It’s an Austin fall tradition as honored as the annual running of the burnt orange hordes. As soon as the temperature hits the 70s, a handful of locals will reach deep into the closet for their nubbiest cardigan. A few hours later, the ritual continues with a barrage of social media posts deriding the cozy early adopters for jumping the gun.
Sure, the Capital City is hardly the Yukon, but pulling out the sweaters isn’t entirely about retaining heat anyway. If summer represents a splash of activity, the first whisper of crisp weather gives us permission to finally pause — the same reason our diet shifts from the fast chopped salads and backyard grilled steaks to slow-roasted meats or stews that have to simmer for hours.
This month we may not join the most optimistic Austinites in pulling out cashmere pashminas, but we fully get the point. It’s time to start embracing warmth instead of complaining about the heat. We’ll start by luxuriating in the best comfort food the city has to offer.
Country Boyz Fixins
Somewhere along the way, the Austin restaurant scene started prioritizing atmosphere over food and service. This neighborhood gem packs them in by doing the reverse. The walls are mostly unadorned, the coolers are in full view of the customers, and the lighting fixtures come from big box stores, but the cooking comes right from the heart.
With his menu of Southern and Cajun classics, owner and chef Thera Dolphus Williams isn’t aiming to revolutionize food. One gets the sense that the dishes were passed down by great aunts and uncles, each generation adding its own touches — and more stains to the recipe cards.
Go anytime to score fried catfish, deeply rouxed gumbo, or po-boys piled high with chicken oysters (the tender bits of dark meat found near the thigh), but make a point to visit Tuesdays for the pot roast lunch special.
Williams’ version is what people think of when they think of pot roast — meltingly soft meat coated in a velvety gravy with a liberal whack of salt. Plated unceremoniously, this is the kind of dish that coats the tongue, working off pleasure, not nuance.
Meatloaf has a long relationship with providing comfort to Americans, spanning from the rapid economic changes of the Industrial Revolution to the social upheaval in the ’70s. It became a staple in the nation’s kitchens during the Great Depression, when add-ons like breadcrumbs and saltine crackers helped extend a family’s supply of protein.
Although the dish is hardly a matter of necessity now, it still has the power to make a person feel nurtured, something this Manor Road eatery has excelled at since 1988. The grilled meatloaf has been on the menu for years, and it is just as soul-satisfying today.
Instead of slathering her version in ketchup, chef and owner Elaine Martin only uses it as a thickener in a minimal tomato sauce seasoned by the caramel notes of Shiner Bock, smoky bacon fat, and a finishing pop of apple cider vinegar. The finished dish avoids the pratfall of bludgeoning the tongue with high-fructose sweetness, instead beefing up the beef and giving the charred finish more sizzle.
Order it with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and a slice of buttermilk pie for lunch. Then settle in for a well-earned nap.
El Borrego de Oro
There’s something about the act of eating soup that eases the day’s anxieties. The process of blowing on a too-hot spoonful before taking in each measured dose feels like a meditation, forcing us to savor. It’s no wonder we reach for it when sick or when we need to ease the sting of heartbreak.
If you need a little TLC, no other soup in Austin delivers as much succor as this South Austin hole in the wall’s signature caldo de birria. First taste it by dipping a corn tortilla into the chili-flecked broth, spicy but demurred by the long cooking process and mired in gamy depth from the goat.
Then get to the act of eating, wrapping small chunks of meat, cilantro, onion, and jalapeño in the tortilla before dipping it again. The process is messy and inevitably requires a ream of napkins, but most of the other customers will also have the telltale reddish slick on their faces.
Besides, comfort food doesn’t make room for self-consciousness. Each bite may be rooted in the memories of thousands of meals that came before it, but just like the unseasonable knits we see each year, it’s really about finding joy in the present.