Ranch 616 and The Rattle Inn spotlight Austin’s unique flavor / By Russell Pawlowski
As an Austin resident, you very quickly learn that few cities in America have such a cool factor and year-round appeal. Whether it is a blessing or a curse, friends always want to visit, and we oftentimes have the joy of having our couch or spare bedroom occupied. They come to Austin in droves looking for what makes our town unique. Growing up in the Midwest, I was sure that everyone still rode around on horses down here and the streets were filled with Grammy Award-winning musicians rivaled only by some other place in Tennessee.
When my fellow foodie brother flew into town last year for South By Southwest, we gorged on enough barbecue that I was pretty sure the ring around the collars of my white dress shirts was actually barbecue sauce seeping through my skin. I was still fairly new to the city and I didn’t know of a restaurant that truly nailed the diversity and cache of Austin.
Enter Ranch 616.
Austinites are known for being able to keep a secret, and perhaps I am breaking some time-honored code by divulging the culinary magnificence of Ranch 616, but in the spirit of honoring places that truly go above and beyond, here goes, guys. (If you show up at my doorstep with pitchforks and baseball bats, I’ll invite you in for a beer and we can hug it out.)
Put simply, if you were able to metaphorically take everything that makes Austin unique and cool, threw it in a giant blender, chopped it up (real Texans never “puree”), then drizzled that sauce on a perfectly cooked piece of Texas beef, you would have Ranch 616. Follow me here, people. Tucked in to the corner at 616 Nueces, Ranch 616 makes no qualms that it is uniquely Texas; better yet, uniquely Austin, TX. The décor is a mix of taxidermy and thank-you notes from local and national celebrities. The chandeliers and the chairs are mismatched and no one really cares. Inside is warm and inviting, and you can’t help but feel comfortable and relaxed the second you open the door.
I was greeted at the door by Lila Stowell, a longtime Ranch 616 employee, who showed me to a comfortable corner booth. I looked around and smiled at the diversity of its patrons—suits to T-shirts, Manolos to cowboy boots and flip-flops— everyone was smiling and adding to the pleasant roar around me.
My perfect meal: Admittedly, this is quite a bit of food, buy hey, this is why I have a gym membership and I never intend on wearing yoga pants, so give it a shot and live a little, guys. Caldo de pollo, a hearty chicken soup; mixed grill featuring sugar-cured grilled quail, chipotle honey-glazed lamb chops and chili-lime prawns; Texas center-cut beef tenderloin topped with house demi-glaze and Tasmanian crab; and goat cheese mashed potatoes.
I have always heard that chicken noodle soup was called “Jewish penicillin” and was a steadfast cure for the common cold. If that was the case, then the caldo de pollo at Ranch 616 could cure the plague. This is a hearty stew of chicken, green and yellow squash, carrots, corn and potatoes with a splash of lime. Hey Campbell’s, you just had your ass kicked.
The mixed grill can be ordered as an entrée or as an appetizer, but, as we discussed in the last issue of ATX Man (were you paying attention?), meals should be shared, and I can’t think of a better dish to break you from your selfish habits. The highlight of this dish is the lollipop-esque lamb chops that were so tender and delicious, I managed to quickly devour them as my date turned away. She’s long gone, but I can assure you, fellas, I will be back for the lamb sans date. The chops are that good.
Austin is a city filled with steakhouses, good ones, as a matter of fact, so I was a bit skeptical when I saw the beef tenderloin and Tasmanian crab dish. How would a boutique restaurant take on the local steadfast houses of beef? I have to say, order this dish and find out. Something miraculous happens when you taste the sweetness of the Tasmanian crab and pair it with the savory blend of the tenderloin. I pulled owner Kevin Williamson aside to comment on just how flavorful the tenderloin was, and inquired as to where they source the beef used in this dish. He stated that nearly everything used in the kitchen is sourced locally, with a focus on quality and freshness. Normally, I shrug off the pre-canned locavore answer, but from the first buttery taste of this dish, you know that Chef Tony Vidal takes pride in each ingredient. Admittedly, the quality of beef and overall flavor profile of this dish now make this entrée perhaps my favorite in Austin. I’m full. I’m happy. I don’t want to go home yet.
So now that you’ve treated your friends to the perfect unique, gourmet Texas meal, what are you going to do? Well, historically if you fit the educated 25-to-40-year-old demographic, you would waltz down to West Sixth Street and jump in to the over-sexed shark tank of a bar scene and pack into a generic bar that could easily be in Chicago, Dallas or Minneapolis, for that matter. Chances are, you’ll have a cosmo spilled on you by a drunken administrative assistant who is using Jaeger shots to work out why her boyfriend dumped her, and you’ll ponder what would possess the group of guys standing next to you to collectively have their eyebrows waxed.
Whatever happened to the simple idea that you could saddle up and enjoy a glass of whiskey without having to worry about catching a stray faux-hawk to the face, or worrying about mastering the front tuck of your dress shirt to show off your cheesy designer belt?
Kevin Williamson, Matt Luckie and Ray Benson had to have been thinking the exact same thing when they created the Rattle Inn, conveniently located next door to Ranch 616. Put simply, the Rattle Inn resembles a quality honky tonk that you might find in a single-stoplight West Texas town, the kind that a true cowboy could appreciate. The bar and vibe are really nothing like anything else in the West Sixth area, and I believe we have the pedigree of Ray Benson (lead singer of Asleep at the Wheel) to thank for this. The décor? Comfortable leather booths, every dead animal you could think of and a patio where you can kick up your boots and smoke a cigar on a cool Austin evening.
Remember Clint Eastwood’s character William Munny in the movie Unforgiven? Walking into the Rattle Inn, you can’t help but feel like you stumbled upon his personal man cave. Add an intimate stage for live music and some stiff drinks, and even Dirty Harry would feel at home.
Insider scoop: Take a gander in to the men’s bathroom and look up at the ceiling. Best. Artwork. Ever. Apparently, the building sat vacant for many years while the perfect design was being developed. After attending the grand opening and seeing how well the Western-style theme was received, I can say that the Rattle Inn is a phoenix rising from the flame. But that bird would only get a few feet in the air before it was shot, stuffed and tacked on the wall of the bar. This place has a stuffed honey badger, for god’s sake. It doesn’t get any more badass than that. This bar is pure Texas testosterone and there should never be any apology for that.
The combination of these two places really marks the perfect place to take friends and family for a uniquely Austin, TX, experience. Thank you for bringing the Wild West back to West Sixth, gentlemen.