How many drinks did I have? Staggering down a dark and treacherous road in Texas, I’d lost count. My first night at Austin Food & Wine had been a booze crawl, over a topography land-mined with tasting plates of elaborate desserts. In another couple of minutes, I’d discover the best fried chicken I think I’ve ever had. Here’s how.
I’d flown in from San Francisco to practically land in a pint of beer at the New Taste of Texas, the Food & Wine event’s opening party, set in a scrubby park in downtown Austin. After that I downed a Manhattan from a plastic cup. I needed to walk over to the Driskill hotel to pick up my press badge, and while there I paused in the lobby bar to order a shot of Willett rye. And when the waitress with the apricot-colored hair asked if I wanted the 20-year-old I said sure. “You’re gettin’ the good stuff, sugar,” she said as she set down the little snifter. When I looked at the bill it—shit!—said $35, which meant I’d squandered my dining per diem on booze, so if I wanted to eat I was going to have to mooch off trays at media parties.
That’s exactly where I headed, with an upper lip still numb from the gold-plated whiskey I’d blown my allowance on: a party at a bar upstairs from La Condesa, theoretically presided over by Marcus Samuelsson. I think I caught a glimpse of his pork-pie hat through the crowd, though mostly I fixed my harder-and-harder-to-focus attention on a margarita, which seemed to have evaporated from my glass.
I’d met a local food blogger who told me about the Texas craft beer scene. She said, “Are you going to the dessert party at Saint Cecilia’s?” I wasn’t sure that I was. Also, I had no idea in hell what, or who, was Saint Cecilia. I noticed that the margarita in my hand was suddenly full again, as I scanned the crowd in the dim bar to see who was smoking the weed I whiffed. “Philip Speer is going to be there,” she said.
Speer is the pastry chef and culinary director at Uchiko. Earlier, at the Taste of Texas thing, he’d been handing out a couple of desserts. One had a mousse flavored with ash—lemons reduced to carbon after hours in the oven, basically, sort of like turning decay into something hopeful, sweet, and shiny. At the same time, a soda made from absolutely unripe strawberries fizzed around the mousse, haunting it like some green and tannic shadow. It was inspired. I wanted to taste more, plus I was in no state to turn down free food.
“Absolutely, that guy’s a genius. I’m going.”
DON’T DROP THE COOKIE BALLS
But it turns out my new blogger buddy wasn’t, so no shared cab to Saint Cecilia’s. She told me it’s a hotel; I figured I could walk the mile-plus on Google Maps. So I did, pausing with wonky balance to pee against the garbage dumpster out back of Hooters.
But the Hotel Saint Cecilia was no place to show up hammered. Four pastry chefs had set up tables on the lawn, serene under the lights, as shadowy groups of elegant-looking people sat around tables on the terrace, watching. Who the fuck were they? I drank champagne, picked up a couple of Christina Tosi’s salty cookie-dough lumps (left), watching the one I dropped roll off the table and onto the grass. A girl in a chef’s coat giggled.
Pichet Ong handed me a plate with a wedge of some warm Spanish cake—I tried to talk up its similarity to a Filipino dessert whose name I couldn’t remember, but Ong wasn’t having any of my bullshit. He smiled politely and turned away. Speer was there: He handed me a skewer with a liquid nitrogen marshmallow s’more thing that dissolved into graham-cracker crumbs on my tongue. I stood around for a while—it must have been near midnight—then realized I just needed to crawl into bed back at my hotel. Wherever that hell that was.
So there I was in the dark, out on the street—more like a two-lane highway strafed by whizzing cars—trying to remember how many drinks I’d had, with nothing solid in my stomach except tiny portions of complicated sweets.
That’s when then I saw them on the side of the road, huge letters in neon lights the color of dirty gold: CHICKEN. They were attached to the longest shiny Airstream trailer I’d ever seen, off on a semipaved lot with some tables out front: a fried chicken truck. Thank you, Jesus.
YOU GUYS SUCK
But when I got to the order window, I heard a woman’s Texas drawl. “No more chicken, darlin’. Just sold the last to those boys over there.” Two college dudes were sitting at the otherwise empty table, with a huge bucket of chicken between them—like, a huge bucket. They looked over; I pointed a finger and yelled. “I fucking HATE you guys!”
They were nice, since either one could have kicked my ass if he’d wanted to. “We could give you a wing, man,” one said with a shrug. Suddenly, the truck woman was standing next to me, introducing herself as Ms P. She was wearing one of those rocker straw cowboy hats. “Shoulda been here earlier, darlin’; we could’ve set you up with chicken and waffles.” She poked her finger into my chest, up against a big berry-colored stain on my shirt that I hadn’t noticed. “Where you comin’ from like this?”
I told her I was a food writer, an editor at CHOW; that I was in town for Austin Food & Wine. “Wait a minute,” she said, and disappeared back into the Airstream. I noticed the name: Ms P’s Electric Cock. I both kind of wanted to ask, and kind of didn’t.
Ms P returned with a basket of a half-dozen fried chicken wings. “Here, found these. Eat up—best fried chicken in all of Austin.” They were probably supposed to be the fry cook’s dinner, but I didn’t give a crap.
I sat down at what I deemed a respectful distance from the college guys and became one with those wings, nibbling off every last scrap of breading, flesh, and sinew, until pale bones were all that remained. I brandished a $20 bill at Ms P, but she declined to take it. I thought I’d come back the next day, just to order something and pay for it. I never did.
“I have discovered,” the poet William Carlos Williams once wrote, “that most of the beauties of travel are due to the strange hours we keep to see them.” Had I, in fact, drunk-devoured the best fried chicken in all of Austin? Just after midnight, with an untold number of drinks in my system and a residue of grease and salt on my hands, craving a hotel pillow under my head, I absolutely thought I did.