Monday, March 22, 2010

SXSWf(ood) ... Getting Chubby in Austin

 This is the first year I attended South by Southwest (SXSW).  It's arguably one of the largest music festival in North America.  But in recent years, interactive (affectionately known as SXSWi) is becoming a much more significant part of the festival.

Of course, I used this opportunity to sample some great food offered in Austin.  I was pretty much around the main 6th street area of Austin throughout the stay, so I did not have a chance to check out some Austin staples like Magnolia Cafe.  But there are more than enough tasty treats downtown to keep my taste bud interested for the 5 days I was there.

BBQ: When in Texas, eating BBQ is a no-brainer.  I went with my colleagues to the famous Stubbs Bar-B-Que one night to chow down some local favorites.

I kick-started the meal with some fried green tomatoes.  The shell is crunchy, with just enough tartness in the green tomatoes to counter the grease from the frying.  A refreshing accompaniment to a pint of Franziskaner Hefeweiss beer after walking in the sun for a while.

My pick was the Stubb's Minor plate with fairly traditional combination of beef brisket, ribs, fried okra and coleslaw, and of course a slice of white bread.  The meat is well seasoned with a dense smoky flavor.  The original BBQ sauce has a good balance of sweetness, sourness and spice.  I did find it a bit salty if I put it liberally on the meat.  Everything in moderation, right?

And now a confession - I liked it so much that I hand-carried a pound of brisket and half rack of ribs along with a bottle of Stubb's original BBQ sauce home to extend that Texas feeling!!!

Breakfast Tacos: Even the NY Times wrote about the significance of breakfast tacos in Austin, so it totally deserves its own category.

My first encounter with breakfast taco was at Taco Shack, a taco fast food chain in Austin.  My pick was the Shack Taco, with scrambled eggs, chorizo, potatoes & cheese in a flour tortilla.  The chorizo was more like ground beef, with no chorizo-like spicy flavor.  The texture of potatoes in flour tortilla was also a bit strange for me.  The biggest flop was the shredded cheese on top that was not melted - that would have greatly improved the yumminess of the breakfast tacos.  (Little did I know, the non-melted shredded cheese seems to be the norm.)  I must say the salsa was really tasty, good hint of smoky chipotle.

I also had breakfast taco from One Taco, a famous food truck in town.  I had very high expectation of this meal, after reading all the positive reviews about One Taco.  I tried going 3 times with no success getting tacos since the line was too long.

When I finally made the line-up, I picked the One Fried Egg Taco with corn tortilla and chorizo and the One Barbacoa Taco.  Fried egg as the filling for a taco is an interesting concept.  However, the mashed glob of chorizo was not what I expected at all.  It has the spicy chorizo flavor, but the consistency does not relate to chorizo at all.  The barbacoa taco was a much better combination for me, even though the barbacoa was also mashed up in a glob.  I am not sure if the barbacoa was made with the traditional ingredient or just beef; it does have a bit of the gamey flavor that went very well with the beans and the spicy salsa.

The last entry to the breakfast "taco" category is The Big Oh!, a breakfast "waffle" from Before Cone ... There Was Bacon (or simple BC).  This is an odd combination of a waffle cone stuffed with tortilla strips (probably to prevent the bottom of the cone from getting soggy), scrambled egg and bacon, topped with pico de gallo.  The concept is great for eating on the go, and I didn't have too much mess issue eating it.  If the waffle cone was not made so sweet, it would be a pretty interesting snack option.

Tacos: Now onto other tacos.  My colleagues & I went to Iron Cactus for dinner one day.  Sitting on the outdoor rooftop deck to dine in the perfect combination of sun & breeze was amazing!

We started off with 2 appetizers to share - Ahi Tuna Ceviche, and Mexican Shrimp Cocktail.  I really like the texture & depth in flavor from the avocado in the ceviche; definitely something to copy in the future.  I rounded up my seafood dinner with the Yucatan Fish Tacos, served with mango salsa & jicama slaw.  All the seafood is very fresh.  The slight sweetness in the mango salsa goes very well with the tartness of the El Agave Margarita!

Another memorable taco experience comes from Chi'lantro BBQ, a Korean BBQ taco truck.  Wait!  Am I not a purist?!  Normally I would prefer the original / authentic food over fusion.  But this fusion combination definitely works!  Korean BBQ beef & lettuce with spicy sauce, served in Mexcian style with double corn tortilla & lime.  The flavor is somewhat close to bibimbap, and somewhat close to asada tacos.  I wish I had more time to go back & try their other combinations.

Empanadas ... Or should I say mmmpanadas: Another food truck find is mmmpanadas, of course famous for its empanadas.  I encountered this truck the first night I arrived in Austin.  Upon recommendation from the person at the truck, I got the Argentinean.  Honestly I was a little disappointed, as the filling was not as flavorful as I normally get at Jumbo Empanada here in Toronto.  The lack of raisin (or other dried fruit) was definitely a miss as well.

However, by chance, I attended a party catered by mmmpanadas.  They served hors d'oeurve sized empanadas at the function, so I was able to try a variety of filling.  Soy chorizo with brie, spicy black bean, pulled pork & mango ginger (yes dessert!) were all amazingly tasty!  I had to really control myself to not overeat these yummy treats.

Burger & Fries: One of my favorite Food Network show is Diners, Drive-ins & Dives.  So when "triple D" covers Casino El Camino in Austin, I put it on my to-eat list for this trip right away.  The decor of the place, as shown on TV, is dungeon-like, definitely stand out from the generic bar scene.  The patio at the back is a tranquil oasis.

Back to the food.  I had the quintessential buffalo burger and verde chili fries (even though I know there is no way I could finish all the food).  The home made buffalo wing sauce was quite hot, even though I only ordered medium heat.  I never would expect wing sauce, blue cheese & medium-done burger to work together, but they do.

The star of the show is totally the verde chili fries.  The tomatillo verde salsa is on the extreme garlic scale.  It livens up the traditional fries & cheese sauce combo, giving it a kick in the taste bud.  The fries are crispy, and the home made cheese sauce is light, a bit runnier than the usual cheez-whiz-looking glob at other pubs.  Now if only they would have burger topped with verde salsa & cheese ... Mmm ...

Casino El Camino is definitely a food destination in Austin!  Thanks Guy for the tip!

Hot Dog: Now we can't talk about burger & fries without also talking about hot dogs.  There are lots of gourmet hot dog carts / trucks in Austin.  I did not get a chance to try the crowd favorite The Best Wurst.  What I tried was the Cuban Franks from Chupacabra.  It's a hot dog topped with pulled pork.  Yes you heard that right - pulled pork on all beef frank!  It is like eating 2 sandwiches at the same time - pulled pork sandwich on top, hot dog at the bottom.  I do wish the cheese on top is slightly melted, bringing the two together more.  Interesting combination nevertheless.

Ice Treats: The final category is dedicated to my new found love - Ice Cream Man.  These guys travel around to different music & culture festivals, and give out free ice cream & popsicle.  Check out their website for more information about the crew, and their mission.  Don't miss the Off the Wookie magazine they publish!  Check out their whereabouts, and follow them on twitter (@icecreamman) if they are in your neighborhood!

What they give out is not your run-of-the-mill ice cream either.  They were giving out GoodPop popsicles and Blue Bell ice cream, both local favorites.  I focused all my visits on the various flavors of GoodPop, trying out mango, mango chile, pineapple basil and watermelon agave.  All of them are really good, although my favorite for a hot summer night is most definitely watermelon agave; it's like eating frozen concentrated watermelon with honey drizzled on top.

So this pretty much sums up my chowing through Austin.  Being a street food fan, I love the food cart / truck culture in Austin.  I am also constantly amazed by the creativity in the fusion of flavors at the local joints.  I definitely look forward to visiting Austin another time, and exploring more chow.

Watch out for my other SXSW 2010 sightings coming next!

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