Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Austin City, Unlimited Part I - Of Barbecue and Barbacoa

Recently I had the opportunity to go to Austin, Texas.  It wasn't a vacation, mind you - this was for work - but the time I did get to explore was pretty much spent eating.  Not a bad way to spend a trip to Austin, which, like our own, is a food city.  And even though it was a solid 90 degrees pretty much the whole time I was there, I did do a lot of walking.  So in the end, despite all the food I ate (all the food I ate), with all the heat, sweating and walking around I actually think I lost a pound by the end of the trip.

There is much to mention about the food in the Live Music Capital of the World, and I'm not sure where to begin.

The cuisine of Texas is varied, in this biggest state in the South and Southwest (note: California is, technically, in the Southwest, but isn't "Southwestern").  Mexican, Tex-Mex (the most common version of Southwestern) and of course barbecue abound.  It's easy to find it all in the capital of the Lone Star State.  I had a chance to eat it all, and what's more I got some use out of my Urbanspoon Android application.  I was able to avoid anything with less than an 80% user rating once I downloaded it.

Not taken with Instagram.  I accidentally used the Puddin' Camera app I downloaded onto my phone.

I started off with Mexican, a few blocks from my hotel.  La Condesa with its blocky modern decor has a 76% rating on Urbanspoon, but the hotel clerk recommended it so I tried it out.

Overall I found the tortilla soup satisfying if a bit creamier than I'm used to.   

For the main part of the meal, I had cochinita pibil tacos with beans and rice.  I've eaten cochinita pibil a few times in my life - in the US, in Mexico, and out of my own slow cooker.  It all tasted different from this cochinita pibil, which I didn't quite recognize.  It wasn't bad, but it seemed to have a more Tex-Mex flavor to it.  Cochinita pibil should be citrusy, and this just wasn't.  Even the pickled onions didn't really jump out.  Again, it wasn't bad, but it didn't seem like cochinita pibil to me.  Truthfully my favorite part of this meal was the rice.  I could eat a plateful of this stuff and be happy.

I had a more satisfying taco at La Casa del Fuego food truck.  For a little over $3 I got a somewhat dry pork taco that worked better than it sounds.  

This was not a taco al pastor but a taco with chunks of (it seemed) dry-rubbed pork, smothered with cilantro and juicy onions, and a slightly spicy sauce (I asked for spicy - either they didn't give it to me or they just don't do "spicy").

Most of my food time was spent eating barbecue.  Yes, Texas is one of the centers of the American barbecue landscape, and Texans boast about it.  The one guy driving me from the airport, for goodness sake, launched into a tirade against Kansas City and North Carolina barbecue in the course of three minutes when I started asking.  It was a good natured tirade, but a tirade none the less.  He recommended a few good barbecue places downtown, and a family friend from the city recommended one more.  Austinites will have their favorite, and I have mine.

The first I visited, Iron Works, was by the massive and flashy convention center.  It was the only one that had a line out the door (for lunch).  As with any Austin barbecue place, they give you a healthy choice of barbecued meats: beef brisket, chopped (not chipped) beef, pork, sausage, chicken, ham and so on.  I ordered the beef brisket, which came with the standard accompaniments: white bread (here just one slice), onions & pickles.  You get to choose sides (in this case potato salad and beans).  The barbecue brisket plate was all of $9, and since I could use a card I added a small bottle of Coke and a small thing of banana pudding - not as good as my mother's, of course, but don't we all think that?

The grand total was a massive $13.  They don't automatically provide sauce, but have various different squeeze bottles of sauce in their seating area.

I liked Iron Works beef brisket, though I found a more flavorful (and just as cheap) one at Rudy's Barbecue on the north side of UT Austin.  This is the barbecue place that our family friend, who is from Austin, recommended to me.  For this beef brisket I got two slices of bread and chose, again, potato salad and beans to go along.  Brisket is not meant to be juicy, and this wasn't at all, but the flavor was just a little more intense than Iron Works'.  The little cup of sauce they gave me along with it was just enough to last me through the three slices of beef.

The kind of barbecue that makes you wanna smack someone it's so good

The last barbecue place I tried was the legendary Stubb's, which I got the impression from travel guides was this big, flashy place that hosts musicians and has lots of tourists come to visit.  Instead, from the outside it looks like a very unassuming, even slightly ramshackle edifice.  Inside it is dark and cozy with the shutters drawn, with an outdoor area that was fully packed when I visited.

This time I ordered the pork barbecue - the nightly special - for $11.  With its streaks of fat (probably not the most normal thing to find in Texas barbecue) it was juicier than the beef I had elsewhere.  The other sides were the same - this time Texas thick cut bread, onions, pickles.  I did have to spit a little of the fat out because it was unchewable.  Overall Stubb's was a lovely barbecue, but out of the three places I visited - and I would readily go back to any of them again - I have to give the nod to Ruby's.

Coming up in the next post: the other stuff I got to sample in Austin.  Oh no, it's not all barbecue, Mexican and Tex-Mex.