The 72-Hour Food Tour of Austin
AUSTIN, Texas – Some people come for the music, some people come for the film festivals. If you’re me, you came from Manhattan to make a movie, fell in love with the cowboys and cold beer, and decided to stay forever. In order to get my NYC buddies to visit, I went right for the heart — or rather, the stomach — and created the 72-Hour Food Tour of Austin. Pack your elastic waist pants: You're tasting what Austin has to offer.
Since most flights arrive after lunch, the 72-Hour Food Tour begins with a drink at Guero's Taco Bar (1412 South Congress Ave.) in SoCo. If you’re lucky, Della will be working. Say hello and ask for a table outside on the patio for the best people watching. Order the official drink of Austin, a tasty margarita — frozen, shaken, straight up, any way you like it — and watch the ecletic townfolk go by. There’s a reason Austin’s official slogan is “Keep Austin Weird.” Don’t miss the chips and salsa bar. You need something to absorb the tequila. If you’re especially hungry, get chips and queso, a combination of melted cheeses that friends have described as “magical,” “wonderous,” and “crack for epicures.”
Next stop, 98 San Jacinto Blvd. Yes, this is a food tour, but drinks at the Four Seasons is a must. Make sure you get there before sunset and sit by a window. Why? Because Just before the sun sets, tens of thousands of bats — yes, bats — will fly out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge and head out in the night in search of dinner. It’s quite a sight.
Kinda like the bats, you will head out for dinner and find yourself on South Congress again, having delicious Italian food at Botticelli's (1321 South Congress Avenue) courtesy of the handsome Botticelli brothers of Chicago. (Do not mention the Bears unless you want to be there for hours.) Start at the bar and ask Tim, the handsome manager/bartender, to pour you a pinot nero, then sit out back and order the amazing Botticelli bread. Kind of like the love child of a pizza and a calzone, the BB (as I call it) is a bread pillow with stuffings. The veggie is packed with eggplant, zucchini, squash, cherry tomatoes, ricotta, Parmesan, and roasted bell peppers; the original (grandma’s recipe) has prosciutto, coppa, mortadella, salami, and cheese. The verdict is the same: yum. A friend swears by pumpkin ravioli, but I’m a traditionalist, so I stick with lasagna. Either way, you will leave full and satisfied. Which itself may have been worth the airfare.
Magnolia Café has two locations in Austin is the closest thing I’ve found to a New York diner. They do eggs all day (are there three greater words in the English language?), and serve every breakfast entree with buttermilk, whole wheat, or regular pancakes. They also do soups and salads and tasty sandwiches. If you're with a big group or kids, you're in the right place. They really do have something for everyone.
There’s lots of great barbecue in Austin, but if you want the real barbecue experience you have to get in a car and drive 30 minutes to Lockhart, where two rival BBQ pits have been battling it out for years. I believe the owners of Smitty's Market are related to the owners of Black's Barbecue, but no one seems to know how. No matter, just pick one (they are three blocks apart) and get in line. You will be ordering by the pound and you will be served on plastic trays. They will ask you whether you want bread (slices of Wonder) or crackers with your brisket/pork ribs/beef ribs. I take both because I’m that kind of girl. You order side dishes separately, so plan your attack accordingly. Smitty’s has amazingly large pickles and real Blue Bell ice cream (extra fat included), but Black’s has a cobbler that will make you weep. I cannot chose, so I alternate. If you head out on a Sunday, Smitty’s closes at 3 p.m. Everyone needs a half day of rest.
Lunch Option #2
If you don’t want to take the drive, have a picnic at beautiful Town Lake. Stop at Snap Kitchen (their slogan: "Great Ingredients, Sensible Portions") for the most delicious take-out. I love love love Thunder Heart bison quinoa hash and the portabello mushroom wrap. Load your backpack with goodies, grab a blanket, and drive to the Mexican American Cultural Center on Town Lake. There’s a small public dock out back; just look for steps leading off the Town Lake Trail. You can have a rich and relaxing lunch as you watch the University of Texas rowing team exert great effort on the water.
If you went for BBQ, you will need a nap. When you awaken from your meat coma, it’s best not to resume eating too quickly, so I take everyone to Alamo Drafthouse Cinema for a movie. I know it’s a food tour. But the beauty of the Alamo is that it serves alcohol and a full menu while you watch the movie. I recommend jalapeño poppers and a local Lone Star beer for action/adventures flicks and a Mexican martini and sliders for dramas and romantic comedies.
When the movie’s over, walk across South Lamar to Gordough's trailer for the most inventive and lip smacking donuts you never dared dream about. Most people rave about the bacon donut but I crave Blue Balls, small rounds of dough with an incredible blueberry sauce. They put six or eight on the plate. It is at this point that you will be thanking me for making you wear elastic waist pants.
Start the day with a brisk walk around Town Lake to burn off the residue of the day before. Then head over to the La Mexicana Bakery (1924 South First St.). Do not be put off by the signs for the bail bondsman and discount phone cards: The food here is amazing. The lovely counter ladies will cook up the best breakfast tacos you have ever eaten. I like flour tortillas, but corn tortillas are big with the gluten-free crowd. Have two or three. Come on, they’re little. And if by chance you need a bail bondsman, you're in luck.
Back to South Congress again to the famous Trailer Park (1600 South Congress Ave.). Trailer food is all the rage here these days, and if you’ve never seen one, just picture seven or eight vintage Airsteams in a parking lot with a bunch of picnic tables in between. When I first got here I was nervous. Food from a trailer? But trailers have the same codes and rules as restaurants. They're just on wheels. I especially like this trailer park because of the culinary variety: sandwiches, Thai, crepes...it’s all here. My favorite is Hey Cupcake! They have ten varieties, from chocolate-on-chocolate Double Dose to cream cheese-on-chocolate Michael Jackson. All baked fresh. Just for you. If you order yours with a shot, they take a whipped cream can, shove the nozzle into the middle of the cupcake, and add an extra dose of the sweet stuff. Because you needed more of the sweet stuff.
I save the best for last because I'm a great guide. Curra's Grill, the self-anointed Mother of all Mex, gets raves for its authentic and remarkably cheap food. But the best thing is the avocado margarita. I hear the gasps of horror. Yes, an avocado margarita. It’s the marriage of good fat and good tequila. Sounds gross, tastes incredible. You have to try it. You will thank me. Then have camarones campeche or enchiladas con chile colorado and die happy.
Progress Coffee (500 San Marcos St.) is my favorite hangout. When I’m not in production, you can find me hunched over my computer at the back table. In addition to having the nicest staff in town, their coffee is amazing, especially my new favorite blend, Cowboy. Can there be a better send-off than a large Cowboy and cinnamon pie poppers? Back to the airport you go. Hopefully, you can still fit into your seat.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Check out Fathom's Austin Guide for more cute hotels, beer in a basket, the ultimate vintage clothing, and even more food.