“This is what ACL used to be like,” said an attendee of Austin Food & Wine Festival near its close on Sunday, snacking on H-E-B nachos as the truck tried to reduce its stock. (It was one of the only vendors still open at 4:30 pm.) One pitmaster was putting the finishing touches on a roast, with a gaggle of sort-of-drunk onlookers leaning against the fence.
The Food & Wine Festival is a fascinating mix of ultra-prepared and laid-back. Wineries and local restaurants set up booths in rows that just keep popping up to foot traffic turning yet another corner. Troughs are filled with ice and canned drinks to grab in passing, and a DJ keeps the mood up for anyone who wants to step under the dance tent. But is the food good? Absolutely.
Chefs show an independent approach to offering samples, stepping away from signature menu items toward more unique recipes. Still, some trends emerged. Saturday, November 5, was swimming in fish, especially raw dishes like ceviche. Licha’s Cantina served an excellent one with a light touch: sweet and milky with chamoy and sesame, avoiding the tougher textures in many mixes.
Sunday, November 6, was, frankly, nearly over when I got there at 3:30 pm, thinking the previous day was a good indication that things would last. One attendee waiting in line for barbecue announced that she preferred the food on Sunday, but the atmosphere on Saturday. If Hillside Farmacy’s contribution — a very salty and tender meat with sweet root veggies — was any indication, this attendee’s rankings were likely shared by many.Some other highlights from the Austin Food & Wine Festival:
- Bento Picnic brought king salmon daikon rolls, with cucumber and furikake. The tiny veggie rolls tasted fresh, light, and not overly fishy. Blind Salamander toed that line with smoked salmon in mini seaweed waffle cones. One attendee grew suspicious of the tobiko (flying salmon roe), turning away from what he thought was an insect product. The seaweed cone was delicious and unique, but the highlight was the misunderstanding.
- The National Audubon Society participated in a talk about grasslands and cattle ranching, revealing to many that the bird protectors certify some ranchers as operating “bird friendly land.” The audience learned that grasslands are even better carbon sinks than forests, because when fires consume them, the stored carbon tends to stay underground instead of being released back into the atmosphere, as it would be by a burning tree.
- The Cantu Group served delicious and fall-ready “harvest margaritas” in little salt and cinnamon sugar-rimmed paper cups. The recipe is available on Instagram, using Rey Del Mundo Blanco tequila, apple cider, lime juice, and maple syrup. Fans of pumpkin beers (try these with a honey and cinnamon rim, too) will love this refreshing, but mild marg.
- Casper Fermentables brought a simple dish with especially tasty ingredients — something chefs talk about a lot, but don’t always get to show off in casual environments. Casper’s egg salad is super simple; it just tastes like eggs. But its pinkish-orange color drew attention to the Arkansas-laid eggs, with bigger, darker yolks that gave a bit more richness to the mix. (The “fermentable” was a cute little pickle slice, by the way.)
- The Nicolett represented that slice of gastronomy that shows foodies tricks they’d never think possible, with candied mezcal. The plain flavor was my favorite (reader, if you’re noticing a trend in my taste, you’re onto something). The mini pucks of dehydrated jelly are sweet, pure in flavor, and delicately crunchy. It wasn’t smoky, as I’d expected. The other flavors — charentais melon and hoja santa — were stronger, but still very demure. The Nicolett doesn’t sell them in bags yet, but they’re getting enough requests to get those cogs turning.
- One festival producer, who deflected any questions about a restaurant and casually walked off minutes later, produced a delicious beef tongue romesco sloppy joe. It’s the only time I’ve enthusiastically enjoyed that cut of beef, which is usually served in slices, but was this time pulled and served on a bun with pickles. Sloppy joes are not exactly the height of culinary achievement, but this fatty, tomato-forward sandwich was the perfect close to the day.
Aside from the barbecue lines (which were, admittedly, punishing), the Food & Wine fest can be done with little to no waiting. You’ll sacrifice a chance to taste the bites people are really crazy for, but you won’t leave hungry. Going with a buddy helps pass the time, but tasting solo is a fun way to broaden horizons and really think about what’s on the plate. Plus, there are other interesting people doing the same thing. You might leave with a new friend.