Food is food, but food is about more than food. There’s place and presentation, history and memory, time and tradition, people and personality, comfort and novelty, expectation and surprise, bias and preference, foreplay and afterglow… Good eating is a complicated emotional event not wholly contained on the fork, between the chopsticks, or in the injera.
On one hand, as a scientist, I’m tempted to isolate the independent variables as much as possible to arrive at a ‘fair’ review. On the other hand, how do you separate mood, circumstance, and emotion from a meal without resorting to squatting in an isolation tank with a feeding tube snaked down your throat? Circumstance, mood, and company even impact my fave food writer, Pete Wells of the New York Times (his review of Senor Frogs is simply brilliant, a momentary retreat from having to write a poor review of Per Se where a side of risotto goes for $175).
When good friends invited us to dinner at ATX Cocina with another couple and the nephew of a good friend in France, we quickly RSVP’d. Our good friend across the pond, along with the nephew and other family members, own a country villa in southern France where we ate one of our most memorable meals, conjured up by our friend’s impossibly petite mother in an impossibly petite kitchen: a simple beef patty paired with local mustard enjoyed in an informal courtyard framed by 1,000-year-old stone farm buildings overlooking the grassy hills of southern France (place, history, time, people, expectation, and surprise).
Our friends made a reservation, but we had reservations about ATX Cocina based on a Per Se-like lackluster review by the local paper (expectation). Located downtown in a new skyscraper and facing Lady Bird Lake, the space is intimate, modern, and bright (place). Valets around the corner ($8) keep you from foraging for parking (convenience). Given the price point, long-time natives might scoff at the upscaleness of it all, especially, perhaps, the pretty-people meat market at the bar. I came to terms long ago with the fact that there are folks younger, richer, and better-looking than me, so I’m not judgmental about it all (I’m only judgmental about people who are judgmental).
Our greeter seated us at a long bar near the prep-kitchen (location) where we could watch staff prepare and fuss over soon-to-be-delivered dishes (experience). After catching up with old friends and making a new one (people) and enjoying a couple well-made margaritas (foreplay), our master of ceremony ordered sharables for the table (allowing us to try a wide range of dishes: “No one eat anything before I get a photo,” I yelped. “I. Am. A. Food. Blogger.”). First up was house-made heirloom tortillas served with four salsas ($5), a tuna crudo ($18; morita aioli, crispy onions, avocado, herbs) with crunchy house-made tostada chips, and a hunky pile of herby guacamole ($13). The salsas had a nice range of flavor and heat, the crudo was fresh and delicious, and the guac was guac (whch is not a bad thing ’cause guac is guac [unless it’s not], although the bride said it was particularly good).
Next up was an avalanche of deliciousness: a mixed lettuce ‘caesar’ (the quotes are their’s; $12; arbol-anchovy vinaigrette, radish, chocharron de queso, lemon), patos tacos ($28; duck carnitas, citrus mojo, cilantro salad), shrimp al carbon ($32; valentina-brown butter, garlic-pequin crumb, masa), chile roasted chicken ($26; white mole, bacon braised cabbage, cebollitas), and barbacoa beef short-rib ($34; jalapeño-chayote escabeche, cashews) with sides of esquites ($10; sweet butter-poached corn, smoked aioli, queso fresco, lime, cilantro), smashed papas bravas ($10; taters, smoked chili aioli, fried herbs, lime), verduras ($12; brussel sprouts, verde chorizo, green mole), and queso fundido ($12; queso mixto, chorizo verde, toreados).
Everything we ate was perfectly cooked, expertly prepared and presented, and delicious. My jaw-dropper was the barbacoa, which you could literally II did it) cut with a spoon. The bride (and I) raved about the duck carnitas and chili-roasted chicken, both perfectly cooked and flavorful. We both adored the rich flavor of the esquites (corn). Our waiter was invisibly attentive, probably the best compliment I could give for someone hosting a rambunctious table of babbling friends. My only complaint is that each dish (instead of half) should have come with its own serving utensils to avoid trading spit with our compatriots.
Matthew Odam, the newspaper reviewer, took ATX Cocina to task for the somewhat straightforwardness of the menu, and he’s correct. The dishes are familiar with subtle tweaks; your palate isn’t challenged here (unless you’re coming in from the hills where there are only Chili’s on the corners). But we found the food so well prepared and tasty that the lack of food-forwardness can easily be overlooked (although at that price point, a few challenging dishes would be nice). Odam also takes them to task for their website claim of having “…taken traditional Mexican dishes and elevated them with modern approaches and techniques.” We agree with that too. Not sure traditional Mexican food needs an insulting ‘elevation’ from a white guy.
If your pocketbook can take the hit, ATX Cocina is a worthy visit. Go with a group of friends to enjoy a range of dishes. And then stroll about the towers of downtown, reveling in your good fortune (postglow).
web&where: interwebs; 110 san antonio street, suite 170; (512) 263-2322; reservations
overall: **** (food****; drink****; atmosphere***; service****; instagrammability****)
does it scramble? no doggy bag; no scramble…
– meh [think twice]
* OK [it’ll get the job done]
** good [solid neighborhood joint]
*** damn good [we’ll definitely be back]
**** yippity-yikes that was amazeballs [fantastic; one of the best]
***** holy sh!t [transcendental; best of the best]
$ for each $10 of cost; cost is for a typical entree + appetizer
on heirloom corn tortillas
mixed lettuce ‘caesar’
shrimp al carbon
chili roasted chicken
smashed papas bravas
barbacoa beef short-rib