Charleen Famiglietti is a New York City-based writer and publicist who loves to book spontaneous trips abroad, especially for the food, wine and photos. Her recent trips include Belgium, France, Israel, The Netherlands and Buenos Aires. She is the author of the novel, Last Train to Babylon (William Morrow, Fall 2014).
As the polar vortex makes an encore appearance in the Midwest and Northeast, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for my recent trip to Austin — and it’s certainly not surprising that 1,000 people are relocating to the Texan city each day.
With temperatures hovering around 70 degrees during the day, and dropping down to a breezy 50 degrees at night, Austin is a perfect escape for travelers looking to flee the kind of frigid winter we’ve been having in New York. It can also be a paradise for food lovers.
I made my trip with Matt Ring, who you may recognize from his handsome Fly.com profile. Thanks to Matt’s travel expertise, we nabbed a $140 roundtrip flight from JFK to Austin (Delta) over Martin Luther King Day weekend. And, because the trip was relatively low-cost we were able to embrace the full Austin foodie experience.
Here is a rundown of where you should eat if you ever find yourself in Texas’ capital city one weekend.
The Food Trucks on South Congress
Austin is considered the “food truck capital of the country,” which means a lunchtime visit to South Congress Avenue is a must. The four trucks I found on a bustling Friday did not disappoint.
At Fat Cactus Navajo Frybreads, the daily special was slow roasted pulled pork, served with pinto beans, cheese, lettuce, tomato, green and red chili sauce, and sour cream on a frybread taco – all for $8. Let me tell you, it’s like eating a burrito made from a zeppola. It is like a Taco Bell Chalupa on steroids — like a Mexican gyro. Salty and crunchy and soft all at once, it pains me that I do not have access to this kind of delicacy in NYC.
“Hey!…You Gonna Eat or What?” was the winner of the TXTW 2013 City-Wide Austin Food Truck Taste Off (deservingly so). Here you can taste the Southwestern Reuben — a “bastardization” of the traditional sandwich made with hickory smoked brisket, spicy slaw, pepper jack cheese, and Habanero aioli. Also a daily special, the Reuben is a savory blend of spice and tender beef, cooked to perfection, served with a side of freshly-made potato chips.
The Salt Lick in Driftwood is a true Texas experience. The place seems isolated on the side of the road, but it is absolutely massive — almost like a compound — and at night it can be packed out. The scent of smoked barbecue hangs in the air, which is tough if you have to wait a long time for a table. However, since Salt Lick is BYOB (Bring Your Own Booze), you can always pop open a bottle of wine and play a game of cards at on one of the many outdoor picnic tables reserved for those waiting for a seat inside.
Once inside, order the all you can eat platter, which includes brisket, pork ribs, sausage, baked beans, potato salad, slaw and bread for under $19. It is cash only, but you can’t beat that deal. And the slaw and potato salad are without mayonnaise; offering a nice palate refresher between all that meat.
Black Walnut Cafe
Black Walnut Cafe is a great casual place to spend time with a large group of people, especially over breakfast. Get a savory fix from the breakfast enchiladas — flour tortillas, scrambled eggs, cheddar, mozzarella, American cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream, and a chipotle Pavia alfredo. Or, if you have a sweet tooth, try the Napoleon French Toast — English cream batter, lemon zest, strawberries, cannoli cream, powdered sugar, maple syrup, and spicy candied walnuts. All the dishes here are unique and delicious.
Uchi’s award-winning chef, Tyson Cole, will not disappoint. He created what I can safely say was one of the top two meals of my life (it’s neck and neck with Le Bernadin, but half the price). However, instead of spending $100-plus a piece on the 10-course tasting menu, try picking from a bunch of tastings and specials – it reduces the cost to $140 for two people.
During my visit, I tried the crudo of sea bass, with orange oil, garlic, black pepper and citrus vinaigrette. It was refreshing and light, and I think it goes without saying that the fish was cooked perfectly. I also had the Maguro Sashimi and Goat Cheese which featured tuna, pumpkin seed oil and Fuji apple and the rich and flavorful Foie Nigiri (seared foie gras and quinoa).
My favorite dish was Jaahyba Ryu — short rib, radicchio, onion, apple and sorrel. It was melt-in-your-mouth amazing. The most interesting dish was definitely the Kuro Aburo — black cod, white chocolate, endive and borage. A surprising combination of flavors, but it worked.
But it was an Uchi side dish that captured my heart. I’m a writer, and I can’t even find the words to describe the seemingly simplistic Brussels sprouts. I can only smile and salivate at its memory. If I went on the show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” I would say: “Why, the Brussels sprouts from Uchi, of course!” They were crispy and flash fried with lemon and a secret thai chili paste. I will spend the rest of my days trying to replicate those sprouts. I only wish I had a better picture.
To sum it up, Austin is an incredible foodie city that’s inexpensive (New Yorkers, wait until you see the rent prices), friendly, and much warmer than New York. I’ve yet to visit in the summer, so I may feel differently about the weather in the future, but I’m seriously considering relocating there someday.
Two Other Random Places to Find Great Food in Austin
- Whole Foods at the Domain: Check out the steak grill out front of Whole Foods. And, inside, select treats from the oyster bar and wine aisles. There is even an outdoor beer garden that serves local brews (Stash IPA was a favorite) and bratwurst. I sampled a thai-inspired chicken brat with sriracha mayo, jalapeños and kimchee. Austin clearly knows how to do food shopping right.
- Alamo Drafthouse: Catch a show and order a local draft beer from inside the theater (there’s a small table for every two seats). Better yet, flag down your waiter and try the “truffle shuffle fries” (they have specialty snacks for the movie playing). It was an interesting experience to be able to sit, relax and enjoy a movie with drinks and a variety of food.