Monday, May 20, 2013

The Frisco Shop and "T-Bone" Walker

The Frisco Shop

A month ago or so ago R was house and pet sitting at a nice little bungalow over in Allandale and we decided to grab a bite to eat. I had emailed a list of options, none of which she got too excited about, and to tell you the truth, none of them really fired me up either. After whittling down the list, we both settled on The Frisco Shop over on Burnet Rd. We have both been eating there for many decades, and there’s a large degree of comfort in ATX these days for things that don’t change; old landmarks that have stayed the same are fewer and farther between. You go to the Frisco and the food, the look, and the staff will all be the same as 30 years ago. It’s like a favorite pair of old jeans.

The Frisco opened in 1953 as a diner offshoot of the Nighthawk Restaurants of innovative restaurateur Harry Akin, just south of the intersection of Koenig Lane and Burnet Road.  It was one of the only restaurants in the area back then, and stayed put until it moved up the road a bit in 2008. Apparently that strip of Burnet Road where the Frisco had sat for 55 years was absolutely DESPERATE for yet another worthless-ass Walgreen’s.

Akin was the first restaurateur in Austin to integrate his restaurants, and his management staff; minorities and women both held positions of power. He established his own cattle ranch to supply his restaurants with beef, and started a very successful frozen food line, selling his frozen Top Chop’t steaks at the supermarket. He was one of the leaders of the Texas Restaurant Association and legislated for benefits for the restaurant trade, including successfully lobbying for Texas to get liquor-by-the-drink.

My connection with Nighthawk started as a child, around 1957. We would occasionally dine there when there was something to celebrate. If we really had a reason to splurge, we went to The Hitchin' Post, which is where Louis Shanks Fine Furniture used to be on Lamar, just south of 12th street, on the east side of the road in an elegant one story structure . It was upscale for Austin, and we three sons would get read the riot act before going inside, threatening us with whippings if we did our usual acting-out. My oldest brother Lynn was notorious for pushing my buttons, and many's the night when we dined out that I would end the dinner banned to the car in the parking lot while the rest of the family finished eating inside. Lynn would pick at me or kick me under the table, or give me the stink eye when no one was watching, until I exploded in rage and got exiled to the backseat of the car in the parking lot. We were obviously out of our element at the Hitchin' Post, mingling with the landed gentry from Tarrytown and Pemberton Heights.

What I loved most about the Hitchin' Post was that at the end of the meal they brought out a molded ice cream in the shape of a chess knight, a horse head, which reminded me of the logo for Paladin, played by Richard Boone, the TV show gunfighter famous for "Have Gun, Will Travel". They also had a raging fire going in the fireplace during cold weather; that seemed exotic to me. For "everyday" steaks (and “everyday” was still a rarity for us), we went to Hill's, “Home of the Sizzler”, which was out on South Congress, and did huge business. To a kid, the sizzling platters were a thing of fascination and awe.

But we did visit the Nighthawk at Riverside and South Congress, and I loved the clubby feel of it, and the waitresses were always real nice to us kids. My dad had a penchant for the southern food joints on Burnet Road, Kirschner's being one of his faves, but we would occasionally hit up The Frisco Shop, which was also owned by Harry Akin of Nighthawk fame. I could sense the similarity to The Nighthawk vibe, even as a kid, and grew to like the comfy vibe of the Frisco.

During college days at UT, our group (who all worked at the UT Coop bookstore), would amble on down to the UT Nighthawk for lunch, or for a post partying munchie fest late at night. C-Boy Parks was a fixture behind the grill and all of the waitresses were regulars who could dish it out as good as they could take it.

When I started working at the Pelican’s Wharf, down where King's Food Host used to be, and where Hooters now sits, I quickly worked my way up through the ranks, from temporary dishwasher, to dishwasher, to prep cook, to bus boy, waiter, and finally line cook. My mentor on the line was Curtis "T-Bone" Walker, the coolest Black chef that ever walked the tiles of an Austin kitchen. Like Hoover Alexander, Vernon O’Rourke, and Gordon Fowler, he came up through the ranks at the Harry Akin school of Nighthawk steak cooks and was an absolute genius at it. Watching Curtis work an overflowing grill was a thing of beauty. At the Wharf we had three chargrills in parallel, 12 (or was it 15?) linear feet long by 3 feet wide, and we were doing monster business back then, the most popular dinner spot in town: 400 to 600 dinners a week day night wasn't unheard of and we could breach 1,000 on a UT football weekend. That is a mess of steaks, k-bobs, prime rib, king crab, lobster tails, scallops, mahi, and shrimp.

A pic of the Victoria Pelican's Wharf, which opened in 1976...found this pic on Google Images. All of the locations looked similar.

There were two cooks working the line, and Curtis's training method was trial-by-fire. He wanted to train you as rapidly as possible, so that he could leave you to run the line solo, while he sat in the back flirting with the cocktail waitresses and hostesses with a Scotch or beer in-hand. The only time he came onto the line to bail you out was when it was balls-to-the-wall busy, or when you would get into the weeds (imagine a grill that size completely covered with ribeyes and k-bobs). Get trained by Curtis to cook at the Austin Wharf, and there were precious few that got the privilege, and you were among a very elite class of steak chefs. There was one other situation that would bring Curtis rushing out to the line: when one of the waiters told him that there was an “international” just seated at a certain table. “International at 3-4” meant a special guest was just seated at section three, table 4. That meant that shortly after, she would be coming through the salad bar.  

The salad bar ran right down the front of the cooking line, so the cook saw everyone that came through the restaurant, face-to-face. It was well-lighted, and on prominent display. An “International” was a beauty of such scope that she could easily be a model in Europe, and back in those days, “internationals” were frequents guests of the restaurant. The problem for a Wharf cook on the line was watching the board full of tickets (and it was always full), and keeping track of all of the food cooking, while simultaneously ogling the eye candy sliding their cold platters down the salad bar, as they bent forward to get ingredients out of the crocks on the back row.  Life was good.

But I digress. On this particular afternoon R and I ambled into the “new” Frisco as we call it, to find the same regulars working there, cooking and waiting tables, and a crowd that looked like they never left the joint.

The Frisco interior.....

 I had a hankering for the Tex-Mex enchiladas, which is what I used to order down at Nighthawk 2 on the Drag, and R ordered the Frisco burger and a side of their onion rings with little hesitation. Girl knew what she wanted. The onion rings are exceptional: handmade, with a cornmeal and flour crust and a doctored-up jalapeƱo ketchup with a little heat added. We scarfed them down as an appetizer.

The enchiladas are of the comforting type, heavy with Colby cheese and comino-laced chile meat sauce, stuffed with good quality picadillo ground beef. The beans are rich and meltingly tender, and the Mexican rice has just the right amount of tomato and garlic. This is a high quality platter of TexMex enchiladas. The Frisco burger is what the Frisco’s business was built on. A great burger patty and cheddar cheese with special relish and secret sauce, shredded lettuce and tomato, and instead of fries, R requested a monkey dish of their slaw, which she is big fan of. It is a typical sweet and sour style, but a little more tart than most, which I like.


For dessert we went for pie, R getting the icebox coconut cream and I got the chess, or buttermilk. The coconut could have been a little sweeter and richer, and the topping was whipped cream and not meringue. Not a big fan, but the crust was nice and flaky. I am typically gonzo for a buttermilk pie, but this one missed the mark; the crust was leaden and soggy, and the filling one dimensional. It was tired, and definitely not excited about me eating it. The feeling was mutual. All in all, mediocre pie aside, I love me some Frisco Shop. I can go there and disappear into a world 40 or 50 years back without a whole lot of effort.  

The Frisco Shop
6801 Burnet Rd.
Sun-Thu 7am-9pm; Fri-Sat 7am-10pm

Mick Vann ©

Chronicle food editor Virginia Wood did several great pieces on Harry Akin, the Nighthawk, and The Frisco Shop, here:                                         

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