Novemburger: The League Kitchen & Tavern

Because 50 Burgers, 50 Days wasn’t enough, I’ll write about a new burger every day this month. And next. We’ll call that Decemburger.
Day 13: The League Kitchen & Tavern
1310 RM 620 S. 263-3279,
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 11.13.11
At the League, a wall full of grim Prohibitionists looks balefully onto the dining room where you’re drinking your Dogfish Head Indian Brown. It’s a sprawling black-and-white mural of New York’s Anti-Tavern League, a wry touch for a place with the swaggering “Boardwalk Empire” feel of the Gay ‘20s — or at least from the Prohibition standpoint, the Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell ‘20s.
The menu reads like a chophouse from that era, the kind I read about in William Grimes' gut-busting history of New York restaurants called “Appetite City,” with sandwiches and chops and steaks, even a three-egg breakfast with biscuits and jalapeño gravy served all day. Dig just a little deeper, and you find that the salmon is cut from whole fresh fish, that the chicken in a grilled chicken sandwich is cooked sous vide before it’s finished on the grill, that the hamburgers are a fresh blend of brisket and chuck, overseen by chef Devan Gernert, who worked for Nobu in Dallas and with David Bull at the Stoneleigh before Bull’s triumphant return to Austin at Congress and Second Bar + Kitchen. If you like those places, hold a good thought for Gernert, who helped put their menus together.
For a place that’s been around just a few weeks, the League has some history behind it.
Walking in, I see Paul Brodsky, the headwaiter from the late Backstage Steakhouse, with whom I worked a couple of hectic shifts late in that restaurant’s life. Brodsky also worked for Tony Ciola at Tony C’s Coal Fired Pizza in the Hill Country Galleria, and Ciola happens to be one of the partners at the League. It’s a natural fit for Ciola, whose father, Dan Ciola, ran Ciola’s Italian-American-restaurant in the same Lakeway space as the League before he sold the business in 2010. The restaurant changed its name to Dominick’s, and that venture closed this summer.
I also see League director of operations Cliff Abrahams. I remember him from an interview at Tony C’s a few weeks after the pizzeria opened. The coal oven was still cranky, a floor manager was having a meltdown and a kid pulled the fire alarm three times while we talked. Abrahams shrugged, kept his cool, dealt with it. By comparison, a Saturday at the League was a stroll on the boardwalk.
The burger: For $12, the Southern Burger is 8 ounces of chuck and brisket, ground in-house with a generous grain, seared off to a bright medium-rare with real flavor and quadrillage from the grill. It’s dressed with white cheddar and crisp, thick-cut strips of sugar-cured bacon, topped with lacy fried onions and Brooklyn barbecue sauce in a feathery challah bun. I also appreciate a side of bread-and-butter pickles brought in from Nathan’s.
Fries or rings? The burger plate comes with regular fries, but I break form to try the truffled version for $3 more. They’re pleasantly subtle, with the earthy, musky truffle flavor built into the dusting of salt and parmesan cheese, cut to a medium thickness with skins on, a balance of breakaway crispness and soft potato flesh. A side of ribbon-thin Tabasco fried onions ($4) works better as a burger garnish than as a side, but there are sweet potatoes and mac and cheese for next time.
Note: I saw and talked with the staff at the League, but as always, I paid my own check and accepted no extras. The visit was not prearranged. Except for Brodsky, the conversations came after the food was served.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)