Friday, October 25, 2013

Eating BIG in Austin

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties

-All types of Tacos, Bangin' BBQ and the Food Trailers of ATX

I got a chance to visit a city high on my list this past Summer. I'd heard nothing but good things about Austin, Texas including the claim it was the best college town in the country. Having gone to school in Madison I wasn't ready to agree with that until I saw for myself. The University of Texas is just one of a few main culprits responsible for making it such a fun place. It's population is close to 900,000 with over 150 people moving there each day. So it's more like a city with a great college in the heart of it. I noticed the boom in the fact there were hotels and condo units going up all over town. I felt the energy in the air while air, that and the heat, holy shit is it hot in August. Austin's been billed "the live music capitol" of the world and while they do have that going, I was more interested in the food. Here's what I was able to squeeze in the three days there. Enjoy the rodeo.

S'C'&C does Austin, Texas

To be considered a great food city an area must excel at a few things. This is the case for Austin where you'll find no shortage of Mexican food including the breakfast tacos they adopted as a whole and are now found at 100's of places in town. Then there's BBQ. Many experts from that trail will agree it might be the best place to eat smoked meat these days. Austin had five places make Texas Monthly's Top 50 BBQ places in-state, by far the most for any area. Not to mention they have an entire food culture. Food Trailers can be found all over town and in some parts they have designated space. Called "trailer parks" these are just empty lots with food trailers sitting in them.

South Austin Trailer Park

I hit up the South Austin Trailer Park and Eatery to visit an ATX original. Torchy's Tacos got it's start when an executive chef quit his job, moved to Austin, bought a red vespa and food trailer and started making tacos. It took some free samples and stuff to get the people in but when they started to come it didn't take long for them to get back. Today they have 10 locations in Austin and several outlets throughout the state in places like the Dallas/Fort Worth area and Houston.

Torchy's Tacos: An Austin Original

Menu (Click Pics to Enhance)

Torchy's claims to make some "damn good tacos" and I have to concur. I know it's cliche but the "everything is bigger in Texas" saying holds true here. They stuff nice fresh tortillas with a wide range of ingredients, some common some not so much. They also have breakfast tacos which are everyone in Austin's favorite way to start the day. My first breakfast taco in Austin would be a "Monk Special" which had scrambled egg, it must of been three eggs worth, with bacon, green chiles, shredded cheese and green sauce. This taco was a monster and not a bad way to start my day, except for the fact one could easily get you stuffed and I also tried "Trailer Park" offering served with a fried chicken strip, green chiles, lettuce and pico. I went "trashy" and got the lettuce replaced with cheese.

Tacos from Torchy's

Not too far from the South Austin Trailer Park is another one on 1st street that houses a few trailers including the legendary Mellizoz Tacos. This is where "good friends, make good tacos, and good tacos make good friends" I had been told I needed to go to. It's a shame it was just me for this stop because all their tacos look really good but it was the fried avocado offering I was told I had to eat. Thanks for the rec @tacojournalism! This was one of the best tacos I had all trip. They take individual pieces of avocado and batter them in tempura before getting a quick fry. Then an unorthodox set of toppings goes on. Arugula, tomato, chipotle sherry vinaigrette and cotija cheese. Talk about the perfect taco for a 96 degree day. So good that these annoying screeching birds common throughout the city were getting brave trying to eat some of it. Had to shoo them off, no way I was sharing.

The Famous Fried Avocado Taco from Mellizoz Tacos

Speaking of the guys behind @tacojournalism they're the authors behind 'Austin Breakfast Tacos: The Story of the Most Important Taco of the Day' It turned out the Taco gods were on my side as I won they're awesome read on the internet from the Publisher History Press which has a branch called 'American Palate' that celebrates the countries regional eats. I got my book a few days before taking off and read it thru while on the plane. It was awesome getting to see and read the stories of many who helped make the breakfast taco the iconic eat of Austin. One of these places is the hugely popular Tacodeli. As I learned in the book Tacodeli got its start in 1999.

Tacodeli is another Austin Staple

A businessman named Eric Wilkerson moved back to Austin and fell in love with a small little shop called Tacodeli ran by a guy named Roberto Espinoza. Roberto started the place to get a taste of home (Mexico City) in Austin and Eric loved it so much that they became friends and made a deal. Eric would provide his services by organizing the back of the house affairs and Roberto would be able to focus solely on the cooking. Nowadays they have over 40 specialty tacos and I must say I've had cravings for them ever since. We were headed out of town to Louie Mueller's Barbecue so I only tried three. All of which were excellent. They strive to serve the best in town and I could taste that in them.

The Otto: A House Favorite served with bacon, refried black beans, avocado and cheese

A Build your Own Breakfast Taco: I did Chorizo, mashed potato, egg and cheese and it was money

Mojo Fish Taco: Line Caught Texas Gulf Coast Drum Filets grilled with mojo-garlic sauce and garnished w/ homemade guacamole and pico de gallo

As long as were talking tacos lets get the last spot I tried them at out of the way. When it comes to travel I'm not only good at seeking out the best food stops, I also do booze. Since we're deprived of Happy Hour in Chicago I like to make sure I get mine on while elsewhere. It is vacation after all. I gathered a restaurant that does a modern take on Mexican called La Condesa had a really good happy hour and great food to go with it. Aint that the truth!

Modern Mexican at La Condesa

I belive happy hour goes on in the bar area only, so people get there right when it starts. That's what we did as we were able to snag two seats at the bar and take a look at a really nice cocktail menu with some really refreshing offerings. Having walked here from our hotel downtown, I was a little bit overheated as was the case with most walks we took. On top of the house cocktails they had some perfect pairings as far as food in warm weather goes. There were a few options on the happy hour menu for housemade guacamole and the one with watermelon and cotija cheese was where it's at. Talk about the perfect pairing for summer. I never really thought of doing this but it makes sense as I've had some excellent goat cheese and watermelon offerings. The guac with it worked perfect.

Watermelon Guacamole

Even more addicting than the guacamole were the ceviche tostadas. I think they were $2 maybe $3 each and on the small side so ordering a few was a must. Both the tuna and the Spanish Lubina variety were just about the perfect snack paired with their 'Alma Blanca' cocktail - habanero-infused siembra azul blanco, ginger liqueur, agave nectar, pineapple juice, fresh corn, hoja de hierba santa, hibiscus-rose-infused salt rim.

Ceviche Tostadas

Also on the happy hour menu were some tacos. We started out with a cohinita pibil as well as a chicken with tomatillo. Of course when ordered I was all about the cochinita pibil, the achiote braised pork shoulder topped with pickled red onions is one of my favorite tacos around. But I ended up falling head over heels in love with the other one. The best chicken taco I've ever had and that's probably by a long-shot. I'd say La Condesa was one of the best happy hours I've ever been a part of.

Cochinita Pibil Taco and Chicken Taco with Tomatillo

Aside from La Condesa and drinks and apps at place on 6th street we didn't do much dining indoors. Of course I was very interested in all the trailers around town. It really didn't matter what part of it I was in, there was always a trailer nearby. Some more spruced up than others but all looked appealing. Countless countries cuisines are represented in them and I had a handful to try. Many of them are in place outside bars or social clubs including the Love Balls Bus not far from campus.

Love Balls Bus - Serving Japanese Takoyaki

Here they specialize in the Japanese street snack of Takoyaki which are balls of batter cooked with chopped octopus. They're made in a special pan and the display of them being done is part of the fun. The best part though is in the taste. While I'm not all that familiar with Takoyaki having only had a few different offerings, I know these were great because that's how they tasted. The menu had a few different topping options for them including the traditional way of savory brown sauce, kewpie mayo, powered seaweed and bonito flakes but I tried the "Ponzu" style and my only regret was not ordering another batch. The ponzu marinated bean sprouts gave extra crunch to the balls which came with an explosion of flavor inside mouth with each bite. Some shichimi red pepper kicked up the heat. Sensational snack.

 Ponzu Takoyaki from Love Balls Bus

One of the most commonly mentioned trailers when researching the best one in town was The East Side King. Like a few others they've developed into a force with multiple locations. What's even cooler is that each location has a different menu. Not far from Love Balls Bus on a main eating and drinking drag for campus is a location hidden in the back of a bar.

Right this Way!

"East Side King was created by Paul Qui and Moto Utsunomiya as a side project when they were working at Uchi and Uchiko. It provided a space for creative freedom and fun with food, and it has grown to include talent like Yoshi Okai, locations like Hole In The Wall, Grackle, Liberty Bar and Shangri-La, and menus that range from Curry Buns to Sapporo Beer Bacon Miso Ramen" Unfortunately it was too damn hot to try the ramen though it was being consumed by quite a few on my visit to the Hole in the Wall location. I went with the ESK classic of Thai Chicken Kara-age. That's fried boneless chunks of chicken thigh served with a sweet-spicy sauce along with basil, mint, cilantro, onion and jalapeno. I loved the combination of all three of the greens. Neve thought to use them but they worked well together in this simple yet succulent dish.

Thai Chicken Kara-age

As demonstrated by the Love Balls Bus many trailers like to get creative with the name. We met one of my gf's friends at Ms. P's Electric Cock. Fried chicken is what they do here. Ms. P brought her recipe to Austin when she realized there was nothing as good as it around. I got overturned since this wasn't my lunch and she ended up ordering the boneless tenders. They were good for what they were but I would of liked to have tried the bone on variety. Its just my preference. Mac and cheese was stellar too. On to the next one!

Ms. P's Electric Cock Trailer

If you arent a regular reader you might of missed the Texas BBQ Tour I did that inlcuded all the places I tried while on this trip. Two of which were within Austin city limits and the other one in the town of Taylor about 25 minutes away. The Micklethwait Craft Meats Trailer was yet another highlight as far as they go. As I sit here typing this story, its the picture of my brisket and hatch sausage thread which I want to eat right now.

Micklethwait Craft Meats Trailer

Then of course there's what's turned into one of the most well known food stops in all of America, Franklin Barbecue. You know I did that too. The 3 hour wait was an experience I won't forget and the smoked meat platter (brisket, ribs and sausage) was as good as the hype let on, the brisket and sausage were anyway. Read all about these two top notch 'que spots in my round-up right HERE.

Franklin Barbecue

By day two I was ready to throw in the towel as far as best college town in all of America goes. I'll go ahead and admit that there really is no place like Austin as far as college towns go. Madison is great and still one of the best two or three but Austin is a fast growing city with lots more going on and of course much better weather. I got to do the downtown farmers market one morning and in the end will say that's one thing Madison has Austin beat on. It was a nice way to spend an hour but nothing stood out as sensational.

Austin SFC Farmers Market

What will stand out to many is 6th street, this is where much of the fun happens. It's also what made me realize that Madison just isn't as big as Austin. Visit during the day and there's people walking around taking in live music from venue to venue with a mostly a calm scene. But when the sun goes down and the streets get closed off, it gets rowdy. School wasn't even in session on my visit so I can only imagine it on a big weekend. The Museum of the Weird is a fun way to spend 40 minutes after a drink or two before hitting up the bars. Even though there's one main stretch of action, there's also alot of other taverns, restaurants and drinking spots if you go east under the bridge. Lets check it out.

6th Street in Austin

The view from up top at Easy Tiger Bake Shop and Beer Garden

Grab a Gordough's Doughnut or some Jim's-Jim's Water Ice for the walk, both were good

The last night in town we went bar hopping around and must of walked four or five miles in doing so, mainly along 6th street. At the end of the night I had so many options with food trailers many of which I passed on in hopes of finding better. Who knows what I missed as there are a couple large trailer parks east on 6th street but I was happy with my Turkish style doner kebab from Kebabalicious on 7th. The beef/lamb mixture from the spit wasn't all dried out like many serve and the house hot sauce packed nice heat and really solid flavors. Also excellent were the traditional Chinese pot-stickers from a trailer called Dumpling Happiness. They served outside a cocktail bar called Whisler's. Nice 1-2 eat/drink punch they got going on.

Late Nite Eats at Kebabalicious

Happiness in Handmade Dumpling Form at The Whistler House

Night one in town we hopped onto to one of the many bicycle taxis around. Make sure you negotiate your price for the ride first. I guess $5 head is fair according to them and it was reasonable enough for me. I like to help locals out so we had him drive us to this hip up and coming neighborhood called Rainey Street. All the bars and business are in old houses that have been restored. I guess some locals are pissed about it but I'd just tell them it's better to be booming than crumbling. If threatening to move away well that's what you'd have to do if you lived in some struggling cities so...take it eatzi!

Riding to Rainey Street

A few days before take off I saw on twitter that there was another list for best pizza places in the country. Yes! Because we don't have enough bad ones to begin with. I can usually tell if one should be taken seriously or not based off what Chicago spots are included and the rest of the Midwest for that matter. We as a region have deep roots in pizza making. Well anyway I forget exactly which list this was but they listed a place in Austin called Via 313. They endorsed them for their authentic Detroit Style Pan Pizza. A little more investigation and it was on my list so we rolled up around 1a and were greeted with some Eminem on the speakers and a wonderful aroma in the air.

Detroit Style Pizza in Austin from Via 313

For those that haven't had Detroit Style Pie it's somewhat similar to the square style slices you find at many Italian bakeries. It has similarities to Sicilian style pizza and comes double baked in a well oiled square pan. At Via 313 their pans use to hold parts in auto factories back home, talk about authentic! The most common toppings are pepperoni and olives which are also loved on burgers around the state of Michigan. I went with the "Detroiter" which comes with two types of pepperoni both natural casing and smoked.

♫Now this looks like a pie for me, so everybody just follow me, because we need a lil more pepperoni, and it taste just like it does back in the D

I don't want to say that the best thing I ate all trip while in Austin was a Detroit Style pizza pie but it was one of the things I remember most. I couldn't believe how good it was. Regular readers know I get to Detroit often and will eventually have a pizza post but this was easily if not as good as any of the famous places from there. They must of of lubed up the pan with extra butter because the crust and bottom part of the pie were so potent I was tasting it the next morning. There were layers of chewy dough in the crust that was met with a crunchy exterior and some excellent toppings rounded the whole thing out. F a Jet's, we need a Via 313 in Chicago pronto! Way to represent the Midwest.

Excellent Detroit Style Pizza found in Austin

That's it for this trip! I was very very impressed with my visit and cant wait to get back. I was amazed at how many Bears fans I met while down in Texas and Austin in particular. Lots of Chicagoan's have moved down there and they all said one thing, winter, as the reason. There's only a handful of US cities I think I could tolerate living in and Austin is one of them. Although the traffic sucks, the friendly people, food and fun do not. A spot I will be happy to get back to when I do.

So many more trailers to try...see ya next time Austin!

Torchy's Tacos at South Austin Trailer Park
1311 S 1st St
Austin, TX 78704
(512) 366-0537

Mellizoz Tacos
1503 S 1st St 
Austin, TX 78704
(512) 916-4996

1500 Spyglass Dr 
Austin, TX 78746
(512) 732-0303

La Condesa
400 W 2nd St
Austin, TX 78701
(512) 499-0300

Love Balls Bus
2908 Fruth St
Austin, TX 78705
(512) 765-6286

East Side King @ Hole in the Wall
2538 Guadalupe St
Austin, TX 78705
(512) 422-5884

Ms P's Electric Cock
1101 S Congress Ave 
Austin, TX 78704
(512) 912-7778

Micklethwait Craft Meats
1309 Rosewood Ave
Austin, TX 78702
(512) 791-5961

Franklin Barbecue
900 E 11th St 
Austin, TX 78702
(512) 653-1187

7th St & Trinity St
Austin, TX 78701
(512) 468-1065

Dumpling Happiness
1816 E 6th St.
Austin, TX 78702
(512) 609-0186

Via 313 Pizza
1111 E 6th St 
Austin, TX 78702
(512) 939-1927


Anonymous said...

I love Texas Bar B Que.. nice review of places. I haven't been to Texas in a long time. Need to get back

Anonymous said...

You chose well! Congrats from an Austinite :)

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