When I went to Nashville in November, I had never seriously thought of living anywhere outside of Seattle, but something inside me switched once I experienced the southern charm, the heat, and the idea of new adventures. In the same conversation, I mentioned Austin as I had never heard a single person be anything but genuinely IN LOVE with it. After more than a few coincidences and many a sign from God, the city really did call me. Killing two birds with one stone, I planned a long overdue mother-daughter trip on the same weekend as one of the best festivals in the country, the Austin Food and Wine Festival (because we women like our food and wine)!
Sponsored by FOOD & WINE, this 8th annual festival goes above and beyond to bring the top talent, tastes, and culinary entertainment in the Austin arena with industry influencers like Andrew Zimmern, Nancy Silverton, Aaron Sanchez, and Jonathan Waxman, to local stars like Michael Fojtasek, Kristen Kish, Jason Dady, Eric Silverstein. The list goes on. Beyond incredible chef demos, tasting sessions, a beautiful 5-course feast made by top chefs, an expert grilling masterclass, and oh yeah, AMAZING food, the Austin Food and Wine Festival also supports the non-profit Austin Food & Wine Alliance, which is dedicated to fostering awareness and innovation in the Central Texas culinary community through grants, educational programming and events.
Two days of an insane amount of food and wine, meeting people from all over the country, book signings and booths representing the best of Texas gastronomy plus meeting some of my culinary idols, this festival encapsulated all the facets of Austin’s burgeoning, bountiful, and bold food and wine scene.
As the sun set on the first day’s activities, the big event was Saturday evening’s Rock Your Taco Celebrity Chef Showdown where the city and country’s top chefs competed in a taco-making competition to see who made the best taco with their own personal twist. All in the name of press, I consumed a record-breaking amount of tacos (16 tacos in 1.2 hours to be exact for a grand total of 23 over 24 hours), and as pictured above, every taco was without a doubt devour-some.
I won’t go into extreme detail because then I would have sixteen paragraphs solely about tacos, but of all the tacos I had, I would have to say my top were Chris Sheperd’s and Nick Wong’s of Underbelly Hospitality who made a pork belly taco with crispy rice and nam jim sauce and Jason Dady’s duck confit with pineapple jam and lime crema. Shoutout to Chef Tiffany Faison for what I’m sure was the longest line for her brown butter lobster taco (drool) and Chef Tatsu Aikawa and Chef Takuya Matsumoto for their unique, out-of-the-box smoked beef cheek with chicharron taco. At the end of the night, the grand prize in my eyes goes to Chef Fermín Nuñez, who made short rib carnitas with salsa, frita, avocado and cotija, all the makings of an A+ taco that elicited an F-bomb of enjoyment.
Not only did I get to eat tacos made by the most talented of chefs, but I also got the chance to chat with some of them about the intersection of food and travel and their connection to the culinary scene in Austin.
Evan Leroy, Chef & Pitmaster, Leroy & Lewis
Among Leroy’s many accolades including being named one of Zagat’s 30 Under 30 rising stars in the Austin culinary scene in 2014 and “Austin Grill Master” on the Travel Channel’s American Grilled Texas episode, Evan takes a unique approach to smoked meats by incorporating fine-dining and local, seasonal elements along with both traditional and alternative cuts that has landed him as a top tier barbecue chef, both in Austin and around the country.
S: You mentioned you learned to cook from your dad. Who does a better BBQ, you or your dad?
E: I cook better than my dad. He introduced me into it, but I do it better.
S: One of the things Austin is known for is BBQ. What makes Leroy & Lewis stand out in the BBQ scene?
E: I believe we are the only Texan BBQ that does a whole hog; shoulders, hindquarters and legs. We also use all the parts of lesser known animals.
S: When we travel, food inevitably becomes one of our prime fascinations and pathways into a place. Is there anywhere you haven’t gone, but would like to?
E: I’ve traveled to Australia and Russia, but there are still so many places. I would love to travel South America for the beef and the grilling culture in places like Brazil, Chile and Argentina.
S: As a pitmaster, what’s one “chef trick” for a novice wanting to perfect their grilling skills?
E: If I could say one thing, is that seasoning is more important than cooking. We focus a lot on the right seasoning which if you don’t have the right seasoning, it changes everything.
S: As a travel blogger, I’ve come to learn the indisputable relationship between travel and food, and how much travel affects one’s cooking. How has travel influenced your cooking?
E: Travel and food…it’s a direct line. When I go to places, wherever it is, I think about ‘how can we view this culture through the lens of BBQ’ and am constantly learning from travel. They go hand-in-hand.
Daniel Brooks, Chef & Owner, Licha’s Cantina
Growing up in Mexico City, Daniel moved to Austin in 2004 which is where he planted and named Licha’s Cantina after his own mother, Alicia “Licha” Rivera. Brooks’ upbringing is reflected in the tastes of the central Mexico dishes and all types of masa vessels that grace this menu. Known as “El Chingon”, this East Austin establishment pays homage to the feeling of being home in Mexico City.
S: Having lived in multiple parts of Texas, what makes Austin different/special?
D: You know, Austin is soooo diverse. You have your Tex-Mex, your fusion Mexican, Mexican influence from New Mexican, your traditional and authentic Mexican food, Mexican food from different regions. They all tell a story and at Licha’s, our purpose and focus is to bring true, authentic Mexican soul food from the heart of Mexico City.
S: What is the food that you would call your labor of love….difficult or exhaustive to cook but worth the effort?
D: All of our masa products- blue corn tortillas, sopecitos, tylacoyos, everything we do including our masa products, are fresh and handmade daily. Though labor intensive, there is no other way, it truly makes the difference in taste and flavor.
S: If I were to send you to a country to learn more about their indigenous dishes, where would it be?
D: A place I haven’t been to and would like to go to is Asia.
S: If you were characterized in a taco, what kind of taco would it be?
D: An alambre taco- it’s like the Mexican Philly cheese steak! The beef, the bacon, the cheese…
Fermín Nuñez, Executive Chef, Suerte
Raised in Northern Mexico, reknowned Chef Fermín previously assisted chefs at the top restaurants in Austin and then opened Suerte in 2018, which serves sophisticated Mexican with a local twist. It has quickly jumped to the top of Austin’s best new restaurants so you can imagine my surprise when I asked if it was his first time at the festival and his response was ‘yes’, as they have only been open for a shocking one year. As the weekend at the festival flew by, I ended up interviewing him during a trip to Mexico.
S: I hear you’re in Mexico right now. What’re you doing there?
F: I’m actually taking a mini retreat to visit my mom in Southern California. I have a layover in Mexico City so I am planning on eating a lot and then going to visit her.
S: So fun! I have to ask now, what is your favorite restaurant/where will you be eating in Mexico City?
I love having lunch at Rosetta, it’s in an old house and they make Italian food with Mexican ingredients. It makes sense, but not in a fusion way and I go there as much as I can.
S: As I travel, I continually learn more about how cultural and geographic factors surround what’s on our plate. We grow up eating the food of our cultures. Growing up, what was your relationship to food and how has food played a role in your life?
F: Growing up in Mexico, there was not a McDonald’s around. You can eat with dignity for not a lot of money, but a lot of flavor. Cooking in Mexican homes, food is always the center of family. I never really appreciated it until I went to college which is where I became interested in food and how to make it.
S: You mentioned previously that you have traveled a bit of the world.* How has travel had an impact/influenced your culinary expertise?
F: Travel is the best investment you can do in yourself. If you don’t enjoy it, it means nothing, not only for cooking, but as a person. I’m always curious what a Tuesday is like in other parts of the world; Tuesday in Austin, Friday in Oaxaca. When I travel and taste, I never go to a place and try to recreate, I try to get inspired. When we make a mole wherever it’s from, that mole is made with Austin ingredients, it’s true to where you are in that moment.
S: If I were to send you to a country to learn more about their indigenous dishes, where would it be?
F: I really want to go to Israel. I like food that has a lot of layering of flavors and want to learn more. Also if you’re paying for the trip! (Side note: I am planning our trip to Israel)
S: You’ve already accomplished so much, is there anything else you hope to achieve in your culinary — or non-culinary— life?
F: Making sure I am myself and doing a good job, that would make me happy. To take better care of others; if what got me to where I am right now becomes something I don’t take care of, that means I am not doing my job.
S: What is one thing you want people to know about your cooking?
F: Every time I cook, I hope that when someone tries some of the food, they taste the heart and soul that are in it. The person seeding something he’s done one hundred times, you take the care and soul into it. It’s the saying ‘Show me, don’t tell me’.
S: If you were a taco, what kind of taco would you be?
F: If I were a taco… I can’t be one taco! Though if I imagine myself as a taco, it would be similar to the one you had at the festival, a confit short rib mixed with confit pig’s ear (it makes it have a nice chew), good medium spicy red salsa, lots of lime, garden cilantro and onions.
*Editor’s note: After graduating culinary school in his early 20’s, Fermín was working in San Antonio when a friend was going to Europe so he went to Amsterdam for spring break and then backpacked through Europe.
Full heart and fuller belly, the Austin Food and Wine Festival is an event I absolutely recommend for anyone visiting Austin. My favorite quote from the weekend was from one my favorite chefs Aarón Sanchez (who apart from being an award-winning chef, also started a foundation to support Latinos both in and out of the kitchen, advocates on behalf of women as he was raised by all women, and is even sweeter in person which makes me love him EVEN MORE) who left me inspired to do and be more around the people that see and create food as a community and culture.
Food extravaganza not your cup of wine? If you are by misfortune not able to make it to the Austin Food & Wine Festival or just have an extra day to spare, I’ve gone ahead and made mini day guides for you to enjoy Austin your way!
The New Classic Tourist
Did you even go to Austin if you didn’t have BBQ? Austin is hailed for its BBQ and rightly so, as you will never run dry or sauceless. Classic, James Beard award-winning Franklin’s Barbeque has the crazy line and crazy fans to prove it’s one of the best BBQ joints in town, though there’s a whole slew of other BBQ places like Leroy & Lewis and Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ that get that good grill.
After the classic BBQ, another main tourist attraction in Austin is watching bats. That’s right, I said BATS. At first I wasn’t sure what the hype about bats was and always thought bats were kinda gross, but once I found out they ate mosquitos which I absolutely DESPISE, I decided to bats are acceptable. In short, tourists and even locals line Congress Ave Bridge every night around dusk to watch over a million bats fly out for the night. The showing lasts for about ten minutes, enough to get photos, videos, and watch it in person, and you can find your perfect spot for how to experience the bat-watching.
The Diner & Drinker:
Austin is a diner’s dream and through extensive research cross-referenced with recommendations had Barley & Swine, Suerte, Odd Duck, Bufalina, La Condesa, Olamaie, Ramen Tatsu-ya, Uchi, and Emmer and Rye as some musts on my list; the latter of the two we were able to fit in prior and post-festival. Coming from Seattle, it felt like a sin to go to a sushi restaurant in the land of tacos and BBQ, but our first dinner at Chef Tyson Cole’s Uchi was the eighth deadly sin worth committing. Yes, the delicate hirame uzukuri (olive flounder) with candied quinoa and olive oil, buttery walu walu (oak-grilled escolar) with yuzupon, candied citrus, and myoga, and kinoko nabe mushroom dish with crispy, savory koshihikari rice were melt-in-my-mouth-make-me-cry dishes, though what I will forever tear up over is the dessert because whoever created honey brioche toast with crunchy cashew butter, cashew praline and honey ice cream should truly be called ‘Master’.
On Sunday we had a phenomenal dinner at Emmer & Rye. Beyond the kind, friendly service and fun small plates that are carted around the room dim sum style, was the incredible care they take in sourcing which is executed beautifully in seasonal dishes with the highest quality ingredients. Everything from milling heritage grains to an in-house fermentation program to employing foragers to go out into Texas wildlife and bring back the best vegetables is transformed into standout bites like chicken liver pate, shrimp with charcoal butter, buckwheat garganelli with fava beans, and an egg custard with dewberry that still has Mom talking about it days later.
After dinner, time to hit the town! One of the many things I have come to love about Austin is that so much of day-to-day life is outside… including nightlife! The two main nightlife streets are Rainey Street and Sixth Street. Sixth Street is an exciting, entertaining, chaotic street that is both Austin’s coiner for the “Live Music Capital of the World” and what locals refer to as the Dirty Sixth. Whether you have a drink at the haunted Driskill Hotel or listen to some live music at Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar, you’ll be sure to have find fun on Sixth. On Rainey Street, you’ll find happening nightspots like Container Bar or Half Step for drinks and/or live music that goes on into the wee hours of the Austin morning.
Easy Like Sunday Morning:
Start your morning with a coffee at Houndstooth, Caffe Medici, or Cuvée Coffee. No matter where I am, I’ll always be a sucker for farmer’s markets and if you happen to be in Austin on a weekend, especially on a Sunday, be sure to check out the largest one which is the Texas Farmers’ Market at Mueller.
This day in age, it seems as though one cannot say they enjoyed the weekend without brunch. Despite the unpopular opinion of brunch being my least favorite meal, Austin could easily change my mind. While I was unable to try all of these due to the Austin Food & Wine Festival, on my brunch list was Launderette (it also makes for a fantastic dinner!), Josephine House, Arlo Grey, Le Politique. If you go to brunch at Cafe No Se like we did, which by the way their homemade hummus is out of this world, that means you’ll already be in the midst of one of the best shopping areas; South Congress.
Also known as SOCO, South Congress Ave is lined with both brand name and local boutiques with vintages finds, the perfect follow up for brunch. You can find anything from clever Texan-made oddities at Parts and Labour to your very own pair of Texas cowboy boots at Heritage Boot Co. Along the way, be sure to cross off some of the Austin’s best Instagram-worthy murals, including the famous ‘Greetings from Austin’ sign. After being on your feet all day, unwind with a spa treatment at milk + honey and treat yourself after with high quality ice cream at Lick Honest Ice Cream.
Outdoor Guru/Fitness Freak:
Home to flagship stores like Outdoor Voices, YETI, and Whole Foods Market ( all of which I’d recommend visiting), Austin is a city built for a healthy lifestyle and outdoor adventure. Beat the heat and enjoy the sun by taking a dip at Barton Springs Pool on a warm day, walk around Zilker Park, jump on a scooter to tour the town, join dozens of paddleboarders/kayakers on the Colorado River, or take a short stroll to the top of Mt. Bonnell that gives a panoramic view overlooking city. After working up a sweat, fuel up with a delicious smoothie at Juiceland or Blenders & Bowls, a gluten-free, dairy-free bite at Picnik along with their famous butter coffee, or an all locally-sourced lunch at True Food Kitchen.
“It’s a lot like Seattle”, but nothing like it. The “Portland of Texas”, when really Austin is the original Portland. “Go for the food and music”, music and food we got. The community, the food, the climate, the city, what people say is a fantasy and a fact. Now that I have visited Austin, I am not anything but genuinely IN LOVE with it.
Here’s to Keeping Austin Weird and wonderful!!!