Fed Man 55: Counter Cafe (52)

 
 
Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
 
No. 52: Counter Cafe
626 N. Lamar Blvd. 512-708-8800, www.countercafe.com.
Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 08.21.12
 
There’s no reason something as small as the Counter Cafe should be on a list this big. Ten stools, four two-tops, one family table inside, a few picnic tables outside.  But look at what’s cooking. Red peppers roast away on a gas-fed grill, sharing space with a piece of hanger steak and a butterflied quail. That’s right, and on the flat-top a foot away is a blueberry pancake, a burger patty and ... crabcakes. Short order with a tall finish.
 
The crabcakes are crab first and cake second, with filaments of picked crab with red pepper and mustard seed and enough breadcrumb to give them form without taking control. The cakes-and-eggs breakfast ($12) would blow eggs Benedict back to Malibu if there were any justice. It’s served with the sun and moon of sauces: lemon aioli and spicy peanut pesto.
 
The cook looks nothing like Roy Orbison but cooks the way Ray Orbison sings. With an economy of movement and emotion that makes the voice all the more startling: strong and pure and just off-center. He’s slicing onions, charring peppers and poaching eggs in a water bath. A burger’s going on the grill and two buns are toasting in the salamander at eye level. I know this because the kitchen is as close as my living-room TV, and I have the remote.
 
This salad of grilled quail and strawberries ($13) could carry a dining room of any size, pulled together with soft goat cheese and vinaigrette over baby spinach leaves. What the quail lacks in smoke and char like the swankier guys do it is compensated by juiciness and flavor balance they’d approve. Subtlety in a room the size of a two-car garage. Subtlety from soups like cantaloupe mint with a spider-web of creme fraiche or cool gazpacho for the summer and brassy carrot-ginger for the fall ($3 a cup).
 
Somebody wrote me asking for the best biscuits in Austin, and now I’d have to answer with Counter Cafe near the top. Crunchy on the outside with an inside that walks the line between crumbled and flaky. Order it with white gravy and crumbles of housemade sausage that’s pink instead of Jimmy Dean brown, but every bit as cowboy ($3.75 for one, $6.50 for two). The Counter Burger ($11 with a side) is also near the top, a collection of burger basics — juicy medium-rare beef, sturdy wheat bun, Bibb lettuce, the best tomatoes and red onions, melted Cheddar — all performing at their peak. In a space this small, there’s no room for anything else.
 
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
 
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants