Caruso's was an Italian restaurant at the location where Sardine Rouge is now. Somehow this relaxed little shirtsleeve businessfolk and college crowd place has become a refined restaurant. (Demi-Epicurious.)
What a thrill it was for a college kid like me to go to Caruso's with my buds and get a one of their huge schooners of beer. Of course, you had to be 21 to do that, so there were several years in there when I had to watch longingly while my pal who looked 21 got his and I had none. (I never had the larcenous streak or the gumption to put together a fake ID. ) Caruso's wasn't there for any seeing or being seen scene--the food was all that was important. Huge Italian dishes covered with cheese. Shrimp and pasta and fish and meat and bread for sopping. Linda and I go out to eat a lot now and I'm sure that with our "refined" tastes we would look on Caruso's food as somewhat pedestrian and heavy, which is sad in a way. We love the restaurants we frequent, but there was something just so elemental and relaxing about this place. As I remember, they lost their lease around 1972 or so and moved down the street to where Katz's is now; but somehow, it lost its charm at that point and it went away soon thereafter.
A UT professor named Thomas Whitbread, who taught a Shakespeare course I took, ran into us at Granite Cafe (also gone now) in 1998. He actually wrote a poem about Caruso's that was published in a collection of his work. (As I remember, it was called, "Why I Love Caruso's.") When we saw him this year, he reminisced with me about it and talked about how he and another favorite professor of mine used to go down there and get those huge mugs of beer. Man, if there's anyplace like that around now, I know not of it.
Watson Books/Sweetish Hill
The first few years we were married (that was in the mid-late 70's), Linda and I made many a Sunday morning excursion to Sweetish Hill Cafe/Bakery and its next-door neighbor, Watson Books. Now Cafe Josey is there. This was a real treat for us; I still remember their elegant eggs Florentine and Benedict with the just glutinous enough muffins and finely blended sauces. They also had a German sausage with apple-potato pancake dish that was scrumptious. We were both working at MRI Systems then and we were always grateful for the weekends--since Linda had to be on the road about three weeks a month and it always seemed like she had to catch a plane on Sunday afternoon. Not the greatest way to start a marriage, but we both managed to extricate ourselves from that less-than-satisfactory employment situation soon enough.
One of the best things about S. Hill was that it neighbored Watson & Co. Books. This symbiotic relationship was a predecessor of Whole Foods Crossroads- Bookstop/Central Market-Bookstop. When you got through eating at Sweetish Hill, you'd go next door to Watson and shop around. This was one of the few places in town where you could get the Sunday New York Times then. (Now, we get the Times thrown in our driveway every day of the week and think little of it.) It was a very prestigious thing to have your name stuck on a piece of paper in the stack. Showed that you were definitely a hip and cerebral sort, worthy of possible movement into the upper echelons of taste, intellectual snothood and decency in Austin.
One of my favorite people at Watson Books was a lovely raven-haired woman named Tara. Linda and I would always talk with her and she'd point out some cool new books to examine. Years later, I was reading an article in Texas Monthly about a schizophrenic woman who wanders the streets of Austin and her pretty, talented daughter and I suddenly realized that the daughter referred to in the article was Tara. We've seen each other in the ensuing years and now I have a whole different level of insight into Tara's life. (By the way, she has now written a book that is a Literary Guild selection. The subject is her mother's life and how it has affected her own existence. Truly a marvelous read, one I couldn't put down. It's called "My Mother's Keeper" by Tara Elgin Holley.)
As for Sweetish Hill, it moved and is now a well-received bakery that serves great pastries, a half block or so away from the old location. Watson Books, like most small bookstores, bit the dust when the Big & Notables of the world took the book market for their own fiefdom. Time marches on, huh.
El Rancho Downtown
Take a look at the Four Seasons and you'll see where the once-famed El Rancho used to be. When Bob Dylan came to Austin, I remember that someone wrote in "The Austin Sun" that they took him to El Rancho because they wanted to show off the best Austin had to offer. Well, it was the place to see and be seen back in those days. You'd always run into a bunch of political types and pr wonks.
One memorable night, Linda and I sat next to Darrell Royal's table. He was with Jim Lampley, the ABC announcer. Lampley was talking TV stuff and I remember him stating rather grandly that he had done an interview in Hawaii with his shirt off. Another guy, who seemed to be a UT sort with DKR, said that the best fights he ever saw were the ones with Carmen Basilio and Sugar Ray Robinson. And good grief--those margaritas they had in there. They were as big as the Caruso's beer schooners. Whew! One night I put a whole one away and Linda had to drive. Probably the most messed up I've been in the marriage; I was numb. But back to the food--you could get Shrimp Embueltos for about $4.95. Shrimp in a soft egg batter with a sour creamy-tomato based sauce. Mmmmm. Truly wonderful. And the Shrimp Mexicana was pretty powerful, too. The chile relleno was a mass of melted cheese, raisins and pecans. One time this pretentious jerk of a woman I knew (and unfortunately had to work for -- she was the reason I started a business, but that's another story) went to The Ranch. Monday after that, she told me that she had ordered the "El Rancho saLAHD." Heck, they never served saLAHD there. "Salad," sure--but "SaLAHD"? Naaaaa, no way. This was old Austin, after all. This was the same woman who crowed to me that she was getting garage door openers on BOTH her doors. BOTH!!! BOTH!!!!! (As if to say, you'll never have such wonders on your garage doors, you little squirt.) She wound up being murdered by her third husband, who, I would imagine, has no automatic opener on the door of his cell. If he does, I can't imagine that he gets to operate it.
Now I'm talking about the original. Out where First, Fifth and Seventh intersect. This was real Tex-Mexican food--especially the menudo. (Something I daresay you wouldn't find many places today.) One memorable winter day in the first January of our marriage, Linda and I ate there on a Sunday morning. (one of those famous Sundays where she had to get on a plane and head somewhere). After downing a bowl of Menudo, she felt like she was ready for anything. Unfortunately, she got stuck on the runway in DFW and by the time they let the passengers off the plane, she was approximately the color of a sheet in a Tide commercial. But I digress. Besides menudo, this place had serious atmosphere. I mean, this was the kind of place where little yupamongus wannabes like us at that point went to feel like we'd done someone authentic. I do remember that their flour tortillas were absolutely heaven. And the enchiladas were to die for. Huge chunks of onion. Meaty, burnt umber sauce. Good stuff.
Oh Lord, bring back the Stallion for just one lousy stinking day. I loved that place. A huge, gymnasium sized back room and a cozier front area. And the food--hamburgers that you needed three hands to wrap around. Onion rings from Mars--I'm talking nine inch diameters. Enchiladas with absolutely black sauce. Steaks that lapped over the side of the plate. French fries from heaven. I can't understand what happened here, since the place was always full as a tick. Maybe they just got tired of doing it. Or maybe the land got too valuable during the boom and they got forced off.
The Stallion with oysters and a lot cozier. The world's finest shuffleboard and a dandy waitstaff of good old girls who were jolly as heck. Some of my happiest times were spent here with Linda after we went to the Met Club and worked out. Somehow, we felt that there was a cosmic balance in the works here.