If you're familiar with the cuisine of either the Winter Garden or College Park outposts of RusTeak, then you know their dishes veer towards the weighty, indulgent and unapologetically saucy. RusTeak's slightly more informal sister resto in Thornton Park – the Stubborn Mule – toes a similar line of heft, with a beverage focus on cocktails over wine.
A packed and boisterous room (common on weekends) may necessitate a brief loiter at the bar where you, too, can sip on the restaurant's watered-down namesake drink while awaiting your table. You'll notice the pleasing woodsy interior hasn't changed much since the sweeping space played host to (most recently) the Sonoma Kitchen née Sonoma Draught House.
In fact, the sauna-like nook in which we ultimately found ourselves had a Nordic sensibility, though the Stubborn Mule's fare most certainly did not. Just once I'd like to see René Redzepi serve addicting fried Wisconsin cheese curds ($9) with Swiss cheese fondu and garlic-cilantro dipping sauces at Noma. Maybe follow it up with a heaping plate of equally addicting pork belly ($9) slicked in an "Asian" sticky sauce. I'd consider dropping 2,000 Danish krone just for the experience, but that's not gonna happen, so I'll settle for spending a fraction of that cost to re-enjoy those dishes at the Mule.
I'd likely order the Houston Street tacos ($14) again simply for the nod to the venerable Katz's Deli. Pastrami braised in amber ale, napa slaw, dill-havarti cheese and house pickles come packed inside three flour tortillas.
That same garlic-cilantro sauce makes its presence felt in the trio too, but it all works in a messy, lurid, '70s food porn sort of way. The meat of the she-ass, thankfully, isn't the primary ingredient in the unfortunately named "Jenny" tacos ($14); rather, the banh-mi-inspired numbers are fish-filled – catch of the day, to be precise. On this night, it happened to be Florida black drum, a fish we chose as an entrée in the "Up Mule's Creek" ($25) – a preparation seemingly sanctioned by the Idaho Potato Commission. I don't believe I've seen so many fingerling potatoes served with fish before, so much so that they covered every available area of white space on the plate. The bottom dweller was wonderfully blackened, and the broccolini and cherry tomatoes appropriately enhanced the fish, but there was about a half-pound of potatoes left over when all was said and done. And, yes, they were fried up for breakfast the next day.
It wasn't exactly pretty, but the "Stubborn Mule Burger" ($14) quite pleased the burger fiends in our group, and the brioche bun, surprisingly, even held up.
Aesthetics, it seems, were saved for dessert. Both an unctuous cronut topped with vanilla bean ice cream ($8) and a dense lemon tart with berries and ricotta cream ($8) not only looked good but gave our sweet tooths reason to smile. Like most else we sampled at the Stubborn Mule, we happily surrendered, then plotted our eventual return. It just seemed to make a lot of horse sense.