In Austin, Gourmet Food Meets Local Cooking
The city’s creative spirit flows straight into the kitchens of Austin’s top restaurants. Writer Andrew Collins shares 6 you need to try.
Overlooking the Colorado River, aka Lady Bird Lake, Four Seasons Hotel Austin lies in the shadows of downtown’s fast-rising forest of shimmering skyscrapers. In the Hotel, you can dine splendidly at TRIO, enjoying exquisite rack of lamb, Texas shrimp and bone-in rib-eye filets. You’re also within walking distance of countless downtown culinary hot spots. Head across the river to reach South Austin, which abounds with examples of the city’s locavore-driven food-and-drink revolution. Here are six places you shouldn’t miss.
Barley Swine, 1 512/394-8150, 2024 South Lamar Boulevard
Expect a wait here, as the long bar and several communal tables fill up fast. But the staff is most accommodating—just sign in and leave your number, and they’ll text you when seats open up. How to kill time? Adjacent Henri’s cheese shop and charcuterie is a great spot for pre-dinner mingling and small bites. Here, friends and I devoured a platter of seductively stinky Époisses and a glass of Côtes du Rhône. Once seated at Barley Swine, despite having slightly dented our appetites, we debated the merits of all 12 savoury small- to medium-size dishes and ultimately decided to share all of them, plus a dessert. The menu changes regularly, but standards feature bold flavour combinations like duck and foie gras with carrots, lavender, farro and hibiscus; and a gloriously weird chicken-fried egg served over green-garlic grits and crowned with a lightly piquant romesco sauce. There’s a great wine list, but beer adventurers will find even more to coo about, including large-format bottles of Austin’s own Adelbert’s Flyin’ Monk Quadrupel Ale.
Elizabeth Street Café, 1 512/291-2881, 1501 South 1st Street
Larry McGuire and Thomas Moorman Jr have opened a string of superb restaurants, including Lamberts Downtown Barbecue and Perla’s Seafood & Oyster Bar. But their latest effort, Elizabeth Street, just may be their best—it’s a stylish but unpretentious French-Vietnamese café where you can come simply to sip chicory-laced Vietnamese coffee and nibble on jewel-coloured macarons, or sit down to a genuine feast of artfully presented fare, often with local flourishes, like the lip-smacking kaffir-lime-laced fried chicken bahn mi, and a rice vermicelli bowl with crispy Gulf snapper. Other notables include fried shrimp-and-yam fritters, and a fragrant pho of spicy pork meatballs and bok choy.
La Barbecue, 1 512/605-9696, 1502 South 1st Street
This humble but wildly popular barbecue trailer across the street from Elizabeth Street Café is helmed by LeAnn Mueller, the granddaughter of Taylor, Texas, barbecue legend Louie Mueller, and pit boss John Lewis, a veteran of another joint with a fanatical following, Franklin Barbecue. Devotees cheerfully brave long lines to sample the absolutely sublime El Sancho sandwich (order it “loco,” with pork, brisket and sausage), a glistening meat-fest slathered in red-onion slaw. Or consider a heaping platter of smoked turkey or pork ribs. Get here early: Hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 11:00 am until they sell out of food, usually by 2:00 pm.
La Condesa, 1 512/499-0300, 400A West 2nd Street
This casually glamorous bi-level space, with soaring glass walls, sleek polished-wood tables and an attractive tree-shaded sidewalk patio, stands out for both its appearance and its creative regional Mexican cooking. There’s an exhaustive selection of artisan tequilas and mezcals, five different ceviches (the diver scallops with lemongrass-coconut cream, avocado and grapefruit is a standout), tacos with unexpected fillings (seared venison, smoked-brisket pastrami), and several exceptional entrées, including wood-grilled whole branzino with salsa verde and cauliflower escabèche, and pan-seared duck breast and confit duck leg with walnuts and pomegranate.
Javelina, 1 512/382-6917, 69 Rainey Street
Practically overnight, a formerly modest strip of charming Arts and Crafts bungalows on the southeast edge of downtown morphed into the white-hot Rainey Street bar district. My favourite among the dozen or so hangouts along here is this tin-roofed homage to the Texas Hill Country. I’m impressed with the local beer selection (Belgian-style 512 Wit, Thirsty Planet BucketHead IPA), and even more so with the unrepentantly robust portions of delicious Tex-Mex fare: sweet-potato fries under a sea of green-chilli pork stew; breaded and hard-boiled “Javelina Eggs” wrapped in pork sausage; a Miga Burger topped with fried egg, tortilla strips, guacamole and house-made hot sauce. The kitchen is open until 1:30 am, at which time you can stroll a mere five blocks back to Four Seasons Austin. Or you could, as I did, stop off for a glass of Buffalo Trace bourbon at another inviting Rainey Street hole in the wall, Blackheart Bar.
Midnight Cowboy, 1 512/843-2715, 313 East 6th Street
It’s just a bar, and the painstakingly cultivated speakeasy vibe is a bit precious, but this dark, almost hushed space serves seriously impressive cocktails. House-made celery syrup and fresh celery and mint heighten the herbal, woodsy personality of Dutch genever in the Kalamazoo julep. And sipping a Joe Buck—a heady mash of Texas blue-corn whiskey, mustard syrup, smoked paprika, fresh lemon, ginger beer and cracked ice—feels a bit like smoking without a cigarette. This unmarked former brothel is tucked discreetly among the raucous and touristy music clubs and beer halls of East 6th Street. Reservations are strongly advised, as walk-ins are tolerated only when the vacancy sign above the door is lighted.