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The lights are on, and Cafe Josie's home

Channeling the tropics, Charles Mayes still brings the sweet, the heat, the mesquite-grilled meat

Mike Sutter
The mesquite-seared tenderlion at Café Josie is a quality cut of meat that's finished with garlic butter. It's served with steak fries with shredded manchego cheese, a simple salad with a habanero dressing.

When we published the Austin360 Dining Guide this month, I made a note to start filling the gaps left after two years on the beat. Chasing the iPhone glow of the Next New Thing, I've stumbled past places where the lights have been on forever (at least by the compressed metric of restaurant years). At Café Josie, the lights have been on since 1997.

The man at the switch has been Charles Mayes, a chef identified to me by one of his highly decorated contemporaries as one of the few in town worthy of being called a chef at all. A pioneer, in fact, but that's such a dehydrated word for a guy who tripped the crunchy granola zeitgeist at Austin's seminal Good Food grocery store then followed that act with Mother's Cafe in 1979. After that came Treaty Oak Cafe and Mañana Grill and Gilligan's.

Then Mayes saw that the former West End Cafe was for rent, just down West Sixth Street from Sweetish Hill Bakery. The building is more than 100 years old, he said, a former carriage house with tall ceilings and exposed beams. It was there that he put Café Josie, named for his daughter, and set to work making what he calls `the cuisine of the American tropics.'

The American tropics apparently are famous for mesquite-grilled steak because Josie's tenderloin ($28) is among the best five beef dishes I've eaten on this job. It's not just the toasted, almost coniferous twang of mesquite smoke - an aroma that taps you on the shoulder for a full block around the restaurant. It's the quality of the beef, a thin cut with a superfine marble cooked a perfect medium rare, and the gleam of garlic butter. The plate gets a finish of sturdy steak fries with shredded manchego cheese and simple greens with a dice of tomatoes and a habanero-spiked dressing. We'll call it equatorial steak frites.

Restaurant people are really philanthropists in dirty aprons, and Mayes' passion is soup, specifically the Empty Bowl Project (see box for details). A bowl of artichoke and roasted tomato bisque ($5) tastes like the charity you reserve for your family, warm and thoughtful, with crusty bread from Sweetish Hill and butter dressed with chopped garlic and olive oil.

I won't say our waiter treated us like family. He was far more polite than that, downright polished for a place that doesn't stand on ceremony. Two dinner experiences were like nights in a beach hut washed in weathered primary colors, where the walls are really just doors to the next room and the redfish ($26) you caught that afternoon has been pan-fried with crushed pumpkin seeds, then plated with tomatillo and dusky ancho chile, some roasty poblano rice, black beans and a crisp duo of carrots and sugar snap peas.

The same sides garnish a butterflied and grilled pork loin (a true value at $19) with brooding jerk spice, a light rum glaze and pineapple pico, cooked tender enough to cut with a butter knife. The grill gets another workout with honey chipotle shrimp ($24), six on a wooden spit cooked to hit that three-second window between raw and rawhide, with the same side dishes and a sweet-hot spice profile boosted by ancho chile sauce.

Every dish tastes like a night on the coast, or a cruise ship, one of the good ones with full power and almost no Spam. It's a Coke commercial on the beach, and the breeze is making our hair do that tropical wave, and we'd like to teach the world to sing. It's beautiful. And then we do it again, with the same interchangeable sides and spice profiles. Then again. And now that song is working our nerves, and you might wonder whether this is a mark of consistency or a scene from `Groundhog Day.'

The chef's answer is practical and specific. `We have decidedly more of a Southern Hemisphere-type cuisine. We use a lot of tropical fruits and chiles and seafood. And you can't get those at any farmers' markets here in Austin. Nobody's growing things like that. The reality is, until I can get some homegrown mangos and papayas and pineapples,' Mayes said, he'll lean on daily chalkboard specials to incorporate seasonal foods when it feels right. `To me the rice and beans are very consistent with the core identity of our menu. We don't use a lot of microgreens and arugula.'

That's a fair point. But there's room for creative license in any cuisine, and exercising it could keep Café Josie from looking stiff while its more agile competitors chase after the fast-moving population of self-styled gastronomes.

It's possible that Josie's happy hour is enough of an answer for now, because people want a good deal as much as they want to ride the cutting edge. From 5:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, it's a half-price joyride for fried Gulf oysters ($12/$6 at happy hour), six of them on a wheel of overlapping sauces, one a sedate lime-cilantro aïoli, the other a crafty honey chipotle whose heat anticipates and eases the way for oysters that crackle and churn like an ocean volcano on tortilla chips with a spray of spring mix. Then the honey shows up, telling your mouth everything's OK.

For the sake of variety, we also tried fried calamari ($10/$5) and artichokes ($7/$3.50), both abundant and fine but fried to a less celebratory edge. Pressed again, I'd order the oysters four times. Once just to get them, twice more in place of the squid and artichokes, then one more time instead of lobster cakes ($12/sorry, no halfsies). The ratio of meat to filling was right, generous in fact, in two small cakes sautéed to a razor-thin crunch. But lobster is one of those singular things, best on its own, and its buttered texture and furtive sweetness were swallowed in crumbs and corn and red pepper, in spite of the polite ratio.

Happy hour also invites a half-price stroll through a brief but imaginative by-the-glass wine list. For five or six bucks, you can build a beach fire or put it out with a no-oak chardonnay with the rough edges sanded smooth, a Côtes du Rhône with smoldering radiance or a fat-and-happy carmenére. At the regular price, I'd grouse that the list averages higher than $10 a glass, and the bottle pickings are slim below the $35 mark. Keep an eye out for Josie's `Wine Me Dine Me' nights, though. A recent one delivered six courses with wines for $65, all-inclusive.

Desserts at Café Josie are heavy across the board. A blackberry crisp with ginger and Amy's vanilla ice cream ($5) isn't crisp at all, but the flavors work. Two of them ($6 each) are steeped in rich chocolate - one with pecan-studded praline sauce, the other with ice cream and raspberry sauce. I'd lobby for something lighter, with pineapple or citrus, to lighten things up after all the spice. And all the singing on the beach.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

Café Josie

1200-B W. Sixth St. 322-9226, www.cafejosie.com.

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays. Dinner 6 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, until 10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Prices: Starters $6 (habanero hummus) to $14 (shrimp and blue crab cocktail). Salads $4-$6. `Land' entrees $14 (green chile polenta) to $28 (beef tenderloin), averaging about $18. `Sea' entrees $24 (honey chipotle shrimp) to $27 (redfish Veracruzano), averaging about $26. Desserts $4-$6. At lunch, entrees run $10-$14, bringing in a beef tenderloin burger and crispy redfish tacos.

Happy hour: From 5:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, wine by the glass and most appetizers are half-price, and beers are $2 off.

Payment: All major cards

Bar: Wine and beer. Twenty-one white wines ($28-$75), 27 reds ($30-$95). Two sparklers, one rosé and three dessert wines. Nineteen by the glass ($5-$12). About 15 beers.

Wheelchair access: Call ahead

The Empty Bowl Project: Buy a handmade ceramic bowl for $15, then fill it with soup from Cafe Josie and several dozen other restaurants at this charity event from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday at the Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River St. www.austinemptybowl.org .

What the star ratings mean: