"Here's what I made, I hope you like it." In a nutshell, this is the business model of The Hightower, as told by our bartender, Robin. Just beyond where the interstate carves into East 7th st., in Austin, The Hightower is something of a neighborhood spot that delivers creative, yet simple food and possesses a bar program that holds its own weight. For that, it is considered by many a well-kept secret.
The space is open, its walls doused in an olive green and cast with dim light. When walking through the front doors, one is given a direct view into the kitchen. A long bar occupies one side of the building; its giant mirror acting like a vanity for an etched vintage look, while a host of tables wrap the opposite wall and are sprinkled throughout.
Having arrived shortly after the break of happy hour, my eating partner and I had free reign over what was a relatively sparse dining area but chose the bar. This also meant an opportunity for conversation and nearly undivided attention from our bartender. Robin's first quip was one which tied his name to Batman's sidekick, a choice of words that built into a double meaning as we compared his strengths with those of his counterpart, the kitchen.
After starting us out with a pair of cocktails, one O.M.D. ($7) and one Kinaloupe ($7), Robin ran through the high points of the menu, suggesting items like the daily Bar Snack ($5), Smoked Catfish Spread ($6.50) and the Salmon Crudo ($8). We bit on all three. (Prices listed reflect happy hour).
The Kinaloupe uses vodka and (take a wild guess) cantaloupe, as well as the herbal aperitif Kina. Sporting a summer freshness, the cocktail was filled with round fruit flavors and a touch of cucumber from the garnish; it felt like a drink that required sun screen and flip flops. We were told to stir the O.M.D., which in fact enhanced the profile as the bitter elements from the Campari and gin were able to fuse with the serene subtleties of the clementine. Robin later went on to share his motif behind the O.M.D., stating that the scent and taste of a clementine is believed to evoke happiness. You couldn't buy a frown for this corner of the bar.
A leisurely pace for the kitchen lead to quick times for our dishes, while Robin was strategic in his staggering. First up was the Bar Snack, a surprisingly light dish composed of fried balls of pork rillette, with pickles and cheddar wedges on the side. Next to that was the Salmon Crudo; a cut of raw salmon over a sea of gazpacho verde (a tomatillo base) and topped with an herb remedy and crushed cashews. By this time we were also both equipped with one version of each cocktail.
Pronounced notes of cantaloupe effectively cut into the brightness of the salmon, while notes of dill and lime each worked themselves into the herbal complexity offered from the Kina. Of the bunch, this was the best pairing.
While more aggressive in nature, the O.M.D. was still refreshing and crisp, which helped to balance out the sensory overload of meat and smoke that was to come. The Smoked Catfish Spread was served with rye hushpuppies and a smear of caper jam along the rim, the combination ushering in memories of Friday fish dinners. Though in combining just one spoonful of the salty, smoked spread with a hunk of fried dough and dollop of jam made for an even more peculiar flavor association: the taste of hot dogs.
If I had in fact tasted this dish blind, I may have guessed Oscar Mayer (American, vintage 2016). That's no disrespect to hot dogs, or my deductive reasoning skills, but this unshakable parallel ultimately left a modest ceiling on the catfish spread.
To our surprise, a bowl of Brussels Sprouts ($5.50) arrived, a courteous gesture by Robin which came tied with the distinction of 'must try' (a nod from our neighbor). Dressed with house-made peanut butter sauce - the use of honey helped gave it essentially a liquid consistency - and topped with nuts, these sprouts were unlike any version either of us had encountered. They also happen to be some of the best (another nod from the guy next to us). A sweetness from the honey toned the chili pepper and lemon also used in the sauce, while a nuttiness hummed along to bring out the roasted vegetal flavors. For less than $6, this dish drives a hard bargain as one of the best happy hour snacks around town.
Approachable and unpretentious throughout, the food and service conveyed that same neighborhood vibe that was felt walking in the door. It seemed like a place where "you can come for happy hour on Tuesday and still afford to come back for dinner on Friday," as Robin claimed.
Once the final dish arrived, Pork Jowl ($16), it became clear that we the saved best for last. This was suggested as being a part of the The Hightower's identity, and we soon found out why. A bowl of heaping rice laid bed to a patch of micro greens, a mound of pickled onions, a halved avocado with slight char, thinly sliced cucumbers, hunks of seared pork jowl (pig cheeks), and a cooked egg yolk nestled in place for what seemed at that point to be merely show. The idea was to stir everything together; allow the yolk and avocado to form a creamy base and let the rest fall into place. Standing out in flavor and texture were the slabs of jowl, their seared edges and trim lines of fat made each bite a salty sensation. Influence from the herbs and cucumber added crisp, clean notes to help maintain balance.
Before the meal was through, we were offered by our bar neighbor a share of dessert (by now it should be clear that he's a regular). S'more Fried Pie (not pictured), an item that ought not to require much explanation. It was as simple and as decadent, but not quite as overloading, as it sounds. Like any good dish, this dessert struck a sense of place; fond memories of gooey snacks over the campfire were rekindled. An added touch of Maldon salt, moreover, was key in making the flavors in this transportive dish truly pop.
In a town saturated with sleek, modern restaurants that deploy innovative small plates and equally as sophisticated cocktail programs, The Hightower provides a comparable experience at an affordable rate. Their fresh take on Texan cuisine with locally sourced ingredients is worth revisiting, and perhaps even frequenting.
(Items ordered: Bar Snacks, Smoked Catfish Spread, Brussels Sprouts, Salmon Crudo, Pork Jowl, Kinaloupe, O.M.D.)
Rating: 8 & 1/2 Pork Jowl (Out of Ten)
1209 E 7th St, Austin, TX 78702