I was in Austin, Texas last week getting certified as a Square Foot Gardening instructor (I’ll put up a mini-course in a couple of weeks!)
And I have to tell you, if you’ve got to go somewhere while trying to eat unprocessed, Austin is the place to go.
First of all, it’s got the Whole Foods mother ship, and I do mean Mother Ship. That place is immense. I’m no fan of Whole Foods, much less of retail tourism, but this place was pretty cool.
It’s immense, easily three or four times the size of any Whole Foods I’ve ever been in. I loved the mix-it-yourself trail mix bar, and the bulk offerings: heirloom beans, unusual grains, and different types of rice, as well as an enormous bulk herbs and spices section. The flavored sugars alone took up as much room as the spice section in most stores. Since I don’t go into Whole Foods very often, I don’t know if these things are standard, but I’d be surprised if other outlets had so many of each of these things. (Yes, I thought I had pictures, but they don’t seem to be on the camera, so you’ll have to take my word for it.)
We pretty much ate our way through Austin, and because I was traveling with hard-core vegetable gardeners (Motto: don’t get between me and my eggplant) we sought out restaurants with a reputation for responsibly sourced food.
There is a huge market farming community around Austin, apparently–a staff member from the Sustainable Food Center told us that there are nearly 200 farmers within 50 miles of the city supplying their farmers markets. I believe in Chicago we’re drawing from a much much wider area, especially if you’re looking for meat and flour, so this was fairly impressive, especially considering it’s nearly a desert. (A real desert, not a food desert.)
One of the neat things about Austin eateries is that they all seem to have not just vegetarian but also vegan options. Here’s where we ate dinner, on various nights:
Foreign and Domestic: Loved the concept of an evolving menu based on seasonal, locally available ingredients, but the food was not quite there. I got the Summer Squash Tofu, which was essentially green clay on succotash. The succotash was good, but the “tofu” which I thought would have at least the texture of tofu, looked and tasted like that green stuff that you stick flowers in to make them stand up. Other people had a lightly crusted fish. The fish was fine, but the crust was chewy. The appetizers fared better-I had an amazing brioche stuffed with caramelized onions with a side of peach butter. Unfortunately, it had apparently been baked in a drinking glass, so that the top had risen over a straight shaft. Yes, folks, it looked like a penis. VERY uncomfortable to eat this among people I didn’t know very well.
Tokaba had this amazing drink–a habanero margarita, but the food was apparently not very memorable, because even looking at the menu I can’t remember what I ate. Of course, I did have two of the margaritas, which may have had something to do with it. What was really nice about this place was the huge outdoor seating. How novel to eat outdoors in October.
The Black Star Co-op is a member-owned pub featuring beer from local breweries. They don’t allow tipping because they say they pay their workers a living wage, so they don’t need to tip, but I think it might be more that no one would tip because the service is so terrible. The beer is fantastic though, varied and unusual, and I had a beet-and-spinach salad, again, locally-sourced, that was fabulous.
Guero’s is the Pizzeria Uno of Austin, as far as I could tell. Uno’s is the place that all the tourists go because the restaurant has managed to position itself as the place to get Chicago pizza. Consequently all the tourists go home complaining about how terrible Chicago pizza is. Guero’s is loud and crowded, I’d say the food is poorly presented except that if they have the remotest concept of presenting food it’s news to me. They have terrible beer. This supposed best Tex-Mex in Austin is not quite as good as the little family-owned taqueria down the block here in Chicago. Of course, we have a larger Mexican population in Chicago than they do in Austin, and here in Chicago they’re actually from Mexico, as opposed to fourth generation as seems to be the case with the Austinian Mexicans (also the owners of this place are named “Lipincott” which last I heard is not a very common hispanic surname). The waiter did, however, look up factoids on armadillos for us.
We found all of the above ourselves, just researching Austin eateries. The last place we ate, Mother’s Cafe and Garden, was the suggestion of a native, and it was definitely the best place we ate at. I had a stuffed poblano pepper that was just amazing. The place is vegan and vegetarian, roomy and friendly and they were the only place we ate at all week that hadn’t run out of chocolate cake.
And yes, I went to Texas and did not have barbecue. Sue me.