(with bonus British food mini-memoir)
As if you needed any further proof that I am a homebody and rarely leave the campus-Capitol vortex, this place has been open for two and a half years, and I just went there last weekend.
In a city that practically runs on a steady diet of barbecue and tacos, an English café should certainly stand out. Unfortunately, British food still has a terrible reputation for blandness, a reputation borne of decades of rationing and a penchant for overboiling. The recent piece by NPR, “Dining After ‘Downtown Abbey’: Why British Food Was So Bad For So Long” pretty much sums it up. If you think British food is bad, I urge you to go read that piece, then come back here with an open mind.
British food is not bad. It is amazing. As everyone who’s met me knows, I lived in England for four years (plus a study abroad trip as an undergraduate, plus three vacations spent there). I have been an Anglophile since approximately age seven, when I met Davy Jones on Nick at Nite. I was devastated when my mother told me that The Monkees was twenty years old, Davy was in his forties, and I could never marry him. Somehow, the bell bottoms and tambourines and Frank Zappa hadn’t tipped me off. Anyway, from there I became obsessed with all things British, and I always, always wanted to move there. When I was 21, in the year 2000, I did. I like to say I did it in protest of Bush’s selection, making myself one of the few who made that threat and followed through on it, but, really, I wanted to study English literature at the University of York. It was the culmination of a lifelong goal of moving to England.
And I loved it.
Though I had been to the UK three times previously, including on a semester-long study abroad course at Lancaster, it wasn’t until I moved there permanently that I encountered authentic British food. I regularly ate home-cooked Sunday lunches in the homes of welcoming Yorkshire villagers, who invariably presented me with a plate piled impossibly high with juicy, expertly roasted meat, mashed potatoes, new potatoes, roast potatoes (and the English know how to roast a potato), Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, “sweet corn” (or as we call it, corn), peas (or as we call them, English peas), and hot Yorkshire puddings, all topped with lashings of rich beef gravy.
I had hundreds of varieties of curry (often called–and not erroneously–the National Dish of Britain), everything from Essex take-away to Brick Lane back alley to expensive restaurants. I’ve tried balti, biryani, and tikka masala; chicken tandoori, chicken masala, and coronation chicken; roghan josh, jalfrezi, and vindaloo. But my favorite remains korma, with its creamy saffron and coconut delicacy. I haven’t found a korma in Texas that comes to close to that served at the cheapest curry house in Britain.
Fish and chips and I go way back; I used to love to go to Long John Silver’s as a child, and throughout high school and college I infamously snacked on their batter crumbs and bought whole bottles of Long John’s branded malt vinegar to soak my fries in at home. (Okay, okay, I still do those things.) But the fish and chips in the UK are of another order entirely: usually haddock or cod, skin-on, well battered, huge, and fried till very crisp. They may, in fact, be the perfect food. Back in the old days, they were served wrapped up in newspaper and showered in salt; now you’ll get them in white wax paper. Most “chippies” are take-aways. You stand in line (a long line if they place is really good and it’s near lunch or dinnertime), order your choice of fish (they also serve an array of other fast food, including fish cakes, sausages-on-a-stick, and even curried chips), pay, douse your dinner in salt and vinegar, and go out on the street to chow down. It’s a whole experience. Best enjoyed at midnight, while slightly inebriated.
I enjoyed warm sausage rolls and roasted chestnuts and roast beef sandwiches from street vendors, and tried Cornish pasties in Perranporth. I primly ate miniature cress sandwiches and sampled tiny cakes at Betty’s in York. I regularly popped into Judge Tindal’s in Chelmsford for a quick lunch of chip butty and Guinness. I bought and cooked my own salmon and cod fresh from the market in Doncaster and Saffron Walden (one of my favorite weekend drives). I tucked into fresh pheasant shot on a neighboring farm, and I tried rabbit, quail, and venison (which tastes different from Texas white-tailed in a way I can’t even explain). I had Scottish beef and heather-infused whisky and fried kippers and fried toast (oh, fried toast). I even had a vegetarian haggis once in Inveraray, served with neeps and tatties. It was actually delicious–I mean, I’m remembering it now, more than seven years later. Britain introduced me to that delicacy of snacks, the Welsh rarebit. It was there I began to learn about regional varieties of cheese–Caerphilly, Stilton, Blue Wensleydale, Double Gloucester, Red Leicester–and to appreciate the equally stunning diversity of British sausages. The simple satiation of a perfect plate of bangers and mash is something I still go back to, weeknight after weeknight. Britain enlightened me to the fact that there are more types of pies than chocolate merengue (although that one’s still my favorite). In fact, while the sweet dessert pie is virtually unheard of in the UK (I know), the array of meat pies is astounding: cottage pie, shepherd’s pie, Melton Mowbray pie, chicken and mushroom pie, beef and ale pie, steak and kidney pie. And don’t forget eel pie.
Before I moved to England, I had never eaten lamb. Often I have opined that it would’ve been better never to try it, because I am a stickler for adorable baby animals and lamb is succulent and singular. I rarely encounter lamb here in the US that is half as flavorful as that I ate in the UK (despite the fact that both are likely often imported from New Zealand). Lamb was a revelation.
All this brings us back round to the topic of this post: Full English. A wittily named café indeed, as a “full English” is slang for a proper breakfast, a.k.a. a “fry up.” An apt name, too, as it invariably includes: fried or poached eggs, English back bacon (that deserves a whole other post), fried breakfast sausage, fried mushrooms, a fried tomato, and fried toast. If you’re really hungry, throw some baked beans on the toast. And if you’re really British, add some black pudding (believe it or not, I never once tried it–apologies to Mr. Bourdain).
I admit I was suspicious when I heard about Full English. A small café in an out-of-the-way strip mall behind a convenience store in far South Austin? English food in Texas? Having survived many, many years of traipsing all around London in search of “real” Tex-Mex only to be disappointed by bowls of Nacho Cheese Doritos and Prego, I was wary of seeking to treat homesickness through bland imitation foods. But my friend Laura–quite the foodie herself, and very well traveled, too–insisted we try it for Sunday brunch, having enjoyed the place as the venue for her recent baby shower.
Mr. Stella and I both ordered the Full English breakfast plate (a steal at $8.00): one bacon rasher, one poached egg, one piece of fried toast, one breakfast sausage, one tomato, and a couple of roughly chopped mushrooms. Though it didn’t look like much food at first, I was surprised by how filling the meal was.
I am also happy (no, delighted!) to report that it is also quite authentic. The fine folks at Full English make their own bangers from scratch, and they are excellent. The egg was perfectly cooked, just runny enough to swipe up the yolk with the delectable, crisp toast. The bacon, sourced from a farm in North Carolina, was exactly like that inferior stuff the British prefer (I’m sorry, I think streaky, crunchy, paper-thin, melt-in-your-mouth American style bacon is best–Full English will serve it on request); however, it was also expertly cooked, and packed a lot of flavor. My friend Mike ordered an extra slice! I hate tomatoes, but in the Full English breakfast plate, I have met a tomato I love. The tomato was so fried that it was positively blackened, and tasted like a ripe, rich sun-dried tomato. I’ll be back just for the tomatoes, making that my add-on in future. And, of course, I can’t get enough of fried toast. You can double up on everything for $12.00. If you’re really hungry, I’d recommend it.
I was sufficiently stuffed to stop there, but I couldn’t help noticing the many other enticing, authentic greasy spoon offerings on the menu. So I’ll be back for the bangers and mash with onion gravy (at $7.00, that’s three dollars cheaper than my old mainstay, the Dog and Duck Pub), a Cornish pasty (a variety are available for $5.00, including: beef, potato, and onion; spinach and feta; and strong cheddar with caramelized onions), and high tea.
The high tea menu is impressive, including several types of miniature sandwiches (cheddar and chutney, ham and mustard, bacon and tomato, cucumber and cream cheese); scones with strawberry jam and cream; five selections from their in-house cake and biscuits menu; and a pot of tea of coffee.
They also whip up a variety of fresh, homemade sweets: wholegrain shortbread, rock buns, flapjacks (British style–sort of like granola bars), and Millionaire’s Shortbread, a real delight. This treat is basically a thin layer of shortbread, topped with caramel, topped with milk chocolate. It has been a hit with everyone I know who’s been lucky enough to try it. I wouldn’t be upset if Full English expanded their sweets menu. Many of the items have already found fans at local farmer’s markets, and I think they’re on to a winner here. As they say on their web site, “First we tested different recipes for our favourite British goodies–those treats we missed over here and could not live without. Then we reworked these recipes with better ingredients like raw sugar and Belgian chocolate, to make them as delicious as they could be.”
They also cater.
I should also mention the decor. It’s very working-class-meets-Mod, with a vintage twist. In other words, right up my alley. Though Full English is hidden away in a strange spot, once inside, the place has a pleasant Austin-y vibe, with distinctive British overtones: there’s the fringed Union Jack hanging by the front door; the words to William Blake’s “And did those feet in ancient time” (a.k.a. “Jerusalem”) are scrawled upon another wall; bottles of HP Sauce decorate the tables; and, at the back, there’s a book and magazine rack with copies of British glossies and cookbooks. Obviously, I could spend hours at this place.
In fact, I’ll probably do that this very weekend. Again.
2000 Southern Oaks Dr
Austin, TX 78745
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