Austin, Texas - Spring 2011
The Food Baby bottom line:
- Death by Tex-Mex – a legitimate threat to my wellbeing that I brave with each visit to Austin.
- From food trucks to fine dining, Austin has it all.
- Breakfast tacos – a completely unnatural obsession for me.
I recently visited Austin, Texas for a long weekend. If you hadn’t heard, Austin is one of the coolest, hippest, most laid back spots on the planet. The food and nightlife scenes are incredible. I am admittedly biased, as Austin is my hometown, but I’ve never heard anyone disagree with my assessment of ATX.
Per my usual M.O., the requisite first stop was Maudie’s at the airport for a breakfast taco. Despite the fact that it was already 11AM, it seemed only fitting that my trip would start with a signature Austin dish…the breakfast taco. To provide a bit of context, Austinites take their BFTs VERY seriously – there are food blogs dedicated to the pursuit of the perfect taco, there are restaurants that only sell BFTs, and, in fact, the New York Times recently devoted an entire article to the BFT phenomenon in Austin. Put simply, BFTs are a big deal to Austinites. Needless to say, the tacos from the airport aren’t nearly as good those you can get in town; however they beat other BFT replicas I’ve had elsewhere hands down. Anticipating a big Tex-Mex lunch in my near future, I ordered just one bacon, egg and cheese taco. The side of red salsa that came with it was smoky and had just the right amount of kick. Yum. In addition to being delicious, this experience truly speaks to the culture of Austin – you will not find a Starbucks or a Burger King at the airport – only local establishments such as Maudie’s, Mangia Pizza and Salt Lick BBQ. This is one of the reasons why I love Austin and why I am always excited to go home. Austin is weird, Austin is liberal and Austin is damn proud of it!
Shortly after checking in to my hotel (Four Seasons in downtown Austin – my favorite!), I met a girlfriend at…Maudie’s (purely a coincidence, I can assure you)…for lunch. I immediately ordered a frozen strawberry swirl margarita (perfect balance of sweet and tart), and it was an all out Tex-Mex fiesta from there. We started with the fresh guacamole (que deliciosa!) and each ordered the Pork Carnitas tacos – roasted and pulled pork and spicy tomatillo avocado sauce wrapped in corn tortillas with a side of rice and beans. The pork is so juicy that Maudie’s actually doubles up on the corn tortillas, and I thank Maudie’s for their thoughtfulness. Despite filling up on chips, homemade salsa, guac and margs, we each cleaned our plate. Maudie’s is an absolute must for visitors – inexpensive and authentic Tex-Mex, and a true Austin institution that is known to locals as “Tex-Mex Heaven” for good reason.
After a brief, Tex-Mex-induced food coma, I made my way down Bee Caves Road through the Texas Hill Country to my mother’s house. After we got the usual pleasantries out of the way, a fierce debate ensued regarding where we would eat dinner. Should we go quintessential foodie Austin and dine on Venison Osso Buco or Rabbit Tenderloin at Hudson’s on the Bend? What about one of my favorite Tuscan restaurants, Siena, for Kobe Beef Carpaccio (to die for) and Pappardelle with Local Wild Boar? The fact that it was a Saturday night and that we had no reservations ultimately dictated for us. Hudson’s often books up MONTHS ahead of time – so that was out, and Siena could only accommodate us late night, so it was on to our next choice – Gumbo’s of Austin. I don’t mean to make it sound as if we were unhappy about this choice – Gumbo’s is an institution for Cajun food in Austin. They started with a single downtown location, and now have three other restaurants in Austin and an additional location in Denver, Colorado. We went to the Lake Travis location, which is relatively new and is simply beautiful. The dining room is well-appointed and the bar area is spacious and inviting. Cutting to the chase, we started with the Shrimp Robert (shrimp grilled and served with a garlicy butter sauce), moved on to gumbo (my mother had the seafood and I had the chicken and jalapeño sausage variety) and ended with two different fish preparations. Mom had the Fish George – sautéed snapper topped with crabmeat with an herb buerre blanc, and I had the Crusted Fish – “lightly” breaded snapper topped with crabmeat with a roasted red pepper sauce. After tasting and comparing, we determined that Mom’s Snapper George was the winning entrée. While the sauce and crabmeat with my fish were delicious, I found the crust to be too thick (not so much “lightly breaded”). We enjoyed an easy drinking and fruit forward MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir from Sonoma with our meal. All in all, service was great, food was excellent (with the exception of my fish) and we will be back.
My second day in Austin was a rainy one. However, the dreary weather did not stop me from getting my breakfast taco fix that morning. I felt the need to exercise given my indulgences of the prior day, but I didn’t feel like hitting the treadmill, so I decided to walk up South Congress from my hotel in search of tacos. Please, no comments about the irony of combining exercise and eating in the interest of efficiency. I walked the ~1.5 miles up South Congress to the heart of “SoCo”, where there are a number of BFT choices. Unfortunately, several of the food trucks were closed due to the weather, however I didn’t mind...Guero’s Taco Bar was calling my name. Guero’s is a really cool spot – it is located in a building that was built in the late 1800’s as a feed store. The Seed and Feed Store remained in operation until 1993, and the building itself remains a historic Austin Landmark today. In 1995, a local couple bought the property with dreams of expanding their modest taqueria on the east side of town into a larger restaurant in SoCo. Their dreams clearly came true – Guero’s has become a staple on the Austin Tex-Mex scene. You definitely feel a sense of history when you walk in the door at Guero’s – on this particular day, I felt relieved to be out of the rain and closer to a BFT! I was promptly seated and ordered coffee and two BFTs – bacon, egg and cheese and chorizo, egg and cheese. Before I dove into my Sunday New York Times, I hit up the Guero’s salsa bar where you can serve yourself a variety of housemade salsas. Within minutes, my BFTs arrived, wrapped in delicious handmade tortillas. Although I tried to pace myself and enjoy a leisurely breakfast, I completely crushed the tacos in record time. I will admit that Guero’s doesn’t make my favorite BFTs (not a knock...simply a matter of personal taste...Arandas has my heart!), however their version is pretty damned good. The ambiance, service and overall vibe of the place definitely elevates the dining experience at Guero’s. So, whether its for happy hour margs or for a sit down meal, Guero’s is always on my short list of favorite local spots.
Later that day, I visited the Alamo Drafthouse with my Austin bestie, Kristen, for a movie and some drinks. I truly wish we had an Alamo in Charlotte – there are several locations in Austin and the concept is movie theatre meets local pub meets restaurant. They play new releases, as well as having a number of special event screenings – current events include “The Big Lebowski Quote-Along”, “Pretty in Pink Girlie Night”, and the stoner-requisite “Dark Side of the Rainbow” which sets Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album to the Wizard of Oz. Totally weird and totally Austin. While we do have the upscale Mez theatre at the Epicentre in Charlotte, the vibe of the Drafthouse is far more relaxed. They also have a system at Alamo where you can raise a flag during the movie and a waiter will bring you food and drinks as desired (a definite downside of Mez is the lack of intramovie service). This day we watched The Fighter, which incidentally was one of the best movies I have seen in years. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend you do so ASAP. Kristen had a few pints of Stella and I tried a local brew – the pale ale from (512) Brewing Company. It was delicious and citrusy, and absolutely hit the spot. We didn’t partake of the food this day, but the offerings are of the slightly elevated pub grub variety – think mozzarella sticks at one end of the spectrum to goat cheese salad with dried cherries at the other. Snacks, sandwiches, salads, etc. All in all, a terrific way to spend a rainy afternoon in ATX.
After the movie, we made a quick stop on memory lane at the Pourhouse Pub on Burnet Road for another brew. The reason for the visit was that I used to wait tables there when I was in college – at the time, it was a joint called the Stonehouse Grill. With its now expanded outdoor patio complete with a stage for live music and the renovated interior space, the spot had a very different look and feel. I hear that when the weather is nice, the shady patio area is PACKED with locals who flock to the Pourhouse for cheap beer, good music and the very fun, beer garden type atmosphere. The only drawback I am aware of is that they do not allow dogs in the outdoor area – booooo. On this rainy evening, we bellied up to the bar and threw back a couple of pints of Stella. They have an ample 34 beers on tap to choose from, and in addition serve traditional bar food. I definitely hope to come back to the Pourhouse on a nice day to booze away a Sunday afternoon, and sample the food.
Next stop was the Flying Saucer, which we actually do have here in Charlotte, although somehow (shamefully), I have never been. After visiting the Austin location, I will definitely be remedying this soon. The place was crowded for a Sunday night (although, the following day was a holiday), but we were able to quickly grab a booth. The crowd ranged from serious beer drinkers to beer guzzling college co-eds. I had to spend a few minutes marveling at the various plaques on the wall memorializing those that have earned a coveted spot in the Saucer’s “Ring of Honor” by trying each of the 200 beers on the menu. After quickly doing the math to see how long it might take me to accomplish such a feat (about a year, give or take), I choose to start with the Lagunitas IPA, which the bottle accurately describes as “homicidally hoppy”, and Kristen went with the Blanche De Bruxelles Belgian White, which was uberlight and citrusy. After selecting from their ridiculously long and awesome beer list, we determined that it was time for some food. We decided to share the Saucer Bratzel – a pretzel toasted with Swiss cheese and sliced beer bratwurst with a spicy mustard dip. We also ordered a “build your own snack plate” with whiskey cheddar and the black pepper salami. The snack plate comes with olive tapenade, almonds, apple slices and spicy mustard for dipping. It was perfectly delicious food to have after a night of drinking. We left the Saucer full and happy, and I know I will be visiting the Charlotte location soon!
The last stop on our tour that evening was the infamous Poodle Dog Lounge. It sounds like it should be a very strange place, and in many ways it is. To be completely honest, I used to be terrified of this place when I lived in Austin. It has no doors or windows, and the front door actually has a solid wall in front of it that blocks any view of the interior from the street as people come and go. Its also called the Poodle Dog Lounge…umm, who came up with that bright idea? Frankly, I have a tendency to fear what I don’t know or understand, justified or not. Kristen convinced me that I was being an idiot, and that the Poodle Dog Lounge is just a funky pool joint that has great music – either live performances by local bands, or eclectic tunes from their jukebox. Ok…why not? When we walked in, we heard the band playing a cover of Janis Joplin’s Piece of My Heart. And they were really good! We ordered a couple of Lone Star beers in a can (the perfect nightcap) and settled in for some great live music. The other people at the bar, regulars from what I gathered, were friendly and immediately struck up a conversation. It was a perfectly fitting ending to a perfect Austin night…great live music, down to earth people and an authentically weird spot that could only be found in the ATX. It makes me homesick just to write about it.