It's Official: Austin is America's Next Great Food Town
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It's Official: Austin is America's Next Great Food Town

Jeff Minton

A renegrade wave of talented chefs with Texas-size ambitions and rock-and-roll swagger is turning Austin into the country's next next seat for great food—and, as Peter Jon Lindberg reports, barbecue is just the beginning.

Every day, 164 people move to Austin, Texas, the nation’s second-fastest-growing city. The next morning, they all get in line at Franklin BBQ.

There are always 164 people in line at Franklin BBQ; I suspect there may be some city ordinance requiring this. That Aaron Franklin is justly hailed as Austin’s finest pit master is all the more impressive for a 36-year-old ex-punk-drummer who stumbled into the craft. “I was a professional beer drinker and rock-and-roller, playing music full-time,” he says. “I had zero barbecue experience until my mid twenties. When I cooked my first brisket, I actually had to search ‘how to cook brisket’ online.”

Franklin soon learned enough to start selling his food out of a trailer parked by I-35. His legend grew quickly, alongside the city itself. Six years later, he works out of a proper two-story building, where six post-oak-fired smokers (some named for hardcore bands) turn out a ton of smoked meat per day. Which still isn’t enough to feed everyone in the queue.

The more of Franklin’s barbecue I eat—his brisket, his ribs, his juice-bursting links—the more I’m convinced he’s a cosmic smoke-sorcerer sent to save us from our boring Earth food. What’s the secret? “There are a million variables in barbecue, and they all matter,” he says. One stands out: unlike most of the old-school guys, Franklin is obsessive about sourcing. “Nobody traditionally cared about the meat—it was corporate, feedlot beef-in-a-box.” Franklin buys his brisket from Creekstone Farms, at upwards of $4 a pound.

Jeff Minton

Austin is of course synonymous with barbecue, but until lately, there were few standouts in the city proper, says Matthew Odam, restaurant critic for the Austin American-Statesman. “To get it done right,” he says, “you had to drive out of town”—to rural outposts like Lockhart, home to the holy smoke trinity of Black’s, Smitty’s, and Kreuz Market. (Black’s, the best of the three, finally opened an Austin location last fall.)

But now a new BBQ guard has arrived in town, sharing Franklin’s attention to detail and rebel heart. At 90 Micklethwait Craft Meats, a ramshackle camper serving terrific pulled pork and jalapeño-cheese grits, the stereo favors Dinosaur Jr. over Junior Walker. At La Barbecue, the sound track hews to Guided by Voices, and the molten brisket rivals Franklin’s for best in town. Franklin’s own favorite? Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ truck, where handmade tortillas are filled with impeccably smoked brisket and carnitas. “I don’t eat much barbecue myself,” he admits. “But man, Valentina’s is rad.”

I mention Franklin and his cohort up front because barbecue’s upward trajectory is a parallel for Austin dining in general. Let’s face it, even six or seven years ago, the idea of traveling here solely for great restaurants would have been, well, weird (to borrow a term from Austin’s playbook). Sure, there were plenty of killer bars, and all manner of food trucks catering to drunk people outside those bars. But destination dining? Not so much.

Even Paul Qui, the local hero turned Top Chef winner, who’s done as much as anyone to raise his town’s profile with his food-truck empire and award-winning restaurant Qui, admits that Austin was not his first choice. “My plan was to save some money and move to New York,"here calls.“But then I started seeing Austin’s potential, the passion of the people I worked with—and suddenly my mind-set switched. Spending my whole career here? I’ve met more chefs and restaurateurs I admire than I would have if I’d moved away.”

Qui, who grew up in Houston, arrived in Austin in 2003, just as that perfect combination of low rents, a youthful population, and grown-up capital from an emerging tech industry was laying the foundation for a wave of upstart, chef-driven restaurants. That was year one in the history of New Austin Dining, when Tyson Cole opened his pioneering Uchi, where Qui started his career. At the same time, the city was gaining buzz and international prestige from South by Southwest and its ever-expanding spin-off events. And of course Austin’s rep for livability hasn’t hurt either. Where once it was a challenge to find staff willing to move here, Qui says, now Austin is “no longer a field assignment” and attracts kitchen talent from all over, much as its music scene draws players. And they’re prepared to put down roots.

It also helps that Austin is no longer a proverbial island in the sea of Texas: “in it, but not of it,” as the old line held. Culturally and politically that can feel like the case, but agriculturally and culinarily, it’s a different story. Austin chefs are relying more and more on regional farms and foodstuffs, forging new collabora- tions with small-scale Texan farmers. Because of that back-and-forth, “there’s been a vast improvement in the quality of ingredients,” says Bryce Gilmore, chef- proprietor of two Austin standouts, Barley Swine and Odd Duck. “The farmers are listening to us, and they’re more open to trying new crops and techniques.” Making the most of that bounty, Gilmore and several of his col- leagues are advancing a new, proudly Texan cuisine.

At the year-old Dai Due, owner Jesse Griffiths, who grew up in Denton, relies on ingredients sourced (most- ly) within a 30-mile radius. “I wanted to explore what would happen if we ate within our own resources,” says the full-bearded, redheaded chef, who looks like Paul Giamatti starring in a ZZ Top biopic. Other regions have sprouted their own foodways; why not this one? “If central Texas had a truly regional cuisine,” he asks, “what would that look like?” In Griffiths’s iteration, it would look like elk tartare and rillettes of venison, mesquite-grilled sourdough with tangerine-infused lard, a 50-ounce rib eye fired over peach or mesquite wood, prickly-pear sorbet, and an all-Texan wine list. (Highlight: a delicate Aglianico from Duchman Winery in Driftwood.) Griffiths, an avid hunter and fisherman, does his part as well. During my visit a whole feral pig—felled by the chef—flew by on the meat trolley that runs over the bar. It was bound for the knife of head butcher Julia Poplawsky, who broke it down in record time.

At Lenoir, a chic little south-side bistro, Todd Duplechan’s self-styled “hot climate” cuisine traces the links between Texas and other sunbaked regions like North Africa, Spain, India, and Southeast Asia. The idea is to serve food suited for sultry locales: lighter, spicier, brightly acidic dishes, prepared with a minimum of butter, cream, and gluten. In Duplechan’s cooking, far- fetched flavors accent near-fetched ingredients, from a jerk quail with pecan butter and persimmon to an Indian dosa with seared antelope heart and Ethiopian berbere. It’s fusion cooking, essentially, executed with rigor, restraint, and a clear sense of purpose.

Actually, that part about Austin being an island in the sea of Texas? Never really true, says Ben Edgerton, co-owner of Contigo. “Austin is the only place in the country where I can wear my cowboy hat into a hipster bar and not get a second look,” he says. “Anywhere else? They’d laugh me right out of the joint.” The San Antonio native spent five years in the New York advertising world before returning to Austin to try his luck in restaurants. “My East Coast friends would all say, ‘Oh, I love Austin! But it’s not really Texas.’ So I had to set them straight,” he says. “Because Texas is exactly why Austin is what it is—that frontier mentality, that connection to the hills and the plains, the Panhandle and the Gulf. You couldn’t just transplant it to Oregon or upstate New York.”

Certainly Contigo could only exist here. Tucked away in a suburban enclave off Manor Road, it feels like a portal to the Texas Brush Country. (The name is shared with the Edgerton family’s hunting ranch, near Corpus Christi.) Shrouded by cedar elms, warmed by a fire pit, aglow with twinkling lights, Contigo’s backyard is the scene for a nightly urban ranch party. Chef-partner Andrew Wiseheart’s cooking fits the setting to a T-for-Texas, with small plates that go big on lusty, offal-y goodness (house-cured coppa, pork-liver pâté), livened with higher-pitched, unexpected accents. There are crisp-fried green beans to dip in spicy sambal aioli; superb ox-tongue sliders offset with pickled green tomatoes; and a chili-dusted chicharrón paired with bracing kimchi. The ear-shattering crrrrrruuunnnncchh of the pork cracklings is so loud you feel almost embarrassed to take another bite.

The night I was in, Aaron Franklin and his wife were having dinner with their toddler daughter, who happily gobbled up spoonfuls of rabbit-liver mousse. They live just down the road, and are regulars here. “Austin’s such a close-knit community,” Edgerton says. “By and large, everyone in the food scene supports one another.”

Last fall, Edgerton and Wiseheart opened their second restaurant, in a former post office on East Sixth Street. Gardner is quite the departure: an ascetic, gallery-white room with glossy oak furnishings and museum lighting—all the better to view Wiseheart’s artfully plated, produce-driven food. The menu isn’t vegetarian, but vegetables are the stars, with meats playing supporting roles as stealthy umami agents. There’s charred broccoli seasoned with frozen-then-powdered salumi (a.k.a. “pork salt”), or a cabbage wedge that’s marinated in sour ale, then flame-grilled and served with duck confit. Of course Gardner also has a fabulous dry-aged beef, only here it’s cooked sous vide and finished on the grill—and is hands-down the finest steak I had in town.

To truly understand the evolution of Austin dining, you have to pay a visit to both Tyson Cole and Paul Qui. When Cole opened Uchi on a then forlorn stretch of South Lamar Boulevard, no one expected the 33-year-old from Sarasota, Florida, to become one of America’s most assured interpreters of Japanese food, a sushi savant as madly inventive as he is versed in the rule book. Every time I visit Austin, I try to hit either Uchi or its equally inventive spin-off, Uchiko—sometimes both. Over the course of 10 years and as many different menus, I’ve never not been surprised by at least one new dish, one startlingly good flavor combination, one more sushi-bar convention set on end.

This time at Uchi it was the “machi cure,” which Cole happily compared to Japanese nachos: yuca crisps topped with smoked yellowtail, Asian pear, Marcona-almond slivers, and garlic brittle. “This is basically my food on a plate,” Cole said. The goal, as ever, is “to take traditional sushi and give it some new texture, some playfulness, make it fun.” There’s a word for this sort of food: the Brits call it “moreish”; Cole likes “craveable.” “Craveability” has become his benchmark for a dish. “If it works, you can imagine devouring a whole box of it at a football game.” I’ve never encountered, say, Atlantic salmon with blueberries, yuzu, and flash-fried dinosaur kale at a concession stand, but if I did, I’d definitely order a whole box, then go back for two more.

If Cole is the foundation of New Austin Dining, Qui is clearly its apotheosis, with a career that mirrors the city’s own freewheeling trajectory. After winning both Top Chef and a James Beard Award as the executive chef at Uchiko, Qui took a left turn in 2012 and launched what’s now a citywide armada of East Side King food trucks, dishing out wacky, Asian-inflected stoner food to endless lines of late-night carousers. (The latest and greatest of the fleet, Thai-Kun, spotlights the incendiary, hallucination-inducing food of Bangkok-born chef Thai Changthong.)

Jeff Minton

In 2013, Qui finally opened his first solo restaurant, set in a slick new building on far-East Sixth Street—all glowing woods, floor-to-ceiling glass, and funky Keith Kreeger ceramics. It’s actually three concepts in one: a buzzy main dining room offering a seven-course, $70 set menu; a patio bar (called Pulutan) serving hearty, homey dishes from Qui’s native Philippines; and a ticketed, four-seat chef’s counter where he and his team let fly with mind-bending, 20- to 25-course tastings.

Qui’s offbeat mash-ups hark back to Japan, France, Southeast Asia, and the American South, with occasional nods to earthy Filipino flavors such as the mineral-tangy dinuguan (pig’s-blood stew) ladled over maitake mushrooms and sunchokes. Another highlight: a tongue-tingling variation on Thai larb, wherein a nam-cured duck leg is roughly chopped and tossed with radish, cucumber, mint, and Red Boat fish sauce, and served atop a torched wedge of Savoy cabbage. Then there’s the impossibly tender deep-fried chicken thigh, dolloped with smoked-oyster aioli and scattered with bottarga-style shavings of freeze-dried sea urchin. It’s finished with a sprinkle of sal de gusano (worm salt) you do.

After the breakneck three-year run he’s had, you wouldn’t fault the guy for digging in a little, maybe slowing the pace. But Qui’s newest restaurant, Otoko, set to open next month, may be his most ambitious yet. It’s certainly the most intimate: an exclusive, next-gen sushi den with just 12 counter seats. Tucked into a discreetly marked, second-story space at the just-launched South Congress Hotel, the windowless, minimalist room will put full focus on the artistry of the chefs.

For Qui, it’s a return to roots, recalling his wunderkind stint at Uchiko. “If anything, this will be even more Japanese-focused than what I’ve done before,” he says, citing recent trips to Japan as a well of inspiration. But Otoko won’t be a traditional sushi bar. “I want to play with the format a bit,” he says. “Bring in hot and cold dishes, integrate sushi throughout, go in more of a kaiseki direction. And we’ll stretch out the tastings according to how long guests want to stay.” Service will be omakase-style—no à la carte menu—with each course chosen, composed, and presented by the chefs themselves.

As at the chef’s counter at Qui, Otoko will use a ticketing system, with dinner running about $150 per person. That may not compare to the cost of Masa, in New York, or Jiro, in Tokyo, but it’s certainly more expensive than anyplace else in Austin. The price point will allow the chef and his crew to work with decidedly higher-end ingredients, which, as Qui points out, are not solely about cost but about cultivating the right relationships with sourcers. To do so, Qui has been making trips to Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market to meet his actual buyer on the docks. “Mr. Yamamoto gets to work at midnight, Japan time,” he says. “So every morning in Austin, my guy will call to ask what he’s got for us.”

The idea for a luxe, semi-secret sushi bar came from Jesse Herman, the Austin restaurateur behind La Condesa and Sway, and a partner in the South Congress Hotel. For Herman, Qui was the obvious choice to run it. “I’ve never seen a chef accomplish what Paul did in just two years: Top Chef, the James Beard win, GQ’s best new restaurant,” he says. “The guy is crazily creative. And his food appeals to everyone—whether it’s smashed hipsters in bars or people who’ll travel halfway around the world for a great meal.”

That wide-ranging, high/low appeal is precisely what makes Qui—despite his Manila-via-Houston roots—the most homegrown Austin chef of all. Veering from bong-tastic food trucks to refined Filipino fusion to the city’s priciest sushi den would seem highly improbable in a town like New York. In Austin, it’s not only possible, but exactly right.

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