Posts Tagged ‘Austin’

Salt Lick Barbecue

Sunday, June 20th, 2010
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When I decided to head to Austin for a little vacation, my hostess, Jane, asked what I wanted to eat. “Barbecue?” I responded back, questioningly. Isn’t that what one eats when one comes to Texas? And although the bulk of my trip has been experiencing the joys of the Trailer Food culture, I was granted my day of ‘cue. Salt Lick to be exact. Now you can’t throw a dead cat in this town and NOT hit a barbecue joint, but the Salt Lick is something special. For starters, it is quite a drive outside town. Practically in the middle of no where. Driving as far as we did, I was beginning to wonder where the heck we were going.

Then we pulled into this dusty dirt lot. Cars were driving through and kicking up more dust. There were hundreds of cars. To the right of the parking lot was outdoor seating with a live musician and to the right of the lot was the restaurant. We had arrived. We were there mid-afternoon so it didn’t take long to get a table and walking past the grill, I could see HUNDREDS of pounds of meat being cooked. The smoke wafting through the air predicted an epic meal. A stack of 1950s green Melamine plates were placed in front of us while we perused the menu. I let my hosts order — apparently the only thing to order — that which is known as Family Style; endless helpings of beef brisket, sausage , and pork ribs, served with potato salad, cole slaw, beans, bread, and pickles and onions.

My hosts brought their own wine, two fabulous bottles of rosé, a South African Mulderbosch and a truly spectacular Charles and Charles Columbia Valley Rosé. It seems that all of the alcohol in the Salt Lick is BYOB. The rosé was a great choice. Everything was served family style. Of the side dishes, the cole slaw was my favorite, undoubtedly because of the heat of the day and the coolness of the cut slaw and the fact that it was a bit more vinegar-based than the mayonnaise-based slaws. The potato salad was adequate and I at least appreciate that it was German-style and, again, not mayonnaise-based. The baked beans were almost lack-luster (but having access to the Rancho Gordo beans, it is not a surprise that any other bean would not impress). There was a hint of smoke to the beans, but I felt they lacked a strong sweet-and-sour component which usually complements good barbecue. And I did not bother tasting the bread, but I could see that it was ample and soft which I know is appreciated by many who put together self-made brisket sandwiches. I did appreciate the fact that there was an endless supply of pickles – again, in the heat of the day, having some bright astringency to juxtapose against the heaviness of the food was welcome.

But this was all about the meat. Our first platter of meat included eight or ten 1″ chunks of sausage, six pork ribs, and another dozen or so slices of brisket. The brisket was surprisingly lean and dry. My hosts knew better and as our first platter of meat emptied, they asked our waiter for “fatty brisket” next time. Moist and tender, a fork was barely needed to cut this into bites; it was very easy to shred before eating. There are much-enjoyed burnt bits alongside the tender centers and the sauce that is served is the same in which the meat is grilled has a rich tanginess and is the perfect complement to the caramelized meat bits. But for me, this was all about the ribs. I could not get enough of the flawless morsels that actually did fall off the bone. That ubiquitous phrase, “fall off the bone” tender was probably scribed after experiencing these ribs. Finishing a second — or was it third? — plate of ribs, there was still a bit of fatty brisket left and I couldn’t stop myself. One of the hunks left on the communal plate still had the crunchy, burnt exterior with tender, frayed bits of interior protein.

We finished up with a cobbler sampler; peach on one side and blueberry on the other, all topped with an ample scoop of vanilla ice cream. Very good, but not nearly as memorable as the meat. I found the fruit compote on the cobbler to be a bit too sickly goopy and sweet as though the freshness of the peaches was hidden by fake cornstarch. I also appreciate a bit more firm crust and I found the cake to be too soft with not enough crispy bits. But overall, those things which make the Salt Lick famous are what thrilled me; the smoke in the air, the packed benches of families all crammed together for want of giant platters of meat, the “experience.” This is not a fancy-schmancy, sit-down restaurant. It is loud and busy and a place that must serve upwards of thousands of pounds of meat a day. You have to appreciate that fact. There is some outdoor seating with live music where another hundred or two-hundred people gather for familial experiences with great food and company.

So greatly appreciative to my hosts – the Kings and their son, Andrew, for letting me share their Father’s Day at such a quintessentially American experience. It felt like going to church where one worships the almighty roast animal; performing mass with the smoke in the air akin to the incense of church and the high priest, the chefs who administer the host to the brethren. I am saved and reborn in the brotherhood of barbecue. Amen.
The Salt Lick Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon

Austin Food Trailers; East Side King and Odd Duck

Friday, June 18th, 2010
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I am beginning to learn that a die-hard foodie visiting Austin should probably ignore most of the restaurant and set about hitting the food trailers. While San Francisco has a handful of specialty taco trucks — we boast a crème brûlée truck and one that serves frogs legs — but nothing as expansive and diverse as Austin’s food trailers. Even my hostess has been surprised at the shear number that has popped up in such a short time.

Our first round of visiting trailers occurred during lunch time. It was an attempt to hit Gourdoughs that we learned that not all of the trailers are open during the day and that an early evening venture was going to be necessary. Our first stop was at East Side King, located behind a bit of a dive bar, Liberty. Unlike most of the other trailers I saw, this one was hidden from view and you would have to know where it is and when it is open (after 7:00 p.m.). I was also informed that Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, it is open until 2:00 a.m. and many of the local chefs can be found heading there after their own establishments have closed down. The bar is amenable and has a great selection which also enables the diners to grab a drink while waiting for the trailer to open.

Of all the trailers I visited, this was one of the smallest in size and one of the most artistically decorated and what came forth was incredibly impressive. Quite a lot of food was ordered for not a lot of money starting with Poor Qui Buns, roasted pork belly in steamed buns with Hoisin sauce, cucumber kimchee, and green onions. Delightfully tender pork belly, nestled within perfectly steamed buns. So often the buns are over steamed and turn gummy, but this was not the case here. With just enough accountrement and buns to not overpower the meat, these were a great offering. Besides the pork buns, there was also an order Derek’s Favorite Chicken Buns, the same perfect buns holding small bites of tender fried chicken with a touch of spicy Thai mayo.

Considering the giant Cubano sandwich I ate earlier that day, I was happy for some vegetable options. A Fried Brussels Sprouts Salad was a bit on the spicy side for me. Since Brussels sprouts are not in season, it was not a surprise that they were more of a part of a whole, than a showcased single ingredient. Served with shredded cabbage, alfalfa sprouts, basil, cilantro, and jalapeño, there seemed to be more cabbage and seasoning than anything. I did appreciate the bit of fried steamed bun as a “crouton” though. We also shared the Green Papaya salad and Beet Home Fries. The green papaya salad was quite good — about what I have had at better restaurants in San Francisco — and the fried beets were just plain interesting. I don’t think I can remember an occasional when I have ever had a deep-fried beet and the crispy exterior complemented the firm, tender interior. Served with classically Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise (yes, it IS different!) and a bit of Shichimi tougarashi, these were quite a treat.

Eric was the guy working the trailer the evening I visited and he was accommodating despite my sneaking in to get photos, answering questions and doing all of the prep, cooking, and service himself. What surprised me was the fact of tableside service. Yes, we were given a number after we placed our order and I assumed we would be called when our order was ready. Heck, there were easily a dozen people there, waiting for food. Instead, Eric brought the food out himself when he easily could have just called from the trailer and had us pick up our own food. Also, our entire meal was under $30 and that just blows me away.

Despite being mostly full from East Side King, stalwart gourmets that we are, Jane and John drove me over for my much-anticipated Gourdough’s visit. And while we were waiting for our pile of fried dough, we were able to sample a few of the offerings from Odd Duck Farm to Trailer. Jane informed me that the proprietor of Odd Duck, Bryce Gillmore, cut his culinary teeth in his father Jack’s kitchen of Z’ Tejas Grill. This may have given him a little advantage which the people of Austin would be crazy to not take advantage of. While waiting for doughnuts, Jane ordered two dishes, a slice of grilled zucchini bread atop which sat some freshly-sliced grilled peaches, a bit of goat cheese, and a large chunk brunoise of vegetables, zucchini mostly. This combination showed integrity of ingredients and thoughtfulness on the part of the chef; the peach was just firm enough to hold up to grilling while still depicting ripe flavors that complemented the creaminess of the goat cheese.

Another open-face dish was shared, ciabatta toast served with chunks of rabbit leg, grilled squash, eggplant, and goat feta. Again, there is a great deal of consideration given to the combination of ingredients. There is ample freshness in the vegetables with juicy, delectable rabbit. No hint of dryness was detected in the meat, juxtaposing well with the bright vegetables and slightly charred flavor applied to the bread, giving a great crunch against the tender meat.

At this location, we saw many showing up with their own wine and beer and it saddened me that I may not be able to go back to this particular trailer before my departure. The two dishes we tried were a total of $10 and their entire menu could be had for a mere $32; again, a screaming deal. Tiring so much of the $28 entrées in San Francisco and other, large cosmopolitan cities, this form of dining — if truly manageable with food and labor costs — is a sign of how things SHOULD become. I am a huge fan of small plates and lots of flavors and I have often lamented that even the small-plates restaurants have to contend with dramatic overhead, thereby driving up the costs, making it not even that cost-effective way to dine. To scour the trailers of Austin is an enviable way for foodies to taste through literally hundreds of trailers with innumerable variations of a potential meal.

East Side King:
East Side King (Food Cart) on Urbanspoon
Odd Duck:
Odd Duck Farm to Trailer on Urbanspoon

Austin Food Trailers; Texas Cuban, La Boite, and The Frigid Frog

Thursday, June 17th, 2010
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The one thing I did not know about Austin is that it is famous for its food trailer culture. Strewn about town are hundreds of converted trailers, Airstream campers, and shipping crates, all serving specialty food. Not necessarily located in any one particular spot, there are trailers parked on corners devoted to Banh-Mi, BBQ (no surprise there), cucpcakes, and doughnuts. In some cases, two trailers share a small spot adjacent to a strip mall and in other cases, there are rows and rows of trailers, stacked up against one another on main streets. Driving along Lamar Boulevard we passed one under a tree, then three blocks later, a cluster on an empty lot. Musicians set-up and perform, families gather for picnics, and college friends meet over gourmet coffee. With Austin being the college town that it is, I am jealous they have such a fabulously accessible amount of food at such great prices.

The original intention was to hit Gourdoughs for Fried Dough Ho, but unfortunately, they seemed to be closed in the afternoon. No worries, we are going to keep trying! Instead, lunch beckoned in the form of a classic Cubano sandwich from The Texas Cuban. Hot pressed and grilled on garlic Cuban bread was ample grilled pork tenderloin, ham, swiss cheese, provolone cheese and pickles. The guy who is part owner asks if you want regular mustard, spicy mustard, or mayonnaise. What was really cool for me was the availability of REAL Dr. Pepper — known as Dublin Dr. Pepper — as it is the only plant left which still makes Dr Pepper with real sugar and not corn syrup. A truly spectacular sandwich, we ordered the $12 version which was advertised to feed two while it easily could feed three (we both took home parts of our uneaten sandwich). I can’t remember the last time I ate a Cuban sandwich this good. Served alongside three sliced, fried plantains, the crunch from the bread complemented the creamy melted cheese and two pork products. I loved the snap of the pickle inside as well. The pork was well-prepared, tender and in small, moist chunks. The entire sandwich was juicy and moist — versus so many Cubans I have had which were ultimately on the dryer side. Despite getting full, it made me coming back for “one more bite,” even though I had designs towards saving half of it for breakfast the next day.

Right next door to The Texas Cuban is La Boite, a small pastry shop. Stylishly situated within a shipping crate, this unassuming stall offers the best macarons I have ever tasted. Sadly, my pictures did not come out but Jane and I shared a total of four flavors; blueberry, lemon, caramel with fleur de sel, and peach. We started with the lemon which was a mistake only in that the use of lemon balm in the cream made the blueberry, tasted immediately afterward, less pronounced. But even in San Francisco — amongst die-hard foodies and gourmands — have I not had a macaron quite this spectacular. By the time we got home, our two other flavors, the caramel and peach were close to destroyed but still exceptional. Jane even scraped the caramel out of the bag to get every ounce.  The macarons at La Boite (versus those I have had in San Francisco), were slightly larger; both in width and height. They were significantly lighter with a better tooth to the foot. The lemon cream was the standout with its brightness and tanginess and Ive never had a caramel macaron which was actually comprised of CARAMEL (versus a caramel-flavored cream). The blueberry was a draw to the beautiful swirled colors in the meringue itself, even if the pungency of the blueberry cream was not as strong as I would have anticipated.

Our last jaunt was on a strip of trailers that contained an even larger selection; cupcakes, pies, tacos, and our last tasting of the day, the Frigid Frog Hawaiian shaved ice. With bizarre flavors like Tigers Blood and Spiderman available, on our 90° day was capped perfectly by a small offering of shaved ice. I ordered a mint mojito which, while a tad on the sweet side, was still greatly enjoyed on this windy, sweltering day.

Texas Cuban:
The Texas Cuban on Urbanspoon
La Boite:
La Boite Cafe on Urbanspoon
Frigid Frog:
Frigid Frog Hawaiian Shaved Ice on Urbanspoon

Austin’s Antonelli’s Cheese Shop

Thursday, June 17th, 2010
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I am visiting Austin for the first time. And I am visiting one of the Grand Dames of Austin food society, Ms. Jane King. Meeting me at the airport with her adopted daughter, Nataly, Jane suggested we stop at Central Market for dinner supplies. Jane started the Foodie Program at Central Market and is one of the more knowledgeable people I know when it comes to all things yummy.

Antonelli’s Cheese Shop was a stop that Jane mentioned she wanted to hit before heading to Central Market. It is a new cheese shop that she had not yet been to and was curious about. We arrived in a little neighborhood beset with culinary bits, earmarked by a giant fork statue at the end of the parking lot. There is a gelato shop, a butchery, and more. Upon our arrival, Jane was thrilled to see an old Central Market cohort, Kelly, behind the counter.

Over the next half-hour or so, Kelly led us through a wide range of tasting a variety of exceptional artisinal cheeses. From Landaff, a New Hampsire semi-firm cheese akin to the Welsh Caerphilly to Ascutney Mountain, a firm Vermont raw milk cheese with a sweet, almond-like flavor. Besides cheese, we brought home with us some Finocchiona and Sopresseta Piccante, both dry-cured salamis.

There was some discussion about whether or not Austin could support a small cheese shop and it was more than gratifying to see that in the half-hour we were there — on a Wednesday, no less! — a line was forming and all three clerks were busy. Kelly and the other two behind the counter were all very informative and helpful. Their selection of cheeses is complemented with meats, olives, and other gourmet condiments. With my investigations of Austin just beginning, this was a great first stop!

Antonelli's Cheese Shop on Urbanspoon