Much has been said – perhaps exhaustively – about the changes in Austin. Invaded by Californians, tech bros and yuppies, this once funky little college town often gets the brunt of criticism by those who feel its musical soul and free-spirited grooviness have been replaced by glass boxes, Airbnbs filled with swinging bachelorettes, and Teslas roaming its clogged roadways. All of this is true, but there is still a desire to gather, laugh, enjoy the weather (even the scorching heat), and embrace this town’s festive atmosphere that feels distinctly Austin. Case in point is the Hot Luck festival. Founded by Mike Thelin of Feast Portland, revered and disarmingly cool barbecue master Aaron Franklin, and James Moody of the Mohawk, Hot Luck brings together Austin’s love of food, music, and festivals. On a blazing hot Memorial Day weekend, the food and music fest made a triumphant return for the first time since before the pandemic and music lovers and foodies once again made their way to Austin for one hell of a party.
Kicking off on Thursday, May 27, the first night of Hot Luck, which featured a pizza-leaning chef showdown at the Mohawk enhanced by the smooth stylings of DJ Jazzy Jeff. This event functioned as a sort of pre-party for what unfolded over the next couple of days. On Friday, May 28th, the festivities moved over to Franklin Barbecue on Austin’s east side for Hi how are you – named for the city’s beloved late weirdo-icon Daniel Johnson. Under the blazing Texas sun, attendees were treated to Aaron Franklin’s idea of a backyard party that just happened to take place at one of the most prestigious barbecue spots in the country, and boy what a party it was. Following this loose theme, a diverse cast of chefs presented what can most accurately be described as a surf and turf menu with meat and seafood taking center stage. Many flocked straight to the Franklin booth to begin the party with his mouthwatering fatty brisket served up Texas style on white bread (in this case doing the job of a tortilla) with pickles and onions before moving on to standout dishes that included buttery lobster rolls from Arlin Smith and Andrew Taylor of Eventide Oyster Co, crispy carnaroli rice bites with Alaskan King Crab from Chris Shepherd of Underbelly, saucy Hung Lay chicken wings from Jordan Rubin of Crispy Gai, Smoked Fish Croquettes from Kristine Kittrell of The Diner Bar, and Spam pastor musubi from Todd Duplechan of Lenoir. Though the event was just a touch overcrowded with the eager and sweaty mob shimmying from one food line to the next, the beers, cocktails and eats made it feel like one big party.
Those who weren’t too full from Hi, How Are You waddled down to the Mohawk to catch Austin power pop outfit Gentlemen Rogues followed by a reliably blistering performance from fellow locals Sweet Spirit. Their guitar attack reached new heights of rock and roll greatness with Sabrina Ellis’ passionate vocals. The band leaned into their disco-garage-punk sound for this set, also proving that Ellis continues to be one of the wildest and most entertaining performers out there today. This band needs to tour more as they are highly underrated outside of Austin.
Superchunk headlined with a set that found the indie rock heroes rocking their way through their new album Wild Loneliness along with plenty of fan favorites stretching back more than two decades. Their new songs are some of their strongest to date and the crowd seemed happy to watch them explore the material. While Superchunk’s energetic performance was the musical highlight of the weekend, the real standout moment may have been seeing Aaron Franklin geeking out and enjoying himself alone at the edge of the side stage, taking it all in with a smile and a beer.
Saturday’s Al Fuego was the marquee event of Hot Luck, taking place on the sprawling and picturesque Wild Onion Ranch. Despite being just outside the Austin city limits, it felt like it was nestled deep in the Texas Hill Country with live oak trees and cattle roaming in the distance. The setting was conducive to the event’s loose theme of food cooked over some sort of open flame and the space allowed for more strolling room and plenty of spots to hang out while sampling the array of food options. Grilled meat and seafood generally reigned supreme once again, with most chefs utilizing fire and smoke to their advantage, but there was also plenty to savor beyond the protein itself. Highlights included Ihaw-Ihaw with Grilled Alaska scallops and Creekstone beef tongue collard greens from Carlo Lamagna of Magna Kusina, gorgeously grilled skirt steak with toasted jasmine rice “grits from Colin Yoshimoto and Earl Ninsom of Eem, coastal tostadas from Davis Turner of Huckleberry, beef cheek sausage and fry bread from Dawn Burrell of Late August, fire roasted pork belly with pickled pineapple tacos from Diego Galicia and Rico Torres of Mixtli, a smoked picanha taco from Evan LeRoy of Leroy and Lewis Barbecue, and smoked New Mexican lamb neck from Jori Emde and Zak Pelaccio of Fish & Game. But those dishes were only part of what was offered. Those who could handle the eating marathon were able to partake in Kareem El-Ghayesh’s (KG BBQ) lamb bacon ribs with spicy mint chimichurri, Stuart Brioza’s (The Anchovy Bar) avocado-sticky Rice with fish sauce, and Todd Pulsenelli’s (Hotel Chloe) spicy stuffed crab served inside a shell, among many other dishes.
Back at the Mohawk, Robert Ellis got things off to a sleepy start with a solo set that included his ode to Topo Chico and his hilarious ballad “Nobody Smokes Anymore.” It would have been nice to see Ellis doing his thing with a full band, with his set taking on the vibe of the hotel lobby act, but he seemed to pick up on this and made his exist after just about thirty minutes of playing. Shannon and the Clams hit the stage next for their throwback style of surf-meets-psych-meets-doo-wop, with band members donning western garb to match their cowboy twang. Though their set didn’t match the energy and spunk of Superchunk the night before, the Clams drew a larger crowd and definitely kept the party going.
If there is one critique of Hot Luck, it’s the price point. With each event costing well over $200 and Whole Enchilada passes around $1000, one might be inclined to argue that it is the type of event that caters to the rich. But this might be too easy of a knock, since anyone who has ever attended a food or beverage festival knows that a high price point is necessary if you want to create a truly all-inclusive experience. This year’s Hot Luck proved this (not to mention the need to factor inflation and huge increases in food prices into the mix), with a decadent eating and drinking excursion that left attendees feeling fat and happy with plenty of rocking to help digest all of the food well into the night. Yet, beyond the exceptional food offerings, top notch musicianship, and fine-tuned organization that Hot Luck nailed all weekend long was the ability to capture the essence of the Austin that once was and the Austin that still is if you know how to find it. Most of us will be dreaming of the bites we tasted and the bands we rocked out to for some time, but that lingering radiance of communal joy is perhaps the best feeling of all and one that makes Hot Luck both essentially Austin and well worth attending. As long as folks like Aaron Franklin and the Hot Luck team are still throwing events, Austin will continue to be a vibrant city worthy of its reputation.
Keenan Goldis contributed reporting