The gorgeous weather and tasty local food, wine, and spirits made my first Austin Food and Wine Festival one to remember.
The annual spring event kicked off at 11 a.m. on a Saturday in late April at Auditorium Shores, a park on the south side of Ladybird Lake offering scenic views of Austin's growing skyline.
I donned the bracelet mailed to me weeks earlier after buying my weekend ticket and arrived around noon, thankful to see no line.
Once inside, I began to get my bearings. The Fire Pit (barbecue) was near the entrance on the south side of the park.
Four long rows of tents occupied the middle of the park. This area, known as the Grand Taste, featured 20 local chefs and restaurants, an assortment of artisanal food, Texas wines, and liquor vendors.
Around the park's perimeter were smaller tents, bars, booths, and even a yellow and silver cement mixer-style truck custom-built for Monkey Shoulder Whiskey.
The north end, closest to the lake, included several large tents for cooking demos and educational programming.
I soon connected with my friend Laura, who was with a friend from New York City who flew in for the festival.
Together, the three of us began bouncing from restaurant to restaurant, with plenty of cocktail tastings.
A few noteworthy food samples from Day 1 included:
- Ceviche Verde Tostada with redfish, bay scallop, tequila, tomatillo, cucumber, and green olive by Grizzelda's, a Tex-Mex restaurant in East Austin.
- Roasted Sweet Potato with toasted chile honey, turmeric butter, goat cheese, and pecans by Boiler Nine, a bar and grill in the Seaholm Power Plant (now closed).
- Frito Pie with chili, cheese, and corn chips.
- Maker's Mark Donuts by Voodoo Doughnut.
- Pig's tongue, a first for me.
There were more, but it was hard to keep us as there were often lines of hungry people waiting for signature bites.
Thankfully, those lines were never more than five minutes, and almost everyone had a cocktail or glass of wine in their hand. The overall vibe was upbeat, fun, and friendly.
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My favorite vendor display was Hendrick's Gin, which included several actors in period costumes.
The temps were only in the mid-80s, but the sun was intense; they must've been baking!
In addition to tasting a few wines, I enjoyed:
- Hendrick's and Tonic — one of my favorite cocktails, flavorful and refreshing.
- Guinness Blonde (I tasted a white Guinness beer, Breo, in Ireland 20 years ago, and I still prefer the original.)
- Glen Fiddich Lemonade — their tent was air-conditioned and thus a popular place to escape the heat and hang out for a while.
Throughout the day, chef demos and talks were given. However, we didn't attend any of them, not even for the shade. There were too many foods to taste and people to watch for me to sit still for 45 minutes.
By 4 p.m., we were being ushered out of the park as the first day wound down, so I took the opportunity to enjoy the weather a little longer by walking home.
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Day 2 at the Food and Wine Festival
I felt like a seasoned pro returning to the Austin Food and Wine Festival the following day for another round of sample sips and all-you-can-eat bites from renowned chefs.
This time I made it a solo mission to do a complete run-through of all the restaurants in the Grande Taste before reuniting with my friend.
It was a more efficient approach, and it was easier for me to relax and take my time talking to individual Texas chefs along the way.
For starters, at the Suglarlands Distilling Co's table, I sipped a rosemary and peach moonshine margarita while learning that "moonshine" is an actual type of liquor, not just a term for alcohol created in one's backyard (as I always thought having grown up watching the Dukes of Hazzard).
My next cocktail was a CITRAdelle Cooler with Citadelle Gin de France, grapefruit juice, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, and a twist of lemon.
Notable food samples included:
- Pork Belly Gazpacho from Barlatas Tapas Bar.
- Wild Pig Dry Cured Salumi Ragu from Apis Restaurant & Apiary in the Texas Hill Country west of Austin.
- Grits on Sourdough from Skull & Cakebones Craft Bakery + Cafe, which has the best name ever and is in Dripping Springs (west of Austin).
- Mint Julep Cake Doughnut by Voodoo Doughnuts.
The doughnut's white frosting, chocolate filling, and mint flavor lit up my taste buds. It's one of the best bites from the food festival.
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Then it was back to cocktails when I stopped by Ketel One, one of my favorite vodkas.
They were mixing drinks using Waterloo, a new brand of flavored sparkling water made in Austin.
- Black cherry
At that moment, I went with my standard, lime, though I'd like to try them all over the summer.
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I briefly watched a cooking demo, though it didn't hold my attention for more than ten minutes, and then wandered into the adjacent HEB tent, where I nibbled on a little bowl of pasta and a small slice of avocado toast.
Two hours had passed since I first arrived, and it was time to get in the line forming for my friend Lee Abbamonte to speak about food and travel at 2:15 p.m.
Lee is the youngest American to have visited every country in the world and the North and South Poles. He's got more than a few fun stories to keep audiences entertained.
The ladies in line in front of me had grabbed Monkey Pina Coladas from the nearby stand, and they looked so good I couldn't resist getting one either.
Made with Monkey Shoulder Whiskey, Coco Lopez, pineapple juice, lime juice, angostura bitters, salt, and pineapple, it didn't last long.
After hearing Lee speak and take questions for 45 minutes, I backtracked to the Fire Pit for beef tostadas with chimichurri sauce and onions before reuniting with Laura and her friend.
It was 3:30 p.m., and a DJ playing live music drew a jubilant crowd of people who weren't yet ready to leave. The scene looked like what I imagine of the Hamptons during summer.
At the time, Laura and I noted vendors were already cleaning their tables and packing up to leave, meaning an end to the free-flowing wine and drink samples.
We thought it was supposed to go on until 4 p.m. However, as I type this and look back at the schedule, the Grand Taste ended at 3 p.m., an hour earlier than on the first day. We both felt it hurt the vibe to see that happening.
It was on the show Top Chef that I first heard about the annual Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado.
The scenes of chefs cooking up tasty samples in a beautiful outdoor setting stuck with me, and I wanted that experience, minus the $1,700 price tag.
So when tickets went on sale for the 2018 Austin Food and Wine Festival earlier this year, I bought a Weekender ticket for $250.
The cost was higher than I've ever paid for a food event or tour, so it still felt like a stretch, but it turned out to be an excellent way to spend the weekend and well worth the cost.
Additional options included an All-in ticket for $625 that tacked on dinner events for Friday and Saturday nights and Feast Under the Stars, a Thursday night 5-course dinner for $250 served outdoors by chefs from the festival.