The Food of Airport Boulevard, Part 3

 
Part 3: Interstate 35 to U.S. 183 (east)
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 09.08.11
 
Far different from the western and central sections of Airport Boulevard, the eastern section is more industrial, less touched by the desires of new investment. The urban “form-based” redevelopment envisioned by the City Council and neighborhood groups will take more than good intentions here. It will take sacks of money and crews to convert the empty truck depots and sprawling equipment yards into the shops and boutique homes like the Mueller development at the entryway to this final section. I didn’t say restaurants. They’re everywhere; you just have to get out of the car and look in the corners. Or around the corners, where some would argue that the ranch-ready Contigo on nearby Anchor Lane belongs on this list. It's good enough to be an honorary citizen, but let's be true to the boulevard.
 
This section of Airport, which starts at Interstate 35 and runs east until the road changes names at U.S. 183, has more fast food and fried chicken than the other two combined: Popeyes, Church’s, Golden Chick, Jack in the Box, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Subway, Taco Bell, Whataburger, Domino’s.
 
I’m not slogging along Airport in 100-degree weather to tell you what fried chicken from a chain tastes like, right? Well why not? I stopped at Church’s, Popeyes and Golden Chick for a leg apiece, and I found that in every way that counts — flavor, size, value — the shaggy leg from Golden Chick kicked some serious chicken butt. Every day, a three-piece box with two thighs and a leg is just $1.99. By comparison, that’s what a leg and thigh run at Church’s, unless it’s Tuesday, when that duo goes for 99 cents. Same story on Tuesdays at Golden Chick and at Popeyes, which gets extra points for a spicy option that truly stings.
 
Otherwise, this report covers just those restaurants with local character. The kind of character you’ll find on a street where Longhorn Fried Rice and Shaved Ice can exist as a commissary for University of Texas eggroll stands. Where an old green house that might have been the new J. Mueller BBQ sits with dejected resignation at Shady Lane. Where a sign for True Hope Church at Airport and 12th Street proclaims that “Ready or not, Jesus is coming.” Look both ways — and up — before you cross the street.
 
 
Elixer Coffee
4209 Airport Blvd. at the Mueller hangar. 689-1448, www.elixercoffee.com.
Hours: 6:30 to 11 a.m. Monday-Friday. 7 a.m. to noon Saturday-Sunday.
 
The best part about this trailer/truck and its two companions is the Mueller hangar next door, a titanic inverted half-pipe that gravity-defying skateboard gods might ride. Free wi-fi, shade and picnic tables in the middle of an urban greenbelt for a master-planned lunch.
 
Coffee from a 1952 Studebaker named Roscoe is a good idea to start with. A drink called Starter Fluid ($2.50) is an even better idea. It’s made from a locally roasted Fara Coffee poured through a cone filter into a Chemex pot, then finished with two shots of espresso. The coffee purist will tell you the espresso will cancel the smooth subtleties of the pourover. The espresso purist will tell you the black gold loses its bitter edge in the mix. I say drink whatever you like, and I like this just fine. I asked truck-driving barista Adam Christians what he makes well, and he said that while he sells a lot of lattes, the cappuccino ($3) is a shade better. It’s a drink about ratios, and this one has the right measure of froth to finish. And I’m inclined to trust a guy with the job title of truck-driving barista.
 
 
Mmmpanadas
4209 Airport Blvd. at the Mueller hangar. 788-2228, www.mmmpanadas.com.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily.
 
The bright red van was resident at Second and Congress for awhile, a venture started by Cody and Kristen Fields in 2008. These days it’s at the hangar, retrofitted and ready after a month’s absence. Their specialty is flaky but substantial half-moons of pastry filled with things like asparagus and prosciutto or green chile chicken or s’mores at $3.50 each. A perfectly crimped and browned pie called the Argentinian is ground beef with the big herbs and light heat of chimichurri with boiled egg for an extra boost of protein. Ask for chipotle mayo on that one, but get the lemon garlic for an empanada filled with spinach and mushroom. The tart-savory sauce will wake up an empanada that by design absorbs and reflects whatever you put on it. Two pies and you can call it lunch. Maybe next time, a coffee from Elixer and a mango-ginger empanada.
 
Short Bus Subs
4209 Airport Blvd. at the Mueller hangar. 535-SUBS, www.shortbussubs.com.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
 
It’s that little yellow schoolbus with the name that hits me wrong. But it’s part of a theme in which the sandwiches are named for the characters who will be part of our kids’ lives for the next nine months. I’ve eaten the Italian sub called the Bully here, with pepperoni, salami and capicola. And I’ve had one of my favorite sandwiches in Austin here, the Buffalo chicken Mascot with fiery red sauce and cheese on a bun toasted crisp then loaded with tomato and shredded lettuce. A lot of flavor at $5.49 for a filling 6-inch sub.
 
For this report, I was disappointed in bitter shredded lettuce and undercooked bacon on a club sandwich called the Principal and an under-provisioned sandwich-of-the-day with salami, mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and sun-dried tomato pesto. Both suffered from too little time in the toaster, the crisp touch that sets this mobile loaves wagon apart. Without that edge, the bread is more like ordinary sub-shop bread, and I know they can do better. That didn’t deter the doctor’s office that ordered a hatchback full of sandwiches in front of me, and I imagine the crush had something to do with my experience. So I’m running half and half on the Short Bus, hoping for the full ride to return.
 
 
La Fruta Feliz
3124 Manor Road. 961-5013.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday. 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday. 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
 
One block off Airport on Manor Road. La Fruta Feliz lets you taste the fresh side of the Mexican repertoire. It’s there in a simple shrimp cocktail ($7.99/large) with onions and tomato and cilantro and the best thing of all: orange soda, a style common in the markets of Mexico City. The bubbles bring the big schooner glass alive, and the soda turns the shrimp an electric orange, and that’s a lot of orange in a glass this big. The cocktail gets an avocado crown and a toasted carpet of saltines. It looks like a baroque food sculpture a viceroy would commission to show off how good he’s got it.
 
In that same spirit of freshness comes a fruit cocktail, really just a slice-and-dice of fruit and cucumber in a 20-ounce styrofoam cup for $3.50. Mine has cucumber, papaya, green mango, strawberry, cantaloupe and watermelon. To dress it out street-style, they give you a shaker of Tajin brand seasoning with chiles and salt and dehydrated lime. It’s salty and sweet and hot all in one shaker bottle, and it brings out the best in every fruit and makes the cucumber dance like a showgirl. But the best part of it is the disclaimer printed on the plastic collar: “This is not a candy.” Says you.
 
La Fruta Feliz also does a full roster of breakfast and lunch border foods, including menudo, barbacoa, enchiladas and tacos with most of the egg-and-filler combinations in the known universe. A taco al pastor brought dark orange pieces of chewy pork with chopped onions and cilantro in a doubled-up corn tortilla for $1.50. With a cold bottle of Sidral Mundet apple soda, it fills the space between breakfast and lunch.
 
Terry’s Seafood & Chicken
1805 Airport Blvd. 477-3233.
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Thursday. 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.
 
If I sold crystal, my first stop would be Terry’s. I’m talking about salt and sugar, because they must use it by the tankerload here, the salt for the universal fryer breading and the sugar for lemonade and iced tea and coleslaw as sweet as tapioca pudding. Get past that and you’re into serious filler by the pound, starting with a $3.99 menu that includes fries and combinations of fried fish, chicken and shrimp. There are clams and oysters and catfish and chicken gizzards, too, just about anything that will stand still for a flour dusting and a dunk in hot oil.
 
An all-in-one dinner that could feed two people for $7.99 includes a big piece of fishy cod, two shrimp puffed up like lionfish butterflied and breaded and two chicken wings that taste like they came from an iron skillet. The first two I’d never order again, but the chicken is nice, peppered and speckled with the bass notes of dark meat. The plate keeps going with thick-cut fries, hush puppies and confetti-ed coleslaw. Throw in the grocery-store roll, and it’s a Styrofoam clamshell that groans with expansive pressure. I like the painted windows and the long blue counters with swivel stools that lie in a room to the side of the ordering window, like the servants’ galley of a steamship. The effect is like the Frying Dutchman from “The Simpsons,” except that even Homer would get full eventually.
 
El Rey
3306 Oak Springs. 524-4179.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
 
El Rey and Mi Casita have you coming and going on Airport. The sister restaurants have the same menu, the same decor, the same hours. El Rey is just one parking lot away from Airport on Oak Springs, so it counts. I order horchata, and it’s so full of sugar it’s gritty, like a little milled rice had been tossed in for texture. But it comes in a real glass, a real big glass, and I’m halfway through it before I know it. Drop some rum in that and you’d have Christmastime in September.
 
El Rey has pork al pastor you could use as traffic cones, it’s so orange. It’s cooked with crispy edges and herbs and chiles and something tart like citrus, but not pineapple, at least not mixed in with the meat. Homestyle corn tortilla. I’m happy to see cabrito on the taco list. It’s moist and cooked like a perfect brisket without the smoke. Instead I get light aromatics to cross with chopped onions and cilantro. It’s generous and unusual, with the taste that keeps us forever in search of alternatives to the things we eat every day. I can’t remember the last time I ate better cabrito for money like this — or any other money. Even the flour tortilla is cooked right, with just enough toastiness at the edges to hold this taco together.
 
El Rey abuts a Jack in the Box parking lot and a little rustic barnyard with a tumbledown horse barn. With a horse in it. Welcome to Airport.
 
Short Stop
1144 Airport Blvd. 928-1010.
 
We used to play the what-used-to-be-a-Short-Stop game. The little burger boxes have become homes for a P. Terry’s and a Thundercloud Subs on South Lamar, a cigarette shop and a salad place in South Austin. They’re the Kodak film kiosks of the fast-food world, except that most of you have only seen one of those booths in “Back to the Future.” It’s a double-sided drive-through with ordinary burgers and fries and a decent cherry limeade.
 
Best Stop Food Market
1130 Airport Blvd. 928-1235.
Hours: 5:30 a.m. to midnight Monday-Friday. 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday. 7 a.m. to midnight Sunday.
 
This unassuming convenience store promises hot wings, tacos, burritos and eggrolls, plus phone cards and lighters at two for a dollar. I’ve never seen a store with so many flavors of Mad Dog 20/20 (six), and there’s the ubiquitous bin full of iced down tallboys of beer and twisted teas and ... is that Four Loko? Yes. It’s a little early in the day for a caffeine-and-alcohol cocktail, so I’ll settle for Jumex mango nectar. A ranchero-style fajita taco ($1.89) is like a tortilla hoagie stuffed with sausage and peppers, scooped from a deep steamer pan of onions and green peppers and tomatoes. The meat has some character, like the lunch counter itself. A carne guisada taco ($1.89) drips like a gravy spigot, but it’s a mouthful of tender roast beef. The counter looks like a warming bin for the deep fryers, with corndogs and fried chicken and jalapeño poppers. A box so stuffed with fried catfish that it needs tape to hold it shut is just $2.99, and chopped barbecue on a bun goes for $2.49.
 
Dan's Hamburgers
844 Airport Blvd. 385-2262.
Hours: 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday. 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
 
Every Dan's building looks like it's been here before, which is to say forever and for better or worse. Way east on Airport, this one looks like it might have been a steakhouse, with its Ponderosa gables and a fireplace laid with bricks in a '70s scorched-earth color palette that includes burnt orange. We had lunch with UT coach Mack Brown there in late July, meaning we were in the restaurant at the same time. Nobody dared to order the No. 5 so soon after the preseason Big 12 polls came out, but we showed our support with onion rings the color of Longhorn home jerseys.
 
Burgers come in three sizes in full PLOT dress (we'll call that text shorthand for pickles-lettuce-onions-tomato), starting at $2.29 and going up to $6.79 for a double with cheese. Breakfast here means biscuits with sausage gravy and eggs from Congdon Farms. Dan's owner Katie Congdon married the egg salesman. That's some strong family networking.
 
Mi Casita
817 Airport Blvd. 389-2227.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
 
It’s a festive yellow, inside and out, maybe a little far to the left of the rainbow for what I need Mi Casita for today. And that’s a fortifying hangover breakfast of chilaquiles and chicken soup. It’s preceded by two salsas — a mild tomato red and a swamp-brown tangle of tomatillo and jalapeño that will open your eyes a little wider. Chilaquiles are only $4.99 at breakfast, and they include two eggs any style over tortilla chips baked with cheese and salsa verde (or roja), plus potatoes and beans and tortillas. A little starch to start your engine. Ideally, I like my chilaquiles to have a little snap left in them. Otherwise it’s a plate of unraveled enchiladas smothered in sour cream and queso blanco. But the eggs are cooked a perfect over-easy, and a swirl of egg, chips, salsa, fried potatoes and stewed frijoles tastes like breakfast to me.
 
The chicken soup ($5.99) is pure medicine, a living bowl with carrots, squash, potato and cilantro in a shiny broth with a touch of tomato. A chicken leg and thigh give the soup an almost primal draw, and I’m eyeballing my spoon with scorn, because the civility it represents is getting in the way of eating this with my hands the way the pagan gods intended.
 
My hangover gets the soup; my friend’s hangover gets the chilaquiles. We both get a pretty good deal. The rest of the menu spans the border repertoire just like its sister restaurant El Rey, with tacos (lengua, barbacoa, chicharrones and the usuals), tortas, enchilada plates and mixed grills. Avoid the toxic coffee and try another agua fresca, this time a little restorative tamarind.
 
Ibarra taco trailer
Near 760 Airport Blvd. 696-8000.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday-Friday.
 
This little white trailer on a huge empty lot has a now-you-see-it-now-you don’t look to it, with a big white dually truck ready to hitch on, but  there’s a picnic table and a bunch of guys next to it, so I figure it’s here more often than not. As you head east look for a water tank on the right that says “water tanks,” and you’re in the right place. The beef fajita ranchera taco ($1.75) has a sweet, fiery mix of sauteed jalapeño, onion and tomato with shreds of meat heavy on the salt and pepper, but with good grilled flavor and a flour tortilla that’s just starting to turn crispy on the edges. The egg in a bean and egg taco ($1.25) is fried rather than scrambled, and it holds the taco together better and really plays up the taste of the yolk. It’s a $3 lunch with the fuel to keep you going. Just ask all the guys in big trucks and even bigger trucks who roar in for a bag and move just as quickly away. It’s about as stripped-down a lunch wagon as they come. Like roadside camping at the spot where Airport Boulevard trails off to Bastrop and Lockhart and other points east and south.
 
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
 

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