Appetite for Austin
In the few minutes since the plate of chicharrones was placed in front of us, most of them have disappeared. But then, chicharrones - fried pork crackling - are one of the most irresistible of Tex-Mex snacks, and this version is particularly tasty.
So we're somewhat disbelieving when a staffer at Mettle, the hip new Austin restaurant in which we're dining, tells us these chicharrones aren't made with pork skin. They're made with tapioca.
Vegan Tex-Mex? It could only happen in Austin. It may be the capital of Texas, but Austin is a city at odds with much of the rest of the state: a place of hipsters and tech nerds, known for its astounding live music scene, its outdoor-oriented lifestyle and its unofficial motto, "Keep Austin Weird".
Lately, it's also gained a reputation as one of the United States' burgeoning food capitals, with a new breed of chefs determined, in true Austin fashion, to do things their way.
Austin's status as culinary capital is a recent development. "Seven years ago, there wasn't much on offer. You could basically choose between barbecue or tacos," says Ryan Palmer, owner of Gourdough's, one of the city's quirkiest eateries.
Change, however, was in the air, heralded by the arrival of a fleet of food trucks. Austin has always had a homespun, do-it-yourself philosophy, a nurturing environment that supports individuals with unique visions.
Austin wasn't the first city to introduce food trucks, but it has embraced them like few other cities have, giving many of the outlets permanent homes. Popular food truck plazas will feature five or six different trucks, complete with picnic benches and umbrellas.
Food trucks also gave the city's young chefs the perfect low-cost way to try out their culinary ideas. One of Austin's most celebrated ex-truckers is Bryce Gilmore, a farm-to-table advocate who parlayed the success of his Odd Duck Farm to Trailer into two flagship restaurants. The first, Barley Swine, has attracted raves for its showcasing of local produce.
The newer Odd Duck, just a few blocks down the road, shares the same hip decor as Barley Swine (distressed wood is big in this city; it's not a formal kind of places) and offers small bites on mismatched plates for a thrift-store vibe. A note on the bottom of the menu tells you, "this menu was inspired by our farmer friends".
Gilmore's eclectic menu combines southwestern flavours with a range of techniques.
The day we dine at Odd Duck, featured dishes include a fried chicken egg with mushrooms and hot sauce; carrots roasted in hay with chevre and pistachio crumb; and boudin grits with pickled shrimp and fried pig skin.
We love the shiitake doughnut served with goats cheese and spicy popcorn, the brioche-like dough proving the perfect vehicle to carry the contrasting flavours.
The stand-out dish, however, is tacos filled with redfish belly, bacon, soy citrus cabbage, chipotle and roast pumpkin seeds. The smoky flavour of both the fish and the bacon chunks holds its own against the spicy accompaniments.
The bacon, our server tells us, was made inhouse - Gilmore brings in whole animals and uses every part. He also makes by hand pretty much everything on the menu, including the delectable ginger beer.
Another chef passionate about local produce is Paul Qui. Previously chef at local favourites Uchi and Uchiko and commander of a fleet of food trucks, the modest yet personable Qui won a national following through the Iron Chef TV show. He has opened his own restaurant, Qui.
He emphasises that the restaurant is a collaboration between him, his staff, the creatives who contributed everything from handmade crockery to salvaged timber interiors, and, of course, his suppliers.
"My friend Darcy has an urban farm about 12 blocks away - she brings in whatever vegetables she's grown," he says.
The rabbit that features in his signature dish, Rabbit Seven Ways, is courtesy of his friend Sebastian; a butcher friend supplies other meat.
His producers, Qui says, are as passionate about their product as he is. "They deliver the product like they're handing you their baby," he says happily.
Qui's menus have garnered mixed reactions, but the current menu has a couple of stand-out dishes, including a venison tartare flavoured with coffee, and Qui's acclaimed cheddar cheese ice-cream.
It's not just Austin's food scene that is burgeoning.
The city also has a growing craft-beer culture. There are 24 breweries in this city, most of which have sprung up during the past few years. One of the most interesting is Hops & Grain, a nine-person operation which, despite its size, is making a big impact.
One of its standard beers, Alt-eration, a German-style altbier, won a 2012 World Beer Cup Gold Medal. Most interesting, however, are the experiments, at least one a week. Brewer Bob Galligan has a fondness for ageing beers in bourbon barrels; on the day we drop in, there's a delicious sour beer on tap.
One of the most refreshing things about the Austin scene is the way it applauds and rewards creativity. Businesses can grow fast. In 2013, Hops & Grain delivered 2500 barrels; Garrigan confidently says that in 2014 supply will double if not triple.
With many of Austin's restaurants offering several local beers on tap, Garrigan says that the biggest problem facing many of the city's craft brewers is keeping up with demand. "Most breweries just can't make enough," he says.
Another person racing to keep up with his own success is Ryan Palmer. He and his business partner, Paula Sanford, launched their Gourdough's food truck almost five years ago, delivering oversized doughnuts laden with over-the-top garnishes. The Carney, for instance, comes with apple pie filling, cream cheese icing, caramel and dry roasted peanuts; Boss Hog comes with pulled pork and potato salad drizzled with honey barbecue sauce.
Not content with that contribution to raising Austin's cholesterol levels, Palmer and Sanford opened a bricks-and-mortar outlet, Gourdough's Public House, which jazzes up the sports bar concept with a menu of doughnut burgers, doughnut sandwiches and other extreme combinations.
There's more to this than shock value - some of the dishes, such as the chicken dumpling doughnuts, taste like something your grandmother would make. Others, like the garlic doughnut, are genius, delivering the flavour hit of garlic bread, with an irresistibly chewy texture.
Gourdough's also has its own take on nachos - red Yukon chips topped with Gulf Beer-battered fried oysters, red onion, parsley and fresh lime. They turn out to be fabulous bar food, though not quite fabulous enough to dethrone my favourite nachos in town.
Mettle's do-it-yourself version features corn chips served with a range of toppings, including duck leg confit, mascarpone cheese, a tres leches caramel, home-made stone-ground mustard and a jalapeno lime gelee. It's France meets East Austin, and it's utterly delectable.
The writer travelled courtesy of the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau.
STAYING THERE For a central location, check out the Four Seasons Austin which opens directly on to the Lady Bird Trail. Rooms start at US$499 ($585).
MORE INFORMATION austintexas.org.
FIVE MORE TASTES OF AUSTIN
FOR THE SWEET TOOTH Lick Ice Cream, on the same South Lamar strip as Barley Swine, has inventive flavours such as roast beets and mint.
FOR JAPANESE First there was Uchi, now there's Uchiko, where Japan meets south-east Asia. From coconut milk crepes bursting with prawns and herbs to a wagyu sushi with toasted rice, it's all good.
FOR BARBECUE At Franklin Barbecue, they throw open the doors at 11am and keep serving till the food is gone - usually only a few hours. You'll need to start queuing around 9am.
FOR MEXICAN For real Mexican, rather than the Tex-Mex hybrid, Fonda San Miguel is acknowledged as one of the best in the country.
FOR VIETNAMESE Chef Larry McGuire is rapidly building an Austin restaurant empire. At his Elizabeth Street Cafe, you can enjoy French baguettes and pastry as well as fabulous spring rolls and pho.