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The sun and the moon at Snack Bar

At the spot that housed El Sol y La Luna, this newcomer tries to bring the world - or at least part of it - to your table.

Mike Sutter

Printed right there on the menu, Snack Bar's mission statement is firm in its convictions about affordability, sustainability, compostability, meat with a happy childhood and organic provenance. 'We will not satisfy everyone,' it goes on to say, in stubborn contradiction to a restaurant built by people with the consummate host's desire to do exactly that.

Snack Bar's own childhood couldn't exactly be called happy, born on the sanctified site of El Sol y La Luna in October 2009 after protracted labor by owners Bethany Andrée and Karl Gilkey to upgrade and renovate, compounded by the challenge to put up a sign as iconic as the old Mexican restaurant's neon sun and moon, which has found a new perch on East Sixth Street.

So what do we get beneath the Snack Bar sign, the one that looks like a sideways version of the old Pan Am logo?

To the left is a metal counter running the length of the front windows, a luxury box for watching South Congress-ionals on their way to somewhere else. To the right is a space with all the charm of a 'Law & Order' interrogation chamber, set against a white brick wall and a bank of mirrors.

At the back is an L-shaped diner counter, the kind where That Laptop Guy spreads his stuff across two barstools and never seems to leave. And on a wall in the center, across from low groupings of chrome-and-foam chairs, a projector on a weekday night beamed the not-so-ironic cartoon cringe of 'The Funky Phantom,' switching just in time to the silver-screen stylings of 'Roman Holiday.'

A side patio used as an afterthought by the El Sol administration is now some of the best open-air covered seating on the avenue, fronted by boxes planted with desert succulents, accented with rococo cinderblocks painted lounge-lizard green.

From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., the menu is a utopian panoply of eggs, tacos, French toast, shrimp and grits, a vegan BLT, a burger and $8 salads with goat cheese, pumpkin seeds, couscous and other exotics.

Biscuits and gravy are the urban versions of their country cousins, small and scrappy with a gritty edge, a salty tongue and a $5 price tag to keep up appearances. Put together with a pair of poached eggs, the set made for an $8 breakfast that didn't quite make the sun rise. That came instead from a pot of loose-leaf Turkish mint Zhi Tea for a friendly $2.50.

But I don't care whether your produce is grown on Michael Pollan's front lawn or in the back of a Humvee that runs on broken promises, if it's wilted or turning brown, I wouldn't use it - a lesson lost on an otherwise solid cheeseburger and its sidecar of carrot-apple slaw ($8.50).

The interlude from 4 to 6 p.m. is covered by a promising snack menu of dips and spreads. And for the six hours leading up to midnight, the menu reads like a game of Risk, divided into American, Latino, European, Mediterranean and Asian fiefdoms.

How can a kitchen keep up with so many dishes? When I was a fry-cook, I dreaded the half-hour between 10:30 and 11 a.m., when breakfast was dialing down and lunch was spooling up and everything on the menu was in play. And that was just fast food. Snack Bar wants to bring us the world on a platter, even if it moves more slowly than the global marketplace might demand.

And it succeeds wonderfully on a few fronts: crisp little chile-pepper rellenos filled with quinoa, grilled cakes of leek and cabbage hash, a mosaic of dipping sauces - peanut curry, wasabi aioli, yogurt tzatziki, chili harissa.

Dishes can be ordered in a patchwork (your choice) or three to a plate (their choice). The American plate is represented by three tiny sliders, a flavorful toss of potatoes, peppers and other roasted vegetables and a milky bowl of spiral mac and cheese that your kid could make. Of the pulled pork, wheat-roast and bacon-cheeseburger sliders, the beef was world-class on its amber brioche bun, but the dish was dogged by its stereotyped lack of imagination, a weak value at $12.50. American food deserves better ambassadors than these.

The Asian plate ($14) fared a little better, with a robust shrimp curry and those tangy-crispy hash cakes, slowed down only by spring rolls whose loose collection of noodles, herbs and shredded veggies fell apart on contact.

Not wanting the rest of the planet to feel left out, our tour included the rellenos mentioned above ($6 for five) with a bright tomatillo sauce from the Latino side, firm gnocchi dumplings with a subtle herb pesto ($5) standing in for all of Europe and something called 'Cous Ku' ($5) from the Mediterranean side, an undermotivated egg tart, which like a ventriloquist dummy had personality only when its side sauces did the talking.

For dessert, anything would have to be better than the hard-crusted 'Austin Cream Pie,' so precocious with that groaner of a name that it didn't bother tasting like anything but a vending-machine moonpie minus the charm.

Service at night felt Austin weird, the friendly kind, with a sense of humor and good stories. In the daylight, it was down to eggs-and-bacon business, because we're never as funny and charming at 11 a.m. as we think we are at 11 p.m. To its credit, Snack Bar seems willing to take us either way.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

Snack Bar

1224 S. Congress Ave. 445-2626, www.snackbaraustin.com.

Rating: 6.1 out of 10

Hours: 8 a.m. to midnight daily.

Prices: Breakfast and lunch: $3.50 (tacos) to $8 and up for dishes like shrimp and grits, an omelet and variations of eggs Benedict. Soups and salads $4-$8. Sandwiches and burgers $6-$8. Dinner: Small plates $4 (Tex-Mex caviar, bleu cheese and onion dip, mushroom pate) to $9 (tagine stew, meat pies). Combination plates $12.50-$14.

Payment: All major cards

Alcohol: Wine, beer, sake and a few cocktails that combine them, but no hard liquor. More than 10 red wines, about eight whites, one rose and four sparklers. Most are listed as being organic, biodynamic or sustainable. $23-$60 by the bottle, $4.50-$11 by the glass. More than 15 bottled or canned beers, from Pearl to Orval Trappist, with rotating local choices on draft.

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