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In defense of brunch: Walking the bridge between breakfast and lunch with the rockers and ropers of March

Mike Sutter

In "Kitchen Confidential," Anthony Bourdain called brunch "a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday night." In the March issue of Esquire, writer Ross McCammon says a regular meal can be life-affirming, but a buffet breeds jokes about wanting to die.

Here's an idea. Let's put them together and see what happens: "brunch buffet."

King Ranch casserole is what happens, at least at Moonshine. And that one dish does three things: 1) It restores the good name of a Texas classic. 2) It reinforces the fact that even in a top-flight buffet, there's always one dish that makes you wish you'd saved all the room on your plate and in your belly for it. 3) It puts up a fine argument against Messrs. Bourdain and McCammon.

See, I've had a grudge against King Ranch casserole since the eighth grade, when my best friend's mom, Rita, fed it to us on the same night I tried Red Man chewing tobacco for the first time. I wanted to impress the girls down at the softball field. When green chile met chaw, it was impressive all right. And it was the last time I'd had either one.

Until last Sunday, when I decided to forgive King Ranch casserole at the Moonshine brunch buffet. Layered with corn tortillas, soft tomato, smoky chicken and a restorative blanket of melted cheese, the dish left me remorseful that I'd blamed it for that green-gilled night, when all along it was probably the Red Man. Or possibly Rita.

Moonshine's among the toughest seats to get in this sampler of 50 brunches that will help feed Rodeo Austin and South by Southwest alike in the crowded month of March.

I learned just how tough it is one Sunday morning after I left Carmelo's, a quiet retreat of Old World gentility and straightforward Italian food. It's a buffet of soft gnocchi in tomato sauce, rich rigatoni carbonara, sausage and peppers, breaded chicken simmered with mushrooms, a platter of prosciutto. No waiting at 10:45 a.m.

Things were going so well, I figured I'd round the corner and hit Moonshine that same morning. At 11:30, the crowd was overflowing to the steps of the Convention Center across the street. There were baby strollers everywhere, and the hostess told me that 192 people would get to eat before I had a shot at my first plate of jalapeño cheese grits or scrambled eggs glowing green with basil pesto from the two-room buffet.

Carmelo's and Moonshine both do what other brunch engineers sometimes forget to do: express the personality of the restaurant.

You do barbecue? Make your brunch buffet a beauty pageant for coffee-rubbed brisket and maple-glazed ribs the way Lamberts does. Tex-Mex? Take a cue from the Iron Cactus and put out handmade flour tortillas with an endless bowl of guacamole and thick tortilla soup, and turn huevos rancheros into an event on a wide, crispy chip with a perfect, picante-dappled fried egg. Homestyle? Jack Allen's Kitchen cures its own ham and sets out a bubbling enameled iron pot of Mama's Sunday Chicken with dark meat and mushrooms.

None of this should imply that the buffet is unassailable. Buffets can bring out the bipedal equivalent of road rage in places that weren't designed to accommodate a once-a-week chow line. Places like Lamberts, where I got huffed at when I asked for an extra plate so I wouldn't have to squeeze through the service lane's slow-moving gantlet of elbows again. At Moonshine, the main food room is an Escher-esque cube with multiple entrance and exit points, meaning traffic meets in the middle.

The a la carte brunch plays to the table-service strengths of places like Olivia, with its pancakes as sun-touched as a pinto pony and a twist on eggs Benedict with braised flat-iron steak. Or Z'Tejas, with soft-fried eggs on smoked chicken enchiladas and an iron skillet of bread like cornmeal cream cake.

At Fino, the Benedict substitutes roasted potato for the English muffin, with the egg yolks frosted with the barest pearlescent white over pimenton-dusted hollandaise. And let's close our eyes in soporific salute to Chez Zee and its challah bread French toast steeped overnight in crème brûlée, then baked to order.

Some of my best food memories come from the brunch buffet at the Four Seasons. It was the place we celebrated with grandparents in tow after our first daughter was born, the first place I ever palmed a waiter a crisp $20 to keep the champagne coming during a cigar break on the lawn. We filled up on crab claws and duck liver mousse and caught glances of David Crosby and Robert Duvall.

The price hadn't yet climbed to almost $50 like it is now. And yes, we were so full we wanted to die. But life is like a buffet. You can't take it with you when you go.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

Hit the rodeo's free Cowboy Breakfast at 6 a.m. Friday at Auditorium Shores, with biscuits and gravy, pancakes, breakfast tacos, fried catfish, sausage, doughnuts, coffee and live music. Free parking at the Palmer Events Center. Details at www.rodeoaustin.com .