The Austin City Limits Music Festival kicks off this weekend with its dizzying array of stages featuring world-class bands, autograph tents and hydration stations to navigate. If you’re anything like me, you’re just as concerned with organizing which food vendors you intend to wait in line for at the Austin Eats food court as you are your music lineup on your “ACL App” and your oversized flagpole bearing a rainbow windsock and a Hello Kitty balloon to help your friends locate you. (Personally, I say ditch the pole, who cares if they find you or not?)
This year’s food lineup has a few tasty change ups to join the crowd-pleasing return of a few permanent food court fixtures. You’ll definitely see the requisite popcorn from Children of the Kettle Corn and iced-tea selection from Sweet Leaf Iced Teas. And of course, you’ll find an unending supply of hot and crunchy chicken cones from the Mighty Cone.
“Our goal each year is to get the best and biggest array of food at the festival,” says Tim Love, who along with Hudson’s on the Bend chef/owner Jeff Blank spearheads the food vendor selection each year and says the process is both by application and special request. “We certainly want something easy like popcorn, but also something crazy like gourmet burgers and banh mi.”
It’s okay to hold to tradition and go for the food you know and trust, but be sure to check out a few of the newcomers as well. You’ll find new things from Torchy’s Tacos, Lamba’s Royal Indian Food, as well as the east side’s Hope Farmers Market featuring a few local, seasonal products from a few of their prized vendors.
“We wanted to keep things local from the very beginning,” says Blank, who has curated the food lineup for the festival since it began more than 10 year ago. “We wanted it to reflect Austin heritage and flavor.”
The real trick is in choosing your food wisely. It must be easy to grab-and-go from the stand, easy to cart back to a convenient spot to enjoy, and by all means, it better be easy to eat with your hands with only a few flimsy paper napkins for clean up.
Of course everyone has their own tastes and you can start organizing yours from the lineup online, but here are my top five picks:
1. A share of sausage
I’m a sucker for hot dogs at sporting events and sausage-on-a-stick at rodeos and county fairs. So it should come as no surprise that I have a few savory sausage items on the list. Tim Love’s Woodshed Smokehouse of Fort Worth is new to the lineup and plans to serve up an elk and beehive cheddar (honey-infused cheddar cheese) 1/4-pound sausage with house-made mustard that sounds like it will fit the bill. And though I doubt I’ll be let down, I know I can count on the Salt Lick’s tortilla sausage wrap with a little of their habanero barbecue sauce to spice things up.
2. Oh my, banh mi at 2nd Bar + Kitchen
You never quite know what to expect with Chef David Bull of Congress and 2nd Bar + Kitchen. From refined, gourmet cuisine to short-rib and blue cheese pizza, he’s willing to tango with just about any array of ingredients. When I saw he was entering the ACL Eats game this year with a line up of house made banh mi, my appetite was perked.
“The choice to make Banh Mi was actually a long and grueling process,” says Bull who says he hopes he gets to try the chicken-fried meatballs from Mandola’s. “Our staff all agreed that it needed to appear to be healthy, hand-held and something with spice. We landed on banh mi. It’s an item that’s gained a lot of attention lately, and for good reason. After that we tested [the recipe] over and over to ensure that we were able to offer a valuable festival experience.”
I’ll probably go all out for the crispy pork belly with carrot slaw, chili mayo, nam pla and mint but the vegetarian avocado with peanuts and agave-lime vin is also a safe bet. (And you can always give these buns a try at 2nd Bar + Kitchen as they’ve now been added to the menu.) Gild the lily with a side of their truffle french fries—you won’t regret it.
3. Chi’lantro kimchee fries with beef
Put the words Korean barbecue and Mexican food together and I’m there. Especially when it comes in the form of a mound of crispy fries with kimchee, Korean beef and an assortment of grilled onions, cheese, spicy sricacha and Lord knows what else in a red and white cardboard carton. (Side of Alka-Seltzer is advised.)
4. Sweet Treats
I’ve had a long love affair with Tiff’s Treats and can think of nothing better than a warm, chocolate chip cookie while settling in for a set from the Avett Brothers. But I’m also curious about Cool Haus, which is offering six different ice cream flavors—including Southern Belle candied peach and pecan and Choco Vivo salted chocolate vegan—to sandwich between 4 different cookie options including gluten free coconut almond and double chocolate.
5. Mighty mighty crunchy chicken cone
Call me a creature of habit, but it’s just not an ACL music weekend without a sweet and crispy fried chicken breast wrapped in a tortilla followed by the slow burn of spicy sauce and cole slaw to round it out. I’ll definitely do my part to check out the new vendors on the scene this year, but not at the expense of my annual Mighty Cone.
I plan to wash it all down with a coconut snow cone from Snowie and perhaps a few cold beers. Though I may need a few extra hours on my bike next week and plenty of antacids to recover from the weekend, it’s all in good fun and that’s the name of the ACL experience.