Dispatch, Austin: Alive, well and weird

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Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann is in Austin, Texas, a city where he once lived. His first dispatch from the city follows. Click to read Arnie's second and third dispatches. 

When I moved to Austin in 1981, it seemed everyone was in mourning, lamenting the death of the "real" Austin.

My arrival, it turned out, had coincided with the demolition of the Armadillo World Headquarters, a venue that was both a music hall and a shrine to the Austin way of life, a unique style that was later summed up on the bumper sticker, "Keep Austin Weird."

I soon discovered that if indeed the "real" Austin had died, the corpse was still plenty interesting, from its still-thriving music scene to its Tex-Mex restaurants to its spring-fed swim holes to the beauty of the surrounding Hill Country and, above all, to the laid-back attitude of its residents.

I ended up living in Austin longer than I've lived anywhere else — 20 years — and during that time, I listened to Austinites (many of whom arrived after 1981) complain that, recently, the "real" Austin had died.

Far from dying, Austin continues to amaze me with its adaptations. A couple of years ago, I heard about "the crepe ladies," who parked a trailer on a shady empty lot in South Austin and began making crepes so good that chef and Food Network star Bobby Flay visited and challenged them to a throwdown.

I stopped by Flip Happy Crepes, and found that their hours were, to say the least, erratic — though I was using the best local intelligence I could muster, they weren't open the first three times I went there.

And I discovered that when they were open, you'd better be prepared to wait if you wanted to sample their food. They're popular, and every crepe is made fresh, by hand.

A year later, I went to G'Raj Mahal, an Indian food trailer that was amazingly well-equipped (it's certainly the only trailer I've seen that has a tandoori oven in it). It served great food and, as a bonus, they delivered to a bar across the street for anyone who wanted a cold beer to go with their spicy food.

I had heard that the trailer culture had expanded over the last year, but I was totally unprepared for what I found when I arrived in Austin earlier this week. The trailer scene has positively exploded, and the offerings are varied, creative and astoundingly delicious.

I asked a local chef/restaurateur, Emmett Fox, who has two established restaurants in town (Asti and Fino), and who had turned me on to G'Raj Mahal, to take me on a culinary tour of the trailer scene.

I found that full colonies of trailers have taken over vacant lots. The colonies are not thematic or "developed" like a mall food court; they represent the widely disparate spirit of enterprising chefs.

He took me to the Trailer Park and Eatery on South First. It has a semi-permanent feeling about it, and features gourmet chocolate confections (Holy Cacao) next to Man Bites Dog, a glorified hot dog stand (or, perhaps more correctly, a stand that glorifies hot dogs) next to a taco trailer (Torchy's Tacos, the colony's anchor).

At the Eatery, there are parking lot tables and a style-forward shelter with tables and stuffed chairs, as well as a game-room annex (foosball, ping pong, table shuffleboard) and, a rarity among the trailer colonies, restrooms.

Fox told me that there is a robust exchange between established restaurants (Torchy's has several fixed locations) and trailers. Some trailer chefs have "graduated" and opened more traditional restaurants (while still maintaining their trailer presence) and some established restaurants, including the venerable Hudson's on the Bend, have opened a trailer.

The superstar of Austin's trailer culture is Bryce Gilmore, whose father Jack started the popular local restaurant Z Tejas Southwestern Grill. Bryce's trailer, Odd Duck Farm-to-Trailer on South Lamar Boulevard, is outfitted with a wood grill and is surrounded by pots with fresh herbs and tomato plants.

The chalkboard menu on the day that I visited featured pork belly sliders with sauerkraut and paprika aioli; quail with sweet potato salad, pecan cheddar and champagne vinaigrette; wild boar chili; venison sausage; and parmesan grits with soft-boiled duck eggs, grilled kohlrabi and mushrooms.

While maintaining his trailer, he also opened a 36-seat restaurant, Barley Swine. Fox tells me you should visit Gilmore's venues as soon as they open if you want to avoid a long wait at either place. The lines got longer earlier this month after he was named by Food and Wine magazine as one of the nation's best new chefs of 2011.

My 8- and 10-year old sons had joined Fox and me for the trailer tour, and they had a hands-down favorite: Gourdough's Donuts, which was in the same colony as Gilmore's Odd Duck.

I thought I had seen the most advanced donut creations in existence at New York's Doughnut Plant on the Lower East Side. In fact, I had seen nothing.

The first indication that these donuts were unusual was a notice on the menu that "All donuts are $4.25. Add $1 for meat."

After taking our order, the man in the trailer told us it would be "about 10, 15 minutes." I looked around and saw only one other family waiting, leading me to wonder whether he was working on an unusually large order.

It turns out that each donut is made by hand, and the results, served with a knife and fork, are culinary works of art.

My 10-year-old had a "Flying Pig" donut, which comes with bacon and maple syrup icing. My 8-year-old settled on "Blue Balls," donut holes with blueberry jam and an electric-blue icing drizzle. I chose "Granny's Pie," a Bananas Foster-like confection with caramel, pecans, bananas and broken graham crackers.

None of us could finish our portions, though not for lack of effort.

Fox said some of the town's established restaurateurs have expressed some resentment toward the trailer chefs, who set themselves up for a fraction of the cost of developing a traditional restaurant. He, however, loves the addition of the trailer culture to an already thriving food scene.

"The great thing is that it's almost all young kids. I say, let 'em rock and roll," Fox said.

He did, however, point out one downside to establishing a trailer business: "A few of them have been stolen off the lots at night."

I do know that Austin is not the only city to experience a boom in trailer food, but I hadn't before seen it pulled off on such a large and highly creative scale.

It's quite possible that all those who have said that "Austin has died" were in a sense correct. But I'm not sure that those deaths were an entirely bad thing.

There's a fine line between being in a groove and being stuck in a rut; it's nice being in a city that recreates itself on a regular basis.

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