How's the food at Austin's gentlemen's clubs? A three-part investigation.
While it’s common to see strip club marquees boasting terrifyingly cheap food specials ($4.99 steak and shrimp! $10 lobster! Free happy hour buffet!), I’ve never heard much about the food at "gentlemen’s lounges" (even after an informal poll of male friends). So I did what any curious journalist would do -- I set out to investigate.
Sugar's Uptown Cabaret (info and address)
Fellow Thrillist contributor Anastacia Uriegas accompanied me to the first location of my choosing. Sugar’s had a rather highfalutin menu for a club adjacent to the half-closed Highland Mall -- and fourteen different choices for their $4.75 lunch special.
We arrived for lunch and found the parking lot to be surprisingly full. We were warmly welcomed by the manager Henry Acosta, who was excited that we were there to try the food. "Your experience in a strip club should be decadent," he said. "From the food to the drinks to the dancing. It should be comfortable and sexy."
He and bartender, Jovana, insisted we try the crabcake salad, which seemed to be a staff favorite, and two of the well-priced lunch specials. The crabcake, as promised, was devoid of the glutenous filler many tend to have. It came atop perfectly crisp romaine and fresh-sliced red onion and tomato. Besides a slightly excessive showering of Parmesan cheese (at least it wasn't body glitter!), and dried cranberries (which wouldn’t have been my choice of accoutrement), it was a damn fine salad.
The mac and cheese arrived -- penne coated in a legit Béchamel which collected into a creamy pool at the bottom, topped with fresh blackened chicken. The fish on our cod filet sandwich was tender and flaky on the inside and coated in a super-crunchy golden crust. It came atop a perfectly light brioche bun. We were seriously impressed. But they weren't done.
Then they brought out a fried cheesecake creation called Better Than Sex which lived up to its name. Guys really need to start rethinking how they allocate their strip club dollars.
Head Chef Ruth Dodge (known in the kitchen as Chappy), came out in checkered pants and chef whites to chat with us. "We use all high-quality meat, and nothing here is prefab -- we make as much in house as possible," she explained. "And I’m from Arkansas, so I like to add a little bit of country to everything."
An older gentlemen next to us at the bar (nearing 80, I’d say) polished off his sandwich and said, "If you’re gonna critique something, critique these dim lights! You can barely see the food in here, let alone read the menu!" He then linked arms with a stripper and disappeared into a curvaceous booth.
Sugar's: 4 stilettos out of 5
Down in Texas Saloon (info and address)
Far North Austin
I first found out about the newly opened Down in Texas Saloon when I heard an ad on the radio where they claimed to have the best barbecue in town. Thems fightin’ words! With Anastacia as my wingman again, we set out for the super-far-North-like-nearing-Round-Rock club.
The building itself was pretty Texas-sized from the outside. Inside, the saddle at the entrance, deer heads hanging above the main stage, rustic wood details, and poker table all went along with their theme. However, not a single country song played in our time there and not one of the dancers came out in a cowboy hat or boots! However, they did emerge in just about everything else -- from street clothes and sneakers to one barefoot dancer who promptly scaled the pole, flipped upside down, and slowly wound her way to the floor.
Where was I? Oh right -- the food. I visited manager Steven Rossi outside on the patio, where their smoker was located, as well as several yard games (washers, cornhole), and an outdoor bar. "All our chefs are classically trained at culinary school," he told me. "Is it 5 star? No, but there are some dishes that sure as hell come close. This is our interpretation of comfortable -- we want everyone who walks in here to be as comfortable as possible."
We took his advice and ordered the mac and cheese balls, devilishly delicious little rounds of creamy, bacon-studded mac and cheese that were hand-breaded, fried, and accompanied with a spicy ranch. He also highly recommended the Philly sliders -- tender, thinly shredded beef topped with cheese on a King’s Hawaiian roll. Those really hit the spot too. And we had to try some of the highly touted barbecue, so we opted for the brisket quesadilla. While it was tasty, with just the right amount of sweetness, I don’t think it was the right format to assess the true quality of their boobie-que. Guess I’ll have to return on a Free Buffet Friday for mountains of freshly smoked meat.
Down in Texas Saloon: 3.5 stilettos out of 5
Palazio Men’s Club (info and address)
After two promising stops, I was curious to see how Palazio would fare. The club, held up by grand columns at its entrance, features gourmet-leaning menu items like pecan-crusted chicken with apple brandy cream sauce and cornmeal crepes filled with fire-roasted vegetables topped with artichoke sauce -- and more standard restaurant pricing. However, in true strip club fashion, they've got one insanely cheap special per day.
Manager Robert greeted us and led us into the VIP area, which was adorned with red, Alice in Wonderland-esque chandeliers and purple accent lighting. They, too, were eager to showcase their menu for us, and the chef was excited to find out my accomplice was vegan. "He loves it when he can get creative back there," said our lovely French-Canadian server Bebe.
Highlights included exceptionally juicy bacon-wrapped shrimp with a creamy herb sauce, a super-flavorful Thai sweet chili shrimp salad, and a tender filet mignon topped with a mushroom demi-glace. But obviously those weren't going to work for my vegan companion.
My vegan partner’s variation of the meat course was a juicy portabella "steak" topped with a rainbow of roasted vegetables. Then, out came a beautifully plated Pear William for dessert -- a light, fluffy chiffon cake topped with liqueur-poached pears and accompanied by squirts of rich whipped cream. The impressive chocolate and caramel scrollwork was capable even of diverting your eyes from the servers, as you can see above.
Chef Damon Bonewitz came out to visit with us toward the end of our meal, his name embroidered in script on his chef coat. He told his he’s cooked at the Driskill, as well as the banquet kitchen of a Marriott in California, but he’s been head of the Palazio kichen since they opened 10 years ago.
As we finished our last drinks, a sparkler-topped bottle arrived in an ice bucket for a nearby patron who was drawing the sheer curtains closed to receive a private dance. A time check told us we’d managed to kill several hours in this black hole of debauchery and indulgence. We emerged from the club, stuffed and satisfied, squinting against the harsh reality of sunlight.
Palazio: 5 stilettos out of 5
The lesson? Apparently a strip club adventure doesn't have to be a feast solely for the eyes. Who knew?