Most of my favorite American cities are those that take their food seriously. Quite often, a locale with a vibrant arts scene also plays host to innumerable great restaurants and bars. This is why I love visiting Portland but would never wish a trip to Houston upon anyone. Yet, a few hours to the west of that bland sprawl in Texas’ Gulf Coast sits a town that rivals any when it comes to arts, culture, and food. I had the pleasure of visiting Austin this weekend with my girlfriend Victoria for a quick getaway and spent 48 hours in gastronomic and zymurgical bliss.
We flew in late Friday night, with just enough time to check out Sixth Street, the bar destination of poor college kids, working adults, and tourists alike. The bars lining both sides of street, nearly all of which were leaking live music out of their doors and into my ears, were full to the brim and the closed-off street was bursting with people as well. It was actually a bit too overwhelming and we were tired from the flight so we decided to turn in early to enjoy a full day on Saturday.
The following morning began with a trip to JuiceLand, a small chain of juice bars peppered throughout Austin (and one location in Brooklyn). After a strawberry-banana-peanut butter-chia seed-apple juice smoothie there and an hour wandering around the giant, flagship Whole Foods in the center of town, Victoria and I headed west with our friends who were visiting from Dallas. Fifteen miles down the highway, houses become scarce, trees become abundant, and the ranches of hill country reveal themselves. Out this way lies the best one-two punch of beer and pizza I have experienced in America so far: Jester King Brewery and Pieous pizza.
My first encounter with Jester King was about four years ago when their beers still made it out to California regularly. I picked up a 750ml bottle because of its artwork and name: Black Metal Imperial Stout. It was (and still is) badass. A year later, Jester King had changed their recipe for this beast of a beer by fermenting it with yeasts native to the ranch the brewery sits on instead of pre-packaged cultures from White Labs or Wyeast. Just after this change took place, I visited Austin and happened to meet the owner of the brewery, Jeffrey Stuffings, who graciously gave me a tour the following day. Jeffrey capped the experience by opening a bottle of a raspberry sour beer called Atrial Rubicite, which instantly blew any framboise or other raspberry beer I’d ever had completely out of the water. It was extremely sour, yes, but what I couldn’t comprehend was how fresh the raspberries tasted. After sitting for months in a barrel and a few weeks or more in a bottle, it seemed like the fruit had just come off the bush.
Fast-forward a couple years and Atrial Rubicite is one of the most sought after beers in the world. Any beer trading forum you view will have at least one post (if not many) with the title “ISO: Atrial; FT: You Name It”. ISO is beer trading shorthand for “in search of” and FT signifies what the poster has “for trade.” People love Atrial Rubicite. And luckily enough, of all the weekends I picked to go to Texas, July 24-26 was the one that the brewery decided to release this year’s batch of their sour nectar. Needless to say, it was packed. My previous visit saw five cars in the parking lot and this one saw north of 500. The line for bottles of Atrial Rubicite was about three hours long. Did I mention it was 95 degrees outside? It’s an outstanding beer, but I wasn’t going to risk heat stroke, a terrible sunburn, and my precious time on a short trip for 500ml for a beer I’ve had before. Yes, it would be an outstanding addition to my cellar but I was happy enough with enjoying it fresh from the tap on that sunny Saturday.
The beer pours a beautiful rosy pink color, with a white head of foam that dissipates fairly quickly. From five feet away you can smell the fresh Washington raspberry aroma volatizing and finding its way into the pleasure centers of your brain. The taste is quite tart, though slightly less sour than previous batches, with raspberries front and center. I detected a bit of acetic acid (vinegar) and a tinge of oak, but to a far less extent than the berries. The beer warmed up quickly, given the temperature outside, but it retained all of its desirable characteristics even as it passed 75 degrees. Victoria loved the beer, as did my other two friends, one of whom was a wine drinker skeptical about trying it. After purchasing enough bottles to fill my suitcase, we departed with rumbling stomachs clamoring for pizza.
Okay, maybe they weren’t clamoring for pizza, but we were hungry and I was keen on introducing my three companions to Pieous, home to some of the most authentic Neapolitan pizza I’ve had this side of the Atlantic Ocean. We arrived in the wake of other beer enthusiasts who had made the three-mile trek to Pieous, despite the existence of a perfectly fine pizza establishment on the same parcel of ranch that Jester King inhabits. Evidently they also were in the know. I ordered one of the most popular pizzas, the Fat Queen, which is topped with pepperoni, sopressata, and Italian sausage. Normally, a pie that loaded with meat would be a greasy, salty mess with a jumble of flavors that become difficult to differentiate—not here. The spiciness of the sopressata heightened rather than masked the fennel flavor of the house-made sausage and made the savory notes of the pepperoni more pronounced. The sweetness from the crushed tomatoes did not detract from the subtle sweetness of the fresh mozzarella and the bed of sourdough crust that the ingredients all sat upon was perfectly cooked, with bubbles that had blackened beautifully and an edge that was delightfully chewy.
As if this were not enough (and it certainly was), I insisted that we also split a pastrami plate. When the owners took over the space two and a half years ago, there was an old, high-quality smoker that they could not get rid of, no matter how unrelated it was to their idea of perfect Neapolitan pizza. Keeping it in the restaurant proved to be a brilliant move, because the pastrami they make in it is some of the best I’ve ever had. It has black crust on the exterior, but comes thinly sliced and ready to melt in your mouth instantly, like a hybrid of a smoked brisket and pride of a Jewish deli. The platter it came on also had pickled onions, two types of mustard, sourdough bread, and a pickle. All of these were quite tasty but after trying a bit of each, I decided to eat the pastrami all by itself and I’m sure I made the right call.
After a lazy afternoon spent napping and digesting, we all met up with friends, old and new, on Rainey Street—the de facto row for gastropubs, hip restaurants, and new condos. Our first stop was Clive Bar, which seemed (not unlike other bars on the block) to have been converted from a bungalow-style house into a bar with a large outdoor patio. At the back corner of the patio was a small building which looked like a small church from the old West, but it served mescal instead of the good word. On a warm Austin night, it was the perfect place to throw back a mescal mule, chat with friends, and soak in the ambience of the coolest city in Texas.
To finish the night, I brought as many people as would listen to me down the street to Craft Pride, a bar that only serves craft beer brewed in the Lone Star State. I had a few fine offerings, but none compared to the Yellow Rose IPA from Lone Pint Brewery. I had heard about this beer, forgotten about it, and ordered it after far too much deliberation looking at the big board. It had a fine citrusy aroma and extremely clean taste full of grapefruit, pear, and honey. I sought it out the next day at a bottle shop to no avail, but will soon be asking a friend in Texas to ship bottles my way.
I could hardly believe how much great food and drink we had packed into a single, scorching day in the heart of Texas, but we pulled it off and went to sleep happy. Our second and final day in Austin was much more relaxed and involved a homemade breakfast of chicken and waffles, a trip to the Barton Springs creek, and Victoria’s first experience with queso—the dip that epitomizes Tex-Mex cuisine. Two days was not nearly enough time to explore everything Austin has to offer. With hundreds of great local restaurants and innumerable food trailers, the capital of Texas has a rich food culture, which I fully intend to explore on repeat visits.
What’s your favorite part of Austin? Where should I eat on my next trip (other than Franklin BBQ, because, obviously)?