2 Days in Austin

I always imagined Austin to be this Southwestern hipster organic oasis that redeemed the state of Texas of everything else. For every gun-slinging, don’t-mess-with-Texas patriot or the big haired southern belle, there was always the colorful Austinite to keep things in check. And I was hoping that this would extend to the food as well. I spent a summer in Dallas in search of good Mexican and bbq and found neither, but I had a good feeling about Austin. When you’re the birthplace of Whole Foods and inspired the whole “Let’s keep it weird” campaign for other hipster cities like Portland, then there’s probably a good chance that the food in your city will be very interesting.

A friend’s wedding gave me a reason to come visit Austin, and I’m happy to report that the food in this city is indeed very good and lives up to expectations. I only really had 2 days to explore the restaurants in town, so I decided to narrow my scope to finding things I definitely couldn’t get in New York–good bbq and breakfast tacos.

My key take away from this trip is that the bbq in Austin is phenomenal and completely blows all the NYC heavy hitters like Mighty Quinn’s or Fette Sau out of the water. The same goes for breakfast tacos, I’m not sure why it’s so hard to find a place in New York that makes a decent breakfast taco or why it’s not more commonplace, because a solid breakfast taco is one of the most satisfying bites to be had. I also unexpectedly stumbled upon amazing baked goods and dessert shops, which was only upside to my initial plans. Austin clearly is no one trick pony, it is a legitimate food destination with a lot of appealing options for all occasions. If you’re ever in Austin for a weekend trip, the itinerary below, short but efficient, will guide you through the city’s culinary highlights.

Downtown Austin

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welcome to easy tiger
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fresh bread baked daily

Austin is a very fit city, so after an early morning run, treat yourself to a nice cup of coffee and a delicious pastry from Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden. It’s a little unusual to have a legit bakery and bar on the same premises, but I guess it’s one of those things that keeps Austin charmingly weird. The almond croissant I had here was THE BEST THING EVER. I could go on about the golden pastry flakes or the creamy core of almond paste, but this croissant was so good that it left me speechless. All I could do was eat. On a nice day, you can sit on the picnic tables near the water and play a friendly game of ping pong.

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time for some bbq
good bbq is worth waiting for...for 2 hours
good bbq is worth waiting for…for 2 hours

People in Austin like to line up for things. Especially for their bbq. Any place worth going to will most certainly have a 2 hour wait at the least. Franklin’s is the most famous of them all, but I was not willing to spend half a day waiting in line (yelp reviews indicate that you need to start waiting in line at 9 am just to eat at 12:30). We had heard great things about La Barbecue, which was a quick drive from our hotel in downtown Austin, and started qeueing up. Our 2 hour wait was marginally better, but I did not regret it at all. The line moves very slowly, so make sure you bring some good company and beer to make the time pass by quickly.

we finally got our food--pork ribs, pulled pork, brisket, sausage and coleslaw
we finally got our food–pork ribs, pulled pork, brisket, sausage and chipotle slaw
some soda pop to go with our bbq
some soda pop to go with our bbq

We went nuts with our order–pulled pork, pork ribs, brisket, sausage, chipotle slaw. There was probably around 14 pounds of meat on our tray, and if you can believe it, we wanted to order even more, specifically the beef ribs, but unfortunately they ran out.

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the brisket was the real star…unbelievably good
pork ribs and pulled pork
pork ribs and pulled pork were also strong

The best by far was the brisket. I’ve never had a brisket so marbled and tender and delicious. Usually brisket tends to be dry and needs a healthy dollop of bbq sauce to mask that, but at La Barbecue, the meat could more than stand on its own. The pork ribs were also some of my favorites. Never was the cliche “fall of the bone” any truer or clearer. The pulled pork was solid, some parts were fattier and tastier than others, so we essentially ate around the pieces that looked pale and dry. My least favorite was the sausage, which tasted like a dry blood sausage chorizo. That went largely uneaten.

At this point, you may be too full to eat dinner, or maybe you have a wedding to go to. But either way, walk off or dance off the meat sweats by going out on 6th Street, the place to be seen in downtown Austin. It’s a more wholesome version of Bourbon St in New Orleans, instead of trashy women flashing others for beads, you’ll be surrounded by a ton of UT Austin undergrads. Be prepared to swim in a sea or orange. The Driskill Hotel is probably the most grown up place to go on this street, and it’s also apparently the most haunted. In actuality, it feels like a stuffy Texan country club, but I get the sense that this is sort of a big deal here, so you might as well check it out.

migas breakfast tacos
migas breakfast tacos
taco plate--pulled pork and fish, with rice and beans
taco plate–pork shoulder and mojo fish, with rice and beans

After a long night of drinking, there’s nothing better than scarfing down some breakfast tacos the morning after. The breakfast taco is a beautiful thing, it’s such an efficient way of getting a square hearty meal in a single bite. We tried the breakfast migas tacos from Tacodeli, which came highly recommended, and they did not disappoint. I had never heard of migas until I came to Austin, but it’s essentially scrambled eggs mixed with cheese and tortilla chips, three things that go very well together. Throw in avocado for some healthy fats and fiber, and some rice and beans for texture and depth, and you almost have the food pyramid in the span of a tortilla. We also tried some lunch tacos, a pork shoulder taco and the mojo fish taco, both of which were also very good. When you make your tortillas in house and you use fresh ingredients, your tacos are going to come out tasting pretty darn good.

vegan coconut chai ice cream
vegan coconut chia chai ice cream on top of pecan pie

Before heading off to the airport, browse the quirky shops in South Congress (aka “SoCo”) and you may just pick up a weird antique at Uncommon Objects or a high end flannel shirt at Stag Provisions. There are more traditional boutiques like By George that sell Acne and Rag and Bone, but remember that you’re in Austin not Melrose, so set your expectations accordingly. If all that shopping gives you a sweet tooth, take a drive over to Lick Ice Creams, an artisanal ice cream shop with some of the most interesting flavors I have ever seen–lime and cilantro, roasted beets + fresh mint, goat cheese, thyme + honey?? I am a sucker for vegan ice cream, and the vegan coconut chai chia ice cream that I had was excellent.

If I had more time, I would have probably explored some more Tex-mex novelties like Frito pie or queso, and a coworker of mine highly recommended Trudy’s for the view and the margaritas. And maybe I would have ventured out to Salt Lick BBQ just to see how it compared to La Barbecue. I also wanted to visit the very first Whole Foods in the country, but there wasn’t enough time for all of this. I was pretty content, though, with the time I did make for bbq and breakfast tacos.

Easy Tiger
709 E 6th St
Austin, TX 78701
(512) 614-4972

La Barbecue
1906 E Cesar Chavez St
Austin, TX 78702
(512) 605-9696

The Driskill Hotel
604 Brazos St
Austin, TX 78701
(512) 439-1234

1500 Spyglass Dr
Austin, TX 78746
(512) 732-0303

Lick Honest Ice Creams
2032 S Lamar Blvd
Austin, TX 78704

(512) 363-5622

By George
524 North Lamar
Austin, TX 78703
(512) 472-5951

Stag Provisions
1423 S Congress Ave
Austin, TX 78704
(512) 373-7824

Uncommon Objects
1512 S Congress Ave
Austin, TX 78704
(512) 442-4000

Foodie Day Trip to Hudson, NY

Every greenmarket restaurant in New York seems to source its local ingredients from the Hudson Valley. Seeing all the menu shoutouts to pigs and chickens raised there made me very curious about this green and bountiful region of upstate New York. Is it a land of milk and honey, where a lot of fat, happy cows graze in wide open grass pastures, while bearded men and women in braids sell corn and strawberries out by a dirt road? Sort of like miles and miles of farmers’ markets at every turn? Naturally, there was only one way to find out, and that was to see Hudson Valley in person. 

A train ride from Penn Station to Hudson, NY takes about two hours, and a car ride with mild traffic is about the same. Most of the action revolves around Warren St., the main road that stretches through the downtown area. When we drove into the city, I expected to see food cooperatives all over the place, but really Hudson, NY looks like a blend of downtown Montreal and Ithaca. I have never been surrounded by so many antique stores in my life. How do they all stay in business? What makes one rusty lamp different from the others? Do some stores procure things from Asian junkyards versus New England yard sales? It was fascinating and confusing at the same time.

I was a little bummed to have missed the weekly farmers’ market that takes place every Saturday from 9am -1 pm. But, no matter, a lunch stop at the local favorite Baba Louie’s on 517 Warren St. was in order. Baba Louie’s is known for its signature wood-fired sourdough crust topped with gourmet ingredients. It’s essentially a more rustic and higher-quality version of California Pizza Kitchen. You don’t come here looking for a Brooklyn-style, red sauce pizza slice, you come here because you want exotic calamari, figs and pears on your pizza. We ordered a small Phoebe’s Greek Salad to start, which ended up being the largest Greek salad I have ever ordered, as well as the tastiest, and then split a large pizza pie.

Baba Louie - Phoebe's Greek Salad
the massive phoebe’s greek salad

The great thing about Baba Louie’s is that they let you split the pizza with different toppings. We decided to go half Dolce Vita and half Puttanesca Pizza. The Dolce Vita was simply amazing–the mozzarella and gorgonzola cheese was so fresh, and the figs lent some nice texture and just a hint of sweetness. They probably picked all the ingredients and milked the cows right in their backyard, that’s how good everything was. The Puttanesca, on the other hand, was a little too intense in flavor. To be fair, the menu was pretty upfront about the ingredients. Shrimp, anchovies, roasted garlic, olives. These are all things that no amount of Altoids can mask afterwards. But that being said, the anchovies were extremely salty, and after one slice I couldn’t eat another one. The Dolce Vita, on the other hand, no slice was left behind.

Baba Louie - Puttanesca and Dolce Vita 2
top half – puttanesca pizza, bottom half – dolce vita

After the hearty lunch, we decided to walk some of it off by making our way down Warren St. We stopped by a few galleries, including Terenchin on 533 Warren. This gallery was very strange, there didn’t seem to be any particular rhyme and reason to the collection. We gradually made our way down to Musica, a music store that sold sheet music, instruments and random knick-knacks like Kim Jong-un toys. We arrived just in time for The Chandler Travis Philharmonette’s free live performance. 5 old men in colorful pajama pants and 1 drag queen started jamming out on the small stage. Their sound can best be described as happy jazz and old people’s ska/big band music. I know it sounds really unappealing, watching aging hippies sing on a makeshift stage, but they were actually very good. A $5 donation was in order.

After 30 minutes, we decided to leave the performance and continued our way through Warren. We came across Lick, an ice cream shop that came highly recommended by all the food blogs. This wholesome and colorful store effectively recreates the childish excitement that you feel when ordering an ice cream cone. The flavors are listed on a blackboard, and while the usual suspects like Vanilla and Rocky Road are available, there are also more intriguing options like Green Tea + Ginger and Mango Lassi. I ordered a scoop of the Coconut Almond Joy, which basically tasted like my favorite Girl Scout cookie Samoas in frozen form. The Green Tea + Ginger was also very good; the tea flavors were very subtle, the texture was perfectly creamy, and the actual chunks of candied ginger were a nice touch. This is possibly the best ice cream I’ve had, EVER.

Lick - menu
the menu at Lick
Lick - Coconut almond joy
coconut almond joy
Lick - Green tea and ginger
green tea + ginger

There was still some time left between now and our dinner reservation, so we hung out for a bit at SWALLOW, a small coffee shop on 433 Warren, checked out the gourmet food offerings at specialty shop Olde Hudson on 421 Warren and then drank some beers while browsing our iPads at Spotty Dog Books & Ale on 440 Warren. If you haven’t noticed already, EVERYTHING is on Warren St. Walk up and down the entire street, that’s pretty much 90% of the whole town.

For dinner, we made our way to Helsinki, a restaurant that is, shockingly, not on Warren St! It’s two streets over on 405 Columbia St. The space at Helsinki is really interesting. It looked a whole lot like my wedding venue The Foundry–an old factory warehouse converted into a modern restaurant and event space. At the time we went, Sandra Bernhardt was going to perform a comedy act, but tickets were all sold out. Not that we really wanted to pay $55 to see Sandra Bernhardt. The inside dining area is dark and resembles a pub, whereas the outside resembles a pretty flea market garden. Even though it was raining, we opted to eat outside, since the tent did a good job of keeping the rain out, and there was a nice and somewhat annoying neighborhood kitty cat to play with.

Helsinki - bad kitty
that darned cat!

We were still pretty full from the large pizza at Baba Louie’s, so we took it easy and split a Holmquest Farms Kale Salad and an order of the Backyard Applewood Smoked Ribs. The bread basket came out first, and the addicting herb butter that came with the bread was an unexpected highlight. The kale salad, as expected, was a light and refreshing start to the meal, but I thought the ratio of pear to kale leaves was a little too much. While the pear slices provided the dish with some sweetness and slight acidity, I would have liked more kale to balance out the somewhat burdensome crunch. The cheese coated the kale leaves in the perfect amount and wasn’t too heavy and salty, and the roasted garlic was a nice touch that helped offset some of the crunchy pear imbalance.

Helsinki - bread basket
slices of country bread and herb butter
Helsinki - kale salad
holmquest farms kale salad

I thought the smoked ribs were solid–they were moist, tender and had that fall-off-the-bone quality, which I loved. Were they as good as Might Quinn’s or the ribs at Big Apple BBQ? Not quite, but it gets the job done very well. The cornmeal fried green beans that accompanied them were interesting. I thought the crust of the cornmeal was delightfully crunchy, but it was a bit inconsistent with the extreme water content of the green beans inside. The side of sweet potato salad was also a winner–the mayonnaise dressing wasn’t too heavy and the potatoes offset the smoky heaviness of the ribs.

Helsinki - smoked ribs
backyard applewood smoked ribs

So maybe Hudson, NY wasn’t the big hippie food commune that I had envisioned, but the food experiences I had here were positive all around. Sometimes it’s nice to get out of the city, and a 2 hour train ride is a hassle-free way of doing so. After a few hours, you’ll probably get bored browsing through store after store of antiques and furniture, and then you can easily fall back on the city from which you came.