Monday, March 30, 2009
Austin prides itself on being “weird,” a bastion of liberalism in a cowboy state, so I wasn’t surprised to find an active locavore scene there. The Kerbey Lane Café, a local mini-chain open 24 hours, has served affordable diner fare using Texas-sourced ingredients since 1980. At the South Lamar location, the atmosphere was student-friendly, brightly-painted with “funky” mixed-media stuff on the walls, and the crowd was mixed, too—moms with little kids, lots of students, workers on lunch. I ate the Kerbey scramble (mushrooms, tomatoes, green onions, cheddarjack) with Texas toast and OJ—a satisfying breakfast that fueled me on my hours-long walk through the city. The menus have blurbs about cutting carbon emissions by eating local produce—nice to see in an ordinary diner-style place in Texas.
I wandered down South Congress Street to the Farm-to-Market, well, market, where I bought amazing, tart chocolate-orange goat’s-milk ice cream and picked up a copy of Edible Austin. A pornographic salad photo pointed me toward the insipidly-named Wink for dinner. At about six, the bar area was filling with an after-office crowd and until I had a glass of wine in hand I felt about ten years old in my ratty t-shirt and shorts. I found a cozy corner and ordered two small plates. During happy hour, all bar apps were half price, meaning that I paid four dollars for a generous portion of really good countryside farm chicken liver pate. Peppery at first, then smooth and satisfying with a sweet finish, I felt like I was robbing them. I ordered a roasted chioga and bull’s blood beet salad from the dinner menu, with baby arugula, walnuts and chevre. The beets tasted really fresh, earthy but not dusty, and I learned that they had indeed been picked that morning. Wink one-ups the typical farm-to-table gratitude blurb by thanking not just farmers, foragers, and gardeners but also ranchers and farm workers, which was nice and kind of unexpected. I’d love to go back for a chef’s tasting—with antelope and bison entrees and their commitment to local produce, it would surely be a real taste of Texas.
The super-friendly bartender at Wink directed me toward the Counter Café, and I saw her reading the paper there over coffee and OJ the next morning. The Café is situated in an ordinary diner where literally all of the other patrons knew one another and all were very interested in hearing about my travels. The eggs and bacon and veggies were local (slogan: local food, global love) but the beef was Niman. I found this phenomenon elsewhere as well—naturally-raised, quality local beef just isn’t widely available in most of the country, including Texas.
On my last night in town, a Friday, I planned to eat some Tex-Mex, provenance be damned, but the place I’d been told about was packed with clean-cut dudes and blaring TVs and I just didn’t have the stomach for it. I wandered down to a wine bar (called, I think, Wine Bar) where I ate an exquisite, delicate first-of-the season salad of barely-dressed baby greens, radish, carrot, avocado and feta with a bit of tarragon. The salad made me realize that I’m chasing spring all over the country, and I felt really lucky.
On the way to El Paso the next afternoon, my tire blew out in the middle of the desert, leaving a trail of twisty scraps in its wake and a pile of black sand beside it. While I waited for AAA to arrive, the Border Patrol pulled up behind me and asked to search my car. I guess they aren’t kidding about Texas being “A Whole Other Country.”
Next: New Mexico and Arizona and California and more! (This country, it’s a big one.)