Where East meets Tex-Mex by way of France: Whip in and hang your hat for awhile
It’s hard to believe Whip In, the Travis Heights institution, got its humble start as a convenience store and gas station on the access road of I-35. Amrit and Chandan Topiwala opened shop in 1986 and soon realized that beer — not gas or groceries — was their biggest seller.
In its 27 years of existence, Whip In has morphed into a brewpub and wine bar with a full menu and two stages for live music.
They decided to have the gas tanks removed and focus on their beverage program instead, and their hard-to-source beers slowly began taking over the store, cooler by cooler, before they acquired the 72 taps from which they now pour. In its 27 years of existence, Whip In has morphed into a brewpub and wine bar with a full menu and two stages for live music.
It was about five years ago that Chandan began to serve food at Whip In, adapting recipes from her home state of Gujurat in western India. The menu started off with rice bowls and “panaanis,” an Easternized version of the grilled, pressed Italian sandwich.
Though Gujurati cuisine is known for being spicy and near-vegan — save for the sparing use of ghee (clarified butter) — this “Whip Indianized” menu featured Tex-Mex twists like beef chili with cilantro chutney and pulled pork with mango chutney. (Chandan has never tasted beef in her life, but Dipak, her son and manager of Whip In, muses about the first time she touched meat and made the best chili he’d ever tasted.)
When Chandan retired last summer to spend her days with her grandchildren, longtime family friend and chef Martine Pèlegrin (of Chez Nous, Bistro Le Marseillais and Houston’s beloved La Mora Cucina Toscana) stepped up to the plate. “I couldn’t have asked for somebody better to come to me," Chandan says. "She has this breadth of really authentic Puerto Rican style food from her own upbringing, matched with what she learned in the industry in French cooking... she knows how the spices balance perfectly.”
When Martine took over the kitchen, the first order of business was getting Chandan’s valued family recipes, which she never measured or wrote down. Dipak and his wife sat with his mother, watching her demonstrate how she cooked each dish on a small scale, which they then extrapolated to a larger version. Next, Martine began to develop more recipes to add to the menu, all using Indian spice profiles but many drawing on French techniques, such as her adaptations of chicken confit or cassoulet.
“It was a soup-style kitchen with a majority of the base on rice bowls,” says Dipak. “But [Martine] changed the kitchen into a more production-oriented, made-to-order situation.” Now Whip In boasts daily and weekend specials, a brunch menu and rotating desserts. The kitchen also incorporates beer whenever inspiration strikes, as found in dishes like the chicken braised with framboise or the lamb “beeryani” (biryani is a traditional Indian rice casserole) braised in the house trippel.
A creation Martine is particularly proud of is her Punjabi pozole. “Laying Indian flavors onto a pre-Columbian dish felt like some kind of devilish time travel," she says. “I built the soup on a broth made from a pig's head and infused it with Indian aromatics. Then I added the meat from the head, some pork butt and the hominy. I then served it with spiced Basmati rice and a fine chiffonade of mustard greens, dried fenugreek leaves, pickled onions and a fresh ginger-arbol salsa.”
Martine sources a majority of her ingredients from local, organic farms. Produce comes by way of Segovia Produce Company, pork from Richardson Farms, chicken from East Poultry Company, goats from Windy Hill Farm, lamb from Loncito’s Lamb, and beef from Bastrop Cattle Company.
They also take pride in a near-zero waste kitchen. “We make everything from scratch — everything,” says Martine. “All the chutneys, sauces, mayos, breads, corned beef, bacon, pickles and relishes. And we compost, recycle and use compostable and recyclable disposables.”
Always with a new idea on the horizon, Dipak plans on introducing a Tiffin program this January. Tiffin tins are stackable, stainless steel containers used in India to pack meals while keeping each component separate. A $30 Tiffin card purchased at Whip In will get customers five stamps, each good for one triple-stacked meal: $6 for rice, a vegetable/dahl dish and samosa or a dessert.
With arguably the best beer selection in the city, an ever-growing wine program, a one-of-a-kind fusion menu and nightly live music, it’s no wonder Whip In attracts all walks of life. On any given day, the warm, welcoming space is filled with young professionals, families, hippies, musicians, foodies and devout homebrewers.
They all come together in an Austin landmark that, much like the wine they pour, seems to just keep getting better with age.