- Walter Novak
- You can slide the sides onto a plate of superlative baby-back ribs at Austin's.
I admit I wasn't expecting much from Austin's Smokin' Steak House, an East Side restaurant that a colleague has been urging me to try for the past several years. Crouched among dry cleaners, banks, and a Holiday Inn Express, the modest little building -- home to a series of forgettable restaurants in the early 1990s -- is well-kept and tidy, but lacks much in the way of sex appeal. And frankly, the notion of finding good Texas BBQ in Mayfield Village seemed like a long shot. Still, curiosity and the potential thrill of discovery eventually overcame my misgivings, and me 'n' my pardners finally saddled up for a trail ride. Turns out, we done good: The food at this unpretentious little spot is generally well conceived, well executed, and priced for value.
Owner, executive chef, and hospitality industry veteran Dan Campbell isn't a native Texan, although his mother's family does trace its roots to the Lone Star State. But his Cleveland origins seem irrelevant as soon as guests pull into the parking lot, get their first whiff of hickory smoke, and spy the sacks of mesquite logs stacked up on the blacktop like sandbags. The hickory is used for smoking such items as ribs, chicken, pulled pork, and brisket. Then, after as many as 13 hours of slow cooking, the meats are finished on mesquite-fired grills. The final step in the labor-intensive process is swabbing the meats with one of the housemade barbecue sauces (either a darkly intense, sweet-and-peppery Texas-style sauce or a thinner, mustard-and-vinegar-based Southeastern-style sauce), for dishes that resound with both primal aromas and complex flavor notes.
The steak house's all-day menu is a big'un, reaching far beyond barbecue. While the succulent hickory-roasted chicken, superlative ribs, steaks, and even the astonishing smoked prime rib, redolent of campfires and desert blossoms, are more or less de rigueur, there are also two or three pasta dishes, a garden's worth of entrée-sized salads, and more than a dozen different sandwiches. In the shadow of big employers like Progressive and Philips, the restaurant rightly provides speedy lunch service for the hordes of nearby cubicle dwellers. Come Friday night, however, the place fills up with young couples, families, and senior citizens, interspersed with a few weary white-collar types, who apparently forgot their way back to the office.
We can't blame those slackers for lingering, though. Done up in shades of green and maroon, accented with shiny oak and brass, the interior is friendly, snug, and comfortably frayed around the edges. A small but well-stocked bar takes up about a quarter of the room. In the remainder, tables and booths -- either topped with green oilcloths or finished in faux-granite Formica -- are closely spaced, and the place can get too noisy for intimate conversation (a comfort, most likely, to those who come here toting a fretful toddler or two). An eccentric assemblage of old-timey collectibles -- everything from an impressive Lucky Strike clock and a Mail Pouch thermometer to barn lanterns, beer signs, and a pair of ragged leather ice skates -- covers the walls and window ledges, prompting a companion to deadpan, "It's like an Applebee's that got shrunk in the wash." However, sturdy white cloth napkins, as well as the steaming washcloths that appear at the end of rib dinners, provide a counterbalancing touch of class.
For one weekday's lunch, we passed up temptations like Thai Chicken Salad, Smoked Salmon Salad, and the Laredo Salad, with beans, black olives, and cheese, and instead rounded up a few sandwiches. Pulled pork, a perennial favorite, piled high on a kaiser roll, was tender and toothsome, although it could have used a more generous dousing with the Southeastern barbecue sauce. But a two-fisted hamburger, topped with cheddar, hickory-smoked bacon, and Texas-style barbecue sauce, made a flavor statement as big as the Western sky. Efficient servers saw to it that we got in and out in plenty of time to stay off the boss's black list, and the reasonable prices left our wallets happy, too.
However, it was during a later dinner visit, when we finally took time to explore the appetizers, that the kitchen really showed its stuff. For instance, a starter of blackened sea scallops, dusted with Cajun spices and pan-seared, was as perfectly prepared and delicious as any we've had in downtown seafood palaces, and the accompaniments (dollops of sweet-but-not-sugary mango chutney and a dab of zesty, roasted red-pepper salsa fresca) were bright tongue-tinglers that rustled up cheers around the table. Just as good was the Carolina Crab Cake: a thin, crisp-crusted little beauty that exploded with the fresh, round flavors of crab, corn, and bits of roasted red and green pepper; here, chile-powder-spiked mayo, along with that fresh salsa, helped make the sparks fly.
Among the main courses, our posse couldn't stop raving about the baby-back ribs, all moist and tender beneath a thick coat of char; and the succulent marinated-and-grilled chicken, so fragile that it nearly melted on the tongue. Slices of slow-roasted beef brisket, slathered in that dark, tangy barbecue sauce, were impressively tender and savory, too. And if a Friday- and Saturday-night special of smoked prime rib wasn't the most tender we've ever eaten, its woodsy aroma and rich flavor were sheer delights. Entrée prices (ranging from a modest $9.99 for the brisket to $24.99 for a bone-in rib-eye steak) typically include a mixed-greens salad with grape tomatoes, red onion rings, and croutons, and a choice of mainly homemade dressings. Among them, our favorite was the house dressing: garlic-lime with a sprinkling of blue cheese, with lots of pep and vigor; our other choice, the creamy blue-cheese dressing, had a wholesome dairy flavor, but not much zip. At dinner, salads are accompanied by a loaf of warm, yeasty Orlando bread; at lunch, a slice of dense homemade carrot bread is settled on the rim of each plate of greens.
Part of the pleasure of eating at Austin's is choosing sides -- those tasty tidbits that accompany most sandwiches and entrées, that is. Sure, you could go for the average coleslaw or the flabby macaroni and cheese. But gourmet-minded cowpokes know to choose the mahogany-colored smokin' beans, spiked with ground beef, bacon, and more than a dozen other spices and seasonings; or the sweet-tart cinnamon apples, a cut or two above average and with addictive potential. Sides of potatoes also come with some dishes: Here, if possible, avoid the ho-hum frozen french fries and rustle yourself up one of the kitchen's light, fluffy baked potatoes, fresh out of the oven and wrapped in a fine, crisp skin. (That is, unless you can somehow convince the kitchen to smother the fries in a heap o' smokin' beans: Now that would be a real two-step for the taste buds!)
The final stop for the Austin's chuck wagon is dessert: a small selection of homemade goodies, ranging from bread pudding to pecan pie, sized for sharing. A massive wedge of Key lime pie was cool and citrusy, with a thick custard filling and crisp graham cracker crust. And strawberry shortcake -- a towering edifice erected from whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, berries and their juices, and homemade biscuits almost as light and sweet as meringue -- would be the pride of any camp cook in the country.
So listen up, buckaroos. The next stagecoach for Austin's leaves at noon: If you ain't under it, then you'd better be on it.