The Hightower makes some noise in East Austin with big flavors and convivial environment

2:30 p.m Thursday, April 10, 2014 Austin360 Eats

One of Chad Dolezal’s favorite meals growing up was a fried egg sandwich made by his friend’s dad. It combined bacon, Sriracha and avocado between slices of toasted bread. The memory of it lingers, and the chef buzzes with youthful exuberance when he talks about it.

After recreating the sandwich at home for years, Dolezal reimagined the dish at the Hightower, the East Austin restaurant that he and partner GM Victor Farnsworth opened in January.

The bread is gone, replaced by a dark ceramic bowl with a bed of fluffy white rice. Tender roasted pork jowl with crispy edges and mellowed fat lined the dish laced with shaved cucumbers, pickled shallots and feathered avocado slices. A jiggling glow of egg yolk sat atop, zagged with a sunburned streak of homemade Sriracha.

I burst the yolk with my fork, allowing its iron flush to weave through the rice, and stirred all of the ingredients into a maelstrom of flavors and textures — fat, acid, salt and crunch coming in almost every bite.

The $14 dish is my favorite at the restaurant, and it’s indicative of what seems to be Dolezal’s mission – delivering bold flavors at modest prices. The approach is different in scale and form from his last Austin restaurant gig.

Dolezal and Farnsworth previously worked together at the elegant upscale Argentinian steakhouse El Arbol (now home to Olive & June), the Hightower’s cultural and architectural antithesis.

If the impressive, multi-tiered white building of El Arbol resembled the palatial estate of a South American military leader, the scruffy stone-walled Hightower is the VFW hall for the war on encroaching pretension in East Austin.

That aggressive lack of pretense means stripped floors, no hostess, flimsy paper napkins, and grey and black walls unadorned except for the optimistic melancholy of the Shel Silverstein-meets-Tim Burton artwork of Austin artist Graham Franciose.

But the austere aesthetic allows the Hightower to make their prices approachable. Steak with fries is a solid value at $17, especially coming from a chef with steakhouse-honed grill skills. There have been a few iterations of steak and fries at the Hightower, and I admit the description and presentation on a recent visit had me leery.

A thick cheddar cheese sauce draped the fries and sliced hunks of flank steak that sat in an avocado puree dotted by cotija cheese. This wasn’t steak frites; this was nacho steak, as my friends coined it. The working man’s answer to the landed man’s 32-ounce ribeye. Protein for the proletariat.

It got me with the first bite. A modest char encompassed the lush ruby-centered steak, and the golden hand-cut potatoes kept their crunch. The avocado brought lighter notes to the heavy dish, and though the cheese coagulated, a busy fork alleviated that problem. (The dish has since eliminated the cheese and introduced Argentina’s beloved chimichurri.)

The seasoning and cheese were more successful with the steak than a plate of over-salted carnitas served in cheese soup ($12.50), although I liked the ingenuity of using Austin Beerworks’ Black Thunder in the soup to give the cheese rounded malty sweetness.

Hightower serves a couple of Austin Beerworks brews on draft, with a couple dozen beers in cans and bottles. I’ve had mixed results with cocktails from the restaurant’s centerpiece wooden bar made with doors salvaged from Habitat for Humanity, with the low point coming from an out-of-whack Manhattan that leaned heavily on vermouth.

GQ food writer Alan Richman recently penned an article decrying the surge of “egotarian” cuisine – a trend of chefs cooking for themselves and not their customers. Dolezal doesn’t succumb to that alleged sin. He does make food that has personal meaning for him – there’s a good Southern California story behind that nacho steak – but it still resonates with everyday diners.

We’ve all craved breakfast food at night, and a humble bowl of boudin hash ($10) with a slow-cooked egg fits that bill nicely. The salty dish is another fork-stirrer, but not all of Dolezal’s food has that roll-up-your-sleeves mentality.

Smoked tofu ($11.50) was more beauty than brawn, and after several heavy dishes it was revelatory to see the kitchen put out a dish that required such finesse. The crispy tofu rectangles packed an impressive amount of hickory smoke flavor, but the vegetables were the true stunners. The roast on the cauliflower coaxed sweetness from the multi-colored vegetables, with bits of charred orange and a citrusy edamame puree lending their pop in the artfully composed dish. Dehydrated olive paper and bitter greens balanced the sweetness.

An appetizer of mahi mahi ceviche ($9) also proved the chef’s ability to layer flavors, with the licorice cool of fennel mojo brightened by orange and green apple. Popcorn crumble and scallion ash provided a smoky baseline to temper the dish’s acidic components.

When I want to adjust a dish, I first consider adding acid and salt, but acid often runs wild in some of the Hightower’s overwrought appetizers. Roasted Brussels sprouts ($5) pumped up the sweet-tart symphony to an overwhelming cacophony with raisins, sambal, lemon and homemade peanut butter. And the limp, blistered green beans ($6.50) overwhelmed with a vinegary assault from electrified honey mustard.

The loud dishes represent Dolezal’s commitment to delivering big flavor at medium-size prices. They’re also a culinary corollary to the lively space that gets intensely noisy when crowded. Sometimes I wish I could tone down both the food and the crowd, but the Hightower ain’t no dictatorship. It’s a neighborhood joint that lets the people, and the chef, set the tone.

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