Carnivore’s Holiday: Mother’s Cafe & Garden

A 10-part adventure on the other side of the food chain
Part 2: Mother’s Cafe
4215 Duval St. 512-451-3994,
Hours: 11:15 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday. 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 05.23.12
In 2007, the pioneering vegetarian haven Mother’s Cafe was scorched by the runaway grill fire of a homeless man cooking steaks. We’ll call it the Mother of All Ironies. But for a place that had been riding the freshly-mown fringes of the restaurant landscape since 1980, nothing as pedestrian as a wildfire could stop Mother’s, and it reopened that same year.
The reason for the cafe’s enduring popularity? On one side of the menu, you’ve got your enchiladas, and on another side you’ve got your lasagna. Not just meatless poseur dishes, but food that’s happy to get messy and cheesy just like the popular kids. Quesadillas, nachos, ravioli. Food I call “naturally vegetarian,” food that never really depended on meat to be interesting in the first place. The key at Mother’s is trust. When a dedicated vegetarian restaurant makes your enchiladas, there won’t be any grounds for worry. Or ground beef.
What you’re eating: The fact that I’m at Mother’s suggests I’m open-minded, but it doesn’t stop me from making the same order almost every time: artichoke enchiladas ($9). The joy of junk food rolled in a soft sauté of chopped artichoke hearts and mushrooms, finished with mild red ranchero sauce and black olives, crowned with a creamy scoop of guacamole for $1.95 more. With firm brown rice, black beans and free chips and salsa, it’s the guilty pleasure of Tex-Mex wrapped in a bohemian shawl.
A sturdy baker’s dish of tofu lasagna ($10.25) reminded me of lasagna at Ricco’s on Lavaca at 15th some 30 years ago, at least for heft and heat and bubbling table presence. But my reach to extend the pleasures of lasagna to vegan territory exceeded my grasp, and not because of the vegan part. It was a question of execution. Tofu, chopped spinach and pecan made a brave but monochromatic stand between firm layers of noodles, but the heat scorched the sauce, casting the specter of burnt-toast char over every bite. A side salad ($3) cooled the heat with mixed greens, bean sprouts, carrot and tomato finished with an expressive dressing of cashews and tamari, a more twangy cousin to soy sauce.
What you’re drinking: A smoothie called the Energizer ($4.50) with your refrigerator’s whole produce drawer tossed in: carrot juice, papaya, orange, strawberry and banana gone tropical with pineapple-coconut juice. If two or three ingredients can make you feel good, seven should send you into orbit. The juices form a conspiratorial alliance to taste like rum, as if they’d started fermenting just to party-up the place. Not ready for liftoff? Maybe just a smooth glass of carrot juice the color of beta-carotene magma for $1.75. Mother’s extends the Tex-Mex moments with a handful of bottled beers. For the lasagna side, nothing on the wine list climbs above $20 a bottle.
Other options: Mother’s makes one of Austin’s best veggie burgers ($7) with a grilled patty made from seeds, grains and tofu on a substantial wheat bun dressed in garden finery. The Tex-Mex-Southwest pantheon is represented by chile rellenos ($10.95), a stuffed poblano pepper ($10.25) and enchiladas covered in roasted tomatillo sauce, spicy chocolate mole and cashew chipotle sauce ($8.50-$9). Pasta dishes include angel hair with feta and olive oil, mushroom stroganoff and bowtie pasta with Gorgonzola ($10.25 each). Need a baked potato, quiche, a tempeh “TLT” or barbecued tofu? They’re all here, plus an almond mocha torte and a juice-bar’s roster of smoothies.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)