This past week Austin hosted the 2011 conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP), a gathering of some of the most important food communicators in America. There were chefs, cookbook authors, journalists, bloggers and corporate food folks in attendance, each more famous and friendly than the last.
Non-food blogging Austinites might have noticed that the conference was happening because of the deluge of #IACP tags in the Austin Twitterverse, and because there were special IACP meals, tours and tastings at many of Austin’s restaurants. Many of these food events were once in a lifetime opportunities for the city’s best chefs to cook in the national spotlight on their own turf, and it was pretty awesome to see the likes of Jacques Pepin and Dorie Greenspan excited about Texas cuisine. A high point for me was when Elise Bauer tweeted, “Austin is food heaven,” from a taco truck last night.
Every moment of the IACP conference made me proud to be a Texan. However, some of my favorite Austin food experiences weren’t represented at the conference. Here’s a list of seven culinary adventures that keep Austin weird– and delicious– for me.
Three words: Chicken. Shit. Bingo.
Tex Mex restaurants in Austin are a dime a dozen, but Chuy’s chips are the thinnest and crispiest in town. Locals know to ask for “creamy jalapeno,” the house-made jalapeño ranch dressing that made Chuy’s famous. It’s a spicy cool and creamy accompaniment to chips in the Texas heat. During happy hour at Chuy’s Mexican martinis are just $6 and you can get free, self-serve chips and creamy jalapeño out of a vintage car trunk near the bar. Seriously, it’s around the corner from the restaurant’s Elvis shrine.
One of the major themes at IACP was the growing awareness of community in consumer-food relationships. I heard over and over in sessions that “consumers want to know where their food comes from,” and “it’s all about the relationship.” As the first co-operatively owned brewpub in the United States, Black Star Co-op personifies these trends. The bar is literally owned by its neighbors (membership shares are $150), and its operations are governed by a member-elected board of directors. Chef Johnny Livesay used to be the produce manager at Wheatsville, Austin’s farm-to-market grocery co-op, and he uses his connections with local farmers to source the best local produce for Black Star’s kitchen.
The atmosphere at Swad is about as far from culinary hype as you can get, which is nice when you need a break from trying to impress people at a food conference. It’s tucked in a strip mall in a working-class area of north Austin, between a dance club called Desperado’s and an Indian market. Swad serves south Indian and Pakistani street food, all vegetarian, all spicy, all awesome. The enormous menu is printed mostly without English translations, and it includes lots of exotic dishes along with some familiar Indian selections like Naan and mango lassi. Standout items include samosa chat, potato-stuffed samosas in a terrifically spicy chickpea curry, and any of the dosas (stuffed lentil crepes). It pays to order adventurously at Swad; I try not to get the same thing twice, and I’ve never encountered a disappointing dish.
5. Casa de Luz
There are many hippies in Austin, especially south Austin, and I’m not sure that came across in the local programming at IACP. Lunch at Casa de Luz is one of the best ways to experience life as a south Austinite, and its vegan, macrobiotic menu would have been the perfect antidote to all the sausage and brisket served at the conference. A three-course meal includes a set menu with soup, salad and delectable entrees like blanched greens w/almond cilantro sauce and corn on the cob with umeboshi paste. The dining room’s community-style seating and bus your own table policy contribute to Casa de Luz’s hippie atmosphere.
Movie theaters with full menu service are a rising trend in the food industry, and Alamo Drafthouse is a great example of How To Do It Right. They remove people who talk or text during the show*, they bring you Shiner Bock by the bucketful, and instead of lame pre-show advertising, the Alamo creates custom preshows for each movie (think clips of Dan Akroyd as Julia Child before Julie and Julia). Besides the usual theater offerings, Alamo Drafthouse contributes to Austin’s food scene with special culinary events. When Food Inc. opened, the theater produced a menu of local, organic offerings. And each year for the annual showing of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Chef John Bullington prepares an epic twelve hour long feast, with themed dishes like New Zealand lamb, lembas bread, elevensies and coney stew.
*Edited 6/6/11 to add: Alamo just released a new preview that’s going to start airing before its R-rated shows here in Austin. (Caution, NSFW: language.)
This Austin institution would have been the perfect way to celebrate National Donut Day during IACP. Hot, fresh donuts and some of the best people watching in Austin starting at 9 PM on Airport Boulevard every day. If you’re looking to make a night of it, dive bar Barfly’s down the road will even let you bring in a box of donuts.