Fed Man 55: Contigo (9)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 9: Contigo
2027 Anchor Lane. 512-614-2260, www.contigotexas.com.
Hours: 5pm-midnight Mon-Sat. Brunch 10:30am-2:30pm Sunday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walkng | 12.13.12
Contigo is like what we think Austin was like before we got here: kind of an outdoor cowboy hippie town, kind of a dude ranch thing, kind of one long sawhorse table with burgers and beer and chicken. Contigo is like that, in all the good ways. Contigo is also not like that, in all the good ways. The bartender’s friendlier, the food’s better, the beer is wayyy better. And in just two hot summers, Ben Edgerton and chef Andrew Wiseheart have turned a pole barn with shade trees and string lights into one of Austin’s 10 best restaurants.
They’ve brought it to this level with rabbit and dumplings ($15) in an iron skillet of hearty stew and biscuits with a whiff of sage to evoke the South Texas rangeland from which Contigo drew its name. They’ve made a name with Austin’s best charcuterie, a half-dozen cured meats, pâté and curiosities in a constant rotation that might showcase a hot crepinette with Earl Grey currants in a snap-tight casing of caul fat, a slice of ciccioli inlaid with fried pork skin, a pork liver pâté like an ingot of seasoned iron or a familiar country-style pâté. They’re served on boards at $7 apiece with customary sides like cornichons and mustard or as unexpected as fried eggplant and honey. Contigo cures bacon for which the highest purpose is a Top 10 fathead burger already draped in white cheddar on a soft challah bun with fries like little Marlboro matchstick men ($15 with the add-ons).
Contigo is a good place to drink, especially when dusk drops its saddle blanket over the plaza. Tequila, cucumber and lime make El Pepino ($7) the right choice for appetizers like fried green beans and spiced nuts. For a more fortified embrace, there’s the Contigo Ranch with mezcal and orange, or its fancier cousin the Up in Smoke, with branca menta and mezcal, either of which could run with a $5 bowl of pickled cauliflower or tomatillo or even watermelon rind. For something as simple as an ox-tongue slider with pickled green tomato ($3) or the soft comfort of the best possible $9 grilled cheese or Thursday night’s $1 fried chicken, Contigo pours 12 beers on tap, with a cross-section from local brewers like 512, Hops & Grain, Real Ale and Thirsty Planet.
Conversely, Contigo can look like I did at prom in 1981 when it tries to get fancy with overdressed small plates, like a sliced chicken thigh with fried skin like a boofy hairdo and a twirly-swirl of soy glaze as out-of-place here as leg warmers and headbands. But it’s also one of the few places that can rise above the fact that they let dogs wander the courtyard. That’s a part of Old Austin I could do without. What I can appreciate, though, is that Contigo shrugs off that most unappetizing of labels: gastropub.
"I feel like the word gastropub creates a layer of pretentious atmosphere," Edgerton told me in June 2011. I proposed an alternative handle: New Tavern. A place that believes in a stiff drink, good beer and even better food. “And a New Tavern will ask you to step outside if it ever hears you call it a gastropub,” I wrote in a three-star review that ran just after I left the Statesman. The page designer accidentally dropped in four stars instead of three and that’s how it ran. Four stars wouldn’t be a typo for Contigo today.
(TOP: Clockwise from top: Contigo shines brightest at sunset; rabbit and dumplings; the bar's indoors while most of the rest is al fresco; Contigo makes a Top 10 burger. FIRST INSET: Country-style pâté and fried green beans; ox-tongue slider and fries; pickled vegetables, spiced nuts and white bean dip. SECOND INSET: Smoked peach and blueberry creme ice creams; the setting is part picnic, part kegger; Dewberry Hills chicken with summer vegetables. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
BONUS: I thought my New Tavern concept was clever and timely. A reader named Col. Peter Remington did not: "Drop the idea. Drop it fast. Drop it and start over." It's one of the best reader letters I've ever gotten. Read it here.
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants