Photo: Douglas Merriam
For Austin, geography is destiny. The texas town's famous South by Southwest music festival takes its name from its location: To the east lies the rich farmland and green cotton fields that make the state part of the Old South. To the west, the rocky Hill Country and ranching culture of the Southwest begins. This is where catfish and corn bread meet steak and tacos—all given a creative, modern spin in a city whose unofficial motto is "Keep Austin Weird."
The locavore movement is strong here—no surprise in a liberal-leaning university town. (The University of Texas swells Austin's population by 50,000.) It keeps many nearby organic farms, meat-raising operations, and artisan cheese makers in brisk business. Founded in 1976, the Wheatsville Co-op (512-478-2667) has 8,000 member-owners. Whole Foods—now the world's largest retailer of organic products, with 270 stores—was founded here in 1980 when two smaller health-food stores merged. Its corporate headquarters (and 80,000-square-foot flagship store/foodie paradise) is still located in Austin. Central Market (512-206-1000) rounds out the food-mecca triumvirate with its original location on North Lamar (it's since expanded to seven other Texas outposts), featuring a fun blend of gourmet local ingredients, cooking classes, and live music.
"Stores like these educate the customer, which allows local chefs to be more adventurous with the ingredients and dishes they serve," says David Garrido, whose hip taqueria, Garrido's (512-320-8226), serves Nuevo Tex-Mex creations like oyster tostadas, crab-filled guacamole, and steak, lobster, or fish tacos that come on freshly made corn tortillas. A tortilla machine in the kitchen cranks out the pliant little corn discs all day long. The restaurant is also famous for its dirty margaritas, made with a surprisingly delicious splash of olive brine. "Austin is a young city with a huge influence from the university," Garrido says. "People who live here are very outdoor-oriented—but they're equally passionate about quality food."
Along with Tex-Mex, barbecue and Southern cooking are the bedrocks of Austin's cuisine. At Ruby's BBQ (512-477-1651), you'll find organic barbecue—meltingly tender smoked brisket made from grass-fed, hormone-free beef. And if you thought that Southern cooking was all about chicken-fried steak, then you haven't sampled Austin's upscale version, which includes chicken-fried local venison at Mesa Ranch (512-853-9480). Wash it down with a glass of Shiner Bock beer, a regional favorite with a fierce following.
Folks may take local food seriously down here, but one decidedly nonnative import has made an impact: grapes. Texans' experiments with European wine grapes date back to the 1800s, perhaps inspired by the similarity between the baked limestone landscape of the Texas Hill Country surrounding Austin and parts of the Mediterranean. Today, hot-weather grapes like viognier and sangiovese are being used to make award-winning wines, and Texas has become America's fifth-largest wine-producing state. The nearly 30 wineries that dot the hillsides surrounding Austin are well worth a Napa-like driving tour, but if you're sticking close to town, stop in at the Whip In (512-442-5337), a funky South Austin market (slogan: "Namaste and howdy, y'all") with an eclectic selection of wines and beers from Texas and beyond.
In the past two years, Mediterranean cooking also has begun to shape the city's restaurant scene. The so-called Texas-Tuscan or Mex-Italian restaurant trend was pioneered by chefs like Alan Lazarus at Vespaio (512-441-7672), who butchers locally raised lambs and pigs to make spicy Texas-Italian sausages and salumi, and gives staples like grilled prosciutto-wrapped shrimp a south-of-the-border update by pairing with a fiery-sweet red chile pesto.
BREAKFAST: Hoover's Cooking
On weekend mornings, the place to go for a nostalgic Southern breakfast is Hoover's Cooking. If you ask politely, Hoover will make you "Eggs Blindfolded," a Southern short-order cook's version of poached eggs. The eggs are dropped on a hot griddle and then covered with a couple of pieces of ice and a lid. The sizzling ice makes for a delightful half-fried, half-poached egg. Try one on a scoop of hearty garlic cheddar grits.
"People in Austin love tacos, but they want them to be healthy," says David Garrido of Garrido's. His top seller is a taco with grilled fish on a bed of lettuce and tomatoes with a topping of aioli or salsa and bacon.
The locavore trend meets the "nose to tail" movement (the idea of using as much of the animal as possible) at Olivia. Chef James Holmes is receiving acclaim for a menu that includes Southern and Southwestern offal dishes like lamb hearts with green chile salsa and foie gras grits. In late winter, look for a hearty dish of risotto made with organic beets topped with a Texas grass-fed flatiron steak sprinkled with crumbled local "Pure Luck" blue cheese.
Go there: Olivia, 512-804-2700
Make it at home: Grilled Flatiron Steaks with Kale and Beet Risotto recipe