Breaking Bread: Friendship and Barbecue in Austin

“I think they’re pretty interchangeable, in that respect,” he said. My friend Dylan and I were chatting about the similarities to Portland and Austin. The two cities, it would seem, are enjoying a bit of a renascence, if renaissance, in their respective images. Both of them, while quite different in feel, presently hold the creative class of Generation Y in a tractor beam with the promise of exposure and networking amongst likeminded individuals. Dylan and his wife Carissa moved here for these reasons about a year-and-a-half ago. And while I prefer Portland for the weather, I was in Austin for Dylan—and, subsequently, for the food. That’s one way in which Portland and Austin are not “interchangeable”, in my opinion.

Last month I took a road trip from my hometown of Medford up to the tightly-packed urbania of Portland. Stumptown may be best known for being weird but Austin has a similar clarion call (“Keep Austin weird.”—interchangeable). The culinary draw for Portland, however, is its selection of microbrews. That being said, I had one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches of my life while there. From a food truck called “Grilled Cheese Grill”, I walked a block or two away from the crowd near the long row of food trucks and proceeded to savor each crispy, gooey bite under the eaves and out of the rain. They garnished it with a dill spear and a handful of ridged, salt-and-pepper kettle chips. Delicious. In contrast, the food to get in Austin is barbecued meat, plain and simple (again, it’s more about the beer than the food in Portland). About a week prior to flying out, Dylan had asked me to think about things to do while there and local cuisine was about all I could come up with. Of course we would walk and talk as we’re wont. Grab an Americano—two shots for his, three in mine—and unburden our hearts to one another. This had been the hallmark of our friendship over the years: deep conversation over coffee. I was the guest in this case and he would show me some good places for joe and that was fine with me. But my next request was that I’d get to sample some of what makes Austin famous. Texas has cows in abundance. So much so (I’m assuming), their school named their team after them. The shade of representative orange the exact color of the grease after a day in the fridge. And so, I suppose, beef would be what’s for lunch. My imagination showed me a shredded mass of sauce-sodden meat between robust bun halves. I knew what I wanted.

My flight arrived in the early afternoon. “You picked the perfect time to come out,” Dylan exclaimed as we pulled in to his apartment complex. “South by Southwest is done.” We were stopping at his place for a moment to drop off my bags and jacket and say hi to Carissa. Dylan took this opportunity to find a place to eat, commenting to me that Franklin’s would be closed by this time and that if one wasn’t in line by 7 in the morning—for lunch—that person wasn’t going to get any. Stiles Switch, however, was doable. Lamar Street runs the length of Austin and as we drove down, I commented on the abundance of independent, non-franchise-looking shops and businesses lining both sides of the wide, washed-out looking road. Indeed all of Austin was cast in a bright, neutral-tone palette. Warm, rough-hewn stone. Even the streets were a bleached, light-gray under the Texas sun. And here we were at its heart, the sky a cloudless blue.

We walked into the restaurant and took our place in the short line at the edge of the dining room. I ordered a barbecue sandwich and he got the same. He opted for a side of potato salad and I the mac-and-cheese and as I knew he would driving, an IPA. Upon trying the first bite after taking a seat at a long bar near the door, I saw the light. The beef was cooked to perfection: warm, moist, smoky, and full of flavor. A minor downside to this particular meal would be the cheap bun wrapped around this near-perfect specimen of Austin barbecue. They proffered a side of sauce and I drizzled it in and among the pieces of meat I’d forked onto the bun. I hadn’t eaten yet and so proceeded to hungrily devour my lunch. This was day one and my vacation was off to a great start.

The main appeal to any vacation, I would have to say, is the food. Wandering around and taking in the sights will only get you so far. And on an empty stomach, the slightest whiff of something to eat makes one want to turn in and get some grub. One place at which I always stop in Portland is the Rogue Brewery. Located at the edge of the ivy-shrouded brickwork of the Portland State University campus, they’re famous for a number of beers (7 Hop IPA, Dead Guy Ale, et. al). The thing I enjoy most, however, is their Kobe beef burger. It is, to my mind, the gold standard of burgers, with utmost umami engagement on the part of my tastebuds. The horseradish mayo and savory, thick-cut bacon serving only to complement the experience. The time before last, I asked for it medium, a little pink inside, and found it too soft for my taste. This time around I would get it well done. Furthermore, I was pleasantly surprised by the sample of double-chocolate stout. So good was this dessert beer that I elected to take a bottle with me, opting instead, to enjoy a sharp, tangy red cider with my meal. More tart than sweet, the apple flavor almost an afterthought. But the burger. The burger was amazing. However, the culinary appeal to Portland (for me) is more about the beverage than the food. Coffee and beer. Outside the Kobe, there isn’t much I’ve eaten that begs me to go back.

The first night, undaunted and, to a degree, unsatisfied, I had looked online for good barbecue in Austin. The sandwich from earlier a distant, but quite pleasant, waking dream. Reading down the “best of” list—which included Franklin, and also Stiles—I spied Salt Lick and remembered a satellite location at the Austin airport. This being said, I had begun to think that perhaps playing it by ear would get me further in my quest for the sandwich of my imagination. Another item on my itinerary was to check out deep downtown: any city of size beckons me into its concrete and glass and steel canyons—the earlier the better, in my opinion. Either way, there’s always been something about a bustling heart of a city. Feeling its pulse and rhythms for oneself is an essential part of this life. Dylan knew I wanted this and so he suggested Houndstooth. They had exceptional coffee, he assured me, and we would hit up the one nearer to his place so as to have something to sip on the way downtown. My triple Americano proved up to par, with a complex fruitiness needing no cream. After finding a place to park on Congress, we walked across the Ann W. Richards “bat bridge” and into downtown. Right after Houndstooth, I had googled a purveyor of decent ‘cue nearby, understanding by now that unpretentious white bread was the traditional accompaniment to the meat. As the bun from the previous day’s sandwich had barely held up against the meat and sauce, a kaiser roll or hoagie seemed like a better fit. The search yielded Cooper’s barbecue and so we agreed on that for this day’s lunch.

Walking through downtown, I was struck with the evident similarities to the clientele and look of our fellow Generation Yers; Portland and now Austin. Arms not sleeved in business casual sported tattoos, every (male) leg sheathed in tapered trousers. The “interchangeability” spoken of by Dylan on full display. We walked up the ramp to Cooper’s and when inside took our place at the end of a long line of young professionals, out for lunch. A panoply of slogans and phrases (including “Cooper’s” rendered in Cooper Black—the font, strangely enough) were stenciled on the brick wall to our right. I wasn’t having it: white bread with my barbecue. So I asked the barkeep if they had “real” bread, she answered in the affirmative. This time, I got the potato salad. Dylan didn’t feel like barbecue and so decided to watch me eat. The layout was a little more upscale than Stiles and there were two open berths—a little darker orange than the Longhorns’—on one wall in the dining room around the corner from the ordering counter. Each one with its respective pots of sliced pickles and onions and a large, steaming vat of pinto beans, flavored with bacon. The “real” bread, spoken of by the barmaid, turned out to be the wheat variation of the ubiquitous Austin white. I chose the wheat and didn’t look back. Present, too, was a tangy barbecue sauce that wasn’t quite to my taste. If there is some ratio of food quality to atmosphere, those two things would have been radically inverted at Stiles: while it wasn’t much to look at inside, the food was exemplary. Stiles’ only downside, as I’ve said, was the quality of the bun and then the fact that my imaginary, perfect Austin barbecue sandwich still had a placeholder in my mind. As-yet unfulfilled. With Cooper’s though, the food quality would slide ever-so-slightly down the scale while the atmosphere would be just about opposite of Stiles Switch. Both meats were delicious. It was the sides and the bread that would end in causing Cooper’s to take second place to Stiles. Thank God I had one more day in Austin. Dylan suggested I google “barbecue sandwich” proper for our next (and final) day’s attempt as, really, any place is gonna have meat. It is bread, however, that makes a “sandwich”. As I had one more day to fill this need, I really wanted to sate my imagination. Dylan’s lunch was a thick, white bean chili at a restaurant whose bar was open to the corner of E 2nd and Congress. It was aptly named Corner with a simple logo belying a sophistication and swank to rival even Cooper’s. That night, the three of us went to dinner at The Asian Cafe. The beef lo mein was quite yummy and it was wonderful catching up with Carissa.

By this time, I already consider the trip to be a success. The main reason I went to Texas (I was born in Plano but my family moved a year later—hadn’t been back since) was to see my friend (Texas’ state motto is simply “Friendship.”). After a day-and-a-half of solid conversation and delicious food and drink (Corner had this pear shandy that was out of this world—don’t squeeze the lemon in it though), I could’ve left happy. I also got to get a break from work and from Medford. But that image. The one of the sandwich, dripping with thick, savory barbecue sauce, the beef inside packed tight and steaming beneath the brow of a substantial, whole grain bun that, much like the state of Texas, if I may, wasn’t going to give up without a fight? That was still unfulfilled. As Dylan and I are optimistic at heart and seeing how we’re both in the barbecue capital of the world, we were bound to find the perfect place. Thursday looms large.

A couple errands led us first to the pet store and then to Game Over in order to sell some rarely-touched video games collecting dust on Dylan’s bookshelf. As we talked with Davide, the subject of food came up and he suggested Valentina’s. It sounded as good a place as any and as I hadn’t yet scoured the Google for the “barbecue sandwich” of my dreams, we figured we’d try a local’s take (“He’s more local than I am.” Declared Dylan on the way out). Turns out Valentina’s is a food truck about ten minutes out. We drove over and upon seeing the scene, something reminded me again of the food quality/atmosphere ratio. In retrospect, I think I subconsciously realized that with no atmosphere (picnic tables) but the aforementioned blue sky of Texas above us, the food was bound to be superlative. It was my turn to pay and so after ordering the chopped beef sandwich (the prior two had been brisket), I thought I’d see what I could find to drink at the convenience store toward the end of the strip mall. With nothing inside to quench my thirst and as it wasn’t all that hot outside, I came back out. And there it was. The sandwich of my imagination. Please understand, it was as if the intangible image, produced mentally by neurons and synapses and several-images-from-God-knows-where, had been rendered in three dimensions by whomever was working the barbecue pit hitched up to Valentina’s food truck. It had been dragged into reality: the apotheosis of “barbecue sandwich”. I sidled up to the table, sat down, and then we said a brief prayer. I hefted the thing from the paper and eyed a hunk of dill pickle nestled beneath the top bun, a bun that I somehow knew could go the distance. Strands of meat hung off the sandwich and chunks of it fell into the paper tray. The first bite was like nothing I’d experienced, if only for the simple reason that a circuit had been completed. Here I was in the state of my birth enjoying exactly what I had wanted. You can imagine how it tasted. Mission accomplished.

I feel it. As a writer and member of the “creative class”, I feel the draw of the two cities. In that sense, they are indeed “interchangeable”. In fact, it was the people-watching on the way into downtown on Wednesday that began the discussion of the two cities’ “interchangeability”. Taking in both cities in as many months, I do see some distinctions. The grackle with its obscene call and broad tail (“Everything’s bigger in Texas!”), the sparrows and doves that aren’t pushy but that don’t fly away with the wave of your hand, the weather. The barbecue. Many things in Austin have no match in Portland. And while the food in the latter is, well, there, Austin wins out, hands down. In closing, I would have to say though that I enjoy Portland just a little more. Something about the coziness (to say nothing of Dylan and Carissa’s hospitality) and the gray of the Northwest speaks to my soul. After a day of driving around Austin, I realized what was so markedly different: the space. In that respect, Oregon has nothing on Texas. Different zoning laws or something. Wandering this vast expanse is bound to make someone hungry.

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