Restaurant review: Elizabeth Street Cafe

Elizabeth Street Cafe
1501 S. First St 512-291-2881, Hours: 8am to “late” daily.
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 01.18.13
Even if January isn’t the best time to talk about the charm of the outdoors, Elizabeth Street Cafe shines brightest on its courtyard, where the white, aqua and pink paint job suggest not just its French-Vietnamese colonial inspiration but how very different this space is from its bohemian predecessor, Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse, which moved to a bigger space a few blocks south and is frankly better for it.
Elizabeth Street is another project from the McGuire Moorman Hospitality group, which has a particular talent for taking unpretentious food — charcoal chicken, beachfront seafood, barbecue — and removing all traces of “un-” as it has with Fresa’s, Clark’s and Lamberts. The group has colonized Vietnamese food at Elizabeth Street, answering the question, “What if Tam Deli dressed up and charged twice the price?”
I won’t spend all your time making Tam Deli comparisons. The North Austin family shop made the Fed Man 55 at No. 24 for great Vietnamese food at an untouchable value. Their $3.99 shrimp and yam fritters are better than the $10 version at Elizabeth Street, but they’re different, rough little nuggets where the tail shells are part of the textural journey. They’re good at Elizabeth Street, too, and I’ll try to evaluate the food here for what it is rather than for what it might have been somewhere else.  
Shrimp and yam fritters at Elizabeth Street were like freestyle hash-cakes with firm strips of sweet potato like the ribs of a boat, or surrogate exoskeletons for the shrimp, firmly boiled and sectioned rather than left whole or, worse, minced. The cross-sections let the beast inhabit the whole shaggy fritter, fried crisp at the edges, resilient in the center. It’s served with a three-layer blanket of green: stalks of basil for personality, the whiter core leaves of iceberg for body and the veiny green outer leaves for show. Wrap the fritter and dip it in the little bowl of fish sauce on the sauce for tastes both Vietnamese and ballpark American.
A catch-all banh mi sandwich brought pork belly that was firm and fatty, the room-temperature expression of the form with a low-spark, salty halo. It’s the filler in this sandwich, and a good one, but the real work is done by a pork pâté and a chicken liver mousse, each with the gelatinous sweetness, brooding iron and swooning fat only a whole-animal product can bring. The pâté is cut into slices like luncheon loaf, the mousse spread like tapenade, a sandwich for times of bounty, tucked into a fresh baguette with beams of crunchy carrot, cucumber and jalapeño. It’s one thing at Elizabeth Street that feels like it’s priced where it should be at $8, a port in this French-colonial fountain of excess.
Pork belly was also a player in a bowl of pho, as tender as fall-apart carnitas. It shared the $14 bowl with coarse little meatballs angry with salt and an aromatic swirl of star anise, clove and a soft-boiled egg that bloomed with yolky gold.
Green mango and cucumber salad ($8) fell in long ribbons like sun-bleached hair, the mango and cucumber playing hide and seek with crunch and silk. Flakes of dried beef give it a waxy fattiness, and the basil shoots light into the gray spaces in-between. It’s all held together by a lightly sweet vinaigrette and a few kernels of black pepper to keep the party from getting too polite. The Arnold Palmer is part of that polite society, offered here with half lemonade, half green tea for a refined tannic bite, an herbal cooler with more of a colonial feel, golf tournament pun intended.
Elizabeth Street also trades on its colonial subculture with an all-French winelist of surprising value and charm, with glasses starting at $7 and a handful of bottles in the $20s, including my favorite cheap Bordeaux, Chateau Goudichaud ($28). They’ve begun offering their punches by the glass since my last visit, and a mix of plum wine, sake, citrus, cucumber and lemongrass is compelling at $6. There’s Kronenbourg beer and Chimay and Sapporo, and somebody in Saigon is cracking up that you’d pay $5 for a Hue, which in Vietnamese surely means “Milwaukee’s Best.”
The cafe benefits from its parent group by drawing on its siblings’ pastry chef, Alexandra Manley. The amber shale dome of a Nutella eclair housed a reservoir of hazelnut and chocolate. The canele was a scalloped pastry turret with a light and low look but a deceptively rich interior, a honeyed concentrate like tres leches. At least it would have been all those things if mine hadn’t been burned into bitterness. At $6 for the pair, they were precocious reminders that I could have filled a bag with pastries for that at La Mexicana a few blocks away and been more satisfied.
That doesn’t hold true for all the baked goods here, to be sure. Few Austin bakeries turn out a better croissant for breakfast, and housemade lychee-raspberry and guava strawberry preserves are strong reasons to show up for hot, sweet Vietnamese coffee and baked eggs with a housemade baguette for breakfast.
At $12, the grilled pork bun noodle bowl underscored what’s off-balance at Elizabeth Street. At that price, I want something more than everyday half-sticky noodles, iceberg, cucumber, radish and carrot. The pork got part of the way there, grilled brown at the fringes and juicy throughout. But if the fish sauce is doing most of the flavor work, even the pork is reinforcing the kind of privileged banality that keeps Elizabeth Street from being more than Vietnamese for the ruling class.
(TOP: Grilled marinated pork bun. FIRST INSET: From left: Green mango and cucumber salad; pork belly banh mi with pâté and chicken-liver mousse; shrimp and yam fritters. SECOND INSET: Fom left: Pho with meatballs, pork belly and soft-boiled egg; the courtyard; nutella eclair and canele. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)