Without reason or rhyme, the deconstructed food phenomenon can be pretentious and annoying. In breaking dishes down to their basic components and modifying their preparation and presentation, chefs runs the risk of taking something people love and turning it in to something, well, goofy. With a skillful approach though, the right chef can take a dish and create a compelling experience that gives diners a new look at an old favorite. That careful approach was clearly used in planning the Highball entertainment complex, where a surprisingly fitting jigsaw puzzle of stuff people love has been pieced together to create a fresh, new entertainment experience in a town that’s already known for spoiling the bored by providing plenty of diversion.
Built on the bones of several former strip-mall businesses in the same South Lamar complex that houses Alamo Drafthouse South and a mess of other local vendors, the Highball is an energetic amalgam of authentic retro bowling alley, themed karaoke rooms, dance club, bar, restaurant and diner. And while the food isn’t perilously pretentious, executive chef Trish Eichelberger has taken some tried and true foodie favorites and updated them for Austin’s adventuresome palates. Monday through Friday, the Highball offers up variations of that most American of dinners, the Blue Plate Special. Some prove subtly surprising, like rich bison meatloaf and a chicken-fried pork steak. Others are deftly prepared classics like chicken and herbed dumplings and even a full Thanksgiving dinner on Thursdays.
Daily, the menu features a host of other dishes that proudly scream “mid-century modern!” while winking and whispering, “but more inspired.” Fresh onion rings are a dime a dozen in young, heavy-drinking towns like Austin, but the hand-cut, beer-battered, sweet, yellow jewels at the Highball would prefer you attack with a knife and fork. After all, they are served with an earthy, upscale demiglace that challenges you to rethink your preconceived notions of what onion rings are all about. Shrimp cakes made with Texas gulf catch are rich and meaty, and side-step the overpowering shrimp flavor that, candidly, can be a deal-breaker. The roasted jalapeno tartar sauce served alongside these generous, golden-seared patties adds a dimensional kick to the experience.
If it’s not clear by now, the culinary theme is by no means light and healthy, and the Vegas-style décor, steeped in a dramatic deep red, gold and black color palette, is a clear indicator that a little indulgence is encouraged at the Highball. Consider the Thanksgiving sandwich: grilled sourdough houses smoked turkey, fresh-made mayonnaise, dressing and sweet, sugary cranberry sauce. a hefty parade of densely delicious dinners continues, including the Dewberry Hills Farm fried chicken, sinfully marinated in buttermilk and fried in peanut oil.
A practically endless salt-and-peppery serving of chicken plays duck- duck-goose around a mound of smooth mashed potatoes. Eat your vegetables? Whatever. Eat your crispy chicken. Make out with those potatoes. No one is judging. Save room for drinks and dessert.
And dessert is no prissy, pinkies-up affair. Built for two, the Highball banana split features a (Neapolitan, of course!) ice cream menage-a-trois, dark buttered rum sauce (which just sounds dirty) and an avalanche of cashews. If your date suggests sharing this one, well, someone’s getting lucky tonight. Choices also include an indulgent chocolate ginger icebox pie, hot or cold fresh fruit pie (a la mode! Duh!), and the Mile-High Coconut Cake, which is bigger than a goat’s head and much more appetizing.
Of course, it’s not bowling, karaoke, Skee-ball and dancing without drinks, and while the Highball offers a full bar (including bottle service) and a respect- able wine list, resolve to try at least one of the Highball’s signature cocktails, created by Eichelberger and bar manager Ryan Schibi. The Spice Russian features chai-infused vodka, Kahlua, Tia Maria, cream, and tastes like getting to third base on Christmas morning. The 10 Pin is a fresh mix of cucumber-infused gin, strawberry, basil and a smoked-salt rim. Feeling old-fashioned? They have those, too (with cherry-infused bourbon and muddled orange). Or you can “Thai one on” with mango-infused rum, Thai basil, ginger, cilantro and lime flavors.
Take advantage of happy hour Monday through Friday from 4:30 to 7 p.m. and get free karaoke with any food purchase, as well as $2 Lone Star, $3 local beers or $5 premium well drinks with any appetizer or entree.
THE SKINNY ON THE HIGHBALL
Cuisine: Updated old-school
Setting: Kitschy and cool, intimate and relaxed
Service: Familiar and friendly
Prices: Entrees generally range from $10 to $12
Cards: All major
Hours: 4:30 p.m. to- 2 a.m., Monday through Friday; 1 p.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday
Parking: On-site lot
Address: 1142 S. Lamar Blvd.