Dallas and Houston are the enormous, Texas-sized metropolises. They’re both in the list for 10 most populated regions of the country. They get the headlines. They have the professional sports. They have major urban problems and major urban glamour.
Yet, neither is generally considered the food and drink capital of Texas. That would be the capital of the state of Texas – Austin.
It’s no secret that Austin is really an oasis of eclectic, vibrant culture in this cowboy, conservative state. Texas is too complex and immense to fully generalize into just those two traits. But, comparing Texas and Austin is very much a night and day, red and blue type of contrast. As one Austin resident told me during my stay, “It’s a blueberry in the middle of tomato soup.”
Austin certainly warrants its reputation for being quirky. From the bats under the Congress Street Bridge to the dynamic music scene to the much-loved population of food trailers (no, not carts or trucks, these are trailers), Austin is a unique city full of unique personalities. Yes, as they like to remind you, “Keep Austin weird.”
For West Coasters such as yours truly, it is impossible not to compare Austin with cities that remind you they want to be kept weird. Portland. Seattle. San Francisco. Like those cities, Austin boasts an impressive tech industry that started in the 80’s as the home of Dell, and now the semiconductor and biotechnology sectors are thriving in town too. The high rises along Second Avenue in the heart of Downtown are a clear, visible symbol of Austin’s new money from these booming industries in a challenging economy. We may be in Texas, but those high-rise buildings are not because of oil money. They are more likely from companies creating the solution to oil dependence.
Seattle does have a major university, but none of those cities feels the youthful pull of a major university, as Austin does from the University of Texas. None of those cities has the government pull either, like Austin does as state capital. So, what do you get when you have young technology, a state capital, a major public university, and a distinct cultural scene, all in the heart of Texas? You get one of the country’s most exciting dining scenes without question.
Austin is where Whole Foods Market started in 1980 with a staff of 19. You can visit the flagship Whole Foods Market in Austin, the size of an airplane hangar at North Lamar and Sixth Street that must now have a staff closer to 190. With every possible prepared food, food bar, deli, bakery, beer bar, wine bar, seafood bar, coffee bar, and every cut of meat or type of vegetable you could ever want or need, it’s very easy to eat every meal for the rest of your life at Whole Foods. And you’d be eating quite healthfully, too. And organically, too. At last glance, there are 331 Whole Foods Markets.
Austin is arguably the most important American city without a major food critic…because you won’t make it in this city with subpar food, and the residents are all on the constant hunt for the most exciting young chefs. Like every other city in the country, seasonal, local, organic ingredients are very in vogue. Well, here it’s not even an expectation. Those ingredients will follow the green mantra. Or else, get out of town.
When did this restaurant revolution catch fire in Austin? Perhaps it can be traced back to the emergence of Whole Foods, coinciding with the farm-to-table movement of the late 1990’s and turn of the century. Strangely a decade ago, the centerpiece restaurant for Austin was Hudson’s on the Bend, a good 40 minutes outside town, founded four years after Whole Foods. Hudson’s chef-owner Jeff Blank still deserves its acclaim for game specialties, watermelon marinated pork chops, and rattlesnake cakes.
The best-known Austin institution may be the Salt Lick BBQ, also outside town. Depending on whom you ask, Salt Lick may or may not deserve its lofty reputation among the Texas pit-master elite. However, a unanimous agreement among the current barbeque elite seems to be between the young upstart Franklin Barbeque and the up-and-down soap opera story of the Mueller barbeque family, Texas’ first family of barbeque from Taylor, Texas. Now John Mueller is back on top in South Austin with his JMueller BBQ.
The action in Austin is all over the place: north, south, east, west, Lamar, Congress, by the airport…but how about Downtown? Second Street is the glamorous focus of the new Downtown, with much thanks to the restaurants nearby that seem more Los Angeles than Austin-weird. Two years ago David Bull opened the very grown-up Congress and his attempt to be a more approachable grown-up, Second Kitchen.
In 2009, Rene Ortiz opened La Condesa, his full-throttle, rollicking restaurant interpreting the cuisine of Mexico, with a dynamic bar to accompany the vibrant tastes. On the negative side of a recent dinner here, the outrageous popularity of the restaurant forced service to be at far too hectic a pace, and the venue was louder than Darrel Royal Field during a UT football game. At least a half dozen times the servers had to return to our table because we didn’t have enough time to make decisions or finish enough plates to make room for more dishes. Hopefully those tacos I spotted making a u-turn from the table didn’t sit under heat lamps.
The room sparkles, and everyone actually dresses to impress here. Most importantly, for the most part, food and drinks sparkle too. The margarita is the standard all others are measured by. The same goes for the quinoa-stuffed chile relleno and Brussels sprouts mixed with bacon and grapes. Strangely, the grilled street corn scraped with cotija cheese was bizarrely dull, lacking the citrus kick the dish usually has. A watery wild mushroom and huitlacoche huarache faltered as well, lacking pizzazz, and the huitlacoche didn’t boast its usual umami funk.
But for tacos and ceviche, it doesn’t get any better. The aguachile ceviche of snapper, chile water, morenita oil, and ginger chicharron was an absolute blast. Best was a taco, based in a fascinating bacon fat tortilla, marrying the Middle East with Mexico and the American Southwest in an exhilarating combination of fellen pollen yogurt, chipotle harissa, and tender seared venison, all cooled by pickled cucumbers. Tacos run the gamut with the pinnacle of ingredients: Wagyu beef, Texas redfish, Berkshire pork, Poteet Texas spinach. Don’t even dare to pass up the dulce de leche dessert, or any dessert for that matter.
The passion for food follows Austin’s fervent love of creativity. This is a city from which other cities certainly can learn. Everybody just seems more focused on making every day better than the last. I’ve never seen more people running in 100-degree heat than along Town Lake (the OTHER Colorado River). I’ve never been around a city that knows more about the different types of kale and the subtleties of Oaxacan mole, and argues not about what the best IPA is in this brewery-mad town, but which style of IPA from which specific brewery is the best. I’ve never had a world-class espresso in a paper cup before Austin, much less a world-class espresso in a paper cup while sitting in a parking lot in the capital city of a state.
What a city to experience! And my, oh my, what a city to just eat and drink in! I haven’t even mentioned the innovative chefs at the more upscale (by Austin standards) restaurant that could compete with the big boys on both coasts. My meal at Uchiko alone was by far and away the second best I’ve enjoyed in 2012. The best of the year? It’s a little unfair to compare with a certain place in Copenhagen.
Catch some music in town, not necessarily on the calmer, honky-tonk version of Bourbon Street, Sixth Street. Visit the handsome state capitol and the LBJ Library, along with the former President’s ranch 45 minutes outside town. Lady Bird Johnson’s Flower Garden is absolutely worth a few hours too. Walk along Town Lake and watch the bats wake up at sunset. If timed correctly, you can catch one of the country’s premier music festivals with the South by Southwest Music Festival in March, or hook em’ horns with the burnt orange clad faithful at a Longhorns football game. Only at the games can you see the chief Longhorn, Bevo, always so excited to watch football. Most of all, savor the glorious dining and drink a lot of beer. You may be in Texas, and some of the state’s best barbeque can be found here. But in Austin, you are in a place like none other. Keep it weird.
Five Dishes of Austin:
La Condesa: Dulce de Leche Pudding Cake with Sweet Corn, Saffron, and Cream Cheese Ice Cream
After this magnificent dessert, you’ll understand why much of the world prefers caramel over chocolate. Something haunts you forever after the slight jolt of spice carries throughout the dulce de leche, with the perfect level of sweetness achieved. La Condesa doesn’t stop there. Why do we love Cracker Jack and carrot cake? Sweet corn and cream cheese frosting (here in ice cream form).
Olivia’s: Grilled Gulf Shrimp and Grits, Chef’s BBQ Sauce, Anson Mill’s Cheesy Corn Grits
So this is why the South loves grits? Usually considered one of the duller side dishes possible, the grits here are beautiful with the perfect amount of cheese to liven up the already lively barbeque sauce. The plump shrimp are every bit as luxurious as langoustines at the top tables in Paris. Brunch at Olivia’s is the only way I would be able to start a weekend if I lived in Austin. One of the city’s standard bearers for farm-to-table cooking, Olivia’s is exceedingly pleasant, and the MacDaddy with miso-cured pork belly and scrambled eggs on English muffins or the spicy pickled pig ear and melted gouda sandwich are wonderful ways to wake up, only to want a siesta afterwards.
Uchiko: Jar Jar Duck: Countryside Farms Duck, Candied Kumquat, Endive, Rosemary Smoke
Yes, it’s duck in a mason jar. And its name is a play on one of the most annoying cinematic characters in history. But oh, what a majestic dish! As the jar is opened, rosemary smoke envelops the senses. The duck breast slices nearly melt on the fork, pure bliss when topped with some of the kumquat. Duck comes as a crackling, every bit as salty as pork cracklings. And for good measure, the best of the trio of duck versions, perfect confit that would make a grand-mère in the Languedoc proud. A treat for the senses.
Uchiko: Wagyu Short Rib with Strawberry, Fennel, Fish Sauce, and Tarragon
A Southeast Asian inspired dish with the addition of fish sauce. A hint of modernism comes into play with the compressed strawberries. But then, who knows where the incredible inspiration came from for strawberry with beef? The short rib achieves that transcendent texture you previously thought only the maestros of barbeque could achieve.
Uchiko: Fried Milk: Chocolate Milk, Toasted Milk, and Iced Milk Sherbet
Seriously? Yes, the all-milk dessert is all based on variations of milk. It does a body good. The best part are the beignets made from crumbled corn flakes encapsulating sweetened condensed milk. Café du Monde has nothing on these. The funky milk sherbet has an almost icy texture and zero sweetness, and freeze dried milk comes as unsweetened powder. Milk chocolate is, well, thin shards of milk chocolate and a milk chocolate sauce. What goes best with all this milk? Cereal, or in this case, more crumbled corn flakes.
Bonus special taste: Lick Ice Cream’s delightfully spicy “Too Hot Chocolate” flavor with dark chocolate, cayenne pepper, chipotle, and no shortage of honey.
Concept of Austin: Stand, Wait, Be Outside
Of course craft beer, craft cocktails, farm-to-table seasonal cooking, and such are everywhere in Austin. But nowhere have I been where it is more of a physical and mental challenge to reach the great food. Do you want to stand in line for three hours in 100-degree heat for Austin’s best barbeque at Franklin? I chose not to. So many of the city’s food trailers deserve a visit, but then the age-old debate springs to mind – do you really want to eat standing in this heat? Arguably two of the city’s most exciting restaurants, Barley Swine and Foreign & Domestic, of course, don’t take reservations. If you love food, of course the waits and the heat and the standing outside are worth it. Or are they?
Cocktail of Austin: La Condesa’s Margarita la Clasíca
It all starts with the cactus salt-lemongrass rim. Then El Jimador Silver and Patrón Citrónage tequilas lead the way for the agave nectar and lime juice, on the rocks. This is how all margaritas should be – the ultimate refresher and taco teammate, but also a fascinating experience for the senses. Don’t just stop here. Sample the ginger everywhere “Spicy Paloma” and the girly sounding, but immensely accomplished Watermelon-Elderflower Martini.
Austin is certainly a beer town first and foremost. But, don’t count out the cocktail scene. Bar Congress is the dressed up, more formal spot in Austin for craft cocktails, next door to Congress the restaurant. I wanted to love “The Oracle,” but somehow the spirit-driven blend of Mezcal, Averna Amaro, Vermouth di Torino, and Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Rye just lacked a distinct narrative. If you love Earl Grey tea, then “The Critical Darling” with Earl Grey-infused Bourbon, apple drinking vinegar, and a Canton ginger foam is for you. Best was the apricot-enhanced Pisco Sour called the “Apricot Beret.”
For the pre-Prohibition vibe we all know and love, complete with Buster Keaton films as part of the décor, go to East Austin for the East Side Show Room. The atmosphere is the reason to go, and be sure to stay for drinks. Get the “kinship” with vodka, peach, honey, lemon, jalapeno, and sasparilla, or a rye whiskey-green chartreuse riff on the “Last Word” in “The Final Ward.” Weather Up, Pêché and its absinthe bar, and the speakeasy Midnight Cowboy (tried to go here but was denied access…) are among the other craft cocktail bars certainly worth a visit.
Beer or Wine?
The answer is about as clear as wine would be in St. Helena. You’re in beer paradise here. The list goes on with the craft breweries near Austin or in the city: (512), Adelbert’s, Austin Beerworks, Circle Brewing, Hops and Grain, Independence, Jester King (the newest along with Circle), Live Oak, Real Ale, Rogness, South Austin, Thirsty Planet…
Not too bad, don’t you think?
How about some of the winners from our tastings? Circle Brewing crafts a terrific Envy Amber and a decent Rye Wheat IPA that didn’t make a strong case for untraditional IPAs. Everything by the veteran (512) was a winner, from the IPA to the “2” Double IPA to the not too heavy Pecan Porter. Possibly the most impressive IPA of the Austin bunch was Independence’s Stash IPA, on draught at the Ginger Man. Live Oak’s Big Bark Amber Lager faltered, but its hefeweizen was a beautiful rendition of the genre, full of banana and clove notes, and the Liberation Extra Pale Ale was worthy of a pint too. Real Ale’s decent Fireman’s #4 Golden Ale can be found all around the state. Their Lost Gold IPA and Rio Blanco Pale Ale are slightly less impressive than some of the other versions in Austin.
Skip the Thirsty Planet Armadillo Blonde Wheat, the reason many of us look the other way at lighter beers, and go for their more worthy Bucket Head IPA.
The premier beer of Austin? The vote from over here has to be the Yogi Chai Amber from the new Rogness Brewing Co., on draught at Opal Divines. The bartender said nobody ever finished a pint of it. I only had a sampler, but oh what a fascinating brew. Chai spice, a little sugar, a beautiful, bold amber body, and there you have a spectacular beer worth meditating for.
The beers are the main part of the equation. The other part is where to drink the beers in Austin. Most of the breweries don’t have tap rooms, only opening their doors for open houses and tours once or twice a month. This is where Austin differs greatly from other beer hubs like Portland and San Diego. The Ginger Man in a hidden nightlife heavy area Downtown, separate from the mess that is Sixth Street, is one of the gems of the Austin beer scene, cozy and unpretentious like a neighborhood pub should be. The same for The Draught House and its antique copper taps, located way out by Uchiko in North Austin. At both places, the Texas beer lists are lengthy and high quality, and the focus is on brews and conversation unlike Sixth Street.
If you’re on Sixth Street, head west of Congress to Opal Divines. It feels a tad corporate but has excellent bartenders, and the brews on draft are every bit as impressive as the other top beer bars in town.
Austin is also of course where the concept of high caliber beers and dining with feature films started with the small chain of Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas. Now the cocktails at Alamo Drafthouse are a force to be reckoned with too, because the preeminent mixologist of Austin, Bill Norris, is in charge. Then again, you always want those excellent Austin beers.
Shall We Grab Coffee?
Even though it’s 100 degrees, Austin knows its coffee. Patika, a trailer Downtown on Congress, pulls a sensational espresso shot, as does the very Italian trio of Medici caffes. On South Congress, join the line for the sugar rush of an Iced Turbo at Jo’s, with coffee, espresso, hazelnut, cream, and chocolate. It kept me going all day through the triple digits. Jo’s could act as the symbol of Austin, as could its neighboring Hotel San Jose. Make sure to seek out coffeehouses serving Austin’s own Cuvée Coffee, including Medici and Patika, along with the cafes Houndstooth and Once Over.
Restaurant of Austin: Uchiko
Uchi or Uchiko? To be or not to be? Some of the great dilemmas of life…which of Tyson Cole’s trail-blazing, Japanese-inspired Austin restaurants to dine at when faced with the choice of just one dinner. Ultimately after much research, the differences seem subtle, but noticeable. Uchi’s, the elder, is a more tranquil, home-like setting on South Lamar, with more subtle, traditional Japanese style cuisine through the lens of a visionary chef in the Southwest. Uchiko is the larger, louder, sleek, nearly two year old, younger sibling in North Austin, with a bold heavier style of Japanese “farmhouse” cooking from Top Chef star Paul Qui and Cole. Uchi will be calmer, more focused on the exceptional details. Uchiko pushes your buttons and does not hold back until victory.
A meal at Uchiko could be considered one of the country’s gastronomic pleasures. Raw fish dishes are daring, but not bizarre: a pristine diver scallop with tomatillo, kalamata olive, olive powder, and hama chil, or a magical yellowtail sashimi with sliced Thai chilis and a sweet adrenaline rush from orange segments. Servers instruct you to flip the madai sashimi upside down once on your tongue so that the olive oil and lemon zest hit the palate first, then the shiso and sea bream. Uni never had it so luxurious until it met basil and sea salt here. The story is the same for the knockout Norwegian mackerel, brilliantly enhanced by tomato and truffled basil.
Don’t stop with sashimi and sushi, even though a dinner could be nothing but raw fish. Start with a kick from shishito peppers and an even more fiery romesco dipping sauce. The Jar Jar duck is the obligatory order at every table. The pork jowl with a fascinating brussel sprout kimchee should be too, alongside Asian pears and preserved lemon crème fraiche. And the hits keep coming. The most sensual wagyu beef possible, with strawberry, fennel, fish sauce, and tarragon, is a dish that is as precious as your first love.
And don’t stop at dessert. There’s no passing up fried milk folks or olive gelato with an intriguing macerated lemon-fig crumble and more olive powder (the lone repeat ingredient I saw all evening). Then there is always the cigar of desserts: maple budino, chocolate sorbet, huckleberry, and tobacco cream.
A standing ovation for the consummate service that could teach the restaurants of the hospitality industry a thing or two about pacing, smiling, and being spot on with advice. Meals at restaurants are about more than food. Uchiko could get by with its extraordinary dishes. Fortunately, the service and atmosphere are every bit the caliber of what you’re eating.
Lucky Austin to have Uchi and Uchiko. An experience at Uchiko is the kind that changes your view on what a restaurant can be.
Symbol of Austin: The Texas State Capitol