AUS Gourmand: Texas Tasting Notes
Posted by cmh gourmand on December 22, 2009
The restlessness returned, prodded on by a free flight on Southwest airlines soon to expire, the change of the seasons and my own wayward nature. For the first week of December, I was bound for Austin, Texas with a desire for BBQ, music, sun, and fabulous food adventures. On my past introduction to Austin I was hindered by a timeframe of less than 48 hours and a vegetarian girlfriend. This time around I was on familiar ground; traveling solo, with one of my famous trip plans of attack to fill in the gaps from the past.
My base of operations was the Austin Motel, strategically located in the hippie hip South Congress (SOCO) strip. This motel has been a mainstay on South Congress for over seven decades and has been the winner of the best motel award in Austin most years since 2001. An eclectic, hippy staff and a couple of house cats create a sense of home away from home. The bus stop in front of the motel only adds value to the location. A good public transportation system ensured the 40% of places on my list that I could not walk to were accessible via a $1.50 transit pass that is good for 24 hours.
I immediately went to work fulfilling all of my desires, except the warmth part. My muse distracted me the night before my flight with some late night drinking so I forgot to check the weather to see if I needed to recalibrate my packing for a change in the weather. Upon arrival in Austin, I made a quick correction by picking up a warm and fashionable $5 thrift store sweater.
This year was the year of the taco truck in Columbus so with a better appreciation of street food, I was ready to jump into the offerings of Austin. I counted over fifty trucks, wagons and carts in my travels and was lucky enough to have some of the more notable street vendors within a five-minute walk of my hotel room. Although I took photos of a dozen or more trucks and spoke with several owners, I only sampled the wares of two street food vendors, Hey Cupcake and The Mighty Cone (both within a few blocks of basecamp). Hey Cupcake has had a lot of national press as a mobile cupcake vendor. It is hard not find some appeal in an airstream full of cupcakes. However, I must say, I was nonplussed by their cupcakes – I expected bigger, fresher and better. The Mighty Cone was an interesting concept that I heard about in various Austin blogs. They delivered their goods in cone form (tortilla rolled into a cone) as a means to transport your eats.
Within 200 yards or less of my room were the following local culinary landmarks I sampled: Jo’s Hot Coffee Good Food, Amy’s Ice Cream, Home Slice Pizza, and Cissis Market – which includes a wine bar with Wi-Fi. Many sources have written of these spots at length and each website give a good sense of what the eateries offer so I will move it on over.
It will suffice to say, I liked what I supped on at each place and they are local favorites for good reasons. I think the Magnola Cafe channels the soul of Austin straight to my belly.
Right beside the motel was a new addition (as of October 29th) to the SoCo scene. I ate at Snack Bar twice, once for dinner and a second time as my bon voyage breakfast since it was too rainy to go anywhere else.
There is a lot to like about Snack Bar. The place looks like a retro diner from the outside and has preserved many of those elements on the inside. The menu is far from retro and still under development. The owners and servers are earnestly trying to make the place stand out with an creative menu which is different from their SoCo peers and reflects the artistic soul of Bethany Andree who is an artist turned restaurant owner with her computer industry husband.
Scones, muffins, brioche rolls and other baked goods are made in house. The menu features local, organic, gluten free, vegan friendly and environmentally conscious food options wherever possible. They also offer a daily brunch from 7 AM to 4 PM. The dinner menu is divided into American, Latino, European, Mediterranean and Asian themed sections. The proteins range from free-range chicken, salmon, seitan, raised right beef and more.
For breakfast I ordered the Tofu Scramble (well seasoned tofu with leeks, crimini mushrooms, carrot and garlic) served with a potato hash cake and fresh bread. On the side I had one of their global tacos (I took the Asian option): tempeh, scrambled eggs, carmelized onions, grilled pineapple and a trace of peanut sauce. Mighty tasty! The flavors reminded me of a the best vegetarian breakfast I have ever had in Bend, Oregon as well as my beloved but defunct Galaxy Café.
I was happy to see Snack Bar busy on a Sunday morning. I had walked by several times during the week and it was always dead (which prompted my dinner there). It was on my first trip that I was impressed by their local appeal, when I looked at the wall, I saw signs that let me know where the lights (x-mas), aprons (homemade), plants, and art came from. Water was served in chemistry beaker and the silverware was mostly IKEA. If you are in Austin, give this place a try so they too can become a local landmark someday.
Ok, so that covers many of my meals and my initial on foot recon when I first arrived. The SoCo strip is similar to the Short North of Columbus – offering an eclectic mix of independent shops, restaurants and people. Austin is comparable to Columbus in many ways: home to a gigantic university where football is treated as a religion, a state capital, a varied employment mix which has a large number of government and academic workers in a little blue dot surround by a lot of red. Among the retail choices on South Congress is Big Top, one of the best candy stores ever with a working old school soda fountain manned by hipster, slacker youngsters. I timed my arrival with First Thursday which adds later hours to the shops and galleries, free outdoor music everywhere, environmental petition hucksters and evangelical preachers on the street corners and lots of people to the SoCo strip at my doorstep.
My trip had BBQ as a mission objective and that meant leaving Austin on a smoked meat haj to Lockhart, Texas. Lockhart is hailed as the home to two or three of the best BBQ joints in Texas. This has been preached to me by books, TV and the web. The instructor of my Kansas City BBQ Society Certified BBQ Judge class in Indianapolis years ago stated very clearly that it was a sin to visit Texas without paying a call on Lockhart. Considering this was my fourth visit to the Lone Star state, I figured I was pressing my BBQ karma and had best make right with gods of charred meat. I rented a car for the day then made my way to the town of Lockhart and my destiny.
As a brief aside, I was given a PT Cruiser by the rent a car place as an upgrade because they did not have anything else. This was an emotional crisis for me. Every PT Cruiser owner I have encountered is a complete douche bag. I consider PT cruiser ownership akin to a severe personality disorder. I shared some these observations with the staff and customers at Enterprise Rent a Car, and they were inclined to agree with me to the point that they said that if I could wait an extra 15 minutes they could get me an acceptable car. I figured this was some type of Zen atonement for my delay in BBQ pilgrimage. I declined the last minute offer because I was on a timetable. I pressed on.
Kreuz Market, (pronounced Kry-Tz) was my first stop. This meat market has been open over one hundred years and has been owned by two families. There was a split in ownership which led to Kreuz moving to the present location about two decades ago. These folks are Texas BBQ purists. The meat slicers at Kreuz are famous for saying “we don’t use sauce because we have nothing to hide”. True that. You walk in and order your meat; it is placed on brown butcher paper with your choice of crackers or out of the bag white bread (or both if you seem like a nice northern cracker and flash your dimples at the eighty year old lady behind the counter). You then move to the dining area where you can choose from a few sides and beverages. A secret, or at least something I was told was not common knowledge, is that the pickle and jalapeño slices are free, so that is all I asked for. Sides at BBQ places are typically offered as an afterthought or an attempt at civility for small children and the aged that might not be able to chew the meat. The beef brisket I had demonstrated the best cookery I have experienced. It was so tender it fell apart due to my long gaze at it.
One minute away (Lockhart is a very small town), I found myself at Blacks BBQ. They are the new kid on the block because they have only been in the business since 1932. Black’s makes up for this transgression by being open 8 days per week. The BBQ and sausage here was also good. There was a wide selection of sides. As the youngsters they are, you can also get some very good house made sauces to slather on your BBQ.
While in Lockhart, I also stepped inside of Smitty’s to pay homage to the original location of the Kreuz Market. In the BBQ bible this is a sacred site. Smitty’s has a respectable BBQ reputation as well but I did not have stomach capacity to sample any more.
Since I had my PT Cruiser for another 21 hours of atonement and a ¾ tank of gas I spent the rest of the day exploring small towns surrounding Austin – San Marcos, Blanco, Johnson City and points (mostly food related) in between. Before heading back to Austin, I made a stop at Texas Hills Vineyard to add a wine tasting to my day. I sampled several respectable estate wines which was an excellent way to wrap up the tail end of the afternoon.
Arriving back in Austin by the early evening, just before the beginning of First Thursday, I decided I wanted to go higher end for dinner. A little outside my walking range on South Lamar was Oliva. This restaurant was named one of the ten best new restaurants of 2009 by Bon Appetit. My meal was excellent and was matched with good service in a relaxed atmosphere. I sat at the bar to get the right angle to watch most of my meal being cooked. The sous chef seemed to have noticed my focus on my food because she took a break to see how I enjoyed my meal and seemed genuinely pleased to hear that I loved it. It you happen to go; arrive early, get a seat at the bar, enjoy the discounted bar menu as part of your meal and definitely get the fries.
Remember that whole sun and warmth aspect to the trip I was hoping for? There seems to be a need to snow in Texas when I am there. While in Dallas for work in 2008, I found myself in the worst blizzard the city had in years. Immediately upon my Wednesday afternoon arrival, panicked weathermen and media helped me feel at home as they predicted the end of the world on Friday (up to two inches of snow!).
I had a tentative tour set up on Friday with the Howie Richey of Texpert Tours. Things worked out weather wise. Howie created a custom tour for me – as he does for all of his customers. As we drove out of Austin, he gave me his insider views on Austin culture and history and took time to point out places I might want to check out during the rest of my trip.
We hit the backroads of Texas Hill Country where Howie pointed out the flora and the fauna of the area and included a stop at a self-serve farmers market. I sampled two of the better Hill Country wineries (Driftwood Vineyards and Mandola Wines) so I could continue my tasting tour of Texas viniculture. We wrapped up our day and I sopped up the alcohol in my system at another legendary central Texas BBQ destination – Salt Lick BBQ. Howie kept me entertained and informed during our five hour tour and I appreciate him taking on a solo passenger which is as rare as snow in Austin.
All I need to say about Salt Lick is – Damn, that was good! I understand why Austinites who have excellent Austin BBQ choices drive for up to an hour for a taste of the Salt Lick.
My Saturday was spent exploring downtown Austin. I started with the Saturday Farmers Market, then moved on to the largest Whole Foods location in the world. I made mandatory trips to Waterloo Records and BookPeople, both of which are hailed as among the best independent stores in the country. I had an early lunch at The Screaming Goat for a taste of their famous breakfast tacos. I then followed a bike trail and parks to get to the State Capital building in time to see a variety of Christmas carols performed in the rotunda. The statehouse is beautiful and full of Texas history. Afterwards, I moved on to the University of Texas campus to explore college life.
I then popped back on the bus and took some time to explore the warehouse district including Tears of Joy (Hot Sauce store).
With a full day under my belt by 3:00 PM, it was time to head back to SoCo basecamp for the South First Saturday for a stroll along the Mexican Mile and to catch the middle part of the Home Slice Carnival of Pizza.
Ok, at this point you are worn out from reading this and I was tuckered out from living it. I took a brief break back at the motel and then went to The Woodlawn for dinner, paying my bill just in time to catch a bus downtown.
My destination for the evening was the Paramount Theatre. After several fast paced days and a bucket of BBQ – I needed to slow down. I had clicked on the Slow Food Austin blog during my research and found out that Edible Austin, Slow Food and etc., were hosting a premiere of the movie Fresh, with events before and after the movie including a Q and A with the director, local farmers and Joel Salatin from Polyface Farms. Weather trapped Joel on the east coast but we were able to see a lot of him in the movie. Fresh provides examples of people engaged in profitable sustainable agriculture and adds more fuel to the fire for needed changes in Big Food and Monoculture. The movie was great and so was the historic venue. It was nice to end my day in a comfortable theatre seat.
You may not know this but the third part of the triumvirate that rules my heart is music (obviously food and travel complete the trio of the passions that light my fire). Austin let me indulge this part of my mission. The Continental Club is across the street from the Austin Motel. On my first night, I walked over for their nightly music happy hour (the band of the night starts at 6:30 PM for $5). I encountered the vilest bartendress of my life who begrudging decided that as one of her three customers in the bar I might be able to have some service in spite of an important 15 minute conversation with a server about TV. This woman seemed intent on showing her disdain for her work. Trying to give her a chance at redemption, I asked her what her best drinks were. She said everything she made was great. I asked for a margarita which appeared to be the one drink she did not like or want to make and was therefore she served the worst I have sampled…..ever! My time with this woman only went downhill from here, to the point where I just wanted to leave. However, having invested $5 to see a band, I was determined to stay. Fortunately out of sight and earshot of this wretched serving wench, I found a Galaga arcade game to focus my rage into while I listened to the bandmembers tell road stories about The Replacements, Tom Petty and other adventures while they waited for their frontman to show. I was glad I stayed for the The Stone River Boys. Two nights later I headed back for Patricia Vonne. There was music everywhere for First Thursday and typically a cowboy minstrel playing for change on SoCo at any hour. I wrapped up my holiday with music in my motel room: next door on a rainy Sunday morning I could hear an alt country duo practicing a new song and working through changes together as I packed my bags.
As is increasingly the case, although the mission was accomplished the restlessness was not abated but fueled. Looking back, this all began in third grade when I found some very old National Geographics at a garage sale. I bought three with the coolest covers and headed home to look through them. Three hours later I was back with a glazed look in my eyes so my elderly neighbors gave me hundreds more which lighted a fire of wanderlust that has never been extinguished. As I have aged, this rage to roam has never regressed and becomes stronger when I feel a sense of Groundhogs Day in my day-to-day life. This significant part of my soul has been the bane of girlfriends past and the puzzlement of all that are connected to me.
While in Austin, walking down Congress Street on my final night, I peered up to see It’s a Wonderful Life projected on the wall of a building. That movie has long been a favorite and is another part of the puzzle of my perpetual commotion. I have a different view than most of George Bailey. I have always felt a connection with George. I think he did right by Bedford Falls and in the end, if ever given the chance I would choose Mary Hatch over Violet Bick. However, I cannot keep myself from screaming in my mind “RUN GEORGE, RUN” for at least one of his opportunities to do something for himself during his life. When we find ourselves like George, standing on a bridge looking down at the river, it is the good that we have done for others that saves our soul but it is the occasional good we do for ourselves that keeps us afloat in lieu of a guardian angel that may not come when we need them. I figure George Bailey would have liked Austin. Hee-haw, mossback George, this one was for you.
I surmise the same part of my soul that yearns for travel also drives me to never be content with one dish or one restaurant, knowing that there is still more to see, ask, learn, drink and taste. So when I am not city or country hopping, bouncing from eatery to eatery must fill that rage to roam. And so it goes.