Austin's, so says the menu, is "Tucson's Touchstone. Nothing else quite like it since 1959."
Wow. Them's some powerful words. I looked up "touchstone" in the dictionary to make sure this comment was as immodest as I thought it was. The first definition had to do with rocks, like basalt, so I went to the second definition, which is: "An excellent quality or example that is used to test the excellence or genuineness of others."
That's a pretty high standard--a standard that Austin's fails to meet. Don't get me wrong; despite a few problems, two recent dining experiences at Austin's were pleasant, and I'll go back. The ice cream's wonderful; the prices are cheap (although be warned that Austin's doesn't take credit or debit cards); some of the food was good; and the atmosphere, well, is stuck in 1959 mode, which is fun in some ways.
But is the restaurant Tucson's version of "an excellent quality or example that is used to test the excellence or genuineness of others," or anything close? No, it isn't.
I visited Austin's on a recent Thursday afternoon. I met Francis Wick, The Weekly's intern, for lunch. Parking was hard to come by at the small, aging shopping center, as were seats inside Austin's. It's a seat-yourself situation, and Francis and I had to stand around for 10 minutes before a booth in the large, nearly undecorated room opened up. The place does a heck of a business, for sure.
We walked across the ancient, yellowing linoleum and seated ourselves. The menus were already on the tables. Austin's offers what you'd expect at an ice cream parlor/restaurant--burgers, sandwiches, salads, hot dogs and even homemade chili and soup to go along with the ice cream, which is made at Austin's. No chain ice cream here!
I decided to order the jumbo dog feast ($4), which the menu touted as "a Juicy All-Beef jumbo hot dog" served with mustard, relish, onions and cheese. (You can get chili or sauerkraut for 75 cents extra, or horseradish for free.) I also ordered a cup of the chili ($2, $2.50 for a bowl). Francis decided on the hearty bacon cheeseburger ($5).
After our server, who seemed overwhelmed, took the order, Francis noted that a disproportionate amount of the clientele at Austin's was made up of senior citizens. I am not sure what this means; maybe the restaurant's simplicity draws them in. I have to give Austin's credit--the place truly is a throwback to a bygone era. There aren't many places left like Austin's, where the potato salad and ice cream is homemade, the décor is almost nonexistent and diner-esque, and cash or check are the only ways to pay.
Our meals came, and we dug in. Francis had only good things to say about the quality of his burger. He was impressed that the lettuce was fresh and that the beef was tasty and not dripping with grease. His only non-compliment was that the burger was "not huge." It was by no means small, either.
I was less thrilled with my hot dog. It arrived in shambles; the bun had been toasted, and the wiener--near a foot long--had already broken through the bun, slicing it nearly in two. Additionally, the dog was not juicy--it was bordering on dry--and its taste was nothing special. The only thing it had on Oscar Meyer was its size. It was disappointing. The potato chips, which came with both the burger and the dog, were standard, Ruffles-like chips.
Thankfully, my chili--brought along with the hot dog--was delicious. It was chunky, filled with lots of meat and topped with onions and cheese. It was a bit greasy and lacked any real kick--the ground beef and tomatoes dominated the flavor--but it was better than anything you'd find in a store.
And when the main courses were done, it was time for the best part: dessert. Francis ordered a scoop of cookies and cream and a scoop of chocolate peanut butter cookie dough ($1.45 per scoop). I ordered a burgundy cherry milkshake ($3.25).
This is where Austin's shines--the only area where Austin's can possibly refer to itself as a "touchstone" with a straight face. The ice cream was wonderful--sweet, creamy and chock full of the accompanying ingredients (cookies, cookie dough, cherries, etc.). And I was stunned at how huge the three-scoop milkshake was--it filled a glass, and the blender cup was still half full. At $3.25, it was a true bargain.
A couple days later, I returned to Austin's to try out a sandwich. I got an Austin's turkey and bacon melt on rye ($5.25). I chose potato salad as a side rather than the tossed salad, cottage cheese or cole slaw.
The sandwich was good; the bread seemed fresh, and the turkey was cut thick (the menu says the turkey's "thinly sliced"; this, in my case, was a lie that I was OK with), and the cheddar cheese was perfectly melted. But my favorite part of the meal was the potato salad. It was wonderful--the paprika, celery, green onions, mustard and potatoes made for a taste treat.
I'll go back to Austin's for the ice cream and the potato salad in a heartbeat. While the hit-and-miss food and scattered service show that Austin's isn't quite a touchstone, the ice cream and salad show why the place is still packed 44 years after it opened.