Thursday, April 21, 2011

Polvo's - Austin, TX

One of my favorite spots for dinner in Austin.

I hadn't even planned on going there on Sunday night, and with Mrs. Gordo out of town I was headed to the store to get capers, fennel, green olives, and all sorts of other things she's not fond of, to make a dish for my dinner.

Got hungry on the way, and started craving fajitas, so despite the fact that it's not the best place to go if you're by yourself, I diverted to Polvo's, a funky little South Austin spot on South 1st.

So I mentioned it isn't a great spot to go to if you're grabbing a bite on your own, but all that really speaks to is that there is no bar to sit at.  That said, the atmosphere here is fantastic, loud and festive, and there is always a crowd, normally taking their chances with Polvo's famously strong margaritas.  Great outdoor seating, covered and uncovered, as well as a couple of small dining rooms, the largest of which is anchored by a giant round salsa bar featuring three different salsas and homemade escabeche.  Help yourself, but be warned, even though they automatically bring chips to your table, the salsa isn't free, but it also isn't too expensive at all, particularly if you're with others.

So, with just a few tables open at around 6:30pm, I was ushered inside to a giant round table for four, which could easily accommodate six, given a menu, and was convinced to get a margarita.  Let me go ahead and start with that margarita, and then get back to the salsas.  First off, I like tequila, and I like limes, but I'm not a margarita guy, and certainly not a frozen margarita guy.  There's generally two things that contribute to that...the sickly overly sweet pre-made margarita mix that places dealing in bulk usually use, and cheap tequila.  Polvo's does them right though, and I'll happily drink them when I'm there.  No mix used here, just fresh squeezed limes evidenced by the pulp floating amongst the ice.  I opt for a premium tequila, and the combination of the two ingredients creates a smooth, fresh, tart tasting margarita with no residual goo left on your tongue and teeth after a bite.

Back to the salsas.  I love the idea of a serve yourself salsa bar, so I really hate to say that I'm afraid that this one misses the mark, at least for me, with the exception of one item.  Three salsas to choose from, we'll call them yellow, red, and black.

Let's take them in order.  The yellow is the spiciest of the three, but is anything but spicy.  Looks tomatillo based, has a sweet, fruity flavor, and though it's well prepared for what it is, I'm just not a big fan.  The red is a classic red salsa with zero heat whatsoever, but it does taste very fresh, and I like the chunks of white onion and cilantro that it contains, but I'm not sure there is a single pepper in it, and the lack of spice is disappointing.  The black is a flavorful, earthy, smoky, and complex salsa, also with absolutely no heat.  This is probably my favorite of the three, but that's not saying a lot.  I know these guys can do spicy, because they do a really hot specialty sauce for enchiladas, which is a verde sauce with what's got to be habanero in it.  I wish they'd take some of that heat and offer it in at least one of the salsas.

All of that said, you really can't start a Mexican meal without chips and salsa, so get it and try it for yourself, and also get it for the escabeche.  I could eat this stuff all day long.  Pickled jalapenos, carrots, and onions, with a fair amount of heat.  The vegetables are all cut in large pieces, and retain their crunch despite saturation with a vinegar based brine.  I eat it like it is, but it would also be good on tacos, fajitas or quesadillas.  This makes the $1.75 you pay for the salsa bar all worth it.

Now, the fajitas.  These things are damn good.  First rule of ordering fajitas at Polvo's, don't allow yourself to get upsold to their guajillo or cerveza marinated fajitas, which they will try to do.  Stick with the original fajitas, they're the best.  I got sold on the cerveza ones once and they are a little to stir-fry tasting to satisfy my desire for Mexican food.

The beef fajitas are not the minimally seasoned and char-grilled variety, which are good in their own right, but are instead a heavily seasoned, dried chile based, flat-top grilled variety which scream with flavor.  The beauty of these is that I'm nearly certain they put raw sliced onions on your sizzling plate, then throw the beef on top, resulting in onions cooked just to the point of keeping their crispness while being cooked long enough to completely saturate them with the jus and spice from the beef.  Added bonus, some melted cheese and tomato to go with the standard accompaniments.  Oh, and there's a ton of it.  I filled three tortillas to the point of bursting with this stuff and still had about an equal amount of beef leftover.  Easily splittable between two people, or great to make a meal out and a meal at home out of.

So the standard accompaniments include guacamole, sour cream, shredded carrots, rice and beans, and don't forget about that escabeche.  The rice is just well cooked, standard fare Mexican rice, and the beans are of the charro or boracho variety, with incredible flavor coming from the addition of the pig.

You know, I laughed when I got seated by myself at a table for four, but I think they knew what they were doing...

One man.


Atmosphere:  funky, old South Austin, casual Mexican restaurant, outdoor seating, no bar but full bar, fun, great for groups, great for a start or end to an evening of imbibing, great for a day after

Food:  Mexican and Tex-Mex

Dog Friendly:  yes

When to Go:  lunch, dinner

Crowd:  young, old, partygoers, 20somethings, 30somethings, Mexicans, South Austinites, beatniks, drunks, groups of girls, groups of guys, groups of girls and guys

What to Order for the First Timer:  queso, beef fajitas

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