Even if it looks like a trailer park that sprouted a double-decker chicken coop, Red's Porch made a good first impression on me in November 2009 with a half-pound burger sporting goat cheese, bacon and fried onions on a sweet jalapeño bun ($9.95).
Not just that, but the option to sub a baking dish of mac and cheese for fries ($1.75 extra) made this more than a sports-bar burger. And I liked the back wall's mosaic of game boards, from Wahoo to Ouija to Operation (take out wrenched ankle). And the top floor's view of the greenbelt isn't something you'd expect from a place behind a bank on South Lamar Boulevard.
In all, not a bad opening act.
Physically, Red's Porch is still all that, even if it seems like the TVs have had a few litters of flat-screen puppies and plastic walls hold back the winter wind upstairs and a tent covers the back patio where the Airstream sits. The Geeks Who Drink quiz crowd doesn't mind a bit. They shook that tent like a bingo parlor a few cold Tuesdays back.
And I got a good second impression from chicken-fried chicken ($9.95) that was pounded out to platter size, batter-dipped and fried to fork-tender gold and crowned with peppery bacon gravy. Mashed red potatoes with the skins left on came standard, and from a list of sides that included collard greens, black-eyed peas and fried okra, I paid an extra dollar for mac and cheese. With a crusty baked top and fat, creamy macaroni, it hadn't changed a bit.
With that, the South Austin faction of Red's trifecta was accounted for. The place also lays claim to Cajun and Mexican influences. But there was nothing except a side of stewed greens to love about a crawfish po' boy ($8.95 plus 75 cents for the greens) with hardly enough meat to support that much bread.
And tacos with smoked brisket ($9.95) lost their smoke somewhere along the way, and the tough fiber of barely browned onion slices made the dish impossible to eat as tacos. Untangle and discard the onions, use the tortillas as scoops, enjoy the charro beans and Mexican rice, and you've got a small, $10 plate of domesticated barbecue. I'd need a lot more of that creamy jalapeño-avocado salsa to start thinking of this en español.
Somewhere between the South and south of the border, however, we relaxed on a sunny afternoon with hot queso cradling shots of guacamole and greasy chorizo ($7.95), drinking frozen margaritas ($5.75) that weren't too sweet and a pint of crisp Wytchmaker pale ale ($4.75) from Austin's Jester King. In that light — with a big plate of fries snowflaked with toasted Parmesan bits and drizzled with smoky chili and more queso ($7.95) — Red's shines its brightest: guilty-pleasure food, a waitstaff that can play a little and still pay attention, a two-drink buzz and the knowledge that the afternoon sun will stay longer and longer with each passing day.
We needed those times at Red's to balance some rough spots: fried green olives with blue cheese and marinara ($6.95) that would be more at home in a Bennigan's-style house of flair (the plastic basket, white paper and plastic minicup of marinara don't help), cheddar cheese biscuits as hard as clay ($4.95 for three with bacon gravy), a fried Snickers bar dessert that strip-mined the county-fair vein with warm, gluey batter ($4.95).
I worried whether I'd been lulled into early soft-focus that first time at Red's Porch. I'm not that interested in another midlevel sports bar with a few beer taps and a deck, even if Red's does that part well. So I was happy to find a few dishes to reinforce that first impression. One was a smoked chicken corn chowder ($3.95 for a cup) that expressed each element clearly and above all, had that potato-cream balance that distinguishes chowder from soup.
And it turns out that Red's can make pot roast ($9.95) that glows mahogany brown outside, tender and juicy inside, with just enough fat to make it interesting. For color and variety, I subbed sweet glazed carrots for mashers, but I should have saved the dollar I spent upgrading to spinach casserole, because it was just spinach leaves drenched in what seemed like more melted queso.
My sweetest picture of Red's came from a piece of tres leches cake ($5.95) big enough for a courthouse wedding and just as fleeting, somehow light and crumbly under its shower of strawberries and cold cream. A lasting impression as sweet as the first.
3508 S. Lamar Blvd. 440-7337, www.redsporch.com .
Rating: 7.0 out of 10
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight daily, until 1 a.m. Saturdays. Kitchen open until 11 p.m. Brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays.
Prices: Appetizers $3.95-$7.95. Soups and salads $3.95-$9.95. Sandwiches and burgers $7.95-$9.95. Mexican dishes $7.95-$9.95. Main courses $9.95-$11.95. Desserts $3.95-$5.95. Lunch specials $6.95-$7.95.
Payment: All major cards
Alcohol: Full bar. More than 25 beers on tap, including beers from Austin's Thirsty Planet, Jester King, (512), Real Ale, Live Oak and Independence. Forty more in cans and bottles. Six red wines and six whites by the glass ($5.50-$8.25). Margaritas range from basic frozen to the shaker-made Texican. Specialty cocktails include the Voodoo Queen (Bloody Mary mix and pepper-infused vodka) and the Eleanor Rigby (fig-infused vodka, orange juice, cassis). Happy hour 3 to 7 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, with select appetizers at half-price (wings, queso, onion rings, chili-cheese fries, Frito pie) and drink specials, including $3.25 frozen margaritas and $2 pints of Lone Star.
Wheelchair access: Yes
What the rating means: The 10-point scale for casual dining is an average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value, with 10 being the best.