Review: El Alma Cafe y Cantina

 
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 09.01.11
 
The building at Dawson and Barton Springs goes through more paint than a season of HGTV. Over the last 10 years, it’s been an architecture gallery, two cafes and an Italian restaurant. The El Chile restaurant group took it over in 2009, first with El Chilito, then with El Chile and now with El Alma.
 
The building, bless its heart, has had a hard time finding the identity that suits it best. In that respect, the little adobe storefront found a soulmate in chef Alma Alcocer-Thomas. Since her 16-year run at Jeffrey’s ended in 2009, she’s worked the kitchens at Fonda San Miguel, TNT/Tacos and Tequila, Garrido’s and El Chile.
 
In July, the El Chile group put 1025 Barton Springs in her hands, gave it a fresh coat of white paint and a Joel Mozersky makeover and rechristened the restaurant El Alma. It feels like the right time and place for both.
 
El Alma brings together three experiences, really. One is the lingering traces of El Chile, another is a competent street-food aesthetic and the third is the higher place Alcocer-Thomas takes the food of her native Mexico.
 
You can’t taste Mexican Coke in a grilled pork chop so much as you can feel the way it helped tenderize the meat and leave behind that tawny glaze. Coke is an undercurrent in the chile sauce, too, and the union creates a chop that goes from a simple salute to the grill station’s skill to an appreciation for the composer of the plate. The same composer who finished on a grace note with a chile relleno overflowing with rich cheese and rice. It’s a solid value at $15.95, and it easily would have commanded another $10 or $15 at the chef’s former restaurants.
 
Enchiladas get an inspired touch through the incorporation of tender shredded duck in a familiar pasilla mole ($12.95). It’s an aromatic plate that sets you guessing the elements: Cinnamon? Clove? Cumin? Raisins? The result is a sauce that drapes like rolling velvet, finished with almonds and pickled pink onions.
 
We’re marinating in Mexican and Latin American ceviches these days, for better or worse. For better is a shrimp “chelada” ceviche ($9.95) that could be part of a breezy poolside lunch or the starter to dinner at a place where the gents have to wear close-toed shoes. It’s appropriate for either, in part because it's not just a half-dozen tail-on shrimp hanging over a martini glass. The shrimp are turned out in baroque fillets that could be mistaken for lobster given their firm but yielding texture and briny luminescence. Dusted with chile powder and garnished with cucumber, the dish is finished tableside with a tiny glass of lager. The beer awakens the collected spice and lime and keeps both in polite conversation with other. A little avocado, a pile of saltines. It invites communal entry into lunch or dinner.
 
On the other hand, a black-drum ceviche ($9.95) we ordered at El Alma’s small bar came piled in a highball glass like an aquatic clown car, spilling out in comic showers of pico and lime. It was the lull in our appreciation of El Alma, perched at the bar with ordinary margaritas and sangria, ordinary melted queso with onions and mushrooms ($7.95) and crusty empanadas like fried tamales ($7.95). And somebody south of the border is wetting his pants with laughter that we paid $6.50 for a glass of Modelo.
 
For me, that’s the lingering El Chile experience, which works in its native element but feels out of place at El Alma, where a high-low Mexican vitality makes the middle ground seem tired.
 
I like how the street comes to the table with ensalada callejera ($6.95), a collection of fresh-cut, chile-dusted jicama, cucumber, mango and carrot like you’d find at a Mexican fruit-cup stand. With lettuce, radish, avocado and a little lime, it’s a simple but transporting starter. A lunch-only special of tinga de pollo tostadas ($7.95) was deceivingly small but substantial, because the chicken was so dense and tangled, its subtle chile notes and deeper flavors resounding against a backdrop of black beans, guacamole and a slaw made from cabbage, carrots and jicama.
 
There are side dishes of beautifully blistered peppers ($2) and nicely done tacos al pastor and an even more impressive taco of carne asada grilled like steak and finished with guacamole for $3.75. Our only street sorrows came from a watery, sour ear of roasted corn with chile aioli ($3.50) and a tiny bowl of chile arbol salsa at $1.50 a shot.
 
It’s good to see life at 1025 Barton Springs, even if it's still a work in progress. Some of the waitstaff are a little green, the bar needs work and the place is still sorting out how to showcase its star. But it's alive all the same. The walls are covered with unframed canvasses loud and proud with Mexican-style pop art: a lucha libre portrait, a silky red devil riding a chile pepper. The lights are covered with thick woven baskets, and the repainted back patio, on three levels with a treeline view, will rival any outdoor escape in town once the weather breaks, if our lawns, our appetites and El Alma can hold out that long.
 
El Alma Cafe y Cantina
1025 Barton Springs Road. 609-8923, www.elalmacafe.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday-Monday. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
 
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking. Top left: Al pastor and carne asada tacos with blistered chiles. Top right: Pork chop with Mexican Coke glaze. Inset: Shrimp chelada ceviche.)