Tom Philpott

13 Things to Eat and Drink at SXSW

Face it—it's hard to eat in a madhouse, and Austin's going to be one. Here are some survival tips.

| Fri Mar. 8, 2013 7:00 AM EST

Brussels sprouts and a burger from Austin's 24 Diner.

So you're coming to Austin for South By Southwest, eh? Well, so is half of humanity. (Sorry—I grew up in Austin and lived here through my 20s, but this is my first time back for SXSW in 15 years, so I'm a little freaked out.) Austin is a city under siege during the week leading up to the Ides of March, but if you're patient, you can find a worthy meal or a pint of something good and brewed nearby. What follows is by no means a comprehensive guide to the huge number of choices on offer—just a local food/beer lover's idiosyncratic picks.

  1. SouthBites, across from the Convention Center: "Curated" by local celebrity chef Paul Qui—more on him below—this "selection of gourmet food trucks for SXSW attendees" is the place to start your your chowhounding. Duh.
     
  2. Downtown Farmers Market, 4th and Guadalupe (Saturdays, 9 a.m.-1 p.m.): When everyone's sleeping it off Saturday morning, creep over to this open-air, once-a-week market right in the middle of downtown. You'll find dozens of farm stands with abundant and magnificent early-spring produce, but it won't be of much use to you, because you won't be cooking. What you need to do is locate the stand of Dai Due, at the market's southeastern corner, and queue up. One of Austin's culinary treasures, Dai Due has no brick-and-mortar retail presence. Owners Jesse Griffiths and Tamara Mayfield got their rep with their innovative pop-up dinners staged at farms around Austin. Now they're looking for the perfect space to launch a butcher shop—"I'm a butcher, not a chef," Griffiths has insisted. But until they do, their farmers market stand is the only way to sample their food. And it's not to be missed. The menu changes weekly, depending on what locally produced meats and veggies Griffiths gets his hands on. Recent offerings have included chili-braised pork tacos with cabbage (Griffiths has a way with pork, and chilo peppers, and cabbage), and an absolutely epic grass-fed bison burger topped with a fried egg. If you love food, do not miss Dai Due. The place often offers Mexican-style café de olla—coffee brewed with cinnamon. If so, order some.
    Need a quick breakfast downtown? It's easy, tiger. Easy Tiger
  3. Easy Tiger, 709 E. 6th: They call it Dirty Sixth, a multiblock stretch of bars and clubs just west of I-35 on Austin's fabled 6th Street. And during SXSW, it's at its absolute maddest. But right in the middle of it all sits an unlikely oasis known as Easy Tiger, its beer garden perched on a scenic creek. By night, it will be utterly packed—the place has one of Austin's best beer lists, a full bar with fancy booze for the A&R execs on expense accounts (they still exist, right?), and terrific house-made sausage from sustainably sourced meat (with a good veggie option as well). If you find yourself on 6th at night, by all means muscle your way to the bar and get a pint along with a wild-boar sausage or a snack plate featuring homemade pimiento cheese and a fantastic pretzel (menu). But here's the weird part: Easy Tiger isn't just a great beer hall; it's also, by a wide margin, Austin's best bakery. And you can go there in the morning and get a top-flight cup of coffee along with all manner of expertly baked treats—and likely not have to battle crowds.
     
  4. 24 Diner and Counter Cafe, both at 6th st and Lamar, next door to each other: 24 will be on every SXSW food-rec list, and for good reason. Run by the same crew as Easy Tiger, it offers delicious comfort food made with nice ingredients in a mod setting. Vegetarians, don't be put off by the meat-heavy menu—both the house-made veggie burger and the roasted vegetables over quinoa are first-rate. Did I mention that it's open 24 hours a day, serves breakfast anytime, and has a great beer list? (Guilty pleasure: the roasted bananas and brown sugar milkshake.) If the crowds at 24 are too much, try the next-door daytime alternative Counter Cafe. Stuffed into a long, narrow space and dominated by a soda-fountain style bar, Counter Cafe is another variation on the delicious-diner-food-with-good-ingredients theme (complete with killer veggie burger). And the building is an Austin icon—back when it was an old-school steakhouse, scenes from Slacker (1991) were filmed there.
    Just add beer: Panko-fried, all-natural pork belly sandwich, kewpie mayo, karashi mustard, served with Japanese eggplant salad. East Side King
  5. Grackle Bar/East Side King food truck, 1700 East 6th: East of the highway on 6th Street, in what was once a Mexican-American neighborhood, Austin's latest hipster mecca has arisen. The place now teems with bars, restaurants, and condos. My favorite of the new-wave establishments is a divey bar called the Grackle—named after a bird so common in Austin it almost has pest status—which houses in its parking lot a great food truck called East Side King. The Grackle is dark, dominated by a pool table, and has a good, small selection of tap beers, several of them local. And the bartenders pour a healthy-sized shot of good whiskey at prices well below what you'll find at other spots around town. What more can you ask of a bar? That's where East Side King comes in. From a modest-looking food truck decorated in garish hippie art, chef Paul Qui—who I believe has won some reality TV contest, and has worked as executive chef for a while at Austin's much-hyped sushi temple Uchiko—is doing inspired Asian-fusion bar food like fried pork belly sandwich with fiery mayo and "Broccoli Pops," whole spears of grilled broccoli in chili-miso sauce. North of downtown near the University of Texas campus, there's another East Side King perched outside of another dive bar called the Hole in the Wall (2538 Guadalupe), where I misspent many a night and even afternoon during college.
     
  6. Weather Up, 1808 East Cesar Chavez: If you find yourself east of the highway, feeling spendy, and in need of a drink, Weather Up is your place. It offers fancy "craft" cocktails poured by mustachioed hipsters (but friendly ones) from a cute old house with a tranquil patio out back.
     
  7. Houndstooth Coffee (401 Congress) and Frank (4th and Colorado): If you're anything like me, you're going to need lots of coffee during SXSW—really good coffee. Houndstooth offers the best in town. Its first location, at 42nd and Lamar, is a bit off the SXSW path. Its new location, at 4th and Congress, is right in the middle of everything, but not open yet. Not to worry—during SXSW, Houndstooth will be running a cart on the patio outside its new place with full coffee service. The cortado—a perfect espresso shot with just enough steamed milk—is the signature drink. Another highlight: beans from top Austin roaster Cuvee brewed in a Chemex pot fitted with a Hario metal filter (coffee geeks will know what I'm talking about). Frank, a hotdog joint around the corner from Houndstooth, also offers top-flight, obsessed-over coffee (I've never tried the 'dogs).
    The garden at Olivia; chicken house in back. Olivia

     

  8. You better lick it: Austin's best ice cream. Lick
    Lick (2032 S. Lamar), Barley Swine (2024 S. Lamar), and Olivia (2043 S. Lamar Blvd). If you head south on Lamar to see music at the legendary honky-tonk Saxon Pub—and you should—you'll pass this trio of formidable establishments, which sit just north of Oltorf. Lick offers spectacular ice cream, made from local Mill King Creamery milk and featuring flavors like grapefruit ginger and chocolate pecan with buttered caramel. Starting life as a food truck, Barley Swine presents a down-home version of molecular gastronomy—radical techniques and combinations applied to top-flight local ingredients, in a simple setting with lots of beer choices. Olivia is Austin's least-hyped local-food temple: No one ever talks about it, but there's a great veggie garden out back, complete with an adorable chicken run for egg production. The menu features impeccably sourced, pricey, and delicious Mediterranean food by night; on weekend days, it's my favorite brunch spot.

 

Yes you can: Pearl Snap is an emerging Austin classic; also available on tap. Austin Beerworks

Austin, on Tap
Just in the past five years, Austin has emerged as an excellent beer town. Here are some of my favorites, widely available on tap at bars.

  1. Austin BeerWorks Pearl Snap Lager. This is just a rock-solid, clean, crisp, light pilsner—a tribute, I think to Pearl Beer, an old-time Texas brewery whose lagers fueled Austin's lefty political class until their simultaneous demise sometime in the '80s. Pearl Snap lager is my go-to refreshment for weekend garden work—and a great way not to get bogged down during a long night on the town. (All the ABWs are worth drinking—if you can get your hands on a Sputnik, the brewery's deep-black, roasty, dry, and oddly quaffable "Russian imperial coffee oatmeal stout," by all means, do it.)
     
  2. Real Ale Brewing Phoenix Double ESB. This slightly sweet, malty, medium-bodied dark brew is perfect for Austin's current weather, which takes on a slight late-spring chill at night. Careful, though—while Phoenix is deceptively drinkable, its 7.2 percent alcohol level will catch up with you.
     
  3. Hops & Grain Alt-eration and Pale Dog Pale Ale. This newish Austin brewery has just two offerings on the market, and both are worth seeking out. Alt-eration is brewed in the style of a classic German alt—light auburn and malty—and the Pale Dog is just perfect example of the classic American style popularized by Sierra Nevada.
     
  4. Rogness Giantophis Imperial IPA. If your thing is a big, reeking IPA, loaded with piney hops and balanced with a malt punch, then the well-named Giantophis has your name on it. All of the Rogness offerings are excellent—milder souls will appreciate the Rattler pale ale or the saison-style Beardy Guard.
     
  5. Balcones True Blue Corn Whiskey. Okay, this isn't a beer, but attention must be paid to Central Texas' emerging cult craft distiller. Balcones' signature True Blue whiskey, made from "roasted Atole, a Hopi blue corn meal," is deep, slightly smoky, and balanced by a long sweet, spicy finish. It's a fixture in Austin's fancier bars, and you should treat yourself to a shot of it, neat.

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Buying Local and Organic? You're Still Eating Plastic Chemicals

Local dairy products and organic spices cause a spike in BPA and phthalate levels in a small University of Washington study.

| Mon Mar. 4, 2013 7:02 AM EST

Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are what's known as "endocrine disruptors"—that is, at very small doses they interfere with our hormonal systems, giving rise to all manner of health trouble. In peer-reviewed research, BPA has been linked to asthma, anxiety, obesity, kidney and heart disease, and more. The rap sheet for phthalates, meanwhile, includes lower hormones in men, brain development problems, diabetes, asthma, obesity, and, possibly, breast cancer.

So, ingesting these industrial chemicals is a bad idea, especially if you're a kid or a pregnant woman. But avoiding them is very difficult, since they're widely used in plastics, and are ubiquitous in the food supply. The federal government has not seen fit to ban them generally—although the FDA did outlaw BPA from baby bottles last year (only after the industry had voluntarily removed them) and Congress pushed phthalates out of kids' toys back in 2008. Otherwise, consumers are on their own to figure out how to avoid ingesting them.

Unfortunately, that's a really hard task—and eating fresh, local, and organic might not be sufficient, as new research (abstract), published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, shows.

Best. Diet. Study. Ever.

Skip dessert—but go to town on nuts, olive oil, and even wine, says a pair of new studies.

| Sat Mar. 2, 2013 7:01 AM EST

"All calories count," declared the voiceover in an infamous recent Coca-Cola ad. "No matter where they come from, including Coca Cola and everything else with calories." Message: a calorie is a calorie; don't blame our sugary drinks for your troubles!

But all calories aren't created equal, two recent studies suggest. The first one, on sugar, is alarming; the second, on the so-called Mediterranean diet, is comforting.

Let's get the bad news out of the way first.

9 Surprising Facts About Junk Food

New York Times reporter Michael Moss trains a light into the murky corners of food industry marketing.

| Wed Feb. 27, 2013 7:01 AM EST
Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here.

Riffing on his new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, ace New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss is suddenly everywhere—he's out with a blockbuster article in the Times Magazine and just appeared on Fresh Air.

I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, but I've skimmed it, and it looks excellent. Here are nine quick takeaways:

Study: Organic Tomatoes Are Better for You

A study finds organic tomatoes have lots more vitamin C and cancer-fighting phenols than their conventional counterparts.

| Sat Feb. 23, 2013 7:11 AM EST

Remember that Stanford research meta-analysis purporting to show that organic food offers no real health advantages? (I poked some holes in it here). Buried in the study (I have a full copy but can't post it for copyright reasons) is the finding that organic foods tend to have higher levels of phenols—compounds, naturally occurring in plants, widely believed to fight cancer and other degenerative diseases.

After the study's release, one of the study's authors, Dena Bravata, downplayed that result in a New York Times report :

While the difference [in total phenol levels between organic and conventional produce] was statistically significant, the size of the difference varied widely from study to study, and the data was based on the testing of small numbers of samples. "I interpret that result with caution," Dr. Bravata said.

A paper published Feb. 20 in PLOS One highlighted the link between organic agriculture and phenols. A team of researchers compared total phenol content in organic and conventional tomatoes grown in nearby plots in Brazil. By cultivating the tomatoes in the same microclimate and in similar soil, the researchers were able to control for environmental factors that might otherwise affect nutrient content.

9 out of 10 French Wines Contain Pesticides

Covering just 3 percent of French farmland, vineyards consume 80 percent of fungicides there.

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 7:01 AM EST
There's a place in France, where the pesticide molecules dance.

Oddly for someone who loves to cook and eat as much as I do, I have a reputation among friends as a bit of an appetite spoiler. When I'm not going on about various grotesque aspects of factory-farmed meat, I'm informing you of arsenic in apple juice and rice, or the knotty paradoxes of quinoa. What beloved foodstuff will I take on next? Well, be assured, this one pains me as much as anyone else: A recent study of French wine found 90 percent of samples contained traces of at least one pesticide, the wine trade journal Decanter reports.

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King Corn Mowed Down 2 Million Acres of Grassland in 5 Years Flat

The rate of grass-to-corn conversion in the United States is comparable to rainforest destruction in the Amazon and Asia, a new report finds.

| Wed Feb. 20, 2013 7:01 AM EST

Corn and soy fields are rapidly swallowing up grassland in the western corn belt.

In a post last year, I argued that to get ready for climate change, we should push Midwestern farmers to switch a chunk of their corn land into pasture for cows. The idea came from a paper by University of Tennessee and Bard College researchers, who calculated that such a move could suck up massive amounts of carbon in soil—enough to reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 36 percent. In addition to the CO2 reductions, you'd also get a bunch of high-quality, grass-fed beef (which has a significantly healthier fat profile than the corn-finished stuff).

Turns out, farmers in the Midwest are doing just the opposite. Inspired by high crop prices driven up by the federal corn-ethanol program—as well as by federally subsidized crop insurance that mitigates their risk—farmers are expanding the vast carpet of corn and soy that covers the Midwest rather than retracting it. That's the message of a new paper (PDF) by South Dakota State University researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Do GMO Crops Really Have Higher Yields?

A new paper by University of Wisconsin researchers suggests they don't.

| Wed Feb. 13, 2013 7:06 AM EST

According to the biotech industry, genetically modified (GM) crops are a boon to humanity because they allow farmers to "generate higher crop yields with fewer inputs," as the trade group Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) puts it on its web page.

Buoyed by such rhetoric, genetically modified seed giant Monsanto and its peers have managed to flood the corn, soybean, and cotton seed markets with two major traits: herbicide resistance and pesticide expression—giving plants the ability to, respectively, withstand regular lashings of particular herbicides and kill bugs with the toxic trait of Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt.

Turns out, though, that both assertions in BIO's statement are highly questionable. Washington State University researcher Charles Benbrook has demonstrated that the net effect of GMOs in the United States has been an increase in use of toxic chemical inputs. Benbrook found that while the Bt trait has indeed allowed farmers to spray dramatically lower levels of insecticides, that effect has been more than outweighed the gusher of herbicides uncorked by Monsanto's Roundup Ready technology, as weeds have rapidly adapted resistance to regular doses of Monsanto's Rounup herbicide.

And in a new paper (PDF) funded by the US Department of Agriculture, University of Wisconsin researchers have essentially negated the "more food" argument as well. The researchers looked at data from UW test plots that compared crop yields from various varieties of hybrid corn, some genetically modified and some not, between 1990 and 2010. While some GM varieties delivered small yield gains, others did not. Several even showed lower yields than non-GM counterparts. With the exception of one commonly used trait—a Bt type designed to kill the European corn borer—the authors conclude, "we were surprised not to find strongly positive transgenic yield effects." Both the glyphosate-tolerant (Roundup Ready) and the Bt trait for corn rootworm caused yields to drop.

The Meat Industry Now Consumes Four-Fifths of All Antibiotics

FDA dithers on regulation, releases new numbers on the industry's showing nearly half of retail chicken carries antibiotic-resistant Campylobacter.

| Fri Feb. 8, 2013 7:11 AM EST

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a set of voluntary "guidelines" designed to nudge the meat industry to curb its antibiotics habit. Ever since, the agency has been mulling whether and how to implement the new program. Meanwhile, the meat industry has been merrily gorging away on antibiotics—and churning out meat rife with antibiotic-resistant pathogens—if the latest data from the FDA itself is any indication.

The Pew Charitable Trusts crunched the agency's numbers on antibiotic use on livestock farms and compared them to data on human use of antibiotics to treat illness, and mashed it all into an infographic, which I've excerpted below. Note that that while human antibiotic use has leveled off at below 8 billion pounds annually, livestock farms have been sucking in more and more of the drugs each year—and consumption reached a record nearly 29.9 billion pounds in 2011. To put it another way, the livestock industry is now consuming nearly four-fifths of the antibiotics used in the US, and its appetite for them is growing.

Pew Charitable Trusts.

In an email, a Pew spokesperson added that while  the American Meat Institute reported a 0.2 percent increase in total meat and poultry production in 2011 compared to the previous year, the FDA data show that antibiotic consumption jumped 2 percent over the same time period. That suggests that meat production might be getting more antibiotic-intensive.  

Not surprisingly, when you cram animals together by the thousands and dose them daily with antibiotics, the bacteria that live on and in the animals adapt and develop resistance to those bacteria killers. Pew crunched another new set of data, the FDA's latest release of results from its National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, or NARMS, which buys samples of meat products and subjects them to testing for bacterial pathogens. Again, the results are sobering. Here a a few highlights pointed to by Pew in an email:

• Of the Salmonella on ground turkey, about 78% were resistant to at least one antibiotic and half of the bacteria were resistant to three or more. These figures are up compared to 2010. 

• Nearly three-quarters of the Salmonella found on retail chicken breast were resistant to at least one antibiotic. About 12% of retail chicken breast and ground turkey samples were contaminated with Salmonella.

• Resistance to tetracycline [an antibiotic] is up among Campylobacter on retail chicken. About 95% of chicken products were contaminated with Campylobacter, and nearly half of those bacteria were resistant to tetracyclines. This reflects an increase over last year and 2002.

Takeaway: While the FDA dithers with voluntary approaches to regulation, the meat industry is feasting on antibiotics and sending out product tainted with antibiotic-resistant bugs.

Nearly Half of All US Farms Now Have Superweeds

Roundup-resistant weeds colonized 60 million US acres in 2012—up 50 percent from the year before.

| Wed Feb. 6, 2013 7:06 AM EST

Last year's drought took a big bite out of the two most prodigious US crops, corn and soy. But it apparently didn't slow down the spread of weeds that have developed resistance to Monsanto's herbicide Roundup (glyphosate), used on crops engineered by Monsanto to resist it. More than 70 percent of all the the corn, soy, and cotton grown in the US is now genetically modified to withstand glyphosate.

Back in 2011, such weeds were already spreading fast. "Monsanto's 'Superweeds' Gallop Through Midwest," declared the headline of a post I wrote then. What's the word you use when an already-galloping horse speeds up? Because that's what's happening. Let's try this: "Monsanto's 'Superweeds' Stampede Through Midwest."

That pretty much describes the situation last year, according to a new report from the agribusiness research consultancy Stratus. Since the 2010 growing season, the group has been polling "thousands of US farmers" across 31 states about herbicide resistance. Here's what they found in the 2012 season:

Superweeds: First they gallop, then they roar. Graph: Stratus

• Nearly half (49 percent) of all US farmers surveyed said they have glyphosate-resistant weeds on their farm in 2012, up from 34 percent of farmers in 2011.
• Resistance is still worst in the South. For example, 92 percent of growers in Georgia said they have glyphosate-resistant weeds.
• But the mid-South and Midwest states are catching up. From 2011 to 2012 the acres with resistance almost doubled in Nebraska, Iowa, and Indiana.
• It's spreading at a faster pace each year: Total resistant acres increased by 25 percent in 2011 and 51 percent in 2012.
• And the problem is getting more complicated. More and more farms have at least two resistant species on their farm. In 2010 that was just 12 percent of farms, but two short years later 27 percent had more than one.

So where do farmers go from here? Well, Monsanto and its peers would like them to try out "next generation" herbicide-resistant seeds—that is, crops engineered to resist not just Roundup, but also other, more toxic herbicides, like 2,4-D and Dicamba. Trouble is, such an escalation in the chemical war on weeds will likely only lead to more prolific, and more super, superweeds, along with a sharp increase in herbicide use. That's the message of a peer-reviewed 2011 paper by a team of Penn State University researchers led by David A. Mortensen. (I discussed their paper in a post last year.)