Rediscovering the Timeless Charm of Elizabeth Street Café — a Decade Later
South Austin's French-Vietnamese café and bakery still shines
It’d been a while since I’d been to Elizabeth Street Café. A decade, at least.
Not that I’d been avoiding it. But I’d been chasing so many other shiny new restaurants these past 10 years.
So when one of my colleagues suggested I return, I jumped at the chance.
Asian or French?
It was February 2012 since I’d last set foot in Elizabeth Street. Back then, the new French-Vietnamese restaurant was just a few months old and was the talk of the town.
Two young upstart chef-restaurateurs named Larry McGuire and Tom Moorman had just opened Lambert’s BBQ and Perla’s Seafood. Elizabeth Street was their newest creation. (They now have over 20 restaurants in their MML Hospitality empire, including an Elizabeth Street in New Orleans.)
Austin foodies had never seen anything like it. Was the cuisine Asian or French? Was the quirky décor tasteful or tacky? Was it okay to put brisket in phở and not just a taco?
People weren’t quite sure what to make of it, but they knew they liked it. Very much.
Elizabeth Street was one of the first new restaurants to set up shop on this neglected stretch of South First Street back then. A few other fledgling eateries popped up, like El Chile Cafe y Cantina, Sway, J. Mueller BBQ and Izzoz Tacos.
They’re all gone now. Not many restaurants survived in this now-trendy area over the years.
But Elizabeth Street is still standing. And that says a lot.
Ten Years Later
When I returned to Elizabeth Street after my long absence, it looked very much the same. The converted Bouldin Creek bungalow was as enchanting and whimsical as I remembered.
Inspired by the vibrant French colonial cafes of Hanoi, it’s an explosion of color. It greets you with its bubble gum pink front door, turquoise shutters, teal banquettes and cobalt blue bar.
French bistro chairs, vintage café lighting and checkerboard floors coexist with Vietnamese artwork and floral teahouse wallpaper.
Walls of windows flood the cozy dining room with natural light and live greenery brings the outdoors in.
It’s an eclectic space that was Instagram-worthy back when Instagram barely existed.
Colonial — Not Culinary — Fusion
French-Vietnamese food isn’t trendy culinary fusion. It’s cuisine with deep historical roots stemming from France’s century-long rule of Vietnam.
Want a butter croissant and a steaming bowl of phở? No problem.
How about some Singapore noodles followed by a chocolate éclair? Why not?
They’ve been doing it for years over there.
Going Deep on Elizabeth Street
Elizabeth Street offers all the traditional dishes with an updated, elevated twist.
There are classics like spring rolls, phở noodle soup, bún noodle bowls and báhn mî sandwiches.
But there are also some surprises, especially with appetizers like escargot broiled in Thai basil curry butter, served with a warm house-baked baguette for dunking.
Don’t forget the outstanding carpaccio, made with shaved Texas Akaushi beef and sprinkled with seared shishito peppers, marinated mushrooms and lemon soy.
There’s also the tender steamed rice rolls stuffed with Gulf shrimp, drizzled with coconut vinegar ponzu sauce and scattered with chopped fresh herbs and crunchy puffed rice.
A simple but sublime wonton soup, seasoned with just a hint of delicate Vietnamese spice, hits the spot, too.
For entrees, the savory bánh xèo crepe is a standout. Shrimp and twice-cooked pork are tucked inside an enormous thin and crispy crepe, served with bean sprouts, herbs, lettuces and nuoc cham dipping sauce.
For dessert, the in-house bakery turns out exquisite French sweets like ethereal tropical-flavored macarons, plus cakes, éclairs and chocolate mousse.
Creatively Spinning the Classics
Some of my favorite items on the menu are the magnificent cocktails, like the Da Nang margarita punched up with sambal and a sriracha salt rim, and the Automne Night, a gorgeous concoction of blanco tequila, Pernod, blood orange, lime and ginger.
Back in my 2012 review, I wrote that weekend brunch was my favorite meal at Elizabeth Street Cafe — and it still is. The fresh croissants, baguettes and jams are as good as I remembered.
There’s also creative breakfast spins on daytime entrees, like báhn mî sandwiches filled with scrambled eggs and ginger pork sausage or fried eggs, pork belly, avocado and mint.
Phở noodle soup, Singapore noodles and sticky rice are all offered with a breakfast-y poached egg on top.
A cup of Vietnamese chicory coffee is the perfect way to wash down any of these delicious morning treats.
After a decade, I was happy to find that not much had changed at Elizabeth Street. Austin’s dining scene, however, has changed significantly. It now hosts a slew of new Vietnamese options — many with more authentic Vietnamese fare.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find it served in a more stylish, festive atmosphere. It’s a formula that works: good food and a good time.
Perhaps that’s the secret to Elizabeth Street’s longevity. I hope I don’t have to wait another 10 years to return.