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)

November 06, 2007

Zocalo Cafe Taqueria Fresca, 1110 West Lynn

"Fresh Mex" is a euphemism in dire need of an involuntary retirement party. Like "pro-life," it is a thinly-veiled condemnation of the other side of the argument and, like all political language, has little real meaning on its own. Who isn't for life? Who doesn't want fresh food? When the "Fresh" label is applied to Mexican food, it is a purely political statement, translated by our fear-addled food brain into "less grease and a couple more salads." It's freighted with potential dread, not unlike a Guiliani stump speech.

So, I come at the opening of Zocalo, which advertises its freshness in a tagline-logo package that appears predestined for highly profitable franchise opportunities, with an admittedly jaundiced eye. After all, I see nothing un-fresh in the greasy al pastor of a good taco wagon or in a lard-infused molé. Neither is light, but both are as fresh as any pineapple salad. Then again, I am both pro-death and pro-lard, so there you go. Death by lard for me, and I am going to enjoy every goddamn minute of it.

Zocalo took over the old West Lynn Café space; I'm told another establishment was there in the interim ("some Indian joint," my attorney tells me) but I did not try it out. I used to like West Lynn, if only for their refusal to hew to any of the vegetarian trifecta of black-bean-everything-hippie-dom, austere deprivation, or simulated meat. Vegetarianism may have religio-political undertones of its own (don't get me started), but I wouldn't begrudge even the loopiest food wacko a periodic trip outside the confines of brown rice and tempeh.

Zocalo's blank interior gives nothing away, but the menu exudes "think different" goofiness with signature items like make-your-own guacamole and "stacked" enchiladas (the latter, much to our dismay, did not look or taste anything like a massive pair of tits). We opted for both, along with a carnitas taco plate and a grip of sides. The results were mixed, though generally pleasant. And, yes, goddamn fresh.

The guac was a bust, a silly, literally half-ass attempt at the "made-at-your-table" guacamole sensation sweeping the country like a bad Cobb Salad. When the avocados are already mashed into a paste back in the kitchen, this becomes a thrilling exercise in garnish application. Yee-haw. Bring more salt. The house-fried tortilla chips were crispy and just oily enough; they disappeared quickly with the guac and some tasty salsa.

The stacked enchiladas looked suspiciously like stacked tostadas to us, so I'm not sure where the name comes from, but they were artful, if a tad insubstantial. The pork carnitas came on three quite small, handmade tortillas and required a lot of maneuvering to add veggies, but the pork was excellent, very tender and moist. A side of pineapple salad had enough heat to send me back inside for a tea refill. Spice-phobes should avoid it, but if you want an unusually sweet kick in the teeth, this baby's got cojones.

The jicama salad might have worked as a small palate cleanser, but it wasn't up to the duty of a full-fledged side dish. A notch too far over on the "cooling counterpoint" scale, its bland, abstract sweetness was reminiscent of that Swedish exchange student you sorta had the hots for in 9th grade, until you realized she was nothing like a porn star and was doomed to a life of pickled fish and chronic alcoholism. Ah, Britt, where are you now?

Zocalo is a decent alternative when you've got to lunch with those three "zone" diet dudes from inside sales but you need some pork and a little heat. Sit outside if you can; the interior is oppressively minimal, and the scenery along West Lynn is always entertaining, a seemingly endless stream of 6-series BMWs, Aston Martins, Range Rovers and skinny fresh-mexican restaurant servers on bullhorn single-speed bikes.

And one day, undoubtedly, a dusty, sad-eyed blond piloting a Volvo wagon hurriedly onto 9th street, destination Wiggy's, for another bottle of Aquavit, just a little something to take the edge off. There you are, Britt. I'm glad you're safe.


Posted by brentbuford at 10:42 PM | Comments (0)

October 17, 2007

La Victoria Bakery, 5245 Burnet Rd.

I'm starting to like Burnet Road as a peculiarly Austin-style culinary destination. It lacks the pretense and arch-hip attitude of South Congress, and is apparently still cheap enough to support tiny family restaurants like Consuelo's and one of the best breakfast taco joints in town, La Victoria bakery. La Victoria (neé Mi Victoria — I guess changing the signage was cheap) pumps out a bewildering array of traditional Mexican pastries (mostly panes dulces) and other sweet Mexican treats like gelatina and flan, but the star attraction here is the taco.

A good breakfast taco needs to satisfy three basic requirements. First, it needs to be cheap — otherwise you might as well sit down and order a plate of food. Second, it needs to be filling, so you can make it through your hellish morning without opening fire on your co-workers. Finally, of course, it needs to taste good — and, given the slightly monochromatic porkiness/saltiness of most breakfast ingredients, that means good salsa.

Now, you clock-punchers who argue that speed is a critical component of the breakfast taco experience can continue to gorge on the execrable steam-table eggs of Taco Shack. The rest of you should set that alarm five minutes earlier and experience the multifarious greasetasticness of fresh, flat-top cooked eggs. It's worth the wait.

Don't be daunted by La Victoria's early morning line; they crank the food out fast enough, and at $0.99 for a two ingredient taco (plus one thin dime for each additional), this is a bargain breakfast. The tacos come out hot and improve with a car ride to work (or a bus ride to the courthouse) because the cheese has time to melt. The salsa won't win any awards, but it's just right for the eggs, a touch of fruitiness and heat to cut through the grease.

If you're still pulling in the unemployment checks and have some time to kill, try to find an open chair or one of their charming, busted old booths and relax in the lost-in-time, semi-industrial ambiance of a place that looks like it hasn't changed a light bulb in thirty years. The "authenticity" police call this atmosphere; most others might note a lack thereof. I'll leave it at funky, weird, angular and damn tasty.

Posted by brentbuford at 08:28 AM | Comments (0)

October 25, 2006

Vivo Cocina Mexicana, 2015 Manor Rd

Vivo is the latest in a growing series of proofs of the following equation:

(Tex Mex – Lard) + Expensive Drinks = Huge Scene

(See also Guero's, etc)

Vivo adds a few twists to the formula, including a sort of mission statement that includes a perfunctory nod to "healthy" cuisine - a bit disingenuous given that the specialty of the house is a dish of deep fried puffy tacos. But whatever; things are clearly kicking for these folks, and when the margaritas are nearly as expensive as the entreés, someone is scaring up a good amount of scratch. Oh, and insert obligatory "burgeoning East Austin scene" copy here.

About those tacos: If you're part of that semi-fanatical, artery-destroying cult of puffy taco aficionados, Vivo certainly merits your consideration. You won't find the succulent carnitas of Angie's here, nor the gloriously salty grease mounds of Amaya's; instead, Vivo's specialty is a putatively healthier take on the oil-soaked classic. The thick corn tortillas are still fried, to be sure, but the fillings range from shredded chicken to guacamole and even (gulp) tofu. Vivo tosses a couple of old-school pickled japs on top of the lettuce and cheese to preserve a modicum of street cred, but these are definitely not your mother's lard sponges.

That said, they're damn good. There's enough grease to satisfy, and they fall apart in your hands (yes, that's how some of us eat them) just like the real thing. The fillings are all tasty and avoid that "mystery" quality you find in some establishments; the chicken looks and tastes like chicken. Maybe they save you a trip to the cardiologist this year, but then again you'll probably stuff yourself silly on chips and Vivo's other standout, the salsa. Vivo has perfected the charred "fogata"-style salsa and theirs may be the best in town (though Chango's runs a close second). It's got enough heat to keep you hitting those expensive margaritas for relief. Your server will be happy to bring you another.

Is it all just puffy tacos and salsa? Well, no, there's that scene, people. Vivo began almost quaintly, with brightly colored walls and slightly cheesy, brightly colored art. Suddenly, patios were added (lots of them) and – in what must be the confirmation that a place has "arrived" - a plasma TV appeared on the wall over the bar. Now Vivo sports valet parking, patio heaters and misters, more ferns than the Home Depot garden center, and a massive army of very attractive (in that East Austin, alterna-hot kind of way) servers to complement the crowds of attractive patrons. For now, you can still get a table quickly on a weeknight, but if you want to sit outside on a weekend, be prepared to wait.

If you do eventually tire of the puffy tacos, Vivo offers a fairly standard spread of enchiladas and other entreés; again, the formula is Tex Mex with a twist of hearty/smoky/sweet and easy on the grease. I haven't found anything else particularly inspirational, though none of it is bad. Should you wish to hurt your chances of making your mortgage payment on your Cherrywood 3-2 this month, get a good margarita buzz going here and keep them coming; Vivo's margaritas, while tasty and authentic (and thankfully, in most cases, free of simple syrup or sweet and sour) are about as good a deal as Austin real estate these days.


Posted by brentbuford at 09:57 PM | Comments (0)

June 08, 2006

El Regio

Imagine a bucket of chicken – you know, a "family" meal – that doesn't involve ten pounds of batter or a protest from PETA, and you have some idea of El Regio's offering. You walk up, specify half a chicken or a whole one, pay six bucks for the former or about eleven for the latter, and depart with a full plastic grocery bag about 30 seconds later.

Inside is a well-seasoned pollo asado, a stack of corn tortillas, two kinds of salsa, rice, beans and – I'll be goddamned – an entire grilled onion. If you haven't had pollo asado (grilled chicken), this is a competent, juicy, well-seasoned undertaking, and the sheer volume of the place more or less guarantees a fresh heap of bird.

The kicker here is the avocado salsa, which has that creep-up heat that can get you in trouble if you grab too much at once. It looks innocuous enough, all cream-green and summery, like someone made a lawn-clipping milkshake, and it's damn refreshing. But it's got a blast of peppers in there that'll get you coughing and reaching for the Tecate if you lay it on too thick.

Still, I ate it up, and the "family meal" fed us for a couple of days. Good stuff; recommended.

Posted by brentbuford at 11:15 PM | Comments (0)