Our server guided us through the airy, modern dining room toward the large patio overlooking Shoal Creek. We spotted a woman in the open kitchen pounding and rolling flour tortillas.
We asked whether they made both their flour and corn tortillas by hand at the new Polvos Downtown. She answered in the affirmative and flashed a mischievous grin with the line: “We’re one of those cool restaurants.”
It was a wicked and wonderful tongue-in-cheek flaying of patting-itself-on-the-back foodie culture. Of course they make their tortillas by hand at Polvos. And it has nothing to do with being cool. It’s just the way things should be done.
Despite the restrained and elegant dining room of the new location, the antithesis to the colorful and shambolic original Polvos that opened on South First Street in 1997, Polvos is still Polvos. This location might attract a slightly more buttoned-up crowd at times — a businessman, an ambivalent tourist or an Instagrammer curious about artisanal tortillas — but the soul of the restaurant hasn’t changed.
Morelia, Mexico, native Oscar “Polvo” Linares opened the first of his now three locations on a stretch of South First Street lined with Mexican restaurants well before commercial real estate brokers starting salivating over the corridor’s possibilities. It’s fitting that a man from Michoacan, often called “the soul of Mexico,” would have opened what has slowly come to represent the soul of South Austin: a fun, casual place full of flavor, rowdiness, diversity and we’re-all-here-cause-we’re-not-all-there vibes.
It’s amazing that he could transport such a uniquely South Austin locale across the river and infuse a still-in-the-works section of downtown with a neighborhood feel. It starts, of course, with the food (and the massive, frothy pitchers of strong margaritas). Chunks of citrus-splashed tilapia buried beneath feathered avocado (a Michoacan staple) and an assortment of unexpected strawberries and kiwi provide a vibrant start to a meal ($15), as does the plump shrimp cocktail in its spicy-sweet broth cooled with cilantro and popping with peppers ($15). Start passing those excitedly around the table beneath trees strewn with twinkle lights dangling over the creek and with just the right amount of margarita in you, and the tropical setting might transport you to the Mayan Riviera. It’s a far cry from the plastic folding tables at the edge of the parking lot on busy South First and a welcome relief from the concrete and glass surrounding the 360 Tower.
Thick ropes of melted Monterey Jack cheese studded that trap chorizo and caramelized grilled onions ($12), and massive espaditas — the baked corn base towering with cabbage, beans, pico and pork al pastor ($9) — stand in weighted relief to the light seafood appetizers. Or you can tread the middle ground and just head for chips and the salsa bar ($3.99). Who would have ever thought that one day there would be a Google building towering over one of the city’s most beloved salsa bars with the trio of juicy red, piquant tomatillo and smoky salsas arranged around the bowl of tangy escabeche?
The restaurant celebrates various regions of interior Mexican cuisine. You’ll find bright shrimp stewed in a Veracruzano sauce, light with tomatoes, cilantro and onions ($18), and Oaxaca gets a nod with rich, nutty, impossibly thick mole that you can order to top your juicy shredded chicken enchiladas ($13). The chile relleno al nogal, often associated with the state of Puebla, here comes stuffed with cheese and a selection of several proteins, and the pepper is cooked to a point where the poblano maintains its vegetal snap beneath a smoky char and velvety pecan cream sauce ($16).
The restaurant’s trademark dish cannot be traced back to a Mexican state as much as an individual. Linares says the idea for fajitas al guajillo ($15) came to him in a dream about 15 years ago. Visions of pecans, raisins and peanuts danced in his head, and he had his chef incorporate them into a saute of skirt steak grilled with onions and peppers. The result is a nutty, sweet, earthy and oily concoction best served wrapped in buttery flour tortillas and dabbed with sour cream and guacamole. If you’re looking for something a little more direct, go with the succulent, medium-rare ribeye fajitas (about $30) or the juicy shrimp or fish fajitas that have long been a staple at South First. The original Polvos used to strike friends visiting for the first time as a curious choice for seafood, but try the seafood enchiladas topped in a buttery margarita sauce ($17) or the French-like dish of tilapia seared to a crispy finish and sauteed with garlic and brown butter ($18) and you’ll understand.
Fans of the original might not recognize the more formal space of the new Polvos, previously home to European fine dining restaurant Prelog’s and Mexican restaurant Garrido’s before that, but they will know the menu by heart. There is the Yucatan dish of huevos monulenos topped with fried bananas and black beans at breakfast ($12), the tender cubes of pork stewed in a shimmering and floral verde sauce at lunch ($15) and the earthy and sweet guajillo-soaked enchiladas de la casa beneath a shower of cabbage and fanned avocado at dinner ($15).
And though the roots to the original might be harder to trace during the more restrained lunch hour, make it to Polvos downtown for dinner, and the hallmarks are there: the festive atmosphere, the rich flavors, the sense of casual joy and abundance. The kind of place we seek out to grub with friends, not to make deals. A place that lacks pretense or publicists. Where we seek camaraderie, not awards. I once wondered whether any restaurant could open in the stupefyingly homogeneous and increasingly generic downtown of New Austin and actually give visitors and locals a sense of what the city is truly all about. I doubted it. I was wrong. Polvos has done it. It’s one of those cool places.
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