As the multinational Transformer we know as the University of Texas (Teximus Prime) rumbles back to life, its human components will have to eat. Streat is the place where they might find common cross-cultural fuel.
Streat opened this summer, a concept from Michael Vilim, who owns the respected French restaurant Mirabelle. The menu pays tribute to the kind of street cuisine glorified by excitable TV hosts and Austinites bitten by the metaphorical (and actual) bugs of the trailer-food phenomenon. The concept is similar to, but has no business relationship with, the restaurant Susan Feniger opened in Los Angeles last year called Street, where the `Top Chef Masters' veteran incorporates dishes from Brazil, the Ukraine, Malaysia and other far-flung ports.
Streat is not a trailer, even if the stools, narrow dining rails, paper food boats and galvanized metal wainscoting give it the feel of a campground concession stand, except with nicer people.
It's close to campus, at least the northeastern edge of it. That's a bonus for students who might be as direction-impaired as I was when I came to UT, immobilized by the fear of a new place.
I wouldn't have had the time, the navigational skills or the gas money to drive way up North Lamar Boulevard to visit Tam Deli for a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich. But I would have loved it. Nor would I have driven to Sambet's off Spicewood Springs Road for Cajun gumbo. But I would have loved it. I eventually found Ted's, the departed Greek place downtown. And I loved every greasy, grouchy minute of it.
But Ted's, I could walk there. And I would've walked to Streat back then, drawn by the chance to try spring rolls and gumbo and kebabs all in one spot, most of them for less than $5. But I wouldn't have walked back very often.
`Bizarre Foods' has been playing on TV during two different visits here, with Andrew Zimmern a kind of fluffy mascot for the adventurous eater. Yes, you can try Greek, Cajun, Vietnamese, South American, Italian and Middle Eastern food here. If you're a culinary neophyte, that's great.
But for each of the eight dishes I tried at Streat, I've had better versions somewhere else, even at the trailers Streat hopes to emulate, such as LuLu B's for a banh mi or Kebablicious for falafel.
Instead of just playing the `somebody does it better' game, I'll appreciate the Greek kebabs ($4.49) on their own merits, two petite skewers of tender beef grilled with bell peppers, mushroom and onion. A lingering taste of lemon was complemented by fragrant rice and cabbage with a touch of sesame, with a thimble-full of tangy tzatziki yogurt sauce. That sauce also brightened an order of falafel, three simple fried balls of dough made from green peas served with stiff pita bread for $3.99.
From the Americas not prefixed with `north,' I enjoyed a chipotle pork gordita ($5.95) with cabbage, sour cream, tomatoes and guacamole served between a thin but dense `bun'-like crisp cornbread. I wanted more heat than I could get from a tiny cup of salsa verde, miniature condiments being, I suppose, how they play it in the streets. I got my heat from a chimichurri sauce on the `Gaucho Sticks' ($4.99), marinated in the Argentinian style with that magic sauce of olive oil, herbs and crushed pepper. With rice, black beans and cabbage, there was a lot going on to counter the off flavor of the beef.
File these in the over-reach category: New York-style pizza ($2.49 a slice) that was just a step above frozen for taste and texture, gumbo ($3.99 cup/$6.99 bowl) that was a cypher of dark roux and chicken and sausage without big spice or Creole magic to bring it to life and a banh mi with tough, overcooked pork and bread neither crunchy outside nor soft inside.
Streat's low prices are tempered by the fact that to get well and truly full, you might need two, maybe three dishes. Two samosas ($4.99) and a an Indian curry ($5.99), and your cheap lunch is $11. Something like fish and chips ($5.99) is enough on its own, although the breading on our fish was soft and waxy and the chips were fries from the Sysco truck.
A friend described it as the food from the Olympic Village dorm cafeteria, except that from the stories I've heard, the food at the Olympic Village is awe-inspiring.
3211 Red River St. 628-0288, www.eatatstreat.com .
Rating: 5.9 out of 10
Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays.
Prices: 'Sticks' (kabobs, satay, yakitori) $3.99-$4.99. 'Stuffed' (spring rolls, samosas, fish tacos) $4.49-$5.99. 'Bowls' (noodles, falafel, Middle Eatern dips, fish and chips) $3.49-$7.99. `Buns' and hot dogs (paninis, banh mi, gorditas, burritos, pizza) $2.49-$6.95, $11.99 for a whole pizza. Soups and salads $2.49-$6.99. Breakfast tacos $1, other breakfasts $1.79-$3.79. Desserts $1-$3.89.
Payment: All major cards
Alcohol: Beer and wine. About a dozen bottled beers, $2-$5. About 19 wines by the bottle ($14-$32) and glass ($3.50-$6.50). During happy hour (4 to 7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays), select appetizers are free with beer or wine purchase.
Wheelchair access: Call ahead
What the rating means: The 10-point scale for casual dining is an average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value.