Fed Man 55: La Condesa (38)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 38: La Condesa
400A W. Second St. 512-499-0300, www.lacondesa.com.
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Friday. Dinner 5 to 10p.m. Sunday-Wednesday and 5 to 11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 10.03.12
If we were art-school kids in Mexico City, we’d love La Condesa. As long as we had Mom and Dad’s credit cards to pay for $14 taquitos, $11 side salads and $25 chicken mole. But the high-design atmosphere created by bead curtains, lacquered wood, brushed concrete and a post-revolutionary mural is part of the draw, like dinner and a show in the Second Street District.
Even at lunch, it’s showtime. Out comes an amuse bouche of fig and black pepper crema and a hot damp towel for the hands. Sure, $14 is a lot to pay for three silver dollar-size tostadas with tuna. But they’re well-composed bites of tuna so red it looks guilty of something, strands of pickled cucumber and a chipotle mayo that resonates like the wasabi burn of a sushi bar.
The Paloma is my second-favorite tequila drink, and La Condesa’s spicy version ($12) preserves the earth-and-wood qualities of my first-favorite tequila drink: straight. “Spicy” might describe the alcohol burn, but it’s adequately propelled by ginger liqueuer and grapefruit, too.
Costilas de Puerco ($18 lunch/$26 dinner) still make a case for chef Rene Ortiz as a barbecue man. They’re not as good as I remember them from the first time, but Ortiz has a lot on his plate: a second La Condesa in Napa and a Thai project on South First called Sway. This time the ribs spent too much time under heat, coming apart like a bundle of sticks, with a knob of cartilage in almost every bite. Tender? Yes, to a fault, fully engulfed in barbecue sauce the vintage ochre color of mole sauce, with pink pickled onions as aggressive as linebackers who won’t take the pink jokes anymore.
One of La Condesa’s strengths is its ticket to less familiar Mexican flavors, like the rib plate’s side dish of sugar-seared plantains in an expressive green cream salsa crazy with cilantro. Pastry chef Laura Sawicki made a few national lists this year with desserts like a semi-freddo made with the anise-tinged herb hoja santa ($9), amplified by brandied cherries and marshmallow  flavored with birch beer. Not quite ice cream, not quite custard. Almost flan. It’s beyond categorization, with candied almonds for texture and flavors swirling like one of those toy magnetic rollers on little chrome rails.
If the value equation balanced more evenly, La Condesa would rank higher on this list. It’s an escape from tourist-trap Mexican food, one that shows respect for the country’s urban aesthetic, not just the part we can see from the border.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants