Sunday, July 08, 2007

Central Market Cafe

A full-contact grocery store with a cafe


It was a tech writer's lunch day, so I had The Good Daughter drop me off at the car and took it on to lunch and then to the office. Which meant that when it came time for the rush hour date, I was the one with the car. And as I drove to get The Woman, I realized her office was right around the corner from the Lamar St Central Market. I'd heard good things about the cafe, so we zipped across Lamar and were soon having our own adventure in eating. But first we took a stroll through the market.

They have a wide selection of Texas products. Check out that Texas Scream salsa. The guy who designed the label went all out. What is that, a wolf and an outhouse?I'm not going there.

Texas goodies Texas goodies

Central Market is HEB's answer to Whole Foods, a wildly popular granola-head organic grocery founded in Austin.

For you non-Texas out there, HEB is a local grocery chain founded by Howard E Butts. He used his initials instead of his name on the stores for obvious reasons, I would expect.
In my mind, they have taken it to the next level. They have better prices and a very cool system for tagging things that don't come in packages, like fruit or bulk items. The sign for the the item is labeled with the name of it, the price, and a 5-digit product code. You take the item to a scale, type the number in and it prints out a sticker with all the info on it, including the cost. Just stick it on the bag or box and you're all set at checkout time.

Inside, everywhere you look, there's five gzillion varieties of stuff, and lots of them organic. Hard to keep up with all the varieties of apples, and everybody knows that there are more brands of wine than any human could comprehend, but who knew there were over a dozen kinds of olives? All of which you can get fresh right there. And some weird potatoes. Who comes up with these things? They also have an extensive seafood section with live critters and all, but it was hard to see them through the glass, so you get the bug-eyed fish on ice photo instead.

Central Market is the kind of place where you can buy stuff in bulk, not pre-packaged. Stuff like three million kinds of flour or grains or chocolate chunks or nuts. Just scoop it into a baggie or clear plastic container and slap a sticker on it.

You can check their website to see why I call them a full-contact grocery. They have culinary cooking classes, including a summer kid's cooking camp, catering, and the Cafe on the Run. If you don't have time to cook dinner, or even sit down and eat in the cafe, you can grab a fully prepared meal in a bag or two and hit the road. (Awhile back, The Woman stopped by on the way home and picked up a Greek salad, grilled pepper salmon, pesto and a walnut grape salad. The cost came out to about 75% of what it cost us to eat at the cafe. The food was great. Something to consider for those in the area.)

After we had strolled enough to pique the appetite, we veered to the cafe. As soon as you walk up you know you're not in just any old grocery store cafe. The specials are displayed out front like in a classy joint. Next is the bucket of iced-down drinks and then the counters where you order. Inside seating is available, but if the weather's good, outside is the place to go. There's a covered deck with half a dozen tables, and an upper deck I've never been on, and then the big outdoor deck with a couple dozen tables, overlooking the play area. Then down on the ground level there are more bistro tables and some picnic tables. The places is simply huge.

The menu is as eclectic as the grocery, which of course is where they get the stuff they cook. Rest assured that the food looked a lot better than my Rokr can render. I can't give you the names of these dishes because, contrary to my expectation, the menu is not on the website and I didn't take any notes. There's some might fine chicken breasts under those potatoes. The other disk is a premium chopped steak with cheese and fries. Both were great. On a return visit I got a different chicken entre. It was coated with crumbs and nuts and some interesting spices and fried. It came along with arugula, tomatoes, and new potatoes. The Woman wanted the muffaletta, but they were out, so she got a panini sandwich that was a close second. I added a garden salad so she would have some greens, and then proceded to eat a lot of it myself.

I've also been to the Westgate location cafe a few times. Once with The Good Daughter. I experiemented with something that I don't recall. Once with The Woman. We split a giant salad, which was great, and a hamburger, which was quite good as far as dead cows go, and they can go surprising far for a dead animal.

Unfortunately, only Austin Central Market locations have a cafe, so the rest of you will have to come down to try it out. It's worth the trip. We're talking high-class, high-quality food in a sit-down cafe in a grocery store. What will the come up with next?

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