Best known as the Live Music Capital of the World, Austin, Texas, usually gets spotlighted when the thumping Austin City Limits Festival sets up shop within the expansive Zilker Park, or when South by Southwest, another music extravaganza, breezes through in March. Home to the University of Texas' football-obsessed campus, the Texas capital is growing in reputation not just for a stellar musical landscape or Longhorns sports, but for its food culture.
"Top Chef: Texas" shot episodes in Austin, and its two Austin-based cheftestants go way beyond Tex-Mex and BBQ. With recent honors from the James Beard Foundation, Food & Wine, The New York Times and Bon Appétit, it's clear that Austin is fast becoming a go-to destination for gourmands.
The downtown chefs
Austin's chef du jour is Tyson Cole, named Best New Chef of the Southwest at the 2011 James Beard Awards. You wouldn't have associated Texas with great sushi until Cole opened Uchi to great fanfare in 2003. By July 2010, Cole's second restaurant, Uchiko, came alive with executive chef Paul Qui, one of this season's "Top Chef" contenders, at the helm. At Uchi and Uchiko, presentation is flawless, and flavor pairings that seem off -- tuna and goat cheese? -- are sublime. (Uchi, 801 S. Lamar Blvd.; Uchiko, 4200 N. Lamar Blvd.; 512-916-4808, uchiaustin.com).
After Cole, it's all about David Bull's Congress, named Best New Restaurant in Texas by The New York Times. Served in a lush, cream-colored dining room, Congress' three-course ($75) and seven-course ($125) menus feature locally sourced ingredients, as well as paired wines (200 Congress Ave., 512-827-2760, congressaustin.com). Andrew Curren is another noteworthy addition to Austin's Executive Chef club. At 24 Diner, the "Top Chef" competitor is putting an upscale twist on comfort food, such as meat loaf with sweet onion gravy (600 N. Lamar Blvd., 512-472-5400, 24diner.com).
The BBQ/Tex-Mex duo
There are few better states than Texas for smoky barbecue and spicy Tex-Mex. Across downtown's West Second Street, a pair of restaurants deliver both. For barbecue, head to Lambert's, in a historic brick building that features live music upstairs. The room is laced with aromas of bacon and brown sugar; it's hard to think straight. Start with the crispy wild boar ribs ($12) and finish with a heaping plate of one, two or three smoked meats, such as maple-and-coriander pork ribs, with a side of mac 'n' cheese ($16) (401 W. Second St., 512-494-1500, lambertsaustin.com).
Across the street, La Condesa is Lambert's Tex-Mex sister. Here, the owners excel at Mexican in a swanky bilevel space that pumps out stiff margaritas, fresh seviches such as the excellent cobia with spicy aguachiles ($15), and cochinillo, a whole roasted suckling pig served family-style (400A W. Second St., 512-499-0300, lacondesaaustin.com).
The food trailers
Austin also is home to more than 1,500 mobile eateries that offer an abundance of choices, from kebabs to pizza to sweets. Gluten-free? Vegetarian? There's a trailer for that, while another sells only chicken and waffles. A few of Austin's can't-miss spots include Torchy's Tacos (1311 S. First St., 512-366-0537, torchystacos.com), where messy offerings such as the green chili pork can be had for less than $5; Gourdough's (512-607-6568, gourdoughs.com), where killer doughnuts such as the Funky Monkey are topped with caramelized bananas ($4.25); G'Raj Mahal (512-480-2255, grajmahalaustin.com), where chicken tikka masala can be inhaled for $11; and East Side King (512-422-5884, eastsidekingaustin.com), where Uchiko's Paul Qui is taking Asian street food to new heights.
Not all the trailers are serving fast-food fixes. At Odd Duck Farm to Trailer (512-565-4149, oddduckfarmtotrailer.com), chef Bryce Gilmore sells slow-roasted pork belly sliders rubbed with coffee. Named one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs for 2011, Gilmore is also chef-owner of the brick-and-mortar restaurant Barley Swine (2024 S. Lamar Blvd., 512-394-8150, barleyswine.com).
The East Side
Across town from glam South Congress, or SoCo, the grittier East Side is slowly becoming Austin's destination for food and drink. Franklin BBQ has a cultlike following -- including a YouTube video homage -- and was recently named Best Barbecue in America by Bon Appétit magazine. That long line is worth it for perfectly smoked and gently crisped brisket ($16) and pulled pork ($13 a pound)(900 E. 11th St., 512-653-1187, franklinbarbecue.com).
Cashing in on the burger-bar craze, Your Mom's Burgers (1701 E. Cesar Chavez St., 512-474-MOMS, eatatyourmoms.com) is churning out two-fisted varieties for under $8, while Justine's (4710 E. Fifth St., 512-385-2900, justines1937.com) polishes things up with elegant bistro fare.
After eating, check out the scene at some of Austin's favorite dive bars. Be sure to order your drink with Tito's -- Austin's hometown, handmade vodka -- at standbys Rio Rita (1308 E. Sixth St., 512-524-0384, riorita.net), Yellow Jacket Social Club (1704 E. Fifth St., 512-480-9572, yellowjacketsocialclub.com) or Shangri La (1016 E. Sixth St., 512-524-4291, shangrilaaustin .com). Work through the next morning's hangover at Cisco's (1511 E. Sixth St., 512-478-2420). The cheap breakfast tacos stuffed with eggs, chorizo and cheese; or the migas ($8), scrambled eggs with all the fixings, are guaranteed remedies.
Austin isn't just about savory stuff; there's plenty for those with a sweet tooth. Tap your inner child at The Cupcake Bar, on the UT campus (512-903-0187, thecupcakebaraustin.com). Pick your cake, then your frosting and choose from over 75 toppings (sprinkles, Oreos, praline crunch, etc.). The team at Waltons Fancy and Staple (609 W. Sixth St., 512-542-3380, waltonsfancyandstaple.com), which is also responsible for Sandra Bullock's nearby Bess Bistro, has assembled a menu of sandwiches and snacks, as well as freshly baked breads and treats such as Texas cream puffs and spicy peanut brittle. The brand-new Austin Cake Ball Kitchen & Bar (3401 Esperanza Crossing, 512-215-3633, austincakeball.com) serves cocktails, small bites and their beloved cake balls -- more than a cupcake, less than a cake -- in a relaxed kitchen and bar setting
The healthy stuff
With such indulgent food at every turn, Austin prides itself on being an active city. Runners take laps around Lady Bird Lake, while hikers tackle the trails. Rent a bike at Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop for as little as $30 a day (400 Nueces St., 512-473-0222, mellowjohnnys.com) and cycle over to supermarket behemoth Whole Foods (525 N. Lamar Blvd., 512-476-1206, wholefoodsmarket.com).
When Whole Foods was founded in Austin in 1980 with a staff of 19, the concept of organic food was still novel. Today, the market is the most visited tourist attraction in the city, on par with the state capitol building. Featuring four in-store eateries, a new 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating program for assessing how your meat is raised, and on-site cooking coaches to guide shoppers through recipes, Whole Foods is educating at-home cooks on the tenets of eating well.
Want to explore an Austin neighborhood through its food? Austin Eats Food Tours (512-963-4545, austineatsfoodtours.com) are three-hour walking tours ($65-$69) that sample six to eight different spots within Austin's culinary scene. With tours on foot or by bike, and visits to old-school staples such as Hut's Hamburgers, a converted drive-in from the 1930s, this is the best way to experience Austin's food scene in one day.
Still hungry? The inaugural Austin Food & Wine Festival, sponsored by Food & Wine magazine, will take place this year from April 27 to 29, showcasing Austin's chefs and food, as well as other food celebrities. Tickets go on sale Jan. 24 (austinfoodandwinefestival.com).