After nearly a year without venturing outside the loop, I finally got out of town for a brief weekend. I toyed with going to Marfa, but I'm not yet Texan enough to drive eight hours for a weekend getaway, so I chose Austin, as much for its culinary diversity as its proximity.
I'm still trying to decide if the very act of taking a vacation heightens the senses and makes every experience seem more Technicolor than it might at home, but for now I'm ready to say that these dishes were more than worth the drive.
While it's really easy to drop some serious coin at Uchi, winner of last year's James Beard award for best chef Southwest, you can get in and out of here modestly if you practice a little caution. Happy hour (5 to 6:30 p.m.) offers a decent selection of plates available during regular dinner service, at a fraction of the cost. Good luck remaining disciplined with plates like this lemon gelato (pictured above) up for grabs on the full-price menu, though. Perched on a pistachio crumble, with extra pistachios thrown in for good measure and a beet puree, this dessert reminded me of a deconstructed lemon pie.
This pork was no joke. It had a strong citrus flavor and used so much annatto seed it was a deep, rich, brown color. Cabbage, pickled red onion and pickled jalapeño rounded out a taco I'd give anything to have a little closer to home.
Downtown on East 6th Street, Easy Tiger combines a top-notch bakery with a beer garden. After the second day of eating, this pretzel was the only thing I could fit into my bloated body, but I watched other plates go by that made me salivate. That sauerkraut is made in-house, and they corn their own beef for sandwiches too. It's a crime there is no Reuben on the menu.
A long wait at Barley Swine had me looking for a place nearby to relax with a drink. Henri, a wine bar next door, fit the bill and plated up a chicken liver pate tinged with lavender and sweetened with honey. Keep your eyes out for Pâté Letelier if you're scanning any Austin menus. Something tells me the boutique's spreadable meats will be featured in more restaurants soon.
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Barley Swine boasts some innovative plates that were more than worth the wait. I came for the chicken fried pig face, a crusty riff on head cheese, that was a bit of a let down, but left smitten with this simple salad accented with a port wine foam.
If you find yourself waiting a long time for a table at Barley Swine, or need a casual drink after eating pig face, head to the The Horseshoe Lounge in the same plaza. Sit at the bar. Order a Budweiser (trust me) and ask Dixie to tell you the story of her hunt for the king of beers in Tibet. You won't be sorry.