For the better part of the past decade, you could drive by the southeast corner of Barton Springs and Dawson roads and play the guessing game: How long will it take for that restaurant to go out of business?
Despite its proximity to South Austin neighborhoods and cultural events centers, the location, which is next to a convenience store, felt cursed, as a revolving door ushered restaurants in and out.
Sandwich shops futilely tried to fill the building for a few years, followed by a misguided Italian effort. When Carlos Rivero tried to expand his popular El Chile brand to the space, it seemed the cold streak would end. But Rivero’s El Chilito lasted only a year before transitioning to El Chile and then closing as Rivero took a breath and developed El Alma to take its place in July 2011. The restaurant seems to have finally grounded the amorphous space.
Rivero partnered with longtime friend, chef Alma Alcocer-Thomas, a 16-year veteran of Jeffrey’s, with stops at Fonda San Miguel and TNT/Tacos and Tequila, who arrived at El Chile a few months before it closed. Alma’s guiding hand is not the only change at the restaurant named after the Spanish word for ‘soul,’ a moniker that conveniently mirrors the chef’s name. The whitewashed adobe building feels more alive and inviting than it did in previous iterations, and Alcocer-Thomas’ interpretations of food from her native Mexico City also offer culinary comfort.
Wicker lamps like blown-out conifers hang over dark wooden tables in the restaurant that features a dining area up front and a long bar and some high-top tables in the middle before climbing rock-lined stairs to a massive rooftop patio. The walls are dotted with bright Mexican pop art as vibrant as the slightly creamy and citrusy tomatillo salsa that accompanies a smoky red salsa and chips to begin meals.
A shrimp chelada appetizer ($8.95) joins the citrusy chorus with large splayed-out pieces of poached shrimp that put up a gentle fight. Generous chunks of smooth avocado top the chile-dusted shrimp and unnecessary cuts of unyielding cucumber, making for a mess that only gets enhanced when you pour a sidecar shot of lager onto the dish. The marriage of citrus, shrimp, tangy pickled onions and avocado doesn’t need the extra baggage, and though it came with packaged Saltines to serve as a bed, we were more than satisfied eating the dish with a fork and chasing it with some crackery crunch.
Appetizers are half-price during long daily happy hours (3 to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday and 3 to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.) The happy hour also entices with drink discounts on specialty concoctions such as the mildly spicy and citrusy Margarita Chilanga. No break for my favorite El Alma cocktail, though, the piñarita, a tequila-based drink that gets a tropical twist of pineapple and coconut milk.
Our excitement over the shrimp chelada waned with the arrival of bland pastor tostaditas ($8.95) covered in Monterey Jack cheese, with pork that has none of the pastor’s citrus wink. They taste more like beef nachos. The beef we did order impressed, as a tangle of caramelized onions and huge dollops of guacamole topped carne asada tacos ($4) filled with thick strips of grilled steak cooked to a polite medium. The shrimp starred again on pastor tacos ($4) that boasted plump, juicy shrimp behind a slight crackle of skin.
The lunch and dinner menus at El Alma have few variations from one another, though lunch does offer a trio of specials for less than $10. An unruly open-faced torta de puerco ($8.95) tumbles from its flaky rolls, the tender chunks of pork topped with huge slices of pickled green peppers, wedges of tomatoes, slabs of avocado and strips of toasty grilled panela cheese. Wed the two halves and press together and watch the mild chipotle ranch dressing ooze from the sides of this sandwich that, served with hearty wedges of paprika-sprinkled potatoes, is a solid deal at lunch.
The mild black drum of the pescado al ajillo ($17.95) mainly serves as a delivery mechanism for the luxurious ancho butter in which it is sautéed. A tangle of charred peppers, onions and mushrooms help tame the sensual flavors of the buttery fish while a corn pudding, which can also be ordered as a side dish, delivers a crumbly and creamy sweetness.
A little more sweetness can be found courtesy of the Mexican Coke that marinates, tenderizes and glazes a lightly shimmering pork-chop that comes with a smoky and mildly sweet pasilla-Coke sauce. The accompanying relleno releases simple pleasures of rice bound by gooey melted Jack cheese.
Though the sauce on the duck enmoladas ($14.95) looks similar to that on the pork chop, the mole has more depth of flavor. A velvet shroud emboldened by chocolate and Christmas spices drapes the enchiladas stuffed with mildly gamy shredded roasted duck.
After a rather heavy meal, we chose to go light on dessert, opting for an unremarkable coconut flan with the tiniest hints of lime. I should have just ordered another piñarita.
El Alma represents a comfortable middle ground for Alcocer-Thomas, somewhere in between her fanciful creations at the elegant Jeffrey’s and the more humble tacos at TNT. The menu does not feel terribly different from El Chile, but still manages to convey a taste of the chef’s personal style. More importantly, Alcocer-Tomas gives the restaurant an identity and the sense that the guessing game at this troubled corner might be a thing of the past.