This is the ACL festival’s eleventh year in operation and, while the music remains the central draw at Zilker Park, the culinary offerings have evolved along with the festival to reflect Austin’s vibrant food scene. As recently as five or six years ago, the most interesting thing available in the food court was a green chile pork taco from Torchy’s (and that groundbreaking Hot ‘N Crunchy chicken cone from The Mighty Cone/Hudson’s on the Bend). These days, though, festivalgoers can grab noms as workmanlike as a burger from P. Terry’s to something a bit more exotic, like a rabbit and rattlesnake sausage or truffle mac & cheese from Tim Love’s The Woodshed Smokehouse. There is definitely something for everyone at ACL when it comes time to fill tummies. What follows are my pro tips for finding the best eats for your buck in between sets from your favorite bands, from general advice to handicapping which grub you can’t miss at the fest and that which you can wait to try another time.
General tip #1: Bring cash, and lots of it. The food court is cash only and while there are ATMs on site, the fees are usurious.
General tip #2: Bring patience. The lines for food can get long and you want to have your cash ready when you order so as not to disrupt the flow. Queue-jumping is also quite common in the food lines, so be ready to turn a blind eye to those rude folks who blatantly put one or five more bodies between you and your lunch.
General tip #3: Choose food that is relatively self-contained and is minimally sloppy. Napkins are in short supply at the food court and it’s really annoying to end up wearing your lunch or licking your fingers in public or wiping your hands off on your clothes because you only grabbed 10 napkins instead of 20. (So, avoid nachos, fries with toppings, anything generally gloppy.) Of course, disregard this advice if you are cool with licking your fingers in public and wiping your hands off on your clothes.
Can’t miss #1: I am particularly excited about the presence of Second Bar + Kitchen at this year’s festival. I enjoy the food at the restaurant (which makes up for the annoying service), and I’m quite keen to try all three of the banh mi sandwiches they’ll have on offer (pork belly, jalapeno chicken, and avocado). If I had to triage and try only one, it would probably be the avocado because it looks very light and refreshing with peanuts, carrot slaw, aromatic herbs, and an agave-lime dressing. (I try to avoid anything too spicy during the festival because drinks are expensive and drinking a lot of water/tea/lemonade/soda just starts a vicious cycle.)
Can’t miss #2: The steak frites sandwich from Between Your Buns is a true unicorn these days now that Aquarelle has shuttered. Put this one on your festival must list.
Can’t miss if you don’t live in Austin (these can all be found in the HOPE Market booth):
- The Seedling Truck – Roasted. Duck. Torta. Enough said.
- Cazamance – I really love this West African outfit, and I am intrigued by both the peanut butter hummus and the rice noodle salad. Also a can’t miss if you’re vegan/gluten free.
- Coolhaus – Hands down, the best ice cream in Austin. While they have a standing spot in the food trailer park at 6th and Waller, I can’t not recommend their mix-and-match ice cream sandwiches. Choose a cookie flavor (I am particular to the snickerdoodle) and an ice cream flavor (you bet your sweet bippy I’ll be hoovering that sweet potato-marshmallow!) and get to eating (even the wrapper is edible), because the ice cream melts very quickly and you won’t want to waste a drop.
And when you get thirsty – oh, will you get thirsty – there are many locally based options available to quench you. I am a big fan of Maine Root sodas, particularly their Ginger Brew and Pink Cactus Lemonade, but the watermelon agua fresca from Daily Juice is a very, very close second. Their blueberry lemonade is pretty darn refreshing, too.
So, there you have it. My expert opinion on the best eats available at the Austin City Limits festival. What are your favorite noms at the fest?