If you ever wonder what Food as an Experience looks like, wonder no further than Austin, TX. As the Live Music Capital of the World, the density of musical talent has created a magnetic force field around the city, attracting creative types in any and all mediums, and food is no exception. But they’re adding an ingredient uniquely Austin to the plate on that front. Driving through the hip parts of town, it’s clear the Keep Austin Weird motto is a principle to live by at all costs. Eclectic, homegrown originality thrusts itself at you until this homogenous stream of weird becomes normal.
Maria Loco greets you outside Taco Xpress.
The week of Thanksgiving found us in Austin to visit a friend. Now, we have been known to plan our vacations around our meals, making sure to find and experience the top-rated locales in an area. But with the focus on spending time with our friend and a strict budget guiding our activities, for once I did not do all our dining-out research and itinerary planning in advance. We agreed to surrender the dining reigns to our host. After all, she’d lived there awhile, knew we loved good food, and wanted to take us to her favorite spots. Once there, however, the foodie siren call was nearly impossible to resist. We could not help influence at least a little of what we would eat for the next six days.
As with food scenes everywhere, there are the professional culinary experiences, sure to cause some pain in the wallet but guaranteed to wow the palette, and there are the budget-friendly hot spots whose popularity mushrooms virally for a variety of reasons. The latter were the focus of our outings, and I noticed quickly that the quality of the food wasn’t always the primary ingredient to a venue’s success. A long native-Austin history, unique ambiance or an excess of decor, or simply a new approach to old standards all contributed to word-of-mouth frenzy. And though we didn’t get a chance to fully explore the city’s lauded world of food trucks, it was clear they were the center of a true foodie orbit.
We landed on Sunday evening, and our friend already had a suggestion for a quick and inexpensive dinner on the way to her house. We stopped at Torchy’s Tacos, a joint that started out in a food trailer and gained such popularity it now has multiple brick-and-mortar restaurants in Austin, Dallas, and Houston. It’s a regular ol’ story of entrepreneurial spirit, and founder Michael Rypka’s experimental creativity is really what put him on the map. Wanting to taste as many combinations as possible, I ordered four tacos and shared each one with my husband. We had the Migas, eggs and chiles; the Trailer Park, fried chicken and chiles; the Democrat, shredded beef barbacoa and avocado; and the Crossroads, smoked beef brisket with grilled onions and jalapenos. It was tough not to throw in a Fried Avocado taco also, but they’re good sized and four to share was plenty, along with chips and green chile queso, of course. My favorite was the Democrat. I don’t know what barbacoa is, but damn that beef was juicy and flavorful.
Vacation truly began with sleeping in late on Monday. Without TV at home, I was excited to have access to the Food Network and other food-related entertainment, and our friend started us off with the recorded episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations during SXSW, featuring some of the most mouth-watering barbecue imaginable, including Franklin Barbecue where people stand in line for hours – literally two to three hours – for a chance to eat ridiculously tender, juicy brisket. Who stands in line for hours for a meal? People on vacation, that’s who. We immediately started calculating what morning we had available to go to Franklin. (Let me not forget to mention that Franklin started out in a food truck!)
Meat on! The Salt Lick BBQ tempts you right as you enter.
Instantly, the theme of the trip had been set, and we needed a barbecue fix right away. We eased our way into it with a visit to The Salt Lick for a sampler platter of ribs, turkey, sausage, and brisket. Though it was better than any barbecue I’ve had anywhere at home, our expectations had been set by the image of that falling-apart brisket, and it wasn’t quite up to standard. However, the quaint ambiance was highly reminiscent of Big Thunder Ranch at Disneyland with a full outdoor seating area and stage for music. Interestingly, they also had some grape vines and a tasting room for their own wines!
Tuesday we laid low most of the day, concluding with a movie at an Austin landmark – the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Every theater should be run this way. You can reserve your exact seat when you buy your tickets online. They offer a full bar and food service throughout the movie. The popcorn is served with real butter (the best I’ve ever had!). And they will kick you out if anyone complains you are talking or texting. Seriously. How can you ever go to another theater after that? I most definitely took advantage of the full bar and loved the Moscow Mule: vodka, lime juice, and Maine Root Ginger Brew – spicy enough to linger after each sip.
When we got back to the house, I was craving something sweet. A little late-night project in the kitchen sounded fun, so I searched my go-to trusted recipe source, smittenkitchen.com, for something with either blueberries or strawberries, since that’s what we had on hand. I found a strawberry cake requiring very little of anything special and got right to it. The only glitch was the hour it took to bake. It was 1 am when I finally pulled it from the oven. It smelled like a bit of summer in November, so even though I was tired, I had to wait for it to cool to try it before going to bed. Those warm, fresh bites were so worth it.
Wednesday was our attempt at Franklin Barbecue. I had read on Chowhound that the unofficial cutoff to be in line and get food before they ran out was 10a (they open at 11a). We had planned to get there by 9:15, just to be safe, but we didn’t get there until 9:45, and we hadn’t accounted for the pre-Thanksgiving crowd. I went over to check out the smokers and talked to a guy loading firewood. He said today was definitely a longer line earlier than usual for a Wednesday, and they had been getting pre-orders for entire briskets. They expected to sell 500 pounds of cooked meat that day. Back in line, there was a girl going down the row taking orders. About five people in front of us, she handed a guy a hand-scrawled sign saying, “Last man standing.” The people in line after him were not guaranteed that there would be any food left for them when they got the to front of the line, and it was certain they would not get any brisket or ribs. Saturday would be our second and only chance for the Best Barbecue in America (Bon Appetit July 2011).
We’re at the back of this still growing line.
After our Franklin failure, we were hungry. Our friend suggested breakfast tacos, one of my favorites to make at home, and apparently a common staple of the Tex-Mex menu. We went to the kitschy Loca Maria Taco Xpress, where my camera came away more satisfied with what it took in than my belly did. The decor and atmosphere definitely capture the artsy, quirky mood typical of so many restaurants there, but my burnt egg scramble covered in the orange cheese that melted into pools of grease didn’t live up to the hype. I can’t say if other menu items might fare better, and they very well might based on the salsas available. There were a couple standard ones, but the roasted tomato salsa had a unique and complex flavor, and one other heated me up from the inside out while still titillating the taste buds.
Not wanting to spend all of Thanksgiving day in the kitchen (what?! why not???), our friend had ordered a smoked turkey from her favorite barbecue place, Rudy’s. We went to pick it up that afternoon, along with a little one-pound-of-brisket snack. Politely, we did not rip into it in the car, though the rich, smoky smell was a cruel tease. Back at the house, we opened the butcher paper on the eating bar, and it made it no further. We hovered over it, picking with our fingers at beef so tender it broke apart when you tried to grasp it. My mind was blown. I could not tear myself away long enough to even take a photo. Sorry. I’d never eaten meat so tender, certainly not brisket. The edge bites were crusted heavily in pepper and melted in your mouth with dazzling flavor. How on earth could there be brisket better than this? We would have to commit to the wait at Franklin to know for sure.
Even though our host did not want to spend Thursday in the kitchen, I couldn’t imagine what else I would do. Watch football? Please. So I volunteered to make a few dishes: deviled eggs, bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with blue cheese, green beans with pancetta and sage, and stuffing (or dressing as technically proper since it wasn’t going inside the turkey prepared for us by Rudy’s). And somehow, I can’t imagine why, I gradually found myself more and more responsible for the other parts of the meal. Like making the caprese bites and the cheese and salami plate, investigating whether the Sweet Potato Casserole delivered from Casserole Queens needed to be thawed, looking into how long the turkey needed to heat up, figuring out what else required the oven (two lasagnas brought by a guest, the stuffing, the casserole, and crescent rolls), calculating coordination of all these times and varying temperatures, and getting the little details like cranberry, rolls, and gravy on the table. Oy vay. And I didn’t really realize I was taking the lead until the day was already half over. I decided to scrap the green bean dish.
The appetizers were a piece of cake, having done the eggs the night before, the dates requiring very little work, and hubby helping with the caprese and cheese plate. The stuffing – bacon and mushroom from Epicurious.com – was a little more involved, and the arrival of guests introduced more action to the small kitchen dance I was choreographing. After about five hours, I finally enlisted further support so I could take a break. The last hour of preparation pulled it all together as you might hope from a houseful of friends and strangers sharing this precious meal, and we feasted.
Friday we slept in late again. It was glorious, and our last good sleep before an early-wake up for Franklin Barbecue on Saturday and a 6:45a flight on Sunday. It was after noon by the time we finally pulled up to Hill’s Cafe for our first meal of the day. It’s been around since 1947, and it looks like the walls have been collecting since then. Some of the booths are named after famous locals, adorned with their image, and I imagine it is where they sit when they come. What kind of food? Comfort food. Sandwiches, burgers, sides. The must-try dish was an appetizer called Mexican Boneless Wings. It’s chicken breast nuggets wrapped with a serrano pepper and bacon then drenched in hot sauce. Pretty damn good, and I even went so far as to dip it in ranch. Hubby and I shared a club sandwich with chicken breast, ham, and bacon. It was pretty tasty, but my body was seriously screaming for vegetables. I added a side salad, but it was such a sad plate of brown, soggy lettuce I could really only pick off the cucumbers and tomatoes. Friday night dinner was Thanksgiving leftovers, of course, and just what you would hope of leftovers.
Out back at Hill’s Cafe
Saturday morning the alarm went off at 7a. I rolled over, still full from every previous day, and wondered if it was better to get a few more hours vacation sleep or go sit on cold concrete for three hours for the best smoked meat I might ever eat. Hmmmm. Tough one. Tuesday morning we were a lot more gung ho for this adventure. But we had committed. Our friend agreed to get up early to drive us there. We’d been talking about it all week. And the mystery of how good it really was remained. So I got up and took a shower, still unsure of whether I would just go back to bed after that. But my partner in adventure got up too, so I knew were were doing it. I will save that savory story for another post, since I’ve already strained your eyes enough here. Stay tuned!
Here’s Texas barbecue’s idea of what a vegetable is.