ACL Food Fight: Nachos, Chicken, Sandwiches

By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 10.06.13
UPDATED SUNDAY 10/13: Sunday's ACL Festival have been canceled because of flooding rains. A note from ACL: "Due to current weather conditions with flash flood warnings, The Austin City Limits Music Festival organizers have canceled the festival for Sunday, October 13. Our first priority is always the safety of our fans, staff and artists,” said Shelby Meade, communications director for C3 Presents, the promoter behind Austin City Limits Music Festival. “We regret having to cancel the show today, but safety always comes first.” Refunds will be issued automatically by check from Front Gate Tickets within three weeks. One-third of ticket price will be refunded to all ticket buyers based on original ticket price paid, and will be mailed to the billing address on the original order. For questions, please visit"
At the Austin City Limits Festival, there’s nothing wrong with a little friendly competition. Until somebody starts throwing food. Among the 37 food vendors at ACL 2013, there’s bound to be some crossover. Today I’ll declare winners in the Nacho, Fried Chicken and Sandwich categories. More Food Fights to come. Click here for the full food and drink menus and prices for ACL 2013.
Nacho Fight: Love Shack vs. Salt Lick
 Love Shack (Kick Ass Nachos, $8; above left): There are rock stars and there are star chefs, so that makes Tim Love ... a rock chef? A charismatic fixture on the festival circuit, the Fort Worth restaurateur has two booths at ACL, the Love Shack and the Woodshed. With this guy, “taking names” is a given, so all that’s left to do is kick ass, I guess. And so you get nachos rendered with red, white and blue tortilla chips, draped even more patriotically in the saturating yellow queso that dominates baseball parks across this great land. Love fortifies it with fresh chopped tomato and onion and pickled jalapeño slices. It’s easily a half-pound of cheese and chips, kicked up precisely one belt loop with crisp little nubs of fresh jalapeño and a loving spoonful of sour cream.
 Salt Lick (Sloppy Nachos, $8): I almost called off this nacho fight and went full-on Rib Fight when I saw the little boats of barbecued pork ribs sailing past. But it’s not a fight when you’re the only one with a gun, so I went with Sloppy Nachos, a showcase for the chopped beef that the Salt Lick does so well in Driftwood. It’s tender, fatty, lean and smoky by turns. Perfectly fine on its own, but particularly good against the neutral background of chips and slightly gummy cheese. The hot acid break of jalapeños amplifies the beef, and the Salt Lick’s sweet mustardy barbecue sauce stands in for salsa.
 The Winner: Salt Lick. Points to Woodshed for bringing it fresh and lots of it. But the Salt Lick takes the concessionaire’s nacho to a picnic-table place. Just please don’t tell anybody I put barbecue sauce on nachos.
Fried Chicken Fight: Mighty Cone vs. Torchy’s Tacos
 Mighty Cone (Hot & Crunchy Chicken, $7; at left): This is the fried phenom that made ACL more than a turkey-leg midway, and it’s the reason why Jeff Blank of Hudson’s on the Bend has been the curatorial godfather of ACL’s food court. It might be a taco wearing snowcone pants, but “Mighty Cone” sounds so much more market-y than “Ta-Cone.” The Mighty Cone is a county-fair version of Hudson’s Hot & Crunchy Trout with more modest protein. It’s a flour tortilla eased into a paper cone filled with slaw and fried chicken. About the slaw you’d expect, but a breading that surprises you with ground almonds, sesame seeds, corn flakes, chile flakes and sugar. From that we get a shell like granola that wears its sturdy armor with satisfying crunch even as it cools. I saw bigger pieces of chicken in other people’s cones, but the meager fillet in my cone didn’t touch the sides of the tortilla, and it was tired and stringy and the shade of brown that suggested tired oil, overcooking or both. The demitasse spoon of slaw added little to the value equation.
 Torchy’s Tacos (Trailer Park, $5): Festival food is built for speed, shucking spare parts like sandbags from a hot-air balloon. “Fresh” can be a bad word, and tomatoes go mushy under the best of circumstances. Which is what makes this Torchy’s-to-go worthy of a name that evokes its taco-trailer roots. The Trailer Park taco is fried chicken, tomato-happy pico de gallo, cheese, roasted green chiles and creamy poblano sauce on a flour tortilla. All were present in full restaurant effect, fresh and fast, with chicken fried to a knock-knock crunch. You won’t have to ask who’s there.
 The Winner: Torchy’s. All respect to the pioneering cone, but sometimes the next wave watches and learns too well. And at $5, the Trailer Park is one of the festival’s best values.
Sandwich Fight: Noble Sandwich Co. vs. Second Bar + Kitchen
 Noble Sandwich Co. (Thai chicken sandwich, $8; at left): Noble’s pork-belly BLT is as complex and satisfying as a Steven Soderbergh procedural, and its duck pastrami is simply the best pure-deli sandwich in Austin. But they’re not on the ACL menu. Freighted with those expectations, this Thai sandwich was well-executed and filling for the price. The baguette bread was fresh and crusty, welling over with shredded cabbage and torn basil, and the big nuggets of chicken stayed juicy under their wash of mild orange spice. But it was an exercise in substance over style, where Noble Pig usually scores at the top in both categories.
 Second Bar + Kitchen (jalapeño chicken banh mi, $8): The round paper plate I brought for photos at ACL was 9 inches wide, and this sandwich covered it from edge to edge. It fit the general idea of a banh mi with strips of carrots and cucumber, lots of fresh mint, spicy mayo and chopped chicken with salt and jalapeño heat woven through its dark-meat character. But the bread had an underbaked pallor, like it hadn’t seen the sun since last ACL, and the chicken was just a scoop of mayo away from having the consistency of chicken salad.
 Winner: Second Bar + Kitchen. Both had heft and value on their side. But although Noble’s sandwich was executed flawlessly, Second’s tasted better. And at a food court with so many competitors, that makes even more difference.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)