I’ve made a few recent weekend trips to Austin — for work both times — but managed to have a little fun on the side while I was there. This most recent trip to the Hill Country was for the Austin City Limits Music Festival (ACL) and just to answer any questions you may have, let me just say this: I saw exactly one band over the course of three days, subsisted on nacho cheese Doritos and Red Bull in the media area and worked for a good portion of the weekend with my laptop in a clear plastic garbage bag to protect it from the torrential rain.
The highlight of that particular weekend was getting fresh carnitas tacos (with pickled habanero peppers!) and elotes slathered with mayonnaise and parmesan cheese delivered to the tent courtesy of an Austin taco restaurant whose name I shamefully can’t remember (I think I was distracted by fighting for the last plug on the lone power strip so my laptop didn’t die). And after the last band played on Sunday night, Groovehouse and I packed our gear, hiked out of Zilker Park and back to our car, where we promptly deposited a heavy load of cameras, lenses, batteries, docking stations, laptops, iPhones, power chargers and all manner of 21st century detritus before walking to Shady Grove for a late dinner.
It was far from the best meal I’ve ever had, but we both dove headfirst into our veggie burgers and salads, clinging desperately to the promise of roughage cleaning out our systems from the trash we’d shoved into it all weekend. I reflected later on the poor quality of my Thai noodle salad and how eagerly I devoured it, thinking that I should never, ever, ever review food when famished.
The trip to Austin before the three-day endurance sport that was ACL was decidedly more relaxed, however. I was in town at the request of Robb Walsh, serving as a preliminary judge for the 19th annual Austin Hot Sauce Festival. I chronicled my misadventures on Sunday in a recent post on the Houston Press, if you care to read about how sick I got somewhere around sampling my 200th salsa. The highlight of that trip was a meal at Moonshine, the pictures from which are below.
And they still look pretty damn delicious, if I do say so myself.
Moonshine bills itself as “a return to great American cooking.” And I think they accomplish this quite well, without a lot of the fuss or pretense you’d expect from such a rootsy concept — especially in Austin. Located in an old 19th century saloon that’s part of the famous Waterloo Compound (a group of the city’s oldest commercial buildings) along Red River in downtown Austin, Moonshine feels as if it’s been there forever, blending into the cityscape and acting like a cool, comforting respite from the painfully trendy atmosphere that permeates Austin.
I’ll let the rest of the meal speak for itself.
This was a gem of a CFS — with a thick, crispy crust and tender interior — and the gravy had a very nice smoky kick to it, but I could have done without the marinara-smothered polenta on the side. I lamented this little cake of polenta later on, hating that restaurants often can’t think of anything better to do with it than slap tomato sauce on top. If this had been cooked in the style of, say, savory cheese grits…can you imagine how this entire plate would have hummed?
Again, an amazing main course and a rather uninspired side. Macaroni and cheese is one of those dishes that’s so elegantly perfect in its simplicity, it’s such a letdown when even one aspect is off. It’s mac ‘n’ cheese — not brain surgery. There needed to be a lot more cream and cheese here. That aside, the catfish in brown butter was — and I don’t say this lightly — the single best fish I have ever eaten. Anywhere. Ever. It’s been nearly a month and I still dream about how this dish tasted. The brown butter was just lightly spiked with a whisper of Cholula, soaking eagerly into the nutty crust around the firm fish. Unbelievable. I want to eat this every single day. Gah.
What’s a good Southern meal without red velvet cake to finish it off? We came so close to ordering the apple pie with maple ice cream, but will save that for next time. The layers of crimson-colored chocolate sandwiched between thick cream cheese frosting were nearly as good as my mother’s red velvet cake — and that’s saying a lot.
I’m looking forward to taking another weekend trip to Austin soon — and this time just to relax. And you can be damned sure you’ll find me sitting happily in the cozy dining room at Moonshine one night, as if I was returning home.