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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
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.
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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.