Step off the plane in Austin and two things hit you at once: a blast of heat and a whiff of smoked meat. Welcome to Texas.

Aside from barbecue, Austin has a food spirit all its own. Hundreds of colorful outdoor food trailers have sprung up in the last couple of years, part of a national trend. The carts serve creative cuisine to budget-conscious students and others who reside in this innovative city.

The first stop on our Austin food tour was the 1600 block along South Congress Street, an off-beat neighborhood where half dozen food trailers are parked semi-permanently in a vacant lot.

The Mighty Cone caught our attention, with its bright umbrellas, red picnic tables draped with happy people, and short but intriguing menu. The avocado and chicken pieces in my “hot and crunchy deluxe” were deep-fried in a crust of sesame seeds, almonds, arbol chili flakes, sea salt, sugar, and corn flakes, then wrapped in a soft tortilla with a mango-jalapeno slaw, all served in a paper cone — a novel and delicious meal for $5.75. On the side we had chili-dusted fries with homemade red pepper ketchup ($1.25).

The Mighty Cone, open about a year, is an offshoot of Hudson’s on the Bend, an upscale and imaginative restaurant in nearby Lake Travis. All the food is organic, which partly explains the appearance of Maine Root Beer among the cart’s beverages. The Mighty Cone is committed to low waste and recycling — there are bins for sorting trash — and a portion of its profits benefit three local charities. We licked our fingers virtuously.

At the other end of the lot was Hey Cupcake! serving you-know-what out of a silver Airstream. We debated sharing a Red Velvet, but instead ordered a Michael Jackson — chocolate cake with a cream cheese frosting. It was beautifully rich and moist. Pack your Swiss army knife, because this cart doesn’t have any utensils. It operates as a bakery to avoid sales tax.

Hours later, we headed 25 miles southwest to The Salt Lick in the rural Hill Country town of Driftwood. This barbecue joint pulls in crowds, and it’s no surprise. You can smell the glory of smoking meat from a quarter-mile away, and the prices are rock bottom. The eatery occupies a low stone building with communal picnic tables, concrete floor, and open pit eight feet in diameter located just inside the front door. Enter and view beef brisket, pork ribs, turkey, and sausage as they slow-cook. We ordered combo platters, and got overflowing plastic plates with three different meats plus beans, potato salad, coleslaw, jalapenos, pickles, onions, and a habanera pepper sauce ($11.95). Servers bring buckets of ice to your table to keep your BYO beer cold.

How do Austinites compensate for chowing all that ‘cue? They hit the paved Veloway in South Austin, reserved for bikers and in-line skaters. They walk, jog, or stroll the miles of gravel hike-and-bike trail along Lady Bird Lake — it’s really a section of Texas’ Colorado River — right in the middle of the city. They play disk golf in Zilker Park or swim in the huge natural swimming pool at Barton Springs. It’s a good thing Austin has lots of free recreational infrastructure because one could get quite piggy in this foodie town.

A May graduation drew our family to Austin, home of the University of Texas Longhorns, and we honored the newly minted J.D. with dinner at the Driskill Grille in the historic Driskill Hotel (604 Brazos St., off Sixth Street). The atmosphere at the grand, Romanesque-style 1886 inn is elegant and formal, and our meal of mostly locally sourced food was creatively prepared and satisfying. But the service was overly elaborate, and the next day we were happily back on the casual food-cart prowl.

Sushi a-Go-Go’s cute trailer parked at 801 Barton Spring Road next to Sno-Beach (40 varieties of “the best sno-cones in Texas”) had been open only three weeks when we visited; it’s their second location. Owner Takehiro Asazu prepared a vegetable roll of asparagus, carrot, cucumber, sprout, avocado, and lettuce wrapped in soy paper ($5) and a Summertime Roll of shrimp tempura, spicy tuna, avocado, and go-go sauce ($6.50). Soy sauce, wasabi, and ginger come in plastic pouches. Watch your step as you navigate the uneven concrete or bring your take-out to the lush grounds of the Palmer Events Center across the street and enjoy a lovely city view.

Flip Happy Crepes was our dessert choice, and at 1 p.m. on a Sunday, the shady corner at 400 Jessie St. was packed with locals out for alfresco brunch under colorful awnings. French folk and pop songs piped in from invisible speakers, kids played on the crushed stone patio, and those waiting patiently for their made-to-order crepes chatted or passed time with a game of Sorry or Uno provided by the Flip Happy people. The vanilla pastry cream with fresh mixed berries and a blueberry sauce ($4.25) satisfied our craving for sweet, but main dish crepes are popular here, too, with roast chicken and goat cheese ($6.95), ham and gruyere with mornay ($6.50), and smoked salmon with capers ($8.50) among the tempting choices.

That afternoon we ambled off a few calories at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Then we finally had to own up to some basic Tex-Mex. Long-time Austinites sent our group to Matt’s El Rancho, a food factory that seats a few hundred or so. We relaxed on a huge patio with fountain and shaded by a marvelous giant Spanish oak tree and settled into margaritas, fajitas, and tacos with all the trimmings (2613 South Lamar).

Before heading for the airport, my husband and I had to hit one more trailer, this time the popular Torchy’s Tacos in South Austin Trailer Park and Eatery on First Street, one of the stand’s five locations. For $4 you get a corn or flour tortilla with such inspired fillings as seared Ahi tuna with cabbage and chipotle sauce or Jamaican jerk chicken with grilled jalapenos, mango, and cilantro. People with big appetites may want two or three, but I appreciated a size that didn’t intimidate.

The portion surprised me, in fact, because this is Texas, where everything is a little bit bigger. Then again, this is Austin, where everything is a little bit different.

 

Nancy Heiser is an independent writer and editor in Brunswick.