Where to eat, drink in Austin

Friday June 30th, 2017

Heading to Austin soon? Trying to figure out the best places to eat? Whether you’re looking for some truffle mac and cheese on its own or some sausage made with ground pork and ground bacon​ underneath a big heap of mac and cheese, we’ve got you covered right here with a list of the tastiest destinations to hit while you’re in town.​

Franklin Barbecue

900 E 11th St, Austin, TX 78702​
The review of Franklin Barbecue originally appeared Aug. 25, 2014. 

In 2011, I visited Franklin Barbecue in Austin and declared it the best joint in America. I returned three years later to see if that assessment should still stand.

When I visited in 2011, Franklin had moved into its current location from a trailer. The lines were long. I waited two hours for hunks of that tender, moist brisket seasoned with salt, pepper and magic and smoked over post oak. The pork spare ribs were juicy and pulled clean off the bone with the gentlest tug, and though the meat didn’t need it, the espresso barbecue sauce was a treat.

The good news? Franklin still serves what might be America’s best brisket. The ribs remain strong. The espresso sauce is excellent. Franklin also now sells miniature pies from Austin bakery The Cake and Spoon, and the banana bourbon can induce a bliss coma.

The bad news? Unlike most places, the lines didn’t die down after the initial surge of popularity. When I visited in 2014, years after it moved, I waited four and a half hours before eating. The brave souls in the front of the line arrived at 5:30 a.m., so they waited five and a half hours before eating. After finally getting inside and getting my food, I performed a cost-benefit analysis as I chewed.

Brisket from Franklin Barbecue in Austin.
Andy Staples

Yes, Franklin’s brisket is better than anyone else’s, but it is not so much better that it is worth sacrificing four and a half hours of my life. (“That’s what interns are for,” a high muckety-muck at an Austin company told me the next day. I don't have interns.) The brisket is nearly as good—and the line much shorter—at nearby La Barbecue (more on that below). You could drive to Taylor, go to Louie Mueller and eat one of those beef ribs that looks like something Fred Flintstone would have delivered to his car and drive back to Austin in less time. On a Saturday morning, you could drive to Snow’s in nearby Lexington—because it’s only open on Saturdays—and have brisket almost as good for breakfast. Snow’s opens at 8 a.m., and despite several years of Franklin-like lines, it requires only a short wait for those who arrive early.

 If you haven’t been to Franklin, you should absolutely go for the brisket and for the experience. Bring some friends, some lawn chairs and a stocked, rolling cooler. If—unlike me—you’re a brunch person, it won’t feel much different. But if you’ve already been to Franklin, you’re probably better off exploring some of the famous nearby spots. If enough people do that, maybe the lines will die down at Franklin and those of us with less time on our hands will be able to get that brisket without sacrificing so much of our precious time on earth.

La Barbecue

1906 E Cesar Chavez St, Austin, TX 78702
This review of La Barbecue originally appeared May 15, 2017. 

As mentioned in detail above, when readers head to Austin for business or pleasure, they frequently ask the same question: Is it worth my time to wait in the line for Franklin Barbecue?

So this is how I answer that question. If the reader absolutely must taste the brisket many—including me—consider to be the world’s best, then that reader should wait in the Franklin line. If that reader wants to taste brisket almost as good and wants to embark on an adventure, I tell them to wait for a Saturday morning and drive to Snow’s Barbecue in Lexington, Texas. If it’s not a Saturday and that reader wants to eat brisket that comes within mere percentage points of Franklin, then I send them 1.4 miles down the street to La Barbecue.

Even during a packed weekend lunch rush like the one when I visited last month, diners only spend about an hour in line at La Barbecue. Even better, all those waiting in line are welcome to grab a plastic cup and pour freely from the keg sitting a few yards from the trailer where the meat is sliced. On my most recent visit, La Barbecue was giving away a delicious imperial stout. Ordering with a free buzz beats the hell out of ordering with the nagging feeling that you’ve wasted an entire morning standing in the sun.

In two trips to La Barbecue, the juicy, smoky brisket came tantalizingly close to Franklin’s and ranked right alongside Snow’s, Killen’s, Pecan Lodge and the rest of the best in Texas. On my first visit a few years ago, I joined Spencer Hall of SB Nation in ordering what appeared—when arrayed on butcher paper with grease pooling in the center—to be half a cow and half a pig. On that visit, the beef rib stole the brisket’s thunder. The tender meat on that massive bone held its own against the beef rib at gold standard beef rib purveyor Louie Mueller in Taylor, Texas. This shouldn’t come as a shock, though. LeAnn Mueller, the owner of La Barbecue, is Louie’s granddaughter and the daughter of longtime Louie Mueller pitmaster Bobby Mueller.

Consider skipping the line at Franklin Barbecue and ordering the brisket, turkey and pulled pork from La Barbecue.
Andy Staples

Last month, I ordered brisket, turkey and pulled pork. The brisket was a great as I’d remembered. It had a pronounced smoke ring and great hunks of tasty bark clinging to the meat. I don’t usually recommend pulled pork in Texas. Even though it’s much easier than brisket brisket to cook properly, most places in the Lone Star State treat it like an afterthought. La Barbecue does not. While I would rather they didn’t toss perfectly juicy meat in sauce before serving, I did appreciate the choice of sauce. On that visit, I dined with Texas sports information director Thomas Stepp. Like me, Stepp’s early barbecue experience came in Columbia, S.C. For us, mustard-based sauce brings childhood memories flooding back. I imagine just about everyone else at the picnic tables dotting the food truck park wondered why there was mustard in their barbecue sauce. We just thought about Gamecock legends Mike Hold and Todd Ellis throwing touchdown passes while we munched on pulled pork sandwiches.

The most pleasant surprise was the turkey. Turkey is a high-degree-of-difficulty meat that many pitmasters won’t bother with, but when done well, it makes an exquisite sandwich filler or lean lunch. I was so stuffed from the brisket and the pulled pork that I only had room for a few bites of turkey during lunch. Most smoked turkey is dry and bland. This was moist, smoky and savory. So I wrapped the rest in butcher paper and took it to my hotel. After a few hours in the fridge and a minute in the microwave, it tasted just as good for dinner as it had for lunch. This may not sound that impressive, but it’s the barbecue equivalent of Bill Snyder turning Kansas State into a consistent winner.

The next person who asks me if they need to wait in the line at Franklin may get a different answer. La Barbecue does so many things so well that it may be time to simply advise that everyone skip the long line and opt for the short one with the free beer.

Ms. P's Electric Cock

80 Rainey St., Austin, TX 78701
This review of Ms. P's Electric Cock originally appeared Sept. 8, 2014

I’m a sucker for a great name. Anyone who reads my football recruiting coverage knows this. So when I saw that Austin had a fried chicken trailer called Ms. P’s Electric Cock, I knew I’d find my way there. I also knew I’d be taking home a piece of clothing.

My wife grew so tired of my drawer-stuffing collection of restaurant T-shirts that she just began randomly throwing them out about a year ago. One day I had a vintage McRib shirt. The next I didn’t. I asked her to make a quilt out of the ones she deemed no longer fit to wear, but she mentioned something about the pain of childbirth. Wracked with guilt, I dropped the subject. The Mrs. did, however, concede that if I wanted to switch from collecting restaurant T-shirts to collecting restaurant hats, she probably wouldn’t throw them all away on a random Tuesday.

For some reason, the places I frequent mostly sell the mesh-back trucker cap. This is simply knowing your clientele at a place such as The Catfish Hole in Fayetteville, Ark. It’s a hipster affectation at a place like Ms. P’s. But that’s OK. It’s a hat featuring a glowing rooster that is (accurately) described as an electric cock, so I’m happy to wear it.

The truffle mac and cheese from Ms. P's Electric Cock in Austin.
Andy Staples

This came in handy during my order. I asked for a three-piece chicken (thigh, drumstick, wing), an order of truffle mac and cheese and the Marty, a cob of Mexican street corn  coated with jalapeno aioli, cotija cheese, shaved pasila pepper and lime. I also asked for a hat. A few minutes later, I realized I’d forgotten to order a beverage. I spotted a Sweet Leaf Mint N Honey green tea – the best bottled tea on the market – and pulled out my wallet. “No, man,” the guy at the register said. Then he pointed to my freshly purchased hat. “It’s on the house,” he said, “since you’re going to rock the cock.”

And I’m pleased to rock it after a taste of the chicken and the truffle mac and cheese. It might not be Austin’s best fried chicken. There is, after all, a branch of Memphis institution Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in town now. But it is superior fried chicken, crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. The star is the mac and cheese, which uses just enough truffle oil. Too much, and they’d be trying too hard. Too little, and they couldn’t justify the price. But this is perfect. You’ll want to bathe in the béchamel. But don’t do that. The temperature climbs above 100 degrees pretty regularly in Austin, and that might produce a bit of an aroma after a few minutes. Instead, just eat it. And if possible, rock the cock.

Frank

407 Colorado St., Austin, TX 78701
This review of Frank originally appeared Aug. 21, 2011 

Just eat it.

I’ll say these words often in the next few years. My son recently turned two. My daughter still has a few more months of sucking down formula.* At the moment, they have very little say in what they eat. But the day will come when they will demand input into their dining options. What am I going to say?

Just eat it.

*Writer's Note: He’s now seven and she’s six. He likes meats and sweets. She likes bacon and fruit. My food suggestions usually are rejected by one or both. I had a lot of ideas back then about the parenting I’d do. It was adorable.

I may not always win, but “Just eat it” will be my default mode, because I don’t want my kids to be That Kid. I was That Kid. When my mom sent me over to a friend’s house, I came armed with a banned-food list in my head. No onions. No tomatoes. No mayo. No eggs. No mushrooms. I wasn’t allergic to any of these things. I was a spoiled brat. I’m sure my friends’ parents secretly despised me for disrupting their menus, but I blissfully ate mayo-free burgers or tomato chunk-free spaghetti sauce—tomato sauce was OK, just not actual tomatoes; I was a weird kid—while they silently stewed.

Hopefully, my kids will heed my words. Because sometimes when you turn off your brain, open your mouth and chew, something amazing happens. Something amazing like The Notorious P.I.G at Frank in downtown Austin.

The Notorious P.I.G. at Frank in downtown Austin.
Andy Staples

Young Andy liked all of the following things: Pork sausage, bacon, barbecue sauce and macaroni and cheese. But young Andy’s plate looked like a map of Korea. Entrée and side dishes were separated by a clearly delineated demilitarized zone typically marked by some condiment river. Even though it is the king of side dishes, young Andy never would have allowed his mac and cheese to cross the 38th Parallel to his sausage.

But last week, after a long day that began in Michigan and ended in Texas, I didn’t want to fight my food. I wanted to eat. I had been meaning to try Frank for a year or so. It’s two blocks from the hotel where I usually stay when I visit Austin. So when I arrived—I had learned while on the runway in Detroit that the event I was to cover in Austin the next day had been canceled—I resolved that a purveyor of artisan sausage and waffle fries would provide the perfect end to an imperfect day. I dumped my rental car in the hotel parking garage, left my luggage in the trunk and sprinted to Frank praying that I would make it before the place switched to what the internet had told me was the more pedestrian late-night menu at 10 p.m.

I arrived at 9:55, but the late-night menus had already emerged. Luckily, the Frank web site sells short the treats available to the night owls. Not on the web version—but on the actual version—were the exact two dishes I wanted to try: The Notorious P.I.G and the Jackalope. I ordered without even looking at the menu. The name intrigued me, and anyone who reads my college football coverage knows I’m obsessed with intriguing monikers.

A few minutes later, my kindly hipster bartender placed before me a dish that would have horrified young Andy. Sausage made with ground pork, ground bacon—yes, I know that’s a kind of pork—rode in a bun and snuggled under a blanket of mac and cheese and barbecue sauce. I’m older and wiser now, though. Plus, I was too tired to protest. I bit down, and every Fourth of July party I ever attended exploded on my tastebuds. The tang of the sausage and barbecue sauce remained tethered to the earth by the heft of the mac and cheese. Less than a minute later, I stared at an empty basket and wished there was some sort of Tupac-themed counterpart for the Piggie Smalls. Alas, there was not. But there was the Jackalope.

The Jackalope combines antelope rabbit and pork sausage, huckleberry compote, sriracha aioli and cheddar. I could envision a marriage of animal-product sausage and sriracha aioli, but the idea of adding huckleberry compote created a threesome that might cause even the most adventurous food swinger to bolt Frank’s culinary key party.

Just eat it.

That’s the only advice I can offer. The sausage is sublime, and the sweetness of the compote soothes the anger of the sriracha just so. Soak it up with waffle fries, and wash it down with a pint of stout. Then loosen your belt, sit back and celebrate your part in helping Frank negotiate an edible peace treaty.

24 Diner

600 N Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78703
This review of 24 Diner originally appeared Sept. 19, 2016. 

Sometimes, it’s late and work must get done. Sometimes, it’s early and work must get done. Sometimes, you’ve been awake for so long that you aren’t sure if it’s early or late, but work must still get done. At this point, coffee no longer has any effect. Only one menu item can provide the proper fuel: Chicken and waffles.

I reached this point as the night of Sept. 4 bled into the morning of Sept. 5. I’d spent the evening covering Texas beating Notre Dame in double overtime. Punt, Pass and Pork was due ASAP, and I had a 6 a.m. flight so I could get to Orlando in time to do a radio show and then cover Florida State-Ole Miss. I wasn’t sure how I’d get the story written without passing out on the keyboard, but David Ubben of Sports On Earth and Fox Sports Southwest tossed out a lifeline. As he left the press box at Texas, Ubben mentioned that he was headed to 24 Diner to finish his story and eat the best chicken and waffles in Austin. If anybody wanted to join, they were welcome.

Chicken and waffles from 24 Diner.
Andy Staples

So I ran to my car and followed. It was about 2 a.m. when we arrived. The average blood alcohol level in the restaurant hovered around .18, but chicken and waffles can be just as satisfying for two sober old guys. So can a peanut butter and chocolate milkshake. I couldn’t resist ordering one of those ahead of the main attraction because who doesn’t crave peanut butter and chocolate in milkshake form after a long day at work?

Ubben warned me not to fill up on the milkshake. Despite the place’s hipster trappings, he said, it serves a portion of chicken and waffles that would rival any place where the wait staff didn’t wear skinny jeans. He wasn’t kidding. Our server placed before me a fluffy waffle about the size of a manhole cover that held a glorious pile of chicken that had been deboned and lovingly fried. The chicken had crisp, flaky skin covering juicy, tender meat. The deboning made this a pure knife and fork meal, and it made it easy to create a the perfect chicken-to-waffle ratio in each bite.

Do not immediately dump syrup on this creation. Instead, try a few bites without it. The waffle comes slathered in brown sugar butter, and you may find you prefer this to syrup. Or, if you insist on syrup, just pour a small pool on the plate and dunk as needed. You don’t need all that sweetness overwhelming your salty and savory. Besides, you don’t need the sugar high. The chicken and waffle alone will power you through the night whether you’re working or playing.

​Torchy's Tacos

1311 South First St., Austin, TX 78704; various locations throughout Austin. 
This review of Torchy's Tacos originally appeared Feb. 15, 2016. 

Austin-based Torchy’s Tacos should be the next huge national fast-casual chain. Torchy’s serves street tacos, but exchange the tortillas for bread and it’s basically an upscale sandwich shop. I’m partial to the green chile pork (carnitas, queso fresco, cilantro), the Trailer Park (fried chicken, green chiles, pico de gallo and poblano sauce) and the Brushfire (jerk chicken, grilled jalapenos, mango, sour cream, cilantro and what Torchy’s calls Diablo Sauce). 

There are street taco places like this all over Texas. In one taco-dense section of College Station, there’s a Torchy’s, the original Fuego and the exceptional Mad Taco. There are street taco places like this in most huge cities. For some reason, they haven’t taken over the country. Torchy’s is in every big city and most of the college towns in Texas, but its only outposts outside the Lone Star State are in Colorado. It would make a killing everywhere.

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