Austin Cantina – Local foods with friendly service

I’ve written about Austin Cantina before. They are a little Ballard establishment where the food is good and the service is always even better. One of the reasons I enjoy going there, is that I can be assured of getting grass fed beef and local, organic pork in a lot of their dishes. I recently asked the owner, Jefe, to tell me a little bit about his restaurant and why he makes the choice to use local ingredients.

MB: Why did you decide to open a restaurant?

Jefe: Honestly, it has been a dream I’ve had since high school. I’ve worked in restaurants since high-school and always took for granted that one day I’d own one. I always knew it would be hard work, and lots of it. I always understood that the first year or two I’d likely make less than minimum wage for my effort. I also thought that having an MBA, as I do now, would help me manage the business side profitably, as having been through a professional chef-training program (California Culinary Academy) would help me manage the food side. Managing service seems to come sort of naturally to me.

MB: Why or how did you decide on the Austin theme?

Jefe: When we started looking at restaurants I had recently returned from a business trip to Spain and I was quite enamored with Spanish and Mediterranean food. My first menus focused on that. When I reviewed plans with my wife and family no-one thought that the food really resonated with my personality, with my cooking background. I lived in Austin in the 90’s and ran a catering company there, I have chile peppers tattooed on my arm, people who knew me told me I should be cooking that type of food. I love so much about the food and culture, the art and music of Texas that it seemed more natural to me than Mediterranean. It is a good reflection of much that I love about life. Hot climate, a history of sophisticated and innovative music, spicy food, outsider art, even the cinema scene in Austin (Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Matthew McConaughey, Mike Judge, etc…) seems to really speak to me.

MB: Can you talk a bit about the local ingredients you use? What farms do you frequent?

Jefe: My produce comes mostly from a local distributor, I don’t buy from the farms direct, but I do get a lot of my beef and pork from Thundering Hooves, a 4th generation family farm near Walla Walla. When my produce supplier has local ingredients available, I try to steer the menu in that direction, so I used local peaches for dessert, and I have rhubarb, white lavender and mint in my garden, which I’ve used in the desserts. I have also used Taylor Shellfish, but not all of the time. I am in a particular spot where I need certain pack sizes and the product needs to come in, in a particular condition to be useful to us, and Taylor has a GREAT product at a fair price, which just isn’t packaged the way we need it to be, so we can’t use it all the time.

MB: Why is it important to you to use local ingredients?

Jefe: I’m a big fan of Michael Pollan, and he’s far more articulate than I about this topic. For me it comes down to 2 basic reasons (though there are more, for sure)

A) I like to support the local economy. I’m a small business person and hope that people in the neighborhood would rather give money to me than to some big national chain. I prefer to give my money to small business people and to keep that money inside the local economy.

B) Using local products reduces the carbon footprint of the food we consume if it doesn’t need to be trucked (or flown, or whatever) from thousands of miles away. It is odd to me that I pay more for local chickens and pork than I would for a product from the Midwest, but I do understand the economics of scale, and feel better keeping my money in the Northwest and reducing the fuel usage getting the product to my guests tables. Despite the arguments of restaurant consultants I’ve worked with I do not sell bottled water. I just couldn’t justify the environmental impact of all the packaging and shipping when I can buy a water filter and deliver high quality, unpolluted local water.

MB: What is the one ingredient you wish you could find locally that you can’t?

Jefe: Can I pick 2? Avocados and Tomatillos. I do understand there may be local sources for tomatillos, but it also needs to fit my buying patterns, and I can’t have very many single product suppliers.

MB: Besides just getting people in the door, what is your biggest challenge with operating the restaurant?

Jefe: Again, can I pick 2? It isn’t so much “getting people in the door”, as it is being able to predict the week’s (or day’s) business patterns. If I knew how many people to expect for a night, or a week, I could do a MUCH better job scheduling staff and ordering/prepping food. If I over staff, or over order there is an expensive waste problem, if I come up short I don’t have product to sell (ran out of calamari last weekend) or the kitchen staff gets slammed and we can’t deliver the best quality of service. Number 2 is, I wish I could pay staff a lot more money. I’ve had some GREAT people work here, but also a lot of real waste-cases that just stop showing up for work, or leave without notice, or show up late. I know that paying staff more isn’t the only answer, but I have managed staff that made $50k/year and up, and they were far more reliable than many of the people I deal with in the $9 to $12 an hour range. Kitchen staffing in general has been a real challenge. I’ve been very fortunate with my dishwasher (Missy) who I absolutely love, and our server (Alyssa), both have been here since the first month of business, and are rock solid on reliability, dependability and performance.

MB: What do you enjoy most about the restaurant?

Jefe: Having a full house on a Friday night, listening to Willie Nelson or Lyle Lovett sing while people laugh and talk real loud, drinking margaritas and enjoying themselves. I’m really very much about creating a space where people want to come have a good time. That is one reason I enjoy this so much more than catering, I get to create a space that people come to, and then return with their friends. I love to share the art and music and food that I have worked hard to pull together. It is so satisfying for me to be able to nourish people’s stomach, and ears, and eyes, and soul. When we’re having a night like that, everything is right in my world! Now, if more Tues, Weds, and Thursdays could be like that, I could also make a living doing this.

MB: Austin Cantina blogs , and they have a website with their menu and photos.

Austin Cantina
5809 24th Ave. NW
Tue-Thur 5 pm – 10 pm
Fri-Sat 5:30 pm – 11 pm
Sun 5 pm – 9 pm
Weekend Brunch 10 am – 2 pm

2 Comments so far

  1. theworldisfun on October 7th, 2008 @ 3:04 pm

    I have to disagree with your stellar words about Austin Cantina. From my experience the service was beyond AWFUL and the food was medicocre. Maybe it was a bad night but it was bad enough that I wouldn’t go back again.

  2. Patricia Eddy (patriciaeddy) on October 7th, 2008 @ 3:10 pm

    Well, hopefully it was just an off night. I’ve always had great service there, though overall, they aren’t incredibly speedy, but that is the intent of the restaurant I believe. I’ve never had to wait long at all for a water, coffee, or other drink refil.

    I’ve had one mediocre meal there, but I know that was in part getting used to a new kitchen staff. Every other meal I’ve eaten there has been very good.

    To each his or her own though. I’ve been to other restaurants that others raved about that I simply didn’t care for.

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