As folklore has it, there’s a mythical place laden with gold, always just out of reach. In a nondescript strip mall on West Anderson and MoPac, many treasure hunters have found the end of their quest at a cafe called Eldorado.
Not one to wait in line in this town of endless dining options, I was somewhat vexed that my first visit to Joel and Joanna Fried’s new neighborhood spot entailed a 35-minute wait on a Tuesday night. We grabbed drinks at the bar – teal leather swivel chairs paired with rich dark wood offers an understated elegance against the pops of color on the wall and a nearby mounted mahi mahi – and waited outside at the handful of turquoise and lime patio tables. The Tamarindo – Don Julio añejo, tamarind nectar, fresh lime juice, honey, with a spiced salt rim – was a nice introduction to the menu, though it needs a little more acid punch from the tamarind and lime. Upon being seated inside, the ambience immediately tempered all nerves. Eldorado’s hospitality is palpable.
The small room’s decor whispers “Ernest Hemingway once sat here.” Framed Latin-inspired art posters (Cha Cha Cha! Marihuana!) and mirrors, colored glass globe light fixtures, and four-top square wooden tables with mod Sixties inlays and high-back red chairs are reminiscent of the staccato-prone writer’s favorite Havana hot spot, La Floridita, down to the blue and yellow neon bulbs of the outdoor sign. This looks, and feels, like the home of a cool friend. Thoughtful details like Kiss My Face lotion in the women’s restroom and a waiting nook lifted directly from a family home demonstrate that inspiring dining camaraderie is the Frieds’ mission. That, and serving Mexican-inspired comfort food with casual confidence. While it’s nearly impossible to define one concept of comfort food – the general idea that you leave a meal happier, fuller, and likely carb-loaded – is executed with care here. (As another testament to their community-centric ways, they host meet-and-greets for rescue animals and supported Austin Pets Alive! with their First Monday Donation program, an ongoing effort to give back.)
Joel, drummer for the Ron Titter Band, and an Austin restaurant veteran of 30 years – including more than a decade at Tacodeli – has his finger on the pulse of what this town wants to eat. Pair that with Joanna’s extensive catering knowledge, and the contributions of co-chefs Shaunna Mason and Esme Tejeda, and it’s no wonder the expansive menu incorporates flavor profiles both familiar and inventive. The team began taste-testing their menu during Friday night pop-ups at Dia’s Market, and with “Humpday Helper” meals available for pickups.
Some of the crowd favorites, like Shiny Ribs – pork ribs, named for Austin’s swamp-funk frontman Kevin Russell, drenched with sweet arbol chile glaze – are poised to set Eldorado apart from the long list of restaurants also putting a personal spin on this cuisine. Decidedly not Tex-Mex; don’t expect to have a bowl of regular red salsa plopped down on the table without question. Here, you have five options, none of which bring much heat. The bright tang of the avocado salsa stole the show for me, while my dining mates were sneakily sliding the creamy Salsa X to their side of the table. The supa queso game is strong. Their house standard plus black beans, pico de gallo, and guacamole is just as luscious as your hungover heart desires, though aesthetically, it’s muddled once it’s all stirred.
As if reinforcing their stance on serving comfort food, papas are mentioned several times on the menu, perhaps an ode to Joel’s tenure at Tacodeli. There’s mashed potato-filled enchiladas on the Esme’s Magic dish, and the papas rellenas – golden fried mashed potato cakes mixed with goat and jack cheeses – are a lustful contrast of molten center and outside crunch. The puzchkas, little fried dumplings filled with mashed potatoes, bacon, and caramelized onions, are reminiscent of the Indian street food, but with a Mexican spice profile.
By the time our appetizers had been devoured, the cafe was full to the brim. The space has a unique ability to maintain its composure: Even when it’s bustling, which is nearly always these days, the volume never tips toward overwhelming, and the energy is far from frenetic. A good manager is essential for maintaining equilibrium, and that’s certainly the case with general manager Christy Hopper, who sat tables, ran food, mopped spilled tea, and actively engaged with both customers and waitstaff. Our drinks were never empty, and the chip baskets stayed fresh. The team here, complete with tattoos and handlebar mustaches, embodies what cafe dining service should be – warm, efficient, and dedicated.
One litmus test of Mexican fare is a standard-issue enchilada plate. Eldorado offers several, with hongos (mushrooms) as the veggie alternative, but a seafood option would be welcome. My selection of chicken with suiza turned up neutral on the indicator paper: While flavorful, the creamy verde sauce was a tad thick, and the chicken was dry, making the sliced avocado on top a mere afterthought. As is popular in our city of contrarians, refried black beans with queso fresco replace the usual pintos, and basmati rice with roasted green chiles and grilled corn stands in for the traditional tomato-based rice. These are both excellent decisions, particularly when mixed together, as one does. Another side dish twist, the Las Calabasas hash is cubed butternut squash, zucchini, roasted garlic, with toasted pepitas and basil, and had it been served piping hot, the flavors would have bloomed more.
On the second visit, we braved the brunch crowd at 2pm (breakfast is served until 3pm on the weekends), and it was a breeze to
be seated, mimosa in hand within minutes. (However, $5 is too much for a mimosa in a town of 10 million brunch destinations.) The few small missteps – including La Bomba’s dense breakfast biscuits – pale in comparison to the rush of finding well-portioned breakfast tacos (thick-cut crispy bacon!), and if you’ve never had picadillo with your migas, remedy that, stat.
Perhaps the most memorable bite, and the food item most certain to fuel addiction, is the short rib salpicon. Hailing from many global cuisines, the dish entails adobo-braised short ribs shredded with roasted chiles, tomato, and sherry. Served with pickled red onions, guacamole, and fresh tortillas, it was delicious. Juicy, with the individual spice notes of paprika and garlic coming through well-balanced, it’s also delicious scrambled with fluffy eggs as it’s served on the breakfast menu. The Sandinista – watermelon aquas frescas, Enchanted Rock vodka, Maine Root ginger brew, and fresh lime juice – is strong enough to do the trick, but incredibly refreshing, and the fruitiness cushions the dramatic flavors of the salpicon. Also under the House Specialties section, the Chi Chi Tinga (another adobo-based dish) has robust flavor, though it would’ve been more succulent shredded like its beef dish counterpart, instead of cut into chunks. The red chile base pairs well with a fresh side salad drizzled with black pepper goat cheese dressing and a not-too-sweet house margarita. Bar manager Laura Beck’s menu sustains a significant amount of interest on its own, and diners are well-advised to try something outside their wheelhouse. Not typically a gin drinker, I was pleased with the Bee’s Knees, a classic cocktail done well.
Both at the bar and in the kitchen, the willingness to try a creative route to riches is visible, and appreciated, bumps in the road aside. If their customers’ pilgrimage over the last two months is any indication, Eldorado Cafe is poised to be a neighborhood legend in no time.
3300 W. Anderson, 512/420-2222
Tue.-Sat., 7:30am-9:30pm; Sun., 7:30am-8:30pm
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