Dispatch from Austin: Off the BHS Path

I’ve been traveling a lot lately. The idea of this was exciting for all of five minutes; it sounds so fun to get out of the house and go to a new city when you work from home, but really, I’m just tired. I miss my boyfriend, my bed and my kitchen. But, the life of a freelancer is thus: you go to where the people with the money want you to go. And so, this is my third time in Austin, TX in the last month, and more trips are coming. The fact is, I haven’t been home enough lately to have eaten anywhere more interesting than places I’ve already told you about.
So I’m breaking my own rules and writing this week about the great places I’ve eaten in Austin. I had always intended to bring you Big Hungry Shelby dispatches from outside the Great State of New York, but not necessarily this soon. Please don’t think I’m ignoring all the great spots in Upstate NY in order to share with you the plethora of good food I’ve been enjoying here in my new adopted city. But when I’m far from home, sometimes a great dinner is the highlight of my day. So without further ado, I give you….Austin!

My first night here, I dragged my co-worker to Bess Bistro, which is owned by Sandra Bullock. The inside is gorgeous: like an old west saloon dressed up with European flair. We were lucky enough to be seated in a cool leather and exposed brick banquette with a fancy crystal chandelier just for us. I started with a perfect Patron margarita on the rocks (with salt, DERR), and my boss and I split fried green tomatoes as an appetizer. Lordy, these were good. The sauce was dynamite – creamy and sharp, probably due to horseradish. I was feeling indulgent - well, let’s be honest, when am I NOT feeling indulgent? – so I ordered the chicken pot pie (recommended by Rachael Ray, my love) and a side order of the mac and cheese. The chicken pot pie was outstanding, with a deliciously light, buttery crust, chunky vegetables and a very savory but still light sauce. The mac and cheese was only OK for me. Sometimes I forget that, as a NY girl, I expect nothing less than super sharp cheddar in my mac, and southerners don’t really roll like that. The mac was fine, but I’d rather make it myself or get it at The Standard in Albany any day.

The next night, we enticed an unwitting cabbie to take us to the wrong side of the tracks, Polvos Mexican Restautrant. This was another Rachael Ray suggestion, and I’m so glad. The neighborhood is a little shady – in fact, the cabbie refused to give us his card to come and get us when we were done! But the payoff is great. One thing I’ve found Austin restaurants do really well is making outdoor dining wonderful despite the high heat and dastardly humidity that seems ever-present here. Polvos has fans strategically placed around their porch, which is decorated with millions of twinkle lights and live plants. The patrons are slightly rowdy – very Austin – and the atmosphere is just plain conducive to a great time. There’s a salsa bar inside that you help yourself to, and your waiter keeps you well-stocked with fresh chips all night. On the advice of Rachael Ray, I ordered the fajitas guajillo for both of us – his chicken, mine pork. This crazy guajillo sauce has sundried peppers, pecans, raisins and pineapple in it, an odd but delicious combination for we northerners. The tortillas were freshly made, and while the rice and beans were pretty standard, the entire dish came together really nicely.

Don’t you want to hang at Polvos, drink margaritas, and be weird in Austin?

A couple weeks later, I was back in Austin with my boss, and took a death-defying cab ride from a scary character in a hat adorned with little gold gun pins in order to get to Maria’s Taco Express, which I had seen on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. This might be my fav place we’ve hit up so far, a colorful, whimsical space with fantastic food and great live music. Again, we sat outside, although you order and pick up your food at the counter inside the joint. The tortillas are homemade, the salsa is spicy, and a bucket of Coronas is buy 4, get one free! I had the carne guisada platter, which was tender beef simmered in chipotle sauce with onion and peppers. The aforementioned tortillas were fab – I just wish I’d gotten more than two – and the beef was savory and delicious. The rice at Maria’s was really good, too. My dining companion enjoyed his chicken enchiladas, and I have to say, they looked amazing. Again, Maria’s has figured out how to set up outdoor dining in Austin so that customers aren’t sweltering in the heat, and we thoroughly enjoyed the musical stylings of Jessica Shepherd and her band, who entertained us with a mix of honky tonk, rock and hippie/country soul. It was one of those experiences when, halfway through dinner, as I clutched my Corona and leaned back in my chair, I pronounced, “I am so happy right now.” What more can you ask for? Maria’s may find itself on our agenda again, as it really was a good time and a great meal, on the cheap. Plus, I’ve been told I simply must try the crispy tacos.

The best way to eat Tex-mex is on a plastic tray, and don’t let anyone tell ya different. This is the fab carne guisada at Maria’s.

And I’ve caught you up to this week, my third trip here. I’m happy to report that the slightly bad-ass counter man at the sandwich shop across the street from the office I’m working out of now knows my name, and the bell hop boy said, “Hey, I remember you,” when we arrived at the hotel last night. I’m a regular here, folks! I love that! To celebrate my high standing place in Austin’s social scene, we went to Magnolia Café, which is an institution here. Their motto is “Sorry, We’re Open,” which just kills me. As the motto belies, they are open 24/7, and serve breakfast all day, including what I’ve heard are pretty slick pancakes and migas, which are eggs scrambled with tortillas, onions and peppers. We started with salsa, which was more of a stewed-tomato affair than I prefer, and queso, which was out-of-the-park good. Please note, as Magnolia is more of a diner-type place than a true Tex-mex spot, the tortilla chips were not homemade. But that queso was so good, I really didn’t care. My colleague enjoyed his chicken picatta, which was really lightly breaded and super juicy, with a good, fresh lemon flavor, and served with homemade mashed potatoes and tons of grilled zucchini and summer squash. He was a happy camper. I had the blackened, “voodoo spiced” fish tacos, with garlic cream sauce and cabbage, and I added sliced avocado. You know how usually the sort-of nameless whitefish in fish tacos or similar dishes is kind of tasteless or one-note? Maybe you don’t, since fish tacos aren’t really a thing in NNY. But anyway, the fish in this case super-flavorful, not just owing to the yummy voodoo spices but simply due to the quality of the product – it was great. On the recommendation of our waiter, we both finished off the meal attempting to take down the Café’s carrot cake. Oh my goodness gracious. Please, get on a plane bound for Austin and make a beeline to this cake if you love me. If you don’t know me and that freaks you out, do it for the love of yourself, because this carrot cake was that good. You could SEE the flecks of real vanilla in the luscious cream cheese frosting, and the walnuts and raisins in the cake didn’t overpower the carrot flavor like they so often do. OMG. Get some.

That frosting makes its own case for interstate travel

Tuesday evening, we enjoyed dinner at Truluck’s, in downtown Austin. Our waitress, Jesse, took superb care of us in this swanky locale, all modern drum pendant lamps juxtaposed with subway tile and exposed beam ceiling struts that are pure Texas (check out my Big Hungry Shelby group on Facebook for more photos). I enjoyed a glass of wine and a selection of yummy breads (I love a good bread basket), followed up with a delish lobster bisque. It could have used a little more salt and pepper for my taste, but had a great tomato backdrop with a rich cream finish and a nice lobster broth. I ordered the crab-stuffed trout over cheesy grits, and my boss had the roasted chicken in a delicious-smelling red sauce. I could have eaten an entire bowl of the fab grits alone, and the fish portion was gigantic and rich, skin-on and redolent with fantastic crab stuffing. Our waitress chatted us up properly, explaining that while Truluck’s is a chain, they have their own fisheries and a great rep. This place is very convenient to our hotel here in Austin, so we may be back, and I’ll be trying the stone crab claws!

A note about cabbies in Austin, should you visit. Yes, we have ridden in the Deathcab here, but we’ve also had some of the nicest, cleanest, and most intelligent cabbies I’ve ever met. So, if you make a visit, I wouldn’t even bother to rent a car. With the selection of vibrant nightlife in Austin, you might want a driver. So, join me in the live music capital of the world! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

PS – I’m back again next week, so there may be more dispatches from Texas. In addition, I’ve had requests for recipes (I can do that) and rest room reports (the one at Truluck’s was luxe, but the path there was so dark I almost got lost on the way). So expect more great places to eat in Upstate NY (I’m headed to Watertown this Friday!), some recipe sharing and more dispatches from my travels, all here on BHS!

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