The day that I flew to Austin, I was coming from Los Angeles in the most convoluted way possible. I started on Sunset Blvd., where I was staying, then drove up to Topanga Canyon, where I left my car with Craig’s aunt and uncle, then took a car service to the Long Beach airport which was about an hour and a half away. By the time the plane touched down in Austin, I was so hungry and tired I could barely move. But I made my way to a cab which took me to the Doubletree Hotel (my first hotel there) which was nowhere near anything that I heard was worth eating. So then I took a cab to South Congress, specifically to Torchy’s Tacos which many of you recommended on Twitter. It sounded perfect.
This fajita taco piled up with chicken and grilled onions and peppers and lots of cheese and salsa on a fresh tortilla hit the spot in such a complete way, I’m still feeling sated two weeks later.
I had to be careful, though, it was already 4 o’clock and I was meeting friends for dinner at 7.
Those friends, Liz and Jen from Liddabit Sweets, were in town promoting their new cookbook which is really terrific, you should check it out. We decided to have dinner at La Condesa:
Here are the be-speckled authors at the table:
And here’s the fresh fried tortilla chips with 4 different kinds of salsa:
We didn’t fuss around with pesky appetizers; we went straight for the entree. I had ribs that were incredibly flavorful, moist and sweet from a glaze.
The only weird part were the plantains that were served along with it. They weren’t sweet at all; they were mealy and starchy. I know that’s sometimes what restaurants go for, but when I asked the waitress about it she said, “They are bad, aren’t they? We’ve been having trouble ripening our plantains.” That’s a funny response…especially when the dish itself cost over $20!
Luckily, the desserts made up for the side dish. This is a dulce de leche pudding cake with sweet corn, saffron, and cream cheese ice cream:
This was an ice cream sandwich made with goat milk ice cream on a blondie (if I remember correctly):
This was a red beet cake:
And a chile-spiked flourless chocolate cake:
When you’re out with dessert people, you order a lot of dessert. And we ate almost everything.
The next day, at lunch, I went with Paula Forbes from Eater.com to Takoba:
This was a charming place for brunch, especially the kind of Tex-Mex brunch that makes Austin brunches unique.
We started with chips and salsa:
Then ordered queso dip, which must’ve contained at least a pound of melted cheese:
Here’s that queso in action (it comes with fresh, warm tortillas):
For my entree, I had migas, which I remembered having at the Magnolia Cafe when I first visited Austin a few years ago:
That’s eggs with fried tortillas and cheese. A healthy way to wash down that queso!
That night, it was off to Barley Swine, Austin’s restaurant of the moment, a fascinating mash-up of traditional Southern food and more avant-garde, fancy restaurant techniques.
Here, to give you a sense, were the day’s specials:
This first course shows you everything you need to know about Barley Swine. It’s a riff on okra. Don’t ask me to explain anything on that plate, other than to say it’s okra through the looking glass, okra on L.S.D.:
Things just got more and more inventive from there. Here’s a soft duck egg with grilled zucchini salad, popcorn, and goat cheese.
I really don’t remember what this was:
A stunning plate of rabbit:
And maybe my favorite dish of the night, a special: the red fish with toasted brioche, smoked ham grits, turnip and apple.
Those smoked ham grits were far out, one of my favorite things I ate in Austin.
Our final entree was this plate of lamb:
Then there were some deconstructed desserts, like this deconstructed apple pie:
And a deconstructed German chocolate cake:
These were the only parts of the meal where I would’ve preferred the food constructed to deconstructed (I actually think it’s harder to make a good apple pie than it is to do it in components like it’s done here, but that’s just quibbling.) All-in-all, though, Barley Swine feels like an important restaurant, a place that’s not to be missed if you’re headed to Austin.
What else do I need to tell you about?
Ok, the next day, I appeared at the Texas Book Festival and beforehand I joined Craig’s cousin David for lunch at Perla’s.
This place has a lot going for it: a sunny deck, big windows, a fish tank, servers in stylish uniforms.
David and I started out with a basket of pastries, which he’ll model for you here:
Look closer and you’ll see how outrageous this was: doughnuts, scones, and lemon curd. Oh my.
For my entree, I had a piece of trout with scrambled eggs and a fennel orange salad on top:
David had the lobster omelette, which he enjoyed:
After that, it was off to the Capitol where I spoke to a crowded audience. Then I signed books in a tent with Dan Rather signing books behind me. Can you see him?
That night, I joined David and his friends (who also came to the Texas Book Festival; they all do Teach For America in San Antonio, which is totally admirable, so I had lots of questions to ask them) at a place called Banger’s:
Banger’s has really good house-made sausages. Here’s the bratwurst that I ordered, topped with sauerkraut:
We all shared fries, which could’ve been crispier:
And this tomato salad:
And creamed corn in a jar:
As we were leaving, we saw people feeding their puppy beer. And teenagers carving a penis into a pumpkin during the pumpkin-carving contest:
At this point, my flight was delayed a few days because of the hurricane. I spent much time at Walton’s Fancy and Staple which may or may not be owned by Sandra Bullock:
I really liked their coffee and pastries:
After picking up a book to read at Book People (I finished “Gone Girl,” now I’m doing “Let The Great World Spin”) I had lunch at The Counter Cafe:
Which really lives up to its name:
I had poached eggs with crab cakes on toast and two sauces:
One a lemon aioli, one a peanut sauce. They made the dish fun (it reminded me of something you might get at Shopsin’s).
After that, it was dinner at Uchi. Then the next day I ventured out to Houndstooth Coffee, which was very good, but far from my hotel. Next door was a place called TacoDeli which some of you told me about:
I liked my tacos OK, but wouldn’t go out of my way to eat them:
One of the most surprising meals I had was at the Elizabeth Street Cafe:
This is a horrible picture, but trust me the curry it documents was not at all horrible. It had mussels and cauliflower in a very potent, yellow broth and I really, really loved it.
(Hat-tip to Raphael and Paula, who brought me there too.)
But you have to admit, I did pretty well for a guy stranded in Austin: you might even say I ate the whole city! Thanks to everyone who kept me company and showed me a good time. Next time I go back, I’m going to feel like a local.