Food-Shopping in Austin
I have the good fortune to escape my cold northeastern home and visit Austin for 3 months. We've tried and enjoyed many of the restaurants mentioned on this board. I'd like to ask about food shopping.
I love Central Market. I don't mind paying the higher prices because It's so much fun to shop there. The place is laid out for people who cook. You enter into a huge produce market, then move into meats and seafood. Once you've chosen your fresh ingredients, you move through wines and pantry items. You don't need a shopping list because the place inspires you to dream up great meals. On weekends there are so many different tasting-samples that you can make a light meal of it. The staff will give you tastes of any produce. Just ask.
There's a nice farmer's market on Westlake near Cap of Tx Hwy. Saturdays from 10-1. I got org-grown spinach, brussels greens, scallions. Decent tomatoes (hydroponic) and nice goat cheese. Baked goods too.
What local Texan products should I try? Which are the best canned re-fried beans? Supermarket tortillas? Picante sauce? What can I buy at the HEB in order to make good tex-mex at home? What are those round Mexican cheeses for?
Where is the good bread in South Austin?
My husband craves a pumpkin-filled empanada. Where's a good Mexican bakery?
Who'd thought I'd see Central Market mentioned here? It is one of the joys of Austin. Anyway --
For local products salsas and hot sauces are the best bet. Try Austin Spice Company salsas (their Smoky Hill Salsa Verda is great). Central Market has a wall of them. Rudy's BBQ makes a good sauce you can get by the bottle from their restaurants. Kolachys, if you can find a bakery that makes them. Live Oak beer, available only in bars. Celis White beer -- you'll have to look around since the brewery went under and only a few places have any left or their Grand Cru if you want a beer with a kick. New Canaan (sp?) jellies. The Hill Country has some respectable wineries (head out there in a few weeks when the wildflowers are in bloom).
I've always liked Central Market tortillas, but I haven't gone looking for a good tortilleria. Don't eat canned refried beans, just make my own. For good tex-mex at home, buy dried beans and cook them yourself, fajita meat (skirt steak) to grill (the weather's warming up), tomatoes, chiles, onions, tortillas, and some of those cheeses you were wondering about.
Now just which round Mexican cheeses were you wondering about? Queso fresca is best for crumbling fresh over things and crema is better used when a dish calls for sour cream. The anejo's can be eaten with wine or whatever. I an never remember the names of most the others, usually used for baking or broiling.
Check on the past posts here. There was some mention of a good bakery on the south side. Otherwise, you might go for a meal at the Empanada Parlor down on 6th Street.
Enjoy your stay!
David did an excellent job, so I'm not able to add much. Still, a few hints:
Tia Rosa makes a good tortilla, as does El Gallindo (local, go to their factory and ask for a tour) but remember that supermarket torts are essentially raw. To warm and cook, toast on a comal or a cast iron pan at medium to med-high heat until they puff up. Turn them three times during this process and pay attention.
For supermarket salsa, try Herdez (canned and hecho en Mexico), make your own, check out mexican brands at Fiesta, or go to the salsa bar at Central Market. By the way, the guacamole at the salsa bar in CM has to be a loss leader, so load up.
Some things you can buy at HEB to make great tex-mex at home include those funny cheeses, so try several and see what you like. Pick up a Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless book for some ideas. If you like it goopy, top it off with Kraft american cheese. A Texas junk classic is the brick of Velveeta with a can of Rotel tomatoes for chili con queso.
For bread in south or near south Austin, try Bread Alone on South Lamar, or drive to Sixth and Lamar and get some bread from Whole Foods.
Hope this helps...
re: Greg Spence
Thanks for the tips, guys!
Looking forward to trying the quesos and salsas you mentioned.
Greg, thanks for telling that tortillas are raw. I just bought a bag at Central Market and was disappointed at the doughy taste and texture. Now I know to heat them up!
My other problem here in Austin is that I, a near-teetotaler, have started slurping margaritas. They are just too good - especially at Guero's Taco Bar on S Congress. I fear this Texas sun will leach all the puritan out of my yankee bones.
re: Val G
re: Greg Spence
I too am here for several months from New York. Although Austin is an excellent cheap eats town, I have to say that I am pretty disappointed with the shopping. I think Central Market and Whole Foods are overrated in terms of selection and price in almost every category, at least by NYC standards. I have for example pretty much given up eating cheese here, and I have yet to find a decent loaf of fresh bread. One weird thing: here in the heart of cattle country, it doesn't seem possible to get prime meat (something I have no problem getting from my unfancy butcher on Broadway & 99th).
I don't want to seem whiny, because there is a lot to take advantage of at the stores, especially in the Tex-Mex department. The tortilla chips taste better here; the salsas are excellent; even the bagged peanuts (roasted and salted) seem a notch up. I'm even getting into the Texas white bread (Mrs. Baird's) that they serve you at BBQ joints. (It's excellent for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.) But it's tough to be a foodie, as opposed to a chowhound, in Austin.
re: hans petersen
Having lived in NYC for a few years in the 80's, I can sympathize with Hans. When I first moved home I was disappointed with the quality and selection of foodstuffs around town. I particularly agree with Hans' assessment of Whole Foods' outrageous pricing. Still, there are some basic rules you can follow to get pretty much anything your heart and palate desire here in central Texas.
First, remember that what stores here display is what people in this region of the country want, in terms of seasonal items and staples. If you get into the spirit of the region, you won't find yourself bemoaning the selection as often.
Second, if you don't see what you want, just ask. It's what that "Texas Friendly" thing is all about. I called Central Market this morning and the meat market manager told me he gets three steers of organic prime beef a week and can order anything else (including wild game) that you might want. I know he's always been great about selling me duck fat and the like in reasonable portions. When you're there, ask the fish market guys about the langoustines they keep in the back. They're terrific.
Third, cultivate some relationships with food purveyors around town. When you're nice and they like you, they're inclined to do you favors.
Fourth, try Texas French Bread, Bread Alone and Whole Foods bakeries.
Fifth, sorry about the cheese. Central Market will order for you, but there is no contesting that the quality is better in NYC.
Last, drop me a line if you can't find something you have to have. Bet I know where to get it.
re: Greg Spence
I appreciate the tips and the offer. There is a slight chance I may be moving here, in which case I would definitely be cultivating the suppliers (and calling in my order to Murray's Cheese every couple of weeks). I did ask one night at the CM meat counter, and the guy said only the restaurants get prime, but I'll be more persistent next time.
Otherwise I am getting in the spirit, and not feeling too deprived, for, as I said, the town has a lot to offer on the food front.
re: hans petersen