“Short but sweet” perfectly sums up my time at South Austin’s Elizabeth Street Café.
The adorable French-Vietnamese eatery was the very last stop on a mother-daughter weekend that had morphed into a days-long eat-a-thon that essentially took us to Austin’s city limits and back. There were stops for barbecue (Franklin, if you’re curious), food truck eats, a multi-course meal by famed chef David Bull, and more.
So to say that The Girl and I rolled into Elizabeth Street for lunch before we hit Austin-Bergstrom airport isn’t far from the truth.
The brainchild of chef-restaurateurs Larry McGuire and Tom Moorman (Lambert’s Downtown Barbecue, Perla’s Seafood & Oyster Bar and the new Clark’s Oyster Bar), the busy neighborhood spot presents “an eclectic French-Vietnamese café menu.”
“The menu is like a classic Vietnamese menu with tons of choices,” McGuire says. “There’s 50 items on the menu.”
Actually, there are even more than that. And it’s a shame that The Girl and I were fairly sated when we sat down, as so much appealed to us.
The restaurant — which is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner — specializes in three Vietnamese classics: bánh mì, submarine-style sandwiches; phở,(prounounced “fuh”), hearty noodle soups served with various condiments; and bún, dressed-up vermicelli rice noodle bowls. And it also offers a slew of Asian- and French-kissed appetizers, as well as a handful of specialty dishes and daily specials.
Additionally, Elizabeth Street supports an in-house baking program that rolls out a daily assortment of French pastries and fresh breads, including the baguettes for the bánh mì.
Vietnamese “is a cuisine that should be respected,” McGuire says. And Elizabeth Street shows its respect for this intriguing fare by using top-quality meats, poultry and seafood, farm-fresh produce and the like. You get it. Diners won’t find any faux crab or boot-leather beef here.
A devotee of Austin’s mom-and-pop Vietnamese joints, McGuire appreciates the cuisine’s harmony of flavors (spicy, sweet, salty) and textures (crunchy, soft).
“It’s the balance of it. Vietnamese food is all about balance.”
And the dishes that The Girl and I sampled were indeed balanced.
The Girl started us off with steamed buns ($8). Although not specifically Vietnamese, the puffy house-made dough discs held a nice helping of fat and juicy Niman Ranch pork belly, along with crunchy cukes and scallions. Pleasant notes of fresh mint and cilantro were also present in this multi-flavored treat.
If I could go back in time, I would also try a French-Asian hybrid — broiled escargots with Thai basil curry butter. The appetizer has become a signature dish, McGuire says.
Customers favor dishes “that meld the French and Vietnamese ingredients together the most,” he says.
That explains why bánh mì ($6-8) were on nearly every table during our visit. During colonial times, the French introduced the Vietnamese to baguettes, which form the base of the sandwich. And the Vietnamese took it from there, adding proteins (including grilled pork, meatballs, and pâté) and toppings such as daikon radish and carrots, fresh cilantro, and mayo. Elizabeth Street’s “house specialty,” for example, is a Franco-Vietnamese dream: chicken liver mousse, pork pâté and roast pork.
But something had to give, and on this visit it was the bánh mì — although I purchased a crunchy-chewy baguette for the road. In its stead, I opted for another house specialty, phở tom with shrimp, red snapper and jumbo lump crab ($22). My decision was wise, as the seemingly bottomless bowl of noodles and light broth held a bounty of seafood and could have easily fed The Girl and me (as well as the two nice ladies at the next table). I further livened up this fully customizable dish by adding a rich soft-boiled egg ($2), its accompanying fresh garnishes (limes, radishes, sweet basil, jalapeno slices) and a big squirt of peppery Sriracha.
The Girl was presented with a hefty bún topped with grilled local chicken thighs ($12). She never even got close to the bottom as she (and I) worked through these dress-it-yourself, sweet-and-sour noodles and a host of other goodies — lettuce, herbs, carrots, cucumber and chopped peanuts.
It would have been easy to stop there, but the eatery takes great pride in its bakery program. So The Girl and I pressed on and ordered up an assortment of “bonbons.” Mini éclairs ($3 each) came in a trio of flavors — Nutella, peanut and pistachio. We selected pistachio, and we adored its purely flavored, nut-studded cream filling. Macarons ($2 each) change daily. During our visit, Meyer lemon was one option. And the chewy sandwich cookie, with its light schmear of lemon curd, was a sweet end to our (too) short — but sweet — lunch.
Elizabeth Street Café
1501 South First Street
Austin, Texas 78704