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Austin's Dynamic Food Scene

Our traveling foodie, David Latt, recently spent time in Austin, Texas during the South by Southwest music, interactive and film festival. Besides watching movies and listening to music, he used his spare time to search out great places to eat.

Austin has a lot going on.

Besides being the state capital, the city has amazing music venues with a great collection of bars and a dynamic food scene.

Austin has it all. Upscale, fine dining restaurants as well as affordable neighborhood hangouts specializing in Mexican, Asian, Indian, French, American cuisine and more barbecue and burger joints than you can shake a stick at. 

One way to navigate the diverse food scene is to check out the food trucks.

Encounter a food truck in most cities and they’re pretty utilitarian. Usually the truck is a step van with a window cut along one side where customers order and pick up their food. To eat your meal, you stand on the sidewalk trying not to get food on your clothes.

To find a favorite truck’s location, customers check on Facebook and Twitter. Then it’s a mad dash to get there before the truck packs up and drives away.

A web site, Austin Food Carts, keeps track of the comings and goings of trucks, with daily updates.

But the majority of food trucks in Austin aren’t trucks at all.  With tires mere props, these trucks are trailers.

Since they never move, trailers can offer customers creature comforts like picnic benches and umbrellas. There’s even an ATM machine and a patch of Astro Turf at a trailer called Bar-B-Que-T on South Congress at East Monroe.

Some have all but lost their “trailer-ness.”

Entering the tent draped G’Raj Mahal Café, all that is missing is sitar music to complete the sense of having entered a proper Indian restaurant.

With afternoon breezes blowing against the tent walls and the sweet scent of cumin, sautéing onions and peppers, coconut and turmeric coming from the kitchen, you can be forgiven the romantic notion that you are any where but Central Texas.

A comprehensive menu of sub-continent comfort food—including samosas, pakoras, raita, naan, whole sheat chapatti, white flour batura, curries (vegetable, meat, chicken, fish and vegetarian), tikka masala, creamy saag, biryani and half a dozen tandoor kababs—suggests that G’Raj Mahal Café has a large kitchen. 

Walk through romantic alcoves and enter the large central dining area, which is, as the menu says, “In the Back Yard” of 91 Red River, and you’ll discover the restaurant kitchen is a step van. 

Next door, you’ll find a food trailer cleverly disguised as an African shack.

At Cazamance, customers love the setting and the friendly wait staff as much as the food. Co-owner and chef, Iba Thiam, originally from Senegal by way of Paris and New York, greets customers as they arrive.

With a wave of his hand and a smile, he offers a seat on one of the rough-hewn benches set around picnic benches shaded by a large tree and tenting stretching over the dining area.

The menu has a good variety of selections, offering Yassa chicken with mustard and lemon juice, Moroccan lamb sausage (a favorite among regulars), roast pork (a special not always on the menu), the Dakar boy’s lamb burger, and, in addition to the fresh vegetable salads, vegetarian dishes including hummus with avocado, lettuce and a black olive feta dressing and roasted curried garden vegetables.

Entrees come either with rice, as a wrap, or in a bread bowl, curiously named “Bunny Chow.” Soups vary daily and can include curry vegetable soup and peanut vegetable soup.

Around the corner, El Naranjo is parked in the driveway of a dilapidated house. A peek inside 85 Rainey reveals a renovation in progress. Bathtubs are lined up in the living room. Walls are stripped, ready for painting.

At some point, according to Ernesto Torrealba, he and his wife, co-owner and chef, Iliana de la Vega, will open the restaurant and take the trailer on the road.

Until then they will serve a mix of favorites from the Mexican interior, including tacos (beef, pork, chicken, shrimp), guacamole made to order, daily soups, molotes, mole, and tamales.

The quality is very good. Torrealba comments, “We don’t serve trailer food but restaurant food. Some complain that we are expensive, but we serve the best versions [of Mexican classic dishes] with the best ingredients.”

The slow braised pork (tacos carnitas estillo michoacan) and shrimp (tacos de camaron) are tender and sweet, benefiting  from toppings of crunchy, raw onions and sprigs of fragrant cilantro. There is a choice of a green sauce (medium heat with a touch of sweetness) or the thick red sauce (fiery).

Open Monday-Saturday from 11:00am to 11:00pm, closed only from 4:30-5:00pm to replenish the kitchen, El Naranjo is well worth a stop off the beaten path.

Next door, in the driveway next to the bar lounge, Icenhouse, a mini-truck, Coolhaus, sells made-to-order ice cream sandwiches.

Perfect on a hot day or as a break from consuming too much fried food and beer, a fat, baseball-sized scoop of ice cream cozies up to two cookies of your choice. A two handed approach is recommended, the better to control the larger-than-your-mouth sweet treat.

Another mini-food establishment, Luke’s Inside Out is wedged between a tree and Gibson Bar.

Luke’s is a mini-trailer with a maxi-idea. “Inside Out” describes owner-chef Luke Bibby’s unique approach to sandwich making. Cutting open toasted sourdough or French loaves, he bends the halves backwards so the inside is outside. Why? The answer is the filling.

Luke likes his fillings dripping not only with flavor but juicy sauces and slaws. Putting the crusty-outside close to the fillings buys the customer precious minutes before the sandwich dissolves in the hand.

The sandwiches are named as if they were already icons: The Cow (tender, flaky brisket with griddled onion, smoked Gouda, and chow chow), The Vegetable (falafel burger with eggplant, spinach and muffaletta), The Pig (pulled pork with bacon, mozzarella, fried onions rings, and chow chow), The Caesar (grilled chicken, avocado and romaine with Caesar salad dressing), The Burger (8 oz. of sirloin, bacon, Swiss cheese & cheddar with toasted muffaletta), The Cheese (goat, brie & cheddar on griddled sourdough), The Chicken (spicy, breaded Szechuan fried chicken with sesame slaw) and The Shrimp (grilled rosemary chipotle shrimp with blue cheese, apple and honey on griddle sourdough).

Locals know to ask about off the menu specials like the Laredo Burger (8 oz. of sirloin with avocado and chipotle sauce), the Down and Dirty (meatloaf made with Cheetos, fried eggs, and tomato marmalade) and the soup of the day, which, on the day I had lunch, was Tiger Peach (chilled peach soup sweetened with honey and caramelized onions and spiced up with hot chilies).

Heavy on protein, fats and flavor, the sandwiches reflect Luke’s back-story.

Bibby learned his cooking skills as a caterer to bands and at music venues. He knows a lot about what to feed hungry people who need a lot of carbs and calories to get through the day.

That attention to finger-licking, politically incorrect goodness extends to starters and non-sandwich menu items, which include Armadillo eggs (bacon wrapped fingerling potatoes on a bed of spinach to catch the grease), fried tuna fingers with sesame slaw and a plate of smoked brisket, sausage and chicken sticks with Shiner Bock BBQ sauce.

Austin prides itself on keeping it weird.

For the food scene, that can mean taking familiar foods on a journey into unfamiliar territory.

Chi’Lantro, like Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ trucks in Los Angeles, puts Korean barbecue into Mexican tacos, burritos, and quesadillas.

Lucky J’s, now with a brick and mortar restaurant as well as a trailer, uses waffles as tortillas.

The taco fillings are an eclectic mix: the Lucky J (fried chicken), Ms. M (Swiss cheese and bacon), Waffle Breakfast Taco (bacon, egg, potato, onions and cheddar), Chili Cheese Fry (potato, onion, cheddar and chili sauce) and Grandma Andy (bananas, peanut butter, Nutella and honey).

A popular trailer, Gourdough’s (“Big. Fat. Donuts.”), on South Lamar at Lamar Square reinvents the donut with a wink and a nod.

Reading the menu board leaning against the side of the airstream trailer, you know you’re not at a Dunkin’ Donuts.

At Gourdough’s your choices are the Mother Clucker (fried chicken strip with honey butter), Miss Shortcake (cream cheese icing with fresh cut strawberries), Slow Burn (habanero pepper jelly with cream cheese topping), Son of a Peach (peach filling, cinnamon, sugar & cake mix topping), Dirty Berry (fudge icing with grilled strawberries) and Funky Monkey (grilled bananas and cream cheese icing with brown sugar) to name a few.

Locals talk excitedly about the Flying Pig (bacon with maple syrup icing). If you are a fan of Los Angeles’ Roscoe’s House of Chicken ‘n Waffles, you know the flavor combination of crispy-salty-maple syrup sweetness can’t be beat. Except if you add bacon.  

Insider’s Tip: A warning about service in Austin, which can be laid back to the point of non-service. A recent experience at Gourdough’s reinforced that point. After a friend and I had ordered our Flying Pigs, the order-taker said in passing, “Oh, hey, just to let you know, we’re out of forks.” Truth is he only had plastic knives, so, good luck trying to eat your heavily laden donut without getting messy. 

People in Austin are passionate about food trailers.

Many recommendations come by word of mouth. At Patkin Coffee on Congress between 2nd and 3rd Street, I was sipping a nicely brewed clup of black coffee, talking with co-owner Andy for suggestions which led me to El Naranjo, one of my favorites. Walking away, a man tagged along to say if I wanted to know about another great food trailer, he had one for me.

“You have to go to Odd Duck on South Lamar,” Greg said with a smile. “The pork belly sliders are amazing and the grits with duck egg. But, you know, just about everything is good.”

Unfortunately, on this trip I wasn’t able to sample the food at Odd Duck because they only serve dinner and getting there at night wasn’t going to work. Odd Duck serves tapas sized portions featuring ingredients that are “farm to trailer.” Priced between $4.00-$6.00, with the recommendation of “2-3 items per person,” a meal can get expensive.

In Austin, food trucks materialize everywhere, the way mushrooms pop up on a wet lawn. Driving around town, you’ll stumble on groups of food trailers that create a country fair atmosphere.

Only a few blocks from the Congress Street Bridge and Austin’s tourist-popular bats, a cluster of food trailers have a thriving business feeding the workers in the nearby office buildings. In the morning, locals line up at Patika Coffee for their morning caffeine fix and breakfast snacks. During the afternoon lunch rush, customers form lines in front of Turf N Surf Po’ Boy, decorated to look like a bayou surf shack, the ingeniously constructed Sushi Box and Kebabalicious with Turkish style kabobs and salads.

Just east of I-35 on East Sixth Street at East San Marcos, chicken wire fencing encloses an encampment of six trailers. Strings of light bulbs stretch between the trailers, giving the cluster of trailers a good-natured carnival feeling at night.

The food sold here is eclectic by anyone’s definition.

The Local Yolk is, as you’d expect, mostly about eggs. Serving deviled eggs, egg salad and tofu (no egg) salad, as well as fried egg sandwiches with unexpected toppings (pesto-mozzarella-tomato, hummus-black olives-feta cheese, cream cheese-avocado), there is also a sandwich with tuna fish and jalapenos.

Just across the dusty lot, Pig Vicious anchors the encampment with an “I like bacon” attitude that embraces BLT’s along with peanut butter and bacon sandwiches, bacon wrapped fried pickles and even bacon shakes.

Parked nearby, as if to correct a cosmic imbalance created by bacon-crazed Pig Vicious, the Vegan Yacht run by husband and wife, Danielle and Mike, serves up good-tasting veggies even meat eaters rave about.

Seafood is represented by Bits & Druthers which holds its own with fish and chips and Cole slaw with thin slices of radish.  Everything they serve, including the mayonnaise and all the ice creams, they make in house (or, maybe, more correctly, in trailer).

The block of South Congress between East Monroe and East Milton has an even larger gathering of trailers.

In the middle of the pack, Diner on Wheels bills itself as a Southwestern diner serving sweet potato fries, hot dogs and burgers, as well as tacos with delicious, home made, charred green chile sauce.

Happily eating a basket of sweet potato fries from the Diner, local Eliza Loyola explains that this encampment is not unique. “Food trucks have taken over South Austin. They are on South Congress, South Lamar and South First.”

The Mighty Cone is famous for serving chicken, shrimp or avocado and combinations thereof, coated in a batter of sesame seeds, chili and corn flakes and eaten in large soft tacos inside paper cones.

Wurst Tex specializes in grilled brats and assorted sausages. Next door is Coat & Thai and Bar-B-Que-T, which is outfitted with Astro turf and ATM machine for the convenience of customers.

If you want a cup of coffee, stop at Star Co. Mobile Coffee House & Café and stay for dessert at Austin Frigid Frog, with over 60 snow cones including cotton candy, cherry and fun flavors like Tweety Bird and Frog-in-a-Blender, and, the very popular, Hey Cupcake! The most popular cupcake is the Michael Jackson--chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting.

Another dessert spot, Cutie Pies sold desserts from a micro-mini trailer that was, until recently, hidden behind the Mighty Cone. With an armful of awards and a big fan base, tiara-crowned, Jayne Buckingham, the self-proclaimed “Pie Queen,” recently opened a shop at 7329 Burnet Road. Now she has a place to call her own to sell her mini-pies, whole pies, savory pies, and—no fooling—pie shakes.

Talking about her baked goods, she proudly points to the fudge brownie pie, which, she says with a sly smile, “Solves all your problems for five minutes.”

In Austin, Cutie Pie’s experience amounts to a business plan. Start a food truck or trailer with modest start up costs, build a fan base and move into a brick and mortar restaurant.

Franklin Barbecue, one of the most popular barbecue joints in Austin, until recently, sold all of its food from a trailer. Kyra Coots, a fan, reminisced about those days. “The old place had uncovered benches and in the winter when it rained you got wet. People didn’t care. They’d wait two hours miserable, but when they were eating their barbecue, they knew it was worth it.” 

Franklin Barbecue came in from the cold when it moved into 900 East 11th, a small space on the east side of I-35, near an entrance to the University of Texas. Now the old trailer sits forlornly in the back next to the smoke trailer.

“At Franklin,” Coots added, “You’re definitely here for the meat. It’s not a sides place.”

The brisket, pork rib, and pulled pork are hand cut, seasoned and smoked by handyman, co-owner, and chef, Aaron Franklin. Only the sausage is made by an outside provider, the Texas Sausage Company.

Stacy Franklin, Aaron’s wife and co-owner, explains the genesis of the business, “Aaron was really into barbecue, fooling around with it for years. But he didn’t really get it until we opened.”

This is seat-of-the pants, learn as you go cooking.

Aaron keeps it simple with a dry rub of kosher salt and coarse black pepper that goes on before the meats are smoked from 9:00am until 7:00am the next day. What comes out of the smoker in the morning is what's served in the restaurant that day.

The handwritten sign in the window explains how it works, “Hours: 7 days a week, 11:00am-till the meat runs out!” Which means, people in the know start lining up an hour before opening time.

Ordering at Franklin retains part of the trailer experience, albeit inside a nicely appointed interior.

Standing in line, customers inch their way to a glass barrier behind which Aaron wields a sharp knife, carving-to-order whatever meat you want and laying the hot, fragrant barbecue onto a square of waxed paper.

The meat is weighed and handed to the cashier where you pay your bill. Adding two slices of white bread, any of the housemade sides and sauces--if you want any--and you’re on your way to one of the dozen Formica tables inside or the handful of wooden picnic tables and benches outside on the covered patio.

Locals recommend passing up the lean for the fatty brisket. A thick slab shows why the brisket is so popular. Juicy, tender and flaky, the brisket has a lot of good, meat flavor with salty-peppery heat. The pork ribs are good too, but when Aaron asks you what you want, ask for the fat, middle ribs. The small ribs on the end can be dried out.

The pulled pork is moist and tender and benefits from a good dousing of the Port Vinegar sauce.

Some food trucks and trailers that become restaurants still keep a truck on the street to maintain their street cred. Torchy’s Tacos, an Austin institution popular for serving a huge variety of breakfast tacos, has expanded into brick and mortar restaurants, keeping only one trailer.

Insider Tip: While you’re visiting Austin, if you love tacos, check out Taco Journalism. Opinionated, passionate, and eternally curious, bloggers Mando and Jarod are taco devotees who tirelessly roam Austin in pursuit of great Mexican food served by trucks, trailers and restaurants.

Not only does Austin have a tremendous variety of food trucks and trailers, it has great restaurants.

Treat yourself to the pleasures of well-prepared meals in comfortable settings by starting at the Driskill Hotel, centrally located at the corner of Brazos and Sixth Street.

At the 1886 Café, coffee shop food gets a Texas make-over. Cocktails and beer for lunch, if you want them, accompany large plates of well-prepared food. If you are very hungry, try chef Shannen Tune’s Hangover Burger.

Having spent a long night listening to music and drinking, around 6:00am he discovered he was very hungry. Heading to the kitchen, his solution was to marry two favorite meals—breakfast and lunch—by creating a burger topped with a fried egg and—this being barbecue country--dry rubbed, spicy-sweet, crispy bacon.

For dinner, the Driskill Grill creates a quiet space behind the busy, noisy Driskill Bar, one of the city’s most popular gathering spots.

The Grill has the look of an early 20th century gentlemen’s club, with dark wood, oil paintings and sconces on the walls. In that elegant setting, the very modern menu draws inspiration from the dynamic world of contemporary farm-to-table dining with a Southwestern touch.

A tasting is a good way to experience the extensive menu.

Executive chef Jonathan Gelman’s plates arrive at the table with a painterly touch.

Deep red brush strokes of caramelized beet juice decorate an appetizer plate with tastings of beef tartar, ahi poke, and a Prince Edward Island oyster on the half shell. On the dessert plate, delicately painted tendrils and flowers extend from the Chocolate-Raspberry Gateau with fresh raspberries as if the dessert were resting on a Pre-Raphaelite painting. The Chocolate Carmel Crunch Bar is topped not only with a shiny, candied hazelnut but a delicate square of gold leaf.

Using heat to frame his flavors, scallops and seared hamachi are rolled in chili dust. Chef Gelman ups the volume on his half-shell oysters by using spicy local chives in a modified mignonette, making the briny Prince Edward Sound oysters sparkle and shine.

The familiar ahi tuna burger is playfully transformed into a slider, the tender, perfectly cooked patty topped with slices of fresh strawberry. 

In the entree part of the tasting, a richly flavored Madera sauce compliments tender lamb chops. To contrast the textures and flavors, the lamb chops are coated with toasted breadcrumbs. The overall effect is deeply satisfying, light and refreshing.

At La Condesa, elegance comes with a basket of crisp taco chips and guacamole topped with green apples and fresh crab. 

In a setting that could be mistaken for an art gallery, light fixtures descend like apparitions from the high ceiling. 

With a bar and patio on the upper level and an expansive dining room and deck on the street level, the restaurant is airy and spacious. La Condesa fills up quickly when the kitchen opens for dinner at 5:00pm so reservations are essential.

Cocktails and appetizers are a great way to go.

Ceviche gets a light touch. On the night we visited, we had the Pacific amberjack. Slices of the delicate white fish were surrounded by an orange-lime sauce, the heat supplied by chipotle peppers and ginger. Delicious.

Executive chef Rene Ortiz creates complex sauces using citrus and peppers that bring out the best in familiar Mexican dishes.

At dinner, taquitos come with half a dozen fillings, including rotisserie chicken, shrimp, cheese and chorizo, beef, pork, vegetarian and, the very popular, Tecateño with Tecate flavored, battered fried white fish.

The Tecate batter is tempera-light and crunchy. The accompanying slaw is made with charred corn, chipotle peppers, tomatillos, and salsa arbol. Perfect as an appetizer to enjoy with beer, wine and cocktails.

Speaking of cocktails, the specialty cocktails are exotic.

The Alma Blanca is a good example of an unusual mix of ingredients: “habanero-infused siembra azul blanco, domaine de canton ginger liqueur, agave nectar, pineapple juice, fresh corn, hoja de hierba santa, hibiscus-rose infused salt rim.”  A mouthful of improbable ingredients (corn?), but the mouth-wateringly delicious cocktail is layered with sweet-heat.

So if you are in Austin on business, to see the rodeo, hang out in clubs and bars and listen to great music, eat pizza and drink beer while you’re watching films at the Alamo Draft House, check out the vibrant local art scene, or watch a million and a half Congress Street bats take flight at dusk, be sure to try the food trucks, trailers and restaurants. You’ll eat well and have a great time.


Marry lee said…
Hey great stuff, thank you for sharing this useful information and i will let know my friends as well.Raj Mahal Restaurant
Unknown said…
That is some inspirational stuff. Never knew that opinions could be this varied. Thanks for all the enthusiasm to offer such helpful information here.
Raj Mahal Restaurant
Anonymous said…
In Austin, Cutie Pie’s experience amounts to a business plan. Start a food truck or trailer with modest start up costs, build a fan base and move into a brick and mortar restaurant.

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