An oasis of funk and liberalism in an otherwise vast desert of flat, dry gulches on conservatism. Austin, known for its passion for live music venues, kick-ass cowboy boots and Stetson hats, bats that fly free from Congress bridge at sunset and amazing Tex-Mex cuisine, now has another quirky characteristic to brag about: cuisine fit for a Zagat’s guide being whipped up and served from road-side stalls and silver Airsteam campers parked on the side of the road.
In a recent trip to Austin with girlfriends, my first trip in over 20 years, I was delighted to discover that the best food was not hiding behind the doors of expensive, chic restaurants to be served by apron-clad waiters onto pristine white clothes. No, the best eats in Austin are in plain sight, popping up all over town in tiny kitchens no bigger than old-fashioned serving cars found on trains. Everywhere in the city, a hungry soul can locate a cheap and tasty treat, ordered through a window and eaten either standing up at a make-shift table or, if lucky, seated at a picnic table under the shade of a few compassionate trees or a generous umbrella.
Now for most people, myself included, the thought of ordering food via a service window conjures up images of greasy mediocrity and usually foods that I know will be bad for me (think Dairy Queen, Sonic, or any other fast food joints that blights the American landscape) and/or will possibly come back to haunt me later in the day. Not so in Austin. The food being dished out of these trailers and shacks is fine, fresh and pretty darn healthy cuisine. Fish tacos, served with tilapia or catfish humanely raised, tomato-chunky salsa, corn or flour tortillas, thrillingly green and creamy guacamole, crisp and tangy cilantro leaves, are what one can expect when ordering at a kiosk in Austin. If fish is not your thing, there are a multitude of other yummy delights like barbecued pork or beef, pan-seared or blackened chicken or a shrimp po-boy that puts Naw-leans to shame.
As a visitor to Austin and someone who resides in the hustle and bustle of the east coast, I was amazed to see so many inviting and unique “restaurants” where even a person on the strictest budget can afford to eat well. And to do so outdoors, under a sunny, blue sky in an environment free of attitude where even dogs and kids are welcome. An average meal at one of these serve-yourself kiosks averages $8.00 and most portions are so large that no one will walk away hungry.
On of the most famous of these Austin eateries is Torchy’s, a local business that has grown, so there are now several food stalls dotting the city. We stopped there for the famed fish tacos and large sweet teas, a much-needed respite from the day’s bike ride which can generate a Texas-sized rumble in the tummy. Torchy’s did not disappoint as the tacos where fresh and flavorful and my BBQ pork taco, smothered in slaw and salsa, was tangy and tasty; however, for our crew, the place that won our hearts (and stomachs) was Turf and Surf, a boxcar that wants to be a surf shack, bedecked in lights and hand painted signs and other paraphernalia of quirkiness, that is stationed on Congress Street. We ate there several times, coming back for the huge and insanely delicious tacos that just had that extra something…
Maybe is was the portions, as the chunks of fish or chicken were as big as a grown man’s thumb or maybe it was the slaw and zippy cilantro sauce thrown on top of the impossible-to-eat-with-your-fingers-and-stay-clean tacos, but this venue had us hooked. The food was consistently superior and the owner, a man who looked like he might have once surfed the California coast or travelled with the Dead, was welcoming and eager to please. He chatted with us and wanted feedback on his cooking. We assured him his culinary talents were not going to waste on us. In gratitude to our happy taste buds, he sent us an order of freshly fried shrimp pieces that were burn-your-mouth good.
Yes, Austin is a town know for music and doing everything big. But what many might not be so well know is the best way to experience the true culinary sensations of this spicy and rebellious city. Visit the small eateries….Look for the food stalls, stop by a trailer, pull over if you see an Airstream parked on the side of the road, a smattering of picnic tables scattered in the front. Here you will most likely find incredible food that will place you in the heart of Texas and make you feel like a local in Austin. From Tex-Mex, to BBQ, to Indian or even heavenly cupcakes that are so sweet and moist you might keel over with sugar-induced delirium, the tiny, individual food stands offer big satisfaction.