Sunday, November 19, 2006

Kerbey Lane Cafe

The restaurant you wish you had opened.

Website: www.kerbeylanecafe.com

If your spouse is the kind of person who sometimes says, "Wouldn't it be cool to open a restaurant?" and you're the kind of person who says, "Are you crazy?" then avoid the Kerbey Lane Cafe. Cause even folks who have never thought of opening a restaurant can get the urge after a meal at Kerbey Lane.

That's kind of how it got started in the first place. In the words of the owners, "We were finishing undergraduate degrees, looking at grad school and thinking about how difficult it was to find an affordable, casual place to eat healthy food. And, being young with lots of time ahead of us, we decided to try opening the kind of restaurant we wanted."

The thing at Kerbey Lane is the ingredients. The pesticide-free, vine-ripened tomatoes, squash, okra, spinach, strawberries, field greens and more are locally grown at the Lamar farm, picked fresh and then taken for a short drive to the cafe. By the time you eat then, they are still quivering from the shock of being separated from the parent plant and are wondering where they are. And, as anyone who eats really fresh veggies knows, that makes all the difference.

The first thing you notice when you arrive at the original location on Kerbey Lane, after the ordeal by parking, is that you're eating in a funky old house. Restaurants converted from houses seem to have a voice whispering, "See? You could do this. How hard can it be?"

Then you look at the menu and realize how hard it can be. Moving some walls around and bunging in some tables and chairs isn't that hard. Coming up with startlingly creative and compelling recipes is something else entirely. In most joints you flip through the pages listlessly, struggling to find something that isn't the culinary equivalent of summer reruns.1 After all, how many times can you have the chicken alfredo or the top sirloin or the Caesar salad or the patty melt before you start wondering if anyone will notice if you tie together the table cloths and escape out the window?

At Kerbey Lane, you turn the menu pages slowly and realize you'll have to return about 53 times to try everything that you can't leave without having right now. Then you look at the prices and realize that with entrees ranging from $7-$12, coming back 53 times isn't totally out of the question, either.

As we were on a kid/grandkid outing, we had the mandatory Kerbey Queso, which is a white cheese dip with guacamole, pico de gallo and salsa. This dip has become such an obsession that I am forced to provide links to the ultimate reference page, which has nothing to do with Kerbey Lane.

After despairing of making a choice, I chose something at random on the menu, the Stuffed Poblano ($8). So, you're thinking a poblano pepper stuffed with some kind of meat and smothered in cheese, right? Try this: a lightly battered poblano pepper, stuffed with seasonal squash and Feta cheese, topped with tangy verde sauce. Served with black beans, cheese-filled silver dollar corn cakes and avocado salad.

See what I mean? I bet now you're thinking, "Dang! Where can I get one of those?" Well the whole menu is like that. For our second visit I tried the Squash Flauta: Three corn tortillas stuffed with acorn squash and feta cheese, served with our own Pineapple Mango Pico de Verano, guacamole salad, Mexican rice and chipotle cream sauce.

OK, so it seems I'm on a squash and feta fetish, but I assure you it was unintentional. The visits were several months apart. This time we were at the south Austin location, which is in an old diner. We were headed to the drafthouse to see "Stranger than Fiction" but all showings of all movies were sold out, so we tooled down the road a few miles to Kerbey Lane for dinner and caught the movie at the late showing somewhere else. I would describe the stuff the other folks ordered but the items aren't on the web menu and when I grabbed a to-go menu on the way out I discovered I had snagged a kid's menu, complete with a set of 4 crayons nestled in a nice little folded pocket. No wonder the hostess gave me a funny look.

If the items I ordered sounded good, you should surf the website to see other items on the menu and read more about the place. The other two locations sound interesting, as well. I'll have to check them out as I tool around the metropolis on my urgent and important business of which I have so much of. As far as menu items go, it's 2 down, 52 to go. Check ya on the flip side.

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1. Do they still have summer reruns? I quit watching TV about 30 years ago, so half my readers might not even know what summer reruns are.

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