ACL Food Fest 2014: 9 hits and misses

By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 10.10.14
 HIT: Fun Punch ($6) from JuiceLand. Juice is the ponytail guy at the Austin City Limits Festival you hope doesn’t talk to you. Blah blah antioxidants something something kale. ACL’s a party, and a party needs punch with grapes and strawberries and blackberries and junk floating in red stuff with lots of ice. We won’t tell the bros that the red stuff is pineapple, cherries and ginger, or that it’s revitalizing without being syrupy or burpy. They’re just going to pour vodka in it anyway.
 HIT: Rib boat ($10) from the Salt Lick. Listen, I’ve peeled off more than 10 bucks for three pork ribs enough times to be grateful for the value in this trio of ribs from one of Central Texas’ most popular barbecue barns. These ribs were close to what the Salt Lick does in Driftwood — where every weekend is like ACL — with strong smoke, a little juice left in the meat and proper tension on the bone, the flavors locked in with a semisweet glaze. This is the closest you’ll get to uncut (and unchopped) Texas barbecue at Zilker Park without a VIP wristband. And go ahead, squeeze on some of that sweet mustardy barbecue sauce. We won’t tell.
 MISS: Kimchi fries with beef bulgogi ($10) from Chi’Lantro BBQ. Korea called. It wants you to stop calling this bland ground beef “bulgogi.” Chi’Lantro’s kimchi fries were one of the most frustrating dishes I’ve had at ACL. And not just because I dropped the first boatload on myself, spilling a torrent of angry food from collar to shoelaces. (My fault, but the paper boat was too small, overloaded like timber on a Volkswagen.) No, it was frustrating because kimchi fries with bulgogi should be better than this, at least exotic and filling enough to justify the $10 price. Fewer fries, more kimchi, for starters. The scattershot threads were like giving Brad Pitt top billing in “True Romance” for his stoner cameo. We like Brad Pitt. We like kimchi. More of either never hurt anything. The fries were standard fast-food shoestrings, but they were hot and crisp, liberally dressed with sriracha aioli. They could have stopped there for respectable $4 fries. A few teaspoons of jar-grade kimchi, chopped onions and a hamburger patty’s worth of salted beef hardly carried it to $10. But they were selling boatloads of it. I’ll just wait on the dock for a different boat.
 HIT: Jalapeño brisket tacos with Fritos (2 for $10) from Stubb’s Bar-B-Q. You might think that the guys who cook whole beef briskets over smoking logs would be incapable of subtlety, devoid of nuance. And you’d be right, mostly. But the people at Stubb’s who chopped that brisket with jalapeño nectar pulled it off. The pepper’s clean green heat started a little bit softer now, a little bit softer now, a little bit louder now, a little bit louder now. You get the idea, “Animal House” fans. Things never got to a full throw your hands up and shout, because the smoke kept a lid on that. The brisket fulminated at a low, smoky growl, lean enough to wear Lucky jeans but fat enough to undo the top button, you know, for comfort, with shards of bark in its after-dinner smile. But with all the Fritos at the festival, I’m starting to think ACL is getting kickbacks from Big Frito. Still, at $10 for a half-pound of brisket and two tortillas, the Stubb’s value is all that ... and a bag of chips.
 MISS: Gyro wrap ($7) and veggie plate with hummus and tabbouleh ($7) from Tinos Greek Cafe. This combination should have been the dark-horse winner of the festival midway. I say “should have” based on looks alone. Tinos folded the gyro into soft pita, a neutral canvas that made the alabaster tzatziki, red tomato and even the lazy pale green lettuce pop in relief against four saddle-brown strips of lamb and beef. The veggie plate was a clear, two-bay tray of herb-speckled tabbouleh and grainy hummus the color of antique ivory, a color shared by the warm circle of toasted pita that came with it. Take a picture of a healthy, refreshing $14 lunch for two. Except. Except that the gyro meat was like dried salt jerky, the hummus ran like a slurry river in search of more tahini twang and the tabbouleh’s tomatoes had started to turn sour. Good intentions. But with festival food at this level, good intentions aren’t good enough.
 HIT: Chicken mole and spinach & onion tamales (2 for $9) from Tamale Addiction: For sheer heft, the boat to beat at ACL was a pair of tamales from the farmers market darling Tamale Addiction. They let you mix and match among pork, chicken, spinach and bean & cheese options, delivering foil-rolled rockets of moist masa carbohydrates with protein cores. The best of those proteins was chicken mole in tawny shreds cloaked in sweet brown sauce with spices from the darker, more exotic side of the spice rack. The masa outside stayed firmly packed, dodging the mealy, crumble-down shells that dog the average tamal. The masa, in fact, salvaged the spinach-and-onion tamal from its uninspiring filling, which was too green for its own good, bearing none the gifts that caramelized onions would lead you to expect, if mine had any at all. Beware: As cute as the little cups of red and pale green sauces are, be aware that both are hot enough to make you cry.
 HIT: Hot & Crunchy shrimp and avocado cone ($9) from the Mighty Cone: I was hard on the trailblazing Mighty Cone last year, mainly because after all my waiting in line, I got the smallest piece of chicken. Shrimp solved the problem this year, doled out by numbers instead of size, fried in that mystical Hot & Crunchy™ armor of crushed seeds and cereal grains The vessel is the Mighty Cone’s sales pitch: a flour tortilla folded into a snowcone cup with a shot of slaw and Thousand Island. I’ll repeat my complaint that there wasn’t enough slaw, a crucial cool, soothing element in that jagged collective. Seemingly the only way to fill up the cone was to add a section of fried avocado, crackling on the outside, smooth and luscious inside. The combo reinforced why the Mighty Cone — from the same family tree as Jeff Blank’s Hudson’s on the Bend — has been one of the festival’s marquee draws since the beginning.
 MISS: Nachos with queso, guacamole and chicken ($8/$10 with chicken) from Mighty Bird: Mighty Bird came into the world kicking and screaming last year, opening its first store about the same time as its ACL debut. I got a look inside their operations (read that story here), and I came to understand the tonnage and triple zeroes that go into making food for 75,000 people. No fewer than 40 chips (I counted) went into this order of nachos, along with a couple tablespoons of queso, an ounce of pico-infused guacamole, a dozen jalapeños and just enough chicken to make a respectable taco. But they were store-grade chips, and the queso tasted and looked more like cream of mushroom soup. I tasted guacamole with a green cream base dominated by onions, and chicken that was white and clean to the point of warm sterility. As the queso softened the chips, a few bites gave me a little of each element, and for those happy few forkfuls, these nachos hit it out of the ballpark. But this is a boat, not a ballpark, and mostly what I got was chips with a painted queso corner or a stray pepper. The numbers might have been solid, but it’s the ratios that count in the nacho game.
 HIT: Pork belly banh mi tacos from Peached Tortilla (2 for $9): Here’s the thing about daikon and fish sauce: People around you will look at you sideways, because the aroma has something in common with the stinky cheeses of the world. Hey — did that come outta you? But like your Roquefort and your Stilton, what confounds one sense intrigues another, and the daikon and fish sauce in the Peached Tortilla’s banh mi tacos did exactly that, surrounding braised pork belly with stout-smelling bodyguards to protect its more dainty sensibilities, namely its Rubenesque repose of fat and lean and its five-spice licorice languor. As the Peached Tortilla builds toward its metamorphosis from food truck to restaurant — owner Eric Silverstein said, “We're shooting for a soft opening the Monday after Thanksgiving and an opening on Dec. 4” — these tacos were solid testaments to that transition, designed to emulate the Vietnamese sandwich with intermingled pork, cilantro, carrots and that rogue radish, unified by a sriracha sauce with intense dry heat. A store-bought flour tortilla can never replace the crunch-and-yield of a banh mi’s baguette, but at least the tortilla kept the key ingredients together. I liked the Peached Tortilla’s BBQ brisket tacos at ACL last year; these were a full degree better.
 Recipe bonus: Silverstein shared the recipe for the Peached Tortilla’s Pork Belly Banh Mi Tacos. Find it here, and invite me over.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
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