An alien landing in Central Square
by Stephen Heuser
The vogue recently in
local Mexican cooking has been authenticity. Most of the interesting and
ambitious new restaurants, such as Olé Mexican Grill and El Pelón
and Palenque, have made a point of cutting through the accumulated goo of over-Americanization
(think nachos grande) and reaching back to Mexico, to the vivid rusticity of
Austin Grill |
350 Mass Ave (Central Square), Cambridge
Open Mon, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.;
Tues-Thurs,11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri, 11:30 a.m.-midnight;
Sat,11 a.m.-midnight; and Sun, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Brunch served Sat and Sun till 3 p.m.
AE, DC, Disc, MC, Visa
X Street-level access
Smoking at bar
Austin Grill is not about vogue. Austin Grill is about burritos like fallen
logs, smothered in sauce and melted cheese. Austin Grill is about six refills
on chips and salsa, and guacamole with the consistency of mayonnaise. Austin
Grill is a shiny new throwback to the belt-loosening school of Tex-Mex cooking
that dominated "Mexican" restaurants for years and still packs throngs of eager
kids in at places like the Border Café. It is not exactly the direction
local Mexican food has been going in lately, but then this is not exactly a
local Mexican restaurant.
Austin Grill started in Washington, DC, 10 years ago and has grown into a
mini-chain in the Baltimore/DC area; this is its first attempt to colonize New
England. The place landed in MIT's back yard like a mothership eight weeks ago,
5300 square feet of spare mod-Southwestern design sprawling around the corner
of Mass Ave and Sidney Street, at the gateway to the lush University Park
development and across the avenue from an abandoned gas station. The exterior
is bluntly garish: a sign blazes AUSTIN GRILL in sky-blue neon, and a neon
rendering of an atom marks the foyer. It looks like Tomorrowland.
But in the theme-restaurant tradition of taking an American city presumably
cooler than yours and selling you the impression that you've been there, the
place otherwise is pure Austin. There is a very long pair of longhorns over the
bar. You sit in a booth next to little postcard-size photos of Club de Ville
and Guero's Taco Bar and Chuy's, all of which are in Austin, and none of which,
I imagine, will ever have a 5300-square-foot offshoot in Cambridge.
Tex-Mex is a hybrid bucket-of-stuff cuisine, the kind of food that evolves
when highly flavored immigrant cooking collides with a country where livestock
is plentiful and cheap. In Tex-Mex, you get the kitchen sink every time: the
knife-and-fork chicken burrito ($8.95) covered in cheese and sauce. The rolled
beef tacos ($7.95) with two kinds of melted cheese inside. The all-meat
chili ($3.95/cup, $5.95/bowl). The grandly proportioned carnitas plate ($12.95)
with griddle-cooked onions tossed amid rich, oily sautéed pork.
For all the muscular recidivism of this stuff, the Austin Grill menu does
sneak in a few dishes that could rightfully be called Nuevo. One of them was an
appetizer special -- a "tostada," it was called, though the tostada had been
deconstructed to the point of unrecognizability. It was a bright yellow plate
piled high in the middle with a salad of grilled cactus slices, with chopped-up
tomato and red pepper for a green-and-red Christmas effect. The salad was
surrounded by wedges of tortilla, each carefully laid with a slice of avocado.
This was the first time I've had cactus that I really liked: usually cactus
strips are soft and limp, like canned green beans, and these -- while not
exactly crisp -- had an attractive deep-green color and a little smoky flavor
from the grill.
I was interested to learn that the chef here is Jim Fahey, whose previous
Mexican cooking was done at the Forest Café, a dive bar in Cambridge and
the furthest thing possible from a chain restaurant. Fahey made a point of
traveling around Mexico to scout out local techniques and ingredients: ground
pumpkin seeds, hoja santa, bitter orange "Mayan" sauce. The result at the
Forest was a quirky menu that won fans more for its idiosyncrasy than its
consistency. Here at Austin Grill the priority is reversed, and Fahey is
plainly cooking within a mass-market Texan formula that puts a premium on
predictability, in both the good and bad senses of the word. There are
variations, but these tend to be more classically New American than NuMex: a
special of pineapple-glazed lamb chops, for instance, served over a pile of
garlic mashed potatoes ($14.95). It tasted great, but close your eyes and you'd
never guess you were supposed to be in Austin.
To be fair, there are some sweet touches to the menu. You can order eggs, for
instance. Huevos rancheros ($6.95) come sunny-side up, decorated with strips of
chili and rice and beans on the side. Other good things: the refried beans have
an excellent smoky flavor. The tortilla chips are better than they have any
right to be: warm and light, and very fresh tasting. (We did get one bad batch,
clearly cooked in old oil; it was the first time I've ever sent back
chips, but the waitress didn't blink.) The salsa, free with the chips as
soon as you sit down, is an excellent fresh bowl of ground tomatoes and onion
and cilantro. The pico de gallo -- chopped tomato and onion -- served on the
side of some dishes had a bracing lime kick.
One area where chains often outshine local restaurants is service, and Austin
Grill does a nice job here. We ate in the bar one night, and the bartender made
huge efforts to come out from the bar and deliver us food, drink, and copious
quantities of chips. (Yes, restaurants use salty chips to encourage you to
order more drinks. But that doesn't mean you don't want the chips.) When he was
a little late bringing us the guacamole, he knocked it off our tab.
I won't be giving up my neighborhood burrito place, but there are some
non-chain restaurants that could learn a thing or two from the Austin Grill.
Although I wouldn't recommend hanging a neon atom over the door.
Annals of commerce
I get a lot of silly food products in the mail here at the
Phoenix. Not long ago Reynolds sent a selection of its rainbow-hued
cling wrap -- as if the leftovers in my fridge weren't turning colors already.
Then there was the pumpkin drink, the hot-dog-shaped bubble gum, and the foil
barbecue bag. But the season's winner has got to be a product called "Scotch
Rocks." A few years ago, as I recall, some company made waves by chipping ice
off an Alaskan glacier and selling it in the Lower 48, but this is a whole new
ball game: it's water from the Scottish highlands packaged in a sealed ice
tray; you pop the thing in your freezer, and presto -- not just ice,
laddie, but Scottish ice.
If you want to show your Highland patriotism every time you lift a drink, or
if you just want to see who picks up the phone at a company whose idea of a
good business plan is, essentially, to mail boxes of water across the Atlantic,
call De Medici Imports at (914) 651-4400.
Stephen Heuser can be reached at email@example.com.
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