The Hot (and Not So Hot) Moments of Hot Luck Festival 2018

Words and Photos by Kayleigh Hughes

Hot Luck Festival 2018

At Ovrld, our slogan is “Austin music first.” Music is the heart of this city, and we care about documenting the unique ways that Austinites engage with local scenes. But more and more every year, Austin is making a name for itself as a food city as well as a music city. The food scene is as vibrant as the music scene, and as any true local knows, the two worlds intersect almost constantly.

When I saw the description for the second annual Hot Luck food and music festival, I knew we had to cover it. The festival was founded by barbecue dynamo Aaron Franklin and owner of beloved music venue Mohawk, James Moody, along with Feast Portland co-founder Mike Thelin. The idea of integrating food and music together into one Austin festival felt completely natural, especially when you consider that Aaron Franklin himself was once in a local band of his own, Those Peabodys.  

Ovrld had the chance to attend some of the events to see how Hot Luck’s stated goal of “honor[ing] the soul, sweat and DIY diversity of the food and music world” played out in practice. Keep in mind that we’re music critics first, and food critics, well, basically only on Twitter up until now. But that’s why we knew we had to do this event — to bring the two worlds together and explore how interconnected they really are.

Below are the hottest highlights of the fest, along with a few things that left us cold.

Hot: So much meat.

Hot Luck Festival 2018

We would expect nothing less from a festival run by Aaron Franklin. If you came to Hot Luck for meat, you left satisfied. Burgers, brisket, sausages, all sorts of beef, chicken and pork! Seriously, y’all, so much meat. But with so many competitors on the playing field, that did mean that it was a fierce challenge to stand out from the crowd. Some clear stars:

Momofuko’s Matthew Rudokfer took on classic pork ribs at Al Fuego on Saturday night, slathering the tender meat with an addicting spicy chile rub that make your mouth buzz in the best way.

Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Masumoto, the guys behind Kemuri Tatsu-Ya, served up a dynamic sweet and salty chashu pork dish, topped with peaches, shiso, and even crunchy oats.

Hot Luck Festival

Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Masumoto preparing some delicious pork dishes

Yuma Hererra and Bramwell Tripp of Loro made perfectly bite-sized smoked and grilled tri-tip, which worked amazingly well served on a prawn chip with uni butter.

Cold: So few sweets!

Hot Luck Festival 2018

This popcorn ice cream was one of the few sweet dishes available at Hot Luck

The Night Court theme, which was meant to channel the nostalgic vibes of American mall madness, and the Coup de Grille, the weekend’s retro car-themed brunch endeavor, both seemed to lend themselves to some exciting sweet treats. And given how hot the whole weekend was, I was expecting a lot more ice cream, popsicles, semifreddo, cool fruit and the like. Take note, Hot Luck. Although sugar was in short supply, the few desserts on display knocked it out of the park.

Launderette’s Laura Sawicki dominated the Night Court theme (and the dessert game overall) with her buttery popcorn ice cream sundaes. They offered a joyful balance of salty and sweet, and I loved the impact of small details like freshly popped popcorn and the placement of hot fudge on the bottom of the dish, allowing you to fully embrace the complexity of the popcorn ice cream before being delighted by the warm nostalgic sugar rush of dark gooey chocolate.

At Al Fuego, pastry chef Callie Speer of Holy Roller turned out an awesome, bite-sized dessert take on a flaming Dr. Pepper, and at Coupe de Grille, Olamaie’s Michael Fojtasek served cinnamon rolls with salty strips of ham nestled in the layers. The rolls themselves were on the crispy side, but I would bathe in the coffee icing that drenched them, and I thought the ham was really smartly incorporated.  

Hot: Short lines

Hot Luck Tillamook

I was blown away by how successfully the event managed the flow of people, from one stall to the next and throughout the various seating areas. I walked right up to iconic New York City chef Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen to try his smoked pork shoulder musubi (meant to evoke a sloppy joe) at the Night Court event, something I never could have imagined doing in another context. The line to try Aaron Franklin’s moist, comforting brisket hash at Coup de Grille took 1/40 of the time of the typical Franklin Barbecue wait (I did the math!)

The longest line I stood in was probably 10 minutes, to eat what was arguably the best dish of the whole weekend: Otoko’s Yoshi Okai — Food & Wine Best New Chef 2017 — served up meltingly tender beef with savory kale, tiny dreamy little shimeji mushrooms, onions, and a mindblowing negi miso sauce. One day I’ll save up the approximately $300 I’ll need to snag one of the 12 seats at Otoko’s hallowed omakase experiences, but in the meantime, Okai’s Hot Luck dish will dance in my memories on the regular.

Hot: Plentiful booze

Hot Luck Festival 2018

And I mean plentiful. By my count, there were at least 20 different alcohol vendors in total, and their lines were also delightfully speedy. At Night Court, Tito’s vodka outshone the rest by prompting a powerful pang of mall court memories with its Orange Julius cocktail. I was disappointed by a lot of missed mall food opportunities, and I searched and failed to find a soft pretzel, a giant cookie or a hotdog on a stick, but Tito’s was there for me with its frothy orange concoction. Meanwhile, at Al Fuego, I had a canned Riesling made with hops from Union Wine Company, and I fell deeply in love. Only 3% ABV, perfectly balanced — this is the summer drink that summer and drinks were made for.

Cold: That Damned Barracuda

Hot Luck Festival 2018 Barracuda

Ooh, Barracuda.

Honestly, I was so psyched to see Twin Peaks play, and the stifling wait in the cramped, smelly, pitch-dark Barracuda outdoor space ruined all my vibes.

Hot: My new all-time favorite live band experience Twin Peaks!!!

Twin Peaks

Hot Luck did a good job pairing music with food — the bluegrass and country lineup at the two-stepping capital of Austin, White Horse, was particularly inspiring. But nothing could have prepared me for the pure life-giving fun and passion of five-piece Chicago band Twin Peaks. I’m already skeptical anytime a band has more than three members, are all dudes, and regularly say that they resist genre categorization besides rock and roll. But Twin Peaks are everything that those types of bands should aspire to and they know how to put on a damn good show.

Shotgunning beers, grinning sheepishly, delicately and appreciatively receiving a rose from a fan (it’s a song reference), they brought out the best enthusiasm in their adoring mostly college-aged fan base. The band members were constantly smiling at each other and the folks in the crowd, who heaved and sang along to the music, doing stage dives and climbing rafters without ever descending into a mindless circle pit (good in their own ways, in the right circumstances).

Twin Peaks Hot Luck Festival

With the playful shaggy swagger of a young Billie Joe Armstrong or Paul Westerberg, vocalist and guitarist Cadien Lake James stole the show. But the experience was, above all, one of camaraderie. Every member of the band does vocals at one point or another, lending the live experience a vital feeling of collective passion and joy. At one point, James said it felt like everyone was all just at a big old house party, and he was exactly right. I’ve never seen this type of connection at a live show, and going to live shows is literally my job.

Hot: Chefs who focused on simplicity executed skillfully, with thematic integrity.

Hot Luck Festival 2018

Just like with music, really good, memorable food succeeds because it’s focused, it knows what it’s trying to do, and it does it really, really well. The top five winners overall, according to our refined ears and tongues at Ovrld:

Boiler Nine Bar & Grill’s Jason Stude took the Night Court theme in a different direction, elevating his most memorable school cafeteria meal experience: a chicken fried steak sandwich, stuffed with mashed potatoes and gravy with a green beans. I’ve never had such tender chicken fried steak, and I came back for seconds of crisp tangy green beans — as far from the dull gray cafeteria canned stuff as you can get. It was the most complete culinary experience of the night. Stude also remained squarely up front at his stall, serving up food and making conversation until long after other vendors had shut down. He was happy to tell me about the childhood memories that inspired his food, and he casually dropped in conversation that he’d been hospitalized the day before, which had left him scrambling to prepare for the event. Of the fifty-odd chefs on the whole Hot Luck Bill, there were four Jasons, but Stude outshined all the others.

Paula Disbrowe of PK Grille saved my soul with her grilled green beans and asparagus with romesco sauce. Crisp-tender and drenched in flavor, the veggies were one of the most refreshing moments of a very sweaty, meaty Al Fuego event. And it wasn’t just that they were greens — they were bonkers delicious. I ate them with my fingers like fries as I watched Disbrowe joyfully toss another batch with her hands and chat with a sweet fan about blanching tips.

Emmer & Rye’s Kevin Fink crafted one of the most magical renditions of migas I’ve ever had: so velvety, so creamy, so rich and just spicy enough. I would never have expected the chef to take that tack for brunch and it was just the best surprise. Plus, when the booth ran out of the heavenly tortillas they’d made up, they just draped the migas on chips for a breakfast nacho. I was in love.

Hot Luck Festival

Theodore Rex’s Justin Yu’s hot, sweet and spicy chicken was exactly what it said it was in the most perfect way: crunchy, sticky and flavorful, with a warm tingling heat. Yu also lands on my good side for fidelity to the food court theme and ideal portion size: you could pop the chicken into your mouth in one big bite or at most, two or three nibbles. Like a chicken amuse bouche. Can an amuse bouche be chicken? I don’t see why not.

Contigo’s Andrew Wiseheart offered something I had eagerly been awaiting throughout Hot Luck: some weird cow parts! The chef and his team smoked up some beef tongue, which I had never had before, and served it alongside fresh summer veggies in a creamy serrano yogurt. I would have put it in the meat section above, but the simplicity, the savvy pairing with the crisp veggies, the way the cool yogurt balanced out the rich tongue — it kind of changed my life.

Cold: So, So Many White Dudes

Hot Luck Festival 2018

Jason Stude was the best of the many, many Jasons represented at Hot Luck.

The fact of the matter is that Austin’s (and Texas’ and the United States’ and the world’s) food identity was not crafted solely by white men. Or even by a majority white men. There is an ongoing discussion over how to situate Aaron Franklin’s barbecue restaurant, which is located in a historic black district of Austin but dominates the Austin meat conversation while black pitmasters are left out, and over how to reckon with Austin’s obsession with Tex-Mex and breakfast tacos and its dismissal of the food’s unique Mexican American origins. Eater’s Meghan McCarron recently did an outstanding deep dive into the subject.

Hot Luck seems, to me, to be positioning itself as a more genuine culinary representation of Austin. Less fancy, less establishment, more real. But the lineup of chefs suggests that the festival and its organizers suffer from the same dismissive attitude toward showcasing women and chefs of color that the culinary world at large has such a problem with. By my count, there were 61 chefs on the Hot Luck roster. Less than a dozen were women, less than a dozen were people of color. Only one was a woman of color. And despite the rich culinary history of Austin’s black community — especially its barbecue pitmasters — there wasn’t a single black chef on the lineup.

It was impossible not to let this inadequacy color the event, as pleasant as it was. And as I ate mapo tofu or duck eggrolls from a white male chef, I often thought about what kind of story the festival is trying to tell, compared to the story it really was telling.

Kayleigh Hughes is an editor, freelance writer, and overthinker. In addition to contributing to Ovrld, Kayleigh’s writing can be found at Consequence of Sound, Paste, Pitchfork, Vox and more. Talk to her about literally anything–she doesn’t have that many friends–on twitter or via email.