Some cities and regions are permanently stamped with stereotypical food labels, such as Cajun delights in the south, cheese, cheese and more cheese in Wisconsin and then the whole barbecue craze in Texas, Arkansas and North Carolina. From the minute we divulged our plans of visiting Austin, the capital of Texas where the longhorn bulls roam, we were solicited the notion of getting hold of some good old Texas meat, including one from our UBER driver who couldn’t stop raving about how the ribs and steak are the bomb in the lone star state. I get it, barbecue doesn’t get better than that in Texas, but S and are not big into meat, specially large swathes of meat dunked in that sweet BBQ sauce folks go nuts for. I like my meals light while traveling since we tend to do a lot of on-foot exploration and a balanced diet of veggies with a small side of protein keeps me pretty happy without feeling hunkered down.
I am a big proponent of restaurants adopting the farm to table principles, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that I did my research to unearth the “other” face of Texas cuisine, the one minus all the BBQ brouhaha. So here is my edition of dining out in Austin, Texas or as I would like to call it: Beyond the BBQ. Essentially, three square meals a day and some of the very best of what Texas had to offer beyond simply meat. If you can dare to venture beyond Franklin’s BBQ’s mile long line, you will be greeted with Austin’s silent revolution of amazingly creative chefs partnering with local farmers and bringing you the very best of dining and wining in this charismatic city. I was simply blown away by the food and even more so, the ease with which we got reservation at some of these awesome places at a very short notice. If you are a foodie in search of flavors and creativity, do check out some of these places! Understated, elegant and cooking up a storm, Austin, Texas is the hidden gem in the culinary landscape of USA and parallels some of the best in the business at the two coasts.
The most important meal of the day according to many (I say phooey to that since all meals are important), our breakfast food ranged from Japanese to New Orleans inspired fare to some of Austin’s best breakfast tacos (one cannot leave Austin without tasting some of the amazing tex-mex grub, specially the tacos which are free of any hipster-y pretension). Go to Mi Madre’s for no fuss hearty tacos (voted as best breakfast tacos in Austin) and you can get pretty satisfied with one of their many combinations (vegetarian option available) for dirt cheap, i.e. $3/taco (one was good enough for me). Sa-Ten, recommended by Eater Austin was our next breakfast spot, and is a small Japanese inspired cafe in a tiny galleria, sharing space with studios and other businesses. They have several Japanese toasts (vegetarian options available), coffee, drinks and other breakfast items such as salad and Katsu, but the toasts are a must try! Made fresh on thick slabs of bread with sinful toppings such as Sriracha mayo smoked salmon or Nori Tama (eggs, green onion, mozzarella, dried sea weed) or Yatai (veggie hash with cheese on toast, tastes like pizza), you cannot go wrong with these! Finally, our third breakfast stop was épicerie, a charming cafe and grocery serving New Orleans inspired breakfast. I went in for a meaty kill, aka breakfast sandwich with bacon while S settled for a dirty rice hash with honey butter biscuits and coddled eggs. Their chai latte (made vegan for me with soy milk) was simply sublime and just what I needed that rain soaked morning. My one regret amidst all this breakfast hopping was that we missed dining at Josephine House, one more super popular Austin breakfast spot, because they were closed for a private event that one very last day when we decided to stop by. If you are ever in Austin, Texas in the neighborhood of Clarksville, do give this place a try!
Refuge from the heat and thus eating light were our mantras for lunch because what with the sun beating down mercilessly on us, the last thing we wanted to do was to stuff our sweaty selves out. Lunch was again a diverse affair with stops at a popular Vietnamese spot, Austin’s hippest laundromat turned cafe and finally an Indian meets Tex-mex joint. Elizabeth Street cafe (so named after the street it stands on) is a cute little yellow restaurant serving all things Vietnamese, be it pho, noodles, bahn-mi sandwiches, salads or rice bowls with an impressive dessert selection at the counter. The fried calamari was too bland for our liking but I loved my green mango salad (spiced with red chili powder coated dried shrimp) while S went for a vegan noodle bowl. I finished my meal with a yummy Nutella eclair.
Next, and one of our Austin favorites, was undoubtedly Launderette, the chic cafe everyone’s raving about in the quiet neighborhood of Holly. We loved the nouveau Texan flavors of mixing local produce with tropical sensibilities (the state does have a tropical climate for most part of the year with heat and humidity abound) with a dash of Asian fusion. I got the tandoori prawns and although they were a bit too hot for my liking, the kale salad and S’s veggie bowl (he couldn’t stop raving about it) were really good. So was the buttermilk panna-cotta at the end which I could not pass up on. Launderette showed us why it was worthy on being on the list of Food & Wine’s restaurant of the year and so you should totally check it out!
Finally, we got some spicy India meets Tex-mex, i.e. tacos again, at Nasha ( meaning intoxication), a tiny, trendy Indian restaurant in East Austin with some pretty rad murals outside keeping with the theme (i.e. Lord Shiva smoking some dope and blowing off colorful clouds of smoke). S went for a vegetarian curry while I huffed and puffed trying to eat my chicken tacos (they were pretty filling and two for $10 is more than what I could chew). The food felt pretty home cooked minus all the cream and lard, but best of all the cardamom lassies were out of the world creamy and smooth and came in cute striped tumblers!
The dinner series was a resounding hit and one that I felt mighty proud of, given that I nearly moved to tears (which is very rare for me) while dining out one night. I do not have photos, understandably because of the dim lighting, so you just have to use your imagination when it comes to the beauty of what lay on the dining table in front of us. All I can say that these were some of the best meals that I’ve ever had (and I dine out an insane amount) and cannot wait to go back. S got vegetarian food everywhere so yes, all you vegetarians out there (vegan is slightly more difficult, but can be accommodated upon prior notice) there is nothing to fear!
We had four nights of dinner starting off with the trendy Barley Swine, serving Tapas style shareable plates or chef’s tasting menu (10 course for $90-a steal if you ask me and can be made fully vegetarian). The restaurant also prides itself on carrying the farm to table torch in Austin since all ingredients, meat and produce are sourced locally. Next came Lenoir, a restaurant inside what felt like a quaint Victorian house with a huge communal table in the middle where we were seated. The rule of dining is thus: you pick one item each from appetizers, main entrees and dessert or mix and match any three on the menu (it is a three course set meal) with $10 for additional items. Three was a good number for both of us since the portions were just right, but what blew our minds off was the food, the flavor and the creativity. Here is how the restaurant describes the food, and honestly this is the best way to talk about it:
“We call it Hot Weather Food, and it’s about eating right for the season and the climate. It’s important to think about what we eat in relation to where we live — and it’s hot in Texas. Historically, when you look at cultures that live in hot parts of the world, food is acidic, citrusy, brothy and spicy because that’s what works with the climate. So we emulate that and keep it light: very little butter, cream and gluten. It’s food that works with the climate. It’s good for your body. It’s good for the heat. It’s Hot Weather Food.”
As you can guess, the food was a nod to Indian and south east Asian countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, with not only the spices but the technique of cooking as well. I was dumbstruck when I had my first taste of the charred eggplant puree as it reminded me instantly of the “begun-pora” that I had grown up eating in my erstwhile home in Kolkata. Besides the food, the service and ambiance were very friendly and fantastic.
Just when we were thinking that we had struck gold with Lenoir, along came Olamaie, serving modern southern food in Austin and basking in the glory of having graced numerous prestigious culinary awards list, notably the Food&Wine edition of Best New Chefs, James Beard semifinalist in the reckoning for Rising Star Chef of the Year and being on the top of the pile for Austin360 Dining Guide. The ambiance is stylish with dark, moody panels enhancing the “fine-dining” aura and the service is impeccable. The restaurant is nested inside a southern house with a porch and looks beautiful from outside. We were lucky to have been seated right across from the site of action, i.e. the kitchen which was the epicenter of activity around chef Michael Fojtasek, with people bustling in and out, sounds of chopping, peeling and cries of all things food permeated the air. When our server stopped by to inquire about the food, I described it as “SUBLIME”, cause after having that heavenly baby tomato salad with mint and spinach granitas followed by the slice of fish richly sauteed in butter but with its delicacy intact in a puddle of charred pea puree, I could not think of anything else to say. However, their best item is not on the menu and you have to ask for it, i.e. their biscuits that are accompanied by honeyed butter. I have never tasted biscuits as good as these in my life! Warm, fluffy and flaky at the same time, it melted in my mouth with a dab of that delicious butter. I didn’t care about how my arteries were being clogged, I just wept tears of happiness. My meal ended with some Valrhona dark chocolate ice cream which was sinful.
Our last meal in Austin, Texas was at the trendy and happening Emmer & Rye where you order items off the menu (small portions again, so choose 4-5 to share between 2) and also from a dim sum cart that rolls by ever so often. They also indulge in whole animal butchery for meat lovers. The small portions and the bite sized dim sum worked well for us since we were pretty bloated after 3 days of continous eating and were craving for some good old home cooked food. One quick survey of the diners revealed that this is certainly a hot spot for the trendy younger folks at Austin, so if you are someone who likes to dine at fun, popular places, this is the spot to be.
Thus ends our saga of eat, drink Austin, Texas where we sampled some of the best that this city had to offer. Hopefully, I managed to unveil the BBQ curtain a little to show you how diverse Texas culinary scene is. Please drop me a line if you get to dine at one of these establishments and thanks so much for stopping by! Don’t forget to read my traveler’s guide to Austin and Instagramable murals as well!
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