Last issue we talked Dallas, which is full of food and drink surprises these days… Austin gets all the love in the national press, and among many I know. As music is the first love of my life, Austin certainly gains points there (although New Orleans remains the ultimate music city in my book).
But I found all three Texas cities I returned to during my two week summer road road trip across the state — Dallas, Houston and Austin — hold their own strengths and fantastic people.
For me, Austin’s funky playfulness doesn’t outshine the larger cities to the north and south, though many I know are all about Austin. Austin is rich in young, white hipster culture — heavy on food trucks and live music clubs. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find its honky-tonk heartbeat and three of the greatest dive bars in the country.
Olamaie (pronounced oh-la-may) was my top meal in Austin — and top two in the whole state (alongside FT33 in Dallas). It is a restaurant that reveres Southern food… and plays with it. The talented chef duo of Michael Fojtasek (Per Se in NY, Son of a Gun in LA — he grew up in Dallas) and Grae Nonas (Lenoir in Austin, Son of a Gun) were rightly among Food & Wine Magazine’s 2015 10 best new chefs, with the restaurant just opening in fall 2014. It feels like Austin elevated, in keeping with the great modern Southern restaurants like Edward Lee’s Milkwood and 610 Magnolia in Louisville or Husk in Charleston and Nashville.
Inside an elegant, white Southern home, Olamaie’s more sterile, tightly-packed dining room belies the warm, seamless service, strong wine list (including rarities like Haak Texas Madeira), solid cocktails and the stellar food.
You know it is a great restaurants when a series of dishes all win an “excellent” mark. Their Hoppin’ John ($16) is the most exciting version I’ve had. I love traditional versions I’ve tasted in the South and from gifted home cooks, typically a black-eyed peas and rice-based comfort dish with Low Country origins. Olamaie’s version plays with zipper peas and pole beans soaking in a marinated soft egg. It’s savory and fantastic.
So is a smoky tuna dip ($16) punctuated by burnt eggplant, chow chow (a green tomato-based pickled relish) and decadent Alabama white sauce (the state’s signature BBQ sauce), all scooped up with benne (a type of sesame seed hailing from the Carolinas’ Low Country by way of Africa) cracker. Those famed off-menu biscuits are indeed worth the hype. So is their ultra-rich pimento cheese, one of my Southern food weaknesses – and sheer perfection here.
Sister restaurant Uchiko opened in 2010 showcasing daily-changing Tsukiji Fish Market selections from Tokyo and chef/owner Tyson Cole’s fun-yet-refined take on sushi and Japanese food. Sitting at the sushi bar with a talented chef, it’s easy to see why the Uchi empire is a Texas staple and James Beard award-winner. Unlike at home in California where the US’ largest Japanese population means a never-ending, wide range of Japanese food from LA to SF, Uchi is a rarity and a joy in Texas.
Highlights are many off a la carte and omakase tasting menus. Beausoliel oysters ($4 each) are perked up by apple cider vinegar foam and apricot cubes, while a hirame (fluke) crudo special ($22) was silky in a white soy ponzu sauce and basil oil, bright with myoga (Japanese ginger). Maki/rolls are no throwaway, like hotate (scallop) maki in white paper ($15), savory with leek puree, vivid with watermelon radish and chili oil.
Paired with German white wines (like a 2013 Hexamer Spatburgunder Weissherbst Halbtrocken from Nahu — $16 a glass, $63 a bottle), or even better, sakes like Yuki No Bosha ($14/86), plus attentive, friendly service, places the bustling Uchiko and Uchi among the best Austin (and Texas) restaurants.
3. JOSEPHINE HOUSE
The sister restaurant to Austin upscale classic Jeffrey’s, Josephine House was easily my favorite brunch in Austin. In a charming Clarksville cottage on a residential street, Stumptown coffee and changing fresh juices (I liked greens, cilantro, apple, serrano juice – $7) flow while a cozy patio looked inviting if it weren’t for the nasty heat. Inside, a marble bar showcases fresh baked breads (like carrot zucchini poppy seed bread) and breakfast platters, with the one (big) downside being an abundance of flies hovering over the spread.
Friendly staff bring out a daily-changing menu of (pricey) breakfast goods like lemon ricotta pancakes ($14) with Poteet Texas blackberries, huevos rancheros ($16) or the Josephine rice bowl ($18) laden with Anson Mills black rice, poached egg, roasted veggies, avocado and salsa verde. Coffee, juice and toasts ($10 each) — I liked crushed avocado fried egg toast with hot sauce and lime zest — make a lovely start to the day.
Sway is of that modern Thai ilk that might put it on a list with the likes of the original Pok Pok in Portland, Kin Khao in SF, Night + Market in LA and Uncle Boons in NYC. But it’s more spacious than any of those restaurants and while maybe not as experimental, playful or pulling from authentic Thai rarities (I once spent 2 months all over the country of Thailand), similar to those other modern Thai restaurants, it brings fresh perspective to Thai food, paired with the likes of Austrian Zweigelt wine.
While they do nicely with twists on traditional Thai street food like mieng kham, in the case of their prawn miange ($10) — a betel leaf cradling toasted coconut and cashews, lime, fresno chiles and grapefruit — by far the standout dish was Jungle Curry ($19). Thai-inspired, hearty-tender Texas wagyu beef and red chili impart a decidedly local, Texas slant to an utterly comforting curry laced with baby corn, eggplant, peppercorn and coconut cream.
5. ODD DUCK
Despite Alan Richman’s slam of Odd Duck (from Barley Swine owner/chef Bryce Gilmore) in his GQ magazine article last year, “The Rise of Egotarian Cuisine“, I found a few highlights during my recent meal. Perfect? No. Hipster. Certainly. It’s Austin.
While their raved-about Parker house rolls ($3 each) were bland compared to the best I’ve had (like the dreamy Parker rolls at Cafe du Nord or Causwells), “General tsokra” ($8) is okra grilled in a General Tso’s-inspired soy chile glaze, resulting in a flavor-packed vegetable dish.
A tamale relleno ($8) is a unique twist: blue corn masa wrapped in a chile relleno, doused in chicharron stew, given sweet-crunchy contrast from raisins and almonds. Cocktails were a bit of a let down (low on the complexity and memorable flavor), while the most gratifying dish was a twice-baked potato ($11), meaty with braised goat, cheesy in cheddar fondue, given a tart kick from green tomato.
My feelings about Qui are quite mixed. With a couple real high points, including their divine, signature aged cheddar ice cream cookie sandwich, the James Beard-award winning, oft raved-about restaurant was unforgivably smoked out through half our dinner. We sat along the “bar”, in front of the kitchen staff in a large, open kitchen. They all had red eyes they were constantly rubbing from the pain of the thick smoke. We did the same. Our clothes reeked. It was so bad, we thought about leaving but were already a couple courses in. At any restaurant, this would be a problem. But at one of this supposed caliber — and with $55 (vegetarian) or $70 (regular) tasting menus — it’s unacceptable. It wasn’t until I asked about the problem that anyone even apologized or mentioned it, saying there was something wrong with the stove and ventilation but it was being fixed.
After over 45 minutes of difficulty keeping our stinging eyes open while breathing in smoke, the air began to clear as it got better. But we were miserably uncomfortable for half of our $200+ dinner (with tip and drinks). I was shocked to talk to a colleague in the dining industry a few weeks later who said the exact same thing happened to them when they visited earlier this year. How can such a major issue not have been addressed or fixed immediately?
Then there is the food. It would be one thing if it were excellent across the board but nearly half of the tasting menu courses (we tried both the vegetarian and the regular for comparison) were over-salted or conflicted (a lettuce wrap amuse bouche had no less than three different sauces — complete overkill).
Emphasized by the tense kitchen mood we had a front row view of, it was clear that many of the dishes were avant garde without a sense of balance or flavoring technique to ground the experimental combinations. I crave and seek experimental around the world, but as is often the criticism with molecular cuisine, all the creativity of concept is worth little if a dish doesn’t taste delicious. A minuscule fried chicken bite didn’t show off the smoked oyster aioli and egg yolk custard accents listed. On the vegetarian side, simple was sometimes better, as with an earthy course of braised daikon radish in charred scallion, toasted sesame and black garlic.
A straightforward dessert of lemon yuzu granita cleans the palate despite honey and milk chocolate, while a hint of mustard seed adds intrigue. A Pastis Service cocktail ($11) seems rather simple, mixing Pernod Ricard pastis and Tenneyson absinthe with coconut water, but the clean coconut water and anise-laced pastis and absinthe sing together. I’d say dine at Qui if you’re a hard-core dining traveler who needs to see firsthand what the hype is about — but go forewarned.
Wars have been started over less then BBQ love, which is a religion in Texas. To draw lines in the sand is to make enemies. I certainly would like to spend a lot more time digging into Texas BBQ.
But here is a line I can’t help but draw from my recent two week road-trip: nothing even came close to Killen’s BBQ outside of Houston (more on that in my upcoming Houston articles), while in the middle-of-nowhere Hill Country (Llano, Texas), Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que was not so much the best-tasting meat as it was arefreshingly old school, unique, slice-of-country-life Texas BBQ experience.
Comparatively, the much-hyped Austin BBQ scene was a little too hipster and fever-pitched for me. Waiting 2-5 hours for any food is insanity, even for someone like myself who lives to eat — and travels the world constantly for my next meal. Which means there is no way the frenetically raved-about Franklin Barbecue was going to happen (I hit many spots every day so there is no way I’m going to let one place take up half the day). La Barbecue falls just behind with couple hour waits — boasting Franklin’s former pit master. As much as I would like to compare these meats to those of the best BBQ spots I’ve visited around the country, those waits are unacceptable. So local food writer/editor friends turned me on to BBQ they find likewise excellent without all that fuss.
Besides road-tripping across Texas for BBQ these two weeks, I took a 2 week road trip across Tennessee, the Carolinas and Georgia back in 2007 to study deep south BBQ. I’m a Southern food and BBQ fanatic and thus found plenty to love at each Austin BBQ stop. But… after Killen’s BBQ outside Houston, there was no going back: nothing even came close to second place.
The two best were food trucks, naturally (this is Austin, after all). Micklethwait Craft Meats was hit-and-miss for me as I tried a range of meats from pork shoulder and sausage to barbacoa (lamb). Even the sides didn’t taste as great as they sounded, like a too-dry lemon poppyseed coleslaw. If it weren’t for the brutal heat, the wild lawn and picnic table setting appealed, like eating in someone’s backyard (note: the neighboring trailers is Micklethwait owners’ deli meats newcomer, Romanouskas). The highlight ended up being brisket Frito “pie”: fatty cuts of beef brisket over a pile of Fritos, sour cream, jalapenos and red onions. There was a line (about 15 minute wait) before opening on a weekday.
Kerlin BBQ was probably my favorite. Shorter lines — even on a weekend — helped, as did chill, country tunes setting the mood at picnic tables under a tent near the truck. Then there was a friendly offer of “free Texas water” with our meal: a can of Lone Star Beer.
Prime Angus brisket and pulled pork both delighted with tender, smoky fattiness. They had the strongest sides, too, namely a dreamy blue cheese slaw. Even better? They make their own Texas kolaches, like a perfect jalapeño cheddar sausage kolache (not available every day — sometimes available a drive away at Wright Bros Brew & Brew. Note: they are open until they run out so go early).
Two ice cream/gelato stops in Austin stood out — both worth heading out of your way for and a short drive from each other.
Dolce Neve‘s gelato recalls Italy — in fact, one of the owners, Francesca, trained at Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna, Italy (home to some of the best gelato in the world), working at the famed Gianfrancesco Cutelli at Gelateria De’ Coltelli gelato shop in Pisa. Classic Italian gelato flavors like stracciatella are done beautifully but I was particularly wowed by tart sour cream cherry, fromage blanc with pear jam and the lush chocolate gelato with candied orange peels.
Lick is more of the current-day artisanal ethos I’ve long seen at home at greats like Humphry Slocombe, here focused on Texas and farm-fresh flavors, like sweet pea and sorrel or dewberry corn cobbler. There are now two Lick shops in Austin — and one in San Antonio — and their most unique flavors are so good, I returned twice to try even more. My favorites were a zippy, cooling cilantro lime as well as a tart toasted coconut (dairy-free!), laced with lemon-lime curd. Roasted beets and mint ice cream sounded brilliant but I wish the earthiness of the beets shone as it has in other beet ice cream (or cocktails) I’ve had, rather than leaning sweet and subtle.
The Rest: Tacos to Butchers
Dai Due could have been a top Austin restaurant for me, it’s farm-to-table, house butchery and handmade ingredients approach mimicking what I’ve long been used to at home.
I liked the gourmet Texas approach to house pastrami, all-local ingredients and food sources. Dai Due was just named Bon Appetit’s #6 Best New Restaurant of 2015 this summer, not long after my visit. But my meal was decidedly mixed. Chicken fried duck sounded brilliant but was a bit bland, the pastrami was uninspired (and I’m a pastrami fanatic since my NYC/NJ teen years). Each dish I tasted was generally average except for blue crab cake salad ($13), which I didn’t expect to be the standout but was fresh, sweet crab enlivened by chow chow and basil mayo. Beer and wine selections are strong and local (think Infamous’ Peanut Butter Stout). So I was disappointed — and now puzzled after the major BA accolade — to find the food did not keep up.
Salt and Time would be my butcher shop of choice. There is eat-in seating and quality dishes based on changing meats from roasted lamb to steak. Unexpectedly, I was most taken with their ham and grilled Swiss cheese sandwich ($9) at lunch. Seemingly simple, the quality of ingredients, a buttery brioche and the needed contrast of pickled green tomatoes, make it one comforting sandwich.
An setting under straw umbrellas at the original Cesar Chavez location of beloved food truck Veracruz All Natural can’t be beat, despite weekend crowds. And their beloved breakfast taco — a Texas institution — is a delight. The Migas ($3) taco is packed with eggs, avocado, cheese, pico de gallo and tortilla chips. But branching out to other tacos was an experience in the lackluster (and I was struggling with the preponderance of flour vs. corn tacos.)
Us Mexico and California-weaned folk might feel more comfortable at a hole-in-the-wall like La Fruta Feliz, which reminded me more of home with lengua (tongue) and tripas (small intestines) tacos, fresh juices and a sweetheart of a woman serving us. The tacos still were far from the best I’ve had but the experience was authentic.