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Scene report: Austin Food & Wine Festival’s Taste of Texas

Matthew Odam

“I’m hyper-sensitive about lines,” Austin Food & Wine Festival partner Charlie Jones said about halfway into another successful Taste of Texas event Friday night at Republic Square Park.

Outside of the expected initial rush to queue for dishes from more than a dozen of Texas’ best chefs, Jones needn’t worry. A happy crowd estimated around 1,000 people moved with relative ease between food tents and bars serving vodka, wine and beer, and the kick-off event offered further proof that in its third year, AFWF has found confident footing. (The event was open to Savor badge holders ($850) and Taste badge holders ($250) who paid an extra $150 for the night.)

The aroma of barbecue entranced attendees as they entered the park, with Wayne Mueller of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor helming one of the booths closet to the gate. Many folks only made it a few feet into the event before lining up to grab one of the best beef ribs I’ve ever eaten. The grandson of the Taylor barbecue scion pulled slabs from a never-ending stack of ribs, unfurled the beef from its soaked paper and quickly sliced individual hunks for attendees. A peppery bark covered beef juicy with rendered fat. And Mueller came prepared. He was still handing out sizable cuts at the end of the event as he chatted about his recent trip to New York City, where he took part in Texas Monthly’s Barbecue Takeover at Hill Country Barbecue Brooklyn.

On the other side of the park, a few San Antonio chefs served as a good example of why I headed down there this week for a dining story. There’s a lot of exciting things going on in the Alamo City, as proven by Diego Galicia and Rico Torres of Mixtli. The chefs showed ingenuity and flare with their take on quesadillas – delicate blue corn macaroons that sandwiched a creamy concoction of Mexican ricotta cheese and squash blossom. The savory bites came topped with dehydrated serrano pepper powder and micro cilantro.

The AFWF rookie of the year candidates were situated between Austin food event veterans Jason Dady, who delivered an umami blast of crispy crab with kewpie and Thai herbs, and Jesse Perez of Arcade Midtown Kitchen, who proved his love for sweet, spicy and savory once again with duck barbacoa tostadas with a red chili sauce and spicy cabbage slaw.

My award for boldest move of the night goes to Tatsu Aikawa of Ramen Tatsu-Ya. A soft, squishy egg may not seem like a natural fit for a warm outdoor event in the evening, but the tangy long-marinated egg topped with shitakes and bacon proved why people line up outside the chef’s madly popular ramen shop in North Austin (and will likely do the same when he opens on South Lamar later this year).