A Dozen Dives: Ross' Old Austin Cafe

12 places we’re drawn to in spite of ourselves. And sometimes in spite of themselves.
Day 12: Ross’ Old Austin Cafe
11800 N. Lamar Blvd. 835-2414, www.greencity.com/cafeross.htm.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday. 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Breakfast served until 11 a.m. Closed Sunday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 04.20.12
Any place where the breakfast menu used to list beer by the pitcher qualifies as a dive in my book. And live music on a little stage inside and a big one under twin oaks outside counts toward that title, too. But Ross’ Old Austin Cafe is first and foremost that last thing: a cafe. One with black-and-white tiled floors and black-sashed windowpanes that separate the cooking-and-ordering half of the cafe from the eating half.
There’s hardly an early branch of the Austin restaurant tree that Ross and Sandy Sterzing’s family didn’t touch in the 20th century, from the Old Bakery building near the Capitol to the building that eventually became Katz’s Deli to the Delwood and Milam cafeterias, the Big Tex Sirloin Houses and Joe’s Sandwich Shop on Burnet Road. Ross’ Old Austin came along in 1993, and you order at a counter that evokes the family’s cafeteria days, with a menu board above your head and a short but well-stocked salad bar to your left as the hostess predicts your order with uncanny accuracy, especially on sirloin special day, which happened to be my day. Ross Sterzing is your cashier, a gray-haired but robust guy the regulars make a point of waving to on their way out.
What you’re eating: On Thursdays and Fridays at lunch from 11 to 3, you’re having a 10-ounce top sirloin, a loaded baked potato and the salad bar if you know what you’re doing. It’s only $8.95, a bargain in the days of drought-driven beef prices. The flat-top grill already had five steaks sizzling before mine joined in, and it was just minutes after I loaded my salad dish and gave in to the peach cobbler sitting on top of the salad bar that a man with a steak plate came looking for me by number. At its thickest points — about three-quarters of an inch — the steak was rosy mid-rare as ordered inside, with a patchwork of seared spots across the top. You’ll have to trim away the fat band at the table, but the steak is a tender, lightly salted callback to small-town steakhouses, finished with grilled onions and something you don’t see very often in the post-Atkins era: a baked potato jacketed in foil and crowned with sour cream, chives, cheese and bacon as lean and crunchy as summer grass.
The little salad bar is fitted with cylinders like the artillery bank at a fireworks show, exploding with colors from vinegared salads and vegetables: corn-and-onion relish, beets, red beans, okra and twangy coleslaw with onions and green pepper. The country/suburban kid in me appreciates green pea salad with mayo and a fruit salad with shaggy oranges. If there’s peach cobbler, get it for the way the flat, wide pastry pieces remind you of cinnamon toast over sweet, syrupy peaches with a little bite left in them.
What you’re drinking: Sweet tea at lunch, ya big drunk. But at night, three whole taps pour an exotic spread of Bud, Bud Light and Michelob Ultra. Scoff all you want; it’s just $2.25 a glass and $9.50 a pitcher.
Other options: The sirloin plate that’s $8.95 at lunch on Thursdays and Fridays is usually $12.95. Other weekday lunch specials include chicken-fried steak ($7.59 Tuesday-Wednesday) and fried catfish ($8.95 Thursday-Friday). Ross’ does a big plate of biscuits and sausage gravy at breakfast for $3.85 along with a menu of steak-and-egg plates, breakfast tacos, pancakes and migas ($3.95-$8.95). The rest of the day gets a homestyle roster of fried okra, chili, BLTs, burgers, club sandwiches and a lineup of fried and grilled fish, chicken and steaks. Prices run $4.25 (hamburger) to $14.95 (12-ounce ribeye).
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)