Austin City Guide: East Austin Eats


This post is the final one in a series of entries dedicated to the Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide 2012, aimed at helping visitors and newcomers sort out the city’s most notable food establishments.

In the past ten years or so, East Austin has changed a lot. As real estate prices shot up, the neighborhoods east of I-35 were pretty much the only affordable places for people looking to buy a house, perhaps their first. My family and I are no exception to this rule. Back in 2004, my then-fiance and I were living in a rented condo on Elizabeth Street, which was super hip and cool and walkable to the super hip and cool SoCo area. But we were getting married and wanted to upgrade our living situation, so we bought a house in an old East Central neighborhood not far from what is now the Mueller development.

In the seven years since we bought our house (which we closed on right around the time I found out we were expecting the Big Kid), East Austin has changed even more. It’s become a vibrant enclave of artists and musicians, not to mention a couple of urban farms, and houses an embarrassment of excellent restaurants.

(There’s an uncomfortable conversation to be had about gentrification here, but that’s a post for another time.)

So, with all of that in mind, here are some of my favorite restaurants on Austin’s east side. Please note that this is totally subjective and not even approaching comprehensive. Buen provecho!

Gourmands
Gourmands is a relatively new entry on the Austin dining scene, specializing in gourmet sandwiches and soups (in bread bowls! YUM!). I think about the Cleopatra sandwich almost every day and how soft and fresh that bread is. My lord. I may have to make a late-night run.

Blue Dahlia

Ham and gruyere tartine

This is a sweet little bistro/bakery on 11th Street that just nails the details, from the sweetly intimate back porch to the little stone trays your check arrives on. I highly recommend the tartines, little open-faced sandwiches in both vegetarian and carnivore options, and totally, totally satisfying. (Pro tip: Get there early or be ready to wait. We’re not talking Franklinlevels of waiting, but I don’t think Blue Dahlia qualifies as a “best kept secret” anymore.)

Justine’s
Ohhhh, Justine’s. How I love thee. I love your French 75s. I love your French onion soup. I love your moules frites AND your steak frites. And I love your creme brulee. I love how the tiny space is so intimate without feeling cramped. I love that middle-aged French waiter who exhibits just a whiff of disinterest without being discourteous. I love that you are the only place apart from Uchiko we’ve dropped $100 on dinner without any complaint from my husband.

East Side Showroom
Part steampunk bar, part farm-to-table bistro, East Side Showroom has gained much notoriety of late as Chef Sonya Cote enjoys her ascendancy on the Austin food scene. Also featured in my friend Christian’s excellent short doc, Local! I’m also really looking forward to checking out Chef Cote’s brand-new Hillside Farmacy, also located in east Austin, this week.

Hoover’s Cooking

We actually don’t go to Hoover’s that much because it’s one of those restaurants that inspires my children to act like complete and total ingrates. But I really like the comfort/soul food on offer — ESPECIALLY the chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes and green beans! — and I’m super excited to go try out the Soular Garden! Hoover’s cobblers can’t be missed, either.

Honorable mentions (either because I’ve already raved about them here or they were suggested by other AFBA members but I haven’t been there): Contigo, Vivo, Nubian Queen Lola’s, Braise, Casa Colombia.)

Austin City Guide: Best Non-Alcoholic Drinks


This post is the third in a series of entries dedicated to the Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide 2012, aimed at helping visitors and newcomers sort out the city’s most notable food establishments. Over the course of the next week, I’ll be covering a broad array of topics dedicated to the best places to eat and drink and socialize in Austin.

Today’s topic is non-alcoholic drinks. When you think of Austin, you probably think of Shiner Bock or margaritas (rightly so, in truth). But did you know that Austin also has a vibrant coffee culture, as well as some really solid local sodas?

But there’s also a growing conversation about juice these days. While fruit juices get a bad rap for being chock full of sugar and contributing to the global obesity problem, there’s something to be said for a foamy concoction of freshly compressed fruits and veg to help fill you up when you need a snack or as a bit of a refresher after some vigorous exercise.

To that end, here are three options for yummy, freshly squeezed juices, whether you want to reboot your digestive system with a brief juice fast or just have a tasty (and fairly nutritious) alternative to water when you’re feeling parched.

Juiceland

Deep Eddy Juiceland

I like to go to Juiceland after a run for a “Moderator” (I would link to the menu, but that website is a nightmare), as I find the bracing bite of the ginger and lemon mixed with the sweet finish of the apple and beet to be completely energizing. Juiceland also has a selection of ready-to-eat meals and packaged living-foods snacks on hand to grab and go with your juice or smoothie.

Daily Juice

Daily Juice

Daily Juice is a raw foods cafe at the corner of 45th and Duval streets, smack in the middle of the Hyde Park neighborhood. While parking is a hassle, I really like this spot because not only can you get things like raw durian truffles to go with your juice or smoothie, you can get raw nachos and even vegan ice cream.

Snap Kitchen

Snap Kitchen juices, photo courtesy of Jodi Bart, http://tastytouring.com/

Snap Kitchen, which has two brick-and-mortar locations in Austin, as well as a downtown popup, is one-stop shopping for pret a manger meals that are portion controlled and customized to your particular dietary needs. Vegetarian? Yup. Gluten free? You betcha. Diabetic? But of course!!! Dairy free? Lower sodium? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Snap Kitchen recently rolled out a series of juices meant to comprise a Day 0 “cleanse” as part of their 21-day Snap Commit program, but you can also just walk into the shop and grab something light and nutrient-rich, like the Energy Boost (with papaya, lime, and coconut water, among other things) or a decadent cashew protein shake after you’re done pumping iron. I definitely see myself grabbing a juice from the cooler for some relief from the heat when I go to the Triangle Market on Wednesday afternoons this summer.

Austin City Guide: The 5 Best Patios


This post is the second in a series of entries dedicated to the Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide 2012, aimed at helping visitors and newcomers sort out the city’s most notable food establishments. Over the course of the next week, I’ll be covering a broad array of topics dedicated to the best places to eat and drink and socialize in Austin.

Spring is nearly upon us, which means you have about a 15-minute window to enjoy your mimosas and eggs Benedict or margaritas and queso outdoors without being mosquito-bit and drenched in sweat. Here are the top five patios to enjoy Austin’s fleeting moments of nice weather.

5. Red’s Porch

Photo courtesy of Michelle Cheng of Foodie is the New Forty, http://foodieisthenewforty.com/

“Half Cajun, Half Tex Mex, Half Southern.” 100% South Austin.

4. Paggi House

Photo courtesy of Michelle Cheng of Foodie is the New Forty.

Slightly upscale, with lovely cocktails that you can enjoy nestled in the trees. One of the few places where you might run into your snooty Aunt Dora and your twenty-something babysitter on the same night.

3. Perla’s

Photo via Perlas.com

Play some shuffleboard or just kick back and relax while you enjoy your oysters and cold beer in slackadaisical South Congress style. (Word on the street is that this is primo real estate for Robert Plant and Patty Griffin sightings!)

2. Vivo

Margaritas taste better outside. As do puffy tacos, tortilla soup, and enchiladas!!! The water wall and aggressive plant-scaping almost obscure the fact that you’re butted up against the bustle of Manor Road traffic.

1. Contigo

I love this place, and not just because it’s in my neighborhood (East side represent!). Pretty much the entire restaurant is outside, and the feel is homey and welcoming. This picture doesn’t really do it justice, because I took it before they were open on a gray and blustery morning. Just think of settling in together on large picnic tables under twinkling lights (or near a warming fire bowl if it’s chilly), sharing plates of crispy green beans and housemade pigs in blankets. Or tucking into half a roast chicken while your tablemates savor their rabbit and dumplings, everyone trading bites (hygienically, we hope) and sipping cocktails and laughing and maybe challenging one another to a game of washers. It’s happy, neighborly chaos at Contigo, like a backyard block party.

Austin City Guide: The Top 5 Barbecue Joints Outside Austin


This post is the first in a series of entries dedicated to the Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide 2012, aimed at helping visitors and newcomers sort out the city’s most notable food establishments. Over the course of the next week, I’ll be covering a broad array of topics dedicated to the best places to eat and drink and socialize in Austin.

You can’t visit or live in Austin without experiencing the centerpiece of Central Texas foodways, barbecue. (I might know a little bit about the topic.) While Austin certainly boasts a number of remarkably delicious barbecue restaurants, there are a number of long-established, iconic barbecue joints beyond the city limits. Long before Aaron Franklin, the brisket ninja, took Austin by storm (indeed, long before he was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes), these folks have been smoking brisket and sausage to great acclaim.

Opinions differ on what constitutes excellent barbecue. For me, it’s brisket that’s tender and moist (nothing gets under my saddle like dry brisket), with a bright smoke ring and a dark, flavorful bark. Sausage should have a nice snap from the casing, a slightly coarse grind, and a peppery bite. Ribs should have a nice caramelization on the outside from the rub, and the meat should be fall-off-the-bone tender. Sauce is a sacrilege; if you serve me a plate of barbecue smothered in sauce, you’re dead to me. Again, though, this is all a matter of opinion. Some people — people who are wrong, wrong, wrong, I should note — think sauce is important. Some people prefer lean brisket. Some are vegetarian. (I can joke because I’ve given up meat for Lent and am totally okay with that.)

The rankings here are the result of a survey taken of the Alliance’s approximately 100 members. As such, I should note that these rankings do not reflect my personal opinions about what constitutes the best barbecue beyond Austin city limits. That said, I do offer my personal opinions on the restaurants because, well, I have opinions about barbecue.

5. Kreuz Market

Kreuz Market photo courtesy of Matt Abendschein, youstayyummyaustin.blogspot.com

Located about 30 miles southeast of Austin in the small town of Lockhart, Kreuz has long been a beacon on the Central Texas barbecue landscape. Indeed, Lockhart is home to so many fiercely loved barbecue joints that it has long been a destination for out-of-towners looking for an authentic barbecue experience. Kreuz Market started out as a grocery store and meat market in 1900, where the proprietor, Charles Kreuz, would smoke the meat to help prevent spoilage. It has been a dedicated barbecue restaurant and meat market since its second owner, Edgar Schmidt, converted it in the 1960s, and is a very popular stop for barbecue road-trippers. (Seriously, go to any of these spots on a weekend and you’ll see great clumps of pudgy, red-faced, middle-aged fraternity brothers in khaki shorts and Robert Earl Keen t-shirts sat at large tables, surrounded by giant Styrofoam cups of iced tea or a dozen six-packs of crappy beer, going at huge mounds of brisket and sausage. It will likely be their first stop of many for the day/weekend.)

It’s been a while since I ate at Kreuz, but I really like their jalapeno sausage. It’s got a nicely textured grind and the zing of the jalapeno is a message from the sausagemaker that says, “Yeah, you’re a grownup. You can take the heat. Don’t be a pansy.” Kreuz is cash-only, and plan to stand in a long line of a lunch hour. Also plan on using your hands (no forks!) and being offered saltine crackers with your meat.

4. City Market, Luling

Meat at Luling City Market. Photo courtesy of Cooking For Engineers, http://www.cookingforengineers.com/.

Head about 15 miles farther south from Lockhart and you’ll find yourself in Luling, home to City Market, another general store converted into a barbecue restaurant. When you walk in, you’ll probably feel some dismay when you realize that not only is the end of the line about six inches from where you walked in, but all of the tables are full. Good luck getting to the bathroom! As you get closer and closer to the pit room at the back of the space, where you will order your meats by the pound, you will have had plenty of time to inspect the display of various chips, homemade pralines, ice cream, watch the cashiers in action, and so on. People watching is part of the fun of a trip to City Market; not only will you see fellow city slickers like yourself, you will get to watch the locals in their natural habitat. (Pro tip: if the locals outnumber the tourists, you’ve found a winner.) But then when you get your meat and you’ve knocked over a little old lady to get your bum in a seat at a recently vacated table, you’ll forget the wait. Brisket, sausage, ribs: you can’t go wrong. (I’m partial to the brisket, tho.)

Part of the charm of Luling City Market is the small-town Texas experience you get as part of the barbecue meal. Another pro tip: if you time your visit for late May/early June, you will be witness to the aggressive campaigns of ambitious high-school girls angling to be elected the Watermelon Thump Queen. (Luling’s trademark crop is watermelons, and they hold an annual Watermelon Thump in the summer. The entire town is decorated with a watermelon motif.)

3. Smitty’s

Smoking sausages at Smitty's. Photo courtesy of Cooking For Engineers, http://www.cookingforengineers.com/.

Smitty’s was established in 1999 by Nina Schmidt Sells, the daughter of Edgar Schmidt, in the wake of a bitter split with her brother, who now owns Kreuz Market. Smitty’s is situated in the original Kreuz space on the square in Lockhart. I’ve never been to Smitty’s, but I hear the brisket is the star here. Smitty’s also offers a smoked pork chop, which is pretty unusual for a barbecue place.

2. Louie Mueller

Wayne Mueller, son of the late, lamented Bobby Mueller

This is hands-down my favorite barbecue outside Austin. If you love Franklin Barbecue, you also love Louie Mueller, because Aaron Franklin learned from the masters. Located in Taylor, about 30 miles to the northwest, Louie Mueller’s, like so many other barbecue joints in Texas, started its life as a grocery store in the 1940s. Bobby Mueller took over operations at the barbecue place in the 1970s and established himself as a major player on the Texas barbecue scene. When he died suddenly in the fall of 2008, he had worked more than 150,000 hours at the pit, and his loss was keenly felt. His sons, John and Wayne, were forced to contend with the business; Wayne took over the business in Taylor, while John foundered for a while before opening his new trailer in Austin. (The February 2012 issue of Texas Monthly has a very moving profile of John Mueller and Aaron Franklin, and I highly recommend you check it out.)

At any rate, the brisket at Louie Mueller in Taylor is the best brisket I’ve ever had. Period. Hands-down. Yeah, if you get there too late in the morning, you’re going to wait in line, and it’s smoky and the sticky brown patina on the walls and photographs bear testament to decades’ worth of that smoke. But the brisket, my god, the brisket.

1. The Salt Lick

Finishing pit, The Salt Lick. Photo courtesy of Cooking For Engineers, http://www.cookingforengineers.com/.

Okay, here’s where I part ways with my AFBA peers. I don’t think that the Salt Lick has very good barbecue. But, whatever. It’s a fun experience to drive the 22 miles west out to Driftwood (BYOB, by the way), hang out with your friends and family while you wait for a table, and eat family style at the same picnic tables I scrubbed down as a drink girl (and waitress) in high school. But just know that when you go to the Salt Lick, you’re not getting the same quality of meat that you would at Mueller’s. I will say, though, that the blackberry cobbler is the best I’ve ever had. The bottom line? Go for the experience, not the food.