Chef Bryce Gilmore has spent the past decade challenging Austin dining conventions and helping reframe the way we think about food in this town. He started in 2009 by raising expectations of trailer food, serving grilled broccoli with feta, cauliflower soup, quail and grits and pork belly sliders at his wood-burning Odd Duck Farm to Trailer.
He and his team heightened and refined that seasonal and local concept with the artful small plates at Barley Swine, showing us fine dining through a Texas lens with dishes like smoked lamb loin with pinto beans and refreshing crab salad topped with an orb of Trinidad pepper sorbet.
The brick-and-mortar Odd Duck restaurant that replaced the trailer on South Lamar Boulevard wedded the two concepts and lowered the barrier of entry for the team’s brand of creative Texas comfort food, creating an inspirational mid-tier option where quality was not sacrificed despite lower costs. Yes, cheeseburgers cost $18, but they came with housemade pimento cheese or refried bean mayo on a bun puffed to perfection. And, braised goat on your taco pizza and quail al pastor made it clear they were aiming for much more than smart bar food.
Sour Duck Market, which opened in late spring in East Austin, completes the well-balanced trinity of Gilmore & Co.’s dining empire. They have figured out how to deliver their expected level of service, warm aesthetic and considered cuisine in a fast-casual format, proving that craftsmanship, care and convenience don’t always have to carry a hefty price tag.
Serious lovers of Odd Duck might be able to divine the relationship between Sour Duck and Odd Duck from just a glimpse of the bakery case that welcomes you to the all-day counter-service spot. The brunch pastries at the restaurant on South Lamar were once proffered on a tray by a server with the flourish of a knowing game show host revealing what’s behind door number two. Servers now simply tell you about the day's offerings, but just know you should save room for one. The pastries, both savory and sweet, are the hidden gems of an Odd Duck brunch, and the meal isn’t quite complete without one.
Those pastries have gone from being a weekend featured player at Odd Duck to some of the biggest stars of the show at Sour Duck Market. Pace the case at the walk-up counter and marvel like a gluten-loving kid in a candy store at the delicacies from a pastry team led by Parker Smith. There are the glossy and twirled croissants, one honeycombed with air ($3), another filled with rich chocolate ($3.50), and a version pocked with pecans frozen beneath a snowstorm of powder sugar ($4.25).
Olive oil releases its fat into a buttery chocolate chip cookie ($3.25) and lends its grassy notes to a light lemon tart finished with spiraled dollops of toasted meringue ($3). A chocolate brownie is buzzed with enough espresso to keep you awake until all the cranes have left town. The lacquered kouign-amann ($3.50), shimmering with a glassy sugar finish, tears apart, revealing its stacked paper-thin layers. As for the kolaches and danishes, do you want one filled with fruit jam or with shredded pork creamy with bechamel and gouda ($3.50)? Just get them all.
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It’s easy to get swept away with sugary, carby delights, you might argue. But I’m not even much of a sucker for pastries. That is what great culinary craftspeople can do: They make you fall for things you’ve never loved. Barley Swine did it for me with mushrooms (if you haven’t had their bursting caramelle pasta filled with liquid mushroom-butter gold, you’re missing one of the best dishes in town), and Odd Duck changed how I felt about pig face (stuffed inside trademark pretzels). Sour Duck might have just made me a pastry convert.
OK. This review isn’t meant to read like “Pastries: A Love Story.” Is Sour Duck one of the best bakeries in Austin? Yes. Is that all it is? Not even close. The cafe serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. One reason the team opened Sour Duck was to set up a bakery that could stand alone and service its sibling restaurants, but the founders also wanted to bring their point of view, flavor profiles, strong customer service and quality to a concept that fills a different market niche than its forebearers.
Sour Duck is affordable dining, a place you can put in your weekly rotation. And if you have an affinity for either of its siblings, you are likely to love the new duck on the block. That pork danish I mentioned? It was speckled with pumpkin seeds, one of Odd Duck’s go-to items. You’ll also find them dotting a bright late-summer watermelon salad salted with feta and brightened with herbs ($7) and scattered in an early fall gazpacho ($5) made with butternut squash and honey. And mole sticks sunflower seeds to roasted sweet potatoes, the sweet and earthy dish tarted with yogurt ($8). If you ate those three dishes before Sour Duck opened and were forced to name the restaurant from which they came, you would likely point to Odd Duck.
That culinary connection resonates across other menu items like a goat sausage gyro that somewhat resembles Odd Duck’s lunchtime chicken bun, here the wrap tangy, spicy, sweet and crunchy with fresno chile tzatziki, cucumber and apple ($12); and refreshing crab toast, available at breakfast or throughout the day, puckered and piqued with pickled watermelon rind and jalapeno ($12.50).
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The pastry case is not the only place the baking shines. Sturdy but not aggressive sourdough held one of my favorite sandwiches of the year ($11), a crackling fried terrine of white and dark meat chicken elevated by house ranch and pickled okra; and puffy sesame seed buns bookend massive breakfast sandwiches of egg and cheese ($5, and an additional few bucks for added goat sausage or pork belly), a spicy and tangy smoked pork sandwich ($12), and a burger ($12).
Now, about that burger. Odd Duck makes my favorite in town, with its intriguing and imaginative accoutrements and dressings regularly changing. But I found the burger at Sour Duck, with its umami mayo made with chicken skin and capers, too one-note, a rare thudding disappointment compounded by high expectations. But if you want to punch up that burger, or a dish of dirty fried rice with pork and duck egg ($10) served at breakfast and throughout the day, you can reach for some homemade jalapeno or chili vinegar. Sour Duck could have just tossed some Crystal Hot Sauce or Tabasco on the table and called it a day, but this group prides itself on craftsmanship and care at all levels.
As with its siblings, Sour Duck — which features counter seating in the front, a large covered and uncovered courtyard area suitable for kids of all ages, and a back bar that includes table seating — boasts an impressive beer and craft cocktail selection. The dozen draft beers and three dozen bottles are smartly curated, more than half coming from the Austin area; the half dozen draft cocktails are more nuanced and deft than you might expect from large batches, with tarragon, ginger and grapefruit balancing bite and herbaceousness in an standout Paloma ($8) and the whiskey, cinnamon, vanilla and cold brew of Nitro Cory’s Coffee combining for a perfect after-dinner (or breakfast?) drink ($8).
The level of thoughtfulness that runs from the pastry to cocktail programs is also evident in service. I’ve taken issue with new-fangled fast-casual concepts before, but what I like about Sour Duck’s format is that not all of the service is outsourced to the guests. Unless you order from a seat at the back bar (a move I recommend at lunch or dinner, though you have to go up front to select pastries), you will have to stand in line for your initial ordering. But they give you a number, and after that you can order more drinks or food and even close out your tab via one of the roving staff members equipped with a miniature computer. Those same staffers will even bus your table.
These are the kind of small but important details that help make Sour Duck a different animal when it comes to an Austin dining scene long in need of more high-quality but low-maintenance casual options buttressed by craft and care. It is also another example of Gilmore and his team helping illuminate what's missing in Austin while showing a way forward.