Monday, December 10, 2007

Texicalli Grille (South Austin, Texas)

As 2007 draws to a close, one cultural and culinary staple forever left behind in this year is Austin's Texcialli Grille, a local restaurant and live music venue, which closed its doors in July. Known for its diverse jukebox and its magnificent queso fries, the Texicalli Grille has been described as "an old Taco Bell [that] has lots of South Austin hippie stuff in it." But according to the restaurant's official website, its last day of business was Friday, July 6, 2007:

We are in the process of finding a place to relocate - we apologize for the short notice- please email us your contact information and we will let you know as soon as we are back in business!

We look forward to hanging out with you at our new location - hopefully in the VERY near future!

Despite the optimistic pronouncement of a potential new venue, six months later, Texicalli has not yet risen from its grave. (At least one other blogger is already lamenting its loss.).

The restaurant began in Austin, Texas in 1981. Its original location was on South Lamar, and after eight years, it moved to its current and final location on Oltorf, just a few blocks from I-35. Anyone who visited the restaurant was likely greeted warmly by its gregarious owner, Danny Roy Young, described in the press as both the "unofficial mayor of South Austin" and a "South Austin institution." Dale Rice, writing for the Austin American Statesman, once described Young as "a meetin'-and-greetin' proprietor whose welcoming smile is as inviting as the menu, which features a wide range of sandwiches and salads, along with a few entrees." In 2006, Young would turn over his management duties to Jimmy Keith "Bonz" Kendall in 2006.

Reviewing the place in 2002 for the Austin Chronicle (which was a friend to restaurant, covering it often in its pages), food critic Rachel Feit summed it up the appeal of the 'Cal:

There are some restaurants that never lose their appeal. Year after year they manage to weather sea changes in the economy, food fashion, and neighborhood transformation. Through it all, they never lose sight of the essential things that really define them. The Texicalli Grille is one of those places.

Austin will be a lesser place without the 'Cal's Queso Fries #2, a plate of waffle fries smothered in cheese, avocado, and onions. In 2000, one restaurant reviewer noted:

When you walk into this tiny, quintessentially South Austin eatery, Danny Young welcomes you as if you were an old friend dropping by for lunch at his house. But unlike the fare in most of our dining rooms, you get to choose from 14 carefully crafted sandwiches, six salads, five kinds of burgers, four large plate lunches (including a serious chicken-fried steak), and a panoply of interesting appetizers, such as Spicy Fried Squash with Herb Dip. And don't forget the renowned crispy waffle fries drizzled with a mildly spiced queso, a meal in itself. In addition to the personal attention, cheerful service, and fresh ingredients everywhere you look, Texicalli offers some ice cream concoctions that you won't find just anywhere. Sundaes, floats, malteds, and shakes are constructed with everything from real Dr Pepper (the original syrup imported straight from the source in Dublin, Texas) to mocha to avocado. So save room for dessert.

Another review by Rebecca Chastenet de Géry says:

Ease into a booth at Texicalli Grill, a funky little south Austin institution, and after you've spent several minutes scanning the ceiling collage honoring Austin music history -- a work impressive enough to have received mention in Rolling Stone -- turn your attention to the handwritten menu. The story goes that Texicalli owner Danny Young set out to adapt the flavors found in delicatessens on the Eastern seaboard to Texas tastes. The result is Texicalli's straightforward menu loaded with unique takes on traditional deli sandwiches, salads, burgers, and plate dinners. Attention! If you're craving a greasy spoon, go elsewhere. Despite its roadhouse appearance, Texicalli pays attention to its ingredients, admirably using vegetables that haven't suffered canning. Take the cheese fries for example. A dish that often exits kitchens at other eateries as a sticky mass of processed cheese hiding sodden strips of potatoes turns out, at Texicalli, to be a more finely-tuned (if still gooey and comforting) affair. My favorite version features the restaurant's crisp waffle fries blanketed with cheese sauce and studded with bits of fresh green onion, red bell pepper, and real bacon. ($7.25 full order/$4.85 small order) Paired with the Greggie sandwich ($8.45 large/$6.35 small), a hoagie bun layered with lean Canadian bacon, Swiss cheese, avocado, leaf lettuce, and a mound of sprouts, you've got yourself a hearty, but not entirely unhealthy meal to tackle. Another notable Texicalli offering, one that has developed a cult following over the years, is the Dixie Red Hot sandwich ($6.75 large/$5.10 small), a boneless breast of chicken marinated in Tabasco, grilled, and topped with a slice of Monterey jack, strips of red bell pepper, and leaf lettuce. The best part about the Dixie just might be its accompanying side order -- a pile of earthy, dense, sweet potato home fries. If sandwiches aren't your thing, the restaurant's salads are full meal deals and Texicalli does a mean business in burgers and plate specials. In fact, Texicalli does a mean business, period.

(Photo by John Anderson of the Austin Chronicle).

The restaurant was also a staple of the South Austin music scene and was used both to record an album and play host to local concerts (at which you might see Young playing the washboard). Its old school jukebox was described as follows: "He's got a good box - from Johnny Otis to Link Wray, Judy Garland to Laika and the Cosmonauts . . . ." In a recent email, musician Mandy Mercier describes the experience of playing a gig at Texicalli:
The main difference between Texicalli and other venues for me was, first of all, we didn't use any amplification!!! The room was of a size where we didn't need to so it really emphasized the content of the music. The atmosphere was festive, joyful and supportive due to Danny's pervasive presence even when he wasn't always there . . . . And when Danny was there, the place just lit up, as I'm sure has been said by everyone who was ever at Texicalli.

Also striking about the joint was its immense collection of Austin music scene ephemera and memorabilia which dated back decades. Austin writer Lee Nichols noted that the restaurant's "walls [were] covered with a combination of left-wing political bumper stickers and local music posters dating back to the earliest days of Austin's modern scene." Fellow Austin writer Marc Savlov once wrote that "[t]he interior of Danny Young's Texicalli Grill is a virtual time machine, the walls plastered with sun-faded Jukes, Franklins, and Garretts . . . ." (referring, of course, to notable music poster artists of the day). No doubt, the place had atmosphere.

Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson for the Austin Chronicle.

Though affable, Young was also an outspoken advocate of South Austin as a community. He was known to express his concern about what he would call the "Stepfordization of Austin. " He was also a frequent letter writer to the Austin Chronicle.

(Photo by John Anderson of the Austin Chronicle).

The restaurant won its fair share of local awards. In 1996, the Austin Chronicle bestowed upon Texicalli the "Best Use of an Old Taco Bell" award and noted:
This South Austin landmark might also get an award for Best Unofficial Museum of Austin History and Culture. An extension of owner Danny Young's personality, it is everything that makes Austin unique from the rest of Texas -- in lieu of wallpaper, every nook and cranny is covered with an assortment of flyers announcing old Armadillo and Soap Creek gigs, left-wing political bumper stickers, and autographed pictures from great Austin musicians past and present. Young's clientele is eclectic -- hippies, rednecks, and businessmen, all chowing down on his great sandwiches.

Four years before that, in 1992, the Austin Chronicle named Young the "Best Mayor of South Austin" and observed:

DANNY YOUNG "Hey buddy, how ya doin'?!" asks Texicalli Grille owner Danny Young whenever a friend enters his restaurant - a common occurrence, as many regular Texicalli patrons soon become Young's friends as well. How can they not when South Austin's friendliest restaurateur is on hand to make you feel not just welcome but at home in his Oltorf eatery. The posters covering every available wall and ceiling space make the spot a virtual Austin Music History Center, the jukebox is one of the hippest in town, and the food is great. But it's Danny's enthusiastic hospitality that makes this the friendliest spot south of Town Lake. And his freely offered political opinions reflect the concerns of small business people as well as a strong will to preserve the best of Austin.

Photograph by John Carrico for the Austin Chronicle.

On March 27, 1996, James A. Cooley posted the following on the Usenet newsgroup:
I am VERY fond of the Texicalli Grille on E. Oltorf Street. Great sandwiches, interesting salads, and very friendly service. I have eaten here literally hundreds of times and it is by far and away my favorite place. I also like the Mandy Mercier live show on Friday early evenings.

(See also here for another 1996 post by Cooley on the place.). But Cooley wasn't just a fan of the restaurant; he helped to build it. Reached recently via email, Cooley remembers:

I first met Danny Young and started doing woodwork for him in 1985 (I myself came to Austin in 1984). My first tasks were gluing chairs at his original South Lamar location. When he moved to behind that location, I did a lot of work on the new joint. I built their counters, put the giant flag on the ceiling, and a host of other oddball projects. When they went to look at the old Taco Bell, I was one of the people who evaluated it for the conversion. I spent several weeks doing the conversion inside and built most of what is in it. Tables, counters, one of the dining rooms, all of the shelving and storage, etc. I was the guy (along with Carlos "Goose" Garza, Danny then-manager) who hung the pinball machine on the ceiling. Danny Young and me would go down there and sometimes be up all night working on the place. I was drawn to unusual woodwork projects and Young needed someone who was willing to take on his off-beat jobs. He was my best customer over the years (and I one of his best regulars, as well). My daughter even got her start in the restaurant business when she start working for him as a teenager. She has since gone onto graduate from chef school.

Unfortunately, Young and Bonz did not respond to requests for an email interview regarding the fate of their restaurant. Hopefully, they were too busy looking for a new location.

Texicalli Grille (1981 - 2007)

Resquiat in Pace

Photographs of restaurant exterior by Dani L.


Anonymous said...

Oh no!!!!!!!!!
I got sent this by another UK fan of the Texicalli and of Danny, too.
That's at least three people (my wife being the third) here in the UK who are devasted..or certainly will be if the place doesn't reappear sometime, hopefully soon.
I know Danny was easing out of it, but I hope he does get something sorted - whether he's "hands on" there, or not. He's not just the best mayor South Austin could have...I'd vote him world President if I had my way.

test said...

I think a little part of me just died. I used to live in the Texicalli (well, I ate their at least 3 times a week). I even had my picture on the wall above one of the booths. I moved away more than 10 yrs ago. But I can still taste those queso fries and "The Texicalli" sandwich. Even though I didn't like them then, I would love to try the pickled okra one last time.

I think I'm starting to tear-up.

Unknown said...

Danny Roy Young RIP

Anonymous said...

Oh crap! I had *NO* idea...

The Texicalli actually was the northward migration of Young's Pizza, in Kingsville, TX, where I first encountered Danny Young and his clan in the late 70s. The "Texicalli" was one of the menu items!

I was delighted when they arrived in Austin because I got to Austin about once a month, and Kingsville only once a year or so.

I left Texas in 1996, and only get in from time to time on business. I always made a point of stopping in at the Texicalli if I was in Austin, or in Houston and had enough time for a drive up.

I hadn't been down thataway in years, and I picked up a copy of Rick Riordan's "Big Red Tequila" in an airport, which put me on to reading the rest of the Tres Navarre series, and damn me if there wasn't mention of the Texicalli as one of his hang-outs.

Which put on on a plane to Texas as soon as a could wrangle up a decent excuse.

Alas, Texicalli, your loss will be greatly lamented. Not quite as much as the loss of Leo Reyenosa's place in Houston, but deeply none the less.

Ex-pat Texican

Unknown said...

I am going to miss Texicalli and seeing Danny myself.I'm now up in Connecticut.I wish I had a little something to remember Texicalli with

Unknown said...

In 2004 I came to Austin,Tx.I tried Texicalli Grill,for the 1st time.And I really enjoyed myself.Despite Danny coming over to my table to say hello.But I will miss Texicalli that was a great restaurant.I hope they find a new location for it.

Anonymous said...

Glad to have known him, miss thet texacali steak and jalapeños, cheese and waffle fries. The sauce was the best i believe, wish i had access to some.

Anonymous said...

I came across a texacalli grille shirt from the 90s and just reading up on all this got me devastated about it shutting down and the owner passing… wish I got to enjoy it I was just too young and my family always cooked at home.

Melross said...

My family lived in walking distance from the Lamar location. We absolutely loved going to the Texicalli. My sons, ages 5 and 6 at the time, would get super excited on the way there. If you remember a couple of boys bouncing off the ceiling, running up and down the stairs, and experiencing the joy that was the Texicalli, it may have been my kids. Or a whole lot of peoples' kids. We were all in it together.