What I Ate in Austin, Texas

March 19, 2009 | By | COMMENTS

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There are a few things you need to know about my trip to Austin, Texas. First, the purpose of my trip was to support Craig’s film at SXSW, so while a typical trip to a new city would involve obsessive visits to any and every eating establishment, this trip I was pretty restrained and also a bit hobbled because I didn’t have a car. Craig’s film team had a van that would drive us to screenings and interviews and other film events, but to get anywhere food-related cost about $25 by cab because our hotel (a dilapidated Day’s Inn that we fled to after the house we rented had fleas) was way out in the boonies. Add to that the fact that my camera overheated and died (I used Craig’s camera instead), this was quite the challenging trip. And yet still, somehow, I ate really well.

The biggest revelation from my trip is illustrated in the lead photo. That’s my new best friend Cliff–Craig’s editor Jenny Lee’s fiance–who, along with me, had lots of time to kill as Craig and Jenny worked the festival. What Cliff is holding in that picture is my favorite culinary discovery from Austin, Texas: that, my friends, is a fresh tortilla.

Have you ever had a fresh tortilla? A really fresh tortilla?

I definitely hadn’t and, unfurling my first fresh tortilla at The Magnolia Cafe (a place I liked so much, we went twice), it was like finding a sacred scroll with profound truths written within:

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Fresh tortillas make all the difference. Whereas this plate of migas (eggs cooked with tortilla chips and pico de gallo) and black beans might be pretty standard (albeit, a lovely standard):

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Rolled into a fresh tortilla, it was sublime. The other dish to get at Magnolia (and I thank my readers, by the way, for all these suggestions) was a single gingerbread pancake. I loved it so much that I ordered it the second time we went there, before I left for the airport. Unfortunately, the waitress never brought it out and by the time she corrected her mistake, my cab was there to take me away. So there is no picture of gingerbread pancakes for you to look at. (Actually, there is, but it’s on my dead camera.)

One more thing about fresh tortillas. Fresh tortillas make killer tortilla chips:

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The tortilla chips I get in my neighborhood here in Park Slope, Brooklyn, are like pieces of wood; these were light as a feather. The lightest, most delightful tortilla chips I’ve ever had. (Those particular ones were actually at a forgettable cantina near where Craig had his second screening; but even at a forgettable cantina, the chips were like Harvard graduates compared to the bad Brooklyn chips I know too well.)

So yes, my main revelation was a tortilla revelation. Unfortunately, the other major revelation I was supposed to have–a BBQ revelation–didn’t really happen when I joined Craig’s whole family (aunts, uncles, neighbors, cousins) for a trip to the famous Salt Lick:

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Here’s what I loved about Salt Lick: I loved the scenic drive there, I loved how the place was so enormous with a parking lot that reminded me of Disney World, I loved how the place itself was like something out of Frontierland with wagon wheels leaned up against the wall, etc. But the food? The food was pretty good:

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That’s a plate of meat with brisket on the bottom, two ribs, several slices of sausage, beans, coleslaw and potato salad.

And here’s a big plate of meat for those of us who got all-we-could eat for $7 more:

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The brisket was a bit bland, the ribs were chewy but good, and the sausage was truly excellent, but all-in-all it wasn’t the kind of BBQ I’m going to remember 20 years from now when I write my BBQ memoir, “Adam’s Ribs.” (Yuk yuk yuk.)

Craig, on the other hand, had nothing but raves for Iron Works BBQ where he went for a fast dinner with his team before going to a screening. Says Craig now: “It was deelicious.”

It’s interesting that the sausage was my favorite bite from The Salt Lick, one of my other favorite bites of the trip was also a sausage: this bratwurst from The Best Wurst, a stand on 6th Street, right where all the SXSW action was going down:

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Here’s the wurst I shared with Cliff, Jenny and their friend whose name I forget!

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It was porky and topped with mustard and onions and kind of killer, especially after midnight on a Saturday when you’re a bit tipsy. Not that I was tipsy: drinking is for sinners.

Here’s a bad picture of the wurst close up:

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Finally, we ate lots of eggs and potatoes in Austin. Here’s the breakfast taco we had at Juan in a Million, a place many of you suggested:

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That’s the “Don Juan”: “A secret combination of potato, egg, bacon and cheese in a deliciously hot tortilla.”

Did it blow me away? Well, I really liked it–especially the fresh tortillas on which it was served. But more than that, I enjoyed the atmosphere, which felt authentically Austinesque. Look at these people, don’t they look like real Austiners? Not a tourist to be found.

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Check out this piñata stand Cliff and I encountered on our walk from Juan in a Million to Craig’s big premiere:

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It’s a good final image for this post, a post that wasn’t very thorough: we missed the sushi at Uchi (I tried to get there, just couldn’t finagle it), Chuy’s, Fonda San Miguel, and Guero’s Taco Bar (all places I extracted from your suggestions.) But now I have an excellent reason to go back, don’t I?

Thank you all for your Austin help. And thanks, Austin, for showing us a great time: you are a fun city.

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  • http://makingitwithmeleyna.com meleyna

    Oh maaaan fresh tortillas. Those things are my kryptonite. There’s this great burrito place across from my work, and if you stop in in the morning for chorizo and eggs, they have bags and bags still steaming hot and fresh.

  • http://jennipearl.blogspot.com Jenni

    Oh my yes, fresh homemade tortillas make all the difference in the world…..and while Chuy’s home is in Austin, it is a chain…there is one here in Dallas as well…..

  • http://kristinmacbride.com Kristin

    It’s always interesting to read what an outsider has to say about your city. In this case I can’t help but think… fresh tortilla? What other kind is there? But now that I think about it, when I go to visit my boyfriend’s family in Kansas they are rather impressed with my homemade tortillas. In any case, I’m glad that I live in Texas, because I think I would DIE without them.

  • http://whatilikenyc.blogspot.com Laura [What I Like]

    Fresh tortillas are to die for…given that our normal mexican food in New York is still light years behind that of the western half of the country I would imagine that fresh tortillas in our neck of the woods will, sadly, be a long time coming. As for the barbecue…is it just me or has it overstayed it’s (now ridiculously hip) welcome?

  • Jonathan

    Fresh tortillas are the best! And one of the easiest things in the world to make. Seriously. Three ingredients is all you need. Four, if you include a pinch of salt.

    Take 2 cups of flour and 1/4 cup of butter. Cut the butter into the flour using a pastry cutter or knives. Add a pinch of salt if you like. Slowly stir in 3/4 cups of warm water, and voila! Break into 12 pieces and roll out with a rolling pin. Make sure to use enough flour so it doesn’t stick.

    Heat a griddle or frying pan to medium heat. Drop the flattened dough on it and wait for it to bubble. Once it is browned on the bubbled areas, flip it over. You have fresh tortillas! Cooking might be the most difficult part, but it’s not too bad. Play around with the temperature. You want the tortillas to bubble so they cook inside and get the nice blisters.

    So, so good!

  • http://www.noteatingoutinny.com Cathy

    Nice work! I’m kicking myself over missing out on Migas. We should have had a super geeky NYC food blogger dinner at some point! Oh well!

  • http://www.noblepig.com noble pig

    OMG after seeing all this incredible food…I need to get to Austin. Those tortillas and the migas…holy moley batman…must have it.

  • http://www.lindamathieu.com Linda

    I’m so glad you had some migas. Aren’t they the best? It made my mouth water just looking at the photo. I adore The Salt Lick and love that unusual sauce-not your typical red.

  • peteathome

    First, as someone originally from the MidSouth ( an Arkansan, whoo pigs, sooey) I have to say you can’t get good “Q” in Texas. Brisket is not barbecue. You have to go to someplace like Little Rock or Memphis and get decent pulled pork barbecue ( my wife, a Texan, is thumping me on the head and making “hook ‘em horns” gestures as I type this).

    Secondly, you are absolutely right about fresh tortillas. I get them here in the Philadelphia area. If I can find them here, surely you can find them in NYC! They’re well worth the effort to scope out and bring home.

  • http://chewonthatblog.com Hillary

    Mexican and barbecue – definitely the same foods I ate in San Antonio. But I hear Austin might have slightly better barbecue. I am dying to try it!

  • http://casualkitchen.blogspot.com Daniel

    “unfurling my first fresh tortilla at The Magnolia Cafe (a place I liked so much, we went twice), it was like finding a sacred scroll with profound truths written within.”

    That is so perfectly said. Glad you saw the light at last.

    And yes if somebody opened a place that made REAL tortillas in Brooklyn, all of NYC would beat a path to its door.

    Dan

    Casual Kitchen

  • http://feistyfoodie.blogspot.com Yvo

    Funny you say that about Juan in a Million not having tourists- I saw that place on Man v Food (and TOTALLY want to go there!!!)

    Looks awesome overall. Have to say, I had Salt Lick at the Big Apple BBQ in Jun08 and found the brisket mehhh but the sausage, which I hadn’t expected to be amazing or anything, was really good :)

  • M

    If you ever find yourself back in Austin try Rudy’s for BBQ.

  • http://louisa-edwards.blogspot.com/ Louisa Edwards

    Dude. I was totally in Austin last week, AND ate at Magnolia Cafe! We went to the County Line for bbq, though, which was fun, although not as good as the time we drove out to Lockhart for Smitty’s Market. Best barbecue I’ve ever had, hands down.

  • B

    Since you like fresh tortillas so much:

    Next time you are in Austin go to the HEB, any HEB will do. They make fresh tortillas every day (usually multiple times a day), and if you time it right you can get a bag of piping hot tortillas.

    Rudy’s BBQ is crap. Stubb’s is okay, and they have live gospel music for Sunday brunch. If you are ever in Houston try Goode Co. BBQ.

  • ChrisV

    Don’t you have a Canon camera? I’ve always had Canon digital cameras, last one (SD950IS) given to me Christmas 2007. We went to Italy in January this year, camera one month out of warranty, and it DIED in Florence. I was heartsick; it was as though something had been amputated. Luckily I had brought an older (and bulkier) Canon with me.

    About a month ago, I wrote to Canon about the camera. They sent me a UPS shipping label and the camera was returned to me via FedEx 3 weeks later, fixed free of charge, but repairs are not warrantied. I am just happy to have my little Elph back.

    The camera would not power on – nothing. They replaced the fuse, strap base tape, and screw, plus someother cleaning and such.

  • Alison

    It’s funny, Austinites do take our fresh tortillas for granted at times…I have been traveling for work to upstate NY and had one request from a co-worker to bring up some of HEB’s tortillas. (HEB is a Texas-based grocery chain.) Migas have to be my favorite egg dish and Magnolia is Austin at its best. Glad you were able to find a few standouts even with your transport limitations.

  • http://www.easycomfortfoods.com Tyro@easycomfortfoods.com

    Those tortillas look wonderful!

    I’ll give them a try if I ever get to Austin.

  • Marena

    I really liked Las Manitas for breakfast in Austin. We made a special trip out of our way to get to Salt Lick and we were seriously disappointed. Next Time, I will try IronWorks.

  • http://thesometimecook.blogspot.com/ TIsh

    My great grandma made tortillas on Sundays when I was little. Fresh flour tortillas, piping hot and rolled up with butter inside are absolutely delicious. I live in California and am Mexican so I take Mexican food for granted. If I ever move from here, I think I would definitely realize how good we have it out west. Now BBQ on the other hand, we don’t have anything good out here. That plate with with the beans and meats made my mouth water!

  • Jess

    If only the tortillas you had at Magnolia Cafe actually were fresh. As a Native Texan and longtime resident of Austin, I can tell you with authority that there are much fresher tortillas to be found in town. Heck, even the ones at Taco Cabana are fresher than you’ll get at Magnolia.

  • Jess

    If only the tortillas you had at Magnolia Cafe actually were fresh. As a Native Texan and longtime resident of Austin, I can tell you with authority that there are much fresher tortillas to be found in town. Heck, even the ones at Taco Cabana are fresher than you’ll get at Magnolia.

  • http://cookwithfire.blogspot.com Rootbeer Racinette

    What a great trip you must have had. I want to eat it all!

  • Andrew Asaff

    Meh on Mags. As a native I’d have to say Magnolia’s serves as the entry level benchmark into Austin dining. My personal favorite (given that I live a block away) is without a doubt Torchy’s Tacos. Their tortillas aren’t anything too special, but they do serve a superlative taco.

  • Jenny

    That would be the lovely and talented illustrator and writer Amy Jones in the photo of the best wurst! Lovely hanging out with you in Austin, Adam!

  • http://kristinmacbride.com/ Kristin

    FYI—I Just heard that credit card numbers were stolen from Magnolia cafe… keep an eye on your statements for any suspicious charges.

  • Anonymous

    It’s so awesome that Craig’s whole family was there.

  • Jennifer

    I guess I take it for granted that I can crawl out of bed every weekend and have any kind of taco I want – always made on homemeade tortillas. You really made me appreciate the mexican food we have here in Texas. Come to San Antonio – there are authentic mexican restaurants everywhere. Especially on the south side. Most of the time I need a translator to order my meal.

  • Maria

    Oh Adam! Please do come back to Austin. I’ve only been living here 3 months but I love the city to death. I like Magnolia Cafe but I do think Kerbey Lane has better migas. And you must have queso! It’s one of the official foods of Austin.

  • Lindy

    OMG- you have to make your own tortillas sometime; it would be excellent blogging material. I haven’t done it for a few years (and I only did it a few times) but it was simple and I had good results. I even made them extra big and cooked them directly on my MIL’s flat top electric range. (I still can’t believe she didn’t really say anything- the finish was ruined with all the burnt flour lol… I’m bad.) Anyway totally MAKE TORTILLAS!!! They rock. I used to work at a Mexican restuarant that had a machine that made fresh tortillas continuously- one every minute. I lived on them!!! I even would eat the dough…

  • Heather Santos

    If you come back to Austin again, the Austin Food Blogger Alliance curates a city guide that is updated just before SXSW. Find it here: http://austinfoodbloggers.org/city-guide I’m sure any of the locals can tell you to try Franklin’s BBQ on your next trip, but get there early before they open!