Decemburger: Manor Cafe 290

First came 50 Burgers, 50 Days. Then Novemburger. 2011 wraps up with a burger a day for Decemburger.
Day 29: Manor Cafe 290
11011 U.S. 290 E., Manor. 512-278-8780,
Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Tuesday. 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 12.29.11
If the regular Roadhouse Burger at Cafe 290 is good enough to be printed on the staff T-shirts, a double must come with a hoodie and a hat, too. The Cafe 290 sign out front is certainly iconic enough for a gimme cap, dressed in time-worn interstate colors and neon that fights the sky around it for light. It’s Manor’s own version of Kerbey Lane Cafe, with the sandwiches, enchiladas and coffee of a proper Texas diner woven together with big salads, custom-drawn chalkboards of art-school caliber and a dining room too clean, too well-lit and too well-attended to be confused with a roadside hash-house.
The burger: A cheeseburger that piles on two third-pound patties isn’t as big as you’d think, especially if you’ve seen the mountain of meat on the double at a place like Buda Grocery and Grill. But size isn’t the focal point for the double ($8.99 with fries or rings) at Cafe 290, because the beef brings flame-grilled flavor way beyond its weight class. The menu lets you know the meat comes medium-well, and that’s no lie. Neither is it an asset, because it produces beef that for all its backyard taste walks the tough side of the street, the dry side, where you need that shredded lettuce, decent tomatoes and red onion to work hard freshening things up. The bun’s a solid asset, though, toasted on the grill with butter like the best part of an English muffin.
Fries or rings? A top-shelf waitress told me the fries and rings are both made in-house and brought a combo of the two. She mentioned beer batter, something I forgot until the first bite, when the familiar malty twang of beer bubbled up as if the onion rings had their own tap. Cooked a fish-fry sunset brown, the batter pushes the bready ratio to a place between ring and full-on fritter. If you like onion rings more for the crunch than the onion, this is among the three best I’ve tried in this burger project. Meanwhile, the french fries are missing most of what makes the hand-cut version special, most notably the skins.
Also in the fried department, Cafe 290 calls for a plate of fried green tomatoes with a cornmeal shell ($4.29 for a half-order). Imagine if you were trying these blindfolded. You might never guess it was something as simple as an underripe tomato making that exotic, slippery, sweet-sour taste.
Pie. Just pie. Buttermilk pie ($3.59) is an easy sell, but Cafe 290 turns up the volume like a discount furniture commercial by baking cinnamon islands of crust over the top in the shape of longhorns. They’re pretty, but even in its Sarah-Plain-and-Tall simplicity, buttermilk pie needs no help, just the custardy, fermented alt-country of its main ingredient and a big vanilla afterburn. You’ll get both at Cafe 290.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
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