Tex-Mex Dinner with Downtown Austin Style
Liz Lambert wasn’t the only person in Austin who thought a flophouse called the San José Motel had potential. When she told her brother, chef Louis Lambert, that she’d purchased the dilapidated South Austin building, he said he had been looking into buying it himself. That was in 1995. Today, the revamped (and renamed) Hotel San José is the hippest boutique property in Texas—and, thanks to Liz’s connections in music and showbiz circles, a favorite hangout for musicians and actors.
Liz has befriended so many performers that her house in Austin has become a favorite hangout for them, too. On a clear, mild night, a few of them are gathered for a down-home dinner prepared by Louis. The guests include Tift Merritt, a Grammy-nominated country-soul singer who got to know the Lamberts when Liz asked her to play at the San José. Also present are Amy Cook—Liz’s girlfriend, a blond, tattooed singer-songwriter and the first artist signed to Marfa Records, the label Liz recently launched—and Leisha Hailey, a star of the Showtime TV series The L Word and Liz’s partner in Marfa Records.
Under the enormous oak in Liz’s backyard, guests sample one of Louis’s favorite salads, which includes buttery avocado, juicy Rio Grande grapefruit, local goat cheese and toasted pine nuts in a honey vinaigrette; enchiladas filled with two cheeses—melted Monterey Jack and queso blanco—and topped with a smoky West Texas salsa roja flavored with ancho chiles, cider vinegar and cumin; Louis’s signature side dish of chickpeas sautéed with kale, smoked ham and garlic; and a thick grilled strip steak marinated in a mole sauce spiked with sesame seeds and Mexican chocolate.
"We do a lot of cheese enchiladas with steak in Texas," says Louis, who last fall opened Lamberts Downtown Barbecue in Austin, specializing in house-made charcuterie and dishes made with local, sustainable ingredients. "We just plop the enchiladas on top of the steak. If it’s a really special occasion, we’ll throw a fried egg on top of that."
As a couple of Liz’s guests holler out compliments on the chickpeas with kale, Louis explains that the inspiration for the dish dates back to his childhood in Odessa, a town in West Texas where the Lambert family has ranched for six generations. Louis, who grew up showing calves at livestock competitions, gleaned culinary ideas from the camp cook at the family’s ranch. "He actually cooked in a Dutch oven over a campfire for all the cowboys," Louis says. "He’d always do a chickpea dish."
Liz’s memories of growing up in West Texas are just as vivid. She recalls the days she spent hanging out with her grandfather in the lobby of a downtown Odessa hotel, where he went routinely to read the paper and smoke a cigar. "That’s where people did business," says Liz. "That’s how I learned to love hotels."
Although Liz spent years working as an attorney, when she bought the San José she decided to devote herself fully to the project—even though she had no hotel experience. She converted the 1930s-era motor court into a collection of bungalow-style rooms with private porches that open onto a central courtyard, an arrangement inspired by Mexican architecture. Louis designed the San José’s kitchen and room-service menu. Together, the siblings run Jo’s, an open-air café at the edge of the San José’s parking lot. Their collaboration doesn’t end there: Louis will also be creating the menu for Liz’s latest hotel, El Cosmico, which opens this summer in the far-west Texas town of Marfa.
Liz’s nostalgia for West Texas is what led her to pursue some projects in Marfa, a onetime military town that was transformed by the arrival, in the early 1970s, of the minimalist artist Donald Judd. Judd was instrumental in turning Marfa into an -artists’ haven. In 2005, Liz opened the Thunderbird, Marfa’s first boutique hotel (she’s no longer affiliated with it). Now she and her friends have become players in the town’s creative growth. Liz is working on the launch of a show on Marfa Public Radio called The Spark, which will be hosted by Tift Merritt and feature interviews with musicians, painters and other artists.
Liz and Leisha launched Marfa Records in 2005, capturing the town’s freewheeling, spontaneous sensibility on the label’s rootsy debut CD, Amy Cook: The Bunkhouse Recordings. Amy recalls that when she recorded the songs, outside near a campfire, Liz and Leisha blocked out the wind noises by building a sort of tepee from blankets placed behind the microphone and taping sponges on either side of it. Amy just released her second CD for the label, The Sky Observer’s Guide, a collaboration with visual artist Amy Adler.
With El Cosmico, Liz hopes to capture some of Marfa’s serendipitous energy. She describes her vision as a "community" more than a hotel. First to launch on the El Cosmico grounds will be a 21st-century hipster’s version of a trailer park, a collection of restored Spartan trailers that will be available to rent or buy. Over the next year, the trailers will be joined by yurts and hammocks and a funky assortment of amenities like outdoor movie screens, a communal kitchen and wood-fired hot tubs.
"I’m a hippie at heart," Liz says as she walks across the backyard to chat with a few other guests: Stephanie Rice and her husband, Brad, the guitar player for both Tift and Amy; and Larry McGuire and James Smith, Louis’s partners in Lamberts Downtown Barbecue.
A few moments later, Liz asks Leisha if she’ll join Amy for their famous rendition of Liz Phair’s song "Polyester Bride." Leisha protests, saying she’d have to drink considerably more wine for that to happen. "The funny thing is, she’s a very shy performer, naked though she is on TV," Liz says of Leisha, referring to her racy role in The L Word.
Just in time to save Leisha from a recital, Louis brings out the dessert, a creamy vanilla-bean crème brûlée made with tapioca and served in small glasses alongside moist bar cookies combining chocolate, oatmeal and dulce de leche. Brad runs one of the glasses along the neck of his guitar. Enjoying the sound, he continues to play, using the glass as a bottleneck to create the wailing sound of a slide blues guitar. Soon he starts singing about tapioca. An impromptu blues song about dessert: Like so much that happens in Liz Lambert’s world, it sounds like something no one has ever heard before.
Brett Anderson is a James Beard Award-winning restaurant critic and feature writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.