February 24, 2015
The concept of comfort food is rather straight forward, its purpose lies within the name: food that provides consolation or well being. Heavy starches, rich sauces or sugar beds are often the driving force behind this comfort - sometimes all three at once. Memories of home or adolescence are to be elicited, though the placement of such food is perhaps most important during times of duress.
One summer morning a handful of years back, my father broke to me the news that my grandfather had passed; this was a man who I had gotten very close with over the last couple years. My dad's first instinct was to take me to breakfast, and he chose a diner known for its slow food, particularly their balloon-sized pancakes. In an odd, yet very candid way, that fluffy stack of cakes and bottomless coffee at the long, sleek service counter had fueled something of a healing process for me. I could have chosen anything on that menu and been awarded the same experience, and from that point on I haven't looked at this sort of food the same way.
While under no such circumstances on my recent visit to Counter Cafe, in Austin, TX, I was, in fact, served a dish that evoked memories of that morning. The vessel in this instance being a heap of crab cakes and poached eggs over toast, with a side of coffee.
To detail the business; it is as the name suggests - a cafe focused around one long strip of counter that hugs a wide open kitchen. The focal dining surface employs only a short glass wall to divide guest from kitchen host. Activity on the other side of the counter becomes part of the experience; at any given time four or five skillets could be tossed over open flames, flapjacks the size of your head might be carefully flipped over the griddle, and all the while sheet pans of freshly baked biscuits are likely to be traded out intermittently by someone in an apron.
About a half dozen tables trail the opposite wall, while a quaint server station is crowned with chalkboard specials. For an added touch, a colorful chalk drawing of Guy FIeri's face is plastered near the menu (I just can't get away from this guy). Hours are condensed and fit for a breakfast crowd: open 7:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. daily. Otherwise the menu deploys organic and locally sourced ingredients. It's been this way since 2006, and this is where it all started (Counter Cafe now has a second location on the east side).
Despite it being a busy morning, the coffee and water service was swift; my server makes two attempts before putting in an order of Crab Cakes ($12). Next to me a woman clears an empty plate, only after leaning over the glass to ask the head cook if he is doing alright. They shake hands and he nods calmly, a trio of skillets sizzling behind him. Looking near the chalk board again, I recognize her face as the one in a framed magazine spread of Texas Monthly: she is Debbie Davis, the owner of this restaurant.
Meanwhile, the flow of service and pace in the kitchen allows me to track the progress of my dish, and in a short time that same cook hands me a plate. A first dip into each of the sauces offers a preview of what is to come: the curry peanut's creamy base hides a slow spice that is marked with hints of citrus, while garlic from the lemon aioli shows strong. Each egg was poached to perfection (a rarity, it seems, in these days), while the bed of toast had soft centers with crisp crust.
At various points of the meal the different flavor elements announce themselves with singularity; here a kick of curry, there a potent fishy flavor from the crab, add in a creamy yolk base and hints of cajun seasoning salt and you have yourself a dish that is simply constructed, yet broad in the shoulders.
The menu itself contained other intriguing options. Whether your fancy is biscuits and gravy (their biscuit and eggs Early Bird Special is only $7.50), massive short stacks, Texas Quail, or simple breakfast tacos, the menu is relatively expansive while still staying true to the classics. You also don't need to be reeling from a divorce or lost pet to fully enjoy the comfort aspect of it. While this may be a little pricey your everyday breakfast joint ($20 all said and done), it is certainly a good place to pull up a morning paper and treat yourself.
Ate: Crab Cakes
626 N Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78703
Rating: 4 Poached Eggs (out of Five)