Fearless Critic Austin Restaurant Guide Book Review
By Robin Goldstein
Let's Be Frank
The restaurants and food culture play a significant role in life in Austin, Texas. Austinites are constantly around their food, which is why the town holds such a large selection of great places to eat. Even something as mundane as a trip to the grocery store in this town is a culinary experience. Just witness the throngs of Austinites who walk into the downtown Whole Foods Market, unquestionably is the Taj Majal of grocery stores.
The Fearless Critic guys have just released an updated second edition of their handy 577-page Austin Restaurant Guide covering 480 separate restaurants and other food businesses in town. As the title promises, this is not your usual A-Z restaurant guide. Some of the reviews can be mean, many are laugh out loud funny, and all are well reasoned essays explaining how that particular reviewer came to their specific opinion.
The book begins on the very first page by exclaiming, "Welcome to a new kind of restaurant guide." And they are correct. There is nothing dry or encyclopedic about this book. The editors have thought through countless scenarios to assist the reader into finding what they want, and writing many pages of useful lists. What are the best restaurants in Austin that offer breakfast? Dinner? Wi-Fi? Or live music? These questions are answers in the guide's numerous lists.
The first section explains their "brutally honest" philosophy guiding the individual restaurant reviews. There is a handy neighborhood guide, because another list groups the restaurants by their local area in town. The book also answers a question that I have never seen in any ratings guide - How exactly do they figure an average dinner price for a restaurant?
First and foremost, the Fearless Critic concept lends itself to making an extremely entertaining read. Naturally the most fun criticism can come from negative observations, which are usually not just catty remarks, but substantiated problems the reviews found with their dining experience.
The book takes on some of Austin's established, venerable institutions. For example, in their review of Jeffrey's, an intimate French restaurant which for decades was long considered as good as it gets in Austin, they begin with: "As the years go by, Jeffrey's becomes a less and less justifiable way to spend a wad of money."
There's no holding back in talking about the "aging icon," pointing out that "The kitchen is clearly competent in certain ways - with beef mains, for instance - but we have a hard time understanding why it keeps trying its hand at Pan-Asian, which too often turns out disastrously.
Taking aim at the high end downtown restaurant Trio, located at the classy Four Seasons Hotel, they sharply summarize:" The Four Seasons Café was impeccable, its pretentious successor can't cook a steak right."
Another review, this time for Judges' Hill Restaurant is written in the form of a limerick:
The servers are far from the rudest;
But their knowledge is not the astutest.
And no one who dines while they're dressed to the nines
Wants a silence that's practically Buddhist.
Readers should have hours and hours of fun flipping through these pages.
Who are the fearless critics? The team of eight reviewers boast impressive and varied backgrounds - many are professional chefs from institutions like the California Culinary Academy of San Francisco, or the CIA in Hyde Park, New York. Many have degrees in writing, and one is a professional sommelier.
Probably the book's very first list ranks the restaurants in order as "most delicious."
True to the mature state of Austin's current dining scene, the top ten restaurants include Japanese (Uchi), four old fashioned barbecue joints and the more upscale Lamberts downtown, Italian (Vespaio) and Spanish food (Fino).
Of course, Austin holds a bonanza of outstanding eateries, and the reviewers do not just trash or celebrate the high end, expensive dining establishments. Another useful page ranks the restaurants according to "good vibes." These are more traditional places that Austin residents and visitors probably know from personal experience. Countless dates have happened at Chez Nous, adjacent to Sixth Street. What U.T. student has not completed their study without a visit to the 24-hour coffeehouse Spider House, or the legendary burger joint Dirty's? Relaxed Austin influence hums at the always popular Magnolia Café, Kerbey Lane Café or at the soul food sanctuary Hoover's Cooking.
In Texas, beef reigns. The review of the Hoffbrau Steak House on Sixth Street is typical:
Eating at the Hoffbrau Steakhouse is a little like time travel. Open since 1934, this place gives little indication that more than 70 years have passed. The feeling is that of a 1940s roadhouse: there's a handful of ugly orange tables with benches and metal folding chairs, and some photos and boxes of arrowheads displayed on wood paneled walls. While it's not exactly date friendly, there's just something special about the Hoffbrau.
Fans of Texas barbecue will not be disappointed with the careful reviews of Lamberts, The Salt Lick, Louie Mueller BBQ out in Taylor, or Kreuz Market in Lockhart. Pricy menus and service from a gratuity seeking wait staff does not intimidate the fearless critics in their reviews of the County Line chain.
The guide goes out of its way to give one minor deli chain, Hog Island Deli, very high scores. Amidst the paragraphs of careful, detailed observations, the reviewer breaks into the following:
At one visit we were treated to a disgusting bag of Lay's potato chips - a free accompaniment, if you want to call it that - before our sandwiches. Why would an establishment whose chalkboard so loudly trumpets its commitment to fresh homemadeness serve chips that are made with maltodextrin, dextrose, monosodium glutamate, partionally hydrogenated cottonseed oil, and whey protein isolate? If you want to skip the preservatives, Sun Chips are available too - and, amazingly, they are even worse.
Witty writing and a wry sense of humor permeate all restaurant reviews.
The book covers all the bases. There's a restaurant review of Whataburger. The all night campus area Ken's Donuts gets a big thumbs up. It also covers several grocery stores' delis, describing all the delicious offerings and deals spread out to shoppers of Whole Foods, campus area Wheatsville Co-Op, Fresh Plus and Central Market, which they describe as "quite simply one of the best gourmet supermarkets in America."
If you have lived in Austin for years, the book will encourage new places to eat. I had no idea that the pricey steak house chain Sullivan's offered a bar food menu at half price on Thursdays, earning them a note for best gourmet cheeseburger value in town at $5.
Another nice personal experience involves reading about and visiting Hey Cupcake!, a quintessentially Austin establishment, selling big, flavorful cupcakes out of a tricked-out Airstream trailer in an unused church parking lot on the hip stretch of South Congress.
With a torrent of Tex-Mex restaurants, burger and barbecue joints, Austin/American eateries, as well as a long list of Japanese, Indian, Italian, and practically food from all other parts of the world, the Fearless Critic's Austin Restaurant Guide wraps the diverse, slightly weird and delicious nature of Texas' capitol city into one enticing package.