Steaks on a Plane: The Food of Airport Boulevard, Part 1

 

 

Part 1: Koenig Lane to Interstate 35 (central)
 
By Mike Sutter / Fed Man Walking / 08.11.11
 
The City of Austin has hired a consultant to help reimagine Airport Boulevard with "form-based" zoning, which is bureauspeak for, "Let's keep everything we like — Quality Seafood's V-shaped marquee, Mrs. Johnson's Bakery, Lammes Candies — and replace the rest with retail/residential omnibuildings that are more aesthetically pleasing to the pedestrians who might sprout along the dirty boulevard like La Niña bluebonnets. If only real life could be more like the Domain. This summer, the consultant invited locals with cameras to shoot pictures of what they like (world peace, things with "character") and what they don't (mean people, car lots). Consider these my portraits of Airport Boulevard as it is now. And while somebody else figures out how to have a five-lane east-west traffic artery with no gas stations or tire shops, let's see what there is to eat around here. We'll start with the center stretch of Airport, the part with the highest density of high-profile places, from Koenig Lane to Interstate 35.
 
Quality Seafood 
5621 Airport Blvd. 452-3820, www.qualityseafoodmarket.com.
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9p.m. Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.
 
Quality Seafood is a mixed-use kind of place, part working-class coastal bar, part grocery-store fish case with salmon burger patties for $7.99 a pound and part mid-century fish house, which it is, the kind where you order at the back counter and slurp down resurgent Gulf oysters ($6.99 a half-dozen) from the bar and finish with lacquer-crusted blueberry pie ($2.99) as thick as jarred preserves. The place is a madhouse on Tuesday nights, when a taco is just two bucks and so is a draft beer to wash it down. But madness is relative, and even at noon on a Wednesday the dining room is packed like the seafood case's display of Texas black drum ($3.69 a pound). A big grilled fillet of that same drum is $13.99 with two sides. It's not a complicated fish, like a textural cross between halibut and trout, and Quality keeps it simple, with little more than salt, pepper and the crosshatched character of the grill. With sauteed green beans and mayo-mustard potato salad or any other combination of two sides, it's among the most expensive things on the menu and not nearly as much fun as, say, a shrimp po' boy for $10.99 with cream-style slaw and a novel dish of mac and cheese made with spaghetti noodles. The sandwich comes on a toasted roll crushed liked a showercap over crispy shrimp and bright tomato. "Salt of the earth" describes our blackened fish taco ($4.39 at regular price), meaning too much of the former and the river-bottom loaminess of the latter.
 
Burger Tex
5420 Airport Blvd. 453-8772, www.burgertex.com.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.

 

An interior like your stepfather's rec room. There's a lacquered table shaped like Texas, a dartboard with its scoring wire hanging to one side, clompy wood floors and claustrophobic tan brick walls decked with gassy red neon beer signs that date the place like a drawer full of tubetops. But unlike your stepfather, Burger Tex trusts you. It trusts you to pick the size of your burger (4-, 6- or 8-ounce). It trusts you to dress it yourself with tomato, shredded lettuce, jalapenos, barbecue sauce, whatever, from a salad bar in the center of the room. It trusts you NOT to build a whole salad from that bar. It trusts you to appreciate those soft house-baked rolls. And trust me when I tell you to order this: a spicy-sweet Korean hash of thin-sliced ribeye called a bulgoki burger ($4.99) and onion rings ($2.31) as ragged as your stepfather's 1970s man-cave.
 
Lammes Candies
5330 Airport Blvd. 453-2899, www.lammescandies.com.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
 
Candy is food. Break it down: milk, sugar, nuts, cocoa beans. I can rationalize that. Candy is at the very least coffee, at least when you coat roasted beans with milk chocolate. The Lammes lamb-and-candy-cane sign is a navigational landmark on Airport, a red-and-white link to a legacy that stretches back to 1956 on this street and as far back as 1885 in Austin altogether. The candy shop in this long, low building is just the public face of a factory where they actually produce the pralines, Longhorns, Choc'Adillos and Sherbet Mints that line the shelves and glass cases. Two shop empoyees told me that when they're making anything with mint, the vapors envelop the whole place. Full-body aromatherapy. But the attraction here is the praline. Nevermind the chalky tan sugar-bombs on cafe counters. The Lammes "Texas Chewie" praline ($1.20) is soft bronze caramel with crisp pecan nuggets. Coated with chocolate, it becomes a Longhorn, a tradition as valid as the football team a few miles south.
 
 
East Side Pies
5312 Airport Blvd., Suite G. 454-7437, www.eastsidepies.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday, until 11 p.m. Friday. Noon to 11 p.m. Saturday. Noon to 10 Sunday.
 
A stunning mural covers one side of East Side Pies. Pop-culture icons like Gandhi, R2D2, Nixon and the Clash wait with tickets in hand for pizza against an Austin skyline, the whole thing rendered in black, white, red and yellow by Austin cartoonist/illustrator Aaron Miller. It's a traffic stopper, except that it doesn't face the street. It faces the Metro Rail line and the diagonal curiosity called Bruning Avenue. It's invisible from Airport.
 
East Side Pies itself is hard to spot if you're not looking for it. But it's hard to miss for pizza people who immediately saw a power struggle in the making between House Pizzeria and East Side when the latter opened in October 2010 as a delivery/takeout extension of the tiny shop on Rosewood Avenue. I say there's room for both, because House works in a Neapolitan style and East Side bakes a Chicago-born thin crust with crackery edges. Thank founders Michael Freid and Noah Polk for that, but save some gratitude for Freid's brother Paul (pictured above), who moved to Austin from Chicago during the summer we hit 100-plus for more than 60 days. Paul Freid said he lost 12 pounds working in the un-air-conditioned original shop. Now he makes the dough for both shops, working from Airport's expansive but precision-impaired space.
 
You'll find no slices here. Pies start at 14 inches, which is the emerging industry standard for large. But East Side's large is a box-challenging 18 inches, with slices cut the size of Cubs penants. Ask for a specialty pizza (18 inches $22.50/14 inches $17) with half Homer, half Marge to get an idea of East Side's craft. Homer packs red peppers and housemade meatballs like bites of Italian meatloaf, plus ninja cuts of habanero pepper to deliver heat without pain. Marge is short for Margherita, with a filigree of basil with cherry tomatoes and mozzarella. Don't look for a lot of sauce, and use both hands, because that thin crust holds its structural integrity only at the crustline. East Side makes a ricotta-based white pie called the Moon Tower with feta, mozzarella, Romano and goat cheeses. Add gorgonzola to make it a Blue Moon, and you'll have a cheese pizza worth setting your GPS for.

The Stallion Grill

5201 Airport Blvd. 380-9433, www.stalliongrill.com.
Hours: 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

 

"We don't have decaf," the man in the baseball hat said. "Kind of defeats the purpose." I hadn't asked, but maybe I looked like a guy who needed to calm down a little. When you're a breakfast destination on a road checkered by county offices and white work trucks, you need that kind of direct logic. The breakfast menu is equally direct: breakfast tacos, biscuits and gravy, eggs and bacon. And this: chicken-fried steak ($6.99). I'm secretly thankful I don't have the kind of job that would burn off a big CFS with two sunny-side eggs and a biscuit by lunchtime. I'm equally thankful I didn't have to burn it off the morning the steak was the patchy brown color of overworked fryer grease and the eggs ran yellow with too much flat-top oil. Had I been there closer to 11, I'd have held out for the steamer pans of sweet potatoes, collard greens and black-eyed peas set up for the lunch crowds. In a world where it's OK to have breaded steak and gravy for breakfast, why not yams and cabbage? Tuesdays are turkey and dressing days at the Stallion. Thick slices of roasted turkey, crumbly cornbread dressing and two sides. Finally got my stewed greens with tomatoes and sweet potatoes like an oven-glazed pie minus the crust. All that and a cornbread roll for $7.99. The cafeteria-style line was fast and friendly. "Glad you could make time in your day for some good food," the young server told me. And it was good, except for gravy that cast a searing salty net over the plate. Ask for it on the side, or better yet not at all. At this place where guys with nametags sewn on their shirts go for lunch, I admired the market savvy and windmill-tilting of the pilates ad on the house across the street.

 

House Pizzeria

5111 Airport Blvd. 600-4999, www.housepizzeria.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Closed Monday.
 
Surely the best pizza ever to come from a converted KFC. If this is redevelopment at work, then let's put a pizza oven on every block and promise thin crusts with crunch and character. For the Margherita Extra ($11) let's codify sweet tomato sauce and buffalo mozzarella and drop basil leaves like gum wrappers. Let the citizenry have a moment at the microphone to wonder aloud why we can't have sliced tomatoes, and let another bore us with a resolution to honor Italy's Queen Margherita for inspiring the pie's patriotic pallette of red, white and green. I'll start a groundswell of support for the Subterranean pizza ($10), with its earthbound mix of caramelized onion, mushrooms and rosemary roasted potatoes. While you lodge a petition against the strawberry-goat cheese salad for being as dry as a recitation of the minutes, I'll adjourn to the bar for something else that's dry, but in a good way: an opaque pint of Circle Brewing's Nightlight stout ($4). We'll agree unanimously that for an order-at-the-counter place, they treat you like they're running for re-election. Vote yes.

La Canaria
5101 Airport Blvd., a trailer at the 1 Stop convenience store.
Hours: 7 a.m to 11 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
 
How I almost missed a taco trailer painted yellow, red and green is beyond me. I'd have missed a shop-quality sandwich (torta) on a toasted bolillo roll with bites of beef fajita meat dressed with tomato, avocado, shredded lettuce and queso fresco. Or a gordita like a stuffed pita, garnished like the torta except for ochre red al pastor meat. Both were a solid start on lunch. For breakfast, a taco with egg and nopales filled the void with strips of tender cactus like defanged jalapenos. Add back the fangs with fiery red chile sauce. Tortas aren't on the menu, and I'm not sure how much I owed, but the menu says gorditas are about $3.50 and tacos start at $1.50. Here's a point of trailer etiquette: If there's a language barrier, don't argue over getting charged $10 when your food might have been $9.25 unless you can say $9.25. Consider it a tip, then add another dollar or two, because cooking in a trailer is like working the devil's dancefloor.
 
Casey's New Orleans Snowballs
808 E. 51st St. 345-2999.
Hours: Noon to 9 p.m. daily. Closes for the season after Labor Day.
 
Snowcones aren't supposed to look like this, as deep brown and red as a sandstone canyon sunset. It's just syrup and ice. But Casey's new-powder crystals both absorb and reflect the colors and flavors of the clear-bottle chemistry lab. Tiger's blood, hurricane, wedding cake, fireball. Rainbows of mango, watermelon and blueberry. Cream flavors open up studies in Boston cream pie and cafe au lait, or a chocolate that's like drinking Hershey's straight from the can, turned to cordial candy with a splash of cherry ($3 for a medium).
 
Ask anybody with ACL Festival tickets and they'll tell you there's plenty of summer left after Sept. 5, but Labor Day is when Casey's shuts down for the season. Stand on the creaky wooden porch after Labor Day and imagine if all of the Airport area's tumble-down icons were boarded up, and not just until spring. Sometimes the price of progress is another Yogurt Planet. Meanwhile, I'm just fine with Casey's chocolate-cherry New Orleans. (At left, Reeves Wilson at Casey's.)
 
Tamale House
5003 Airport Blvd. 453-9842.
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday. 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.
 
There are signs at the Tamale House. Signs that say "no separate checks." Signs that tell you to check your order before you leave, because after that, tough luck. Signs that ask your wilting friend to stow her complaints about the lack of air conditioning, because sweat equity is subsidizing those cheap tacos. And that's where the most important sign comes in, the one that says "Tacos 85 Cents." The choices for the two-ingredient foldovers multiply like combinations on a lock: eggs or chorizo or beans or potatoes or rice or cheese in any order, plus another 30 cents for more cheese or guacamole as fluid as avocado gazpacho. Chunks of bacon shower down in gluttonous handfuls. The parking lot is a tiny Jenga-block puzzle grid, and you'll stand in an undisciplined rabble near the counter while fans swirl the hot baconated air around you and the cashier's fingers fly over the register keys in a supersonic blur. But I don't want to hear your complaints, Captain Fancy Pants. A "Regular Dinner" packs a pair of cheese enchiladas, rice, beans, a crispy beef taco, flour tortillas and a slathering of chunky, stomach-churning chili gravy into a groaning styrofoam clamshell for just $3.50. In the morning, swim with your cheesy migas for $4.25 with beans and potatoes. Yes, it's a sloshy hot mess of eggs and tomato skins and tangled corn tortillas. But if we forgave Robert Downey Jr., we can forgive the Tamale House. But that Iron Man constitution? You're going to need that.
 
 
Sushi-A-Go-Go/Komé
4917 Airport Blvd. 560-1655, www.sushi-a-go-go-austin.com.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday, until 8:30 p.m. Friday. Noon to 8:30 p.m. Saturday. Noon to 7 p.m. Sunday.
 
Japanese natives Kayo (left) and Také Asazu helped take the trailer movement to a higher place two years ago with their first Sushi-A-Go-Go trailer. If raw fish and maki can work from a trailer window, why not everything else? They've expanded the fleet to two, and while one trailer stays at 801 Barton Springs Road, another rests on Airport Boulevard now, keeping watch over the restaurant the Asazus will open when the renovations are finished, possibly as early as September.
 
The new place, which will be called Komé, the Japanese word for rice, is rising from the shell of the former Potro Salvaje bar and grill, and already one exterior wall is sheathed in slats of sawn wood while the space inside is gutted to the floors to make room for a kitchen, sushi bar and 36 seats. A Japanese friend named Kazuya Owada designed Komé, and another friend from Japan, Masataka Oki, came to help with construction. One hot July morning, Kayo Asazu caught a nap on a back-corner bench while the men worked on one room with wood floors and a portico of vertical bars to break up the light. Kayo Asazu said the Airport location appealed to them for several reasons. The city's interest in renovating the boulevard. And it was already a restaurant space with a small, older neighborhood behind it, a neighborhood backfilling with young couples, artists and others who might embrace having a Japanese restaurant within walking distance. "People are so happy we're building a restaurant there," she said between customers at the Barton Springs trailer. "There's not that much Japanese on that side of Lamar, and I thought, 'This is the place I need to be.' "
 
Komé will serve both sushi and Japanese comfort food, Asazu said, the kind of food she serves at home, including donburi and noodles. Her husband, Také, works part-time and Uchi, much of the time at the Barton Springs trailer and will somehow find time to be executive chef at Komé. They plan to sell beer and sake, possibly even a locally brewed brand from Yoed Anis' Texas Sake Co. Until Komé opens, the trailer will have to carry the load. A surf-and-turf roll ($7.50) brings the hot bite of candied jalapeño to a blend of grilled steak and tempura-fried shrimp, rolled with avocado for texture and finished with toasted sesame seeds and spicy green mayo. A veggie roll ($5) blooms with asparagus, cucumber and other shades of green in a tourmalinic soy wrapper. The bouquet bristles with matchstick carrots for a composed salad by-the-bite, a progressive food on any street, even more so on Airport.
 
Mrs. Johnson's Bakery
4909 Airport Blvd. 452-4750, www.mjbakery.com.
Hours: 7:30 p.m. to noon the next day, every day.
 
On late-night runs from the University of Texas in the early '80s, we used to call Mrs. Johnson's "Drunken Donuts," because it seemed HILARIOUS at the time, dude. In these more responsible times, doughnuts run 55 cents for air-squished glazed and chocolate iced, or 75 cents for apple fritters armored with cinnamon glaze over a custardlike center. And be quiet already about your workday. Gopal Patel, who started with the bakery in 1982 straight out of India and bought the place in 1994, works 18 hours a day. From 6 p.m. one day until noon the next. While you're watching another "Law & Order" on TNT, he's running out another rack of hot glazed, ready to hand you one just for walking in, the way it's been for decades beneath the spectral glare of those flourescent awnings at Mrs. Johnson's, for you and your sticky fingers.
 
Jalapeño Joe's
4905 Airport Blvd. 451-3326, www.jalapenojoes.com.
Hours: 6:20 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday. 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.
 
On a hypothetical lunch junket on Airport, I'm driving southeast, let's say. Burgers or Tex-Mex? I'm undecided, so I let Burger Tex pass by on the right. A few blocks down, I think about Tamale House just long enough to miss the left turn. Do I make a U-turn? No, because I can go a few blocks and get both at Jalapeno Joe's. Less-engaging forms of both, but sometimes lunch is just a fill-up, and Joe's is a walk-up filling station from the small-town Tastee Kreme architecture handbook. One window to order, one to pick up, a few tables on the covered patio. A Johnny Boy Special ($3.69, plus 30 cents for cheese) comes with a burger, a choice of hand-cut or regular fries and a drink. It's a functional burger, your basic shredded lettuce, tomato and mustard, a quarter-pound from the flat-top. Can't imagine who'd take fries from a bag versus hand-cut, even when they're soft and languid like they've been steamed instead of fried. I was suprised at how small a pork al pastor taco was for $2.25, and that it was folded into a single corn tortilla. Doubling up on corn tortillas is common practice, and for a reason: to keep everything from falling out as the tortillas tear and split. At Joe's, that dry and mild al pastor rushed out in cubes with cilantro and cooked onions, more like it was stir-fried than spit-roasted. But one thing will bring me back: Joe's will put an over-easy egg in your breakfast taco, and at $1.45 with cheese and chorizo, it's a golden, fortifying torrent of protein. You can get it right on through lunch, but from 9:30 to 11 a.m., three-item breakfast tacos are just 99 cents.
 
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
 

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