AUSTIN — In cattle country, ribs and brisket rule the roost. But venture into the capital of Texas and you might be surprised to find more obscure cuts of meat on the table, from innards and offal to pig skin and liver pate.
You may be at an elegant white-tablecloth restaurant, or a simpler spot run by food-truck entrepreneurs, but the fare is unexpected: confit of rabbit, pig's head, bone marrow, and more, all prepared in enticing ways. "We want to make sure that if it sounds weird, it tastes great," says Odd Duck restaurant co-owner Sam Hellman-Mass.
At Olivia, an elegant head-to-tail, farm-to-table eatery, sweetbreads (a more delicate name for the veal thymus gland in the neck) are one of the most popular dishes. Beautifully presented, this organ meat is reminiscent of a chicken nugget, with a surprising lightness. It's dressed up with mole coloradito, white apple and cinnamon puree, powdered sesame, pickled cabbage, and torn, crisp flatbread.
The menu changes frequently, but curious diners can also indulge in a six- or 10-course tasting menu, which might include rabbit in a confit with purple wax beans, pecans, charred shallot vinaigrette, and a hard-cooked egg from the onsite chicken coop. The next day, rabbit is repurposed in a slider with foie gras pate, an apricot-Dijon spread, and housemade pickles.
Down the road from Olivia is Odd Duck, the recently opened brick-and-mortar installation of the popular food truck. "It's fun to make people aware that these cuts of meat, that they aren't used to, can taste really good," says chef and co-owner Bryce Gilmore, who also owns acclaimed eatery Barley Swine.
One of his dishes is "quail fried quail," Odd Duck's answer to chicken-fried steak. Sweet cheddar biscuits, pinto beans, and tangy buttermilk sauce complement the spicy, bone-in meat. More daring diners will be intrigued by Parker House rolls stuffed with pig's head. The head meat, comparable to pulled pork, is prepared with pickled mustard seed, parsley, sage, and thyme, and is a rich, savory contrast to the sweet, pillow-y roll.
Somewhere between the white tablecloth service of Olivia and the casual, communal atmosphere at Odd Duck lies Salty Sow, a farm-chic restaurant in East Austin. Inspired by his "own experiences with food and living in the South for over 30 years," chef and partner Harold Marulstein's menu utilizes not only the main cuts of meat, but also what he calls "the in-betweens."
Bacon and Gruyere-roasted bone marrow is a treat for adventurous eaters, a plate of two sizable femur bones dressed up with panko and a parsley puree, giving a primal thrill to the dining experience. You eat the deliciously fatty marrow spooned onto thickly sliced, local ciabatta bread. Another throwback to old Southern cuisine is airy, delicate chicken liver mousse, with an inviting pop of color from the magenta of pickled onions and bright green of chives.
The saturation of these nose-to-tail ventures in Austin is the result of concentrated food literacy (the flagship Whole Foods Market, established in 1980, anchors the town). It may also be due to the proud, hipster determination to "keep Austin weird," a slogan you see everywhere. Whatever the reason, when you visit this vibrant city don't order the expected. Rejoice in the choice. Austin chefs certainly do.
Odd Duck 1201 S. Lamar Blvd., Austin, Texas, 512-433-6521, oddduckaustin.com
Olivia 2043 S. Lamar Blvd., Austin, Texas, 512-804-2700, olivia-austin.com
Salty Sow 1917 Manor Road, Austin, Texas, 512-391-2337, saltysow.com
Kelly Toups can be reached at email@example.com.