Friday, August 22, 2014

Burger Not a Smash


Yesterday, while I was waiting on some reading glasses in Southpark Meadows, I had a little time to kill. I hadn’t eaten all day and was starving, and had a hankering for an Italian sub from Jersey Mike’s (they make great subs, by the way). But a couple of building islands down was Smashburger, and a buddy of mine had just told me about going there and liking their burger, so I figured, what the hell, I’ll give it a shot. He's the same dude that turned me on to Jersey Mike's.

pooch seems to like it, from

Smashburger started in Denver as an offshoot of Quizno’s Subs and they are one of the fastest growing franchises in recent history. They take a meatball of fresh Angus beef and smash the hell out of it onto the butter-laden griddle, forming it into a flat patty with one fell swoop. Supposedly it came to them in a flash of brilliance, and when they considered a name, Smashburger seemed obvious. Turns out the real Smashburger started over 50 years ago in Ashland, Kentucky, perched in the Appalachian Mountains. Dairy Cheer hamburger shop owner Bill Culvertson created the “smashburger” when a worker discovered that smashing the meat with a No. 10 bean can while grilling the patty was a great way to get the best flavor into a burger. Culvertson started his Dairy Cheer cafe as an offshoot of a DQ; he dropped DQ when they refused to let him sell hot dogs and burgers.

Culvertson eventually sold his Dairy Cheer smashburger business to Lou Compton, a woman in Pikeville who saw an opportunity to franchise the popular burger business. She and her husband opened a few stores, trademarking the motto “Home of the Smashburger”, and she collected royalties for 35 years. One day a customer came in telling her about a new Smashburger that had opened up in Lexington; same name, similar red and white artwork, similar cooking method. She sued and apparently got a good settlement, but the court outcome is mysterious.

Maybe the Colorado boys developed their project independently of the Kentucky folks, and maybe they didn’t. I’m more inclined to see Smashburger as a rip-off of Five Guys (the burger smasher looks very similar), and I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen and read about a lot of old-time smashburgers around the country on George Motz’s burger show, so it’s not a unique idea, or even an original concept, but you can’t use a trademarked name without coughing up some bucks.

I’ll also admit to being predisposed against meat manipulation. I’m a big believer that when you cook a hamburger, you do as little as possible to the meat. You mix it as little as possible, you form the patty as gently as possible, and you don’t jack with it once it hits the grill, except to lovingly turn it over one time during the cooking process. Smashing is not in my vocabulary. But the smashing wasn’t my real problem with this burger.

But, back to my burger at Southpark Meadows. I got a “Big Classic” with cheese and bacon. Lettuce and tomato are options for some reason, at no extra cost. I don’t really understand that angle, other than thinking that if they are optional, people might forget to ask for them, and the company can save some money. The patty stuck out the sides of the bun, extruded outward by the smashing process, and it was juicy and beefy tasting. The cheese had no flavor to speak of; certainly not a cheddar taste, with a texture and flavor more like a processed cheese. The apple-smoked bacon was thick-sliced, and crispy, and gorgeous, and there were three slices applied, but, oddly, it didn't really have much bacon flavor. The pickles, tomato, lettuce, and red onion (chintzy application of this item), were stars of the Big Classic show. The egg bun was stale and little on the chewy side, with no flavor to speak of; it was more of a containment device than a flavor contributor. First bite and I was ambivalent, and after eating the whole thing, I gave it a solid “It was okay.” It was juicy, but after examining the puddle in the basket, it was totally clear and oily (perhaps the “butter” they cook the meat in on the griddle?), with no signs of colored meat juices. It was a grease bomb, which normally wouldn’t repel me, but it managed to be greasy with no flavor.

On the side I opted for their haystack onion fries, which are thin-sliced onions that are “hand-breaded” (how else would one bread thin sliced onions?) and served with chipotle aioli. The breading managed to stay on the onions, and they were crispy, but they tasted more of overly salted breading than onion and the chipotle and garlic in the mayo were way too subtle. Another big problem is that they are hard to get from basket to mouth without crumbling all over the front of your shirt. I’ll take a quality brand frozen, machine-breaded, big-ass, 
thick onion ring over these skinny puppies any day.

Bottom line? I got my glasses, spent $10.05 and tried Smashburger, and managed to navigate the traffic hell that is Southpark Meadows without incident. The burger was just okay, and I’ll probably never go back. Exact same thing I said about Five Guys. My guess is that the Dairy Cheer in Ashland, KY would make me a lot happier than either Smashburger or Five Guys, and yesterday, I really should have gone to Jersey Mike’s.

Mick Vann©


Monday, August 11, 2014

Sichuan River, Replaces Tien Jin

So we dropped by the old Tien Jin/new Sichuan River for lunch on Saturday, just to try it out. I was curious, since there seemed to be some affiliation with A+A Sichuan China, and I had heard that it was a renegade defection (ironic, since that’s what created A+A from Asia Café), but also heard that it was a completely sanctioned and affiliated expansion. Turns out neither is true. One of the principals of A+A has partnered as an investor with the Sichuan River owner, but has not left A+A. The menus are different, and the stuff that they both do is even different.


Michael and Johanna Chau had run Tien Jin for the last 21 years, cranking out their fine version of Hong Kong-style Cantonese, one of the very few cooking this style in Austin. Their youngest son had just graduated high school, and Michael wanted to complete his Chinese Medicine degree, so they sold to the new folks. The name outside hasn’t changed, and nothing inside has either, except for the desktop-printed menus. They have two: an American-Chinese standard item menu, and the Sichuan menu. For a peek at the Sichuan version see here:
There is also a lunch special menu, pictured here:

From the American menu we ordered their Hot and Sour soup ($1.50 - SP3) which has a nice  rich, porky stock (but no actual minced pork), and good balance twixt hot and spicy, and sour It is a good version and the stock is rich and complex. The Wonton soup ($1.50 --SP1) features a rich chicken stock, with a homemade dumpling skin; the filling is a little on the bland side.

Steamed dumplings ($5.95 for 8 -- AP8) have a pierogi-like texture on the homemade skins (a little dense, a little thick). The filling is a little under-seasoned, but the dipping sauce is excellent, with good balances of vinegar, sweet, ginger, salty soy, and zippy chile oil. Oddly, the homemade chile oil has zero ma la flavor, that spicy numbness that is generated by Sichuan peppercorn. 

From Sichuan menu world we chose Stir Fried Smoked Pork ($10.50 -- PK6)  smoked pork belly slices with leek, garlic, and onion, fried red chiles, red oil, and a little brown sauce. It was excellent, with great mouthfeel from the baconossity. A minor complaint: the pork skin on the edge of the pork belly was a little on the tough and chewy side.

Fried Chicken Leg Meat ($9.50 – CK20). Finally, some boneless chicken thighs are being served by someone, and not that crappy chicken breast! The dish was loaded with sliced jalapeños, onion, garlic, zucchini slices, and brown sauce. It was a hit.

Ma Po Dofu ($8.25 – VG8) is listed as vegetarian, so ask for ground beef or pork if you want it included; we gave them the option and got ground beef. The dish has excellent flavor, with a good balance of richness, garlicky savory taste, bean paste and chile. It is a really good version.

Thankfully when we were there, we were one of only two tables of Caucasians, and the rest of the half-filled restaurant was filled with native speakers; that’s always a good sign as far as I’m concerned. It’s the same as lots of pickups and big rigs parked outside a roadside diner.

The interior can use some work, but the place is clean. Portions are large, and service was excellent considering she was running solo with a half-full dining room. I will definitely go back, and welcome some spicy Sichuan food in south Austin for a change, instead of having to go way north or northwest. But dudes, we need some MA LA!

Sichuan River
4534 W Gate Blvd, Ste 105

Mick Vann ©

Previous review of Tien Jin:

Previous review of A+A:                  

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Chef's Tool Kit III: The Chef's Knife

The Chef’s Knife

The Chef’s Knife is the all-around mack daddy of the cook’s knife kit, designed to perform all tasks asked of it. Originally it was meant to slice and disjoint big cuts of beef, but over the years it’s evolved into more of an all-purpose blade, or what the knife nerds call “general utility” It can be used for mincing, dicing, julienne work, slicing, chopping, and disjointing; you can even turn it sideways and crush garlic, ginger, or spices with it. It is not a specialty tool, but one that is designed to perform reasonably well at many different tasks. 

Usually the blade length ranges between 6 and 14-inches in length, with 8-inches being the most common. The width is normally 1½-inches, but it can be wider. With Western knives there are two shapes of blades. The German blade is deeply curved along its length, from bolster to tip, while the French blade is straighter along its length, curving towards the tip. The German blade is made more for a rocking style of cut, while the French blade is used more for a slicing and chopping style of cut. It’s all a matter of preference, depending on how the user cuts with their blade. A typical Western chef’s knife is sharpened to a 20 to 22° edge, while a professional bladesmith will fine tune that down to 18° or even 15°, if he or she thinks the steel can handle that angle; it takes a harder steel to hold a finer edge. Most Western chef knives are made of steel alloys with a Rockwell Hardness scale of 58 to 60 HRC, while a Japanese chef’s knife, known as a gyuto (which literally means “beef knife”) are typically more in the 60 to 62 HRC range. The Japanese chef’s knife has gotten more popular with chefs lately, and the price of the gyuto has skyrocketed.

The blade of a chef’s knife forms a wide elongated triangle tapering to what’s called a “center tip” point. The center tip means that both the back of the knife and the blade are gently sloped until they meet in a sharp point at the tip; the blade slopes from top to edge, and from front to back. The blade should extend all the way through to the end of the handle; this is called the tang. A full tang provides a stronger knife with a better balance to the blade, which makes it easier to use over a long period of time. The handle needs to be made of a dense, durable, waterproof material, and the handle needs to be shaped to comfortably fit your hand. If the handle is made from two pieces of wood or some other material (called “scales”), it needs to be drilled all the way through the tang, and securely connected with metal posts; these posts resemble rivets.

Lots of chefs hold their blades by gripping the sides of the blade near the handle. The thumb goes on the left side, just in front of the finger guard, and the index and middle finger are on the opposite side, with the index finger extending down near the end of the blade, where the bolster starts, and the middle finger tucked behind the finger guard and right by the bolster. You get better control of the blade that way, especially if it’s a longer blade. Longer blades can be harder to control precisely, but will cut faster, and process larger items. When you only grip the handle of a longer blade, the blade can rotate on the vertical axis easier, which isn’t very safe. Shorter blades are easier to control from the handle, and enable more precise cuts, but can take longer to get the job done during prepwork.

my Henckel, with knife guard

My current chef’s knife is a Henckel Twin 4-Star 10” Chef’s that I’ve had for decades (currently $120 online). Luckily, I recently had Travis Weige sharpen it to a 15° edge; it is razor-sharp and a serious kitchen tool to be reckoned with. Contrary to what every older relative and friend with dull knives in their kitchen drawer ever told you, a dull knife is MUCH more likely to cause an accident. Anyone that cuts themselves with a sharp knife did so because they have developed bad, dangerous knife habits from using a worthless dull knife. I used to diss my Henckel 10-incher, but now I really like it again, and it’s because I got it sharpened. Lesson learned, and one to pass on. Travis sharpens knives by the way….

A quick note about knife guards. ALL knives should be slotted in a knife guard when they're being transported or stored. A knife guard, sometimes called a blade or edge guard, is a slotted plastic sheath that comes in varying lengths and widths, to accommodate the size of the blade it is protecting. Compressive tension holds the guard on the blade, and some are lined inside with a thin felt coating which helps prevent slippage. Every knife company makes them, and they can cost more than you’d expect for a piece of plastic. I use a couple of cost-friendly brands made by Ergo Chef and Mundial. 

a Travis Weige custom chef's knife (photo by Travis)

But I’m all moist and tweaking from waiting on my Weige 11-inch custom chef’s knife that I commissioned Travis to build for me earlier this spring ($375, and a complete bargain considering the cost of custom chef’s knives out there). It will have a lacewood handle that is custom-formed to my grip and my hand measurements, bitchin’ cool handle posts made by Sally Martin, and the blade will be forged from 440c steel alloy. I’ve got several months to wait still, but I know I will be very proud to own it, and very, very happy to use it.  Go to Travis’ website, look at the gallery, and you’ll get a good idea of what my new chef’s knife will look like, and why I’m all worked up about getting it:

The chef’s knife ought to hold a special place in the working chef or serious foodie’s knife kit. It’s the one blade that can do it all, and the one blade that you really shouldn’t skimp on.  

For a good website link on parts of the knife, see this:     

For my previous Austin Chronicle article on my custom chef knife to-be, local Austin-based custom knife genius, Travis Weige, and a lot of background info on custom kitchen knives, go here:

Mick Vann © 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Chef's Tool Kit Part 2: The Cleaver Chronicles

Chef’s Kit II: The Cleaver Chronicles

The heavy cleaver is the workhorse of the chef’s knife kit, handling chores not meant for a sharp blade; think of it as the hatchet of the knife kit. It relies on the momentum and weight of the blade to perform tasks like splitting joints or cutting through thin or soft bones, cartilage, and sinew (bone saws are used for cutting thick bones). It can be used for carcass work or dispatching fish heads. It’s great for prepping really dense items like acorn squash, or spatchcocking birds. The weight of the cleaver is ideal for smashing garlic or ginger with the side of the blade, pounding-out meats for milanesa or flattening portions for stuffing, or even flipping upside-down to use the back of the blade for tenderizing tough cuts of meat.  A heavy cleaver has a blade angle of about 25° and is usually made from softer steel; hard steel could fracture hitting dense items with such force. The exception is the light Asian-style cleaver, which is used more like a chef’s knife.

Zhen 7-inch Light Vegetable Cleaver

I have used a lightweight Chinese-style vegetable cleaver for many, many years, finding it especially useful during prep. It’s perfect for sliding along the cutting board and scooping up whatever you just sliced. It’s ideal for smashing garlic and ginger AND mincing it up. It juliennes vegetables better than any other blade, and there’s no better tool for mincing meats. I love the Zhen 7-inch VG-10 Light Vegetable Cleaver that I ordered from It’s made from VG-10 alloy and is easy to keep super sharp. The balance is perfect in the hand, especially if you fudge a little and hold the index and middle finger on the side of the blade when slicing, like I do. The handle coating is made from non-slip TPR (thermoplastic rubber) and the shape fits my hand nicely. It’s made in Taiwan from 3 layers of forged Japanese steel, with a VG10 stainless alloy core, and has an HRC hardness rating of 60-62.  This has ended up being one of the favorite knives in my kit, and at $55, worth the price. A comparable Wusthoff or Henckel would be $75, a similar Global is about $160, and a comparable Shun blade would set you back $230.


Update 7-inch Heavy

My Update International 7-inch Heavy Bone and Meat Cleaver is made for dispatching big chunks of meat, splitting heavy joints, and any task related to a bone. This baby is thick-bladed and heavy weight, and it has a full, thick tang and a massive handle. This cleaver is not meant for delicate detail work of any kind. This tool is indestructible, and at a retail price of $14.25, it seems impossible that it could be sold that cheaply. To put the price into perspective, the Wusthoff version is $100, while the Henckel Standard is $50, the Henckel 4-Star is $120. For a Global, pay $170, and a Shun will run you $220.


Ayutthaya Cleaver 

My other cleaver is a work of handmade art, constructed by knife craftsmen in the ancient Thai city of Ayutthaya, pounded-out by hand (and mechanical press, if I had to guess) from a sheet of glowing hot steel. The company has made this 12-inch cleaver exactly this same way for the last 70 years. It has a hardwood handle, a full tang, and pounded-metal handle posts. The 18-ounce blade is meant for any chore, including harvesting sugar cane stalks, splitting firewood and chopping kindling, or splitting a pig carcass down the middle. Trapped somewhere by rampaging zombies and need to split some skulls? Grab this thing. It is available from and is well worth the $26 price tag (although had I bought this in Thailand it would have been more like $5 US). This is a down-and-dirty chef’s tool that can take on anything.

Mick Vann ©

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Chef's Tool Kit, Part 1

Chef’s Kit, Part I:

This article on knives for a chef’s kit is the first in my series of articles on tools for the working chef (or the dedicated home chef). In putting together my personal kit, I invested a lot of time in researching what was the best option for each blade or tool category, based on the quality of the materials, the purchase price, and reviews from other users, especially users that are also chefs. I also have a brain crammed full of decades of commercial and home kitchen experience and personal knowledge to draw from.


1. There are three approaches to outfitting your kitchen with knives. One approach, and the approach that any street cook worth their weight in Thailand takes, is to invest a pittance in a set of Kiwi brand knives; the same company makes knives and kitchen tools under the name Kom Kom.  They are made in Thailand from strip stainless steel and have riveted hardwood or plastic handles with a tang going down half of the handle. The blades are soft but you can get a razor sharp edge on them in a heartbeat, with just a few strokes from a steel. I have used them for decades, often as my go-to knives in the trenches of commercial kitchens, where knives are often "borrowed" and shamefully abused by fellow kitchen staff. They are so inexpensive that you can almost consider them disposable, but take care of them and they will last many years.

When I first started buying them back in the early 80’s you could get a 6½-inch santoku for about 4 dollars, and they are still very inexpensive today. I purchased this 4-knife set from for $22.50, which includes the heavier weight 7-inch santoku shaped blade (far right), the 6½-inch rectangular nagiri-shaped blade “chopping knife”, the lighter weight 6½-inch santoku-shaped blade, and the 4-inch all-purpose “Java” chopping knife (far left).

For an average of a little over 5 bucks per knife, this set cannot be beat, and it covers most work stations in a commercial kitchen. I have even filleted fish with the thinner, more flexible 6½-inch santoku blade (although you’ll do much better with a proper flexible fillet knife). Kiwi knives are available online from, from, and They are available in Austin from MT Supermarket, in Chinatown Center, at the intersection of Kramer Ln. and N. Lamar Blvd., although the santoku models get snapped-up off the shelves quickly and it can take time for MT to get them back in stock.

Another approach is to have all of the specialty blades, developed over centuries for specific tasks, in an assortment of lengths and shapes, made from quality metal alloys, all at a much higher price than the first option. The difference in a first category knife and the French, German, or Asian-made second category knife doesn't even compare. Heft, weight, balance, workmanship, materials, and quality are all far superior with the second category. One single second category knife can cost many times what that set of four first category knives cost. However, BOTH the cheap and the more expensive knives will perform the task at hand and are functional. Some people are tool junkies while others are bottom-line pragmatists. The old adage, “you get what you pay for” definitely holds true in this case. More on that second approach next time.

Mick Vann © 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Taylor Cafe

Taylor Cafe

Stools, at the counter

So we were out north on a Sunday and I had been jonesing for a big, fresh chicken-fried and a luxurious slab of pie from The Texan Café in Hutto, so off we went. The Texan was closed for Memorial Day, and we figured that Taylor was a short 8 or 9 miles further down the road, and perhaps some barbecue would be in order. I knew that Louie Mueller’s was normally closed on Sunday, but maybe Vencil Mares’ Taylor Café would be open. Taylor was the site of a major Indian battle with the Comanches in 1839, and in 1876 became a railhead situated along one of the major cattle trails. With the railroad came a colonization of farmers and businessmen, mainly from Midwestern and Southern states. The rich pastureland was soon cultivated and began to produce an abundance of cotton. An influx of settlers from Czechoslovakia and other Slavic states, as well as from Germany and Austria, helped establish the town. Vencil comes from down the road towards Flatonia, of Czech and Bohemian stock, with (as he puts it), “a little billy goat thrown in”. The Czechs, Bohemians, Germans, and Poles settled all along the barbecue belt in Central Texas.

By the early 1950’s mechanical harvesting had replaced the human cotton pickers around Taylor and the economy begin to change. As the century progressed, cotton production had been joined by feed corn, winter wheat, and cattle. Today's diverse population of about 15,000 includes people of English and Scots-Irish background, as well as Czechs, Bohemians, Germans, Swedes, Hispanics, and African Americans. They all share a love of barbecue.

One of the pitdudes, chillaxing by the fan after tending the pits

We figured that eating at Vencil’s on Memorial Day would be appropriate, since he was an Army medic in the D-Day assault and patched-up soldiers all through the war, including at the Battle of the Bulge. When he returned home from the War he got a job at Southside Market in Elgin, where he learned the basics of sausage stuffing and the barbecue business. In 1948, a year before Louie Mueller opened his place, Mares opened the Taylor Café in Taylor’s oldest building downtown. It sits under the shadow of the overpass, where Main St/Hwy 95 transits the railroad tracks. Louie Mueller’s is a block to the northwest, and the Amtrak station is a block to the east. If you’re coming east down Hwy 79, take a right just before the overpass and Vencil’s place will be on your immediate right, on the corner; there’s plenty of parking.


Vencil at the end of the bar, in red cap

You enter from the rickety screen door on the southside of the building; the pits are to your left, the railroad tracks are right behind you, and Vencil usually holds court at the end of the long, u-shaped bar, sitting right inside the door. He’s 90 years young and a little stooped, but he still comes to work every day. Menus are handwritten on poster board with a magic maker, and both of the servers are down-home casual and efficient as hell, from working the same regular crowd, in the same tight space, putting out the same great food, for many, many years.


White bread, saltines, and sauce

We opted for the three-meat plate (me fatty brisket and her, lean) pork rib, and some of Vencil’s peppery handmade beef sausage. We also needed a pound of Vencil’s turkey sausage on the side, to nosh on (the leftover was a TV snack that night). Throw in a basket of white bread and saltines, a killer sauce (perfectly balanced twixt sweet and sour, add tomatoey, garlicky, spicy), a pitcher of ice water, a mound of some pretty damn good mustardy potato salad and some rich, meaty pinto beans, and you got yourself a fantastic meal for 10 bucks or so.

Three-meat platter

Brisket smoke ring and bark closeup, with bean border

The fatty brisket was ethereal: meltingly tender with just the right amount of tug when pulled. It has a thick smoke ring and a peppery, smoky bark that just add a couple of more layers of complex flavor to the beefy brisket. The beef sausage has a nice snappy casing, and a smoky flavor with the kiss of spicy pepper and garlic. The forcemeat is medium-coarse grind and has enough fat to make good flavor, but not too much to make it taste the least bit greasy. Good sausage. The pork rib had a nice smoke ring and great porky flavor with the right amount of juiciness and smoke, but it could have used just a touch more time in the offset smoker over the post oak to reach perfection; still, a damn good pork rib. The turkey sausage is a slightly finer grind than the beef sausage, and loaded with smokiness. It could have had a bit more fat added, but I wouldn't call it dry. Compared to Billy Inma
n’s turkey sausage, this runs a close second, with Billy’s being coarser, more moist, and smokier. Still, I loves me some smoked turkey sausage (the REAL stuff, not that grocery store crap), and it’s really hard to find at local BBQ joints.

Turkey sausage

I’d like to think I controlled my three-meat plate as well as Bill Pickett controlled the steers he bulldogged back in his day. Pickett (1870-1932) was a black cowboy from Taylor who initiated the practice of “bulldogging” or steer wrestling and in 1971 was posthumously inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame. Pickett controlled the steer by sinking his teeth into the animal’s upper lip as he twisted the bull’s neck and brought him down, much as I controlled my delicious three meat plate; I sank my choppers into it, and subdued the mofo.

The subdued three-meat.......

Taylor Café
101 N. Main St., Taylor; 512/352-2828

Mick Vann ©   

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Salvadoran Crawl at Costa del Sol

A month or so ago, me and Shane were going to meet our workstudy homeboy Diego for lunch, before he blasted off to NYC to go to law school; we need more environmental lawyers, dammit, and Diego will make an excellent barrister! As usual, I came up with a list of dining options, and we all settled on Costa del Sol, a happening little Salvadoran joint at the northeast corner of Cameron Rd. and 183. Due west across Cameron is where we used to go in high school for the nearest drive-in movies; it was closer than the drive-in at Koenig and Lamar. I knew that whole Cameron Rd. area like the back of my hand. Now, not so much. It's a whole new scene.

Costa and El Zunzal (immediately west of the HEB at Pleasant Valley and E. 7th) are my two spots for Salvadoran chow, and it just depends on which one I’m closest to when the Salvadoreño jones hits. Costa makes nods to Mexican food as well, but we go for the excellent Salvadoran food. Shane ordered enough food for three and ended taking a lot of it home; Diego ordered sensibly and cleaned his plate, while helping us with our overload. I was somewhere in the middle, between those two.

I ordered one of their excellent “green” corn tamales ($2), which is basically a tamale made with fresh corn masa instead of dried corn masa. I also ordered a pork tamal, which is made with succulent shredded pork stuffed inside. Both of the masas are light as a cloud, loaded with savory flavor, and the banana leaf-wrapped Salvadoran tamal is larger than the typical Mexican tamal. They are served with a side of crema, the Latin American version of sour cream; richer and less tart than crème fraiche, but with more flavor than American sour cream.

"green" corn tamal on right, pork tamal underneath, cheese pupusa on top, puddle of crema right

I also ordered a cheese pupusa ($2.25), which is a Salvadoran tortilla stuffed with a layer of farmer’s cheese before it has the edges sealed and is griddled. I wanted cheese with loroco, the indigenous edible flower from Central America, but they were out. Loroco can be used fresh, frozen, or pickled, and has a flavor kind of like a cross between artichokes, squash, and broccoli with a slightly nutty finish; usually only the flower buds are used. The pupusas here are excellent; worth the trip all by themselves.

refried beans left, plantains middle, and crema right. carnitas top left, chiles toreados center top, and salsa top left.

For my main dish I ordered a pair of fried (griddled) sweet plantains (AKA pláanos maduros, $8), which comes with a big side of rich and refried beans (subbed by me for the usual savory stewed black beans), and a generous serving of crema. Think of the sweet plantain as being a little tart and sweet at the same time, but the sugars caramelize as it cooks, lending a burnt caramel quality. I also got a side of carnitas ($2.50), which are meaty, porky, unctuous chunks of pig meat cooked in lard; oh-so perfecto with a squeeze of citrus and a dab of salsa. I also got a side of chiles toreados ($1.50), jalapeños that have been blackened on the griddle. A nibble of them makes for a spicy interlude between bites of pork and plantain.

Shane's pastor taco, pork tamal, and black bean and cheese pupusa

Shane's carne guisado plate

Diego's pair o' pupusas: cheese and black bean with cheese

The meal started with a basket of totopos and a nice, zippy salsa (need larger container please, it would save me and the server a lot of refilling effort). And we also got a large communal container set on the table of Costa’s wonderful curtido (sorry, no pic), a salad-like lagniappe that all Salvadoran joints have at the table. Their version is lightly pickled cabbage, onion, garlic, carrot, chile, with oregano; addictively delicious stuff. I waddled out of there stuffed to the gills, and happy as a pig in a wallow. The UT work homies loved their food as well.

There is a bonus found at this little strip center. Two doors west is a lively little Honduran joint, Antojitos Hondurenos,
 that has tamales that may even be better than those at Costa del Sol. This is the only spot I know where you can literally do a Central American food crawl in the same little strip center. Also highly recommended at Costa is the award-winning Regia Cerveza, ($6, for the big bottle). Great stuff. They also do humongo bowls of specialty soups on the weekends. Fantastic food, great service, good prices.

Costa del Sol
7901 Cameron Rd., 512/832-5331

Mick Vann ©

My previous
Austin Chronicle review from 2009:

My previous article on Honduran food in the ATX: