5 Austin bars where food is as good as the drinks

Knoxy Knox. Backbeat opened as a cocktail bar (with beer and wine as well), but its owners made sure to have a small menu of well-made food items as well.
Knoxy Knox. Backbeat opened as a cocktail bar (with beer and wine as well), but its owners made sure to have a small menu of well-made food items as well.

Tomorrow’s Austin360 cover story — which is online now — will be all about the best places in town to get a good drink, whether you’re looking for wine, beer or cocktails, a casual outdoor atmosphere, or live music befitting Austin’s title as the Live Music Capital of the World.

There was one category I had intended to include in the story but cut it for space — bars where the food is as good as the drinks. Because quality can so often be lacking for either one, I’m including that roundup now. Look for the American-Statesman restaurant critic Matthew Odam’s dining guide in a big spread online and in print on Sunday, when he’ll spotlight Austin’s top restaurants.

Drink.Well & Backbeat

207 E. 53rd St., drinkwellaustin.com; 1300 S. Lamar Blvd., backbeat-atx.com.

When local bar owners Michael and Jessica Sanders, who had helped transform the North Loop area into a budding entertainment district with cocktail bar Drink.Well, announced they were opening a second space, Backbeat, on South Lamar Boulevard, they made it clear that both places were going to be very different from each other.

But Backbeat hasn’t differed from Drink.Well in one regard. Both serve as well-rounded hangouts where food items like chicken liver mousse or a spicy kimchi reuben are as thoughtfully crafted and delectable as the cocktails. Drink.Well, in particular, focuses on the seasons for both programs and has recently released its fall menus, with drinks such as the Jinn’s Tonic (Old Tom Gin, apricot, grapefruit, cardamom, rose water and Mediterranean tonic) specifically intended to pair with the dishes.

You won’t go wrong at Backbeat, either, where the list of original cocktails are divided by flavor profile and types of spirits, and the food options include the sorts of higher-end snacks befitting such classy drinks, whether it’s a beet salad or a paté melt that you’re desiring. Backbeat also has seasonal menus to choose from.

Hopfields

3110 Guadalupe St., hopfieldsaustin.com.

Is it a charming French bistro? A laid-back beer bar in the campus area? Hopfields, a gastropub with French-inspired fare, manages to straddle both identities seamlessly. Here, you’ll find one of the best burgers in Austin — juicy, with creamy camembert cheese and caramelized onions — as well as a tap list that regularly features sought-after brews like Lakewood Brewing’s French Quarter Temptress or the AleSmith English Nut Brown. Don’t miss out on Hopfields’ pomme frites, with herbs and aioli, either. They’re an indulgence you won’t regret.

bangers-oktoberfest-0522
Contributed by Banger’s. On Rainey Street, Banger’s has sausages, a large outdoor area and craft beers to lure the crowds.

Banger’s

79 Rainey St., bangersaustin.com.

Although the feat of having more than 100 taps of beer — often ones you can’t find anywhere else — often overshadows all the other things Banger’s has to offer, the Rainey Street bungalow bar draws regular crowds for its dog-friendly patio and its food as well. The kitchen here specializes in gourmet hot dogs that run the gamut from more traditional fare (sausages like andouille and bratwurst) to the more exotic (sausages made from rabbit and South Texas antelope). It’s your chance to be as adventurous with your carnivorous side as with your craft brews.

Isla

208 W. Fourth St., islaaustin.com.

The sister bar to French-focused Peche in the Warehouse District, Isla is meant to feel like a Caribbean cantina that you’ve just stumbled into in the middle of downtown Austin. That theme plays out with both the food and the rum-filled cocktails like the Tituba (rum, coconut cream, lime, basil and jalapeño — a see-saw of spicy and sweet). The dinner menu is full of island specialties, including three types of ceviche, jerk-spiced beef rib and cast-iron lime chicken with Cuban beans and rice. Ready? Your tropical paradise awaits.

Waller Creek Pub House

603 Sabine St., wallercreekpubhouse.com.

Across the street from another beer haven, Easy Tiger, this downtown pub opened last year with 30 rotating beer taps and a menu of straightforward bar food. Waller Creek Pub House — named for Austin’s first mayor, Judge Edwin Waller, and the creek near the bar — has pub grub such as wings, grilled cheese and burgers, all the sorts of things we want in our bellies after a night of multiple pints. Get one of the “heaps of fries” baskets, which come as either plain, Greek, Asian or Italian-flavored fried potatoes.

Austin distillery creates unusual product, Martine, a honeysuckle liqueur

Knox Photographics. The Martine Honeysuckle Liqueur is a sweet new product that adds dimension to a variety of cocktails, but it's also tasty on its own.
Knox Photographics. The Martine Honeysuckle Liqueur is a sweet new product that adds dimension to a variety of cocktails, but it’s also tasty on its own.

The intensely fragrant honeysuckle plant is common in Texas, but no one had ever tried to distill the sweet taste of the nectar into a liqueur until now.

Martine is the new honeysuckle liqueur from Texacello, a small distillery known for making Paula’s Texas Orange and related products. The co-owner of the business, Gary Kelleher, also produces Dripping Springs Vodka and two Dripping Springs gins with his brothers in their San Luis Spirits distillery, and he’s become known for tinkering with new ideas like Martine, his mind abuzz with what to do next.

He had been thinking about creating a honeysuckle liqueur for awhile, thanks to happy memories of being a boy and plucking the honeysuckle flower from its stem to drink up the nectar within it — memories that evoke feelings of first love and summertime, he says — so he began playing around with early versions of Martine.

That was five years ago. The recipe took half a decade to get right because Kelleher wanted it to seem exactly as though he’d bottled up honeysuckle from his garden.

“Creating new liqueurs and liquors is something I love to do, but this one was hard to get right,” he says. “On the one hand, I wanted it to have the flavor of honeysuckle that’s in the blossom, but the other thing was that I wanted you to be able to taste what you get when you smell honeysuckle. So I wanted the flavor to include the aroma. Getting those two things balanced together took the longest.”

He won’t reveal the full recipe since there’s nothing like it on the market today, but he will say that it’s an infusion of sugarcane-derived spirits with an emulsion “that is a combo of honeysuckle blossoms, fresh fruits like orange and nectarine, and a blend of botanicals including vanilla.”

The result is undeniably sweet, and there’s only one way to describe it: Martine tastes like honeysuckle, precisely as Kelleher intended, to the point that you can drink it all by itself if you want. It’s meant to also add extra nuance to cocktails, he says.

“I wanted to create something that was delicious to sip by itself and evoked those memories of summertime,” he says. “But at the same time, it needed to be something that would fit into the mixology world. Something that you could use to enhance the flavor of cocktails, to create new flavor profiles with. That was really the idea behind it.”

Wanting it to mix well in a variety of different drinks meant that Kelleher, in the recipe creation process, had additional testing to do — making sure that it enhanced each of the spirits, from gin to tequila to whiskey, without being overpowering.

Right now, as Martine hits shelves, he’s discovering that all that hard work is paying off because bartenders and liquor store owners alike are showing interest in it, and “no one has turned us down,” he says. “It’s shocking; it’s wonderful. It’s a product no one has heard of, but everyone is willing to give it a shot.”

Martine will be pretty easy to find for home bartenders looking for a fresh liqueur to play with: Kelleher says it’s going into Twin Liquors stores, as well as Total Wine & More.

The Martine Cocktail

1 oz. Martine

4 oz. Sauvignon Blanc

Garnish lemon twist

Have the Sauvignon Blanc chilled ahead of time. Fill a wine or coupe glass with the Martine and wine and stir them together. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Como La Flor

1 oz. Reposado tequila

1 oz. Martine

1/2 oz. lime juice

1 tsp. simple syrup

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake. Pour into a coupe glass, sans ice, and garnish with a slice of lime.

— Martine Honeysuckle Liqueur

Austin cideries named among Food & Wine’s best places to drink cider

Photo by Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. Argus Cidery now offers its Ciderkin and Ginger Perry in six-pack cans.
Photo by Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. Argus Cidery now offers its Ciderkin and Ginger Perry in six-pack cans.

Cider, like all alcoholic beverages, is experiencing a boom right now, with many makers across the country hastening to put their stamp on the alcoholic apple beverage.

Austin is home to a few of them — and two of these local cideries have made it onto Food & Wine’s “Best Places to Drink Ciders” list. Argus Cidery, on the road to Dripping Springs, and Texas Keeper Cider, south of Austin in Manchaca, have both received a worthy mention.

Of Argus, Food & Wine’s Joe Stanek writes that the cidery had trouble finding an identity at first but quickly found fans of quirky, well-made fruited beverages.

“When Wes Mickel applied for the first cider license in Texas, the question of whether his dry ciders were more like wine or beer came up a lot,” Stanek writes. “Sourcing a majority of apples from Texas and Arkansas — with other varietals brought in for use in special fermentation lines that produce as few as just 300 bottles — allows Mickel to press fresh juice year round.”

The cidery has grown its fan base with six-packs of Ciderkin and Ginger Perry, two of its most bestselling products. These originally came as 750 ml bottles but are now in cans.

Texas Keeper Cider is similarly doing small-batch ciders in its picturesque cidery and tasting room, as it’s been doing since 2013, Stanek writes.

These include a recent collaboration with the ABGB, as well as a cider and wine blend, Grafter Rosé, that is quite frankly one of the best drinks I’ve enjoyed all year. For a taste of something new that Texas Keeper is producing this time, a honey and apple blend called a cyser check out the Honey Festival at the cidery on Saturday.

Real Ale Brewing’s new Axis IPA goes big and bold

The IPA — short for India Pale Ale, the style of beer that calls for lots of hops for bitter, floral or citrusy flavors — remains the most popular and asked-for beer at bars and stores around the country. Noticing that the trend for IPAs hasn’t gone away, the Austin area’s oldest brewery, Real Ale, recently released an IPA, called Axis, that will satisfy fans of brash beers.

With notes of tropical fruit, citrus and peach on the nose and palate, the Axis IPA isn’t intended to mimic the intense hop bitterness characteristic in the West Coast IPAs that have dominated the market. It’s also not meant to be just like the East Coast IPAs that have arrived as a legitimate style: the similarly hoppy but incredibly hazy beers that brewers on the opposite end of the country have been making.

Contributed by Real Ale Brewing. Both the Real Ale Brewing Axis IPA tap handle and the beer itself have been designed to stand out on tap walls crowded with hoppy options.
Contributed by Real Ale Brewing. Both the Real Ale Brewing Axis IPA tap handle and the beer itself have been designed to stand out on tap walls crowded with hoppy options.

Instead, Real Ale’s new IPA is more of a “third-coast” response to both of these styles.

Real Ale’s head brewer, Schmitty, said he and the rest of the Blanco-based brewing team spent a lot of time refining an IPA recipe after noticing how prevalent the IPA had become.

“We were looking at the market and seeing how things were trending, and we saw a lot of growth in the IPA category,” Schmitty said. “We have hoppy beers, like our Lost Gold, but not a big, in-your-face IPA. The Lost Gold is more of an introductory IPA. Once we noticed palates were shifting to bigger and bolder IPAs, we wanted to make something different, put our toe in the water, and see how it goes.”

Finding just the right recipe was a team effort — and the Real Ale brewers didn’t come up with it the way they normally do.

“We started from square one with the recipe,” Schmitty said. “Our beers are designed in a similar manner, especially with the hops that we use, but this one, we blew that all up and started from scratch. Just so we could see how that would change the final product.”

Real Ale’s Axis recipe calls for dry-hopping the draft-only IPA with a combination of Eureka, Simcoe and Mosaic hops, and the brewery calls the fruity result “an offering so exotic” that it’s intended for “tap walls overrun with the white noise of West Coast IPAs.”

That’s not to say that Axis is quite unlike those beers, however. With Axis, Schmitty said, “We were shooting more for the West Coast style, but we weren’t trying to mimic anything. We wanted to maintain balance like we do with all our beers in the portfolio. We wanted hop intensity without going overboard, as some IPAs do.”

Hence the name. Axis is a species of deer, originally from India, that arrived in Texas in the 1930s and has now become a common animal to hunt in the state. The deer’s long, elegant antlers adorn the top of the IPA’s tap handle, but the deer also serves as a larger metaphor for Real Ale’s new brew. Just like the animal that invaded Texas in the last century, the Axis IPA is supposed to disrupt the category of IPAs on today’s tap walls.

“We were trying to play off the idea of West Coast versus East Coast IPAs,” Schmitty said. “If you split the country down the middle, the axis goes right through Texas.”

So far, the Axis IPA is available only on draft — with a tap handle that Real Ale designed to stand out on a wall of other alluring choices — but that might change if the beer catches on with Texas drinkers. It’s already appearing to be a hit, too.

“Reception has been really great,” Schmitty said. “We’ve already hit our initial goals for the launch. We actually were almost ahead of pace on that from the get-go. People were excited to see a new beer from Real Ale and a new big, bold IPA coming out. I’ve had people say this is their new go-to now.”

Local beer, cocktails to raise funds for Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Jessica Fradono. A portion of the proceeds from the purchase of this pink-hued cocktail at the W Austin Hotel is going toward breast cancer research.
Jessica Fradono. A portion of the proceeds from the purchase of this pink-hued cocktail at the W Austin Hotel is going toward breast cancer research.

Drink for a good cause throughout the rest of this month, when a few local bars and a brewery are raising money to benefit organizations during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Each one of them — the eateries of ELM Restaurant Group, the W Austin’s Living Room bar and Adelbert’s Brewery — have come up with drinks that will help us think pink.

The W Austin’s Breast Lemonade Ever

Through Oct. 31, the hotel is donating $1 from all sales of this vodka cocktail to the Breast Cancer Resource Center of Texas. Featuring Tito’s Handmade Vodka and strawberry rosemary lemonade, the drink will be available at the Living Room bar and the Wet Deck. Even better, the charitably focused Tito’s Vodka will match donations with $1 per cocktail.

ELM Restaurant Group’s Pink Ribbon

The owners of Easy Tiger, Irene’s, 24 Diner and Italic launched a new initiative last month, the ELM Cares program that raises money for a specific cause. For October, all four ELM concepts are donating the proceeds from a special cocktail to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. The $8 Pink Ribbon has vodka, brut rosé, lemon and grenadine.

Adelbert’s Brewery’s It’s the Tits Fest

Last year, the North Austin brewery raised money for the Breast Cancer Resource Center of Texas with the release of its pink-hued hibiscus saison. Adelbert’s is doing so again tomorrow with It’s the Tits Fest, which will have the saison, in addition to more than 15 other beers, on tap. Plus, the event, running from 1 to 10 p.m., will feature a silent auction, Seton’s mobile mammogram unit, a charitable art wall, live music, a photo booth and more.

If you can’t make the event, the Whimsical Hibiscus Saison is also in cans at bars and stores around town. Pick some up to remind yourself of the importance of this cause: Breast cancer affects about 1 in 8 women born in the U.S. as the second most common type of cancer in women.

That’s why these businesses have put together these easy booze-based ways of giving back. Now, go out and help them with their mission.

Events: Jester King’s Funk ‘n’ Sour Fest, Draught House’s 48th Anniversary

Photo by Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. Lambic fans, rejoice: Jester King is helping to bring the revered beers of Cantillon to Texas.
Photo by Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. Jester King’s Funk ‘N’ Sour Fest pairs Texas restaurants with cideries, breweries, wineries and bartenders.

It’s about to become a very big month for Austin breweries — as well as for the people who love them. In addition to three anniversaries, October is bringing us Austin Beer Week, running this year from Oct. 28 through Nov. 6 with the usual irresistible lineup of events at bars, breweries and retail stores.

But that’s a story for another day. Here are some other events coming up in the next couple of weeks that we won’t want to miss.

Hops & Grain’s 5th Anniversary Party: Austin fell in love with Hops & Grain because of beers like The One They Call Zoe, but we’re being rewarded with far rarer brews at the party, which has year-round options like Zoe available as well barrel-aged beers, kettle-soured beers and more. The 78702 Kolsch with raspberries? We’re in.

The party kicks off at noon on Saturday, and there’s no need to buy a ticket ahead of time — just fork over $15 at the bar and you’ll get a commemorative anniversary glass and a punch card good for six 8 oz. pours of your choice.

Jester King’s Funk ‘n’ Sour Fest: The celebration of fine food and beer returns on Oct. 20 with more pairings of Texas restaurants with cideries, wineries and breweries (and even a bartender or two mixing up cocktails).

The tickets aren’t cheap — $85 per person — but the cost is worth it if you’re wanting a night under string lights at Jester King’s beautiful Hill Country brewery, with access to some of the best food and drink in Austin. (It’ll also be one of the first tastes of East Austin brewpub the Brewer’s Table.) Reserve your spot in line at the fest with eventbrite.

Here are this year’s pairings.

  • Antonelli’s Cheese with Midnight Cowboy
  • Bullfight with 5 Stones Artisan Brewery
  • The Brewers Table with La Cruz de Comal Wines
  • The Bruery (welcome beer)
  • Bufalina with Blue Owl Brewing
  • Dai Due with Lewis Wines
  • Emmer & Rye with Firestone Walker Barrel Works
  • The Hollow with Jester King Brewery
  • The Mercantile with Argus Cidery
  • Noble Sandwich Co. with the Collective Brewing Project
  • Salt & Time with Texas Keeper Cider
  • The Salty Sow with Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales
  • Stiles Switch BBQ with Prairie Artisan Ales
  • Texas French Bread with Live Oak Brewing Co.
Kyser Lough for American-Statesman. Independence Brewing will be bursting with happy beer drinkers on its anniversary party Oct. 22.
Kyser Lough for American-Statesman. Independence Brewing will be bursting with happy beer drinkers on its anniversary party Oct. 22.

Independence Brewing’s 12th Anniversary Party: One of Austin’s original craft breweries, Independence is celebrating 12 years with a day full of rare and special beer tappings, music, food, pinball and more. Keg tappings on the hour include vintage Jasperilla Old Ale, aged Ten Barleywine, barrel-fermented saisons and barrel-aged Bootlegger Brown. The family and pet-friendly event offers a full lineup of live music throughout the day as well as barbecue from Evan LeRoy and tacos from Lotus Joint.

The fun runs from 2 to 10 p.m. Oct. 22. There’s no admission fee to get into the party; just pay for beer and food as you go.

Draught House Pub and Brewery’s 48th Anniversary Party: Nearly 50 years of this bar-turned-brewpub? That’s an impressive milestone you’ll want to toast to — and you can bet you’ll have a hard time choosing which beer to toast with because the Draught House, like always, will be bringing out all the best, rarest and most beloved brews for the celebration.

“Visitors to this British-style pub are sometimes surprised when they catch a glimpse of the tiny-but-mighty, seven-barrel brewery almost hidden in back, where brewer Josh Wilson has been creating a variety of unusual and classic beers for over 20 years,” according to the Draught House. “Creations such as grapefruit IPA and lactic black current stout have earned this neighborhood spot acclaim from near and far.”

At the party on Oct. 29 — which is technically during Austin Beer Week — there will be rare beers, ice cream sandwiches from local shop Moojo, food trucks including Best Wurst and the Beer Olympics: a series of games (yeast balloon toss, crap beer cornhole and keg lifting) for which the winners will get prizes.

The free 48th anniversary party starts at 1 p.m. Saturday and lasts all day.

Italian restaurant in Mueller, L’Oca d’Oro, adds happy hour

One of Austin’s most promising Italian restaurants is adding one of our favorite things — happy hour.

Jay Janner / American-Statesman. Enjoy happy hour at Mueller's L'Oca d'Oro starting on Oct. 17.
Jay Janner / American-Statesman. Enjoy happy hour at Mueller’s L’Oca d’Oro starting on Oct. 17.

The Mueller eatery L’Oca d’Oro will have food and drink specials on the menu starting on Monday. The goal behind the restaurant’s happy hour, which will run 5 to 6:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, is to have snacks, small plates and creative drinks not on the regular menu available at lower prices. (The restaurant is closed Tuesdays.)

Here’s what you’ll get during L’Oca d’Oro’s hour-and-a-half of dining deals.

Drinks:

  • Beet-chelada: spicy mezcal-beet puree with 10 oz. of Live Oak Berliner Weisse. $3.
  • Argento Americano Spritz. $4.

Snacks:

  • Mozzarella sticks with dandelion-hazelnut pesto. $6.
  • Grilled sourdough with Bagna cauda. $4.
  • Spiced chicharrones. $4.
  • Pickle plate. $4.

The Statesman’s restaurant critic Matthew Odam just published a glowing review of L’Oca d’Oro, located at 1900 Simond Ave., in this week’s Austin360 and on mystatesman.com. Read up on what to expect before you go.

For more information, visit locadoroaustin.com.