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Life after Z: Jack Allen's at the Y

In Oak Hill, hot peppers, happy hours and familiar tastes of Texas and the Southwest

Mike Sutter

To see where a restaurant is headed, it's useful to see where it's been. Or in the case of Jack Allen's Kitchen, where its people have been, because the building near U.S. 290 and Texas 71 (the `Y') in Oak Hill has been a patchwork of places, including the Y Bar & Grill, Nunzia's and Senorita's.

Jack Allen's people have been at Z'Tejas, for the most part, where Jack (middle name Allen) Gilmore helped shape that chain's New Mex-Tex menu while Tom Kamm worked the operations side, but they've left Z'Tejas to strike out on their own. And if I didn't already know that from the early press about Jack Allen's, I might have guessed after reading the menu.

There's the five-cheese macaroni with achiote chicken that I remember from the Z. There's the spicy chicken on red and green linguine. The hickory burger with jalapeño mayonnaise, the guacamole with pumpkin seeds and cotija cheese.

No Navajo chicken taco? Wait, here's a message from Jack Allen's Facebook page: `Navajo Chicken Taco ... Add rice, beans, Austin Rita. Sounds like lunch!'

Sounds like 'Y'Tejas.'

Not that there's anything wrong with that. I've always appreciated Z'Tejas for its big, smoky flavors and the fact that two of us could have dinner and a few margaritas there for less than $50. And the rambling old bungalow at the West Sixth Street location is one of those 'only in Austin' experiences.

Speaking of 'only in Austin,' Jack Gilmore's son, Bryce, just opened a mobile wood grill in South Austin called Odd Duck Farm to Trailer. Both follow the local-and-vocal ethos of buying from area farmers. But the food takes the kind of divergent paths you'd expect from father and son.

In Oak Hill, Jack Allen's doesn't have that kind of charm. It's a clash of angles, glass and stone that looks like a futuristic flightless bird built by the desert kids from 'Thunderdome.' Inside, bolts of sheer cloth race like Cyd Charisse across the ceiling, above panels of weathered wood and sand-colored walls. A barrier formed by columns of burnt-orange drapery separates the bar from the main dining room. That separation will be important. But first, the food, which costs less than most of the Z'Tejas canon and hits a lot of the same notes.

My favorite dish was an appetizer of quail wrapped in bacon ($10.99). Everything worked together. The bird was carefully cut into six pieces circled around a sweet salad of figs and microgreens, not plated like a skydiving rotisserie chicken. The smoke of the well-cooked bacon played off the sweetness and heat of jalapeño jam for a sophisticated taste of Texas.

Where the quail worked with subtleties, a chicken-fried beef rib ($12.99) laid down a Neanderthal backbeat with the bone from '2001.' Tender like a chuck roast, the rib was equal parts meat and fat across its ax-head expanse, battered and fried well and topped with a one-note green chile gravy. The chicken-fried treatment is also an option for pork, New York strip and chicken. I skipped the mashed potato side dish and substituted a soup that our waiter, I think, said was broccoli and mushroom but was mostly tan and salt, a cousin to the gravy. The side vegetable was a nice touch: zucchini cut into looping strands the texture and weight of spaghetti noodles, sauteéd al dente with salt and pepper.

Another nice touch: a free little scoop of pimiento cheese with flatbread crackers to start things out. Chips and salsa ($2.50) aren't free, but that piquant little cheeseball buys a lot of good will.

Guacamole ($8.99) and green chile pork tacos ($10.99 for a small dish of meat, four corn tortillas, rice, beans and guacamole) tapped the Z'Tejas esprit. Barely toasted pumpkin seeds hurt the other-wise chunky and fresh guacamole (extra points for house-fried chips), and the green chiles threw some heat into cubes of tender pork with only marginal flavor of their own to contribute.

And just because, we ordered a cheeseburger with sweet-potato fries ($9.99) that generated the best line of the night. This was a big, solid burger, with rich ground beef grilled bloody pink (life is short, right?). But the bun, my colleague Matthew Odam said, was like eating a hamburger on a doughnut, another escalation of the race to have the sweetest bread in town.

In the middle of all this, our waiter knew how to talk about the food, knew how to pace the dishes and kept things moving until the second half of the night, when the tide of the full house carried him away until dessert, when the place was empty. Like so much of the menu, dessert ($5.95 each) was about fat flavors and big portions: a chocolate `bomb' is essentially a dark chocolate truffle the size of a tennis ball, and a peanut-butter-and-jelly cheesecake was like eating Skippy straight from the jar with a tiny grape chaser.

Oh, about that barrier in the dining room. The bar side draws a happy-hour crowd that abides by the creed, 'Come early, be loud, stay late.' Emphasis on loud and late, judging from the high-pitched yelping all the way through dinner. Who can blame them, really? Happy hour starts at 3 p.m. every day, with half-price appetizers and specials on drink prices that are already among the lowest in town for the quality. One waiter told us, 'It's like a party every night in here.' Are you a party person? Or the person who lives next door to the party person? Your answer to that question will define your relationship with Jack Allen's.

Me? I ran into an old poker buddy and scored an invite to see Dwight Yoakam at a rodeo gala. Maybe I'm one of the party people, after all. Judging from the stacked-up parking lot and the weeknight waiting list, I'm not alone.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

Jack Allen's Kitchen

7720 W. Texas 71. 852-8558, www.jackallenskitchen.com

Rating: 7.1 out of 10

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Prices: Appetizers $4.99 (pimiento cheese and fltabread crackers) to $10.99 (bacon-wrapped quail). Soups and salads $3.99-$12.99. Sandwiches and burgers $8.99-$9.99. Taco platters $9.99 (barbacoa) to $12.99 (shrimp). Main courses $10.99 (13-spiced chicken pasta) to $17.99 (grilled New York strip). Desserts $5.95.

Payment: All major cards

Alcohol: Beer, wine and cocktails. The menu lists four beers on tap (Firemans #4, 512 Pale Ale among them) and 14 by the bottle. The wine list carries 16 whites, three sparklers and 16 reds, most in the $20 to $30 per bottle range, including Texas wines from Becker, Flat Creek, Driftwood, Fall Creek and McPherson. Around 20 by the glass, $5-$9.50. By restaurant standards, cocktails are inexpensive, with margaritas from $5.50 (house frozen) to $8.50 (top-shelf shaker-style Mexican martini). Other drinks in that same price spread use local spirits, herbs and fresh juices. A `sage and grapefruit splash' brings together Tito's vodka, St. Germain liqueur, leaves of sage and the barest astringent hit of grapefruit juice for $6.50. Brunch $12.99.

Wheelchair access: Yes

What the rating means: The 10-point scale for casual dining is an average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value