Karen’s Pick: Pitchfork Pretty
A unique take on fried chicken, a tasty beef jerky snack, and the most delicious pickled quail egg there ever was – book a table at this gem of a restaurant in East Austin
by Karen Spezia
Photographs by Leah Muse
Of all the things I’ve tasted lately, my favorite was at Pitchfork Pretty. Its delight was unexpected, since I’d wryly viewed it as a gastronomical gimmick: a pickled quail egg perched atop a “nest” of crispy leeks. Cute, right? But oh my, it was good! That first morsel quickly dashed my skepticism. What I’d dismissively assumed was just another hipster, East Side, farm-to-table, reclaimed-wood, blah, blah, blah restaurant proved to be something much more. Pitchfork Pretty had my full attention.
Who’s behind this new charmer? No one I’d ever heard of, perhaps because the key players came from elsewhere: owner Seth Baas from San Diego, executive chef Max Snyder from San Francisco, and beverage director Ryan Nolan from Chicago. Only general manager Alexander Dubey had done recent time in Austin. But now they’re all here, and they’re all on my radar.
If Baas is on the floor when you dine, you’re in for a treat. His genuine enthusiasm for his restaurant and its offerings is contagious, as he roams the room encouraging diners to sample his favorite new dishes or beloved mainstays. That’s how I tried the magical quail egg: I resisted, but Baas insisted. This clever dish isn’t listed as an appetizer or entrée but instead is under “snacks,” intended as a wee amuse-bouche to prime the appetite. A tender pickled egg rests atop a small bed of crunchy shredded leeks dusted with spices. Gobbled down in one bite, the silky egg melds with the crispy leeks for a sensory sensation. After just one, I was hailing my server to bring another. Undoubtedly, this will become a signature dish.
The rest of the menu is just as full of delights and surprises. Described as “Hill Country-inspired,” the food is modern yet deeply rooted in comfort food. The beef jerky is another amusing “snack.” Instead of tough, chewy strips, this jerky consists of medallions of moist and tender beef crowned with crushed peanuts and habanero jelly. The delicious buckwheat cornbread also upends tradition; rather than the familiar yellow grainy version, Pitchfork’s is dark brown and crunchy, its rustic appearance offset by an elegant disc of honey-miso butter adorned with fresh herbs, spices, and edible flowers. It’s a delight to behold — and eat.
The fried chicken is unlike any other in town. Brined in habanero vinegar, the moist meat has an undeniable tang. Family-style grilled meats like sausage, ribs, and the very popular beef tongue are served barbecue-style with a side of white bread, pickles, onions, and sauce. More-nuanced dishes include potato gnocchi with leek fondue and broiled flounder with bone marrow, sauerkraut, and potato. For dessert, there’s lemon ice box pie and a towering coconut crepe cake.
Open for breakfast — but not lunch — Pitchfork Pretty is a serene place to start your day with delicious sandwiches like The Pitchfork, a soft potato roll stuffed with scrambled eggs, melted provolone, ham, potatoes, and spicy sambal sauce, or The Pretty, a homemade everything bagel slathered with pimento cheese, sprouts, slivered onions, and pickles. Classic options include muffins, scones, and cereal.
Without overwhelming, the drink list has something for everyone. We enjoyed a seasonal cocktail brimming with wintery spices and an interesting glass of Sonoma Chardonnay and Italian Nebbiolo. There’s also a nice beer list, rife with local brews. The rustic A-frame building is as inviting as the staff and cuisine. Lantern chandeliers dangle from the vaulted ceiling, illuminating the open kitchen, long bar, dining room, semicircular booths, communal table, and small patio.
Full of charm and creativity, Pitchfork Pretty is still a young restaurant trying to find its way. Not all the dishes succeeded, and service was sometimes spotty, albeit cheerful. But its premise is simple: Make good food, hire nice people, create a pleasant space. I liked being there, and obviously, I’m not the only one. Most nights, it’s packed with one of the most eclectic crowds to be found in our famously eclectic city. Pitchfork Pretty, it seems, is always full of surprises.