A few weeks ago, I went to Texas for a business conference and road trip. Before going, my well-meaning progressive California friends warned me that I’d see gun racks all over the Lone Star State, but I never saw one during my entire time there. In fact, most of the talk about guns occurred on my flight from San Jose to Austin. Two Silicon Valley execs chatted non-stop about guns, ammunition, and hunting. They were on their way to Texas for a weekend loaded with fun. I was glad when we landed and deplaned.
I’d heard that Texas had great food, and while I had to do my due diligence and attend the IACP conference, I could not wait to escape from the hotel to roam and eat. When the conference ended, my husband Rory joined me for a weeklong vacation. We stayed in Austin, then ventured to San Antonio and Houston, and returned to Austin to fly home. Along the way, we connected with old friends and made new ones. We learned lots about Texas hospitality and pride. More importantly, we ate remarkably well. This is the first of 2 posts dedicated to what we tasted in Texas.
Unbeknownst to us when we made our travel plans, our triangular route between the three Texan cities allowed us to hit three of the four major barbecue hotspots. There is such a thing as the Texas BBQ trail and we got to sample brisket, ribs, and sausage in Lockhart (outside of Austin), Luling (on the way between San Antonio and Houston), and Elgin (enroute from Houston back to Austin).
We had to save Taylor, located northeast of Austin, for the next trip; I hear that Mueller's has some mean beef ribs! For a history of Texas BBQ, read this essay by food historian Robb Walsh on the Southern Foodways Alliance site. (Note that you can build a Southern BBQ intinerary on the SFA website.)
My friends, it is amazingly good, old-fashioned American food. The meats are simply prepared and not sauced, unless you want it. You taste the meat and eat with your hands at communal tables. When you order in the barbecue pit room – a warm, well-ventilated space where the meat cooks and men carve up the orders on thick butcher blocks -- you can get as much or as little as you want. The meat is served by weight. At Smitty’s in Lockhart, the pit room is improbably dark from decades of smoke. You feel like you’re inside of a coffee bean.
Texans are super friendly, and a gentleman at Smitty’s in Lockhart gave us detailed instructions and nodded approvingly at our choice of the fatty brisket, tender pork ribs, and a juicy ring of sausage.
Everything is put atop layers of butcher paper – which function as your “plate” – and you get sliced white bread or saltines as freebie accompaniments. The “plate” is crimped at the ends and customers carry each order out with two hands. The hands-on, personal engagement between customer, cook, and food from the get-go makes this BBQ ritual as unique as Texas.
In the next room (the dining room), you can order sweet or dill pickles, potato salad, coleslaw, whole tomatoes, thick slices of raw onion, and avocados. Those are add-ons. All the utensils are disposable. The eating affair is totally practical and unfussy. You don’t even get a fork.
People made BBQ sandwiches with the tomato, onion, and/or avocado. We simply ate the meats with mildly hot sauce, potato salad and sweet pickles. Freshly made lemonade and Shiner bock beer washed down the food perfectly.
And what about the Wonder-like white bread and saltines? They were the perfect foil for the meat, functioning as a cushion of sorts for the rich, tasty flesh. And in case you needed a sweet chaser after the BBQ meal, these joints always have an ice cream concession too!
Though it was about 95F out, we didn’t feel weighted down by the any of the barbecue meals that we ate. Really. If you have one Texan BBQ spot to hit, I suggest Lockhart and Smitty’s. (Kreutz’s is equally good, people say.)
Tex-Mex and Regular Mex
Texas history is firmly rooted in Mexican culture and you cannot leave the state without eating some form of Mexican food. In Austin, we sampled nouveau Tex-Mex at overly styled food trucks (think tacos filled with fried avocado wedges and chips with fancied up Velveeta).
Then there were gems such as the Oaxacan fare at El Naranjo (85 Rainey Street) and Mexico City delights at La Condesa. The muddled corn cocktail (pictured above) at Malverde is excelente! One of things that we enjoyed most in Austin were the affordable drinks -- $5 for a top-shelf Margarita!
Things got colorful and crazy for us in San Antonio, where Saveur magazine Executive Food Editor Todd Coleman took us to a reception at Mi Tierra, an over-the-top Tex-Mex restaurant.The place is full of bling and kitsch. They are rarely closed, serve a huge volume of customers daily, and have an underground commissary.
The commissary stretches a block long with walk-in refrigerators, prep stations, and even a religious shrine; San Antonio is surrounded by 3 missions and the Alamo, a former mission. We ate dinner at Mi Tierra with strolling mariachis and throngs of tourists and locals. While Mi Tierra's fajitas and taco salad were pretty standard, the ethereal flour tortillas were perfect for sopping up the queso cheese sauce. It was a worthwhile food bomb.
Food trucks abound in Texas because it’s a car-oriented state. People are used to driving long distance and there’s good food to be had at gas stations and semi-rural “farm to market roads.” Miles away from the touristy Riverwalk in San Antonio on Nacogdoches Road, we found wonderful food at Erick’s Taco Stand, Fruteria, and Restaurant.
The three businesses are conveniently lined up right next to each other and share a common parking lot. The gaily decorated, open air dining reminded us of places we’d eaten at in Southeast Asia. We dined on cactus salad, greasy puffy crisp tacos (a San Antonio specialty), and pork cooked with squash and salsa verde at the restaurant and kept thinking about the food at Erick’s (12715 Nacogdoches Road). The next day, we drove back to lunch on mini tacos (4 for $5 and you can order different kinds of meats).
What about the Asian food? In Austin, the Texas-Japanese fare at Uchi and Uchiko were great but the homey offerings seemed slim. There was banh mi and pho in Austin, particularly around the university area, but kitschy signage for Asian restaurants such as this Viet-Thai one didn’t inspire confidence. They seemed awkwardly “ching chong”.
An upscale San Antonio tourist magazine listed P.F. Chang as the only noteworthy Chinese restaurant. In Luling, a Chinese restaurant menu highlighted its crab Rangoon fried wontons and pu pu platters. I like those old-fashioned dishes but was looking for something more special. For that reason, I held out until I got to Houston – a major hub for the Vietnamese-American community.
Have experiences or recommendation for Texas BBQ and/or Mexican food? Share them below!