Houston-based Cafe Express opened a new Austin location a few weeks ago on North Lamar near Central Market and P. Terry’s Hamburgers. (You may remember a La Madeleine there, previously.) Like the Houston and Dallas locations, the Austin Cafe Express serves casual, southwestern fare in a relaxed atmosphere. I grew up eating at Cafe Express in Dallas, so I was eager to see how the Austin location would measure up.
A few weeks ago, I attended the restaurant’s soft opening with my friends Nathan and Amy and lots of other Central Texas food bloggers and media. It was a great night, and although there were still a few construction trucks in the parking lot when we arrived, the food and service were promising. Nathan, Amy and I went back this past Thursday so that we could try the food again, this time without the benefit of a press pass. I am pleased to report that our meal was just as good as it was at the opening, better in some instances. The waitstaff is obviously new, but our order was quick thanks to special training managers on board from the restaurant’s Dallas and Houston locations.
Although I believe the restaurant’s menu would be improved by inclusion of locally-sourced ingredients, it does utilize fresh produce and whole ingredients in most entrees. There are a wide variety of vegan and vegetarian options, plus a good mix of healthy fare and some indulgences. (See bread pudding, below.) The restaurant also serves wine by the glass, carafe or bottle and offers a happy hour on weeknights. I haven’t tried the wines yet, but I can definitely vouch for Cafe Express’ Black Currant iced tea. The beverages are all serve yourself, and there are fresh mint leaves and lemon slices at the drink station to enhance the iced tea.
Next to the drink station is my favorite part of Cafe Express: jars with dozens of flavorful, complimentary condiments. Olives, roasted garlic cloves, pickled carrots, capers, sun dried tomatoes, and breadsticks are some of the goodies you can serve yourself while you wait for your meal. My favorite item was the pickled carrots; Nathan and Amy liked the olives best. The presence of croutons here makes me think it might be intended as a salad topping bar, but none of the waitstaff batted an eye when we loaded up on tapas and ate them at our table.
Besides the free stuff, we went we started the meal with chips, salsa, and guacamole. The chips were just so-so, but the salsa and guac were excellent. After a few average chips, we ended up eating the salsa and guac with spoons.
The standout entrée of the meal was Amy’s vegetable tart: artichoke hearts, tomatoes, spinach, goat cheese, and pesto in a flaky, savory crust.
Nathan ordered Southwestern Chicken, which conveniently fit into the high protein, low carb diet he’s on. Basically it’s a whole grilled chicken breast, served over a black bean sauce, topped with tomatoes, guacamole and cheese and some tortilla strips.
I think the black bean sauce in the Southwestern Chicken was the same as the black bean soup that came with my meal: a soup, salad and sandwich combo. The soup was okay, and I appreciated that the spring mix salad had fresh, tender greens. No iceberg in sight, thank you very much. My veggie sandwich was good too, with hummus and the same yummy pickled carrots I found earlier at the free tapas bar.
The very best part of our meal was the warm bread pudding with vanilla sauce. This dish was just what the menu suggests: creamy, warm bread custard with a hint of almond, covered in vanilla sauce and cinnamon. This dish won the Taste of Dallas best dessert award in 2008, and it’s easy to see why.
All in all, Cafe Express is a nice addition to Central Austin’s casual dining scene. For families, there is a kid’s menu with fruit as a side option, and the adult food bests nearby EZ’s on every count. The restaurant interior is bright and clean , making it a great fit for casual group meals and business lunches.
*I was not compensated for this review, although Cafe Express provided a free tasting to me and my guests at the restaurant soft opening. We purchased the meal items pictured here on a separate visit.
** Thanks to Amy Russell for taking beautiful pictures and allowing me to use them here.