By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Maybe it's no coincidence that Central Market's serpentine maze empties into a delta of counters stocked with chef-prepared food, sandwiches and Paciugo Gelato ice cream. After all, this is the realm where margins are fattened. But will it fatten consumers, too?
This Mecca of convenience dining is called Café on the Run, and it doesn't hurt a bit that it's preceded by a ruthlessly swell wine arena stocked with some 2,500 labels. (One wall is a chiller with more than 300 different beers, and it's fun to watch the brew geeks chat over which bottles they've guzzled and which are still mysteries.) The wine section covers virtually every region, with ample rack space devoted to such often-neglected regions as South Africa, Germany, Alsace, New Zealand and Portugal. It also has special sections devoted to Texas and kosher wines. Bottles are stocked in simple low-rise black wire racks, so you can easily gaze across the whole field. It's amazing how less intimidating wine becomes when you're not hemmed in by wine stocks, staring at labels at eye level and above. Simple signage in the section includes maps so you can see a representation of the earth you are drinking.
And there's plenty to wash down with all this juice: everything from bacon and blue-cheese potato salad to spiced ahi tuna. The amazing thing about this food is how well it withstands a microwave assault. Pork chop with cornbread stuffing didn't suffer at all from reheating. Seasoned with bay leaves, thyme, sage and parsley and an apple demi glace, the pork was lush in hearty fall flavors, though the meat was a little dry.
Strangely, it was the chilled tomatoes and mozzarella with capers in an olive oil and lemon juice dressing that suffered from being chewy. The tomato chunks were riddled with delicious rich flavor, but they were tough and rubbery.
Tasty herb risotto cakes with rice, wine, Parmesan cheese and onions were crisp on the outside, with creamy inner recesses that never descended into gooey, curdled mush, even after a shower of nuke juice.
But grilled flank steak in citrus glaze slipped into the dreaded rubbery form, and this was a great surprise because the meat had extraordinary visuals: succulently plush, rosy tones and good clean grain structure accompanied by charcoal grill stripes. But the meat was leathery, near impossible to chew, though the citrus glaze, a blend of soy, wine, orange juice, onions and Worcestershire sauce, was savory and nimble.
Twice-baked potato was pretty much your standard stout spud. It was creamy. It was topped with a drippy layer of cheddar that looked as if it were squirted from a cake-decorating gun. Bacon bits were imbedded in the mash depths. There was nothing special about it. It held its own, but it had a certain deviled-egg-on-the-Luby's-line demeanor to it.
Wild mushroom and goat cheese quesadillas were girded in fluffy, soft tortillas jammed with button, cremini and portobello mushrooms and cheese (a jack/goat combo). They were topped with a zesty salsa made with sun-dried tomatoes, and each bit had an enticing spice prick.
The best of this clear plastic clamshell cuisine was the almond-crusted trout. The fish was moist and delicate, yet firm and sweet. And it was draped in a dispersion of almond slices, breadcrumbs and flour seasoned with mustard that had a delicate crispness.
Not bad for a meal on the run, though it's not advisable to run in this place. You might collide with a foodie bearing salsa reinforcements.