(Austin, TX) — After four days on the outskirts of Austin, we move from our golf resort to a hotel closer downtown. The weather has started to warm back up, after a chilly drop in temps, so we spend the afternoon walking around the city, familiarizing ourselves with the layout and establishments we’ll be visiting later. Among them is the original Whole Foods, where we make the near-fatal mistake of sitting at the wine bar for a couple drinks after lunch. If we’d been so inclined, we could have spent our entire day at Whole Foods, eating and drinking! Somehow, we manage to buy only a couple cheeses, crackers, and a bottle of red wine for later, in the hotel room. Then we strike out for our early dinner reservations at Salty Sow...
Though we’ve been walking all day, I’m prepared to hoof it a mile to Salty Sow for dinner. Juliet, being the more experienced traveler, checks with the front desk of our hotel. Turns out, they have free van shuttle service to anywhere within a couple miles radius, to and from! Despite having traveled more these past few years, I would never have thought to inquire about a free ride. I guess my wife has more up her sleeve than beauty, humor, and brains. Who knew?
Our friendly driver happily regales us with recommendations for other places to visit in Austin, then drops us off with a business card to call him when we’re ready for pickup. I can get used to this chauffeur treatment! Salty Sow has its doors thrown wide, welcoming us. Inside, a host stand with a statue of dancing pigs greets us, as well as stack of menus with their tagline: Swine + Wine + Beer. That’s an intriguing mathematical equation, I think, as we’re led through the dining room (once a pizzeria) and across the outdoor patio, then finally into the back bar area. Although our seats are at a high-top, we’re just happy to have a spot as OpenTable.com showed very few slots open, even at this early hour.
Speaking of which, our server happily informs us that it is Happy Hour! And, in Texas, they don’t mess around with their happy hours. There are 12 drinks and 10 small plates to choose from, each of which is only $4, every day from 430-630p. Woohoo! As we look things over, I immediately order a glass of Carousel Brut Blanc de Blancs. At only $4, it’s a great alternative to prosecco, pairs with nearly anything, and I stick with it for the evening. (Earlier at Opal Divine’s, I got a chance to try some of the local beers and wasn’t overly impressed.)
Juliet and I quickly agree on a series of small plates. We’re not usually the type to overwork a happy hour, but in this case we make an exception. Truffled Deviled Eggs topped with chunks of crispy Salty Sow bacon and spicy chives arrive on a thin bed of peppery, slightly wilted arugula leaves. The mustard-yolk filling tastes like stone ground, possibly a beer variety. Truffle is done lightly, which is a relief, since I’ve had so many over-truffled dishes in past. I also appreciate that the hard boiled eggs are not ice cold, but more room temp. Nothing worse than eating a near-frozen deviled egg.
Next up are Warm Goat Cheese Fritters. The large egg-shaped croquettes filled with tangy goat cheese have been delicately coated so they’re crunchy but not heavy. Thick tomato jam provides delicious acid and sweetness, which offsets the earthy tang of the fritters. Crostini is a piece of beer bread, buttered, halved. I’m not a believer in the phrase “words cannot describe” (because what writer would ever admit that?), but I will say it is difficult to convey, without waxing poetic in page after page of prose, how utterly transcendent is this combination of flavors. After we literally mop up every last morsel of that jam, we want to order another plate but are afraid of what else we might miss out on? Good thing we hold out.
Our new-found love of Brussels sprouts prompts Juliet to get the Crispy Brussels Sprout Leaves dish with golden raisins and pecorino. It’s a great mix of salty sweet, but I do miss the heft of the sprout cores. It’s getting later anyway, so happy hour is ending and I’m curious to see what the full menu might offer.
Neither of us is interested in pigging out on a full entree, so we stick with sharing small plates and intriguing side dishes, like the house-made cheese curds. They’re exactly like they sound: mozzarella cheese curds, rolled up in mini croquettes, then lightly deep fried (if there is such a thing), much like the goat cheese fritters. These come with a side of honey mustard.
Admittedly, the sparkling wine is directing some of my decisions, and that leads me to the section of the menu entitled “Things In A Jar”. I’m not down for liver mousse or smoked salmon rillette tonight, but Green Eggs & Ham? Yes, please! It’s literally a jar filled with creamy grits, topped with with a jiggling poached egg and chunks of ham, then drizzled with Parmesan basil sauce. On the side is a thick sweet potato biscuit. I make a little sandwich glistening with gooey yolk, breakfast for dinner. Simply amazing.
Not to be outdone, Juliet conjures a platter of Honey Rosemary Dipped Fried Chicken. It, too, comes with a biscuit, a shallow pool of creamy honey beneath everything. The chicken is crunchy and sticky-sweet...second best fried chicken I’ve ever had, after American Cupcake’s. Since Juliet doesn’t like drumsticks that much, I help her polish off the dish.
Finally, and unnecessarily, we order dessert. I’m in a holiday mood so get the peppermint pot du creme to fill in the cracks. A side of ginger almond biscotti helps scoop it out of the cute ivory pot.
We call the hotel shuttle van to pick us up. Amazingly, I am not overstuffed...just perfectly satiated. I have no idea why, but I have to believe it’s either a testament to Salty Sow’s expertly executed food portions or yet another Christmas miracle.
Any place billing itself as “Swine + Wine + Beer” sounds good to me. Salty Sow just debuted a few weeks ago and they’re obviously a hit as our choices for reservations are 530p or 9p. Not being quite as young or ambitious as we used to be, we opt for the earlier seating. Our hotel is just a few miles away, but it’s dark and somewhat industrial so we take the hotel shuttle, a welcome treat after walking around downtown Austin most of the day.
Before the shuttle slows to a stop, I’ve already decided I’ll be ordering an app to start and the milk-braised pork shoulder I saw online. But lo and behold, once we’re seated our server hands us the happy hour menu. It’s chock-full of drinks and small bites priced at $4. We each order a glass of the Carousel brut, a dry and crisp sparkling French wine. If a sparkling wine could be called “sessionable” this is it, and at $4 a glass we end up ordering several glasses with dinner.
Jeremy orders the goat cheese fritters with tomato jam and crostini, and the truffled deviled eggs with house-made bacon and chives. I’m surprised he went for the eggs as he’s not a big lover of truffles, but I’m more than happy to oblige. I order the crispy Brussels sprout leaves with golden raisins and pecorino, my attempt at introducing a veggie into the mix. Never mind the word “crispy” should have tipped me off these bad boys would be fried.
The goat cheese fritters are blissful. Tangy creamy goat cheese orbs are crumb-coated and fried, then served with a generous dollop of what looks like thick tomato sauce and lightly toasted wheat bread. The tomato sauce is sweet, almost “honeyed” and delicious schmeared on the warm bread. Squash a goat cheese fritter on top and it’s pretty much nirvana. Crunchy fried crumbs, tangy goat cheese, sweet tomatoes, and crisp wheat bread...need I say more?
The deviled eggs are sprinkled with hearty chunks of bacon and fresh chive. They’re gorgeous on the plate but the filling is a bit runny, making them difficult to handle. Not that a little creamy deviled egg filling ever scared me off! I don’t detect any trace of truffle in the filling which is fine by me. The yolk, mayo, and bacon is plenty rich.
The pan-fried sprout leaves arrive but before we dig in, Jeremy orders the house-made cheese curds with honey mustard dipping sauce from the daily specials menu. I order the “green eggs and ham” off the happy hour menu, and we get refills of the $4 bubbles.
The Brussels sprout leaves are caramelized and nutty. Succulent from the frying and sweet with the golden raisins, they get a nice earthy kick from the salty pecorino. I could eat this whole bowl and find myself going back for seconds, then thirds.
No split ends for me anytime soon because the cheese curds are fried as well. I’ve never been a big fan of deep-fried mozzarella and half-heartedly take a bite, expecting nothing special. The cheese curds are fresh and flush with milky goodness. The coating is light and crisp (nothing like the “blanket” type coating on mozzarella sticks). Best of all, the dipping sauce is homemade and way tastier than your typical honey mustard. I was only going to try one but find myself giving Jeremy a run for his money on this dish.
I ordered the green eggs and ham primarily for Jeremy who has a bit of a love affair for anything topped with a fried or poached egg. An adorable little mason jar is presented with a layer of Parmesan grits, a layer of pesto, and a poached egg. I can tell right off the egg is too “rare” for me; I'm one of those fussbudgets who can’t abide by jiggly egg whites. I let Jeremy dig in, breaking the yolk and ladling out a few gooey spoonfuls. Aesthetically, this is a gorgeous dish with pale yellow grits studded with pink ham bits, swirls of bright green pesto, soft egg whites, and bright yellow (almost orange) yolks oozing out. I maneuver around the squiggles of egg white and get a few bites of cheesy grits with pesto. Divine!
By now, we’re on our third glass of bubbles and darn full. Probably best if we call the shuttle and pay the bill. Instead, I order one last dish: the honey rosemary dipped fried chicken. One mahogany thigh and leg sit with a sweet potato biscuit in a shallow pool of honey flecked with rosemary. For me, this is my favorite dish of the evening. Savory fried chicken with herbal rosemary and sweet honey is an unbeatable combination. I use my half of the biscuit to mop up more honey.
For some inexplicable reason, we order dessert. I have the butterscotch boudino which arrives in a mason jar, sprinkled with sea salt and topped with sweet crème fraîche. I adore the combination of salty and sweet and find myself scraping up every last bit I can from the jar.
Two of my all time favorite restaurants are the Purple Pig in Chicago and Reserve in Grand Rapids. I can now add Salty Sow to that list. Actually, if those two eateries had a lovechild, it might be called the Salty Sow.