Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Best Coffee in Austin

Tackling the Coffee category for the Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide is harder in 2012 than it would have been a few years back. From a complete coffee wasteland in the 90s, Austin has emerged as the coffee epicenter of the central time zone. Cuvee is roasting world class coffee (powering 4 out of the 38 national finalists at last year's US Barista championships). New shops are popping up nearly every month, becoming the centers of neighborhood life and changing the landscape of Austin for the better. Talented baristas are branching out into new ventures and breathing life into forgotten enterprises. I've highlighted five of the very best spots for coffee in town - each of which has raised the bar in it's own way - and another dozen or so that are worth a visit.

The Best Coffee Shops in Austin:

Caffe Medici
Caffee Medici was founded in 2006, turning a little house in Clarksville into a new kind of coffee shop for Austin. Latte art. French press. Perfect ceramic cups. It was packed with customers from the get-go. Now open in 3 locations, Medici is still, as far as I'm concerned, the best in town. The slightly tart Cuvee Espresso Medici blend is a stunning espresso, and with milk, it takes on an almost toasted-marshmallow decadence. They've expanded to three locations - the original in Clarksville, warm and neighborly; the drag, where students spill out onto the wide front patio; and downtown in the Austonian, a sleek, two story temple to coffee that left me completely speechless. Medici matches the best the Northwest has to offer, and manages to outdo itself at every turn.

1101 West Lynn Street, Austin, TX | 2222 Guadalupe Street, Austin, TX | 200 Congress Ave #2b, Austin, TX

You need to be pretty awesome to hold your own in a strip mall anchored by Uchiko, and Houndstooth does not disappoint. Unlike Medici, which, with only a few exceptions, brews Cuvee exclusively, Houndstooth intersperses Cuvee with a rotating mix of coffee from the best roasters nationally. Today, it's Counter Culture, Verve, and Handsome. This isn't an accident: Houndstooth is built around coffee and around the baristas that bring that coffee to life in the cup. There's an infectious excitement here - when Houndstooth discovers a spectacular new roaster, they can't wait to share it, can't wait to get it dialed in. You can feel the buzz when you walk in the shop - sparse but comfortable on the customer side, and positively gleaming on the barista side of the bar, including a 3-group Mistral - the most spectacular espresso machine operating in these parts.

4200 North Lamar Boulevard, Austin, TX

Once Over Coffee
Founded in 2009 as the second coffee venture for Rob and Jenée Ovitt, Once Over encapsulates the Austin vibe better than any other shop in town. It's a hole in the wall, off South First street - warm, with an absolute gem of a hidden back deck, and a low-budget-chandeliers-and-mismatched-chairs charm. The slacker ethos does not, however, extend to the coffee. Once Over developed their espresso blend - Dead Fingers - in partnership with Cuvee. Not as bright as Thunderbird's or Medici's blends, Dead Fingers is deep and almost chocolaty, my favorite straight shot in town. On a nice day, there's no better place to kick back, listen to the creek gurgle by, and sip some seriously decadent coffee.

2009 South 1st Street  Austin, TX

Technically, Frank is a hot dog place. And a live music venue. And a bar. This makes what they do with coffee all that much more miraculous. When they launched in the little brick building at 4th and Colorado, they set the bar for artisan sausage (and real Chicago Dogs) in Austin, and also quietly upped the coffee ante downtown. They've moved from Chicago power-house roaster Intelligentsia to LA upstart Handsome Coffee Roasters in the last few months, but the coffee is no less spectacular. If you want the best damn sausage you have ever tasted with your latte, this is pretty much your ticket.

407 Colorado Street, Austin, TX

Thunderbird started small - as a neighborhood shop out on Koenig - and has grown into a major player, adopting new innovations, serving kick-ass beer, opening up on the East Side. Thunderbird is one of the only places in town that you can get the kind of single-cup brewing that is becoming the standard at the best coffee places on the coasts - from 10 to 1 on Saturdays and Sundays at their original location, you can get coffee ground for the cup and brewed on the spot as a Hario V60 pour over, Chemex, or Siphon. This is the same menu of options I ran into last year at Public Domain in Portland, and last week at Intelligentsia in Chicago. If you're hankering for a beautiful cup of coffee on the weekend, you are unlikely to do better than this.

1401 West Koenig Lane, Austin, TX | 2200 Manor Road, Austin, TX

The Honorable Mentions:

JP's - for starting this ball rolling
JP's, founded in 2002,  was once far and away the best thing going in town. That luster has faded a bit as others have risen around them, but they are still doing amazing things. If you're down by campus, it's a a lovely little dive of a place, and the dark-roast Zoka beans yield a rich and earthy espresso.

Teo - for the best coffee you will ever find alongside a gelato
You can't get much less local on coffee than you get at Teo, where they have been pulling shots of Italian I Magnifici 10 for more than 8 years. It's a smooth, velvety espresso, and a perfect foil to the sweetness of the house-made gelato. The entire experience is as immersively Italian as anywhere in Austin, in a very good way.

Progress - for bringing coffee to the East Side
Progress coffee was one of the first shops to open on the East Side of town - an anchor of the current boom running through the East 6th - East 11th areas. The coffee, roasted by small-time local shop Owl Tree, is woody and fresh, but Progress is not all about coffee perfection. Progress is about kicking back with Austin's mustachioed single-speed set, watching the trains roll by, and taking in Austin from a different angle.

Jo's - for completing the SoCo Experience
The coolest place to stay in Austin is the Hotel San Jose. And the coolest place to grab a cup of coffee when you roll yourself out of bed at noon and head out into the heat of another Austin day, is across the parking lot at Jo's. Jo's is more of a shack than a shop, but they are an Austin institution, with good local grub, and pretty fantastic coffee - also from Owl Tree.

Interested in some social justice with your coffee? Check out old-timer Ruta Maya or upstart Dominican Joe, both of whom put special focus on fairly sourced American beans.

Looking for something on wheels? check out dynamite trailer Patika coffee, one of the best mobile coffee vendors anywhere. Other trailers are doing good things all over town, from Elixer up at Mueller to Lance Armstrong's roving Juan Pelota coffee truck - check out Tiffany's massive round up over at Trailer Food Diaries for up to the minute details on what's rolling through town now.

If you're looking for a zing to go, stop by Whole Foods or Wheatsville and check out locally brewed Chameleon Cold Brew for an exceptionally smooth, exceptionally caffeinated kick in a bottle. Chameleon is the brain-child of local foodie-entreprenuer Chris Campbell and excellent 24-hour east side standby coffee shop Bennu.

And, if you haven't already gathered from the posts above, if you need some beans for home you can't do any better than Cuvee (available freshest, and in the greatest variety, at Medici).

If you're in Austin there's no excuse for a bad margarita. No excuse for sub-par BBQ. No reason to get anything but the perfect Breakfast Taco. And now - there's no reason to get anything other than a spectacular cup of joe.

Got another favorite? I'd love to hear about it - drop me a line in the comments.

Caffe Medici on Urbanspoon | Houndstooth Coffee on Urbanspoon | Once Over Coffee Bar on Urbanspoon | Frank on Urbanspoon | Thunderbird Coffee on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Test Kitchen. Life in a Corporate Apartment.

I eat out less than I used to. Not that I'm not on the road all the time, or that I don't love to stumble upon a genius chef in an unexpected corner of the world, it's just that now, I have a corporate apartment.

Living out of hotel rooms has its perks in small doses, but when I figured out that my current project was going to keep me going back and forth to Lansing for a good long while, it was time to get a little more settled in. My place in Lansing is right downtown, plenty comfortable, but most importantly, it has a downright livable kitchen.

I thought I'd take a quick moment to post a few of my experiments that worked out particularly well. These are not ambitious meals - noting more than 30 or 40 minutes to make, and generally a serving or two. I won't go into the recipes here, just a few notes on the modifications I made to Mark Bittman's fantastic recipes from How To Cook Everything (I use the iPad app, which is awesome)

Beef with Basil
Could not be an easier dish to make, and the flavors were surprisingly engaging for such a simple combination. Starting from the Bittman recipe, I added about 1/2 tbs of finely chopped ginger with the garlic, and I doubled the amount of lime juice and then some. Basic process: marinate the beef in the basil and little oil, get a pan hot, and add a little oil, ginger, garlic, the beef, and fresh basil. End with lime juice and a little soy. Amazing flavors, and once everything is chopped and prepped, it's literally a 5 minute operation.

Chicken in Wine Sauce
This one is cheating, really. Because this much butter just makes anything awesome. Basic approach here is to fry breaded chicken in butter and olive oil, and build a reduced wine/butter sauce once you're done. It was awesome. My main change to Bittman was to use egg to get the breadcrumbs to adhere to the chicken before frying. From a steps perspective, I did as told, but added a step to filter the oil/butter after the chicken was done to get rid of breadcrumb bits. And when I added the extra butter (I used about 6 tbs all told) and the wine, I also added a tiny drop of honey, which helped soften the intense savory flavors. I served this over pasta, which was kind of awesome tossed in the sauce. Not healthy. Not even a little bit.

Eggs Benedict
This was my first attempt at hollandaise, and, though the flavor was spot on, it was a little thin in the final analysis. A little more heat near the end would have helped. Still, the outcome was lovely. I followed the instructions here to a tee, no adds or removals. Since Lansing is a little light on high-quality meats, I just went with a shaved Boars Head ham from the deli counter at the Krogers. Would have been better with a homemade english muffin or some really hot-shot cured meat, but this was very tasty, and came out pretty as well. Side note: poached eggs are awesome. I learned how to make them for this meal, and now eat them all the time.

Back to our regularly scheduled program next time, but I thought some homemade treats might be fun.


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