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March 26, 2008

Sago Modern Mexican, 4600 Guadalupe (in the Triangle)

Imagine my surprise — ambling through the shining testament to urban infill called The Triangle, I caught sight of a large vinyl sign screaming "MODERN MEXICAN" and assumed, for a brief moment, that this was some Westlake doyenne's unfortunate name for the Latin-flavored clothing shop she just opened. Before I could clear the visions of racks of bejeweled gaucho pants out of my head, I spotted tables and chairs and clean, attractive young women holding shiny folded printed things and realized that I was looking at a restaurant. A "MODERN MEXICAN" restaurant. Thank god. More food to try.

I've railed against arbitrary and useless qualifiers of "Mexican" before, but "modern" certainly sounds appealing—though it leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Indoor plumbing and some kind of attention to hygiene rank high on my list of requirements for modernity, but this could just as easily refer to some new interpretation of cuisine, or perhaps a Joycean riff on the menu descriptions: "The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea. And from the sea, pescado a la veracruzano!"

No such luck. In the case of Sago Modern Mexican, "modern" apparently entails the brazen juxtaposition of bright paint schemes with a mirror-tiled disco wall and some inoffensive light techno in the background. Or maybe it's the traditional tin ornaments contrasted cleverly against the miniature Ikea cactus pots on the tables. Whatever. We get it — this is not Amaya's Taco Village. Or, as my attorney put it, "this place looks like a stash house in Juarez."

Now, I don't possess the deep-seated resentment for the Triangle development that crept through Hyde Park and grew northward. I enjoy having the Farmer's Market there once a week and the green space in the middle is surprisingly pretty. With the addition of a decent beer bar (review coming as soon as I get past all the damn beer) within reasonable stumbling distance of home and work, there's a lot to be said for density. Parking, of course, is atrocious, but getting off your ass and walking, biking or taking the godforsaken bus wouldn't hurt a few of you now and then.

Nevertheless, my hopes weren't high for a weeks-old "modern" Mexican restaurant given my previously stated predilection for all things larded and a healthy suspicion of dolled-up, high-dollar ethnic cuisine. The first surprise was the menu—it showed unusual attention to the glory of the pig, with pork of some kind gracing the descriptions of a good quarter of the menu items.

The next surprise was that most of what we tasted was damn good. No earth-shattering revelations or eye-rolling, transcendent mouthfuls of flavor, but solid, tasty stuff with a twist here and there—mostly hits and just a few misses. The posole, for instance, atoned for its initial blandness with a healthy chunk or two of roasted pork and a subtle, earthy broth. I'll try it again and hope it gets a touch of heat to it.

If Sago has a signature dish, it should be the pork gorditas. Stuffed with pork shoulder and deep-fried, Sago's gorditas are rich, hearty and oddly un-heavy for a deep-fried hunk of masa. The masa comes flecked with little bits of cilantro and the gorditas arrive exploding at the top, ready to release their porky bounty into your waiting gullet. And, yes, I did feel dirty writing that. You'll understand once you have a couple of these fried delights.

Also of note: Sago's charro beans are superb—deep, meaty, thick with bacon and nearly worthy of a meal on their own. Pork enchiladas were deemed good by my attorney, but we both agreed that the honey cilantro rice with both of our entreés was an experiment in contrast gone slightly awry. "Modern" and "fresh" Mexican tend to push this sweet/hot contrast as if it were culinary gospel. I've yet to see it work particularly well.

Sago's lunch menu is well-priced considering the location and the potential crowd; I haven't been for dinner yet. It's a bargain compared to the always-packed, inconsistent Mandola's across the way, so the next time you see a line out the door at the Italian place, give a modern Mexican a shot.


Sago Modern Mexican on Urbanspoon

Posted by brentbuford at 11:21 AM | Comments (0)

March 20, 2008

Din Ho Chinese BBQ, 8557 Research Blvd

North Austin strip-center goodness never ends — it seems you can walk into nearly any joint crammed between a discount furniture shop and an ethnic grocery and find a linoleum-floored, wood paneled gem serving up something hearty and authentic. The jumble of shops next to the Target on 183 has given us the exemplary Vietnamese of Sunflower and one of my latest favorites, Din Ho.

If you've never had the pleasure of entering a restaurant with glistening ducks and pigs hanging in the front window (it's common in Asia), you'll enjoy seeing the specialties of the house prior to their surrender to the cleaver. I recommend dragging a couple of vegan friends along for comic relief, though they may not dine out with you again. That's too bad, because Din Ho does a better job with veggies than most Chinese joints. If you've had your fill of greens drenched in grease and hoison sauce, order up a plate of Din Ho's snow pea leaves with garlic - they're simple and very nearly "light," and your stomach will thank you for the roughage once the onslaught of oink and quack begins.

PIg and duck, of course, are what Chinese BBQ is all about, and Din Ho excels at both. The roasted pork (char sui) is juicy, sweet and laced with luscious fat; the duck is hacked up on the bone, and you'll get messy tearing through the tender skin, fat and meat. Both come out lukewarm with rice only; they need little else.

Once you've worked your way through the critters in the window, try the soups and some of the other specialties. The snow pea leaf soup with tofu and ground pork is earthy and straightforward. The "salt pork chop" is actually slices of pork deep-fried in a mildly sweet batter served with hot peppers. Turns out, it's not spicy at all; in fact, it's the closest thing I've ever had to a pork beignet, which, if it exists somewhere, would be a damn good thing.

DIn Ho deftly balances heavy with light; consequently, if you get your kicks from the overwhelming deluge of rich, sweet sauces typical to stateside Chinese cooking, you might leave disappointed. This is simple stuff, like Texas barbecue, and it's really all about the meat. Atmosphere is minimal; decor is dated and wood-paneled; service is attentive but impersonal. Food is damn good and inexpensive. What else do you need?


Posted by brentbuford at 04:06 PM | Comments (0)