Beyond Brisket: Austin's 5 Coolest Restaurants to Hit Up During SXSW
In between the music madness, these food outposts are bound to keep your first-night-in-new-city buzz sustained long after you've had your barbecue fix.
From the airplane, Texas looked something like my Maryland hometown: clusters of lego-sized buildings, a patchwork of green and sometimes brownish land stitched together by the roads between it. Though I’d been told over and over just how “fun” and “cool” Austin was, for a minute there, I’d wondered what all the hype was about. In the car ride from the airport, the city didn't look "weird" like its motto promised — only a little shorter, a little more sprawling, the capitol building a little tanner than others I’d experienced.
Then I started eating.
As part of "The Barbecue Belt" — a group of states ranging from the Carolinas in the East, Missouri in the West and Kentucky down to the deep South — the act of slow cooking and smoking meat is considered a delicacy in Texas. Though meat has been cooked over fire and smoke since the dawn of time, barbecue has been perfected in these places and when you go to the Lone Star State, you order the brisket.
There's no shortage of it, either.
There are 78,704 Yelp results that surface for "Best BBQ in Austin," among them: Valentina’s ("OMG I almost soiled my pants it was so good," one commenter wrote) and La Barbecue ("So tender and juicy that I will never look at Thanksgiving turkey the same way again. It's been forever ruined for me … like my white shirt").
None of those places, however, compare to Franklin’s on East 11 Street, where Austin natives (not just the tourists) line up at 8 a.m. and then wait in line for at least two hours to get their hands on the food. "One time President Obama cut the line, which I get," said an Uber driver who looked a lot like Guy Fieri. "But you just don’t do that sort of thing at Franklin’s, you know? I woulda told him to wait."
Here's the problem with barbecue, gloriously messy as it may be: It sells the culinary scene short. To identify Austin as a city of barbecue is to identify New York as a great place to get a steak. To look beyond the brisket in Austin is to understand the breadth of the city’s people and the complexities of its identity in a more profound way. And in a sense, that’s what traveling is about: getting to know the unknown and then continuing to seek newness as it all becomes a little more familiar.
On my flight home I began thinking about a conversation I’d had with a native Texan at the new restaurant Emmer & Rye on Rainey Street. We'd been on the subject of Austin’s rapidly changing landscape — the way areas in the East Side had been gentrified, the way real estate prices were sky-rocketing, the way tons of out-of-towners (like a cab driver from Pennsylvania I’d met the night before) had visited Austin and then decided to permanently settle there.
"Can you feel like a Texan, truly feel like a Texan if you weren’t born here?" I’d asked him.
It was something he said he’d thought about often. "I think you can," he'd responded, "But the Texas spirit, the Texas identity is its own thing." The whole "Six Flags Over Texas," the slogan used to describe the six countries that historically had sovereignty over the state (Spain, France, Mexico, The Republic of Texas, The Confederate States of America and The United States of America), he explained, "is something we are still aware of."
What I think he was getting at is this: Texas’ literal mass has always sort of led it to exist as its own entity, to develop its own sense of self. But it’s what the expansiveness offers — the grains and produce that spring from its earth, the livestock that roam it — that has allowed exceptional chefs to build a core that is then infused with their own creativity, to strike a chord that is uniquely Austin's own.
BURGER, PLEASE: Contigo's best burger. (Photo: Kate LaSuere)
Where out-of-towners can experience ranch life without actually trekking to one.
Andrew Wiseheart claims his path to chefdom wasn’t a particularly romantic one. “I don’t have any romantic stories of cooking by Grandma, though she did teach me how to make creamed gravy,” he laughs. Yet there is no denying his journey to opening Contigo has been an utterly enchanting one. Born and raised in San Angelo, Wiseheart spent the better portion of a decade traveling to different states and countries (a new place every 10 months) where he worked six days a week at fine dining establishments. “I never got too attached to anybody or any place. My travels were always focused on food, farmers markets, eating in people’s homes — and I emerged from that experience as a professional,” he says.
Eventually, Wiseheart returned home to Texas where he started Contigo, a relaxed indoor-outdoor eatery modeled and named after the ranch his business partner grew up on. “The idea was to take all of the attention to detail, the high-quality ingredients, the technique I’d picked up and cut the overhead so a broader audience could enjoy it."
The setup is reminiscent of a beer garden — there are large communal tables mixed in with individual ones and a fire pit surrounded by benches. Diners can sip on an assortment of local beers and dig into bar snacks like homemade sour cream and onion waffle chips ($4) or small plates like purple carrots with pistachios served over a brown butter compote ($11). Charcuterie ranging from whipped lardo ($8) to Pork Liver Pate ($8) comes highly recommended by Wiseheart, but you can’t go wrong with the daily fresh sausage on a baguette with dijon, onions and french fries ($12) all served in a cardboard boat. With strands of string lights, elm trees and the Austin sky above — it's easy to forget that the highway and bustling downtown scene lie just around the bend.
(2027 Anchor Ln, 512-614-2260; contigotexas.com)
VIBES: Inside Emmer & Rye. (Photo: Alicynn Fink)
Emmer & Rye
In which grains take center stage and diners ponder why the Atkins diet ever existed.
Like the name suggests, grasses and grains are the pièce de résistance in this sleek but homey farmhouse-style dining room that opened in November. Most people are familiar with Rye, but emmer wheat, which produces an earthy and slightly spicy flavor, was one of the first domesticated crops. Though its popularity eventually faded, Chef Kevin Fink, whose passion for grain began in Italy when he was "working there as a naive 19-year-old,” anointed it as a sort of mascot for forgotten flavors. "When you have freshly milled grains, the difference is immediately apparent,” he explains.
It’s with this in mind that customers should consider selecting one of the pasta dishes — which include Red Fife Spaghetti ‘Cacio E Pepe’ ($14) and White Sonoran Pappardelle ($16) — that are milled fresh daily and then made by hand on wooden pasta boards. Any of the dim sum offerings ($4-10) that circulate on carts and incorporate the most seasonal and local ingredients (“flavors of hoja santa, papalo, henbit, chilies, sunchokes grown in the sand of South Texas”) are big hits, too.
For dessert, the goat’s milk panna cotta, with its pecan granola and floral garnish ($8), is as dreamy on the eyes as it is on the palette — just don’t leave without checking out the bathroom. NPR’s The Splendid Table podcast plays through the speakers in each individual stall — you might just emerge with a better understanding of micro greens.
(51 Rainey St #110, 512-366-5530; emmerandrye.com)
The butcher-meets-supper club where even former vegetarians might fall madly in love with meat.
Though you can directly access the all-day restaurant portion of Dai Due through a back door, opting for the the butcher shop entrance of chef Jesse Griffith’s hearthy yet contemporary space offers lens into his deep appreciation of meat. Open Tuesday through Sunday, the butcher sells traditional cuts of grass-fed beef, pastured pork, feral hog, free-roaming venison, goat, lamb, fresh chicken and quail from whole animals sourced from local ranchers. You need only look inside the glass case to understand the pleasure that goes into the process.
“The concept here really represents Jesse’s hunter-gatherer identity,” a shift manager said before showing off a photo of a giant elk that recently hung in the back room. “The idea is never hunting just to hunt, it’s about regulating what’s on the land.” Given that Dai Due borrows its unusual moniker from a Latin phrase that translates to "From the two kingdoms of nature, choose food with care,” it’s no surprise the produce, fruit, cheese, olive oil and milk also come from Texas (mostly in the Austin area) with the seafood caught in the Gulf.
The multi-course supper club menu and a la carte options rotate daily, depending on what ingredients are freshest; for breakfast and lunch (served until 3 p.m.) give the sweet potato sope with chicken chilorio and boar chorizo ($14) a try or opt for the incredible venison burger, which is enriched with pork belly and topped with bacon, mushroom, blue cheese mayonnaise and pickled charred scallion ($16).
(2406 Manor Rd, 512-524-0688; daidue.com)
CRAB-TASTIC: Crab Cakes at Launderette. (Photo: Robert J. Lerma)
The former washateria, where the only chore is deciding what not to order.
“Sometimes you have an idea but have to find the right space for it,” pastry chef Laura Sawicki explains as a subdued version of “Big Pimpin’” plays in the background. “But from the moment we saw this space, we knew what it was going to be.” Launderette, Sawicki and executive chef Rene Ortiz’ vision, is an inspired one: a former laundromat turned Mediterranean-meets-Texas eatery that is a perfect storm of kitsch and chic, comfort and innovation, thought and ease, nostalgia and newness.
Divided into five parts — snacky bits, toasts, wood grill, vegetables and specialties — the menu can be shared amongst tablemates or consumed individually. “We like to think of it as a choose-your-own-adventure approach to eating,” Sawicki says. There’s a familiarity to the dishes but always a twist — the zucchini ($9), for example, with its feta, pine nuts, cilantro, mint and carrot dressing, offers a surprise crunch with bits of candied quinoa. The pei mussels with serrano ham, green chile butter and grilled sourdough ($16) delight with the addition of castelvetrano olives.
Be sure to save room for dessert, though: Between the banana butterscotch cream pie and Black Forest cake with root beer float ice cream, there’s no wrong move to be made. The birthday cake ice cream sandwich by Sawicki, who was a James Beard semi-finalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef, is one of the menu's most in-demand items. “Just don’t bother using a fork,” a neighboring table advised. “It melts fast."
(2115 Holly St, 512-382-1599; launderetteaustin.com)
DUCK, DUCK YES: Cured duck breast with peaches and pickled onions at Juniper. (Photo: Carla Williams)
The place that proves Texas and Italy have more in common than you might have thought.
Texas and Italy, two drastically different places, are integral parts of this East Side restaurant located just around the corner from Launderette. "The idea with Juniper was to take the same care and love for local ingredients that they have in Italy, and transpose that with our local bounty here in central Texas,” says chef Nicholas Yanes, who was formerly the chef and creative director for Uchi Restaurants.
The end result is Italian fare with modern twists: rye gnocchi with chicken confit, apple, caraway and swiss chard ($14); or turnip with ham, brood, thyme and a cocchi reduction ($12). Most impressive is Yanes’ gorgeous presentation, including turnips styled to look like a blooming flower and a milk + honey dessert ($7) with cream whose craters look reminiscent to those on the moon.
(2400 East Cesar Chavez #304, 521-220-9421; juniperaustin.com)