My Austin trip: culinary diary

Phil Ford

Got back from Austin at 1 a.m. last night, still a bit faded today (writing this on Monday, posting later), but happy to be home, happy to see Helen and the kids. I got Alice an armadillo piggybank and Nicholas a Texas Memorial Museum t-shirt with glow-in-the-dark bats on it — something to remember Texas by. They’ve moved around a lot in the last few years, though, so I don’t know if Texas means anything special to them. But I had to get souvenirs, because Texas has definite things you associate with it, like bats and armadillos.

And food. Austin is an amazing food city, and you can’t get the best of the indigenous stuff, like Tex-Mex and Texas style BBQ, without going there. Tex-Mex in Bloomington is a very sad thing. So I was there to do a talk at the Ransom Center, as a part of their wonderful Beat exhibition, On The Road With The Beats, but I was also planning on doing some serious eating. I might write about the intellectual stuff another time, but this is about the food.

Wednesday: Got in late, checked into the Austin Motel (“So Close, Yet So Far Out”), and dropped my bags in the “Polka Dot Surprise” room:

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It’s midnight and I haven’t eaten dinner. But the Magnolia Cafe just down the street is open 24/7, so I go and get a plate of chicken fajitas there. The Magnolia is a local-landmark type of place that everyone loves even though the food is nothing special, just good ordinary Tex-Mex. But it tastes so inconceivably good, coming at the end of air travel and me feeling (as I always do after air travel) like a plant in need of watering. The salsa is nothing special by Austin standards, but it’s fresh and the tastes of chilies, tomatoes, onions, and spices all stand in cheerful apposition to one another, like guests just introduced at the start of a fun party. Salsa from a jar or a can (which is all you can get most places) has a sludgy homogenized feel and taste like guests who have all been in each other’s company for way too long at a party in East Germany in like 1978. I wash the fajitas down with a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, a beer that’s overhopped to my taste (it’s the American style in pale ale, which I like much less than the English), but cold hoppy beer straight from the bottle is delicious with this food, and I order a second. OK, now I’m tired. Off to my polka-dotted room.

Thursday morning: off to a working breakfast with Kim and Jim at Kirby Lane. I order my second-favorite breakfast: migas with queso, rice and beans, and corn tortillas, with a side of sausage.

Thursday afternoon, around 2:30 p.m., I’m still kind of full from breakfast but I figure I should eat something, since I won’t be done with the talk until after 9. I walk across the street from my motel and some pizza from Home Slice, which is east-coast style (I think of Toronto, cuz that’s what I know), the kind with a thin crackling crust you fold over to enfold the sweet unctuous tomato sauce and cheese within. Resistance and yielding, crackle and smoosh — a good tactile model for other kinds of food, for ex. BBQ (see below). Austin doesn’t really have that much good pizza — I never could figure out the loyalty that locals have for Conan’s — but Home Slice really is awesome.

Thursday evening, around 10: Talk’s over, so Molly, Jim, Eric, and I go over to Z’Tejas, which I got to know when we were taking job candidates to dinner there. I have my traditional post-talk Manhattan, which is watery and stepped-on. Second round, I get a Margarita. Margaritas are better in Texas than elsewhere, but this isn’t all that great, either. But then again I’m always disappointed by restaurant mix drinks. I mix better ones at home. We get queso and salsa and homemade tortilla chips for the table; I get a chile relleno plate. More good Tex-Mex. They frouf it up with toasted pumpkin seeds for garnish and whatnot, but basically it’s the same good stuff you can find by walking into Mexican places almost at random in the city. Even the burbs have great Mexican places. See, this is the thing. It’s a myth that you can only find regional fare in its home region. Nonsense: there’s nothing preventing a good Mexican cook from moving to St. Paul. But the difference is, in the place to which such a style of food is indigenous, if you don’t do it right, people won’t be fooled. You can’t give people canned salsa in Austin. It would be like going to Chicago and finding the horrible pizza I ate in England back in the 1980s, the kind of pizza that tasted like it was made by someone who once read about pizza, maybe in hieroglyphics in an Egyptian tomb or something, but had never eaten any. It had carrot coins and canned peas on it, for godssake, and a Bisquick crust. You could get away with that in England in 1983. My point is, food culture is key. Food culture means you can find good food, even great food, without trying — you might stop at some arbitrary place for a sandwich and end up eating the best meal of your life. Austin has food culture: I had the the best chicken I ever ate when I went to a local YMCA July 4th picnic and some neighborhood Dads had smoked some chicken in those cheap grills made out of 50-gallon oil drums chopped lengthwise.

Friday morning: quick! Out of bed! And over to Curra’s for my all-time favorite breakfast. Sunny-side-up eggs and carnitas with refried pinto beans and tortillas, and two pork tamales on the side. Lashings of Oaxacan vanilla-tinctured coffee. Words fail. Thai food later.

Saturday afternoon: road trip with Byron and Sarah to Taylor, TX, and BBQ at the Taylor Cafe, where I’ve never been. It’s the best BBQ I’ve ever had, and that’s saying something. The Taylor Cafe isn’t even the best-known BBQ place in Taylor, let alone Central Texas, but it’s hard to imagine anything much better. Most of the seating is at a big U-shaped counter; in segregation times one side was for whites and another for blacks. The pit master is an ancient guy named Vencil Mares, who’s had more than 60 years to perfect his craft. The place is incredibly beat-looking: unpainted plywood walls, a couple of unshaded compact fluorescent bulbs screwed into the ceiling, a couple of TVs tuned to a John Wayne movie, and that’s pretty much it. It’s right by the train tracks, and every few minutes you have to stop talking and let the trains go by, just like on The Blues Brothers.

Most BBQ places seem to be especially good at one thing and OK on everything else, but here everything is great. I get brisket, sausage, and ribs. The sausage has a crumbly texture I like, and not too much fat. There’s enough fat left on the ribs to form a crust of crackling that is somehow ethereal and not actually fatty, though with fat’s complex fanning tactile flurry on the tongue. The meat itself isn’t fatty — it’s moist and lean, deeply seasoned but not overwhelmed by smoke. The ribs have the same crackle/smoosh tactile signature I was writing about re. the pizza. Artz rib house in Austin can do something like this with their beef ribs, Ruby’s can give the Taylor Cafe a run for its money on brisket, and the Salt Lick’s sausage is just about as good. But Taylor Cafe is the complete package. There’s nothing made of meat here that isn’t transcendent. Coca-cola is the right beverage for this. You’re happy to live in America at such moments.

Sunday midday, last meal before flying home: Ruby’s BBQ over by the University of Texas campus. Not to be confused with Rudy’s, a good regional BBQ chain. Ruby’s was my go-to BBQ place when I lived in Austin. Texas BBQ tends not to take its sauce too seriously, but Ruby’s makes a great savory hot sauce. Their brisket kills, and the other stuff isn’t bad either. And they have the best sides, plus you can get RC Cola.

OK, so I probably bored the hell out of you, writing about food. No music anywhere in this post!

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to My Austin trip: culinary diary

  1. I’ve only been down to Texas thrice, but the food has blown me away every time. (San Antonio is a culinary delight.)
    And you’re right about Tex-Mex in Bloomington being sad. However, I grew up near Bedford (just south of y’all), and it’s even worse there. Far and away.
    Arguably, that’s true about everything where Bedford is concerned vis-a-vis Bloomington.
    WF
    (there’s a reason I got out of “Beffert” when I was 17.)

  2. Lee says:

    Z’Tejas is great–Molly took me there last summer when I was doing research at the Ransom Center. Ruby’s BBQ was pretty awesome, too.

  3. Navel Gazer says:

    I love how Chowhound has three boards for the Southwest:
    Southwest; Texas; Austin
    And I think Austin is the most active. Mmmm.

  4. KB says:

    Somebody who loves Mexican food as much as, or possibly more than I do. I am impressed. And now somewhat homesick for Southern CA.

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