In Austin, the Lines Between Texas Classics are Blurring and it’s Fantastic

Don't worry, there's still incredible brisket everywhere

Big things are happening in Austin’s rapidly-evolving food scene. The dividing lines between once-separate classics are blurring and the result is a new wave of foods, fascinating flavor combinations, and one-of-a-kind (for now) creations. As Austin has exploded in popularity and population, it has become one of the most interesting places to eat in America.

IMG_0556.JPG

Nearly every city claims to be changing, but few can make a better case than Austin, Texas. By one measure, it ranked as the American city to have changed the most in the past ten years, and while the city and its residents wrestle with the changes, the food scene, led by a collaborative roster of star chefs, is thriving. Through it all, the foods familiar to locals and visitors remain — excellent and inexpensive taco trucks and world-famous barbecue joints.

But a food lover’s trip through Austin requires much more than just tacos and barbecue.

In recent years I’ve made it a point to get to Austin at least once a year, but I decided to make two trips in 2017. The pace of change there demands it and since I began making regular visits, it has grown as a food destination as much as any city in the country.

Almost every meal in Austin feels like a backyard party and no city does outdoor dining better — whether it’s a food truck, a beer garden on Rainey Street, modern newcomers like Launderette, or staples like Easy Tiger or ranch-to-table Contigo. Wherever you choose to dine, places in Austin tend to embrace the culture and diversity of the city and play to its strengths — good weather, a commitment to art and music, a relaxed vibe, tacos, kolaches, and smoked meats.

On recent visits I’ve noticed that Austin’s classic local foods are increasingly being served together, or even in entirely new ways. The city’s omnipresent smoked brisket is landing on more breakfast menus and seamlessly joining other cuisines.

Brisket meets Japanese food to make incredible ramen

It’s easy to be immediately skeptical of Kemuri Tatsu-Ya.

You start by entering a dark restaurant with low ceilings and glowing red lights reminiscent of a dive bar. Once seated, you search a menu with cartoonish fonts, choose from a list of appetizers labeled “Munchies,” and order quirky cocktails like the Matcha Pain Killer and the Puff Puff Pass.

IMG_9925.JPG

Scan further down your menu and you start to find distinctly Texan twists — octopus fritters topped with chili, cheddar, and smoked jalapeños and a tuna, wasabi, and avocado offering called Guaca-poke.

And if you’re not sufficiently skeptical yet, your cocktail arrives at your table, served inside of a ceramic cat, complete with a candy cane striped straw.

And while this may all sound absurd, it actually works. It works so well, in fact, that Bon Appétit named Kemuri Tatsu-ya the no. 8 best new restaurant in America in 2017. It’s also been named the best new restaurant in the city by the Austin Chronicle, Eater Austin’s best new restaurant of the year, and Austin Monthly’s best new restaurant of 2017.

The Texas Ramen, in particular, is among the best things I ate in 2017. It is very much a Japanese dish, containing traditional ramen noodles, a jammy egg, scallions, bamboo, and nori (seaweed). But it’s all situated in a brilliant beef broth with deep Texan flavors and a slice of house-smoked brisket that would make any pit master proud.

Other barbecue innovations

Brisket ramen isn’t the only noteworthy barbecue innovation.

Brisket is also being seamlessly integrated into another Texas tradition — kolaches. If you’re unfamiliar with kolaches, you’re not alone.

IMG_9883.JPG

For reasons that I’ll never understand, kolaches don’t have much traction outside of the Lone Star state. They’re a pastry with Czech origins, introduced to the state by immigrants more than 100 years ago (Saveur Magazine has a fun story on the history of kolaches here). They’ve evolved throughout their time in Texas, and today you’ll find them with a variety of sweet and savory toppings or fillings.

On a quiet stretch of E Cesar Chavez Blvd in East Austin sits Kerlin BBQ, a trailer that serves up some of Austin’s best smoked meats Thursday through Sunday. The menu is what you’d expect — brisket, pork ribs, pork shoulder, and links, along with some creative twists on side dishes like blue cheese slaw and smoked corn on the cob with chipotle butter.

But Kerlin’s separate kolache trailer, which opens the window at 9am Friday through Sunday, is something you should seek out.

Frankly, Kerlin could cut corners by using only leftovers that have begun to dry up. Instead, they smoke meat specifically for kolaches, offering a brisket and cheddar option that is peak Texas and landed on the list of the best things I ate in December. And if you’re looking for a taste of something lighter at breakfast, there are other creative combinations including some that are entirely vegetarian.

More breakfast brisket, tacos, bagels, and even cookies

Barbecue is finding its way into just about everything in Austin. Valentina’s Tex-Mex Barbecue in South Austin is smoking killer brisket for their tacos — served on fresh flour tortillas. And while they aren’t the first to do it, they’re doing it at a much higher level than the average fast food breakfast taco or food truck.

Barbecue legend Aaron Franklin even calls it “the finest mesquite brisket” he’s ever had in this Chef’s Feed video (They use Post Oak in their smokers at Franklin Barbecue).

Also in South Austin, LeRoy and Lewis barbecue is smoking brisket Texas-style, but veering outside of traditional ingredient lanes for much of their menu. Recent offerings have included beef cheeks, quail, pork belly, smoked beet barbecue sauce, and even a brisket chocolate chip cookie.

On my visit to LeRoy and Lewis — self-described New School barbecue — in May of 2017, I had a sweet potato salad with fresh rosemary alongside my brisket. Like everything on the LeRoy and Lewis menu, it resembled traditional barbecue, but incorporated new and interesting twists.

Their creative offerings don’t just come from their own shop, though. Earlier this month, they partnered with Rosen’s Bagel Company to offer chopped brisket schmear.

Beyond brisket

Not everything in Austin revolves around barbecue. As Austin’s skyline changes with new hotels, office buildings, and condos, modern restaurants are opening and thriving.

Emmer & Rye on Rainey Street may be serving dim sum style dishes, but you won’t find Chinese dumplings. Instead, chef Kevin Fink, recognized as a top new chef in America by Food & Wine in 2016, is milling a variety of grains in-house. Diners order off of a set menu, but are advised to save room for the roaming dim sum carts that roll through the restaurant to supplement the meal with pleasant surprises and stunning small plates.

The format allows for tremendous creativity and constant stimulation for foodies. As carts approach every few minutes, knowledgeable servers explain the dishes. It’s a more upscale experience than most Austin destinations, but constant activity, a buzz of conversation, and the playfulness of dim sum helps it maintain a casual Austin vibe.

I enjoyed a phenomenal meal there in 2016. The menu is constantly changing, but if you spot a dish of pork raghu and pasta made from the farro grain, order it.

Eating your way through Austin

You could go to Austin and eat well at taco trucks and a few barbecue joints with lines out the door. And in previous years, that’s exactly what you should have done.

But now, creative mash-ups are required eating for a true Austin experience.

Is the inclusion of brisket in so many dishes bordering on ridiculous? Maybe. But when you do something better than any other place on the planet, you might as well go all in.

Brisket or otherwise, I can’t wait to get back to Austin for a taste of whatever they come up with next.