other Sushi joint in the state. Medici made us forget that anyone else ever poured a latte. And now: Ice Cream. Lick simply eclipses anything else you can get in a cone.

I know this will rankle. I know that there are ice cream loyalties in this town that run deep. Please don't egg my car. I'm just calling it like I see it.

Lick is nestled in a compact storefront right next to Henri's and Barley Swine. This is a legit parking lot. A few benches out front and a couple of stools in a corner inside are the extent of the formal seating, but people make do - backs against posts, sitting on curbs, leaning on their single-speed bikes. Inside, the tiny space is pretty, but sparse, dominated by about 15 feet of ice cream under glass and a monumental, bright red, um, tongue, I think. Flavors are listed on large-size note cards tacked up on the bulletin board.

And that's where things get interesting. Grapefruit Ginger. Hill Country Honey Vanilla Bean. Strawberry Basil. Cilantro Lime. Beets and Mint. Salted Caramel. It's not Iron-Chef-Octopus-Eyeball-Ice-Cream-Weird, but it's also not a menu board you're going to mistake for Baskin Robbins. Dealing with savory elements is a tricky business, and Lick manages it beautifully, nearly all the time. The Grapefruit Ginger is pure summer - juicy, with a little pucker of sour flavor hidden inside folds of cream and sweet. The caramel and chocolate are the most intense of either flavor I've ever tasted in an ice cream. Chocolate ice cream usually comes with a chalky, powdery edge - I avoid it whenever possible. But here, the chocolate tastes like a cold, creamy ganache - elegant and pristine.

It's brilliant, but it's not perfect. There are creamier ice creams, and the scoops set about melting more quickly than others. Occasionally, as the flavors of the generally-local ingredients shift, the flavors in the ice creams shift as well. I've had strawberry basil so good it made my toes curl, and I've had the same ice cream where the basil was too forward, leaving the strawberry as an afterthought. It's the reality of pushing limits though, and the reality of working with powerful, flavorful, real, ingredients. A little inconsistency is OK by me.

Lick is the Franklin, the Sugar Mamas, the Uchi, the Medici of Ice Cream. It changes the dessert landscape in this town. Thanks for showing up, Lick, we've been waiting for you.

Lick - Honest Ice Creams on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Simple Pleasures: Blue Dahlia

Blue Dahlia exudes charm, from the battered wooden sign on the sidewalk out front to the enclosed arbor patio at the back. An early entrant into the East 6th renaissance, Blue Dahlia has built a compelling mix of simple, French-inspired dishes, heavily reliant on seasonal local produce. A second location is set to launch in Westlake on June 8, 2012 (just a few days from now) and I think the approach that keeps it so packed on the East Side will work well on the West Side, too.

The small indoor space is dominated by two massive community tables made from giant polished slabs of warm, gnarled wood. Smaller tables are fit close together, and a long counter supports shelves covered in loaves of fresh bread. It's a tight squeeze, but thanks to the focused, attentive, and generally fabulous staff it never feels chaotic; more well-managed bustle.

The menu is varied, with a handful items loosely bucketed into breakfast items, beautiful open faced sandwiches, salads, and a sweet selection of inexpensive dinner entrees.

Everything's good, but the basic rule for me so far: the less ambitious the dish, the more fantastic it is. It's not that these folks don't turn out pretty impressive stuff - it's just that the most inspired flavor comes from the core elements they work with. As an example - the tomato gazpacho, basically a coursely chopped mix of a Johnson's Backyard Garden basket is far more impressive than the cream-based white gazpacho, a more finessed mix of cream and cucumbers that doesn't really come together.

Likewise for the entrees - where Blue Dahlia lets the vegetables speak for themselves, it's a thing of beauty - the ratatouille is tangy and deeply satisfying, but the bed of Israeli cous cous and mixed greens, and the shaved Parmesan on top felt like afterthoughts. In the case of the greens, a pretty distant afterthought - lovely little sprigs of baby romaine wilted into squish against the heat of the vegetables. I would have been happier eating that ratutouille in a simple bowl with a chunk of crusty french bread to mop up the amazing flavor.

The tartines I've tried have been more consistent - goat cheese and tapenande is simple and on point, served on a rustic slate board on slightly spongy, wonderfully dense whole wheat bread with a bright shock of roasted red pepper. The combination of astringent and creamy in that sandwich is brilliant, as it is in the savory chicken salad.

Blue Dahlia is many things. It is beautiful. It is welcoming. It is phenomenally well staffed. Food here is made with love, and made with some of the best ingredients I've seen in a town stuffed with farm-to-market eateries. But for all that I love about Blue Dahlia, it's not a place where food is deeply transformed - there's nothing fussy, nothing genius about it. It's a place to go to enjoy a glass of wine and a slate of artisanal cheese, on a patio that is bearable even in the heat, exactly the breezy neighborhood restaurant you wish would open up down the street from you.

Blue Dahlia Bistro on Urbanspoon


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