Austin is one of the most exciting cities in the US – a proverbial incubator of creativity and youthful exuberance, a hotbed for start-ups, musical and artistic epicenter and home to the world-renowned South by Southwest festival (SXSW).
With so much going on, it’s little wonder the Texan capital also happens to be a great place to eat, with its famous barbecue joints, fantastic food trucks and excellent high-end restaurants.
The capital of barbecue
Barbecue is synonymous with Texas dining. Every corner of Texas boasts its own distinct barbecue style. In East Texas, marinated beef brisket and pork is slow cooked until the meat falls off the bone. In Central Texas, brisket and ribs are spiced, seasoned and smoked over an oak- or pecan-wood fire. Thick molasses-like marinade is a trademark of South Texan barbecue, while over in West Texas meat is smoked directly over a mesquite-wood fire.
What unites Texas barbecue – and sets it apart from barbecue traditions elsewhere in the South – is that beef, not pork, is the main event, while homemade sausage is served as a side.
All styles of Texas barbecue are available in Austin, and all are hugely popular with locals and visitors alike. Aaron Franklin, of Franklin Barbecue fame, smokes his beef brisket over a post-oak fire at temperatures between 225 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Franklin claims he gets through 20,000 pounds of meat every month. And we believe him – it’s not uncommon for customers to queue for hours before getting a taste of his slow-cooked delicacies.
Lamberts, meanwhile, pushes boundaries with inventively flavored barbecued delights, including the sugar-and-coffee-rubbed brisket or pork ribs encrusted with maple and coriander. Indeed, Lamberts' imaginative take on traditional Texas fare combined with its hip Downtown venue and live music has proven to be a winning formula.
Barbecue purists, however, might prefer Texas institution The Salt Lick in Driftwood, just southwest of Austin. This family-run restaurant has been serving expertly cooked meats since the 1960s, and it’s as popular today as it ever was.
Those hankering for a more casual barbecue experience (without compromising on taste) should head to Micklethwait Craft Meats (craftmeatsaustin.com). Micklethwait is a marriage of two great Texas dining traditions: the food truck and the barbecue. Here succulent brisket, beef ribs and sliced pork shoulder are embellished with sides such as lemon poppy coleslaw and jalapeño cheese grits. Meanwhile, over on E Cesar Chavez St, another understated trailer sets the scene for Kerlin BBQ (kerlinbbq.com). A favorite among hungry festivalgoers at SXSW, Kerlin continues to wow barbecue aficionados all year round, with an ever-changing menu populated with pecan-wood-smoked meats (try the mouth-watering kolaches stuffed with cheddar cheese and chopped brisket).
You could argue that food trucks embody Austin’s entrepreneurial spirit. You could also argue that the variety of cuisines served at said food trucks aptly reflect the city’s cultural and culinary diversity. But, in all likelihood, the popularity of the food truck is probably down to the fact that they serve affordable and tasty fare, which can be enjoyed in the Texas sunshine. What more could you possibly ask for? Beer? No problem – more often than not, food trucks are parked right next to bars and music venues.
The city’s wacky and wonderful food truck culture is epitomized by Paul Qui and Moto Utsunomiya’s East Side King (eastsideking.com) food trucks, which can be found in various locations around the city: near the popular hang out Cheer Up Charlies (cheerupcharlies.com) on Red River Street, at The Liberty (thelibertyaustin.com), and next to the Hole in the Wall (holeinthewallaustin.com) music venue on Guadalupe. East Side King Thai-Kun – Qui and Utsunomiya’s collaboration with chef Thai Changthong – sits just outside Whisler’s (whislersatx.com) on East 6th. Each truck serves up wonderfully inventive Asian-fusion fare: think inasal tacos (grilled chicken marinated in lime, pepper, and vinegar, topped with crispy chicken skin and served in a taco), tasty ramen and healthy beet fries. But with five locations and ever-changing menus, it’s best to rock up and prepare to be pleasantly surprised.
Chi’lantro (chilantrobbq.com), a restaurant on South Lamar, has a spin-off food truck that pops up in different neighborhoods throughout the week. The menu is big on Korean barbecue, kimchi fries, soy-glazed chicken and authentic bulgogi (marinated beef). Meanwhile, The Peached Tortilla (thepeachedtortilla.com) serves a wildly eclectic menu consisting of everything from tacos to Belgian fries, pad thai to Vietnamese bahn mi (pork belly with pickled carrot, fried egg and fragrant lime rice).
Austin’s culinary innovation isn’t limited to the four walls (and wheels) of its food trucks. The city is home to a number of fantastic chefs who are constantly pushing boundaries and putting the Texas capital on the culinary map in the process.
‘Before, you could open a restaurant and let it run for decade or so, and there wouldn’t be any competition. But now there’s crazy competition. People are raising the bar, they’re trying harder and harder, and that’s what’s great about our food scene,’ says chef Tyson Cole, the brains behind Austin restaurants Uchi and Uchiko.
Cole is one of the top sushi masters in Texas, if not the country, and he has wowed critics with the intelligent, artfully constructed and downright delicious Japanese-Texan fusion dishes. He also happens to be the man who mentored the aforementioned Paul Qui, who went on to set up self-named Qui (quiaustin.com) restaurant.
The menu at Qui is an exercise of daring and originality – a fusion of European and Asian culinary practices that results in mind-blowingly original creations. Take the gazpacho, for instance, which is made with marcona almond, shavings of foie gras and Pedro Ximénez gelée; or the Texas wagyu short rib with kimchi broth, braised daikon, radish, leek and wasabi.
First published in April 2015