Thursday, December 20, 2018

#132: Maiko

The Bar


Maiko. 311 W 6th St, Austin, TX 78701

Visited 12/20/18 @ 9pm.

The Drink




Cherry Blossom. Hennessy VS, Absolut Lime, grenadine, Sierra Mist, lime juice, cherry. $9.

I have never in my life been served a cocktail with cognac AND vodka before; not even in my most degenerate moments as college student was I struck by the urge to cross those streams. Part of it is the classiness incongruity: Hennessy is of course the world's most consumed, most cross-cultural, and most rappable cognac brand, whereas Absolut flavored vodka is not really on that same level. I had also never really had much cognac outside of the occasional Sazerac, which I love. However, it turns out that the Cherry Blossom is a real drink, which you can find on Absolut's own website. Weirdly, Absolut forgot to include any of their own product in the recipe, but the bartender, who thought long and hard about my request, helpfully remedied that with the Absolut Lime, making a few other minor substitutions along the way. The result was strong but fairly sweet, exactly as you'd expect, with only the 2 citrus ingredients pulling against the sugars. Multiple trips to New Orleans have taught me to approach brightly colored sugary drinks as one would a species of Amazonian frog - enticing, but with a high downside risk. I'm happy to report that I didn't wake up the next day convulsing, desperately fumbling for antivenom, but this is kind of a tourist drink, no matter how impeccably and thoughtfully crafted. Next time I get a Hennessy drink, I'd prefer it a bit more minimalist.

The Crew


Aaron.


Notes


To my eternal shame, I missed this place the first time I was walking up and down Sixth. Okay, my shame only lasted about a year, until I figured out that there was also booze here, but still. Maiko's humble exterior belies the excellence of its food, most notably its mac and cheese. Yes, I know, it's a sushi restaurant that everyone who works downtown loves, but I don't work downtown, so I've never had a reason to stop in. Maiko has a fantastic rendition of the simple classic, with excellent white Cheddar and a sake reduction in the mix. Immediately upon trying it, it became one of my favorites. I'm sure the sushi is excellent as well, but that will have to wait for another time. The bar/lounge is split off from the more normal restaurant section, with cool Chinese lanterns illuminating the art over the brick walls. The whole place had one of those cozy, comfortable vibes that made me want to linger. It felt like one of those places where I could have hung out indefinitely, just chatting with the bartender, sipping on increasingly hallucinogenically-colored drinks until the sun rose, but this was the last stop on a long night, so eventually I reluctantly departed this overlooked gem for the world outside.

#131: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The Bar


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. 701 W 6th St, Austin, TX 78701

Visited 12/20/18 @ 7:30pm.

The Drink




WTF Old-Fashioned. Nine-Banded whiskey, piloncillo, Angostura bitters, Luxardo cherry. $10.

This was the ninth Old-Fashioned I've been served so far, and it continued a streak of great Old-Fashioneds, with Clearport's version being the only real dud along the way, or maybe the Slow & Low bottled version. You can't win em all, and there's bound to be some stray steps off of the Golden Path of cocktail evolution, so I don't really mind the misses too much - it just makes the hits all the sweeter, and this was definitely a hit. Speaking of sweet, I really did appreciate WTF's decision to substitute the tradition simple syrup for piloncillo, AKA "Mexican brown sugar". Piloncillo imparts more of a caramel flavor than simple syrup does; it reminded me of the demerara syrup in the Old-Fashioned I got at Whisler's. It went really well with the whiskey, which I was pleased to see was Nine-Banded. I'm a sucker for anything Austin, Nine-Banded is so Austin it was founded by former Longhorns: QED. Add Angostura bitters (AKA the best bitters) and Luxardo cherries (AKA the best cherries), and you have a perfectly enjoyable Old-Fashioned, though there was a bit too much ice in this one to keep it from top-tier status. I guess it is West Sixth, after all. You may have heard of the phrase "premium mediocre"; think of this as "budget luxury", if that makes sense. But you don't really appreciate great ingredients until you don't have them anymore, so I savored it all the same.

The Crew


Kyle, Aaron.


Notes


WTF, as they like to be known for obvious reasons, replaced the decrepit shell of a long-dead Mr. Gatti's. This is an unusually clear case of development without gentrification on this street, although longtime Austinites who can still sing the "dial 459-2222" jingle might still regret the loss of even a single Gatti's outpost. I like the new space a lot - very clean lines, everything you'd expect out of the current wave of modernist interior design that incorporates the brick and stone of the building into a space that subconsciously communicates "you should spend a lot of money here" without also setting off the "too rich for my blood" alarms. I really liked the gigantic outdoor patio, which shouldn't surprise you. Austinites are stereotypically extremely passionate about patios even (especially?) given our godawful summer weather, and so a haze of "best patio" listicles hangs permanently over our heads. This is a great entry onto the list, since it's huge and open; well-shaped for the throngs of people who no doubt populate it on a night of heavier patronage than when we were there. A fine addition to your West Sixth rotation.

#130: Kung Fu Saloon

The Bar


Kung Fu Saloon. 716 W 6th St, Austin, TX 78701

Visited 12/20/18 @ 6:30pm.

The Drink




Pickleback. Tito's vodka, pickle juice. $7.

The pickleback is still a standby, and I still don't like paying more than $5 for one. I still like Tito's vodka, haters be damned, and I definitely still like pickle juice as a chaser, so I was still at least mildly-enthusiastic about the bartender deciding that a pickleback was what best showed off the strengths of the bar. It was a solid rendition of what I would call an old classic, except that it was invented in 2006! In addition to a quick shot like this saving the bartender a lot of time thinking and crafting a cocktail, another advantage that serving a shot has for them is that you're almost guaranteed to order another drink right after it, either to wash the taste out of your mouth (unnecessary in this case, given how much I love pickle juice), or just to have something else to sip on while you converse. If that was the bartender's bet, it paid off, as we immediately got some Coors Lights while we engaged in some deep life/career discussions afterwards. 

The Crew


Aaron, Kyle.


Notes


Kung Fu Saloon is locally infamous due to its historically racist dress code policies, and also apparently for over-serving. They seem to have stopped being racist, however, so in the spirit of forgiveness we checked it out. It moved to this spot from just a block away on Rio Grande, where it was ineligible for inclusion in the Sixth Street Complete project due to not being directly accessible from Sixth. It's now in the lower half of what used to be Benji's, which I never went to, right below Green Light Social Club. Kung Fu Saloon essentially transported its original layout exactly to the new joint, keeping all of the adult drunkard amusements - skee-ball, connect four, shuffleboard, Jenga, arcade games, etc - in a more or less similar arrangement around the edge of the interior with the bar at the center. Kung Fu Saloon was also notorious on Sixth even apart from the racism for bro-y-ness (which come to think of it might not be unrelated to the racism), but happily during our visit it was mostly unpopulated and therefore unbro'd. I've talked before about my "it's not about the bar, it's about the patrons" mantra of quality, but I suppose at some bars the patronage is a reflection of the ownership; you get the clientele you're looking for. Maybe it's not fair to judge a bar by its worst moments... actually, that does seem pretty fair. I gave them a second chance, but you're totally within your rights not to, even if they were perfectly mediocre when we were there.

#129: Lin Asian Bar

The Bar


Lin Asian Bar. 1203 W 6th St, Austin, TX 78703

Visited 12/20/18 @ 5:30pm.

The Drink




Shanghai Famous. Mezcal, green chartreuse, Aperol, lime. $12.

This cocktail wasn't on their menu at all, which is typically a good sign - you always want the answer to "what drink best represents the bar?" to involve a bit of thought, and what could be more thoughtful than a bespoke cocktail? This drink was puzzling for a few reasons, though:
  1. A mezcal drink is an odd choice for an Asian bar but whatever, I am always in favor of cocktail syncretism/ecumenism/globalism. 
  2. The name has nothing to do with the ingredients, none of which are from Shanghai, or indeed anywhere in Asia with the exception of the lime. 
  3. The bartender described it as being a variant on a Last Word, which intrigued me, except that this drink shared only two ingredients with that excellent cocktail
No matter; how was the final product? Delicious! I had never had green chartreuse before, and though it took a few sips to really explore it, I liked it. Much like with orange, the color is named for the liqueur, and not the other way around. I can't claim that I was able to taste all 130 secret ingredients, but it was complex enough, especially in between the Aperol and the mezcal, to be worth coming back for. It seems to pair well with just about anything, so for those of your playing along at home, go nuts when you're making a cocktail of your own.

The Crew


Kyle, Aaron.



Notes


Lin Asian Bar (a funny name which reminds me of that scene from The Cable Guy) replaced the venerable Rounders pizza joint on West Sixth with a nicer and newer and more Asian ambiance that complements the similarly-new Bar Peached nearby. Rounders was more of a "family" joint, in that you could take your kids there and drink some beers while they stuffed themselves with pizza; Lin is more of a date night spot, in that this is where you'd go if you were still trying to impress someone. They've really lightened up the interior and made it almost completely different than the homey, well-worn pizza joint it used to be. Lin is as much a restaurant as a bar, as we could see from the gigantic stacks of wooden dim sum boxes next to the open kitchen, and we tried some of their appetizers. They were excellent, although we did not try the dim sum, which like most places in Austin limits it to the weekend. Since I didn't grow up in Clarksville I didn't have enough childhood memories to really mourn Rounders, and all I can say is that Lin is great on its own. Since the bar area is kind of close to the front door I don't know that I would stay here for a lot of rounds, but I had a blast when I was here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

#128: Pour Choices

The Bar


Pour Choices. 401 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701

Visited 12/12/18 @ 10pm.

The Drink



Adios, motherfucker!. Tequila, whiskey, vodka, gin, rum, triple sec, blue curaƧao, sour. $5.

Is your favorite liquor "all of them"? Is the preferred strength of your drinks "more"? Do you have a powerful thirst for cocktails that look like antifreeze? Did you never truly outgrow the suicide sodas of your youth? Grab one of these and you're set, with all of your questions answered. I'm rapidly running out of interesting things to say about this variant of the Long Island Iced Tea, which is now coming to embody Dirty Sixth for me, more than Old-Fashioneds or even Lone Stars do the rest of the street, but it is noteworthy how consistent each iteration of the Adios, motherfucker! is from one bar to the next, despite what I'm sure is a huge variance in the exact mix of well liquors. They all taste... blue, basically, since all the liquors blend into each other, and even the sweeteners are essentially the same thing. The only differences are the shape of the glass and the number of ice cubes. Oh, and the price - at $5 this was the cheapest of them all, even though by volume it looks like the largest. If you need your weekly fix of blue-tinged liquor and you're on a budget, or if you just feel like muttering "I am the liquor" at the patron next to you, come on down!

The Crew


Aaron.


Notes


Pour Choices recently replaced Old School, which itself had been around since sometime in the 00s. This struck me as odd, as I'd recently been to Night Owl on Burnet, which is owned by the same people, and it seemed fine, but perhaps the vagaries of Sixth Street rents meant that they decided to focus on the cheaper stretch of Burnet safely up north. Or maybe the new owner, who literally hit the jackpot to get funding money, just gave them a really sweet buyout offer. However it happened, I have to say that the new place looks nicer than Old School did. The changes are mostly just cosmetic, as they would have to be with a historic structure like this, but it's amazing what a simple dusting will do to an interior inevitably over time comes to look every minute of its 100ish years old. Even if it's mostly the same, it's nice to see everything looking a bit more up to date, you know? Pour Choices is more of a dance club than Old School was, but even though I don't hit these places up to dance (I'm on a serious mission here!), there were few enough people here that I got to jam to the music while I was sipping my blue away.

#127: Sake Mama

The Bar


Sake Mama. 519 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701

Visited 12/12/18 @ 9:30pm.

The Drink



Mango tango shot. Vodka, Monster Mango Loco. $6.

As with so many other cocktails, the exact definition of a "mango tango" is somewhat flexible, and in fact it might be better to think of the name as merely a flag of convenience under which a motley crew of any vaguely tropical ingredients at hand can sail. I know that most of the more famous versions of the mango tango use some variety of rum, yet vodka showed up in the smaller shotglass perched atop the chopsticks that separated it from the waiting vessel of Monster Mango Loco below. We were nowhere near the Dia De Los Muertos season that Monster Energy somewhat mystifyingly claims powers the drink, but I'm sure with enough sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate you can preserve just about any amount of spiritual energy you'd like for the winter holidays. The resulting shot was not particularly Japanese, but it got the job done. Like a lot of crowd-friendly shots, this one has a routine, where the employees pour you and your bros a row of precariously perched shots, he counts down from three, and then slams the bartop, causing the liquor shots to fall into the mixer, which you grab and then chug as fast as possible. Since I was the only person there, I bought the bartenders a few rounds and we practiced our technique. It takes a few to tango.

The Crew


Aaron.


Notes


Shot bars make for a fun detour from your regular bar rotation because the focus is totally on you and your friends, not on the drink or even the bar. Since you can't really savor shots in the same way as regular drinks, and are in fact encouraged to pour them down your gullet as rapidly as possible, the drinking becomes a spectacle. Often at cocktail bars I find myself admiring the craftsmanship of the drink, even trading them with my friends, in order to share something of my individual experience with them. Not here! There is no such thing as an individual experience, it's all about the group, and nowhere else will the rounds system of drink-buying get you into trouble faster than at a bar where it takes half second to finish your whole drink. Sake Mama had only been open for 8 months when I stopped in, a sake bar concept that's apparently very popular in Japan having replaced an oddly-shaped convenience store. Since I was the only patron, the extra space that was formerly occupied with racks of products looked lonely, but you only have to look at how packed Cheers or Buckshot get to be grateful for the extra breathing room. One notable gimmick was that the employees have blinking LED nametags, which initially struck me as vaguely demeaning, but after a while you get used to being hypnotized as each round is poured and you wait obediently for your bartender to yell at you to drink your shot. Some bartenders are servers; these guys were drill sergeants. They also serve Japanese-style street food, which I didn't try, but which smelled delicious.

#126: Ramen Tatsu-ya

The Bar


Ramen Tatsu-Ya. 1600 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702

Visited 12/12/18 @ 8pm.

The Drink



Red Beard. Rye whiskey, red shiso, pomegranate, ginger, citrus. $10.

Much like at many of these bars, the cashier/bartender immediately thought to direct us to the special menu when asked for the drink that best represented the establishment. I was half-expecting them to suggest the shochu-based option, given its relative rarity and greater Japan-ness, but I enjoyed my whiskey-based special just the same. When you see a rye whiskey-based cocktail, you naturally think to compare it to an Old-Fashioned, but this really didn't taste anything like that, thanks to the other ingredients. Shiso is a member of the mint family, used in cocktails for the flavor and color, and it gave a nice cool offset to the bite of the rye. Ginger is slightly less unusual, though it's also not your average cocktail glass inhabitant, and it helps fill out a robust range of taste from the sharpness of the rye and the brightness of the shiso all the way through to the sweetness of the citrus and grapefruit.

The Crew


Kyle, Aaron.


Notes


Ramen Tatsu-Ya is locally famous in Austin for being one of the first places to get real "authentic" Japanese ramen, an interesting concept in its own right. There is a long and fascinating story to be told about how the varying cuisines of Asia have been accorded greater or lesser status in the US based on the historical timing and composition of the individual waves of immigrants from those countries. Japanese restaurants in the US have long enjoyed a price premium over other cuisines due to the perceived higher status of Japanese food, but Austin did not have many Asians for most of its history, and so we didn't have a lot of Asian restaurants, even for such a humble everyman food like ramen. Now we're bigger, richer, and more diverse, and when we finally got Ramen Tatsu-Ya in 2012 it was an immediate hit. In fact, it was such a big success that just 4 years after it opened it was hailed as the #1 ramen restaurant in America, which might be some more absurd Austin hyperbole ("Austintation"), but that it placed at all tells you something about our transformation in just the past few years.

This is the 4th installment of their rapidly growing empire, and it maintains the excellence of their ramen while affording a bit more space and a better drink menu than the OG location up on 183. This location replaces Qui, and they even expanded next door with Domo Alley-Gato, which we had visited a few hours ago while waiting for this place to open up. Domo Alley-Gato is a bit more suited to sitting and drinking than Ramen Tatsu-Ya is, as this place has a bit more of the "quick in and out ramen joint" vibe, but do not miss their ramen - if you remember the slim pickings for ramen in 90s Austin it will seem like it came for another planet, and even if you were fortunate enough to grow up in another place with more ramen I'm assured it's still quite worthy of a stop. I've never eaten at any of the other places on that ramen list, or been to Japan at all for that matter, but Ramen Tatsu-Ya is just fine with me all the same. I'm told that in Japan, ramen joints are among the most treasured drunk food establishments, so how thoughtful of Ramen Tatsu-Ya to place Austin best ramen in such close proximity to Austin's greatest drinking corridor.