Taste of Texas Revisited

Texas' best chefs strut their stuff for festival visitors

Paul Qui at the Texas Wine & Food Festival's Taste of Texas event
Paul Qui at the Texas Wine & Food Festival's Taste of Texas event (Photo by John Anderson)

Austin's culinary event calendar is packed in the spring, with sometimes as many as three or four can't-miss party opportunities in the same week. The most popular style of event by far is still the "sip and stroll," where guests move from station to station, enjoying a serving of food. Participating chefs are presented with this task: Come up with a two- or three-bite dish that evokes the restaurant's culinary focus. That dish must travel well; be kept hot or cold and intact (scooped, skewered, rolled, layered, etc.) on the way to the event and during service, for speed of delivery at the party; be easily replicated several hundred times; come packaged in an innovative delivery system (all the tiny little bowls, boxes, cones, skewers, and trays available now make this part easier than it used to be); and most importantly, be able to be eaten while walking and talking without getting food all over the diner's face or party clothes. Hence, the term "hoof food," coined long ago by caterers – food that can be eaten on the hoof. Oh, and there's also the time away from the restaurant to consider, and maybe additional staff required to help out in the booth; while there is sometimes a small stipend to cover raw food costs, most often the whole thing is a donation, written off to marketing and the desire to gain exposure through community outreach. That hollow marrow bone with a thimble-full of gazpacho in it takes on a whole other dimension now, doesn't it?

The Taste of Texas sip and stroll event in Republic Square Park kicked off last week's Austin Food & Wine Festival with a lineup of hot young chefs from Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston. Some of the chefs had participated in the Austin Food & Wine Alliance Live Fire event for several hundred people the night before, and some would be appearing at other festival events over the weekend. (Being an active part of the community takes lots of time outside the restaurant these days.) Food tents were arrayed around the perimeter of the park with bars strategically placed in opposite corners and servers working the crowd with cocktails and wine. Some food booths had predictably long lines, such as those of Paul Qui, representing his East Side King trailer empire and soon-to-open Qui restaurant, and perennial local favorites Uchi and Franklin Barbecue. Other stalls developed lines as the buzz about their dishes rippled through the crowd – "Don't miss the shrimp and grits" or "Have you had the corn pudding on the lime half?" Much of the food was of stellar quality, well thought out, and smartly presented, providing a tasty glimpse of a particular restaurant's culinary direction. Here are the bites that inspired me to want a meal in the restaurant as well.

Qui/East Side King: Paul Qui and his crew served up a clever grilled cheese sandwich where tangy kimchi and thinly sliced, crisp apples did a little tango on a base of buttery brioche and creamy brie; easy to eat and almost as popular with the crowd as getting their picture taken with Austin's genial Top Chef.

Contigo: The puffy rice chips topped with shaved fennel, pine nuts, and micro greens dressed with a coconut water and Kaffir lime juice vinaigrette pointed to the lighter side of chef Andrew Wiseheart's ranch-inspired cuisine. It was the lightest, brightest bite of the night, but serving a dish that had to be assembled with tweezers and at the last minute before service might not have been the best choice.

Jason Dady Restaurants (San Antonio): Dady's innovative take on Mexican street corn offered a sweet dollop of corn pudding on a lime half, dusted with Mexican queso fresco. Scraping your teeth across it just the right way delivered bites that were sweet, creamy, acidic, and salty all at the same time. No plates, no utensils, all compostable – green idea.

Franklin Barbecue: What else is there to say? There's a reason people continue to stand in line.

Lüke (San Antonio): Chef John Russ of the River Walk's Lüke, John Besh's first restaurant outside of Louisiana, represented his native state well with big Gulf shrimp in a tangy, buttery, NOLA-style barbecue sauce on a pool of luxurious cheddar grits.

Brennan's of Houston: Chef Danny Trace delivered another marvelous Louisiana-inspired bite of fried shrimp and tasso ham in a lip-tingling sauce spiked with Crystal Hot Sauce.

Foreign & Domestic: Jodi Elliott's blondies with strawberries were my favorite sweet bite of the night.

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Taste of Texas, Austin Food & Wine Festival, Paul Qui, East Side King, Qui, Franklin Barbecue, Contigo, Jason Dady, John Russ, Lüke San Antonio, Brennan's of Houston, Danny Trace, Foreign & Domestic, Jodi Elliott

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