The Food of Airport Boulevard, Part 2

 
Part 2: North Lamar to Koening Lane (west)
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 08.25.11
 
The Airport Boulevard of our broken dreams is an unbroken stretch of nothing but Quality Seafood, Mrs. Johnson’s and the Tamale House. Part 1 of this series covered Airport’s midsection, the domain of those and other iconic touchstones of Weird Austin before the Weirdness migrated south. But another dozen-plus places to eat line Airport’s western section from North Lamar east to Koenig Lane, a yellow brick road of the unexpected if you can slow down long enough to look in the strip malls or even in what’s left of Highland Mall. A full Yellow Pages reckoning of this 1.2-mile section of Airport would include Panda Express, Wendy’s, Subway and Jack in the Box. But we’re here to color outside those lines.
 
Black Star Co-op
7020 Easy Wind Drive in the Midtown Commons center at Airport Boulevard and North Lamar Boulevard. 452-2337, www.blackstar.coop.
Hours: 4 p.m. to midnight daily.
 
A sampler of four house-brewed beers ($7) from this industrial-brewery-meets-minimalist-bistro might include a husky, aromatic wheat called Elba, a hop-spark rye called Vulcan, a stormy Belgian bouquet dubbed Dubbel Dee and one of the most pop-eyed eccentrics I've ever tasted in a glass: Cantankerous Dockhand. This tripped-out variation of their porter-style Recalcitrant Dockhand adds hot chile pepper spice and a lunatic fringe of cacao. The beers are subject to change. Heartbreakingly subject. That's the Black Star way. Progress. Even their $4 beer nuts are earnest overachievers, paving stones of toffee cast with mixed-breed nuts. The menu careens from snack plates with cheese, escabeche and charcuterie to respectable fish and chips to pan-roasted chicken. Black Star stands with the best bar food in the city, and they don't accept tips. Want to show some gratitude? Take your dirty dishes to the bus tub. Make eye contact. Say thank you.
 
Chopsticks
6929 Airport Blvd., Suite 175. 452-3999, www.chopstickaustin.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9:45 p.m. Monday-Friday. 11:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. and 5 to 9:45 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
 
Like so much of the Highland Village center, Chopsticks seems like a place that saw its better years a decade ago. It’s a big room, cool and dark, with kingly wooden thrones and the hushed feel of a museum celebrating boilerplate Chinese-American restaurant decor. The room seems like it would benefit from a rigorous top-down cleaning to remove the dust from the blinds, the crumbs from the cushions and the nascent tackiness from every sauce and condiment bottle on the table.
 
The lunch buffet looked like a roundup of the usual suspects, heavy on the fried side of things: rangoon, eggrolls, wontons, General Tso’s chicken, chicken wings, french fries. It’s $6.65 on the weekdays and $7.50 on the weekends, and it seems to be what everybody else is having. Everything comes from the buffet, including carry-out orders loaded into styrofoam boxes. But I wanted something made fresh from the menu’s Vietnamese side.
 
Vermicelli with pork and eggroll ($6.75) was a tired bowl that drew from the restaurant’s low spark. I had to taste through a few pieces before I was sure it was pork and not chicken, but even then the differences were negligible. The meat was tan and soft, covered in a salty, slightly sweet universal brown sauce. A thick-skinned eggroll lent its leathery, room-temperature ennui to a bowl rounded out by a few soft vegetables, long stems of parsley, ground peanuts and vermicelli noodles. Only liberal pourings of fish sauce brought me closer to a Vietnamese state of mind. It’s a dish I’m accustomed to eating with orange-red bites of barbecued pork, not the wan stir-fry that made me pass by the buffet line in the first place.
 
New Oriental Market
6929 Airport Blvd., No. 121. 467-9828.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday. 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.  The cafe is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
 
In this big Korean grocery store, the owner’s 5-year-old grandson was doing martial arts with a silver corkscrew in the condiment aisle. A sun visor the size of a welding helmet hid his face, possibly the reason he asked me if I was Korean. I said no, that I just liked shopping here, the way it smells. And I like the variety: pickled garlic, bags of dried anchovies, roasted corn tea and ceramic tea sets, 5-pound bags of red chili powder, gallon jars of kimchi, 50-pound bags of rice and the electric pots in which to cook it. I bought a bowl of instant ramen noodles and a jar of kimchi, hoping to re-create at home the ramen dish I had at the East Side King trailer at the Grackle, which uses the same $1 Shin Bowl from the market and does a solid $6 makeover with pork belly, kimchi and soft-boiled egg.
 
Just past the market's dodgy video section is a lunchroom with a 30-dish menu, first in Korean, then in English. It reminded me of the days when the Szechuan stronghold Asia Cafe was tucked into the corner of the market next door to its current storefront off Spicewood Springs Road. New Oriental Market strikes me as the same kind of unassuming standard-bearer for  Korean cooking as Asia Cafe is for Chinese.
 
I was one of only two Anglos at New Oriental Market, and three customers offered lunch suggestions before I even asked. A man sorted through his own melon-sized metal bowl of bibimbap, showing me a dish he thought might suit a first-timer. It's rice with a wagon wheel of toppings: shredded bulgogi beef, slivered cucumber, pickled vegetables, shredded lettuce, bean sprouts and a fried egg. The trick, my guide said, was to squeeze in some red chile paste and stir the whole thing together. The result isn't picturesque, but there's real substance here.
 
It’s the kind of departure this stretch of Airport Boulevard needs to break free from the fried and sweetened grip of the Americanized Chinese food clustered nearby. My new friend suggested that with bibimbap under my belt — No. 1 on the menu — I should come back until I've worked through to No. 30, and then I'd be a Korean food scholar of sorts, with a working knowledge of buckwheat noodles, japchae stir-fry, cold soy soup, barbecued ribs and rice cakes. At $5 to $8 a class, the whole degree plan would cost me about $200, exactly the kind of continuing education I can support.
 
Advice of my own: Order by the numbers to ease the language anxiety on both sides. Try all the free amenities. There's a cooler full of a sweet rice drink called sikhye to ladle into silver bowls. There's hot, thin soup and barley tea. That's in addition to the little dishes of spicy pickled vegetables (kimchi) you get with your main course. Don't be shy.
 
Let's talk about that jar of kimchi I bought. I was happy to see that it was made right there at New Oriental Market. But a broken seal on the lid of that fragrant concoction didn't make me any friends at my new office. Hey New Guy, was that you?
 
Taqueria Los Jaliscienses
6903 Airport Blvd. 419-7340.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday-Thursday. 7 a.m. to midnight Friday-Sunday.
 
There are half a dozen Los Jaliscienses taquerias around town. Architecturally, the four-cornered adobe nun's hat at U.S. 290 has no eccentric equal. But during a 2009 tour with Taco Journalism's Armando Rayo (story here), we talked about the salsa mostly, because we couldn't find polite conversational common ground for the food. At the location on Tillery Street in September 2010 for a Statesman feature called 30 Tacos, 30 Days, I found a chicken fajita taco worth a conversation.
 
But the constant at Los Jaliscienses is a creamy green jalapeño salsa that looks as placid and cool as a meadow but rises as hot as summer’s breath. It makes any of the locations a fair bet, including this shop carved from a former Wendy's on Airport Boulevard.
 
Jalisco-style restaurants specialize in the mixed grill plate, and I generally like a mix of beef and pork al pastor (Jalisco Special, $7.99). Both were hashed into small, salty pieces, and the al pastor was covered in what tasted and felt like flour. I couldn't get a sense of what the meat tasted like, it was so shrouded by that mealy snowfall. The beef took full benefit of the char afforded by the smaller pieces, a flavor that drew out the sweetness of the grilled onions and tender cactus underneath. They gave me six corn tortillas, and I could have made that many respectable tacos from this plate using rice, shredded lettuce, avocado, tomato and beans with melted white cheese, plus free chips and that electrifying green salsa or a cilantro-spiked red.
 
There’s a full bar here, about the size of a mall kiosk, and I’m guessing I’d stick with beer in a bottle or a can, even if it’s that awful Costa Rican beer called Imperial I’ve seen everywhere since they sold it at the Austin City Limits Festival last year.
 
During a Tuesday lunch break at Los Jaliscienses, a tacky Mexican variety show flickered on the TV, with jump-suited goofs tackling a rickety obstacle course. What drew my attention was the haunting harmonica music from “Once Upon a Time in the West” playing behind it, and I’m thinking at least the sound guy was having a good time. As a couple on the show danced to “Jim Dandy” for the second time, I said a quiet thank-you for Kathie Lee and Hoda and got back to lunch. The staff and I communicated half in English, half in my idiot’s restaurant Spanish. They smiled at me for trying. 
 
 
Texas Pizza, Pasta & More
6929 Airport Blvd., No. 158. 419-0006, www.txpizza.net.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
 
I didn't know what to expect from a place where the customer entry is about four floor tiles wide and could be mistaken for a car-rental counter. These guys are too calm, too well-dressed and too ... clean ... to be fronting a pizzeria, no? I couldn't see or smell the ovens from the front, and the sign is a study in minimalism, just the word "pizza" over the state of Texas. TPPM is takeout and delivery only, so I had lunch delivered to our office a few miles away to take a pulse, and what we got was journeyman food at decent prices, with everything at proper temperatures and textures and delivered in 50 minutes.
 
A 16-inch pizza with pepperoni, bell peppers and tomatoes was substantial for the coupon price of $12.99, with a balanced layer of cheese, light sauce and nice chunks of tomato rather than watery slices of Roma. A test, of sorts, passed. The biscuit-style crust brought the dry texture notes of a thin and the doughier chew of a pan pizza. Pizzas start at $6.99 for a 10-inch cheese, running to $25 for a monster-sized 18-inch Super Supreme. Specialty pies run about $15-$18, with puzzlers like a House Pizza with Alfredo sauce and chicken nuggets and a Taco Pizza with Pace picante sauce.
 
For our delivery, the "pasta and more" was represented by a Philly cheesesteak sandwich on a crusty mini-loaf that likely started out crisp before steaming in its foil wrap during the delivery run. Good tender beef, thicker than a customary Philly but without the swagger. Still, a solid sandwich for $5.99.
 
I hate to break the news behind the mystery of "pig wings." They're what the less imaginative among us call riblets. I'm leary of any meat done barbecue-style from a pace that does anything but barbecue, but these are compelling, like fatty, leathery chew toys for people ($4.99 for seven). Lasagna comes in a circle pan about the size of a personal deep-dish pizza for $6.99. It's properly bubbled, the pasta's OK and it delivers a respectable cheese-and-tomato fix. What it doesn't have is the backbone for layering, so it plays out soupy and hard to divide. And that's rough when it's on the communal office table.
 
Overall, not a bad showing from a glass-door shop in a strip mall where H&R Block and Subway seem to pull the most traffic.
 
Wanfu 3
6801 Airport Blvd. 459-5200.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, until 10:30 p.m. Friday. 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, until 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
 
Wanfu is one of those "used-to-be" places. There used to be one on Barton Springs, open until the bars closed. There used to be one on Oltorf. I used to watch my colleague at work come in with containers of Wanfu hot-and-sour soup the size of a Big Gulp. It was steam-pearled brown, cheap and teeming with bits and pieces. I wondered if his blood-sodium level made it dangerous for him to drive.
 
This Wanfu on Airport is the last of its line, doing workaday Chinese-American cooking. Sesame chicken ($5.95) at lunch, for example, gave us nothing to suggest sesame flavor except a confetti shower of seeds. Just hard-fried knobs of chicken in salty brown sauce with a standard fried eggroll and egg-drop soup to start. I caught more spark from jalapeño-black bean pork ($5.95), with some of that head-clearing capsaicin vapor rising from the plate, but otherwise medium-chewy pork, undercooked bell pepper and dots of fermented black bean paste here and there.
 
It's an unassuming place, clean and friendly, and that hot-and-sour soup is still the same cheap mahogany fill-up. When we asked, the woman at the counter said that, yes, this was the only Wanfu left, but she reassured us it was the best one. Yes, by default, by being the last holdout from the Used-To-Be Club.
 
Arpeggio Grill
6619 Airport Blvd. 419-0110, www.agrillaustin.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
 
Arpeggio is part of the Yellow Brick Road Center, an appropriate name for this most un-Kansas collection of businesses: Arpeggio for Mediterranean, China Palace, Mom’s Taste for Korean groceries, Master Gohring’s Tai Chi studio and a hookah lounge for a breath of the Middle East.
 
At Arpeggio, I notice floor seating with rugs with thick leather pillows and low-slung benches like they came from the back seat of a Buick. A red-haired girl sits cross-legged in deep conversation. During the month of Ramadan, the family crew is working in shifts and table service is suspended to adapt to the smaller staff. I order an Arpeggio Mesa Platter ($11.99) because it has something of everything. The decor speaks equally of the Middle East and the Mediterranean: giant samovars and vases and red glass and walls in washed peach tones. There are murals of mountain oasis landscapes seen through minaret-style archways. It’s not overwhelming, just a reminder of where you are, sitting among families and customers with roots in the region. It’s a big region, broad enough to embrace pizza. I didn’t know Arpeggio made pizza until I saw a box the size of an area rug carried out the front door and placed in a hatchback. A 30-inch pie.
 
The Mesa Platter featured thick, nutty baba ganoush, a mouthful of garlic and eggplant. There was none of the hummus mentioned on the menu, but basmati rice lay at the base of the plate in rigid, spiny formation next to tabbouleh that tasted herbal and acidic and dolma with olive oil and the grassy strike of grape leaves stuffed with rice. Pieces of chicken and beef were stiff and chewy, cut more like fajitas than shawarma. Speaking of fajitas, roll a pile of that meat with rice and baba ganoush in a pita and you could call it a culinary bridge.
 
For $12 and change I’m full in more than one way, still vibrating on a low frequency from hot green tea infused with Earl Grey and two ancient-looking rocks of raw sugar.
 
 
China Palace
6605 Airport Blvd. 451-7104, www.chinapalaceaustin.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday. Noon to 10 p.m. Saturday. Noon to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
 
China Palace has one of those hidden dragon auras to it. By day, it’s a made-for-America Chinese lunch buffet, with sticky sesame chicken, mushy beef broccoli, salty fried rice and an array of fried things. A few surprises hint at something deeper: spring rolls with fresh greens, shrimp and vermicelli noodles, kebabs of grilled chicken thigh, decent black-pepper pork with jalapeño — and a shredded seaweed salad with a consistency like julienned cucumber, silky with sesame oil. You can make a decent lunch from the line, considering it’s only $6.56 Monday through Friday.
 
But behind that screen of steam pans and sneeze guards is a two-page menu printed in yellow that hints at China Palace’s glory days, alluded to in a 5-year-old review by Mick Vann of the Chronicle, a review the restaurant values enough to print on the front page of its menu. Not many people in Austin know Asian food better than Mick Vann, so on his 2006 recommendation, I came back for dinner to order off that yellow menu, the one with dishes like pork intestine and tofu knots and mustard greens and salt and pepper shrimp and Szechuan eggplant.
 
At dinner, China Palace steps away from the salt shaker, the sugar bowl and whatever container holds that sticky red stuff for a light and expressive stir-fry of pork with bitter mustard greens ($8.25) in their brightest emerald incarnation with wafers of garlic, bamboo shoots and whimsical mini-braids of bean curd with the texture of flat-rolled pasta. Stalks and stems are left in for bigger crunch and more of an earthy connection.
 
A mammoth bowl of soup with Chinese radish and pork ($5.95) wasn’t much to look at. Pale and still, its oil-spotted surface was unbroken by what lay underneath: the same French-fry-sized pieces of pork as the stir-fry dish and a translucent tangle of noodles made from mung beans.
 
The ubiquitous bamboo shoots added little more than texture against the more salty-funky cuts of radish that gave the soup its identity. Like a feral hybrid of potato, onion, garlic, even the nopalitos of Mexican cooking, the radish lends this soup layers of flavor beyond mere soup. And when you’re hungry for real Chinese just a few hours after the masquerade of a buffet, a simple bowl of real soup looks like a feast.
 
Mom’s Taste
6613 Airport Blvd. 420-0499.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday. 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
 
Open for five years now, Mom’s Taste is a small Korean grocery with a refrigerated case full of dishes to take home, dishes they cook in the back of the store: kimchi, lotus root, bulgogi, pickled garlic stem and more. A young clerk guided me toward pumpkin soup ($1.99), the makings for a hearty Korean one-dish meal called bibimbap ($5.99), a bottle of red chile paste ($4.89) to pour over it and something I picked up in a show of bravery and self-conscious adventurism: dried pollock with chiles and leeks ($5.99).
 
That last dish looked gorgeous, a deep red broken by bright green leek tops, but I had trouble wrapping my mind around the skin-on fish still fully populated with bones and dockside aromatics. My anxiety over swallowing one of those pin-sized bones left me unable to appreciate the heat, the ginger and the garlic, so I concentrated on the big leek bulbs that separated the fighting fish pieces.
 
The bibimbap trio included sweet potato stem, balloon flower roots and dropwort stems, all of them tangled like spaghetti noodles in sesame oil. This I handled with a fried egg and without shame. Even the soup threw off some unfamiliar notes, mainly from a stock made of glutinous rice joining small pieces of pumpkin in fluid union.
 
For the less intrepid, I counted at least 12 kinds of dried ramen noodles.
 
Yahala Hookah Lounge
6617 Airport Blvd. 467-2233, www.austinhookahlounge.com.
Hours: Open at 6 p.m. daily, closing 1 a.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 2 a.m. Thursday and 3 a.m. Friday-Saturday.
 
Apple-mint smoke is food of a different sort, the food of regeneration in a lounge set with thick couches in which to disappear, with nothing but the sound of water bubbles and Arab-language MTV to give you a sense of place. Lined shoulder high with bolts of bright desert cloth, Yahala surely smells like an opium den, with the same dim lights and people talking in low voices around tall pipes with long, decorated hoses. Opium dens probably smelled more like desperation and bong water, but this makes for better sensory theater.
 
A loaded pipe starts  at $10 and goes to about $15 and will last a solid 45 minutes’ worth of pulsing white smoke that smells and tastes like caramelized honey and fruit with some charcoal burn to let you know this isn’t child’s play. Neither is it illicit stuff, just tobacco and fruit in a water pipe topped with charcoal. Smoking inside a business, in Austin? Yes, and that’s because Yahala and other places like it are classified by the city as tobacco retailers. As long as 95 percent of their revenue comes from tobacco and accessories, you can smoke what you buy right there in the shop.
 
From a hookah lounge story I wrote in 2010, I knew Yahala was also a  place for a wicked little pot of Turkish coffee, swirling with cardamom and dark sugar, crawling with grinds that make it feel like a living thing. There’s free wi-fi, and Arpeggio Grill will deliver food from next door. Yahala feels like a speakeasy. From the sidewalk, only the water pipe etched into the glass door would tell you what’s happening behind that door. The shopping center is in the early stages of a facelift, so only the Yahala sign on the roof gives a sense that there’s life in here. Slow life, good life.
 
La Chaparrita
Highland Mall food court, 6001 Airport Blvd. 323-5404, www.lachaparritaaustin.com.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.
 
Susana Osorio is a visionary of sorts. Visionary in that way that makes the rest of us wonder if she's touched. By madness, by foresight, who knows? But the fact remains that Osorio has not one but two businesses in what's left of Highland Mall: an Avon shop on the first floor and a Peruvian kitchen in the remains of the food court on the second floor.
 
It might have made sense when the anchor stores were still there, but it wasn't long after Osorio opened her shops in December 2010 that Macy's and Dillards said goodbye and Austin Community College decided a mall might make the perfect campus. Here's where the vision thing comes in. The college student is a beast whose appetite knows no bounds. The pockets of the beast? Plenty of bounds. With plate lunches at $5.99, Osorio's La Chaparrita might have a future here, even this far from her native Lima, Peru.
 
Carapulacra is a smoky dish of braised pork and dried potatoes with the consistency of fried dumplings in a mild red chile sauce, and arroz con pollo is a familiar dish of chicken and rice made new with an enigmatic green sauce over a leg quarter with the character only full skin and bones can bring. We started with a Peruvian potato salad called papa a la Huancaina ($3.99), with tender potato slices covered in a yellow sauce rich with cheese and the heat from aji amarillo peppers. It comes with boiled egg and olive in the traditional style.
 
Speaking of tradition, my colleague and I started our own: the check-in call after eating raw fish from a post-apocalyptic food court. It's a rule exclusive to this place. The Highlander, we'll call it: There can be only one. I've had Peruvian-style ceviches that cost more than the $7.99 I paid at La Chaparrita, but this one was just as good. Big swirling mouthfuls of lime juice surrounded bites of tilapia, served with sweet potato and crunchy kernels of a South American corn called cancha. No need for the Highlander.
 
Ever-looking for the next Mexican Coke, we also tried Inca Kola ($1.50), made in the wilds of New Jersey. It's radioactively yellow and tastes like Big Red and makes me feel sorry for thirsty Incas everywhere. While we ordered, a customer named Ana scolded us for wondering whether to order ceviche for $7.99. "Do you want just cheap food or do you want good food?" she asked, moments before taking two orders of ceviche to go and handing us a card for her Covenant Cleaning Service. Another entrepreneur, like Susana Osorio, working any oblique angle she can find. It's just crazy enough to work.
 
Sauced
Highland Mall food court, 6001 Airport Blvd. 323-9003, www.facebook.com/saucedaustin.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.
 
Pizza at the mall is a tricky business. The woman who helped us at Sauced said as much, that kids still ask what happened to the big, greasy slices from Villa Pizza. Sauced is another local venture, started with the same eye on drawing future ACC students, making a go with its own sauce, sausage, meatballs and whatever’s good in the garden. They waved us off the basil (“the weather’s just killing my plants”) but played up sun-dried tomatoes, as sweet and chewy as raisins. They were terrific additions to a slice of pizza with a crust like a dense breadstick with a scalloped collar, deceptively sturdy for its thinness.
 
The sausage is notable for its knobby irregularity as much for its mild spice. Fresh mozzarella (for an extra charge) made a big difference on a slice, tangy and lush against the austere sauce layer and customary cheese. The three little meatballs I added to my bowl of spaghetti were dense and well-seared, more like cocktail meatballs than fatty meat-bombs, mild compared to the thin, spicy marinara.
 
A slice of pizza with pasta and a drink starts at $6. But that’s for cheese pizza. Add a few extras and things start to add up. Three two-ingredient slices, a bowl of pasta with meatballs and three drinks cost us $25. There’s a reason the kids are wondering where their big, cheap slices went.
 
Also at Highland Mall: J’s Grill with burgers and teriyaki bowls, Great Wraps and Cheesesteaks, Blender’s for juices and smoothies, Auntie Ann’s pretzels.
 
Kick Butt Coffee
5775 Airport Blvd. 454-5425, www.kickbuttcoffee.com.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Friday. 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
 
On the wall, one of those Chuck Norris posters scowls down, reminding us that when Chuck Norris was born, only the doctor cried, because nobody slaps Chuck Norris. But my favorite place-appropriate Chuckaphor is “Chuck Norris grinds his coffee with his teeth and boils the water with his own rage.”
 
Kick Butt is the enterprise of martial arts instructor Thomas Gohring, who has a tai chi/kung fu studio a little further west on the boulevard. The shop is full of anime energy generated by red paint and a bladed weapon on the wall. This feels like a coffeehouse ministry for Master Gohring. See if you can guess that day's wi-fi password: B---- L--. A perfect environment for caffeine. Ray LaMontagne’s “Barfly” is on the stereo, and there’s a full bar here, too, plus muffins and breakfast tacos and a menu of sandwiches, pizza and salads.
 
The coffee menu is a frustrating exercise. What kind of menu says a latte is “$3.89 and up”? My large latte clocked in at $4.39. I was too embarrassed at that point to back out and ask how much a small drip coffee might be. It’s not listed, so your guess is as good as mine.
 
Maybe Kick Butt’s highest recommending factor is that it’s next door to Highland Donuts, because doughnut shops are notorious for bad coffee. Then again, I can get seven glazed doughnuts for what I paid for this one latte.
 
Highland Donut
5775 Airport Blvd. 454-3888.
Hours: 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily.
 
Thinking that Kick Butt and Chuck Norris might not like it if I brought doughnuts into their muffin dojo, I carried my premium-priced latte into Highland. Sure enough, the only coffee in the place came from a burner that smelled like it had been brewed before sunup, or one of those instant cappuccino machines. I wasn’t the only one using this symbiotic strategy. They guy behind me in line at Kick Butt was right behind me at the doughnut shop, too.
 
The place is screaming yellow and Spartan as a soup kitchen. I was drawn first to breakfast sandwiches and kolaches the size of bread loaves. A fair number of doughnut shops do a decent job pulling off the split loyalty proposition of savory and sweet. That’s good, because you can balance your proteins and sugars. But here, the glazed doughnut suffers in the mix. It’s heavy and sodden, like the glaze has soaked in rather than making a sugar-shale crust on the outside.
 
The gear-shaped buttermilk doughnut got the texture right, creamy like wedding cake, but the sugar gives it a jelly-bean grit. I found a fritter I liked, full of apple bits and fried mahogany brown to give fuller texture to every ambered crag.
 
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
 

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