The Austin Chronicle

The Meat of the Matter

The best of the 26th annual Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival

By Virginia B. Wood, April 1, 2011, Food

Though the financially beleaguered annual food and wine celebration is significantly streamlined this year, the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival enters its second quarter-century with plenty of meat on the basic bones of the event. Whether your tastes run to beef cooked over open flames, gourmet burgers, tacos, wild game, or cured meats and artisanal cheeses, fest organizers have designed offerings that are bound to satisfy. Texas wines will share the stage with the best vintages from California, Washington, Oregon, and Australia, plus handcrafted brews and custom cocktails. Established and emerging culinary talents from major Texas markets will be joined by up-and-coming chefs from New Orleans; Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; New York City; and the Austral­ian outback.

All the action begins today, March 31, and continues with a variety of tastings and seminars on Friday and Saturday, April 1-2. Some events are already sold out, but tickets are still available for some of the most delectable components of the fest. Here's the lowdown on three of the meatiest parties. See the full schedule, and buy tickets for individual events, at

Thursday, March 31

Stars Across Texas Classic

Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside; 7-10pm; $100 per person

The headliner of this annual tasting party is celebrated chef/restaurateur John Besh, a native of New Orleans who has recently added a San Antonio eatery to his stable of restaurants. I loved his My New Orleans cookbook from 2009 (see review, April 16, 2010) and am eagerly awaiting his PBS cooking show based on it. Besh and his staff from Lüke on the River Walk will join their talented peers from some of Texas' best restaurants in presenting signature tasting dishes. It's always fascinating to discover what the state's top chefs are showing off. Will there be lots of raw fish or several different takes on braised short ribs? What new savory ingredients will find their way into desserts? Invariably, there will be some spectacular bite that makes my sweet or savory Top 10 list for the year. Tickets can be purchased at the door. Arrive hungry!

Friday, April 1

Live Fire! Beef Supremacy Over Flames

Texas Disposal Systems Exotic Game Ranch, 11508 Carl Rd., Buda; 6:30-9pm; $75 per person

Outdoor events at this dramatic hilltop venue are always worth the trip. The festival returns to TDS after a two-year absence, and it's the perfect setting for chefs to demonstrate their mastery of cooking over open flames. National headliners for this big beef bonanza are Top Chef All-Stars contestant Casey Thompson of Dallas, The Next Iron Chef contestant Brad Farmerie of New York City, Australian chef Andrew Dwyer, and prominent Portland, Ore., chefs Andy Ricker and Rodney Muirhead. The visitors will be joined by some area favorites: pit masters Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue and Lou Lambert of Lamberts, chefs Jason Dady of Jason Dady Restaurants in San Antonio, John Bullington of the Alamo Drafthouse, Rebecca Rather of Rather Sweet Bakery in Fredericksburg, and Aimee Olson of Le Cordon Bleu. The chefs' delicious beef creations will be complemented by live music, premium wines, and custom cocktails. Be sure to drive by the paddock and say hello to Rowdy the Rhino while you're there!

Sunday, April 3

Sunday Fair – An Eclectic Urban Celebration of Food, Wine & Spirits

Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River St.; 1-5pm; $45 per person ($30, designated drivers)

The biggest change in this year's streamlined festival lineup is the relocation of the Sunday Fair. After a couple of years of muddy misery on the grounds at the Salt Lick and traffic nightmares on winding rural roads, festival organizers have given up on the concept of a bucolic, Hill Country setting and moved the fair Downtown. The facilities and grounds of the MACC on the shores of Lady Bird Lake will host an impressive lineup of tasty treats. Cooking demos, wines, craft brews, and custom cocktails will all be enjoyed with a background of live music. Another new wrinkle this year is a People's Choice Taco Showdown where popular taco trailer vendors Izzoz Tacos and Chi'lantro will take on representatives from Sazón, Zandunga Mexican Bistro, and Takoba. The competitors will be serving samples and selling tacos, and guests will vote to crown a winner. Cooking demonstrations are scheduled all afternoon in the MACC auditorium: taste the differences in various Kerrygold butters with Cathy Strange of Whole Foods (2pm), learn how to make pork tinga tostadas from chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo (3:15pm), or discover the secrets to a perfect Maker's Mark mint julep (4pm), among others.

A perennial problem at Sunday Fair has always been the amount of food available relative to the amount of alcohol it's possible to consume over the course of the afternoon. Fest organizers say they've taken this to heart and that more food will be for sale, such as snacks from several vendors and cheese plates presented by the local chapter of Les Dames d'Escoffier. The challenge at this year's fair is most certainly going to be parking. The lot at the MACC will be reserved for vendors and handicapped parking only. Parking on Rainey Street is discouraged. Valet parking will be available for $20. Guests can park in designated lots on two corners of the intersection of Red River and Cesar Chavez or in the two convention center parking garages; there will be regular shuttle service between those lots and garages and the MACC grounds. And remember, leave the kids at home – this is an outdoor cocktail party!

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