Want to eat ramen, gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, sushi, brawny artisan bread and tacos in one soaring but inviting space? And complete your meal with a craft cocktail or glass of wine? You can now do that in downtown Austin.
Fareground arrived near the corner of Congress Avenue and Second Street earlier this year to challenge Austinites’ old notions of what a food court can be. The dining and drinking establishment follows the trend of food halls that have popped up in recent years from Portland, Oregon, to New York.
These modern collectives don’t bombard you with workers hawking samples of microwaved bites of Americanized Chinese food or fried chicken sandwiches from national chains. They are homes to curated groups of local vendors that deliver quality food in a fast-casual setting.
The Elm Restaurant Group (24 Diner, Italic) enlisted the participation of a diverse array of local restaurants to create Fareground, which serves food and drink all day. You can grab a pastry on the way to work in the morning, dip in for a taco at lunch or settle in for a more relaxed dinner or glass of wine from the full bar.
The bright space in the subterranean floor of the office tower built in 1987 at 111 Congress Ave. was designed by Michael Hsu Office of Architecture and is full of mid-century details and handsome wood, delivering a modernist version of a university dining hall blended with a sleek hotel aesthetic. Fareground also offers ample outdoor seating and a turf-blanketed slope for picnic-style dining (or hill-rolling for the little ones); a street-level bar with indoor and outdoor service will soon open at the top of the stairs at the corner of Congress Avenue and Second Street.
All the operations are counter service, but Elm has staffed Fareground with a polite, professional and active crew to clear plates, refill waters and keep the remarkably clean dining space humming smoothly.
Navigating the more than 70 options from the six vendors can pose challenges to time and money. But exploration is part of the fun, so I did the hard work of eating almost every single item at Fareground. Over several weeks I ate about 95 percent of the menu items and am reporting back with the 10 best dishes. Keep in mind that menus may change slightly with the seasons, but let this list be your guide to get your arms around Austin’s first modern food hall.
This list isn’t ranked; the dishes are listed by vendor in the order you would find them if walking in a clockwise direction from the entrance at the bottom of the stairs at Second Street and Congress Avenue.
Casatica and pear toast ($10) at Antonelli’s Cheese
If you’ve ever been to John and Kendall Antonelli’s cheese shop in Hyde Park, you know that the best part of the visit is tasting the multitude of cheeses. The hardest part of a visit is trying not to overstay your welcome by making a meal out of tasting-sized bites. They solved that conundrum with their Fareground location. In addition to a variety of cheeses for purchase by weight, Antonelli’s created a dinng menu that features boards with cured meats and cheeses, a grilled cheese sandwich, creamy mac and cheese and a few cheese toasts. My favorite of the toasts tastes like a cheese board on bread. The rectangular slices of sourdough are smeared with a creamy buffalo milk cheese (casatica di bufala) that has a mild sweetness amplified by crunchy slices of pear and a judicious drizzle of honey. A vibrant tangle of peppery and bitter arugula keeps the sizable snack from going overboard with the sweetness.
Squash and avocado salad ($12), crispy short rib ($14) and breakfast burrito ($10) at Henbit
What is a henbit? Well, it’s an herb. But it’s also the name of this Fareground standout. And, while you may not recognize the name of the restaurant, you should recognize the names behind it. Kevin Fink and his chef partners from Emmer & Rye created this as a fast-casual companion piece to their excellent Rainey Street restaurant. The name is different, but the commitment to craft and thoughtful flavor profiles remain, making Henbit one of the best values in town.
Henbit follows the healthful bowl model with options like the avocado and roasted squash salad (butternut on my visit), the fattiness and starch of the avocado and butternut squash pierced with the acidic pop of cherry tomatoes. Arugula and mint do that fresh point-counterpoint thing, with pumpkin seeds and burnt pecan dressing layering crunch and smoky notes across the dish. I wisely added roasted chicken for $3, and you can also add shrimp or short rib.
Always fans of pickling and fermentation, the chefs punctuate a bowl of crispy (but not dried out) confit short rib with pickled chilies, while a tangy relish turns up the oozy blend of fluffy eggs, crispy potatoes and cheese on a fragrant pork sausage breakfast burrito wrapped in a white Sonoran tortilla that speaks to Fink’s love of heritage grains. It’s the best breakfast burrito I’ve ever eaten.
Pro tip: Go healthy without sacrificing flavor with drinks like a golden chai latte ($5.50) made with turmeric, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and maple; or a grapefruit and thyme ($3) housemade shrub.
Quarter rotisserie chicken with sweet potato salad and greens ($13), and cheeseburger ($11) at Contigo
If you’re familiar with the ranch-style cooking at Contigo on Anchor Lane, you’ll feel right at home at their Fareground location. When you think of an approachable, hearty and flavorful meal tailor-made for the fast-casual setting, it would be a roasted chicken with vegetable sides. The salt-and-pepper-flecked skin crackles and slides from the tender meat (get dark meat for the most flavor). The quarter-chicken special comes with two sides; go for the piquant greens braised with lardons and the tangy and slightly sweet strands of raw sweet potato tossed with sherry vinegar, honey and peanuts.
Contigo is known for having one of the best burgers in town and is wise to replicate it here. The juicy one-third pound of Windy Bar Ranch beef is cooked to a blushed medium, capped with white cheddar cheese and served on a poofy challah bun. You can add bacon ($2), pickled jalapeño ($1), a fried egg ($2) and more if you want to customize.
Miso ramen at Ni-Komé ($10)
The owners of Komé and Daruma Ramen combined the two things for which they are known at this sushi and ramen spot. You can order the sushi nigiri style or in a variety of rolls, and the ramen comes in four styles. Diced Japanese onion, wisps of dried chili threads and floating baubles of chili oil blend grassy and spicy elements that cut that umami base of the rich, chicken-based miso ramen, as crunchy slivers of sprouts and shredded chicken breast float on the surface with a pungent soy- and mirin-flavored soft egg (aji-tama). The savory soup full of springy noodles can take up to 20 minutes to prepare during peak hours, per the menu, but I didn’t experience such a wait. Pro tip: Get a side of fried shrimp shumai ($4.50) to supplement your order.
Wild boar pibil ($5) and wild boar al pastor ($6) tacos at Dai Due Taquería
If you’re looking for a prime example of scratch-based cooking and eating local, look no further than hunter, fisherman, conservationist and chef Jesse Griffiths’ Dai Due. He harvested grape leaves from the alley across the street from Dai Due on Manor Road to serve as the starter for the restaurant’s sourdough bread and has committed to help curtail Texas’ wild boar population by using their meat at his restaurant. So, it’s no surprise that he and chef Gabe Erales take an artisanal approach to their taqeuria at Fareground.
The heritage corn from Mexico is nixtamalized in-house and turned into masa for supple corn tacos that shimmer with a mellow glow. Get to them while they’re hot off the grill. The tangy wild boar is complemented by pickled sweet potato, with radish and cilantro taking the edge off chili pequin, on the pibil taco. And the trompo spins with a spit of wild boar pastor, which is sliced thin and layered on another taco spirited with supremes of grapefruit and diced onion.
Salami sandwich on pretzel roll ($7) from Easy Tiger
Looking to carb up with a flaky croissant or Danish as you start your day, or maybe you need a loaf of French bread to take home after work or on a picnic? Easy Tiger, which opened its original beer garden and bakery on Sixth Street in 2012, has you covered. David Norman’s bakery also serves a selection of premade sandwiches, including one with the peppery spike of a robust salami made with Akaushi beef round and pork shoulder. The salt from the tawny pretzel roll completes the companion seasoning, with housemade mustard putting some pop into the whole affair that is tamed slightly by the vegetal cool of wavy emerald green lettuce.
111 Congres Ave. faregroundaustin.com
Antonelli’s Cheese Shop: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Contigo: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Dai Due Taquería: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Easy Tiger: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Henbit: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Ni-Komé: 11 a.m to 10 p.m. daily.
Notes: Garage parking is available one block east of Fareground on the east side of Brazos Street. A purchase at Fareground will give you a discounted rate of $3 per half hour. Keep your receipt, which contains the validation code.