Eating my way through Austin

When I think of Austin, I think of BBQ and tacos, like all sane people should. And cowboy hats, because Texas. So you can imagine my excitement when I signed up to go to SXSW for my job: Networking, Learning AND TACOS?! Sold. Of course, Graham wanted to get in on the action so he came along for the trip sans SXSW badge. He was there for all the right reasons – to eat and drink.

Downtown Austin!

Downtown Austin from the bridge!

La Barbecue

In-between the stimulating intellectual conversations and panels, Graham and I embarked on a culinary adventure armed with ample recommendations and (somewhat) empty bellies. Our first stop on said tour? La Barbecue, as recommended by no less than 5 friends who have traveled to Austin before. I know, I know, everyone talks about Franklin’s, but I wasn’t about to wait in a 6-hour line when La Barbecue is just as good.

Your average line for BBQ in Austin

About an hour-long wait to get our delicious BBQ.

We ended up having to wait just over an hour to dive into the BEST BRISKET I have ever had. See, I like red meat, but when it comes to barbecue, brisket is probably the last thing I would order. But just watching the La Barbecue pit master slice into one of those super juicy hunks of crusty meat made my mouth water in anticipation. I’m shocked I didn’t burst into meat sweats post-devouring of said meat, but they would have absolutely been worth it.

Best brisket I've ever had without a doubt.

Best brisket I’ve ever had without a doubt.

The Odd Duck

Next was Odd Duck, a restaurant I heard a lot about from people and various reviews beforehand. The second we walked in, we felt at home. It had the same sort of atmosphere as one of our favorite restaurants in Decatur, Leon’s. All farm-to-table, super chill, and delicious drinks.

Love the atmosphere of Odd Duck

Love the atmosphere of Odd Duck

It’s a shared-plate kinda place, so we got a few smaller items and a big giant fish head to break into! I’m so pissed at myself because we didn’t get a picture of the fish head before slicing into it, causing incomprehensible carnage. But you know who DID take a picture? The awesome people at Austin ModHouse. Check out this beauty below. A little intimidating, but worth the work.

Red Snapper fish head at Odd Duck.

Red Snapper fish head at Odd Duck.

That was our clear favorite, but the sunchoke tots appetizer and crazy-inventive drinks were exceptional. We even came back a second time, for lunch instead of dinner. And lunch was freaking awesome, too. I got one of the best burgers I’ve had in a while, which involved pickled beet stems and a croissant-like bun. Drool-worthy, I tell you.

One of the best burgers I've ever had, at Odd Duck.

One of the best burgers I’ve ever had, at Odd Duck.

All the tacos

Austin has a LOT to be proud of when it comes to their food scene. The barbecue is nationally recognized and outstanding in a way that’s very different from Atlanta, but it’s all about the tacos for me. I had tacos for no less than 6 meals while there, 3 of them in a row, because tacos for breakfast are perfection. My first tacos were Korean-inspired from a food truck called Chi’lantro. They had a nice amount of heat and I really loved the heavy-handed cilantro on them. Pork was the clear winner over the chicken, and their fries were really good. They are famous for the Kimchi Fries, but I opted for the regular. Probably a mistake, but still great.

Chi'lantro tacos and fries

Chi’lantro tacos and fries

So what were my favorite tacos in all of Austin? Like all good Mexican food, it came from a little hole-in-the-wall that was very unassuming. El Taquito was just around the corner from our AirBNB, and I didn’t expect anything remarkable since it’s kind of a chain restaurant. Plus, of all the taco recommendations we had gotten from friends/family, it was not one of them. But omg they were delicious. Super authentic, great meat, a ton of salsas to choose from (which were all seasoned perfectly) and homemade corn tortillas. We ate here at least 3 times during our stay, one of which was a well-timed late-night stop. Look at these beauties. I mean, who puts a Chile Relleno in a TACO, let alone a Jalapeno Chile Relleno?! It was fantastic, as was the Chorizo. I quickly learned on this trip that I could eat Mexican food for nearly every meal and be totally fine with it.

Jalapeno Chili Relleno & Chorizo Tacos

Jalapeno Chili Relleno & Chorizo Tacos

Sway – Thai Restaurant

Another memorable stop on our adventure was Sway, a Thai restaurant mentioned by every single person we asked for recommendations. You can tell it’s a popular restaurant the second you arrive, with dozens of people sitting in the super-zen outdoor area. We sat at the bar expecting a long wait, but were seated only 15 minutes or so after arriving. Lucky us! Now we basically knew what we were going to order before even getting there, thanks to resident experts. We started with the Son-In-Law: braised pork shoulder with a crispy farm egg and chile oil. We were so excited (read: hungry) that I didn’t take pics, so thank you Do512 for these! It was gone within minutes, and was perfectly balanced. Plus, that EGG.

Son-In-Law

Son-In-Law

Onto the Jungle Curry – sweet baby jesus. We were warned that it’s a spicy dish, but we were sooooooo not prepared for what slid in front of us that Saturday night. A plate full of Texas wagyu beef, red chili, baby corn, eggplant, peppercorn, and the crucial coconut cream rendered us nearly kaput. It was one of the spiciest dishes I’ve actually continued to eat in my entire life. We went through probably 4 huge water bottles while powering through it, and asked for extra coconut cream to tame our poor tastebuds so we could punish them yet again. The problem (well, beauty) was that it was positively delicious. It had such a great balance of flavors, but the SPIIIIIIICE. Wow. My mouth winces in anticipation when I even think about it. But then again, I would recommend you get it if you happen to visit.

Crazy Jungle Curry

Crazy Jungle Curry

*Quick non-food-related side note* LOOK AT HOW CUTE THESE PUPPIES ARE!! Mophie, with a stroke of genius, had adorable Saint Bernard puppies running around, spreading joy and slobber all week long. Look at this brother and sister taking a little nap! I died.

Saint Bernard Puppies!

Saint Bernard Puppies!

Uchi

Ok back to food. Uchi is another restaurant I read a lot about before coming to Austin, and also heard a lot about from local residents. It’s a fabulous little sushi restaurant run by Tyson Cole, the 2011 James Beard Foundation Best Chef, Southwest award winner (that’s a mouthful). We were hesitant to go at first because of the price, but lo and behold they have a Happy Hour from 5-7p during the week! Our incredibly informative AirBNB hosts let us in on that little secret. The Happy Hour means you get a taste of a larger dish at a fraction of the price – which meant Graham and I could basically eat more than half of the menu.

All the fish

Sushi, fish, pork, oh my!

Honestly, I can’t even remember the names of half of what we ate, other than the fact that everything was uber fresh and expertly seasoned. The pork belly dish (pictured in the lower-right of the pic above) was remarkable, and the BROTH in each fish dish blew us away. Our incredible waiter went so far as to instruct us how to eat our Nigiri (upside down without soy sauce) so we would maximize the carefully-crafted flavors. Everything on each plate had a purpose, and worked together beautifully. For a barbecue and taco town, they sure know how to make some excellent sushi.

See ya later, Austin!

See ya later, Austin!

We made plenty of other stops along the way, but these were the clear highlights on our epicurean tour de Austin. There are way too many delicious food options to hit them all in one trip, but we sure did try! Next time, Gourdough’s is on the top of my list.

Welcome to the Kitchen Winch!

Oh hey there! As I write this post, Atlanta is under a massive winter weather advisory and I just returned from warm, sunny Florida, so I’m NOT into it. Which made me think of other vacations I desperately missed, and my heart started aching for the Amalfi Coast. I traveled to Positano, Ravello, and a host of other places in July 2012 with my family, friends and (somewhat new) boyfriend Graham. It was one of those trips I would do alllllll over again, exactly the same way. But the absolute highlight of the trip, and one of my most treasured life experiences, was an all-day cooking class at Mamma Agata’s Cooking School in Ravello.

Isn't she the cutest?!

Me and the incomparable Mamma Agata. Isn’t she the cutest?!

Mamma Agata is this adorable little 80-something-year-old who is the woman behind the famous name. Her daughter, Chiara, is the genius who decided to market her mother’s incredible cooking, and has turned her into a star. The 12 of us – a reeeal Motley Crue – barged into the idyllic estate where Mamma Agata and her family grow all of their produce, make their own wine, and host these day-long cooking classes.

Learning how to roll Eggplant Rolls with Chiara, Mamma Agata's daughter.

Learning how to roll Eggplant Rolls with Chiara, Mamma Agata’s daughter.

We piled into the kitchen, but not before having a slice of her infamous Lemon Cake. Mind you, it’s 10am. We all easily downed a piece of the cake and filed into the kitchen to start the day. First up was eggplant rolls. We fried the eggplant slices then rolled them up with such delicious treats as pumpkin, sun-dried tomatoes, provolone, etc. Oh and BASIL, alllll the fresh basil!!

Sooooo gooood

Sooooo gooood

They were delicious. And they weren’t even really a part of the massive meal we were preparing. At this point, I’m sure we all had glasses of wine. Mind you – probably 11am at this point. Yayyy vacation!

These lemons were freaking HUGE

These lemons were freaking HUGE

Side note: There were lemons all over the Agata property. HUGE lemons, the size of my head. We strolled around the estate for a while, tasting their homegrown treats and saying hi to the little bunnies, when we weren’t cooking up a storm.

Cheesy and delicious

Cheesy and delicious

For the first hour or so in the kitchen, we focused on the Eggplant Parmigiana. Holy hell, I had never made a real Eggplant Parm before this class. There were 3 different types of cheese, layers of deliciously crisp eggplant, and homemade sauce to top it all off. It was piled to the rim and overflowing with cheesy goodness that smelled like a gift from above. And again, the fresh basil was on point.

Mamma Agata's Lemon Chicken - one of my favorite go-to meals. Always a crowd pleaser!

Mamma Agata’s Lemon Chicken – one of my favorite go-to meals. Always a crowd pleaser!

But my favorite dish was a complete surprise. It was the last thing we made, and by the time it came to the table we were stuffed with 3 different types of pasta, drunk from drinking wine for 5 hours, and the thought of tearing into a chicken thigh sounded utterly unappetizing. Then it came out…and ohhh myyy gosh. It’s a fairly simple dish of SKIN-ON chicken thighs (and legs if you want, but I’m a thigh girl), garlic, sage, rosemary, wine, drizzled with lemon upon serving. Simple, but one of the most satisfying dishes that I make almost weekly ever since. It immediately transports me back to the crystal-clear waters, the sound of Chiara’s laugh bubbling throughout the house and kitchen, and an experience that forever taught me the importance of cooking good food, with the people you love.

Big pan 'o pasta

This is where they LIVE. Try to wrap your head around that.

This is where they LIVE. Try to wrap your head around that.

What I wouldn’t give to be back there right now!

This is Mamma Agata's famous lemon cake, which we were forced (begged) to have 2 slices each.

This is Mamma Agata’s famous lemon cake, which we were forced (begged) to have 2 slices each.