Pan seared Muscovy duck breast from the Rio Grande Valley, served in a ginger chile glaze with garlic mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus.
I recently enjoyed my first meal at Austin Land and Cattle Company in more than ten years. The institution, located in the shadow of House Park Field in a low-key—but now definitely gentrified—Sixties-era strip mall, seems quaint and comfortable compared to the many aspirational, social climbing, “upscale” restaurants that have popped up all around town in the years since I graduated from The University. Austin Land and Cattle was a go-to restaurant when my parents used to come visit in the Nineties, and history repeated itself a few weeks back when, having failed to get a table at Bess due to a retrospectively hilarious series of mishaps and miscommunications, we decided to check out Austin Land and Cattle for old times’ sake. As soon as we walked through the door, we were relieved by the consolations of familiarity. As my dad said, “It’s just like I remembered, now that we’re here!”
The main thing on my mind was the crab-stuffed mushroom appetizer that constituted—along with their lush, yeasty rolls and whipped butter—my main memory of the restaurant. I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure Austin Land and Cattle used to serve baked crab-stuffed mushrooms with cheese and herbs. I wouldn’t forget something like that. But, alas, their menu now contains only Shiner Bock battered mushrooms. However, new delights were in store! My stepmother and I immediately fell for the New Mexican green chiles stuffed with goat cheese, which carried a surprising kick. This unusual but memorable appetizer featured large, grilled green chiles stuffed to bursting with chèvre, always a nice balance for spicy flavors. These were so rich that, between the four of us, we could barely finish them!
Humorously, only my dad ordered a steak; my partner is vegetarian, and created his own meal of salad and sides (which he was very pleased with, I might add), and my stepmother accidentally ordered a portabella mushroom “steak.” To be fair, the menu is a little misleading. The portabella steak is listed under “house specialities,” along with sirloin kabobs, pork chops, duck, steak, and chicken breast. The waitress should’ve recognized the confusion when my stepmother asked for a side of Bearnaise. Instead, she was all ready to tuck into her juicy steak, and was instead confounded by a pile of grilled vegetables and a giant portabella cap with nothing underneath! She reported that it was in fact quite satisfactory; but a portabella cap is necessarily going to be a little disappointing when one is expecting steak.
I couldn’t decide between the localish Muscovy duck with ginger chile glaze and the grilled Atlantic salmon with tomato-basil vinaigrette and Texmati rice. I finally settled on the former because it seemed more adventurous, and I hadn’t eaten duck since living in the UK (and, even then, most of the duck I ate was incorporated into a dish called “Mushroom Curry Duck” from a place called Happy Garden Chinese Takeaway). When the dish arrived, I was immediately taken with its presentation and the glistening succulence of the duck medallions. The first bite brought back an immediate reintroduction to the distinctively fatty and richly flavored familiarity of this particular, underutilized bird. Apparently, the Muscovy breed, which tolerate hot weather much better than common ducks (thus explaining the origin of my dinner in the Valley), has become very popular recently. I vote that this is a very good thing! I would’ve never thought to pair seared duck with a sweet-and-tangy sauce such as ginger chile, but it was excellent. Of course, Austin Land and Cattle also served up some rich and garlicky mashed potatoes, which paired nicely with the greasy meat. A portion of standard grilled asparagus rounded out the plate, and also provided an adequate balance to the otherwise gout-inducing grub.
All of this was washed down with a bottle of Penfolds Cabernet-Shiraz, which I can also recommend for price-conscious wine lovers, having experienced the popularity of Penfolds as a weeknight table wine during my brief stint as a wine seller in Essex. A perfect compliment to a night of nostalgic familiarity!
On our way out, we noticed that there were also several smiling diners in the bar area, which you pass through on your way to the more restrained, candle-lit main restaurant. The night we were in, several fresh-faced tables of twentysomethings were enjoying burgers and Texas basketball. In fact, Austin Land and Cattle has an impressive bar menu featuring sampler plates of their signature dishes alongside the expected (green chile Frito pie) and the unexpected (fish and chips, which I’ve heard are very good!). They also have happy hour discounts; I will definitely be evaluating this bar’s potential as a regular after-work stop. The atmosphere is simultaneously dark and serious yet friendly and comfortable, and it’s also within easy walking distance of my house!
Another bonus: we got a table with thirty minutes’ notice at 8:00pm on a Saturday night, and there was ample parking in the shopping center, since all the other establishments were closed. All in all, a great re-visit of an old favorite. It’s nice to know that some Old Austin restaurants can hang around, evolve slowly, yet take enough chances to remain interesting and relevant.
Austin Land and Cattle Company
1205 N Lamar Blvd Austin, TX 78703