Wednesday, January 20, 2010

INsite Austin January 2010 Food Feature

The Cedar Door Spreads Its Wings

by Marsha Mann

It was 2001, nearing the end of a long day and tedious commute from San Antonio back to Austin, when Steve Potts got the urge to stop in at his favorite watering hole, The Cedar Door. There was just one problem - it had been closed down and physically moved (for the 3rd time in 26 years!) to a trailer park off Barton Springs Road, where the small stilted building stood languishing. There’d been rumors of it reopening, so on a whim Potts dialed the number from his car, hoping to get a confirmation.

Surprisingly, a caretaker answered and after some pleasantries, informed Potts of owner Gus Koerner’s recent decision to sell….was he interested? In a flash of inspiration (which he now calls ‘naïveté’), Potts realized he was. Tired of working in a cubicle for a telecommunications company, he had often talked with his wife, Heather, about owning their own business– something small and manageable, like a bar. The Cedar Door, with its colorful history and local cache, seemed like an ideal opportunity. All they needed was a piece of property in a great location.

After months of searching and multiple disappointments, the couple finally found an open lot at 2nd & Brazos. Aided by a well-connected real estate agent, Kurt Vandermueller, Steve and Heather were eventually able to negotiate a three-year lease on the land…just enough time to succeed or fail with their new endeavor. In 2001, The Cedar Door was once again loaded onto a truck and relocated for the 4th and final time–by the very same movers who had done it previously! They wisely kept the bar elevated, so it would have a familiar feel, and added a large deck off the west side. The beloved bar reopened in 2002 to rave reviews from patrons and press alike.

Though they wanted to expand the food menu, the tiny kitchen made it impossible to do more than simple pub grub, so they added a second patio on the east side in an attempt to make fuller use of the property. It seemed to work for several years until Austin’s harsh weather began to take its toll. The couple realized they needed more indoor space and a bigger kitchen as well.

Two years ago (after renegotiating to a 30-year lease), Steve and Heather began meeting with famed local designer, Michael Hsu (Uchi, Fino, Olivia, Bess, and The Belmont), to flesh out plans for an interior expansion. The resulting addition utilizes panels of reclaimed wood to create a seamless transition from the original bar space into the impressive yet still welcoming ‘new’ room. With its sleek bar and elaborate wood-beamed ceiling, shaped like giant winged birds high overhead, the space feels as if it could take off and fly.

Once known almost exclusively for their deceptively smooth Mexican Martinis (the kind that sneak up and clobber you), The Cedar Door’s brand new kitchen has led to a brand new menu. Created by Potts, long-time manager, Stephanie Hughes, and the newest member of their family, second-generation chef, Justin Morgan, they’ve dubbed it Southwestern Grill–a combination of Texan, Mexican (not to be confused with Tex-Mex), and Southwestern cuisine: highly flavorful and supremely satisfying.

For instance, I’ve never been a fan of Tortilla Soup when I can have a delicious bowl of hearty Pollo de Caldo at any number of restaurants, instead. But Justin’s version, with a transparent cilantro-infused chicken broth, chunks of tender white-meat & roasted vegetables, additional roasted poblano & jalapeno peppers, all topped with fresh avocado and the most thinly sliced, super crisp tortilla strips ever, has won me over. His soup of the day was a Creamy Squash, made with roasted chipotle peppers (giving it a distinctly smoky flavor), and real whipped cream…all I can say is OMG! Both soups are $3.95 a cup/$5.95 a bowl.

They offer several exceptional appetizers, such as the fresh and smoky Chipotle Shrimp Cocktail ($8.95); the lusciously gooey 512 Sweet & Spicy Habanero Wings (served at the bar with a shot of 512 IPA); and some mouth-watering, Beer Battered Onion Rings ($5.49).

For the main course, I highly recommend the Southwestern Chicken Salad ($8.49), or the Green Chile Chicken Tacos ($7.99). Both are made with grilled chicken breast marinated in a zesty lime & cilantro vinaigrette, along with one of my favorite touches, caramelized onions. Also delicious are the Beef Fajita Tacos ($8.99)–strips of marinated skirt steak, grilled bell peppers & onions (also an option for the Southwestern Salad); and the Grilled Fish Tacos ($7.99), that use true cod (instead of tilapia) and are topped with a unique cabbage & jicama slaw. Even the black beans and rice, served with most of the entrees, are unusually flavorful.

Both bars still turn out The Cedar Doors’ signature Mexican Martini, currently made with 80-proof Paula’s Texas Orange and Cazadores Blanco Tequila. Their superior mix sells for $5.99 and will soon be available in New York City. The stellar bar staff–Russ, Jesse, and Christine, also serve up a wide variety of other specialty drinks, made with local spirits like Tito’s Vodka, ‘Z’ Tequila, and Treaty Oak Rum. You’ll also find Shiner, Real Ale, and 512 on tap, alongside Guinness, Newcastle, and Stella Artois.

Potts tells me the expansion has been met with some grumbles from older Cedar Door patrons, but really, there’s a simple solution. You can still sit at the original turn-of-the-century Brunswick bar, even gaze out the original window with its emblematic Cedar Door signage, or chat with the friendly and gracious Asst. Manager, Manny. If you’re having trouble with the ‘new’ room, just don’t go in there…have another Mexican Martini instead!

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