Sunday, February 24, 2013

Things I love about Austin, Texas - Take 2...

Alex and I just got back from another trip to Austin, Texas and I have to admit - I really like Austin.  I'm not sure if I would want to live there, but the city has a great food scene (you can eat everything from BBQ to fine dining), nice weather, etc.  It's just a really fun city.  We happened to be in Texas for a wedding, but I planned out our free time (particularly the meals) weeks in advance.  There was one restaurant that I knew we had to hit.  The last time we were in Austin we tried the Salt Lick and went on a BBQ pilgrimage to Lockhart, Texas.  You can read more about our last visit here.  But we didn't make it to Franklin Barbeque.  And it is probably for the best because I was already just about barbeque-d out.  Franklin has been getting a lot of hype since it opened in 2009 and I was really curious to see if it lived up to its reputation.  Coincidentally, I picked up the current issue of Bon Appetit at the airport and flipped it open and not only did it have a short article on Austin, it also named Franklin Barbeque as one of The 20 Most Important Restaurants in America.  So I knew we had to go.  And I knew we were going to to go Paul Qui's East Side Kings at Hole in the Wall for lunch on Friday.  Our plan was to get off the plane, pick up our rental car and go straight to Hole in the Wall.  I even knew exactly what dishes I was planning on ordering.  That's how prepared I was.  

I had a few other restaurants that I was tempted to try for dinner on Friday.  I wanted to go to Uchi because we tried Uchiko during our last visit and were blown away by how tasty it was.  And I thought sushi would be a nice counterpoint to the BBQ we were already planning on eating.  Another coincidence - Bon Appetit also included Uchi/Uchiko as one of the 20 most important restaurants in America.  But Uchi didn't have any reservations available for Friday night.  I also wanted to try Barley Swine because I saw it on No Reservations and it looked and sounded amazing.  But I was worried that Barley Swine wouldn't fit into our weekend.  They don't take reservations and we weren't sure that waiting 2 hours for dinner on Friday night really fit into our agenda.  And to be honest, I have a limited amount of patience for waiting in lines.  We already knew we would be waiting 2-3 hours for Franklin Barbeque so waiting another 2 hours for Barley Swine just seemed excessive.  Alex came up with a counter proposal - Second Kitchen and Bar, which sounded good, but I was worried the food would be too heavy.  I didn't make reservations anywhere for Friday night and figured that we would play it by ear.  We didn't end up eating lunch on Friday until about 2:30 pm (and we totally overate so we were still pretty stuffed around 6:00 pm), so we gave up on the idea of trying to get int Uchi or Barley Swine.  So we had to come up with a back up plan.  Luckily, the Bon Appetit magazine came to the rescue.  I remembered that when I flipped through the magazine during the flight there was a blurb about a Thai restaurant called Sway and Mexican restaurant called La Condesa with the same owners.  It turned out that La Condesa was close to our hotel so we decided to go with that. 

More after the jump!

Our first meal in Austin at East Side Kings really set the scene for the whole weekend.  I wanted the Brussels sprouts salad, the beet home fries (deep fried roasted beets) and the Thai chicken kara-age (all pictured above).  Alex wanted the Sapporo beer bacon miso ramen (pictured below).  So we decided to just go for it and ordered all of it.  The ramen came out first and we were both really happy with it - the broth was flavorful and rich, with nice porky flavor and all of the toppings for the ramen were lovely.  I loved the poached egg (which was perfectly cooked and creamy) and the sweet corn.  A little while later the rest of the dishes arrived.  And as much as I enjoyed the ramen, the other dishes made me even happier.  When we were ordering I was worried that we would have entirely too much food and the one dish I considered dropping from our order was the beets.  I am so glad that we didn't.  In the end the beets were our favorite dish of the day.  They were utterly fantastic - I loved the sweetness of the beets, the creaminess and tangy flavor of the mayonnaise and the crispy texture.  The sprinkle of salt on top was the perfect touch.  I just loved the beets.  Alex's second favorite dish was the Brussels sprouts salad.  I liked the Brussels sprouts a lot, but I thought they were overdressed.  I also thought the dressing had nice flavor, but it was a little heavy on the vinegar which gave the dish a slight lingering harshness.  If it came down a choice between the Brussels sprouts from Momofuku versus these Brussels sprouts, I would have to pick Momofuku.  I preferred the ramen, but the two dishes were pretty close for me.  Our unanimous pick for our least-favorite dish was the kara-age.  It was good, but the other dishes were just better.  And the chicken got soggy pretty quickly, which just made it feel heavier and duller than the other dishes.

Unfortunately we didn't get any good pictures at La Condesa because the restaurant was really dark and we ended up eating outside, which made it even harder to take pictures.  But the food was totally worth mentioning.  We started off with guacamole with pomegranate and queso fresco, the callos y coco ceviche (diver scallop ceviche), the carnitas tacos, the pescado tacos and the ensalada mixta.  The kitchen also sent out some elote (Mexican grilled corn).  And at the end of the meal we ordered the dulce de leche pudding cake on the recommendation of our waiter.  Everything was delicious.  My least favorite dishes were probably the tacos, although I preferred the carnitas to the pescado.  My favorite dishes were the ceviche (usually I don't like grapefruit, but the combination of the coconut milk, grapefruit, scallops and grapefruit caviar was delicious) and the dessert (which had the perfect blend of salty and sweet and a lot of really nice fresh corn flavor).

My favorite meal of the weekend was probably Franklin's Barbeque - both for the food and for the experience.  We woke up Saturday morning and we got in line in the parking lot behind Franklin's at 9:30 am.  The restaurant doesn't even open until 11:00 am, but there must have been 75 people in line ahead of us already (line at 9:30 am pictured below).  And the line swelled dramatically as the day wore on because some groups initially sent one or two people to stand in line for the much larger group.  There were also a number of people who got impatient and left after the employees initially came out and told us we were so far back in line that we would need to wait another 2-3 hours after the restaurant opened at 11:00 am.  There were also a lot who left once they heard that we were past the point in line where they guaranteed food aka the "last man standing."  After the employees came out the first time they took tentative orders from everyone in line and gave someone a handwritten sign on butcher paper designating them as the "last man standing" (i.e. the person who was the last one guaranteed to get food per their calculations of when they would start running out).  For the record, we were 6 people behind the first "last man standing" but they later re-calculated and moved the sign back another 20 people.  But I was stubborn and since I had been looking forward to Franklin's for almost a year I decided to stick it out.  The people behind us in line applauded me for my patience, but it was less patience and more downright orneriness.  Alex went out and picked up coffee and some breakfast while I hung out in the parking lot.  And then we waited.  And we waited.  And we waited some more.  At some point we made friends with the people in line behind us and spent the next few hours chatting with them about the food scenes in Austin and New York.  All told we waited in line for 5 hours.  And it was totally worth it.  The brisket was amazing - buttery, moist and tender.  It melted on your tongue with an explosion of beef flavor.  It was amazing.  And the ribs were peppery (without being seasoned so heavily with black pepper that it obscures the flavor of the ribs) and tender.  Alex and I disagree on how tender ribs should be and whether they should fall off the bone or should retain a little more chew to them.  I think these ribs were the perfect degree of tenderness, but Alex would have preferred them to have just a little more bite to them.  We both agreed that we liked the seasoning a lot.  While standing in line I re-read various articles on Franklin's on my iPhone and decided that we should also try Tipsy Texan sandwich - a mess of chopped brisket, sausage, coleslaw, pickles and onions on a soft white bun (pictured below).  The sandwich might not appeal to barbeque purists but I thought it was wonderful.  I loved it.  It was gloriously messy and delicious and I highly recommend it.  If you had told me last week that I would be waiting in line for 5 hours to eat barbeque I would have laughed in your face.  But I have to say that given the chance to do it again I would totally do it.  It was that good.  And the whole experience was just so much fun.  The people who work there (including the owner, Aaron Franklin) were just so genuinely nice and pleasant.  They came out to chat with us in line, roamed the dining room to make sure everyone was happy with their food, brought out beers, sodas, etc. for sale and also brought out free samples of the sausage.  It just had such a great welcoming vibe - you felt like you were visiting a friend at home who just genuinely loved to cook and was so happy to see you, rather than visiting a restaurant.  I was so happy with it that I bought a t-shirt.  Oh and for the record, by the time we left at 3:15 the "sold out" sign was up on the front door because they sold the 1500 lbs of meat that they cooked for the day.  Incredible. 

Thanks Austin for another great visit!

Sapporo beer bacon miso ramen from East Side Kings

 Brisket and ribs at Franklin's Barbeque

The Tipsy Texan sandwich

 The line at Franklin's Barbeque at 9:30 am

Sold out by 3:30 pm.

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