AUSTIN — In the past few years, food has emerged as an important element in the two-week celebration of South by Southwest.
It may lack the weighty discussion that surrounds the computer and electronic portion of the festival or the cachet of the film festival, but it is almost as all-pervasive as the music. After all, what’s a party without food? And what’s food without music?
Whereas previous years showcased new culinary trends, this year’s offerings were far more willing to serve up comfort food, plain and often fairly simple.
Celebrity chef Rachael Ray, who throws two parties each year that are worth investigating, continued her big Saturday bash at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q on Red River, bringing together some musical fun with a generous mix of Tex-Mex and Texas favorites. So, while the crowd listened to chart-topper Macklemore with Ryan Lewis perform “Thrift Shop” and some Irish rap (in anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day, of course), many waited for more than an hour to load up on sliders, pulled pork tacos, corn soup with Mexican pesto and Mexican fried chicken.
Ray graced the stage, too, but only to introduce her husband, John Cusimano, and his band, The Cringe. The lively set included a wonderful surprise for the classic rock lovers in Stubb’s backyard: Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer Eric Burdon joined the band on stage for a version of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” that had many singing along.
Among the many sponsors of the event was Corzo Tequila, which presented a potent cocktail called a Corzo Paloma. Fill a glass with ice, then pour tequila about halfway up. Add a splash of grapefruit juice to lend the drink an ethereal gleam of pink and finish off with Fresca. A couple of those would have you have you singing along with anyone on stage, no matter if you knew the lyrics or not. (I would make one slight change and go for Mexican Fresca for two reasons: The aftertaste is cleaner and, well, the aspartame in the American diet Fresca left me feeling as if something had delivered a swift punch to my kidneys.)
After leaving Stubb’s, I wandered through the various parties that spread along River Road and Sixth Street, before ending up at a makeshift food truck park that popped up just for SXSW. On Sunday, the neat park, which played host to more than a dozen trucks, was to have been a vacant lot once again. But on Saturday afternoon, folks had started to gather for everything from Korean barbecue tacos to an outpost of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. Salted Caramel continues to be a popular flavor — and was scooped up by both Jeni’s and folks from Lick at Rachael Ray’s other party.
Next to Jeni’s was the DUK Truck, Jason Dady’s wheeled kitchen, which had made the trek from San Antonio and found audiences receptive to its brisket chili Frito pie and to Rice Krispie Krack, a spin on the favorite treat in which the puffed rice is joined with salt and vinegar chips and Sugar Babies in a coating of marshmallow goo. Kiddy cuisine crack, indeed.
“Top Chef” winner Paul Qui had a truck, too, with what is likely the next big trend: kimchi. He used the fermented cabbage on fries. It would pop up again at Ray’s house party and a day later in Floresville at the second annual Fine Swine Cook-off. My only problem with it being trendy is: What’s new about kimchi? We’ve been eating it for years and not just at Korean restaurants?
On my way to the Driskell to meet friends, I wandered into the Dorito’s sidewalk music venue, only to try Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, which left my fingers red for several hours, and Cheddar BBQ Cracker Jack’d, neither of which begged to be tried again.
A brief respite in the Driskell’s air conditioned corridors left me ready for more music, more walking and more treats. We hit Rusty’s for Lucy Rose’s set, then headed off to Moonshine, where VH-1 was holding its annual party. Cupcakes were the only treat to be had there, but they were moist, thanks to a noticeable addition of cream into the vanilla cake and frosting. But there was plenty of coconut water from Vita Coco to keep you hydrated. Or you could have Ty Ku Coconut, a flavored sake, mixed with pineapple juice. This cocktail had little alcohol punch and could have made for a smooth slide to oblivion.
From there, we headed down to Banger’s on Rainey Street, where Ray was having her house party this year. By the time we got there, a mere hour after it opened, there was a lengthy line waiting to get in, as the spacious patio was already filled to capacity.
Ray was there, of course, as she always is, and she walked about the beer garden, talking with her guests while Cusimano played another set. This time, he left the stage during one song and leaped up on one of the long communal tables to shrieks of surprise and laughter from the crowd.
The food for this get-together was Banger’s series of sausages, which is pure comfort food to many, though how many were expecting Kung Pao chicken sausage or Duck, Bacon and Fig sausage. There was even a vegetarian sausage made of beets and goat cheese, though I would recommend a bit of reworking here. The links we tasted were far too dry, as if not enough fat had been included. So, more cheese or olive oil or something to keep it moist.
Sure, there were plenty of toppings just made for sausage, from peppers and onions to kimchi and a series of spicy mustards. But it was also fun to see a trio of ketchups — curry, pepper and regular — to go on the sausages or the corn dogs that were passed around.
To finish the snack off, what could better than an ice cream float? Honest Fizz, a new line of stevia-sweetened sodas from Honest Tea, was poured over Lick’s handmade ice creams. So, root beer with caramel salt ice cream or orange soda with Hill Country honey and vanilla ice cream were just the right refresher to ease back into the night before the ride home.