All About AustinTexas Traditions And Future Visions Mingle Happily In This Once Quiet College Town.
Not only is Austin the fastest growing city in the United States, it has no shortage of visitors. At last count in 2016, there were 25.6 million visitors accounting for $7.4 billion in revenue. Thousands converge on the state capital for the iconic South by Southwest mother of all festivals, music lovers patronize the 250 live music venues, and the recent installation of Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin” building adjacent to the Blanton Museum on the University of Texas campus has put the city on the map as an art destination. (East Hampton’s Guild Hall organized a patron trip to view “The Austin Art Scene” in April.) Some also come to see the future in places like the new library, a totally green Leed Platinum architectural wonder that is definitely not your mother’s library and even has a bar.
All those hungry visitors in addition to the two million plus residents translate to a wealth of customers for a happening restaurant scene. There’s still plenty of brew and ‘cue. But a cadre of creative chefs, makers and bakers, millers and distillers, urban farmers and food truckers are catapulting this live music capital into the gourmet stratosphere.
I’ll confess I came mostly to eat although I did take in the awesome Capitol building, do a two-step at the Broken Spoke, and barely resisted the temptation to buy cowboy boots at Allens on South Congress Avenue.
Locals swear the best barbecue is at Franklin’s where patrons even bring folding lawn chairs to wait in the two hour or so lines. I’m not that patient. Aaron Franklin recently partnered with Tyson Cole, who originally brought sushi to Austin, to open Loro, an Asian inflected smokehouse. There you can have smoked beef brisket marinated with Vietnamese nuoc nam sauce and while you’re at it some addictive candied kettle corn with burnt brisket ends. They also have some rockin’ sides like oak grilled snap peas with a kimchi emulsion and sweet corn fritters with a sriracha aioli. No lines yet.
Breakfast tacos are a thing here if you can picture scrambled eggs inside a tortilla. There’s a taco truck on every corner but locals will tell you Veracruz All Natural is the best. And, yes, there’s probably a line.
If you have a hankering for Mexican food in a fine dining setting, ATX Cocina is the spot. There chef Kevin Taylor insists on grinding the masa in house to make the freshest tortillas and he surprises customers with an over-the-top marinated beet salad topped with crisp shredded fried beets
Nearby at Emmer & Rye, chef Kevin Fink, an alum of both Noma and the French Laundry, is turning out what would be 3 star Michelin food if Michelin had come to Austin. He mills 15 different grains in house and has so many fermenting experiments percolating you wonder if he’s really a scientist. His signature cacio e pepe is based on a fermented tomato water sauce. Not precisely traditional Italian but says Fink, “That’s what’s great about working in America.”
On Eden East, an urban farm just three miles from the Capitol building, chef Sonya Cote turns out set menus in a magical setting that feels like country.
A short drive into Texas Hill country is worth the detour for the plethora of breweries and distilleries in Driftwood and the Tasting Room of Fall Creek Vineyards from Texas wine pioneers Susan and Ed Auler. If you haven’t heard of Sotol yet, you will soon. Desert Door’s modern rendition of ancient native firewater is poised to put any worries about a tequila shortage to rest. This potent spirit has a smoky taste similar to mescal and is made from Sotol, or Desert Spoon cactus, found in the Chihuahua desert. Nearby in Dripping Springs, at Barton Springs Mill, James Brown mills heirloom grains and is credited with changing Austin’s relationship with grain. His fresh, nutritional flours are used at Apis and Pizzeria Sorellina in nearby Spicewood to make the best pizzas this side of Italy.
Hotels are booming as well because all those visiting heads need beds. The latest addition to all the major brands is the 1,000-room Fairmont where chef Andre Natera turns out sublime soft scrambled eggs topped with summer truffles and a smoked brisket that rivals anything requiring you to stand in line
There are also some quirky boutique hotels like the San Jose, a repurposed motel, along South Congress Avenue that cater to those seeking a hipper vibe.
Has all this rapid growth caused a traffic problem? Yes. But you have a feeling all these young techie people will figure it out.