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[whitespace] Austin's
Christopher Gardner

Rack 'em Up: Arturo Topete takes charge of some ribs at Austin's.

Austin's rounds up the high points of Texas BBQ in a carnivorous orgy of flavor

By Andrew X. Pham

MEAT, meat and more meat. Meat in thick slabs. Meat hanging off the ribs in succulent ribbons. Meat coated with barbecued-on sauces, peppery, molassesy, tangy. Meat dripping red blood, deep as cabernet. This is the truth--the passion--behind all the barbecue bravado.

Austin's claim: "The best barbecue this side of the Pecos."

Of course, if you ain't bragging, you ain't really barbecuing. It's the first rule of the game. Naturally, all the posturing works up an appetite.

Austin's may be a newcomer to Mountain View, but it's certainly an old hand at smoking up a storm. Credit goes to hands-on proprietor Richard Clark, a veteran of the catering business and a longtime carnivore of the barbecue order. The pitmaster uses oak, the second most popular hardwood, known for its great versatility. All Austin's meats are slow-cooked at a constant 185 degrees, which is at the low end of the standard 175 to 200 degree scale. A purveyor of Texas-style barbecue, he gives the meats a dry rub and cooks everything without sauce so the Texan purist can appreciate every drop of meat juice without interference.

The restaurant, formerly Tony Roma's, is divided into several dining rooms. Hooded lamps nod over each booth, and slanting beams the color of sun-bleached logs hold up a low-slung ceiling, fostering a cozy ranch feeling. Speckled gray carpeting and rough-hewn plank tables round out the Texas chop-house setting.

We hunker down to lip-smacking buffalo wings with the usual spicy blue cheese dressing ($4.75) and forge onward with more greasy starter fare: calamari with jalapeño mayonnaise ($6.25). The calamari is a bit chewy, the fancy mayo adequate.

The action picks up when we get into the main events. We adore the baby back ribs, generously butchered racks (half slab $10.95, three-quarter slab $13.95, full slab $16.95). Austin's central Texas approach produces meat that's fall-off-the-bone tender. In fact, there is no tearing, no gnawing of any sort. The pork--and there's quite a bit of it--simply slips off the ribs like a soft petticoat. Wow.

We also sidle up to a two-choice combo of pork and beef ($10.95). Pulled pork shoulder, cayenne-spiced and shredded in three-inch segments, tastes spectacularly peppery, a paragon of slow-cooked tenderness. Beef ribs are big and juicy, not much meat, but satisfying nonetheless. As for the knife--well, it's for slathering on the BBQ sauce. True to form, the Austin's folks are pretty cagey about the whole cooking process, particularly the sauce, available hot or mild. In addition to a molasses undertone, the spicy version probably includes, among other things, tomatoes, jalapeños, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, black coffee, lemon, chile powder, yellow mustard and cumin.

The half-pound Angus burgers ($6.25-$7.75) are decent but certainly don't define the joint. Homestyle specialties rise a notch higher: roasted turkey breast, chicken-fried steak, braised lamb shanks, fried catfish and grilled salmon ($8.50-$13.95). The meatloaf ($8.50) is a fair rendition, not too dry and accented with a lovely smoked tomato coulis.

All dishes are escorted by fries or Fredricksburg coleslaw with apples and pecans, which sounds better than it tastes. The surest sidekicks--corn on the cob and mashed potatoes--cost $1.50 apiece. The ranch-style pinto beans are sweet and very savory.

All meals come with a basket of fluffy jalapeño cornbread baked in mini cupcake bonnets, sided with rosettes of butter and marmalade. Our "beef" with this is that if you're going to go with cornbread, it has to be the real iron-skillet variety, as hefty as a paperweight and as aromatic as a freshly roasted ear of corn.

The best stomach anchor, they say, is a good steak. Austin's packs five cuts in two sizes (10 ounces and 16 ounces): New York, rib-eye, filet mignon, sirloin and T-bone. The 16-ounce filet mignon with cayenne butter is on the steep side at $26.95, but the 18-ounce T-bone with shallot butter, mashed potatoes and vegetables steals the bargain medal at $16.95.

Desserts ($2-$3.75) run the gamut from ice cream to double chocolate fudge brownie. Our favorite, a hunk of bread pudding quartered to showcase veins of coal-black raisins, is snow-capped with whipped cream and lassoed with ropes of whiskey-spiked caramel.

Overall, Austin's suitably fills the void left in Mountain View by the departure of Tony Roma's (the San Jose branch of which remains open). And from the looks of it, Austin's will be around a long time.

Cuisine: Texas barbecue
Amblance: Casual family diner
Menu: Starters $2.50-$7; entrees $8.50-$20; children's menu $4.25-$6.25
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11am-10pm; Fri. 11:30am- 11pm; Sat. noon-11pm; Sun. noon-9:30pm
Address: 1616 W. El Camino Real, Mountain View
Phone: 650/969-9191

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From the June 25-July 1, 1998 issue of Metro.

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