We started our first day in Austin north of town at the Monument Cafe in Georgetown. The first thing I noticed was how big the place is. It has one of the biggest dining rooms I have ever seen, and was told the capacity is 242, all in one room. The place is completely open, including the kitchen. It’s Texas-sized.
We had a full day of stuffing our faces planned, so we decided to share one breakfast of Eggs Benedict. That left room for us to sample a breakfast taco while we were at it. Our waitress wasn’t personable at all and we never did get her name. I suspect she was either preoccupied or just having a bad day. She was pretty good about tending to our table and she did bring out our food, but she ordered it as a split plate for us (which we hadn’t asked for). No big deal, other than trying to get a decent photo, but the hash browns got cold. She jumped to the rescue and immediately brought us out a hot and satisfying plate full of GBD hash browns (which turned out to be the star of the show). The hash browns hit all the right buttons… hot, crispy, crunchy, salty, creamy, and a deep flavor that can only come from cooking them old school.
The Eggs Benedict were not quite as satisfying, but they were good. I enjoyed mine more than Anna did hers. I’m learning now that it’s easy to assemble an Eggs Benedict, but it’s hard to bring it all together as a cohesive luxurious dish. I gave the dish a seven out of ten, and Anna gave it a five. We were comparing notes on the way to the next place, and it was like we had two different orders of Eggs Benedict. As I mentioned a while back, Hob Nob Hill in San Diego has really set the bar for Eggs Benedict done right, and we now have high expectations that we carry with us wherever we roam.
The breakfast taco was good. It starts with a grilled flour tortilla which is filled with eggs, potatoes, sausage and cheese. What’s not to love? I don’t normally go in for potatoes (or beans) on a taco, but I was happy to make an exception this time since the potatoes were so good. It hit the spot for me, and I watched intently as Anna tried the taco to make sure she didn’t get too carried away. I was ready to pounce. Good stuff.
The Monument Cafe has a full menu, and they are dedicated to using only the best ingredients. I liked the decor and the vibe, all the cooks in the back bedecked in white with the white paper hats. The atmosphere is tasteful and casual. I’m sure all the locals are thrilled to have this place handy. Sadly, Anna was hoping to meet Matthew McConaughey (can’t blame her there), but he didn’t show up. It’s probably just as well because I think she was wanting to try her version of How To Win A Guy In Ten Minutes, which I’m sure would have gotten us thrown out and possibly arrested.
We drove over to Round Rock Donuts and ordered up a sample of their finest donuts. The apple fritter was excellent. Their vanilla cream filled and chocolate covered donut was equally yummy. The real star however, was their humble glazed donut. I ordered it merely to round out the show and try it since we were so far from home. I rarely have donuts at all, and when I do indulge in them, I usually go in for the fancier donuts. I think the last time I had a glazed donut was at Krispy Kream, maybe ten years ago. I was not impressed.
Having been relegated to little more than an afterthought, I saved the glazed donut for last, and when I took the first bite I just couldn’t believe it. I’m at a loss for words to describe it. It was so simple and so good. It’s warm and super fresh. It’s light as air yet delightfully chewy. It has just the right amount of soul-stirring sweetness balanced with a luxurious and buttery savory flavor and mouth feel. It had the definitive orange hue about it. I can tell you how good it tastes, but I can’t tell you why.
I knew I was going back in for more. I wanted to get two more, but knew better than to make a pig out of myself. I have to respect myself in the morning. Thank goodness I live a thousand miles away, because if I was much closer than that, I would not be able to resist them. Quite simply, it’s fifty-nine cents of donut heaven. They could call this donut the “Better Than Sex Glazed Donut” and get away with it. It’s that good. Granted, there is nothing better than sex, but put one of these donuts in your mouth and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a good little drive north of Austin, but I’m going back before we leave town. They’re open seven days a week starting at four in the morning. I’m amazed if they haven’t expanded or franchised; but if they change the name of the donut they’ll have to do something to keep up with the insatiable demand. I’ll sell them the copyright for five percent, and you read it here first.
I know it’s not a DDD place, but I’m including it here because it was an amazing experience and it highlights an important culinary principle. Flour, yeast, oil, sugar, magic. Maybe some love? These donuts show what happens when you take a few simple and humble ingredients and combine them with superior craftsmanship and a great recipe to produce crazy good food. It was my first mind-blowing experience of the day, but it was far from being my last.
We made the short drive east to Taylor,Texas and pulled in for lunch at the famed Louie Mueller Barbecue, “An Authentic Texas Tradition Since 1949.” We rolled in just about opening time, but to those in the know, the best way to tell that lunch is ready is when you see Old Glory proudly displayed out front.
We parked the car and entered the hallowed building. The instant you set foot into Louie Mueller’s you become aware that you are in the presence of decades worth of some of the finest smoke in Texas. The place is so big, it used to be a basketball court, and the decades of smoke have permeated everything inside, from the floor to the skylights.
There is an ample selection of barbecued meats and poultry to choose from and every single piece is cut to order when you get to the head of the line. The line moves slow, but no one seems to mind waiting because the barbecue is that good. By the time we left, the line was all the way to the door.
We weren’t real hungry so I ordered a half pound of brisket, a chipotle sausage link and a side of potato salad. Everyone at the counter gets a generous hunk of brisket to sample, and I was giddy with excitement when I got my piece. I bit off about half, and I hope no one was watching because I had a visceral reaction to it. I literally had to use the counter for support because it made me weak in the knees. It would have been right in front of the very attractive woman tending the cash register. Her name is Lisa and she recommended the sausage and potato salad for us (since we couldn’t try one of everything).
All the food was excellent and I was sorry that we couldn’t have eaten more. The brisket was so good, I didn’t even consider having sauce with it (or bread). I did treat myself to some of the pickles and onions which provided a nice contrast and crunch. The sauce was tasty and I used it for dipping the sausage. The brisket is all about two things: the beef and the smoke. I got to meet the owner, Wayne Mueller, and learned that it takes years to learn the craft. Like all master craftsmen, they just make it look easy. It’s actually lots of hard work and very labor intensive as well as time consuming.
Low and slow… it’s the last thing you want when you’re flying a plane, but it’s the only way to do barbecue right.
Wayne graciously showed me the smokers which are fired by the indirect heat of Texas Post Oak wood, and tended to by him and his crew. They also have an impressive mobile rig out back that has seen its share of the road for catering and special events; going as far as the Miami South Beach Food Festival. Rounding out the lot is an auxiliary smoker inside that is used more for the poultry and sausages. Being a third generation pit master, Wayne proceeded to tell me about some of the variables that I never would have thought of. For example, the changing of the seasons, humidity, prevailing winds, the directional orientation, the relative wetness and dryness of the wood, and on it goes. One thing is for sure… it ain’t no easy way to make money (and it sure ain’t fast).
Having a lot in common, Wayne and I hit it off and chatted for an hour or so. The more I got to know him the more impressed I became. He is super intelligent, highly educated and talented, and a dedicated family man. It was obvious to me that he has a lot on the ball and would be successful at whatever he set his mind to. Among the many good reasons why this man does what he does, I’d say the main reason is to carry on the fine family tradition, like his father before him.
Just to put an exclamation point on that, I told Wayne that the main reason I came to his place (besides trying the food) is because of the tradition of setting out the flag out front. Wayne said he had something he wanted to show me and disappeared into the back. He came out and presented me with a retired American Flag, which had been flown out front. I was deeply moved to receive such a gift and will be proud to take care of it.
If you want to wrap your lips around some of the best barbecue on the face of the planet (aka legendary Texas barbecue from Louie Mueller’s), but can’t make it to Taylor,Texas… good news—there are some plans in the works for expansion. So stay tuned to this website, or their website for further details and the latest news.
We were already having a great day, and it got even better still when we rolled into the Noble Pig. It’s in a strip mall, next to a gas station on a busy street, but don’t let that fool you. Inside the Noble Pig the intrepid foodie will find a treasure of culinary delights. The dining room is meticulously clean and inviting. The checkerboard floor tile and wooden furniture evoke a down home country appeal, which was accentuated with some great classic country music in the background. The decor and color scheme is appealing, and the main star of the decor is the large chalk board slash menu.
We were fortunate to arrive during the mid afternoon lull, so we didn’t have to wait for a table, and we were able to meet and talk with one of the co-owners, John (who made the duck pastrami sandwich on the show). In additional to being an extraordinary chef, John is also a people person who digs good hospitality. Quick example… how about spinning up a luxurious chocolate pot de crème but putting it in a mason jar and serving it as chocolate pudding? Cool, huh? I was so intent on reading all the creations on the chalk board, I didn’t even notice the glass case at the counter full of goodies, including the puddings.
We ordered the eponymous Noble Pig Sandwich, with provolone cheese on house baked white bread. This inspired creation features spicy ham, pulled pork and crispy bacon—all made from scratch right there on the premises. I don’t know if John made the sandwich himself, but he did serve it to us along with a jar of the chocolate pudding, his treat, which he wanted us to indulge in since we are such big fans of the show and had traveled so far to get there.
The meats were divine and all three put together make for an unbelievably good taste sensation. The kicker on this sandwich is the mustard, a young and spicy mix that screams for attention but doesn’t try to slap you in the face. It’s heady, and just the right amount of zing to complement the rich flavors of the meat.
John checked on us to see how we were enjoying the sandwich. Once he realized that we are foodies, he wanted us to try his famous duck pastrami, and so he brought us out a duck pastrami sandwich, on the house. Wow. I’m glad he did because it was the last thing on the menu that I would have ordered, and it was super good. The flavors of the duck pastrami were deep, rich and balanced; yet they were gentle enough to be offset by thinly sliced house cured pickles and a dab of Russian dressing.. We had no doubt that we were in the presence of greatness (and damned happy to be there).
The Noble Pig is what happens when two very talented culinary guys (with supportive families) get together to create and realize a vision of elevating sandwich craft to an art form, as well as making it accessible and affordable to the public. Now, any of us mere mortals can waltz in off the street and sample from a wide array of scrumptious culinary creations for just a few bucks.
Of course, I’ve left out a couple of details. You have to love food and hospitality. You have to learn how to be a great cook. You have to be willing to defy the odds and risk your financial future and invest your last dollar, and one more thing… you have to be willing to bust your ass and work hard fourteen hours a day, seven days a week.
The Noble Pig is a great American success story, and I’m delighted that it was featured on DDD. The experience of going there, having the great food, and meeting the great people is precisely why we’re traveling and writing about it. For me, people like John are truly living the life that they have created for themselves… in this great land of unlimited opportunity. People like Guy Fieri himself. People who have the guts to go for it. As the saying goes, the greater the risk the greater the reward.
We were barely able to finish all the food. The sandwiches and potato chips hit the spot, and the pudding was silky and luxurious. The chocolate flavor was deeply developed and enhanced with a bit of spice for a little unexpected kick. It was so thick, it almost had the mouth feel of butter; and as far as I’m concerned, if you’re going to have pudding, you may as well have something this delicious and satisfying. This little jewel is all about the cream.
I’d love to try everything on the menu, and was sorry we didn’t have room to try the Knuckle Sandwich. I was already jumping ahead mentally and wondering if we could possibly make it back to The Noble Pig before we left town. It’s safe to say that everyone within a hundred miles of Austin should go to the Noble Pig and try at least two or three of their fantastic sandwiches and be sure to save room for the pudding.
We ran around the rest of the day and ended up for a spot of dinner at Luke’s Inside Out down by Gibson’s Bar on South Lamar Street. It’s just a trailer, but they’re putting out some killer food and serving the whole bar. I hated to miss the hamburger, but we ordered The Pig, which is a pulled pork sandwich on a roll, with cheddar, smoked gouda, onion rings and chow chow (a salsa like mixture of red onions, pickles, jalapenos and tomato). The Pig was accompanied with parmesan potato chips.
We grabbed a little table at the curb and took in the people enjoying the Austin night life while we waited for our food. There was one woman in particular who was wearing a flimsy little dress (and wearing it so well it was like she was doing it a favor). It was cut high to show off her legs, and cut low to show off her other features; and yet there was enough fabric to leave just enough to the imagination to drive men nuts. Lucky for her she didn’t need to bend over for anything, or I’m sure she would have caused a wreck. We could have all been killed.
I watched the food coming out of the window in baskets, and decided that I was starving to death by the time our order came out. I wish I could tell you that it was the best pulled pork sandwich I have ever had; and my wish has come true because it absolutely was the best. It was OMG good. I should mention here that everything on the menu looked good, especially the burgers, which comes as no surprise to anyone who has either seen the show or eaten there in person. It was one of the occasions where the food was so good I really didn’t want to share it; not because I was hungry but because it tasted so good. The picture doesn’t do it justice. Go to Luke’s Inside Out, and you will be sure to leave with a smile on your face. Luke’s Inside Out is a destination.
Our next morning started with a breakfast at the Magnolia Cafe, a funky joint just south of the Congress Avenue Bridge (where we had watched the bats fly out the night before). The decor is capital F Funky, with a decided music theme and lots of graffiti. There was a good wait for a table, about half an hour, but it sure was worth it. They have a big patio out back, but we ended up getting a booth inside. Our server, Jenny, was super friendly and took great care of us (although our food was dropped by a runner). Jenny is a real people person, warm, sharp as a tack; and she has the most pleasant aura and manner about her. It’s like when you get her attention, the whole world stops for you. I totally dug it, and I hope she loves waiting tables because she’s a natural. We didn’t get her picture, so we’ll have to go back.
We ordered the Texas Benedict which is a riff on Eggs Benedict but using sausage instead of Canadian Bacon, and a chipotle hollandaise sauce; and we also treated ourselves to a peach pancake, which was on the daily special. All the food was scrumptious. I was expecting sausage patties, instead of diced, but the flavor was great. The pancake was yummy (and huge). The couple at the next table got a basket of tortilla chips with salsa, and they were so golden yellow that I wondered if they taste as good as they looked. I asked Jenny to sneak a chip out from the kitchen, and she brought us a little basket. Although they aren’t actually made on site, they are made special and they did taste as good as they looked. I was delighted, and the salsa was good too; not too hot, and obviously fresh made. Just about everything is made from scratch, but you wouldn’t know it to look at their low prices.
The Magnolia Cafe is open 24/7 (Sorry) and they have a wide menu selection. I liked the place and would love to go back and try some of their other foods. It’s obviously an institution, and seems to be a cherished Austin landmark.
We rolled up to the Counter Cafe for part two of our breakfast. We lucked out and caught a lull in the Saturday morning rush, so we didn’t have to wait in line for a table. The place is small and packed, with an open kitchen off to the side, and theater seating along the counter. We ordered a pair of breakfast tacos, on flour tortillas, which consist of local farm fresh scrambled eggs, bacon, potatoes and cheese, served with fresh salsa. The tacos were the best breakfast tacos I’d ever had, so I was pleased and delighted. The real kicker on these tacos is the potatoes, which are fried to crispy crunchy deliciousness. The service was fast. Although we missed our shot, I keep hearing that the Counter Cafe is famous for their burgers. They’re not open for dinner however, so plan on a lunch or have a burger for breakfast (or spend the day).
After a full afternoon of goofing off, we headed back to the South Lamar area to start dinner at the Green Mesquite. This place turned out to be more of a destination than I was expecting. It’s pretty specious inside and they also have a large patio with live music in the back. We got a great server, Chris, who was real friendly and took good care of us. We were planning to go somewhere else for burgers later (which didn’t work out) so we didn’t order a full dinner. Although the Green Mesquite has some great Texas barbecue, and a full menu, I noticed they had Philly cheesesteak tacos and decided that I couldn’t live without giving them a try.
The tacos rolled out with some lettuce and tomatoes, which set me into a bit of a panic, but I decided it was appropriate for tacos and looked past it. As it turns out, the tacos were fabulous, with that deep and satisfying cheesesteak flavor. I got my fix. It’s also available as a sandwich, but I wasn’t taking any chances with bread. The tacos did it for me and I’m looking forward to experimenting with the concept when I get home. If the concept works for tacos, why not burritos?
As it turns out, we should have had a full dinner at Green Mesquite. I wanted to sample the Gruyere cheese popovers at Foreign & Domestic, but they don’t do to-go orders and there was a 45-60 minute wait for a table (as we were told over the phone). I thought there was a misunderstanding. I was just calling ahead to make sure they had the popovers, and couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t sell them to us without waiting for a table. I don’t know if they had a minimum order per table, but the implication seemed to be that you can’t get the popovers unless you go in for a full dinner. That’s their prerogative, but I was put off by it. I’ve never had Gruyere popovers and was really looking forward to it.
We botched our dinner plans and were getting tired of driving around. As a last resort, I thought we could grab a little something at a drive-thru, but we never came across any on the way back to our motel. We went to bed hungry (believe it or not).
Sunday morning arrived on our last full day in Austin, and we opened Maria’s Taco Express at 9:00 a.m. We had been hearing lots of good things about Maria’s place, but we weren’t prepared for all the crazy art work everywhere you look. Come for the food, but be prepared to spend at least fifteen minutes touring all the art work, inside and out. Besides being an entrepreneur, Maria is an artist, with a funky/hippy style that is uniquely hers. We didn’t get to meet Maria, who happened to be on vacation in Italy; but we did get to meet the general manager and long time friend, Fernando.
Maria’s has a very enticing menu, so consider yourselves warned if you love Mexican food as much as I do. We were pretty hungry, given that we didn’t finish having dinner the night before. We ordered a taco al pastor, a taco picadillo, a cheese enchilada, a beef enchilada suiza, and a “Cha-cha-lupa” (which comes with al pastor, refried beans, guacamole and queso). We accompanied all the great food with a large sampling of the salsa bar. It was quite a feast and we enjoyed every bite. I was sure from watching the show that I was going to love the authentic enchiladas with the house made chile sauce (and I did). I think it was on par with the best I’ve ever had.
I was just so delighted with both the food and the place that I asked Fernando if we could interview him. He graciously accepted and we grabbed a quiet table outside. Fernando has a very calm and pleasing manner about him, and the story of Maria’s place is so interesting that we ended up having a nice long chat. He is from Mexico, with a strong restaurant background, and Maria is originally from Argentina. What would eventually grow into Maria’s Taco Express, with a capacity of over 200, started as a humble taco stand. I couldn’t begin to tell Maria’s story here, but it seems she has beaten the odds and turned into an American success story despite the fact that she was broke, homeless and didn’t speak English. It’s too bad we didn’t get to meet her.
The conversation turned to food, and I picked Fernando’s brain for all I could get away with. We covered most of the menu and decided that we missed out on the Migas taco and the Chorizo taco. Fernando invited us to come back the next day and try the tacos as their treat. We weren’t planning on it, but sure appreciated the generous offer. We thanked Fernando for his hospitality and generosity and went back inside to have another look around. Maria’s is a must-see destination in Austin, and for that matter should qualify as an attraction unto itself. There’s so much great stuff to see that they could charge admission.
We drove back up to the Noble Pig and ordered the knuckle sandwich, which was featured on the show. John was there working, and it was nice to see him again. The sandwich was great, and the au jus for dipping was the best I’ve had anywhere. What I was really craving, however was the Noble Pig. I decided that I had to have it in order to make sure I liked it as much as I remembered it. The Noble Pig is truly inspired, and I was happy we made the return trip.
We also made a return trip to Round Rock Donuts, and I had two more of those incredible glazed donuts. I did my best to bring them down to an earthly status, but my best efforts were defied. It can only be magic.
Our last destination for the day was Casino El Camino, downtown on the famed 6th Street. We rolled in about dusk and spent a few hours checking out all the sites and enjoying the live music. Fun times. Anna chatted up a young woman who was out walking her dog, and she said she loved living there. They have some great stores too.
Casino El Camino had some of the craziest decor we’ve ever seen. I was planning to enjoy one of their signature burgers, but I saw them coming out of the kitchen and they didn’t look appealing. Raw buns, rare meat. I was disappointed to say the least. They had some hot dogs on the menu and I asked about the chili. They gave me a sample and it was nice and spicy. They said it’s canned chili, but they doctor it up. I ordered a chili dog, and one of their other dogs called the Tommy Two Tone dog with two dogs, cheese sauce and bacon. Note: On the show they actually used real cheese. The thinned-out cheese sauce was for crap, and probably out of a can.
Although the buns were raw and undressed (like the burgers), the dogs were charbroiled and cooked perfectly. I didn’t realize they were big giant quarter pounders either. On balance the whole experience was a major disappointment for us. We didn’t like the food or the decor, and instead of playing music, they were showing Fox cartoons which was blaring over the speakers upstairs (where we were trying to find a place to eat in peace). The cheese sauce was too thin to taste good, and I watched the cook slop it on the dogs like he was slinging food in boot camp, or prison. I wasn’t feeling the love, that’s for sure. That’s the kind of crap that goes on when the owner isn’t around. There’s plenty of other bars on 6th Street. I don’t know if any of them have great food, but I won’t be eating at Casino El Camino again. At least we were full.
We had a great time in Austin and the surrounding areas, and decided that it would be great to stop back by Maria’s Taco Express before we left for Houston (as well as Tommy’s Drum Shop).
Fernando wasn’t there, but Grisel took great care of us. She comped us for the two tacos that Fernando mentioned. In addition to the food which they so generously treated us to, we ordered a pollo guisado enchilada, a barbacoa taco, and another cha-cha-lupa. I also served up a full round of everything from the salsa bar, including the chimichurri (which they sell by the bottle).
I asked Grisel for a little taste of the queso (cheese) sauce that we talked about the day before. She gave us a full serving of that and a giant basket of tortilla chips. I told her to put half back, but she said if we couldn’t eat them all that we could take the rest with us. Can’t argue with that. We don’t normally indulge in big baskets full of tortilla chips, but we made a happy exception for Maria’s. The chips were good enough to eat plain, and with the queso it was like liquid gold. They use a special melting cheese, jalapenos and love. The enchiladas are to die for. Everything is made fresh from scratch and the quality shows in every delicious bite. I guess it’s time to take my enchiladas to the next level.
It was a hell of a spread and we ate every bit of it. It seemed like a reasonable amount when we ordered it. Just like the day before, all the food was scrumptious and deeply satisfying. The queso sauce and chips were the best I’ve ever had, and Maria’s proudly features a fantastic salsa bar. In addition to typical salsa, they also have chimichurri, pico de gallo, and salsa quemada (roasted). We had them all lined up to go with our chips and of course we tried them on all the foods. The barbacoa taco is super rich and flavorful and with the chimichurri, I was blown away. I’m glad Maria brought her Argentine influence with her, and I look forward to meeting her next time I get to town. Fernando is going to take me out for golf too, so it should be a fun trip.
The drive over to Houston was uneventful, and we wondered if we would ever get hungry again. Austin was a lot of fun and has a lot of great attractions when you throw in the great food spots. Guy made a half-joking comment about getting a condo there, and I felt the same way. Austin seems like my kind of town. It was my first visit there and I liked it. We got in almost everything we wanted to do, but I was sorry that we didn’t get to meet Maria, and apparently we should have tried the burgers at the Counter Cafe (where we had the breakfast tacos). In a land where beef is king, we got some truly inspired and tasty pork sandwich creations at the Noble Pig and Luke’s Inside Out. We had some legendary barbecue at Louie Mueller’s, and met some great people there. I will never forget how sublime and melt in your mouth scrumptious the humble glazed donuts are at Round Rock Donuts. I wish I could figure out their secret, but the only thing I can come up with so far is they must be using magic.
Next DDD Destination: Houston (DDD Count: 229)