Salt Traders Coastal Cooking borrows from winning playbook

Looking to open a restaurant in the Austin area? You’d be wise to take tips from longtime Austin chef and restaurateur Jack Gilmore. The casual diner may know the chef with the wild tangle of long curls better by his first and middle names — Jack Allen.

The Texas native has crafted a winning formula with three massively popular locations of his Jack Allen’s Kitchen: Find second-generation restaurant spaces with manageable rents away on the edges of town, where there is a dearth of good locally owned restaurants. Create an affordable menu with populist appeal along with enough refined dishes and a local sourcing ethos to please the finicky and conscientious diner. Staff the restaurants with well-trained, happy faces. Execute. Watch the crowds roll in.

Of course, if it was so easy, everyone would be doing it.

Gilmore spent 20 years helming the once-trendy Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill as that group’s corporate chef before he and fellow Z’Tejas alumnus Tom Kamm opened the first Jack Allen’s Kitchen in Oak Hill in 2009. The restaurant blended Gilmore’s Southwestern flair with down-home Southern comfort while championing local purveyors. It was a farm-to-table play writ large, and sometimes deep fried, proving that local sourcing didn’t have to be precious.

The two men didn’t have to look far when they decided to develop their second concept. They commandeered the former Mesa Rosa restaurant space off the Interstate 35 feeder road, just a few parking lots away from the Round Rock location of Jack Allen’s Kitchen, and transformed it into Salt Traders Coastal Cooking.

Under the direction of Jack Allen’s Kitchen and Z’Tejas veteran chef Chris Ten Eyck, Salt Traders pulls primarily from the Gulf of Mexico and East Coast, along with a few dishes from the waters of Central America (wild-caught grouper from Costa Rica) and Japan (hamachi), while staying local for most produce and legged proteins.

The space, all blues and browns echoing the sky, sea, sand and shells of the coast, reads nautical without banging you over the head with an oversized fishing net or draping your neck in seaweed. Where they could have gone loud, in kitschy and condescending fashion, Salt Traders went subtle. They know it’s a seafood restaurant, you know it’s a seafood restaurant, let’s eat.

Gilmore, who can often be seen touching tables at the locations of his restaurants and working the busy bar crowd in Oak Hill, always seems to have respect for his diners and his food. He trades in the familiar but doesn’t just throw a bunch of fried fish, crispy calamari and dry tilapia tacos on the menu and call it a day, knowing that his restaurants could get by on less.

It’s easy to look past a fried fish sandwich on a lunch menu if you’re expecting a hard-caked oily mess with lifeless fish on a limp bun, but our server was right to recommend the one at Salt Traders. The huge hunk of plump black drum ($14) was fried to a clean finish, brightened with the crunch of fennel slaw and served on a springy butter roll. The thin, crispy, hand-sliced kettle chips and bread-and-butter pickles on the plate were made in-house and served as simple but solid indicators of what separates Salt Traders from chain seafood restaurants. And, you’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant so prime for franchising that has a pastry chef come in to create a silky coconut mousse dessert slashed with strawberry coulis and flagged by a delicate coconut tuile ($8).

You also notice the differentiation between Salt Traders and Generic Seafood Grille in a cup of chowder ($6) studded with clams and fragrant with an abundance of leeks, and a voluptuous ceviche of tuna, salmon and grouper sweetened with mango pico ($10). Even the fried snapper collar ($5), a snack that can put up a stingy and unrewarding fight, yielded ample soft meat. But just because a dish is scratch-made doesn’t necessarily make it a winner, as evidenced by some gumbo that lacked depth.

That procession of dishes, along with rich blackened black drum enchiladas ($14) piqued with harrisa cream for an African update on Gilmore’s Southwestern playbook, and a fork-tender tuna steak slicked with a tangy miso glaze ($24), made for a fantastic lunch, especially when paired with a Rum Runner ($8). The draft cocktail tastes like you juiced the contents of the Chiquita Banana lady’s hat and blended it with three types of rum and some apricot brandy. It’s the thing you drink three of on the beach just a few hours before waking up with the worst sunburn of your life. The less reckless might opt for a glass of the less sweet but still lively Albarino from Ramon Bilbao ($8) from the serviceable list that not surprisingly skews toward white wines.

With all its languid grace, tight execution and pleasant surprises, lunch stood in sharp relief to a dinner that felt the heat of the holiday rush. Being the popular kid can have its drawbacks, and when you’re one of the few strong options in your neck of the woods, that often means overwhelming crowds. On a night in late December, it seemed every Round Rock office holiday party, family dinner and birthday had descended on Salt Traders at once.

The restaurant offers a daily trio of fish for the grill ($24), and while the redfish carried a crispy, well-seasoned skin atop its supple meat, the accompanying broccolini was soggy and the sundried tomato rice unevenly cooked to a finish both soft and gritty.

The seared scallops ($23), served atop a sloppy whipped cauliflower, needed more of the salt advertised in the restaurant’s name, and the dish’s soggy sentinels of asparagus had fallen down on the job.

They were the kind of missteps that betrayed a kitchen crushed by the weight of a packed, large dining room. They are also ones I don’t expect to repeat themselves often at a restaurant steered by veterans who have not forsaken taste while still playing to the masses.

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