Driftwood Estates Winery (vineyards above) supplies wines to Jack Allen’s Kitchen and other local restaurants. - photo by Will Atkins
by Tony Tucci
OAK HILL - Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples chose an Oak Hill restaurant to launch the GO TEXAN Restaurant Round-Up July 23-29, a week when participating restaurants are inviting patrons to sample fare made from locally produced ingredients.
The spotlight will be on restaurants that regularly use wine, beer, beef, poultry, pork, seafood, eggs, fruits and vegetables grown or raised in Texas.
“We are surrounded by great farmers and ranchers who provide us with some of the best-tasting ingredients for our meals,” said Jack Gilmore (his middle name is Allen), chef and owner of Jack Allen’s Kitchen. The restaurant on State Highway 71 in Oak Hill hosted a press conference by Commissioner Staples last Friday, and served lunch for the commissioner and invited guests featuring local produce.
Jack Allen’s Kitchen specializes in Southwestern food using local ingredients. “We mean LOCAL,” its menu proclaims. Dishes include bacon-wrapped Texas quail, South Texas taco platters, and pumpkin seed pesto marinated chicken breast.
“The local food movement is more than just a fad, as more people than ever want to know where their food comes from,” Commissioner Staples said. “The GO TEXAN Restaurant Round-Up brings together the best offerings of Texas farmers, ranchers, seafood producers, breweries, winemakers and chefs as they showcase local food.”
In addition to showcasing Texas products, the GO TEXAN Restaurant Round-Up, which is sponsored by Farm Credit, will benefit local food banks. More than 400 participating restaurants have agreed to donate about $40,000 to food banks to help provide more than 100,000 meals to hungry Texans. A list of participating restaurants can be found at the web site www.GOTEXANRestaurantRound-Up.com.
John Lash has been at the heart of the “go local” movement for the past four years. His Farm to Table company now distributes locally grown farm produce to 80 restaurants, including Jack Allen’s, as well as independent grocery stores, commercial kitchens, 48 Austin schools and schools in parts of Hays County, and the Judson and Randolph Brooks schools in San Antonio. He gets his produce from about 60 farms and ranches within a 120-mile radius of Austin.
“I only sell local products,” he said, with two exceptions — Olathe sweet corn and Palisades peaches, both from Colorado and of exceptional quality. He said both come in at the end of the Texas harvests so they don’t compete with local growers.
Lash, whose distribution facility employs 10 people and is on Todd Lane in Southeast Austin, said it would pretty much be business as usual for him during the GO TEXAN Restaurant Round-Up, although he has received some special requests. “The Driskill wants a special rib eye, for instance,” he said.
The secret to success in his business, Lash said, is to get the produce to market when it’s ripe, but not too ripe. “We’ve learned a lot in the past four years,” he said.
Nick Goulding, owner of Cafe Malta, said his restaurant at William Cannon and Brodie Lane always features local products, which he buys from Farm to Table. As part of the GO TEXAN Restaurant Round-Up, Goulding is planning a special menu for Wednesday with all local foods. The main attraction will be a four-course dinner for $25 that will include an appetizer, soup or salad, main dish and dessert.
Cafe Malta serves what might be called a Tex-Med cuisine, a mixture of Texas dishes with a Mediterranean flair, or vice versa. “Sometimes we take a Mediterranean dish and use a Texas ingredient, such as black-eyed peas,” Goulding said. Or he might serve Texas brisket and add a Mediterranean sauce.
Menu favorites are dishes from Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Spain, France and Morocco, including bouillabaisse, fettuccine and pancetta, grilled baby octopus, bistro steak and Mediterranean sea bass. He also carries local wines and a Belgian-style golden ale brewed by South Austin Brewing Co.
Goulding lived in Italy for four months, and worked at several Austin restaurants before opening Cafe Malta in Southwest Austin last December.
The Kerbey Lane Cafe opened in 1980 and quickly became part of Austin’s culture. Its first restaurant was on Kerbey Lane (of course) in West Austin, but it now has five locations, including a Southwest Austin site at 4301 William Cannon. And it has been committed to buying local products from the start.
While buying local is more common today, the task of finding locally grown items such as tomatoes wasn’t easy in the 1980s. “We worked to forge strong relationships with local suppliers and built menus around what local farmers had in season,” the restaurant said in a web-page account.
Mason Ayer, director of operations, whose parents David Ayer and Patricia Atkinson started the restaurant, said he could recall picking cherry tomatoes in their garden to use in restaurant menus. “Seasonal menus remain a huge part of what we do,” the web report said, mentioning tomato pie and pumpkin pancakes as two seasonal favorites. Its menus still include original creations like Eggs Francisco, an English muffin topped with scrambled eggs, bacon, tomato, avocado and then ladled with liberal amounts of queso.
“KLC is a part of the Austin community and we take our citizenship seriously,” the account said. “We buy from local vendors, mom and pop stores like Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, offer our walls to local artists, sponsor Austin events, support several local charities, participate in canned food drives, and sell our pink pancakes each year to support the fight against breast cancer.”
Ayer said the restaurants will be featuring items from their summer menu during GO TEXAN week. “It’s my favorite menu of the year,” Ayer said. “Everything’s a winner.” The menu includes summer chicken pasta and Squash Benedict, which is sauteed cherry tomatoes with squash cake topped with Hollandaise sauce. “If I could eat it every day I would,”Ayer said.
Driftwood Estates Winery is one of a growing number of local vineyards and breweries—including Thirsty Planet brewery in Oak Hill—that restaurants are turning to for local products. Driftwood Estates, a short drive from Oak Hill, will soon be celebrating their 10th anniversary. Owner and wine maker Gary Elliott chose four Driftwood varieties, including award-winning Cuvée Blanc, which finished first in its class out in California. The winery said on its web site: “I guess a little Texas wine can go a long way!” The winery also produces Longhorn Red, which is highly recommended by the waitstaff at Jack Allen’s Kitchen.
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