My cell phone rang as the LAX shuttle spit me out at my terminal. It was my father calling to say he’d be late. He instructed me to meet my brother in Austin and grab something to eat. He’d join us as soon as he could, for barbecue, the focus of our trip. Or was the focus family togetherness? I forget. Regardless, my brother and I connected in the meantime at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and decided to extinguish our hunger pangs with heaps of home cooking from Tony’s Southern Comfort.
“Home cooking” is what Texans call Southern food. And in Texas Monthly’s November 2005 rundown on the subject, Tony’s Southern Comfort was listed as one of the best in the state in an astounding seven categories: Chicken-Fried Steak, Meat Loaf, Pork Chops, Mashed Potatoes, Fried Chicken, House Specialties, and Pie + Cobbler.
Given the Texas Monthly hype, as our cab crossed Interstate 35 and arrived at Tony Herring’s East Austin establishment, we had high expectations …which were instantly challenged. For a soul food joint, what was up with the mustachioed Italian guy in chef’s whites painted on the exterior?
A dry erase board listed the day’s veggies: green beans; corn on the cob; “mash;” pinto beans; and “fresh veggies” – a mix of broccoli and squash. Sadly, nutmeg-and-clove-laced mashed sweet potatoes, lauded in Texas Monthly, didn’t make the cut.
On the plus side, there was a table by the front door with a blue-and-green checked cloth bearing Tony’s prize-winning pies and cakes. Lemon cake, sweet potato tarts, and fresh pecan and chess pies. Sound marketing strategy. We’ll revisit this table later.
Before our waitress could even take our drink orders, I requested a serving of Tony’s prize-winning meatloaf, available only on Thursdays. She said they’d sold out. Meaning we had to make due with the regular menu, which featured unlikely items like Southern style nachos and chicken quesadillas. Thankfully, as I scrolled down, I reached a selection of “comfort entrees.” Since we were still planning to meet our father for “dinner,” my brother and I limited ourselves to three entrees.
Warm, moist cornbread squares joined jalapeño “muffins” studded with spicy jalapeño specks and sweet corn kernels, plus soft yeast rolls. I never got to the yeast rolls.
Multiple restaurant employees spotted me snapping photos and evidently reported me, since Tony himself visited our table, asking about our meal. Considering we weren’t even through the bread basket, I said, “We’re off to a good start.” I mentioned seeing his place in Texas Monthly, noting he scored in almost every category. He smiled and pointed toward the sky, as if to thank heaven. Nice guy.
The chicken fried steak, a Texas specialty, featured a crispy, thin batter crust and tender meat within. The white cream gravy was a nice counterpoint, in small doses.
Tony’s pork chops were sensational, unbelievably juicy, with subtle seasoning. The green beans weren’t cooked with pork, so they were more in the French style, AKA bland. The mashed potatoes were silky, and creamy thanks to the crater full of gravy.
The difference between fried chicken and chicken fried chicken is that the latter features a boneless breast, battered and fried like chicken fried steak. It’s served with a dish of the same white gravy that accompanies chicken fried steak. At Tony’s Southern Comfort, the chicken was actually the superior chicken fried dish. Not that the steak was bad; it was solid, but the beef wasn’t exactly prime. The chicken incorporated a large, succulent breast.
Even though we were on the verge of a gluttonous barbecue meal with our father, we couldn’t resist desserts after seeing them by the entrance.
Turns out chess pie was a dense pie with a filling made from butter, egg, and buttermilk, with coconut strands built into the roof of the moist crust, served with a dab of whipped cream.
After our meal, my brother and I made sure to skip the cab. We needed to burn off the food before our next dinner, which was fast approaching, so we walked the humid streets of Austin until my father called. Which didn’t take long. At the tasty Iron Works Barbecue, our appetites clearly weren’t at full strength, but it was worth sacrificing valuable stomach space to sample Tony’s food.