Welcome to Sound Cheque, where we sit down with one of our favorite bands to get the scoop on their city-by-city dining picks.
Clockwise, from upper right: Michael Muller, Aisha Burns,Travis Chapman, Rob Lowe
Austin, Texas group Balmorhea may not be a household name but their experimental (dare we say 'post-rock') sound has captured the attention of NPR, made them a Pitchfork Media fave and garnered rave reviews from the New Yorker. Fancy, right? Well, their vocal-less orchestral jams have always been both sophisticated and accessible — not unlike their approach to food. I caught up with Balmorhea's Michael Muller to talk about everything from food etymology to the simple pleasures of Chick-fil-A.
How long have you lived in Austin, TX?
I was born and lived until age 10 in San Diego, California. Moved to the Dallas/Ft. Worth area in my adolescence and have been in Austin since January 24, 2003.
So if you identify San Diego as your hometown eats, do you have favorite spots there you miss?
In San Diego there are several locations of the best taco stand scattered up and down the coast of north San Diego county called Roberto's. That's the one place I always go when I'm in San Diego. Their rolled tacos come with little dollops of sour cream and guacamole and some crumbled Mexican cheese that's hard to beat.
In Austin, there are a couple sandwich places that are unbeatable: Fricano's has enormous sandwiches like delis in NYC but all the ingredients are fresh and made in-house. It's the type of place where after a couple times eating there the owners remember your name and shout it out as you enter, a very familial and intimate experience. I get the turkey usually and their tuna salad is also wonderful. The other place is called Food Heads that's situated in an old house with mismatched tables and chairs. They have more of a gourmet feel to them with more avant garde accoutrements, but the whole presentation and atmosphere make it a staple for the lunch hour. I usually get the grilled chicken special which has feta, avocado and a tarragon mayonnaise which comes with a side of cold ice box pickles that are thinly sliced and are served in metal ramekins.
Well now you live in a town that is pretty passionate about their barbecue — have you become a barbecue connoisseur?
I don't eat a great deal of red meat, but there are a couple places in Austin that are really enjoyable and fully embrace the culture of Texas hill country. About 30 minutes southwest of town there is a place called The Salt Lick that is BYOB and serves massive amounts of family style barbecue. That is my go-to.
Do you have any personal dining requirements or regular dining patterns on tour?
I have the good and bad problem of liking pretty much everything. I can find comfort and/or respect in really bad food sometimes. So on the road this can get me into trouble. Our sound engineer Andrew and I play off of each other, and especially in Europe the fast food burger rears its head several times per tour.
In England, there is a really good chain of gas station markets called Marks & Spencer which is a daily stop because they have fresh juices and pretty good food. Imagine a mini-Whole Foods that's connected to the Shell station. In Germany there is a similar type stop called Marché. They have a great variety and things are prepared and presented beautifully, we only sadly discovered this place on the last tour. In the US, we tend to have more breakfasts stops: Cracker Barrel is fun mainly to take stock of the curious and interesting people dining there. Pretty much any place with decent and refillable coffee is always a welcome stop.
You're a pretty avid photographer and also post a lot of killer 'food porn' on your blog. Are you a fan of food porn blogs and/or do you participate in any foodie photo communities like Foodspotting?
Yes, I do freelance photography and run a blog of day-to-day type of shots (which does involve a fair amount of food). I follow the blog of Andrew Scrivani, who does food photography for the New York Times. Smitten Kitchen and Simply Breakfast are also favorites. I had a post once on a blog called Great Food Photos but really haven't sought out many other sites.
Would you call yourself a foodie, forgive the cliche, but are you a food-snob, obsessive or whatever you'd like to call it?
I suppose for all intents and purposes I am a foodie. My bandmates now think it odd if we are having a meal and my camera isn't next to me documenting it! My mother is a fabulous cook and always piqued my interest with the variety should could muster. Over the years I've really just been enamored with the entire process of picking out the ingredients to the presentation on the table. I don't own a TV but when I'm home for the holidays I take in a fair amount of the Food Network and interrogate my mother about recipes and etymology of foods.
When you're on tour, what's your preferred method for scouting out good eats?
In the US I use Yelp, but usually there is a place that comes recommended from another band or friend in the town. With seven people traveling sometimes it's hard to please everyone. The GPS is helpful if you want a specific thing like Chick-fil-A, which seems to always be craved on Sundays: the only day it's closed!
What US cities are your favorites to tour in because of the food?
Portland and Seattle always have great choices for food. We are doing the West Coast and hope to finally try Skillet in Seattle.
In Portland, the happy hour at Bluehour and breakfast at Tin Shed are both fantastic. In Seattle we always get breakfast at Glo's on Capitol Hill. Jo Bar in Seattle is our favorite coffee spot but of course Stumptown coffee in the PNW is hard to top!
Any parts of the US that you find are lacking in good dining options?
Good Mexican food in NYC is a rare commodity it seems. And all of middle America - Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma etc seem to be pretty bland for food options as far as we've found.
What's your feeling on chain restaurants? Necessary evil on the road or guilty pleasure?
There is a weird part of me that finds comfort in knowing what you're in for with chain restaurants. Though a good local place is preferred, especially it comes recommended. Starbucks has become a routine stop (which could be slightly due to my parents giving gift cards as stocking stuffers every year). But Andrew and I always consider late night burger runs. In Texas, Whataburger is a definite possibility and it's open 24 hours.
Do you have any food tips you swear by for staying healthy on the road?
Fresh and non-fast food on the road definitely makes you feel better and have more energy, especially after being out for a few weeks. A home-cooked meal is about the most amazing sensation after days on end of gas station fare. Loading up on apples, bananas and Clif or Lara bars is always safe.
Can you describe your best food experience on tour?
In Europe the concert promoters and venues usually take special care of the bands. We've arrived at concerts where after soundcheck and been taken out to dinner for four-course meals at really nice restaurants and somehow it's always "in the budget."
Do you ever try street food? What are some of your favorite food carts in the US?
In Austin a lot of our band loves Torchy's Tacos trailer as well as Lulu B's which is an excellent banh mi Vietnamese sandwich trailer. In Marfa, Texas they have amazing falafel at a trailer called the Food Shark. Abroad, I can never resist the urge of the churros from street vendors in Spain.
Now to get conceptual: if your group was a food or meal - what would it be?
We have two vegetarians, so with that in the mix we'd have to be a big falafel with plenty of tzatziki. It's one thing we can all always agree on and love.
Now for the lightning round!
Best burger - Kincaid's - Ft. Worth, TX
Best pizza - Lil' Frankie's - Lower East Side, NYC or Motorino - Brooklyn, NY
Best taco/burrito - Roberto's - Del Mar, Solana Beach and Leucadia, CA
Best barbecue - The Salt Lick - Driftwood, TX
Best coffee/tea shop - Blue Bottle - Brooklyn, NY or Frank - Austin, TX
Best bakery or sweets shop - Quack's - Austin, TX
Best bar - La Kiva - Terlingua, TX
Balmorhea's latest album "Candor/Clamor" is available now on Western Vinyl Records.
Check out Balmorhea's bittersweet video for "Remembrance"