It’s true when they say Austin has a lot going on. Besides being the state capital, the city is known for its live music venues complemented by a diverse collection of bars and dynamic dining.
In part one of his three-part series, traveling foodie David Latt ventured onto Austin’s busy streets to explore its thriving mobile food scene.
When it comes to food in Austin, the options seem endless: upscale, fine-dining restaurants as well as affordable neighborhood hangouts specializing in Mexican, Asian, Indian, French, American cuisine, not to mention more barbecue and burger joints than you can shake a stick at. But to really get a flavor of Austin’s culinary scene today, check out its ever-growing mobile food scene.
In most cities, a food-truck experience goes something like this: Customers follow updates on Facebook and Twitter. Then it’s a mad dash to get there before the truck packs up and drives away.
Usually, the truck is a step van with a window cut along one side where customers order and pick up their food. To eat your meal, you stand on the sidewalk trying not to get food on your clothes.
But the majority of food trucks in Austin aren’t trucks at all.
With tires mere props, these trucks are stationary trailers. The go-to source for finding out their whereabouts is Austin Food Carts.
Since they never move, trailers can offer customers creature comforts like picnic benches and umbrellas. (One trailer even comes with an ATM and a patch of Astro Turf.)
Some have all but lost their “trailer-ness.”
Entering the tent draped G’Raj Mahal Café, all that is missing is sitar music to complete the sense of having entered a proper Indian restaurant.
With afternoon breezes blowing against the tent walls and the sweet scent of cumin, sauteing onions and peppers, coconut, and turmeric coming from the kitchen, you can be forgiven the romantic notion that you are any where but Central Texas.
A comprehensive menu of sub-continent comfort food—including samosas, pakoras, raita, naan, plentiful curries, biryani, and half a dozen tandoor kababs—suggests that G’Raj Mahal Café has a large kitchen.
Walk through romantic alcoves and enter the large central dining area, which is, as the menu says, “In the Back Yard” of 91 Red River, and you’ll discover the restaurant kitchen is a step van.
Next door, you’ll find a food trailer cleverly disguised as an African shack.
Find Austin’s weird: Off The Brochure Travel Guide: Austin, Texas
At Cazamance, customers love the setting and the friendly wait staff as much as the food.
Co-owner and chef, Iba Thiam, originally from Senegal by way of Paris and New York, greets customers as they arrive.
With a wave of his hand and a smile, he offers a seat on one of the rough-hewn benches set around picnic benches shaded by a large tree and tenting stretching over the dining area.
The menu has a good variety of selections, offering Yassa chicken with mustard and lemon juice, Moroccan lamb sausage (a favorite among regulars), roast pork (a special not always on the menu), the Dakar boy’s lamb burger, and, in addition to the fresh vegetable salads, vegetarian dishes including hummus with avocado, lettuce and a black olive feta dressing and roasted curried garden vegetables.
Entrees come either with rice, as a wrap, or in a bread bowl, curiously named “Bunny Chow.” Soups vary daily and can include curry vegetable soup and peanut vegetable soup.
Around the corner, El Naranjo is parked in the driveway of a dilapidated house.
A peek inside 85 Rainey reveals a renovation in progress. Bathtubs are lined up in the living room. Walls are stripped, ready for painting.
At some point, according to Ernesto Torrealba, he and his wife, co-owner and chef, Iliana de la Vega, will open the restaurant and take the trailer on the road, but for now, it’s well worth a stop off the beaten path.
Until then they will serve a mix of favorites from the Mexican interior, including tacos (beef, pork, chicken, shrimp), guacamole made to order, daily soups, molotes, mole, and tamales.
The quality is very good. Torrealba comments, “We don’t serve trailer food but restaurant food. Some complain that we are expensive, but we serve the best versions [of Mexican classic dishes] with the best ingredients.”
The slow-braised pork (tacos carnitas estillo michoacan) and shrimp (tacos de camaron) are tender and sweet, benefiting from toppings of crunchy, raw onions and sprigs of fragrant cilantro.
There is a choice of a green sauce (medium heat with a touch of sweetness) or the thick red sauce (fiery).
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Next door, in the driveway next to the bar lounge, Icenhouse, a mini-truck calledCoolhaus, sells made-to-order ice cream sandwiches.
Perfect on a hot day or as a break from consuming too much fried food and beer, a fat, baseball-sized scoop of ice cream cozied up to two cookies of your choice.
A two-handed approach is recommended to control the larger-than-your-mouth sweet treat.
Another mini-food establishment, Luke’s Inside Out is wedged between a tree and Gibson Bar on South Austin’s Lamar Street.
Luke’s is a mini-trailer with a maxi-idea. The “inside out” concept describes owner-chef Luke Bibby’s unique approach to sandwich making. Cutting open toasted sourdough or French loaves, he bends the halves backwards so the inside is outside. Why? The answer is the filling.
Bibby likes his fillings dripping not only with flavor but juicy sauces and slaws. Putting the crusty-outside close to the fillings buys the customer precious minutes before the sandwich dissolves in the hand.
The sandwiches are named as if they were already icons: The Cow (tender, flaky brisket with griddled onion, smoked Gouda, and chow chow), The Vegetable (falafel burger with eggplant, spinach and muffaletta), The Pig (pulled pork with bacon, mozzarella, fried onions rings, and chow chow), and many more.
Learn more about BBQ: Culinary Travel: Best Barbecue In The West
Locals know to ask about off the menu specials like the Laredo Burger (8 ounces of sirloin with avocado and chipotle sauce), the Down and Dirty (meatloaf made with Cheetos, fried eggs, and tomato marmalade) and the soup of the day, which, on the day I had lunch, was Tiger Peach (chilled peach soup sweetened with honey and caramelized onions and spiced up with hot chilies).
Heavy on protein, fats and flavor, the sandwiches reflect the Bibby’s background as a caterer to bands and at music venues. He knows a lot about what to feed hungry people who need plenty of carbohydrates and calories to get through the day.
That attention to finger-licking, politically incorrect goodness extends to starters and non-sandwich menu items, which include Armadillo eggs (bacon wrapped fingerling potatoes on a bed of spinach to catch the grease), fried tuna fingers with sesame slaw and a plate of smoked brisket, sausage and chicken sticks with Shiner Bock barbecue sauce.
Hungry for more? Check back next week for part two of David’s roundup of Austin’s food trailers, from offbeat fusion to some of the best doughnuts in town.
Text and photos by David Latt for PeterGreenberg.com. Visit David on the Web at MenWhoLiketoCook.com.
Related Links on PeterGreenberg.com:
- Off The Brochure Travel Guide: Austin, Texas
- 10 Culinary Festivals For The Foodie Traveler
- Culinary Travel: Best Barbecue In The West
- Ask the Locals City Guide: San Antonio, Texas
- Culinary Experiences: The Truly Local Restaurants of Cabo San Lucas & San Jose del Cabo
- Traveling The Kentucky Bourbon Trail
- Caribbean Travel Beyond The Beaches: Food & Markets of Curacao
- Dutch Food & the Amsterdam Restaurant Scene