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:


Monday, May 5, 2014

Pre Cinco de Mayo at MRII

Mi Ranchito Dos 5.02.2014

This Saturday Art and I were having a restaurant consulting meeting about a couple of our ongoing projects and we both became a bit peckish; well, actually, seriously peckish. What with Cinco de Mayo a couple of days away, and with Mi Ranchito II being five or so minutes to the south of Art’s house, we made a run in that direction.

They have added some new dishes lately, the latest in a long string of their ever-growing menu. One of those was Supermigas, with the choice of bacon, sausage, or chorizo; Art went with the chorizo, as they make a great version there. I felt like naming them SUPERmigas ought to 
mean that you get all three of the meats, but that’s not the case. Art liked the migas just fine, and loved his side carnitas taco okay, but I definitely won the ordering competition.

Supermigas, with refried beans....

We decided to split an order of their wonderful guacamole, which is basically avocados mashed up a la minute with lime and garlic, and some of their salsa bar pico de gallo. You get to customize it anyway you want with their excellent salsas. It’s thick and rich and unadulterated; you have to spoon it onto a totopo or the chip shatters from the density of the avocado.

Roasted tomato-guajillo and spicy green avocado salsas, with pico de gallo and a big wad of fresh guacamole

I came SO close to going for one of their fantastic huge burgers, but was suckered in once again by the chicken mole enchiladas. I’ve ordered these the last 4 or 5 times I’ve been there, because they taste so damn good. The rich dark sauce dances along on the fine edge of sweet and savory, with many complex layers of spices and flavor, and a nice jolt of heat on the finish. The chicken is moist and tender, and was pulled off of a carcass that morning.

Chicken-mole enchiladas, with excellent rice and refried beans. I usually get the charro beans or black beans, but was suckered in my the richness of refrieds.

I had to go for a couple of side tacos, since I hadn’t eaten all day and this was going to be the big feed for the day, so I added a chorizo-nopale taco, which had sautéed onions in the mix, and came topped with Chihuahuan white cheese. There was a little liquid fat run-off, but it was liquid and not grease; the flavor was superb. I also got a pork carnitas taco with onions and cilantro, and as usual, their pork was tender, juicy, and loaded with porky flavor. Add some of the amazing salsas, and these babies are top-notch.

Chorizo-nopale left, carnitas right

The hot green salsa with avocado was especially piquant Saturday, and the mild green with avocado was silky and rich, with a nice layer of spiciness. The roasted tomato-guajillo was excellent, as always, and the tomato-tomatillo was a recent arrival, loaded with big taste. Their salsa cruda/casera is always a safe bet, as is the pico de gallo, where they actually include lots of fresh chiles, lime, garlic, and lots of cilantro.

I hate to keep harping on this joint, but it consistently turns out some of the best Mexican food in Austin. It’s up there with Taco More and El Taco Rico in my book.

Mick Vann © 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Lunch at John Mueller Meat Co.

John Mueller BBQ with Mick

Monday the 28th I went to lunch with old pal Michael "Mick" Corenblith, to John Mueller Meat Co. I’ve been leading him on a tour of the great barbecue joints in town, so he can kick his Pok-E-Jo’s obsession. He usually has a flight back to L.A. to catch, and I’m away from UT for lunch, so time is a concern. We got there right at 11am 
and were some of the first customers there. Matter of fact, we waited in the alley with one other group until they un-padlocked the gate. They didn’t have turkey or pulled pork that day, but had all the other menu hits. Personally, I was worried that after the Food and Wine Festival the previous weekend, they might have been wiped-out and closed. Not to worry.

We got a couple of trays loaded down with two thick slices of fatty brisket, off of the point. We asked for a big, honkin’ beef shortrib to split, dividing it into halves. We got three pork ribs; we were going to get one each, but they looked so damn good that I had to have an extra one (and then they threw in a gorgeous meaty, crusty chunk of an end as well). We got a link each of the regular sausage, and one of the jalapeño sausage. We topped it all off with a serving each of the meaty green beans and the cheesy baked squash. An assortment of white bread, sweet onions, dill pickles slices, and a couple of waters, and we were ready for some serious gluttony.

 Brisket: moist and meltingly tender, with the unctuous fatty portions being like the semi-rendered fat on a slice of bacon, but smokier. The bark is sparkling with sugar cookies of caramelized fat, and loaded with black pepper. The smoke ring is thin (they cook a little hotter than many) but it has ample smokeossity. This is excellent brisket.


The beef rib has a deep caramelization penetrating the surface of the meat and a bark comparable to the brisket. The meat eases off the wide, long bone with ease, yielding deeply beefy-flavored meat that is tender and fine as hell. Pity John didn’t enter our Beef Rib Smackdown; good news for first place winner Tom Micklethwait that John decided to not enter and stayed home.

The pork ribs are sublime. Definitely the best pork ribs I have ever gotten at JMMC. They were thick and moist, with a crunchy, spicy, smoky bark. Each tender bite left a perfect tooth impression in the meat, yet it didn’t fall off of the bone; in the eyes of a competition judge, as good as it gets. Fantastic pork ribs, especially the tender chunk of burnt end he threw in as a lagniappe.

Mueller’s sausage is legendary, and this visit was no exception. The casing is smoky and very snappy gut. The forcemeat filling is coarse-ground, spicy, beefy, and delicious; unlike it’s cousins down the road in Lockhart, it retains full flavor and moistness without a river of grease pouring out when sliced. The jalapeño content could have been jacked-up a bit more for my taste, but exemplary smoked sausage.

The green beans were like granmaw beans, where she puts a pot of snaps on with chunks of pork and it simmers for hours. It’s almost like a beany soup; none to very little crunch left (but that doesn’t mean they weren’t delish). The squash dish is more like steamed squash mixed with chile con queso; even if you dislike waxy yellow squash the way I do, it somehow manages to still taste great.

Summation: Yet another fantastic barbecue meal at John Mueller’s, and we didn’t get yelled at by John, and all the neighborhood homies inside Kellee’s Place were chill while sucking down their late morning brews. Street construction is finished and there is plenty of parking. It still really bothers me to see those damn new condos catty corner from Kellee’s, but at least East Poultry still glides along at the far end of the block.

Mick Vann  ©