Inside the King Ranch
September 17, 2012By Patricia SharpeComments
<span class="drop-cap">G</span>et there early,” warned my friend Pam. “We had to wait for an hour!” So three companions and I arrived promptly at six o’clock on a Saturday. “The wait could be an hour,” said the host, looking harried as more and more people jammed themselves into the small waiting area. The weather in Austin was cold and wet, and the crowd was in no mood to linger outside, even in the pools of warmth provided by heat lamps.
Launderette—in a medium-sized storefront that once held a washateria—has been a hit since day one. And it was the subject of much speculation in the foodieverse long before that. Its two principals, executive chef Rene Ortiz and pastry chef Laura Sawicki, had aroused consternation and curiosity when they parted company with La Condesa and Sway, back in 2013, to open this new venture. Since they had already done Mexican and Thai, everyone wondered what was next. Ortiz, keeping his options open, was prone to statements like “I think of it as local in content and global in reach” and “I want it to be a simple cafe with extreme flavors.”
But now that the wraps are off, it’s clear that the main thrust is modern Mediterranean. The menu has Snacky Bits (the word “snacks” being a sign of restaurant coolness). It also has small plates and large plates. Significantly, it has ten offerings of vegetables and salads. And there are sweets, of course. Informality and sharing are encouraged by the enthusiastic servers. It’s a whole new ball game.
After milling around for a while and joining in the table-hopping (it seemed that everybody knew everybody else), we were actually seated in less than forty minutes. We peeled off our many layers of winter gear and immediately ordered five starters for the table, which was easy to do, given how reasonable the prices were. First to arrive was the French-style feta toast, which was mind-blowingly rich (turns out it’s an exceptionally creamy version of feta from Bellwether Farms, in California, that is whipped with a touch of its own brine). The crusty bread, from Austin’s Easy Tiger bakery, was spread with two pungent toppings, a paste of capers and golden raisins and a mixture of roasted bell peppers and eggplant. We realized too late that the two loaded pieces of toast would have been plenty, but we had also gluttonously ordered the lump crab version, with avocado and fennel aioli. If anything, it was richer, on a terrific, almost sweet semolina bread. After that, we tossed back a few caramelized cipollini lavished with an onion-chile balsamic dressing and then plowed through some paprika-and-pepper-seasoned fried oysters with a vinegary mojo-style dressing (cilantro, parsley, and oregano giving it a vivid green color). Then we attacked the tender charred octopus; good as it was, the bed of beluga lentils on which it sat was even better, with the depth of flavor of split-pea soup minus the mushy texture.
We hadn’t even gotten to the mains, but it was obvious that Ortiz’s hallmark style—his penchant for powerful, multilayered flavors—was in play here. The words “curb your enthusiasm” do not exist for him. The downside is that while the results are exhilarating, they can become overwhelming, especially if you’re greedy enough to try nine emphatic dishes in one evening before you order dessert. But we did have time for a breather, since we were ordering as we went, so we took a moment to admire the space, whose casual, boxy interior has been transformed with an aqua-blue concrete floor, a curvy wood bar with sculptural wire chairs, and glistening white tiles in the open kitchen. (Check out the restrooms to see some adorable hummingbird wallpaper.)
Revived, we next ordered the caramelized endive salad with generous crumbles of bleu des basques cheese. Then it was on to three entrées. Ortiz was his over-the-top self with all of them, which worked well with the garganelli, because the lusty Calabrian chile–spiked sausage paired nicely with the strong green flavor of curly kale (“We massage it with a bit of oil before we sauté it,” Ortiz later told me) and a snowstorm of grated pecorino. His style was also spot-on with the grilled prawns with saucy stewed Aleppo and Fresno chiles and a cooling splash of yogurt seasoned with crushed nigella seeds (a.k.a. black cumin). But enthusiasm pretty much obscured the delicate filet of red snapper with a lemony pine nut–gremolata garnish, because it also got slammed by a generous cauliflower puree (putting it to the side would have solved the problem).
It’s so tempting to order one dish after another and end up full before you know it, but you must not skip dessert: Sawicki was named in 2012 to <em>Food & Wine’s</em> inaugural list of the five best new pastry chefs in America, and she has an uncanny ability to put ingredients together in striking ways. Her unconventional combinations—like an English sticky toffee pudding, candied ginger ice cream, and a luscious vanilla-scented cauliflower puree—are miracles of interlocking flavors. And if you don’t fancy her rosewater-pistachio parfait with grapefruit, fennel, and tahini–agave nectar powder, just order her kid-friendly sundae. It looks like a clown face and tastes like a birthday party.
As usual, later on I called Ortiz to illuminate some of the more complex dishes (“If the menu explained everything, each description would be thirty words long,” he said, laughing). Once we got that out of the way, I asked how he had come up with his various ideas, expecting he would say that he was inspired by ingredients or recipes. But each time he would mention a chef he had known, years ago. He would say, “I kept remembering . . .” or “I wanted to do an homage . . .” or “I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t worked with . . .” After three or four of these, I stopped him and said that it sounded as though the menu had come from a stroll through his past. He thought about it for a second and said, “The menu incorporates all the things I have seen and done in my life.”
I felt lucky to have experienced them, vicariously, and happy to have made the acquaintance of so many of his friends.
Photograph by Jody Horton
<p><span class="drop-cap">T</span>he Apache were latecomers to the Southwest, arriving in what is now New Mexico from the north at about the same time the Spanish entered the region from the south. They were originally hunter-gatherers, collecting wild plants and hunting buffalo, elk, deer, and smaller game. But once the Apache were established in the mountains of New Mexico, they developed a raid-and-trade economy, attacking Spanish settlements along the Rio Grande and farther south in Chihuahua for livestock, corn, and captives—then offering their spoils back to the Spanish in exchange for tools, cloth, knives, and guns. The remote peaks and canyons of their mountain homes allowed them to resist all attempts by the Spanish to conquer them.</p> <p>Apache boys grew up to be warriors. From early childhood, they were taught to harden their bodies by bathing in ice water and running long, punishing distances. When they were about sixteen, they became apprentice warriors and went on their first four raids under the guidance of elders. They observed certain ceremonial restrictions, such as using a sacred vocabulary, drinking water through a tube so that it did not touch their lips, and using a stick to scratch themselves so that their fingernails did not come into contact with their skin. When the young men had successfully completed their fourth raid, they sought a shaman who would help them acquire a special power that would strengthen them in battle. For instance, a woman from the Chiricahua tribe named Lozen knew when the enemy was near because the palms of her hands would tingle. Her uncle Nana had the power to find ammunition. Geronimo had the ability to delay the sunrise so that he could attack the enemy in darkness. Sometimes the power was associated with an animal (such as a bear or deer) or natural phenomenon (lightning or rain), and the shaman would give the warrior an amulet to wear that depicted the source of his power.</p> <p>The Apache culture in the Southwest continued unaltered for three centuries, but when the United States acquired New Mexico, in 1848, aggressive farmers, miners, and prospectors pushed into the Apache homelands. When the tribe resisted those incursions, the U.S. Army built forts and created reservations in an attempt to control them and turn them into farmers. Some Apache leaders advocated cooperation and peaceful coexistence with the whites; others resisted confinement and dependence on government rations. </p> <p>Among the rebels was Victorio, Lozen’s brother and a chief of the Chihenne, or Warm Springs Apache, whose ancestral homeland was in the Black Mountains, northwest of what is now Truth or Consequences. In the fall of 1879, Victorio led a mixed band of Warm Springs and Mescalero Apache, about three hundred in all, off the Mescalero reservation in eastern New Mexico and launched what came to be called Victorio’s War. </p> <p>Victorio and his warriors zigzagged across New Mexico, Chihuahua, and the Trans-Pecos for thirteen months, striking terror into the hearts of settlers, fighting at least five pitched battles with cavalry troops and civilian militia, and eluding all pursuers. They crossed into Mexico several times during that period, knowing that U.S. troops could not chase them across the border. </p> <p>By the beginning of 1880, the Army realized that Victorio was regularly slipping back across the border from Mexico to resupply his ammunition and gather fresh horses and recruits at the Mescalero reservation. Colonel Benjamin Grierson, the commander of the Tenth Cavalry in the Trans-Pecos, was ordered to move his regiment to New Mexico to reinforce troops there. Grierson had a better idea. He obtained permission to station troops at the water holes in Texas that Victorio stopped at on his way to New Mexico. On July 29 Grierson, with a small escort, encountered Victorio’s Apaches making their way north from the Rio Grande toward a water hole called Tinaja de las Palmas, a few miles southwest of Van Horn. Grierson forted his men up behind boulders above the water hole and sent for reinforcements. A four-hour fight ensued, and Victorio retreated, leaving seven warriors dead. Grierson knew that the Apaches would regroup and try to go around him, so he made a forced march of 65 miles in 21 hours to the next water hole, Rattlesnake Springs, in the Diablo Mountains, where he intercepted Victorio again, killing four more warriors. This was the first time since Victorio had led his warriors off the Mescalero reservation that he had been prevented from going where he wanted, and these two battles marked the end of Victorio’s War north of the border. He retreated to Mexico, and in October he was killed, along with most of his band, in a battle with Mexican troops at a place in the desert north of Chihuahua City called Tres Castillos.</p> <p>One of the Indians killed at either Tinaja de las Palmas or Rattlesnake Springs was wearing a rawhide amulet in the shape of a lizard, thirteen and a half inches long and three and one-quarter inches wide, wrapped with strings of trade beads to produce a pattern of square dots down its spine. Tied to its head was a single red mescal bean, the seed of the Texas mountain laurel, Sophora secundiflora. The mescal bean has hallucinatory qualities and was believed to bring success in raiding expeditions. Grierson acquired the amulet, which was taken from the warrior’s body, and a few years later gave it to Susan Janes, who had a small museum in Fort Davis. In 1929 Janes presented it to the Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross State University, in Alpine, where it resides today. It failed to protect its wearer from death, but it still radiates power from within its case in the museum.</p> <p><em><a href="http://www.museumofthebigbend.com/" target="_blank">Museum of the Big Bend,</a> 400 N. Harrison, Alpine (432-837-8143). Open Tue–Sat 9–5, Sun 1–5.</em></p>
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