Monday, September 27, 2010

South Congress Cafe in the SoCo Strip

Going back to my college days at the University of Texas at Austin brings vivid memories that take me back to specific places in the city of Austin. Those days were best of my life and will never forget them. One of those places that immediately found a place in my heart was the SoCo or South Congress area. This strip of vintage stores, costume stores, restaurants, Airstream travel trailer food vendors, bars, and music halls is a popular attraction for tourists coming to Austin. Some of Austin's best restaurants can be found on this strip of Congress Avenue. Home Slice Pizza, The Woodland, Perla's, Guero's, Enoteca Vespaio, Curra's Grill, Magnolia Cafe, Botticelli's, Green Pastures, Southside Flying Pizza, Habana, and Treehouse Italian Grill make up probably the greatest line up of restaurants anywhere else in the city. The restaurant I left out that also belongs in the list, but one I would like to give emphasis on, is the South Congress Cafe.

South Congress Cafe, if I can remember correctly, was built close to my second year in college, 2003-2004. It was one of the first higher end restaurants built in the SoCo strip area, and since then started a trend of many more fine eateries finding their home in the area as well. Directly across the street from the parking lot filled with old converted Airstream trailers serving food specialties, South Congress Cafe sits in the middle of the entire SoCo shopping experience. Weary shoppers usually find themselves either rushing in this restaurant starving for a good meal, or willing to file suit behind the crowds at their distinguished bar. The bar area is quaint and modern with minimalist styled chairs, concrete floors, and curved recycled glass bar tops. Bartenders serve unique drinks like the popular "Paraty" (pa-ra-chee) which is a mix of Leblon Cachaca, Cointreau, with muddled basil leaves and strawberries, topped with lime juice, ginger syrup, and soda. The beers are mainly local, and the wine list contains unique and hard to find wines. One must be thirsty to drink beer here, because the smallest beer you can get is 16oz.

The dining area is reminiscent of industrial chic mixed with Ikea. Clean and sleek, it matches perfectly their menu of simple but expertly cooked dishes. The dinner menu includes appetizers such as lamb tartare, ceviche, and crab cakes, salads like watermelon salad, and warm goat cheese salad, and main dishes of sea bass gnocchi, goat cheese and bacon stuffed quail, and honey tangerine duck breast. At my last visit this last weekend I had the duck and oyster gumbo and jalapeno-venison meatloaf. It all sounds simple, but the precision of cooking is excellent. I paired the gumbo with a 512 Brewery Pecan Porter. The gumbo had a super thick, almost black roux, with balanced duck fat sweetness and brininess from the oysters. The 512 Pecan Porter was similar to Guinness, but drier and smokier with mild flavors of roasted pecans. The meatloaf was sided with super whipped mashed potatoes and blanched spinach. The chef did not try to hide the gaminess of the venison, which I like very much, but heightened it's flavor with earthiness of mild jalapeno flavor and crushed black pepper. It looked as if a red wine gravy was poured over the entire dish which added some moisture to the venison which has a low fat content and can tend to dry out easily. A glass of smoky, earthy tempranillo from Faustino V paired well and held up to the spiciness of the dish.

No crazy dishes found here, just simple food taken to the next level has made this restaurant a staple of eating in the SoCo area. So when in the area drop by and give this restaurant a try. I recommend skipping dessert at the end of your meal and heading across the street to grab a famous cupcake from the Hey Cupcake stand (my favorite in the city!).

Rating: A

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