A magical place still exists in many of our minds. A place where servers treat everyone like regulars, rib-sticking food extends to the edges of plates, baskets of warm tortilla chips never stop arriving at the table, nothing on the menu costs more than $16, and nobody complains about traffic.
It’s called Old Austin.
Many have long bemoaned it’s passing. But I have news for you. Old Austin didn’t die, it just set up shop on Anderson Lane. OK, people do still gripe about traffic. This is Eldorado Cafe, not heaven.
Chef Joel Fried has worked in Austin restaurants for the better part of 30 years, most recently wrapping up a 12-year run at Tacodeli in a career that includes time at Vespaio and the late Bitter End. Understanding what Austin diners want and the art of genuine hospitality apparently live in his genetic code, and you’ll sense the friendliness, care and lack of pretense that represents the best of Old Austin embedded in Eldorado’s DNA.
My lifelong friend Dana grew up in Austin and left 25 years ago. Every time she plans a trip home to visit her folks, she asks where they should go for Tex-Mex. I’m always at a loss. She doesn’t want modern Mexican, isn’t concerned about in-house nixtamalization of corn, and isn’t one to rave about a space’s stunning architecture. Yes, she wants a good meal, but she wants comfort and familiarity and somewhere new. She craves some blend of Las Manitas, Chuy’s, Maudie’s, and Magnolia Cafe.
For years I would tell her that there was nothing new under the Tex-Mex sun in Austin and that she should just go back to the places she’s always loved. But the last time she visited, I finally had an answer: Eldorado Cafe, the restaurant that opened last summer in the old Albors Persian Cuisine space at Anderson Lane and Shoal Creek Boulevard. My calcified assumptions served as my poor rationalization for not visiting sooner. My bad. That oversight earned Eldorado Cafe the top spot on my annual Should-Have-Been-In-My-Top-50 list.
My knee-jerk reaction in years past derived from the reasoning that there wasn’t a wide variety in the Austin enchilada and taco game. But Eldorado made me rethink that. When you order a plate of enchiladas verdes for $12.95, you generally expect a tomatillo sauce smothered in a blanket of cheese. Fine, but not noteworthy. But at Eldorado, the kitchen takes care to roast the tomatillos, giving them depth and a complex balance of acid and smoke.
If you come across a newfangled Tex-Mex menu that goes beyond the classics to offer short rib enchiladas, you might assume the chef’s pandering to non-discerning and trend-seeking customers. But Fried and his staff give care to the short rib meat in Rene’s Awesome Enchiladas ($13.95). You can actually taste the short rib. And the expressive meat is tender and moist.
A prevailing concern with Tex-Mex is that flavors will meld into a savory, often cheese-laden homogeneity that leaves little room for nuance or ingredient articulation. That’s not a problem with carne adovado ($15.75), the mildly sweet dusk of ancho chilies swathing hunks of stewed sirloin, or a chicken tinga dish ($14.95) shimmering with vibrant red chili adobo. You know you’re in good hands when a chicken breast dish can leave such an impression.
In lesser restaurants more prone to cruise control, the lemon garlic chicken may serve as an anachronistic acquiescence to generic palates, but Eldorado cooks the strips until just tawny on the surface and tender through the middle, zipping the bird with lemon, roasted garlic and green onions ($14.95). Simple done right. It belongs in Austin’s Culinary Nostalgia Hall of Fame. All of those entrees, which can be ordered at lunch or dinner, come with sides that get equal attention, from a hash of butternut squash and zucchini flecked with toasted pepitas and basil to sumptuous garlic mashers and roasted cauliflower and other veggies tossed in a zippy mojo.
Eldorado seems to know the small touches matter, and sometimes the difference between success and insipidity on straightforward dishes can be a matter of a just a few degrees. Crispy beef picadillo tacos (two for $7.95 or with fluffy rice studded with corn and lardy beans for $10.95) are made with robust corn shells fried in house, and the excellent breakfast tacos such as a machacado with queso fresco ($3.50) and migas ($3.75) tuck the ingredients inside a puffed fold of eggs like an omelet. The process made the tortilla strips on the latter less crispy than you’d want, but the payoff is the Jack cheese that oozes like white lava. And, no, they don’t grind their own corn or make in-house flour tortillas at Eldorado, but they know the right people for sourcing, in this case Fiesta Tortillas, and they aren’t afraid to spread the spotlight by telling you where the tortillas came from.
That sense of community and sharing the stage shows up on the menu, where Fried’s sous chef has created an appetizer of puzchkas ($8.50), crackling fried dumplings stuffed with bacon, mashed potatoes and caramelized onions; regular musician Kevin Russell gets a sweet-and-tangy pile of tender arbol chili-glazed Shiny Ribs ($9.95) named in his honor; and a roster of rotating specials might include a massive chicken-fried steak nod to the late Stallion Grill or a Frito Pie homage to Mad Dog & Beans.
You’ll also sense the bonhomie in the building itself, both figuratively and literally. Running through the small Southwestern-colored dining room that seats about six dozen and always seems to be packed is a load-bearing beam painted the names of all of the investors who helped Joel and wife Joanna get Eldorado off the ground. The touching metaphor celebrating friends and family is the perfect centerpiece for a restaurant where longtime Austin servers might call you “darlin;” you may spot the Dallas Cowboys-loving chef ribbing a table of Steelers fans, inspiring a neighboring group of Ravens fans to chirp up; and the general manager greets regulars with hugs.
A server from another section swooped in one afternoon to refill our empty glasses after noticing a distracted co-worker trapped in the weeds. “Everybody lives in a damn bubble these days,” she said with bemused empathy.
Not at Eldorado they don’t.