Thursday, June 12, 2008

Clementine's and Thunderbird's

Clementine Coffee Bar and Thunderbird Coffee are two sides of the same coin. Owned by the same people, both offer excellent coffee, quiet yet inviting atmospheres, and good food. Clementine's is east and considered the feminine "sister" store, while Thunderbird is more northwest and plays the masculine, "brother" role.

Here's the breakdown of the two:

Name: Clementine Coffee Bar
Location: Manor Road, across from East Side Cafe

When I think of Clementine Coffee Bar, I think "What's not to like?" An old converted house, it has large windows bringing plenty of natural light. Inside, bright colors contrast with the overwhelming presence of white, while the exterior is a delightful lime green, making it more visible from the road (it would be easy to miss otherwise).

But really, Clementine's is just plain fun, and it goes beyond the decor. The barristas are a hodge-podge of typical Austinites, from shabby-chic hipsters to retro flare throwbacks. They create a laid-back atmosphere, friendly without ever being annoying.

My one complaint is that seating and parking are rather limited, and it gets a lot of UT traffic. During peak afternoon hours, it's difficult to find a table, especially one with a coveted outlet.

However, even if you can't find a seat, at least get a drink to-go. The coffee is excellent, all of it fair trade along with several organic blends. Lunch offerings are decent, from make-your-own bagels to excellent grilled paninis. But I usually go for the coffee - it's become one of my favorite cups in town. I've never been disappointed with a drink there.

Prices are fair, and they offer a frequent buyer's card, so after buying nine coffee drinks, you get one on the house.

I love Clementine's for the overall atmosphere, but as it goes with coffee shops, the coffee is the true test of a place's worth. Clementine's, by far, passes.

Name: Thunderbird Coffee
Location: Intersection of Koenig Lane and Woodrow Avenue

While Clementine's is bright and fun, Thunderbird is a bit toned down. The service is still great, and the coffee is the same excellent quality.

While the food is similar, Thunderbird has larger selection of sandwiches, all named for streets in the neighborhood. My favorite is the Arroyo Seco, a spicy chicken panini with a Tex-Mex sauce with a little bite. Le Raymond, turkey with brie and pesto, is also a favorite.

Thunderbird's has a large porch with plenty of shade and seating, making a great hangout on warm days. Inside, the walls are light blue, along with the high ceiling, gives the place a very open and inviting atmosphere.

It is easier to find seating than Clementine's, but parking is also limited. Weekends are usually the busiest days, as it gets a crowd of young professionals rather than students.

Drink prices are the same as Clementine's, and the food cost is comparable. It also offers a frequent buyer's card, giving incentive to come back again and again for the excellent coffee and quiet, laid-back vibe.

Price: drinks - under $5; food - under $10; free wi-fi
Rating: 4 stars
Bottom line: Sibling coffee shops offer some Austin's best coffee with great atmospheres. And you gotta love any place with a frequent buyer's card.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Central Market

In the past two weeks, I've eaten twice at Central Market on N. Lamar. It's an interesting experience - chill porch, live music, wine bar, upscale American bistro food. Yet, it's a grocery store.

Granted, this is Austin, headquarters of Whole Foods, which is more an experience than a grocery store with plenty of outdoor and indoor seating, lots of gormet ready-made food options and a bar for everything from juice to gelato.

As one of the area's few rivals to Whole Foods, it makes sense for Central Market to offer something of a dining experience. I'm just not so sure the food rivals Whole Foods. So far, I've tried the apricot chicken salad sandwich and the Mediterranean salad. Both a very fresh with large portions, although a little overpriced.

The chicken salad was the better meal. It wasn't overpowered by mayonnaise, and the apricots created a nice savory-sweet balance. Served on a croissant, it's pretty hearty for a chicken salad sandwich. I opted to go with the french fries as a side, although if you want healthy, you can order fresh fruit. The fries are crunchy on the outside, but still have a soft potato inside and not too greasy.

The Mediterranean salad is huge, filled with kalamata olives, feta cheese, and other Greek/Mediterranean staples. However, you can find a salad just like it at almost any decent American cafe, and I could've eaten a salad half the size for half the price. (It's $10 when you add grilled chicken.)

Overall, Central Market is a nice lunch spot if you have a large group, but it's easier on your wallet to buy ready-made food from the store rather than the cafe. If I had to choose a laid back place for sandwiches and salads, I'd honestly pick somewhere else.

Locations: 4001 N. Lamar and Westgate, 4477 S. Lamar