Monday, March 3, 2014

Everything's bigger in Texas

Chris and I made a run for the border last week but only made it as far as Texas. Just kidding, that was our intended destination - his aunt lives in Austin and we imposed upon her generous hospitality for a week to warm up our frozen limbs and bask in the sun and eat a lot of tacos. I'm happy to report we succeeded on all counts. Here's a walk-through of our taco journey, punctuated with a dark and moody tavern meal and a barbecue interlude.

We arrived in Austin a  half-day later than expected (thanks, crappy rain/snow storm in the northeast!) tired and a little cranky after an unintended night at an airport hotel in Chicago. (The hotel was fine, we just hadn't planned to be there.) Fortunately, the sun was beating down and the temperature was a balmy 24 degrees, so we put on shorts and sandals and promptly headed out to Guero's, a taco bar on South Congress Avenue, to listen to a live band in their beer garden. Chris's aunt's friend's husband (got that?) plays in the band and they do both covers and originals, mostly bluesy southern rock. They were very good and so were the tacos al pastor being served up under a tiny tent next to the bar. We got a couple and sat on a bench and just chilled right out. After an hour or so we felt much, much better.

The following day we had lunch at one of Austin's famed food trucks, the delightfully irreverent Torchy's Tacos. You order at the truck and then take a number and they bring your food to you at a shady picnic table nearby. They have many different fun and interesting tacos as well as killer guacamole (not that we had bad guac anywhere on this trip). We tried four between us: the Democrat (barbacoa, which is shredded beef cheek and tongue), the chicken fajita, the Mr. Pink (seared spiced ahi tuna) and the green chile pork. All were absolutely fantastic and quite substantial - kept us going until dinnertime.

On Monday we took the Megabus to San Antonio and stayed overnight. (The Megabus, by the way, is pretty much the best thing ever. $23 for two of us, return, from Austin to San Antonio, with wifi and air conditioning. Bliss.) We visited the Alamo, which was very interesting and lovely, and walked the Riverwalk, which we absolutely loved. It's touristy, yes, but it's also lovely and fun and romantic. Here's the outside view of the Esquire Tavern, the oldest bar on the Riverwalk, where we had supper and some amazing beers and cocktails:

Their entire draft beer list was Texas craft brews. The boy was in heaven. They take their cocktails very seriously, and they were amazing. My Moscow Mule came in a copper cup that, we noted later on our bill, comes with a $25 deposit.
For starters Chris had deep-fried pickled beets (no joke, and they were amazing, but they look like lumps of batter so no pic) with a tarragon aioli. I had some "Bloody Maria shrimp" which were basically huge delicious tequila-braised shrimp in a spicy cocktail sauce with avocado and crackers:


We followed up that deliciousness with a chile relleno for Chris (a fried poblano pepper stuffed with pulled pork and cheese) and a chicken leg in molé poblano sauce for me. I neglected to note on the menu that the chicken leg was SMOKED, which made it even more amazing. The molé sauce was rich and dark and barely sweet, just as it should be, and the house creamed corn was an added delight. Molé isn't something I will make, as it's incredibly involved and time-consuming, so I happily order it in restaurants, and this was the best I've ever tasted.

There may also have been Tres Leches cake for dessert, but as no photographic evidence for this exists, I cannot confirm or deny that rumour.

The following day, after an evening in a terrific hotel  (the Riverwalk Vista, an historic hotel of America and highly recommended) we explored the San Antonio market square and had lunch at Mi Tierra, a legendary Mexican place complete with bakery and mariachi bar. It was definitely a touristy place but the hotel clerk assured us the food was solid, and she was right. I had some (sadly un-photographed) excellent carnitas tacos and Chris had the daily special, sliced steak in spicy gravy with rice and beans. All of it was incredible and fresh.

Back to Austin, where the following day dawned rainy and cold - but we warmed right up with some incredible pit barbecue meats at Smitty's Meat Market in Lockhart, about 45 minutes south of Austin. It's known as the barbecue capital of Texas - it started with Kreuz's and then people kept leaving there and starting up their own places to compete, so now there are three more: Black's, Franklin's and Smitty's. We went to the latter, and were not the least bit disappointed, as you can see from the mountain of meat below (root beer pictured for scale):

That's a pound each of lean brisket and pork ribs, and two smoked sausages. For three people. We didn't finish it, mostly because we all wanted ice cream (Blue Bell, Texas-made, delicious.) You order your meat by the pound and they slice and weigh it out for you in the back room, which is just the pit and a counter; then you proceed into the dining hall, sort of a cross between the legion and a church hall, with long tables and folding chairs and a counter where you can get drinks and sides. We got some excellent potato salad and killer slaw and a perfectly crunchy dill pickle.

Get this: they give you knives, and spoons if you order salads, but NO FORKS. You eat with your hands. It's delightful. We could not have loved it more. I want to go back now.

We took home a sausage and a bit of brisket, so for lunch the next day I concocted this:

Brisket taco with avocado, queso fresco and hatch chile salsa, side of smoked sausage. Sigh.

The final stop on our taco tour was on Thursday night, my birthday. I wavered all day about where we should go for dinner - there was a modern Thai place that sounded appealing, but they had a no-reservations policy AND communal tables with benches instead of chairs and it all just sounded too hipster and pretentious for me, so we went to Takoba, K's favourite local Mexican place, and I'm so glad we did. It's in East Austin, which is an area currently being gentrified, but it's still a mix, kind of like Hintonburg here in Ottawa.

Takoba's got a small, simply decorated dining room and a huge patio, which sadly it was just a bit too chilly for us to enjoy that evening; they also have a cantina next door with a killer cocktail menu. We sat in there and ordered a round while waiting for a table. My classic margarita was so delicious I ordered another when we got to dinner. All of us ordered tacos - Chris and K went with al pastor, but I wanted to tick fish tacos off my list so I went with the crispy tilapia with chipotle aioli and slaw, and was not sorry. (Even though I tried the al pastor and they were the best I've ever had.) No pics - we were far too busy enjoying them. I got a side of nopales -  peeled prickly pear cactus paddles sliced and sauteed with onions and tomatoes and chiles - unique and delicious.

"It's my birthday so I'm having cake," I delared tipsily to the waitress when we had destroyed the tacos, thus guaranteeing myself a candle in my chocolate truffle cake with cinnamon whipped cream. There was a generous dose of cinnamon in the cake as well, which was fluffy and airy and not too dense or dark or rich. The three of us shared the generous slice, piled high with drifts of spiced whipped cream, and it was the most perfect birthday dessert ever.

To top it off, our flight out of Austin the following day was delayed so much that we would have certainly been stranded in Cleveland so they rebooked us for Saturday morning. Thus, we got to spend another perfect afternoon in Austin and the hot weather returned. We ate lunch on the patio at the vegetarian and deeply hippy Bouldin Creek Cafe - delicious veggie burgers and great lemonade - and took a long sunny walk through South Austin back to K's place, stopping at the greatest candy store I've ever been to, the Big Top Candy Shop on South Congress. (Eat your heart out, Sugar Mountain. They had Haribo stuff I never even saw in Europe.) We spent the better part of the evening on the porch drinking cider and watching the sun descend into the trees.

It was, in short, an amazing week away, and we enjoyed ourselves enormously. Texas may have its issues, but the food is not one of them. We'll definitely be back for more someday.


Jenn said...

Just tell me you didn't buy any sugar-free Haribo gummies....

Alison said...

Oh heck no. *shudder*