Austin: A taste of the Texan takeaway

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Hungry for something new? Austin has long been the most progressive city in the Lone Star State. Now even its street food has gone gourmet. John Lee tucks in

The idea of Texan cuisine probably conjures up images of Flintstones-sized steaks and barbecue pits sizzling with slow-roasted meat. But while esurient carnivores can still fill their faces here, the Lone Star State's capital, Austin – widely regarded as Texas's most progressive city – is also serving up an ever-growing menu of adventurous street food.

"Four years ago, we had 400 carts and we're expecting that to rise to about 1,600 by the end of next year," says Mick Vann, senior contributing food writer at the Austin Chronicle. "In the last year and a half, the scene has really exploded. And as it gets bigger, it gets more creative," he adds.

Most Austin carts are bright painted caravans clustered around picnic tables in disused lots. Originally only serving the downtown late-night bar crowd, they now open all day. Encouraged by laissez-faire by-laws, they've spread to locations across the city. And they serve everything from kimchi tacos and fried chicken waffles to shrimp sliders and iced cupcakes.

Eager to see what was on offer, I hit the city for a four-day calorific cart crawl. First up was Torchy's Tacos, a big red trailer in a sunny South First Street pull-off. I was soon perched at a picnic table under a large tree gorging on an early lunch: two lip-smacking soft tacos overflowing with green chilli pork and deep-fried Baja shrimp, each served with little cups of sauce. I washed them down with a Mexican sparkling water.

Naturally, as I was in the area, I also hit the other cart next door. Dessert-focused Holy Cacao is a good complement to its neighbour. I considered that its truffle-like cake balls – soft spheres fused with icing and served on sticks like lollies – might be too rich. So I opted for a thick-shake. Hardly a low-fat alternative, it was an addictive, velvet-textured blend of chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream. I made a mental note to remove my belt when I got back to the car.

"The cake balls were a surprise hit when we introduced them and now they're the most popular item," co-owner John Spillyards says. "The red velvet variety is probably the top seller but my personal favourite are the brass balls: crushed peanut butter cookies mixed with peanut butter and dipped in chocolate. People like them because they can get their sugar fix without over-indulging too much – although we can cover that, too, if you want," he adds with a laugh.

Tacos and fusion wraps dominate Austin's street-food scene. There's lively competition to create the most interesting varieties. I sampled marinated tofu tacos – plus spicy fries topped with cheese, beef and caramelised kimchi – at downtown's Korean-Mexican cart Chi'Lantro. The shared tables that characterise these places make it easy to meet the locals.

"I was away for three years and this whole scene blew up," Austinite Scott Walker tells me. "Ever since I got back, I've been checking them out and trying to catch up," he adds, before reciting a long list of favourites.

Following one of his tips, I headed over to South Congress Avenue and hit the Mighty Cone for a toasted tortilla of almond-and-sesame-crusted shrimp with soft-centred slabs of crunch-covered avocado. It's this kind of experimentation – plus inviting prices typically between $4 (£2.50) and $8 (£5) – that encourages curious taste-tripping. Most vendors open around noon, and many don't close until late evening. Rules on alcohol are relaxed in Austin; most carts have a bring-your-own-booze policy.

Gourdough's is a silver Airstream trailer in a sandy nook on South Lamar Boulevard. The mother clucker doughnut served here is an Austin legend. Traditional cream-filled and fudge-topped varieties are available, but it's hard to resist the signature: a glistening sweet treat topped with a sliced chicken strip and drenched in honey butter. It tastes of guilt.

On an artery-clogging roll, I followed up the next day with a sinful stop at Lucky J's in the city's up-and-coming eastside area. This time, I gorged on spicy deep-fried chicken wrapped in a thick waffle and covered in both hot sauce and maple syrup. Then I added a chaser from the stand next door: a mini-burger known as a "slider", and crammed with coffee-rubbed barbecued pulled pork.

With my stomach now extending several steps ahead of me, I decided to take the afternoon off for health reasons. Austin isn't just about eating. I enjoyed the Native American exhibit at the giant Texas State History Museum and an excellent photography showcase at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. Then I perused the funky indie stores on South Congress Avenue. But after some free happy-hour music at the nearby Continental Club (live music is another big Austin draw), my appetite slowly re-emerged.

While comfort food defines many of Austin's trailers, some carts push their menus deep into gourmet territory. Among the best is Odd Duck. It serves innovative, restaurant-quality dishes created from locally farmed ingredients for around $4 to $6 a pop. On a warm starlit evening, I tucked into its amazing pork belly and grilled sweet potato slider; a soft-boiled duck egg served over blue cheese grits; and a perfectly seasoned grilled half quail with "Texmati" rice.

"We wanted to provide a fun atmosphere and the kind of plates you wouldn't normally see out of a trailer," owner Bryce Gilmore says. His menu changes seasonally but often includes favourites such as the quail. "People here are really receptive to trying something new. And there's also an entrepreneurial spirit that explains why we have so many carts," he adds. Gilmore is now planning to open a bricks-and-mortar eatery. "The goal of having the trailer was to eventually have a restaurant – the success of the cart has made that a reality."

Before heading to the airport on my last day, there was just time for a final stop that everyone had recommended. To have a chance of eating at Franklin Barbecue you have to join the queue around 10.30am. This is a legendary trailer that usually posts a "Sorry, sold out" sign around 1pm every day. That doesn't perturb the regulars, who patiently line up – sometimes with a Shiner Bock beer from the nearby liquor store – for an hour or so.

It was well worth the wait for a feast of perfect, fancy-free Texas barbecue, served on paper plates with slices of white bread: one of those giant meals that make you believe everything really is bigger in Texas. Along with a juicy arm-sized sausage, mounds of tender pulled pork and glistening pork ribs that slid off the bone like melted ice cream, I rolled my eyes and tucked into thick, butter-soft slabs of beef brisket. A fitting end to my Austin street-food feeding frenzy. And a reminder that a salad was long overdue.

Travel essentials



Getting there

With no direct flights between the UK and Austinm, the usual connections are on American Airlines via Dallas or Continental via Houston, but many other routes and gateways are available.



Eating there

The best overall listing location information for Austin's street-food vendors is www.austinfoodcarts.com. Vendor hours vary. Check the websites below for specific information.



Torchy's Tacos is at 1311 South First Street in the South Austin Trailer Park & Eatery ( www.torchystacos.com).

Holy Cacao is at 1311 South First Street in the South Austin Trailer Park & Eatery ( www.theholycacao.com).

Chi'Lantro is downtown near the corner of Congress Avenue and West Second Street ( www.chilantrobbq.com).

Mighty Cone is at 1600 South Congress Avenue ( www.mightycone.com).

Gourdough's is at 1219 South Lamar Boulevard ( www.gourdoughs.com).

Lucky J's is at the corner of East Sixth Street and Waller ( www.luckyjs.com).

Odd Duck is at 1219 South Lamar Boulevard ( www.oddduckfarmtotrailer.com).

Franklin BBQ is at 3421 North I-35 ( www.franklinbarbecue.com).

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
tvGame of Thrones season 5 episode 1 review
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
News
i100
News
people
News
Astronauts could be kept asleep for days or even weeks
scienceScientists are looking for a way to keep astronauts in a sleeplike state for days or weeks
Sport
Fabian Delph celebrates his goal
footballChristian Benteke and Fabian Delph turn semi-final after Liverpool goal
Life and Style
Model wears: top £29.50, leggings £25, jacket £29.50, bag £25, all marksandspencer.com
fashion
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary
music
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace