Considered something of a staple to Austin's vast and culturally rich offering of Mexican cuisine, Julio's Cafe proved its worth on a bizarre morning of Friday the 13th. Having endured the tongue lashing of a deranged lunatic at the bus stop on my way to a work meeting, I skipped the meeting and fabricated justification for a spontaneous but well deserved second breakfast.
My meal began with the ever-intimidating ritual of face-to face, counter ordering from a cash-only establishment. I considered the breakfast tacos but finally settled on the back pocket of any Mexican restaurant; Huevos Rancheros ($7.25).
The lady who took my order had her framed picture on the wall; it was taken with and signed by a man who was well dressed and seemed groomed for the spotlight. Another signed photo, this of Mack Brown was also next to the register. I figured I had landed in good company. In return for my cash I was handed a plastic table number, a ceramic mug and free reign on a sun-lit dining area which was filled with large leather booths.
Self-serve drip coffee, complete with pot warmers, was found along the main wall and I couldn't help but admire the concept. What a way to ensure that you get the most of your $2. After all, there's nothing worse than a meal, particularly breakfast, succeeding on all levels except for your single refill of coffee.
Busy studying my company, I was surprised by a plate of food which suddenly arrived in front of my face. The restaurant layout and business model seemed to make more sense now. Focus on the labor that matters most and don't bother complicating the matter with employing servers.
Ultimately for me, texture and taste trump aesthetics, so I minced the dish until seemingly destroying the three-plus minutes of intensive labor by the cooks, who I knew only by the sounds of scraping spatulas and hurried, hushed conversations.
One of the initial flavors I tasted was reminiscent of a tomato stew, the type that comes from a day of slow cooking with a variety of vegetables and seasoning. Carrots, onions, and a hint of jalapeno were most noticeable in the ranchero sauce. However, it was a bit thin and runny. I was expecting a little more pop from the sauce, but ultimately deemed the underwhelming nature less of a failure and perhaps more of a tribute to family recipe.
After my second self-refill of coffee, I spotted a casually clothed man gliding around the dining room with one of the glass pots in hand. He filled the cups of a table of four business women who were enlightened by the gesture.
"The first time I came here, I saw someone do this," he said. "I thought it was a nice idea."
He made a quick stop at my table, though I politely denied and returned focus to my plate.
The side portions were generous, and I was able to construct two plump tacos with much to spare. Initially cooked as cubes, the potatoes came clumped together and were difficult to separate. A whole avocado, normally a sizable up-charge, was split and pitted for garnish.
My bacon, on the other hand, was curled sharply like the ears on a pig and took the effort of two hands to tear apart. Yet, the bacon became peculiarly porous when added to the dish and seemed to soften from the flavors of egg yolk and ranchero sauce. In the end the plate took a little longer to scrape clean than it did to arrive.
For arriving with less of an appetite and more of a desire to avoid human interaction, I was quite satisfied and left without that sort of unsettling way that some greasy diners can claim once you are forced to walk afterwards. Next time I stop I will dine somewhere in the realm of hungry and perhaps step up to the plate when it comes to being the one to offer coffee service.
(Item ordered: Huevos Rancheros)
Rating: 3 Over Easy Eggs (out of Four)
Julio's Cafe - 4230 Duval St, Austin, TX 78751