Lauren Newkirk Maynard is an editor and food writer in Buffalo.
Friends have asked me why I write about food rather than travel, politics, or personal history. It seems a strange question to me, since writing about what we eat is simply the best (and tastiest) way I know of to cover all the bases.
Food is about people and the places in which they live, the unique experiences of landing somewhere for the first time and experiencing a moment that can never be completely replicated—not even by the most exacting cook. Sharing those moments with others, making choices (sometimes political, sometimes just intensely personal) and continuing to search for that elusive taste of elsewhere, or of home, helps connect us to our lives and, inextricably, to the lives of others.
I was recently reminded of this during a brief stay in Austin, Texas to visit some good friends and escape the Buffalo winter.
For those of you who, like me, know it by reputation only, Austin is still mostly weird, despite its suburban sprawl and handful of neon-rimmed skyscrapers. The city has a dynamic, hip, eclectic and diverse city center, and the inner-ring neighborhoods are also thriving—a mixed bag of historic slave shacks, many lovingly restored, adjoining million-dollar Southern mansions and such major corporate headquarters as Whole Foods and Dell Computers.
Despite the encroachment of chains and skyrocketing real estate, the city still sports a variety of independent eateries, retail stores and cultural hangs. It retains this authentic vibe whether you’re walking through the vast University of Texas campus, with its football-crazed stadium and attendant student district, or along the snaking banks of the Colorado River.
And the food? As the headline hints, we were there for only two days. I merely dipped a pinky finger’s worth into the offerings, but Austin is a proud food town, and it shows.
First, we had to get some “real Texas barbecue.” One of our hosts, my husband Jim and I headed to The Iron Works Barbecue, a recommended joint at the edge of downtown. The place was crowded as the three of us lined up at an ordering window, but it moved fast and efficiently.
In minutes we had grabbed drinks, plastic trays and lots of wet-naps and began digging into a sampler platter (beef brisket, an enormous beef rib and pork sausage) and a turkey sandwich. Sides included potato salad, fresh pickle and onion slices, baked beans and a slice of plain white bread for sopping or sandwiching.
All of the meats were pleasantly tender and properly smoked, but I wished that the flavors were just as unforgettable as the smell that permeated the air (and, I found out when we left the restaurant, our hair and clothing).
The place does have plenty of character, with its checked tablecloths, rough-hewn floors, wood stove and Texas memorabilia; even the seven-foot-high water mark from a devastating flood in ’35 is marked on the wall. And yes, there’s wrought iron, from the days when the Weigl family ran an ornamental iron works shop after leaving Bavaria to make a new start in the Wild West. Later on, as we scanned titles at 12th Street Books, I learned that Austin has a long history of immigration from places like Germany and the UK.
Our second night in town, we were treated to some fine dining at Fonda San Miguel, one of Austin’s more venerable restaurants serving food from Mexico’s interior (i.e., not Tex-Mex). With its earthen colors, many paintings and punched-tin lanterns, the dimly lighted restaurant was as sumptuous as the food, yet friendly.
Our friends enjoyed stuffed rellenos—the house specialty—in mole and cilantro cream sauces, and Jim loved one of the evening’s specials, roast duck enchiladas in a cheerful green spinach-poblano sauce. I tried another special, broiled trout fillet served with a spicy salsa verde sauce. The dishes arrived with warm corn tortillas whose quality and texture you just can’t find up north.
Sadly, there was simply no room for the desserts, many of which make use of two of my favorite ingredients, cream and cinnamon.
Fonda outlines everything in a handsome cookbook-slash-scrapbook by cofounders Tom Gilliland and Miguel Ravago, with Austin Chronicle food editor Virginia B. Wood.
Our last two meals were decidedly Tex-Mex, a mash-up of Mexican and American home cooking that gave way to modern tacos and burritos. At the Kerbey Lane Café, a popular Austin chain, I enjoyed a spicy chicken tortilla soup, salad greens and a soft black bean and avocado taco.
Missing summer badly this time of year, I couldn’t get enough fresh cilantro. It’s everywhere on Austin menus. The soup was another cold-chaser I plan to make at home; it’s the southwestern equivalent of chicken noodle.
Our last supper in Austin was at Güero’s Taco Bar, a popular taqueria on hip South Congress Street. The place was filled with a noisy mix of families, what looked to be wealthy single cowboys and some beautiful people. We sipped margaritas and Lone Star beer while waiting for our handheld buzzer to light up, and settled in to people-watch.
Güero’s is fun and their menu huge, but the food didn’t blow me away. However, it won’t be the last time I try sweetly spiced pork and pineapple in the famed tacos al pastor (muy buena!). And my fish taco was just the right mix of lightly pan-fried pescado, chipotle tequila mayo, cabbage and corn.
The refried beans were yummy, but only slightly better than the ones at El Canelo. Our friendly waitress, tired but smiling, actually plopped down at our booth and translated some of the preparations for us touristas.
On the way to our table came the fleeting moment. As I passed the open kitchen stations, I glimpsed a small woman slapping discs of cornmeal dough onto a hot comal, or circular tortilla griddle. She didn’t look up as she pressed the masa into shape, but repeated the movement quickly and assuredly like her mother and her mother’s mother had most certainly done at home. At what is essentially an upscale diner in Texas, she showed me a glimpse of real Mexico.