Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Bites and brew in Austin

As is the case with all of my wife and I's getaways, this past weekendwe tried to discover some Austin food and drink establishments that we'd not had on previous visits. Save for the pilgrimage to Franklin Barbecue, everywhere else we tried was a new experience. Sufficiently stuffed with brisket and with 7 o'clock comedy show tickets, we decided on light bites at Lenoir to tide us over. I'd heard quite a few promising things about the restaurant, which has a very small dining room (think Oxheart size) and a wine garden behind the restaurant that offers small plates made mostly on their backyard grill.

Upon arrival, we went around back to the quaint bar/grill area to place our order and get drinks, a local but forgettable beer for me and riesling for her. Advertising half off on food during their 5-7 happy hour, the wine garden menu was beyond affordable. If I were to have a slight gripe about Lenoir, it is that the happy hour food is so generously priced (our three dishes cost $12 dollars) that it makes the drink menu - which is not discounted during happy hour - seem out of balance price-wise. Our two drinks cost more than our three food selections. We were not the only ones in the garden to notice this oddity, as the couple seated next to us asked one of the servers if any of the wine was half price, only to be told in an all too typical Austin hipster way "Umm, we think these prices are happy hour prices all day."

We chose a bean chaat salad and smoked snapper crostini to share, and a chocolate pot de creme with shortbread, pistachios and grapefruit for dessert. While waiting for our food, we both remarked on how serene the backyard area of Lenoir was. You have the option of high backless box-like stools upon which to sit, or you can park your kiester straight on oak logs covered with blankets. Lenoir provides a tucked away vibe despite the fact that you're only steps away from busy First Street. The food was well executed but not revelatory. I would love to try a full meal at Lenoir sometime to see how they pull off larger, more composed plates, but the wine garden options were a perfect quick nosh.

Clockwise from top left: bean chaat salad with spicy yogurt, smoked snapper crostini, chocolate pot de creme, decor and seating in the wine garden

On the way to our show we needed a coffee fix. Having read good things about Houndstooth Coffee, we stopped in for a caffeine jolt. I ordered a flat white, which was not listed on the menu but I'd read they would make if you asked. While they definitely used a quality bean, there was far too much milk in the drink.

The next morning we debated on a few different breakfast choices until we settled on the downtown farmer's market on Guadalupe, which was walking distance from our hotel. We made the rounds to visit all of the different vendors before deciding on a few items. First up was a couple kolaches from the Zubikhouse truck: goat cheese and fig preserves with sage and brown butter, and a simple beef sausage. The bread on the beef sausage was sweet but balanced well with the savoriness of the sausage, and the goat cheese and fig was delicate and flavorful. Goat cheese can be an overpowering ingredient, but was tamed down to make a great combination with the other components. Houston, we need a kolache truck! The second place we sampled was Dai Due, which seemed to be one of the most popular vendors at the market. We both had Mexican coffee which was solid, and I chose chicharrones and yucca blossom tacos with green tomato and lamb quarter salsa served on corn tortillas. Unfortunately, this dish was unsuccessful. The beauty of chicharrones is the salty crunch, and the heavy handed inclusion of the salsa turned the chicharrones into a soggy mess. The yucca blossoms provided an interesting flavor combination, but were a bit hard to eat inside such a small taco.

My wife, ever the good sport, acquiesced to my request for one last barbecue venture. For those that don't follow along on Twitter, the last four weekends have been smoky in my world. One large cookoff, the Houston BBQ Festival, a barbecue get-together at home and the previous day's Franklin voyage should have been more than enough for any normal person, but I'd been wanting to try Micklethwait Craft Meats for quite some time. After informing her of their homemade moon pies, she gave me the thumbs up to stop by. We arrived right at the 11 am opening time and received our food within an hour, a breakneck pace compared to the day before! Micklethewait's brisket was impressive and pork ribs were well smoked, but their homemade sausages have become their trademark and they did not disappoint on this day. The day's sausage was pork belly boudin blanc. It had a good bit of smoke and was packed with flavor. Another highlight from the Micklethwait visit were the exquisite jalapeño cheese grits. I think I have a new favorite barbecue side. The moon pie was delicious as well, though that was saved for the next day's breakfast.

Left to right: the Micklethwait trailer, Texas BBQ trinity of brisket, ribs and sausage, moon pie.

Once again full, we headed west to check out Jester King Brewery, located on the western edge of Austin close to Dripping Springs. Located off of 290 on top of a hill, Jester King is a secluded gem I wish I had in my city. Tours and admission are free, and Jester King offers drink options from different breweries and wineries as well as their own beers. It is a fantastic way to spend a beautiful afternoon, with or without children as the brewery is extremely kid friendly. There is even an onsite wood fired pizza place should you feel so inclined. If you're a fan of darker beer, I highly recommend their Black Metal Imperial Stout if you can get your hands on some.

The sprawling grounds of Jester King Brewery

Our next two stops were at Texas wineries, which I recommend much more for the scenery than the wines. I do wish our state's climate was more conducive to grape growing, but I guess we can't have it all! Our last meal was at Pieous Pizza, a new up-and-comer on the Austin pizza scene. We opted for  a simple white pie with arugula and prosciutto which was well made but had a bit more greenery than needed. Out of sheer gluttony we opted for a slice of banana cream pie which ended up being one of our best ordering decisions of the weekend. The crust was amazing and I'm quite certain we'll be thinking about it for some time to come.

Great chalk art lining the walls of Pieous Pizza | White pizza with arugula and prosciutto

Austin's food scene has some similarities to Houston, but I feel our city's cultural diversity makes for more wide ranging options. This is not meant to compare the two in some silly Austin vs. Houston rivalry. I love visiting this city, and experiencing all it has to offer. But Houston is home, and nothing beats homemade.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The winner, and still champion...

The sun not yet risen, my wife and I headed west on I-10, bound for Austin. With a two hour car ride separating my house from the hallowed grounds of Franklin Barbecue, there was no time to waste. As my wife dozed in the passenger seat, I had time to admire the bluebonnets still lining the path through La Grange and reflect on how different this journey had become for me. My first trip to Franklin had been in 2011, and a 9:30 arrival had put me among the first five folks in line. Now, the line itself has a dedicated Twitter account where an apartment resident across the street from the restaurant snaps a photo daily to let you know just how absurd the wait is for Aaron Franklin's smoked meats. Heck, on my first visit, the apartments themselves did not exist. But now thanks to social media, word of mouth, Daniel Vaughn, Bon Appetit Magazine, Texas Monthly and numerous other sources of praise, Franklin Barbecue has become a tourist attraction unlike any other. Despite an 8 o'clock arrival on this Good Friday, there were approximately 60 people ahead of us.

Arrow points to our spot in line. Photo courtesy of @franklinbbqline on Twitter

The crew at Franklin do what they can to make your time in line less miserable; offering drinks, building on additional shade, letting you know approximately when you will be at the ordering counter, but there is only so much that can be done to accommodate the throngs of people that descend on the place daily. Even I, who consider myself in the upper percentile of food waiting patience, could not withstand the wait times in the heat of a Texas summer. I learned that lesson the hard way on a Friday morning late last August, my most recent Franklin excursion until last weekend. Hearing that the line had gotten worse, I arrived with a friend at 9 am, a half an hour earlier than I had in the past. The line was almost 75 deep that day, and the temperature climbed north of 90 degrees by the time they opened for business. Thus, my Franklin trips will now only take place in late March to mid-April or late October to mid-November.

As the clock reached 12:30, we made our way inside the building. Aaron Franklin was not slicing on this day, but instead was beside the register, politely chatting with guests as they paid for their food. With few exceptions, most every guest requested a photo with the pit master, and many asked for an autograph. I couldn't help but be bewildered by this. Before the magazine covers and credit card commercials, he was just a young guy who liked smoking brisket and thought he might be able to make a living doing it. And this wasn't all that long ago. I must say that through all the craziness, he interacts with everyone with a smile and genuine sense of appreciation. I don't know Aaron Franklin personally, of course he could be a colossal narcissist, but the impression I've gotten from every interaction I've had with him is that he is keenly aware of the sacrifice people make just to eat his food. When my wife was getting up from her seat to get some more napkins, he stopped her and insisted on getting them for her. He then came over, noticed my Houston Barbecue Festival t-shirt and spoke with me for a few minutes about my experience at the festival, how he hopes to try Corkscrew BBQ soon, and general chit-chat in which he does not have to partake. Many people have had much less success and portrayed a much greater sense of entitlement than Mr. Franklin.

Moist, fatty brisket.

All of that said, there's one overwhelming reason why I and so many others put ourselves through the ever growing torture that is the Franklin Barbecue line: the food. I concede that when I first tasted Franklin brisket three years ago, my barbecue palette was much less discerning. Since that time I've eaten at dozens of barbecue places, made plenty of my own, and expanded my knowledge on the subject immensely. But I've yet to taste a brisket anywhere else that matches Franklin's. This was approximately my tenth trip, and on only one occasion did the brisket show even the slightest decline in quality. As the popularity of the restaurant continues to increase, I keep waiting for what should be its inevitable fate of becoming "good but not great." Based on this most recent trip, I am happy to report it still has not happened. The brisket I ate this weekend was in the same class of its own that it has been in since my first sampling. Incredibly well-rendered fat, the right amount of smoke, and so full of flavor that your taste buds almost can't handle it, Franklin brisket remains the best piece of beef I've ever tasted. That's not to short change the other menu offerings. Franklin Barbecue's pork ribs are also tops in their category if you ask me. A little more sauced than I remembered on this visit, but the same black pepper beauty that is central Texas' calling card. Their sausage is full of fat and a quality offering, though there are other barbecue sausages that I prefer to Franklin's.

Top left: had to leave a little of my New York roots at this Texas landmark | Top right: the well-known signs for Franklin Barbecue | Bottom: the spread of potato salad, pork ribs, fatty brisket, turkey and sausage

Aside: I originally intended to write a one post recap of my weekend food adventures in Austin, but felt it was time to put my Franklin Barbecue opinion on record. I touched on it when I wrote about My Texas Barbecue Education, but had not been recently enough to give a fresh opinion on the food. There will be a separate post this week chronicling my other excursions in Texas' capitol.

Culture Map's Eric Sandler commented to me on Twitter that it is hard to justify standing in the line when there are so many great barbecue options in Austin. This is a completely valid point of view and I can't fault anyone for not having the patience or desire to devote five hours of their life to eating at one place. It has become a commitment that's harder for even myself to make. But I keep coming back because I've yet to find anything that can top it. La Barbecue on East Sixth Street in Austin is consistently delivering outstanding barbecue. Micklethwait Craft Meats, just down the street from Franklin, has very good brisket and wonderful homemade sausage. Louie Mueller BBQ isn't too far away from Austin, and Wayne Mueller is churning out mind-blowing beef ribs and brisket to carry on the tradition from his father. There is certainly no shortage of great 'cue options these days. But for a barbecue hound such as myself, I strongly believe Franklin Barbecue is the peak of Texas' greatest food tradition right now. I don't know what the future holds for the man or his business. Will he go Euro-Disney on us and have Franklin outposts popping up all over the map until all quality is lost? I sincerely hope not. I would rather wait in his one line for hours on end for a plate of delicious smoked meat than go to my nearest Franklin drive-thru.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The discomfort of comfort foods

I'm not sure at which age it happened, but I came to a point in my life where food became more than simple sustenance, and evolved into an experience. Don't get me wrong, I'm not above the occasional fast food pit stop at the end of a long day, but a drive thru is no longer routine for me. There is a "let's just get this over with" feeling that comes over me as I shout my order into the speaker. To much of my family I am a source of amusement when it comes to food. I attempt to plan every meal each time one of us visits our respective cities, seeking out the best local fare.

I certainly did not inherit my culinary passion from my father, a man who abides by strict routine. The man could eat the same meal every day for a week and not think twice, and is the most predictable dining companion I've ever known. I can look at any menu and predict one of two entrees he might select. He has ordered the same drink, regardless of the type of meal, for as long as I can remember: a gin martini (Tanqueray was his brand of choice until switching to Bombay Sapphire last decade), extra dry, up with an olive. Upon receiving his drink, some version of this remark is sure to follow: "Too much vermouth. You know, the best bartenders will just spritz the vermouth with an atomizer." It's quite likely he saw this at a bar in 1974 and has sworn by it since. Having tasted the martinis he makes himself, I'm convinced he just likes cold gin but calling it a martini seems more refined. Unfortunately, the man's restaurant recommendations are based on nostalgia as well. Most places I've tried based on his advice have ranged from dated to terrible. This past Christmas dinner was spent at the same hotel restaurant at which my family had eaten holiday meals back in the 1980's. Sadly, the entire restaurant was stuck in that era or earlier. Don't believe me? My sister ordered steak Diane that night.

Make no mistake, my father is a wonderful man and I am proud to be his son, but his dining mindset is the polar opposite of mine. I have tried broadening his horizons with minimal success. He quite enjoyed Hugo's brunch (who wouldn't?), but I would never dream of taking him to a place like The Pass. My dad is all about the comfort foods he has been eating for 50 years: tuna sanwiches, pot roast, burgers with ketchup. Seriously, I've taken the man to places like Bernie's Burger Bus and the late, great The Burger Guys and watched him order specialty burgers and drown them in ketchup. And if you serve osso buco, don't even bother bringing the man a menu - though until I told him a few years ago, he didn't know what part of which animal he was eating.

Thinking about my father's food fallbacks has made me realize that I have so few. Sure, there are a number of restaurants I love and dine at frequently, but even then I rarely have a standard order. In truth, I try to avoid repeat orders at places I like so that I can experience more of the menu and fall in love with other dishes. That is one of the reasons I enjoy Underbelly's contsant menu tinkering and why Oxheart has become a thrice yearly outing for me. I know I can have a different meal there each time. Barbecue aside, I'm not much of a "bring on the red meat" type of diner. Fine dining to my father and so many from his generation means a thick steak with some form of potatoes on the side. I will gladly accept a meal with minimal meat and expertly prepared vegetables. I don't need a standard order and would feel personally stale if I walked into a restaurant and was greeted by a server who assumed my order before I even opened the menu. Chicken soup? No thanks, give me phở gà. Chicken and dumplings? Nah, Chris Shepherd's got something better. There's too much to explore on too many menus to be tied down to the familiar.