A few miles north of Thomas Avenue, the management crew that is doing wonders with the Thomas Avenue Brewing Company is tending to another of the neighborhood's needs. The Green Elephant is a college hangout--this is where the Thomas Avenue bunch might have hung out while they were still going to Southern Methodist University learning how to be yuppies. But, strangely (for a place catering to a college whose logo is a pony that most of its students probably think was designed by Ralph Lauren), the Elephant is flashing back to another generation's college culture.
At the height of Austin's counterculture, there was an upstairs ice-cream parlor on the Drag called Nothing Strikes Back, the coolest place to be on a summer day. As you climbed the stairs, the light grew dimmer and darker, and it wasn't until you'd been in the place a few minutes that you could see that everything glowed with a cozy radioactive radiance--the walls, your T-shirt, your ice cream.
As you enter the Green Elephant there's a wall on the right that could have been stripped from Nothing Strikes Back and preserved for posterity. Then you hear the White Album on the jukebox and you wonder if the flashback you've been hoping for is finally here.
Except for the anachronistic decoration--tie-dyed curtains and psychedelic posters--the Green Elephant looks like a warm, woody pub on the inside, with lots of faux paned windows facing a parking lot.
I and my companion, both moms in our mid-'40s, started noticing clues that we didn't fit the Elephant's envisioned demographics.
It was a Monday night, for one thing, a time when college kids are still recovering from the weekend and adjusting to the reality of the classroom; a night when moms are rejoicing that the kids are back in the classroom. It was early, too, not for homebodies, but for habitues of bars and pubs in this country. So we settled in, out of place, and proceeded to offer our server advice on how to get rid of her hiccups, then enjoyed our drinks while we solved someone else's marital problems (lack of interest in our own relationships being just another sign of our maturity, or over-the-hillness, depending on your perspective).
Nobody my age eats food like this anymore: a plate of cheese fries and a couple of margaritas sounded like dinner for days to us. The potato strips were fried to crisp gold, then beaten back into limpness by a heavy deluge of melted cheese--cheddar and Monterey Jack--dripping and oozing down and around the piled potatoes, congealing with them into a solid conglomerate that had to be pried apart with greasy fingertips as the drinks got lower. Bright-green scallions and bits of bacon, fried but still wobbly, were showered over this mountain. It was a gross dish; it was great; it makes me sick to think about eating it; we ate it. It was the best thing of its kind that I've eaten and I hope never to eat another.
All together, the bipolar menu seemed to range, its philosophy see-sawing between bacon and healthful alfalfa sprouts. It was all pretty good, though, and we found that the sandwiches offered some compromise: The BLTC--I could figure out those initials--came on thick Texas toast slathered with mayonnaise, and despite the cheese and bacon, was the kind of savory layering that could appeal at 11 in the morning or 12 hours later. The grilled-vegetable sandwich, with zucchini, onion, and avocado piled between the slices of a so-so baguette, could have used something else. Simply more seasoning could have done it, or some garlic, or basil--anything to punch up the flavor.
The really remarkable thing about the sandwiches, though, is the potato chips that come with them, "made by angels," said my companion, who tends to get poetic about fried food. A long potato cut lengthwise into sheer slices, which had waved and curled in the hot fat so they lightly lay like feathers on the plate, these potato chips were still glistening with hot oil and they were ravishingly rich, still conceptually and recognizably chips, but just barely the same species as the things that come vaccuum-packed.
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I saw a list of specials on the blackboard as I left, but our server was too distracted--whether by the lingering effects of her weekend or by her hiccups, I couldn't say--to mention them. That's OK: We'll save any further questions for another Monday-night flashback.
--Mary Brown Malouf
Green Elephant, 5612 Yale, 750-6625. Open Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-midnight; Sunday, 6 p.m.-midnight. (Bar open daily till 2 a.m.)
New Orleans Cheese Fries $4.75
Grilled Veggie Sandwich $6.25