Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Note on Habana

I have talked to a few people about Habana over the last few days, and two told me about their experiences of receiving bad service there. I've also read several comments on city search websites that include user reviews of restaurants, and many of the comments on Habana told similar stories of negative customer service experiences.

It was not busy when I ate there, and my friend and I had simple orders. There was not much room for error. Our server wasn't all that talkative, but she was attentive enough to make sure we had drink refills. She deserved her $3 tip.

However, I felt inclined to mention the restaurant's reputation for bad service. It's a laid-back place, but instead of translating into a chill island-themed feel, it's coming through in mistreatment of those paying the bill. This is Austin, not Europe. Servers need to be honest and timely, and when someone asks to speak to a manager, they should always speak to a manager.

My experience warranted four stars, but I'd say based on what I've heard, it's not always the typical Habana experience. You are now warned.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A taste of Cuba in Austin

A good Cuban sandwich should have plenty of roasted pork, a slice of ham, swiss cheese, and the ever crucial mustard and pickles. It's best when pressed and grilled so the cheese melts.

It's not too complicated, but it takes some place definitively Caribbean to get it right. Habana, Austin's best Cuban restaurant, definitely gets it right, from the laid-back island feel to the, yes, near perfect sandwiches.

It's menu also has a wide range of dinner entres, salads and appetizers, and even includes some vegetarian options which may be the one difference between this restaurant and the Cuban capital, where, I suspect, people always eat meat. While I appreciate vegetarian food, there is no way I could turn down that roasted pork. Think of a typical pulled pork barbeque sandwich, strip the sauce, and add some island flavors, and that's what fills Habana's sandwiches.

My test of good Caribbean food is always the tostones - plantains, fried, then smashed, then fried again. Good ones have a crispy crust but soft inside and retain some of that unique plantain flavor. They shouldn't taste like a bad version of a french fry. Habana gets these right, too. Nice and crispy, but not too oily or salty, they make a delightful side to the Cuban.

Habana also boasts a great Happy Hour menu with two-for-one deals on its best sandwiches, $2 beers and $3 mojitos, magarhitas, and martinis. On a warm, sunny day, while sitting at one of the outdoor tables under a thatched roof, you might just forget you're on South Congress and think you're in the islands.

The Basics:
Locations: 709 E. 6th Street and 2728 S. Congress Ave.
Price: $10-$20
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Accepts: All major credit cards
Rating: 4 stars
Bottom Line: When you're fed up with Mexican and crave Latin flavor, Habana is the perfect remedy.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

P. Terry's

On a typical Saturday night, most of the restaurants on Barton Springs, especially those just west of Lamar, are packed. So typical that I wouldn't expect to see people sitting at a fast food drive-thru on South Lama, not with so many good restaurants nearby. I would think...

But it's a different story for P. Terry's on South Lamar than it is for all the box chains down the street. It's atypical fast food. The burgers and fries and even the drive-thru are all there, but the stakes are raised by quality, fresh (and gasp!) healthy ingredients.

Veggies burgers, whole wheat buns and organic produce all fit into the menu. It might be hard to justify eating french fries, but if I'm going to clog my arteries, I'm doing it at a local place. And this little burger joint definitely helps keep it weird and local, even with the golden arches across the street.

Particularly, the chicken burger is interesting (and tasty) because unlike a normal chicken sandwich, P. Terry's chicken burger is a patty of ground chicken. So yes, it's chicken but it's also a burger. Order it on a whole wheat bun and without the mayo and suddenly those french fries are justifiable. (Barely...)

What's also great is that the prices aren't inflated by the quality food. You can get a combo meal for under $6, making it competitive with fast food places (with much less grease).

It has plenty outdoor seating, a fun 50s inspired feel, and kid-friendly fare including a sandbox. Couple that with the oldies playing on the loud speaker, and I'd say it's a great way to spend a Saturday evening in Austin.

The Basics
Location: 404 S. Lamar Blvd., near the corner of Lamar and Barton Springs
Price: Under $10
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily
Accepts: Visa, Mastercard, cash
Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Bottom line: Fast food without the guilt