Friday, June 08, 2012

Austin City Unlimited, Part II - Live Music City's other not-so-weird offerings

As I noted in a previous post, I visited Austin recently.  It is a food city with lots of barbecue, lots of Mexican food, and lots of Tex-Mex food.  But please don't assume that's all there is.  Oh no, there is so much more wonderful food.

I've visited a few Whole Foodses before: DC's very large one near Dupont Circle, the West Hollywood one near Fairfax, and both of Baltimore's, plus random ones in Philly and Manhattan.  I did not know this until just before I visited this proudly weird city, but Whole Foods began in Austin.  

As such, its biggest Whole Foods on North Lamar is so massive and so very comprehensive that it puts any other I have ever visited to shame (especially both of Baltimore's, which are peensy boutique markets by comparison).  

Electronic, updatable labels?  What kind of carbon footprint does that make?

This place has a few massive buffets, a barbecue station (natch), a gelato station, a taco station, walls of coffee, chocolates, tea - yes, tea - a large bakery, massive wine section, a walk-in beer freezer, bulk goods (five types of bulk quinoa alone), even a section where they sell environmentally friendly locally sourced clothing.

Just one section of The Wall Of Bulk Foods

I visited twice, once for a large Texas-shaped candy bar that I brought home as a gift for the family, and once for breakfast.

Their breakfast buffet had delicious and hearty offerings and I just took a smattering: everything from cheese grits to bacon to vegan migas and so much more.  And yes, there are recycling stations everywhere.

The same family friend who recommended Ruby's also highly recommended Trudy's, also on the north end of UT Austin, on a very residential street off Guadalupe. I was hoping for lunch, but they didn't open until 2 at all.  I hoofed it the 20 minutes onto campus to see the Texas Natural Science Museum - notable for its paleontology exhibit and native Texas animal dioramas - and came back around 2:30.  I then found out that, though open, they don't serve anything other than appetizers until 4.  Not willing to wait any longer, I hobbled together a meal from a few appetizers - the small bowl of chile con queso with chunks of chicken was doable, and came with plenty of house nachos and crackers.  The tortilla soup I ordered, also a small bowl, was clear and the restaurant kept the tortilla shreds and cheese separate so I could add them myself.  I ordered a margarita on the rocks, though in retrospect I wish I had gotten the frozen one, not because it was hot out (which it was), but because I think I would have liked it better.  It had a mild kick, and was not particularly strong.  The beer I had along with it had the kick, and with the small amount of food I started to feel it.  Not full or terribly satisfied (again, no full menu), I finally got full with a basic (large) burger at the local Whataburger down the street.

A San Antonio based burger chain, by the way, with locations throughout the Southwest.

The Austin and Houston areas have fairly sizable Vietnamese-American population, and phở is easy to find near the UT campus.  I had a good bowl of phở with thinly shaved beef, with a manageable plate of bean sprouts, Thai basil and jalapeño slices, at the Hai Ky Cafe on the 2000 block of Guadalupe street (locally known as the Drag), near the southern end of campus.  

This is a cozy, centrally located restaurant that offers many options for phở fans as well as those seeking noodles and other vegetarian and non-soup options.  The best part: the phở is not pricey at all - all bowls are under $7.  I got spring rolls for just a few dollars more.

I came to Austin for a convention, and had the chance to eat a fancy and above all free meal.  But I didn't know any of these people and didn't feel like forcing myself to make conversation with them, so I headed off on my own for lunch.  

I wound up at Frank, a "hot dogs cold beer" place that serves hot dogs, artisan sausages and so much more.  They have several types of hot dogs overloaded (sometimes to their detriment) with lots of toppings.  

They have so much more, too, including - yes, this is Austin - many vegetarian options.  They have many cocktails, many nods to sauces and even barbecues from other parts of the country (this surprised me a great deal), such as their Texalina, one of many artisan sausages they sell with Western, Southern, Southwestern, Mexican and other stylings (alas, no Old Bay there - hey, you can't have everything - but in retrospect I wouldn't have been surprised to see it).  I ordered the Sonoran dog, topped with so much stuff that I had to eat it with a fork.  A tasty dog, though the toppings almost drowned it out, and weren't as spicy as I might have expected it to be.  Along with it I got waffle fries with Buffalo blue cheese dip (though I think I would've liked the Carolina Dip better)

So satisfying, however, was the Frankencookie dessert concoction.  Get this: two small scoops of coffee ice cream, with a massive and moist chocolate chip-bacon cookie (why is that no longer surprising to see these days?), served warm, and with juicy crumbles of bacon and two pieces of bacon on a stick next to it.

Yes, there really is such a thing as too much bacon.  Seriously I could not finish it.  Anyway, if in Austin go there and order that if that alone.  I must make this some time.

I ended my trip the way any tourist to Austin would: by watching soccer (yes that's snark).  When I found out the US Men's National Team was playing football powerhouse Brazil in my own backyard I was excited!  Then I found out that would be my last night in Austin (that figures), so I sought out a place to watch it.  Fadó is (I now know) a chain of Irish pubs - there are locations in Annapolis and Washington - and one is right in downtown Austin.  

With an adequate order of boxty pancakes topped with sweet Guinness sauce and Tex-Mex ingredients (they also have a boxty quesadilla.  Could this be Celt-Mex?) and a pint of Guinness I got to watch the US team's weak first half and plucky (though still not-enough) second half loss to Brazil 4 to 1 amid other cheering, exasperated fans.  I topped that off with their brown bread ice cream, which really was not all that great: grainy crumbs of brown bread intermixed with an above-average tasting, slightly brown vanilla ice cream.  If going to a Fadó near you for Euro 2012, order something else.

Of course, I capped off dinner at Fadó across the street, at two of the city's downtown gay bars.  Oilcan Harry's is big and flashy, Rain on 4th is cozier (relatively speaking).  Neither was too full - this was midweek after all.  In this quite LGBT-friendly city in Texas, both are worth a look.  The beer is cheaper than at Baltimore's gay bars, even factoring in the increased alcohol tax.  In fact, Austin's sales tax tops ours, at 8.5%, and all the Shiner Bocks I drank (hell, I wasn't driving after all) still came out to less than they would have been here.  Also note: for those visiting my home town from Austin: you can find Shiner Bock on tap at the Hippo.