Texas Road Trip Report (Houston, San Antonio, Austin, and in between)
With the exception of a short trip to San Antonio in my adolescent days, and countless plane changes in Dallas, I'd never really experienced Texas. So my girlfriend—we'll call her S—and I booked a flight to Houston from Philadelphia, rented a car, and puttered around for a week. What follows is a report on most of the food we ate. It's very long, but here's the short version: We ate a lot of food, and it was pretty delicious.
DAY 1: HOUSTON
-Phoenicia Market: Incredible gourmet market located downtown - kind of like Dean and Deluca, but with a pronounced Middle Eastern orientation. We went for breakfast, and so only had some light snacks, but what we had was wonderful. I had a mini boule of olive bread, which ranks among the top olive breads I've tried, and S had a dolma which she reported to be very tasty. Despite our lack of in-depth research, I feel comfortable deeming Phoenicia an excellent resource for hotel room provisioning (cheeses, good meats, etc.) or a quick lunch.
-Tacos Tierra Caliente: A truck in Midtown selling tacos. We had the Al Pastor, which was great—aggressively seasoned and adorned with well-made sauces. Though the truck is not prepossessing in the least—and, in fact, appears to be a shuttered and/or a health code violation—Tierra Caliente has something of a following in Houston and I think that's totally merited.
-Mama Ninfa's: Sometimes, desires get you in trouble. In this case, desiring Tex-Mex—in other words, fajitas on a sizzler platter heaped atop house-made tortillas and smothered in sour cream—led us to a restaurant with a legendary rep and some major flaws. Mama Ninfa's is supposedly the progenitor of fajitas as we know them now, and when we went the place was packed with locals. (And it's a big place.) Our margarita was excellent, but then things started slipping. Guacamole came frozen, S's salad wasn't quite fresh enough (we sent it back and swapped it for more fajitas), and a general sense of chaos prevailed. If you want a great margarita on a nice patio, go here, but I’d resist ordering food.
DAY 2: HOUSTON --> NEW BRAUNFELS
Balderas: Rather than take the more sterile Interstate-10 from Houston to New Braunfels, we took the scenic Highway 90, which runs roughly parallel. It’s all but unused and goes through various tiny towns in various degrees of dilapidation. In one such town, Waelder, we drove by Balderas Grocery, which looked fairly authentic and proved to be an incredible find. In the back room of a tiny grocery store, a guy tends to two pits, smoking brisket and homemade sausage. While the brisket we tried was a bit dry (he cut it off an end piece—I bet it’s really great cut from a fresh side of meat), the sausage was a pure revelation—probably the best sausage I’ve ever had. Glistening fat, an incredible snap…holy shit. This is worth a stop. As a side note, the usual barbecue mavens on Chowhound, Full Custom Gospel, etc. do not seem to have this place on their radar. But I can assure you it’s the real deal.
Unfortunately we missed Luling City Market and Schulenberg City Market, both of which were closed. (January 2...slim pickins'.)
Gristmill: We were near San Antonio, so we wanted to check out New Braunfels, and once we got to New Braunfels, we wanted to check out Gruene (pronounced “green,” oddly), a tiny historic downtown that’s been absorbed by New Braunfels. The oldest music hall in Texas, Gruene Hall, is there, and right behind it is a beautiful (and fairly enormous) restaurant called Gristmill, a former cotton gin on the Guadalupe River. S and I split a chicken fried steak, which was very delicious and came slathered in gravy. Good stuff, as was the concert we caught afterwards.
DAY 3: SAN ANTONIO
Las Carretas: After backing the rental car into a tree, I needed to find someone who’d repair it for cheap, no questions asked. That took me to a chop shop on the outskirts of San Antonio, where I dropped off the car. The mechanic recommended a nearby Mexican restaurant for breakfast, which proved to be an incredible find. Barbacoa was excellent, and the housemade tortillas hit the spot. Dirt cheap, too.
La Gloria: Jonny Hernandez is some sort of celebrity chef in San Antonio, so we figured we should go to his spot specializing in “Street Foods of Mexico.” It’s located near the Pearl Brewery, a sort of redeveloped marketplace/apartment complex that’s very trendy and somewhat sterile, and the whole place gives off a Jose Garces vibe (Philadelphia reference! Though if you watch Iron Chef maybe you know what I'm talking about?). Food was great: fish tacos were well-seasoned (though the store-bought tacos dropped them down a notch) and a carnitas torta was quite good as well.
Jacala: This is an eminent old Tex-Mex place, according to the internet. We went exclusively to try puffy tacos, which were great.
DAY 4: LOCKHART/AUSTIN
-Smitty’s: Stop one in Lockhart was Smitty’s. Brisket was somewhat dry, sausage was excellent, almost on the level of Balderas.
-Black’s: Next up was Black’s, which had the best brisket by far. Highly, highly recommended, just a fatty, crusty mess that is something like the platonic ideal of barbecue.
-Kreuz: Great sausage, in a restaurant roughly the size of an airline hangar. Not sure if we needed to go to all three but I'm not coming back anytime soon so why not. Feel somewhat ill.
Vegan Yacht: Austin’s major culinary calling card at this point seems to be its food truck scene, which is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Vacant lots across the city have been transformed into these trailer parks, of sorts, for dining, like al fresco mall food courts. As far as vegan food goes, this was pretty good, but it must be said that every type of niche food is represented at these places. In a few blocks around where we stayed, in East Austin, I saw different food carts dedicated to both Neapolitan and “Detroit-style” pizza. It's like niches within niches—I bet someone in Austin is creating a truck dedicated to Neapolitan pizza from the south end of Naples, which is totally different from the north end, or whatever, and it will be acclaimed. It’s really ridiculous but very good if you enjoy eating cheap food.
DAY 5: AUSTIN
Torchy’s: Solid, contemporary tacos. I had the Trailer Park, a kind of fried chicken taco that by virtue of its contents had to be at least pretty good. It was.
Hudson’s on the Bend: A real destination spot for Austinites, I gather. 30-mile drive, romantic room, and a game-heavy menu that’s guaranteed to draw regional attention. But in spite of the “place to celebrate a birthday/graduation/retirement” vibe, the food delivered. Everything we had was delicious. Goat cheese quesadillas, pumpkin risotto (though this was comically skimpy for $18), elk, and stuffed pheasant. All the main courses come with the same sides, which is what it is, but these sides were incredible and so I can’t complain. The bread pudding for dessert was the platonic ideal of the form. Very, very good. I have been making bread pudding at home ever since in homage.
DAY 6: AUSTIN
Casuelas: Typical Mexican spot in East Austin, recommended by a friend from the area. Al pastor tacos were perfectly seasoned—not too greasy but still sufficiently rich. I liked it a lot.
Auslander: A German restaurant in Fredericksburg, Texas. Touristic and somewhat less than it could be, but still—a breaded and fried pork cutlet will usually be pretty good.
Uchiko: The buzz restaurant of Austin as of winter 2012. (Am I right, Austinites? Or am I so last year? Your validation is required!) Owner is a local food celebrity, executive chef is currently competing (and doing quite well) on Top Chef, etc. (Well, we'll see what happens tonight, but things are looking pretty good.) The place bills itself as “Japanese Farmhouse Cuisine,” which seems to mean esoteric sushi rolls, interesting traditional small plates, stuff like that. We tried a few different things, all of which were good: the “ham and eggs” sushi roll, ika yaki (squid with vaguely Korean ingredients), grilled beef tongue sushi, and a yellowtail roll with yuzu. I would have liked to spend more time here but we had to roll on to the executive chef’s other project, a food truck called…
East Side King: They do buns and Japanese street food, both of which are very au courant these days. (Somewhat incredibly, there are several trucks in Austin dedicated to Japanese street food.) If it’s late and you’re in East Austin, East Side King—there are three carts operating under that name, located in the backyards of bars—is open very late. (We went to the one behind Shangri-La, which has a capacious back yard that’s a very pleasant place to be. Man, it'd be impossible to review all the drinks we had/watering holes we dropped by...)
DAY 7: AUSTIN
Bola Pizza: This is a wood-fired oven operation that sets up shop at the Austin Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings. The breakfast pizza (speck, good cheese, onion, eggs) is worth starting the day with.
Contigo: We’d heard a lot about this place, which was said to be “very Austin,” and so we headed to the bar to have cocktails and try the “Rabbit and Dumplings,” which the local alt-weekly praised. The cocktails were among the best I’ve ever had, and the rabbit and dumplings is a dish I’m going to try to emulate at home. I’m not sure why we didn’t eat more here, but we probably should have.
DAY 8: AUSTIN --> HOUSTON
Junior's Smokehouse (Hempstead, TX): We stopped by this barbecue spot on the way back to Houston because we figured one more dose of barbecue wouldn't kill us. Turns out it didn't. In fact, it was very good, with brisket on the leaner side but totally tender. A pleasant surprise and a great way to end the trip.
I've tried all (with the exception of Franklin's in Austin) of the legendary "great" brisket in Central Texas. On any given day at each of these joints, the brisket might be over-the-top fabulous, or just really darn good.
But my experience has been that I can always count on Black's to be terrific. Day after day, month after month, bite after bite. For me anyway, it's the most consistent. Others might rise beyond Black's one day, fall back another. But for my money, I count on Black's, and I've never been disappointed.