Austin Foodie Foray
Used to be Austin was best known for its music scene. But something epicurean has been brewing in the Lone Star State’s capital. This always progressive university town has seen an influx of chefs from other parts of the country.
Eclectic, exciting, the culinary culture in Austin reflects the way the city embraces artistry of every kind. From traditional favorites that evoke the Austin of yore -- let's face it, you wouldn't want to come here and not eat BBQ, would you? -- to brand new edgy spots, Austin’s melange of meals is staggering. Just eating here might be called a creative act.
Fonda San Miguel
While Texan appetites gave birth to that gooey, raw onion-topped, ground beef-filled, Americanized version of enchiladas and Velveeta-style queso known as Tex Mex, Austin was always the epicurean renegade. The Texas capital had just enough sophisticates who had lingered in Mexico's gourmet getaways like San Miguel de Allende to know that another version of Mexican cuisine existed. About 30 years ago, Miguel Ravago dreamed of a place where he could showcase his grandmother's recipes and bring the true flavors of Mexico's interiors to the populace. Along with partner Tom Gilliland, he opened Fonda San Miguel, adorned it with abundant art pieces by emerging Mexican artists, and began an upscale Mexican tradition that's as revered today as it was then. Enjoy Acapulco-style ceviche, mole (Puebla-style), and ancho rellenos stuffed with olives and roasted chicken. The Sunday brunch spread is worth the splurge.
The Salt Lick
Everybody in Austin has an opinion about BBQ. But both the cowboy-boot crowd and the stiletto- heeled gang agree: The Salt Lick tops every carnivore's lip-smacking list. Located about 25 miles from Austin -- just far enough outside urbane Austin to feel like it’s a rural kind of place -- The Salt Lick comprises a rough-hewn complex of buildings in a Hill Country landscape. A soulful casual spot, abundant with long community tables, this hospitable family-owned restaurant serves chunky pork spare ribs, juicy sausages, tender brisket -- and so much more. Order up family-style and the food won't stop until you do. Choose any three meats, and you'll also get a medley of sides -- coleslaw, potato salad, pickles. Take home a bottle or two of their secretsauce; it makes everything taste like the Salt Lick.
Lucy's Fried Chicken
Call it gutter chic or trailer park cool. Comfort food turns hipster at Lucy's Fried Chicken where the pink wine flows from a tap. Fifth generation Texan chef James Holmes summoned his inner vintage Southerner to create a fried-chicken joint the Colonel could only have dreamed about. Here, the (raised in Texas) crispy poultry pieces tumble from metal buckets, the beer hails strictly from the Lone Star State, and the deviled eggs come breaded in buttermilk, fried and served with aioli. In shady South Austin, marked by a nostalgic neon sign, Lucy's has a jukebox, inspired cocktails and city slicker wood-fired grilled oysters served six ways.
Being at Lenoir feels like crashing one of those secret dinner party supper clubs. A miniscule bistro, its decor mirrors its cuisine: elegant, hand-crafted, local and creative. Reused, repurposed and upcycled bits of wood combine with billowy fabrics and glittering chandeliers to suggest a sophisticated clubhouse. But it’s the $35 prix fixe that draws throngs of local gourmands. The husband-and-wife chef/owners offer a menu divided into four sections -- Field, Sea, Land and Dream -- from which eaters can choose any three items that appeal. Derived from local purveyors, the ingredients drive the changeable menu. Consider the fish curry with roasted squid and heirloom tomatoes. Or sweet corn agnoletti flanked by fried garlic, cascabel aioli and epazote. Hard to resist, the Dream section stands for desserts, and pastry chef Jessica Maher delivers a chocolate pecan cake, local strawberries and a cap of white coffee ice cream.
Perhaps you've heard of Paul Qui? That's right: the winner of Bravo's Top Chef, Season 9 and this year's recipient of a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest. Uchiko is where it all began and where he still reigns as executive chef. Austin's No. 1 spot to eye celebrities, this sexy restaurant buzzes with civilized chic. As warm and cozy as a Japanese inn, it relies on polished interpretations of traditional Japanese plates, tweaked to another level with unexpected seasonal and local ingredients: Think blueberries or beef tongue. Call it Japanese crossover cookery. Try the piquant boquerones roll with white anchovy, gremolata and bottarga for an Asian-meets-Mediterranean food fantasy. End with anything by James Beard-nominated pastry chef Philip Speer.
MORE: Watch Andrew Zimmern Food Crawl Through Austin