10 Things I Ate About You: Marfa, Texas

The broad swath of dishes to be sampled here is as diverse as the artwork that blooms on the grounds of this remote desert town in West Texas.

10 Things I Ate About You finds 10 enticing bites in smaller cities from coast to coast.

This tiny town seemingly dropped in the midst of the Texan high desert may appear to be an unlikely spot for an art colony teeming with tourists. But Marfa has long served as a mecca for art fanatics from around the world. It was the late artist Donald Judd who put the town on the map as a cultural hot spot when he relocated here in the 1970s, eventually buying an old Army fort as a place to show large-scale works. Though its population continues to hover at a mere 2,000 residents, Marfa’s culinary scene has burgeoned. The broad swath of dishes to be sampled here is as diverse as the artwork that blooms on the grounds of this remote desert town, with Tex-Mex, Mediterranean, French and Southeast Asian flavors all represented. Just don’t be surprised if a place is randomly closed; the cuisine may be worldly, but Marfa has retained its relaxed small-town ambiance.

In spring 2016, Marfa welcomed a sophisticated culinary addition to its main strip: the fine-dining restaurant LaVenture that’s tucked away in a modern reincarnation of the Hotel Saint George. With Executive Chef Allison Jenkins (formerly of laV in Austin and The Little Nell) at the helm, LaVenture’s kitchen turns out impeccable American-style cuisine with French and Italian influences. Regional ingredients are showcased in the ever-evolving selection of dishes, including the Texas wagyu beef carpaccio that frequently shows up on the daily menu. Sourced from Wyatt Ranches of Texas, the meat is sliced into paper-thin rounds, then artfully adorned with garlic aioli, cornichons, arugula and grissini.

Stellina opened its doors in June 2016 and soon attracted the crowds with its homestyle Mediterranean fare and casual, convivial atmosphere. All seating is communal, so a meal here feels like dining in someone’s house — someone who knows how to cook really well. The daily changing menu always features a few pasta selections, and tagliatelle makes semiregular appearances with different accoutrements. The egg pasta is made in-house, then topped with satiating sauces such as roasted San Marzano marinara, Bolognese and meatballs. Drink options include beer and wine.

This Middle Eastern food truck is one of Marfa’s most-famous places to eat, having popped up in the national press time and again. Even Beyoncé has graced its outdoor garden. The dish to get here is the Marfalafal, a large flour tortilla filled with falafel, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, tahini, yogurt and harissa. Optional add-ins include hummus and even bacon, as long as it’s available. Insider’s tip: Go for all the upgrades. For a bite in the evening hours, amble over to Food Shark proprietor Adam Bork’s adjacent space, where you can sample some of the best grilled cheese sandwiches in West Texas while basking in the glow of the vintage television sets that decorate this retro dining area.

Tom Rapp sold his acclaimed restaurant Etats-Unis on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 2005, before picking up his world in search of a quieter, simpler life. The move led the chef to Marfa, where he opened Cochineal a few years later. Here, Rapp and his team employ the same culinary devotion that fueled his big-city restaurant. This dedication has paid off, as the small-town spot has garnered ample applause for its ingredient-driven, homestyle cuisine. The menu changes frequently, but the date pudding developed by Chef Toshi Sakihara is a regular inclusion and a local favorite. This made-to-order dessert can best be described as a bread pudding-souffle hybrid. A crisp caramelized crust gives way to a light and fluffy center, which is drenched in a dark moat of rich-yet-not-too-sweet rum-caramel sauce and flanked by a spire of airy whipped cream.

Botana is Spanish for "snack," which leaves lots of room for interpretation. At this unfussy Mexican and American joint, botanas take the form of a supersized nacho dish of sorts. In each order, four crisp corn tortillas come buried under a choice of hearty toppings. Order the vegetarian option — frijole chips — and you’ll get a base of tortillas smothered in a thick layer of refried beans and cheese, which can be customized with a topping of lettuce and tomatoes. The combination adds up to a satisfying snack that’s slightly salty, singing with umami notes and boasting a nice crunch to boot. Two versions that cater to carnivorous tastes are also available, with a choice of beef or chicken taco meat heaped on the tortilla base, then finished with lettuce and tomato. Billed on the menu as a “Marfa favorite,” these loaded bites keep the locals coming back for more.

Egg and Chorizo Burrito at Marfa Burrito

Housed in a nondescript white house with giant pickups lined up in the front, Marfa Burrito is easy to miss. Make sure you don’t. (Hint: Look for a bunch of trucks.) The place serves the best burritos in town. We’re talking toasty housemade tortillas bursting with flavorful fillings such as carne asada and chile-scented ground beef. For breakfast, try the huevo chorizo. It’s the perfect combination of fluffy scrambled egg and spicy sausage, all nestled in that chewy, warming wrapper made of dough. Top it off with the tear-inducing, housemade green salsa for an extra kick of heat. Paired with a complimentary cup of coffee from the insulated dispenser, it’s a superb way to rev up for whatever your morning has in store.

Brisket Banh Mi at Mar-Pho

This Vietnamese-inspired newcomer barged into Marfa’s culinary scene with quite an appealing arsenal of bold Southeast Asian flavors in early 2016. The place offers a short menu of pho, bowls, snacks and banh mi. Locals love all of the above, but the banh mi is the top pick. Built on a house-baked baguette made fresh every morning, the sandwich comes stuffed with most of the traditional accoutrements such as fresh cilantro, sliced jalapenos, and pickled carrots and radishes. The menu offers a choice of protein-packed options for the fillings: grilled chicken, baked tofu and jumbo lump crab, as well as daily specials such as pork belly and brisket. Try the brisket if it’s available — this is cattle country, after all. Otherwise, the crab is always a hit.

Opened in 1931, Hotel Paisano is a grand dame of West Texan hospitality, with a glamourous past as the gathering spot for screen legends Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. The actors dined and socialized in the historic building when they were filming Giant, which went on to become a cinematic classic. Jett’s Grill, which is housed in the hotel, now serves a Giant Burger in their honor — and the menu item is as substantial as its name suggests. A hefty Black Angus patty weighing in at 12 ounces comes perched on a seeded bun, along with lettuce, tomato, choice of cheese (blue, Swiss or Cheddar), and customizable add-ons such as avocado, jalapeno, mushrooms and bacon. This beast of a burger is paired with a massive chalice-like bowl brimming with homestyle Parmesan fries. Pro tip: Opt for a margarita or step up your drink game with a sotol cocktail. The latter is a Mexican spirit distilled from an agave-like plant that can be seen all over town.

Housed inside a gleaming corrugated steel building, this spot possesses a name that seems to give a cheeky nod to a certain American rock band. Step inside and the name Buns N’ Roses takes on a whole new meaning, as the space offers both baked goods and flowers. The pastries are sweeter than any love ballad, with the turnovers alone just as tasty as any variation one could find in a big city — maybe better. Crisp, flaky layers of pastry dough encase various fillings, such as peach or strawberry-rhubarb, and are drizzled with zigzags of sugary icing. In addition to these sweet treats, other breakfast foods (including oatmeal, waffles, breakfast burritos and omelets) and lunch items are also available.

Squeeze is one of the top breakfast and lunch spots in town, offering healthy, European-inspired fare throughout the morning and afternoon. Menu items such as waffles, acai breakfast bowls, roast beef sandwiches and salad caprese are joined by Swiss birchermüesli, grilled Swiss bratwurst and other distinctive dishes that reflect the flavors of Switzerland, where owner Verena Zbinden was born and raised. She even has a direct connection to one of Switzerland’s sweetest exports, chocolate, as her father started Chocolatier Vollenweider there in 1943. These days, the family’s chocolate-making business is run by Zbinden’s brother and sister-in-law, who send their handcrafted chocolate directly from Switzerland to Squeeze. Those rich cacao-based products are used in the cafe’s superb hot chocolate (available with either a 38 percent milk or 65 percent dark chocolate base) that’s served steaming hot and crowned with a crest of fresh whipped cream.

Beef Carpaccio photography courtesy of Nick Simonite 
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