Austin: Where reality exceeds the hype

Includes: La Boite Cafe, East Side King, Gourdough’s, Barley Swine, Perla’s, Franklin Barbecue, East Site Showroom   

Oh, dear readers, I’ve just returned from visiting my daughter in Austin, Texas. Austin, land of bikes, tattoos, music, dogs and food, glorious food.

The capital city of Texas is someplace I’ve been wanting to go for a while, having heard about its fabulous dining scene and intriguing food truck culture. It did not disappoint.

Austin is my kind of food nirvana. Most of the restaurants have a very unassuming appearance and laid-back vibe. Jeans (my favorite piece of clothing) and other equally casual duds are acceptable everywhere. There are very few establishments that don’t offer outdoor seating. Food is fun and creative with a tremendous emphasis on local suppliers.

I’m really going to have to try keep myself in check with this post because I could write for hours. And I’m going to give you subheads so you can focus on what interests you most. If you want more, just call me! (I can talk about food for hours, too … )

Food Trucks

Food trucks — mostly trailers, actually — are all over the city. Some are mobile, and others have found semi-permanent places to park. Some have erratic hours, and others more set schedules. Some open up and close down in short order, while others have been around for a while.

Some are stand-alones, some nestle with neighbors in a “trailer park” and others are planted alongside local watering holes. In appearance, they run the gamut from stylish to frumpy.

Erin took me to three food trucks over the weekend. At La Boite Cafe we had iced coffees and shared three exquisitely-delicate French macarons: caramel fleur de sel, strawberry peppercorn and blueberry lavender.

East Side King boasts two trucks, each parked beside bars on the east side of Austin. We ordered beers inside The Grackle and took them out to a picnic table on the porch. Then we sauntered a few paces over to one of the East Side King trucks and placed and paid for our orders. Staffers delivered them to us piping hot.

The Mushroom Rice was chock-full of exotic varieties cooked to a perfect consistency. The salty sauce was light enough to let the flavor of the shrooms shine. The rice was almost an afterthought, hidden under the mound of mushrooms. The Grilled Romaine was also delish. (If you’ve never tried grilled lettuces you owe it to yourself. Cooking the leaves adds a whole new flavor dimension.)

But my favorite food truck delight came from Gourdoughs — “Big. Fat. Donuts.” as it bluntly states right on the side of the trailer.

Big is right. It took Erin and I both to eat our Dirty Berry, which was a huge freshly-fried donut topped with fudge sauce, chocolate chips and grilled strawberry halves. Forks required. Wow. (Check out the menu to see some of Gourdoughs’  other concoctions. Ours was tame compared to donuts with chicken, bacon, jalapenos and other more off-the-wall ingredients.)

Barley Swine

Barley Swine is a brand-new, brick-and-mortar outgrowth of Odd Duck Farm to Trailer, which is parked right across the street in the same trailer park as Gourdoughs. Food & Wine named Chef Bryce Gilmore one of 2011’s best new chefs. I agree wholeheartedly.

Our meal at Barley Swine was perhaps the most exciting of my trip.

We went early to avoid lines and a long wait — the restaurant has only several largish communal tables and seats only about 40 people. Erin and I ate at the bar, which is fun because the completely wide-open kitchen is just behind it.

We ordered four small plates to share. Our servers were very helpful in elaborating on each’s composition. I’ll jot down how they were listed on the menu, then fill you in:

Fried brussel sprouts, lemon, capers — I hate that my photo of this dish didn’t turn out well. It was intensely flavorful, and the sprouts were perfectly fried. Unbelievable.

(Photo above) Crab pancake, soft scrambled egg, morels — More a crepe than a traditional pancake, it was stuffed full of crab meat and Texas basmati rice. It was topped with interesting pickled squash pieces, morels, arugula and a barely scrambled eggy sauce. Ummm.

Spice rubbed quail, beets, yogurt — I was reluctant to order this. Eating quail is sometimes a pain in the ass because it’s so tiny. And I’ve had it overcooked and dry more than once. But this was delicious. The quail was jerk seasoned and very moist, and served with golden beets, barley, yogurt and a smear of fantastic pasilla chili sauce.

(Photo above) Grilled rabbit terrine, bacon-liver mousse, sweet onion — This was our favorite. The “terrine” was completely deconstructed. A nice slice of grilled rabbit served with wilted arugula, French radishes, onions, turnips and a daub of pudding-like, soft, oh-so-flavorful mousse that was to die for. As evidenced by the empty plate, which I used my finger to lick clean. (I would have used my tongue if we weren’t in a restaurant.) The different textures were fantastic.

Now for dessert:

Almond cake, strawberry gelee, creme fraiche-pink peppercorn ice cream — This was so cute! The berries had been macerated and cut to resemble tiny wild strawberries.

Hazelnut chocolate crunch, caramel pudding, honey-nut nougat — As good as it sounds. I especially enjoyed the crunchy outside/chewy inside texture of the nougat and the chewy deliciousness of the chocolate part.

Perla’s Seafood and Oyster Bar

Perla’s is touted as being one of the seafood establishments in Austin, flying fresh fish in daily. It’s a lovely, airy interior with a fantastic tree-shaded patio outside.

Our tiny dish of hushpuppies was served with tartar sauce, which, as a North Carolinian, I found interesting and different.

I had the Breakfast Bouillabaisse. The stew contained all the usual seafood and veggie suspects and was served with the traditional grilled bread and aioli. The nice brunchy touch was a quick-fried, panko-coated poached egg. The exterior was nice and crisp, and the inside was soft and the yolk runny. Quite an accomplishment.

Franklin Barbecue

This is another relative newcomer that started off as a trailer and morphed into a brick-and-mortar establishment. Hours? 11 a.m. until they sell out. Which is sometimes before 1 p.m.

If you want to eat at Franklin’s you might as well get used to the idea of waiting in line. But it moves pretty quickly, and a nice server visited regularly to take cold drink orders.

This is strictly a no-frills establishment. Paper and chalkboard menus, and disposable utensils, plates and cups. A few tables inside and a few outside. Order at the counter.

But none of that is important. The meat takes center stage here.

You can read for yourself online how owner Aaron Franklin painstakingly cooks his beef and pork. The result is achingly tender, moist and tasty meat — it smells, looks and tastes good enough to transform 95% pescatarians like me into temporary carnivores.

I got a two-meat platter with two sides (potato salad and slaw, both good). Aaron himself was carving up the meat, and when I requested pulled pork and brisket, he asked if I wanted fatty or lean brisket. I said I wasn’t sure. So he took the time to show me both types, and then decided to give me some of each.

Both were outstanding, but the fatty was better (no surprise there). The pulled pork was delicious, but the brisket was even better. It had an offputting-looking but awesome-tasting black crust on the outside.

The meat was so good that no embellishment was necessary. But the accompanying sauces (several types on each table) were so yummy that I couldn’t resist them — especially the dark one made with espresso and brown sugar.

I felt like a cavewoman eating this stuff, abandoning my plastic fork early on and resorting to using my fingers. It was actually most satisfying in a primal, earthy way.

Our two platters were enough to feed at least 4-5 people, so we doggie-bagged it.

I was very smug about my tummy feeling just fine, thank you, despite my biggest meat cheat in probably 6 or 7 years.

But about three hours later … oh my. Felt like a boulder in my stomach. My poor digestive system was put to the ultimate test.

Was it worth it?

Oh yes …

East Side Show Room

Funky east Austin where my daughter lives boasts a host of bars and restaurants of particular appeal to young people in their 20s and 30s. The East Side Show Room can hold a candle high among any of the places I’ve ever frequented (and even as an old lady I felt most welcome).

The decor is sumptuous and the cocktails are so creative. Some are classics, and others are brash and new. The bar stocks a tremendous variety of alcohol, some quite rare (including a green chartreuse we tasted that literally warmed the inside of my mouth). They make their own infusions and syrups, and preserve their own fruits.

I hate that, once again, the photos I took on the dimly-lit back patio didn’t turn out. But I had two beautiful and tasty drinks: a Black Cherry Julep, which was small-batch bourbon, blackberries, luxardo cherries and mint; and an Angel’s Tit (excuse me!), comprised of layers of maraschin, cream and another luxardo cherry. What are luxardo cherries, you might ask? The most delectable specialty cocktail cherry ever.

The East Side Show Room also has a great-sounding food menu, but we only had drinks.

Other foodie highlights

Other weekend high spots included visiting Whole Foods’ flagship store (Austin is the company’s headquarters) and receiving the best Mother’s Day present imaginable: the Super Natural Every Day cookbook by one of my favorite food bloggers, Heidi Swanson of 101cookbooks.

Thank you, sweetheart.

And Austin, I’ll be back.

About atarheeltastes

I'm a passionate foodie who started this "temporary" blog during a gustatory tour of Tuscany. I decided to continue, since I love to dream about, plan for, prepare, eat and write about food!
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