Anyone who’s even flipped to the Food Channel for a mere moment has surely seen Ali Khan, the famous face found on “Cheap Eats,” “Spring Baking Championship,” “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” “Chopped + Chopped Junior” and “NFL Tailgate Takedown.”
The Austin-based TV personality, podcaster and writer, who weaves comedy into all his work, recently touched base with The Travel Addict for this second installment of a three-part culinary conversation.
Read on for restaurant selection strategies on the road, if the prices on “Cheap Eats” were the real deal, affordable ideas in major cities and what he considers to be some of The Lone Star State’s finest finds, including a few unexpected discoveries at the enormous Austin City Limits Music Festival.
What are some of your favorite spots to eat in Austin?
My favorite Austin spot. Ooh, well…
You can do more than one.
Well, yeah, that almost makes it harder. You know, it’s going to be funny. I’m going to give you one answer, and I’m being cheeky about it, but I swear to God, it’s H-E-B because it is getting so expensive to eat out. And I don’t think I could eat out without H-E-B. I think H-E-B, the last bastion of affordability, is definitely living in Austin. It’s kind of crazy…H-E-B’s barbecue was actually always secretly pretty good for how convenient it was and apparently the torch has been passed on. People still say it’s pretty decent for what it is and a lot of the people who are from Austin or from Texas, they’ll be like, “well, you like Rudy’s?” And I’m like, “I have been to Rudy’s at a party, and it was not good as I thought it would be.”
But to answer the question straight up, I have like a little document that I give to people who are visiting, and I still consider myself a transplant, so I’m still going to think of the big stuff, like barbecue. But definitely these days, Cuantos Tacos. You got to have a taco place. I think Cuantos is awesome because it is more like what some people would call Mexican-Mexican tacos. I love plantains and tacos. They do Mexico City-style chorizo tacos that they’re going to go to this year. Interstellar Barbecue has been a go to. It’s one of my later discoveries and they’re just really bringing it. I’d say the same about KG BBQ, which is right by me. He’s like an Egyptian dude who does Egypt meats barbecue. That’s pretty awesome. Hard to not love that.
My family loves sushi. It’s just so expensive in Austin and I realize it’s gone up in price from what I remember in L.A., but it’s hard to find middle ground with sushi in Austin. I think Raku offers incredible middle ground and it’s not as hard to get into. I gave you some barbecue, some tacos and I’ll give you a burger place, too. I’m going to give you the place that my kid loves, JewBoy Burgers. It’s kind of our neighborhood burger joint.
I saw JewBoy when I was getting my haircut and thought, “that’s like the most politically incorrect name.”
So I have to tell you something. I mean, I know exactly what you’re saying. And to be honest, I had a very mixed feeling for a long time when I’d see it, because it’s like “JewBoy.” So I actually wrote a whole story about that for “Texas Highways” magazine. And it basically dives into the whole thing about what’s behind the name. Moe is Jewish and he has a whole story about how that originated. I don’t know how religious he is, but he is proud of his Jewish heritage and that’s where that’s coming from.
Because my M.O. is about building bridges, not walls. I mean, my name is Ali Khan, and I’m sensitive to the fact that there’s a lot of misconceptions, I think, when it comes to anyone who, if you’re Jewish, talking about Muslim people, and vice versa and all that. So I wrote a whole story about it and he was an awesome guy. Actually, it’s funny because that was the start of a whole series…
Speaking of a series, I’d like to go back to “Cheap Eats” and ask if the prices were real on the TV show?
Yeah, they were. One of the things that we did for that show was we used the menu prices. But what happened is people would be like, “what about tax? What about tip? Are you drinking water or what’s going on?” And I mean, look, like I actually worked on a show before that called “$24 In 24 Hours” where I was actually finding the restaurants. And, you know, for $24, they wanted to include tax and tip. And I can tell you, you don’t really see much.
When I look at a menu, when I’m looking at a restaurant, I’m looking at the menu prices, and I feel pretty confident in going, “okay, this is what it is.” And of course there’s tax and tip. People would [leave] negative messages on social media. They’d be like, “What the heck? Don’t you believe in tipping?” And I’m like, “Listen, of course.” And look, when I go out to eat, I have to get a sitter for a lot of restaurants, so I can’t even think about going out to eat without knowing 120 bucks is out the door. There’s loads of things around it, but I think at the end of the day, people are motivated by the price of a product, right? That’s their menu prices, so that works for me.
You visited a lot of places over the course of all those shows. Where do you think is the most affordable food city?
Wow, that’s a really interesting question. There’s something to be said about when you’re in a place like Buffalo, New York. I mean, cost of living changes in different places. But if I had to pay for it, you know, you’d be surprised that I learned this way back doing the old show, “$24 In 24 Hours.”
Sometimes big cities, they hustle harder. So you’re surprised [by] a place like Chicago, which is an expensive city. But also, cities create competition and it’s not only Chicago…There are certain things, like in Chicago and L.A., where it’s like, “you’re going to get this for cheap.” You know what I mean? Like, it’s too big of a city. In 2019, I got an Italian beef and it was comical how cheap it was. And to a degree in Philadelphia, it’s crazy [how little] those cheesesteaks [cost]. I don’t know how they make money?
I think one of the things that I took away from the show in general was that almost every city you can find something affordable if you look. You can still have a great meal, and eat out and find something. I get distracted, because like when you went to Miami, I want the nicest thing that they have. And so it’s like hard for me to think through like, “Oh, I should try these mom and pop places” because I want the trendy things. When you’re in Miami, that costs a fortune and that may be worth it.
How do you make the decision on where you’re going to eat? Do you research ahead of time or what’s the process?
I’ve kind of honed things in a bit. I used to go through like “the big list,” look at the Eater roundups, or if there’s not a paywall, look at the local publications. Now, I just tapped the network. I especially like meeting different people through the James Beard Foundation. Meeting food writers and asking food writers for suggestions is huge, you know? I just hit up the chefs and I’ll ask the Twitterverse, and sometimes, if I can put that out on Instagram, I will. “Hey, where should I go?” But I’ll tell you, the big thing is, if I have one restaurant that I’m really into, I’ll DM them…If I start chatting away with one of those chefs, I’ll ask them and then that’ll lead me down the rabbit hole.
And that really hit hard when we did “Cheap Eats” in St. Petersburg, Florida. When I went there, I think that besides Miami, it was our first time going to Florida. And honestly, I had no expectations about Florida. I lived in California for 20 years. I never thought I needed to go to vacation in Florida, except for maybe Miami. I went to St. Petersburg and it caught me by surprise.
A big part of it was the community of chefs there. And this one chef, after we finished shooting, he was like, “let me show you around.” And he did. He took me to different restaurants that he had and then he took me around to meet different chefs. And that’s something that happened also, oddly enough, in Buffalo, New York. And that’s huge. If you can meet a chef you’re down with, it starts with one and they’re going to know a bunch of others. I was in Buffalo, New York, literally having back to back amazing meals. And it was because I connected with one chef who took me to another restaurant. It was kind of like my [Anthony] “Bourdain moment.”
I was looking at your Instagram and saw you were at ACL Festival. Did you take in any of the music or mostly the food?
I just go for the food, really. I mean, I’ll enjoy the concert. They’re very generous. They give me a media pass and I cover the food as best I can.
What were your highlights to try this past year?
I think that there are certain places that know how to make their food translate well at the festival. Certain places have high expectations and this is also a place that I just think is straight up banging awesome and that’s Taco Bronco. So Taco Bronco is a spinoff of Micklethwait Barbecue. They’re smoked meats, but in taco form. I’m always happy when I go to Taco Bronco…You know, it’s like you can only have so much stuff at a festival before you’re like, “okay, I’ve had [enough].” Yeah, I’m literally there to try anything.
I’m definitely gotten to the point where I’m pretty selective about meals because it’s like I got to eat for content and then I eat for pleasure. And a lot of times for pleasure, I tend to cook more at home so I could save up my calorie bank account. But Taco Bronco, yeah, I’m having it. It’s just too good not to try.
But Hoover’s Cooking, which is this great restaurant right by me, it’s a historic, Black-owned restaurant that kind of predates the whole gentrification of the area. It has this great kind of neighborhood presence, and it’s good a reminder of what this neighborhood that I’m in, and what a lot of Austin was before all the condos, and the tech people came and all that. But they surprised me because they had these freaking smoked wings that were lit. They were really good and they were fantastic at a festival. Think beer garden. What foods would you want to eat at a beer garden? What pairs? Hoover’s and that was the first time they were there. Also, in general, I love a good shawarma on pita. So Euro Shawarma, that’s killer at a beer garden straight up.
It’s funny because I’m looking back just at the stuff I had last year rolling the dice. You know what? I’ll give a shout out to this because the best food I had was so random. It was a freaking lamb curry from some Indian food truck off Rainey Street, which is more a place to go out and party than to go for great dining. It was Lamba Royal Indian. I had no expectations of this curry and I was sitting there going, “this was the frickin’ bomb.”
I just made lamb shoulder curry in my instant pot and I’m already going, “damn, I want to try this.” It was a killer bowl, and it was actually, you know, nothing’s cheap there, but 15 bucks. But it was heavy. You know what I mean? Like, this was a “stick to your rib” spot. So Hoover’s wings, the lamb curry and Taco Bronco.
When I look back at what I chose, I was pretty strategic. And actually there’s a truck called Mama Fried that’s like loaded fries, loaded nachos and stuff like that. But the meat’s all from a barbecue place, LeRoy and Lewis. Mama Fried was pretty good, too. Some of these dishes, like the lamb curry, I ate that whole bowl myself. But when I had, like, the loaded fries, I had a couple of bites. And then I literally, because I [ate] the pork, I didn’t want to throw the food away. I grew up Third World, but I can’t eat all that. I just can’t. You cannot eat all of this stuff even over the course of three days. It’s just overwhelming because it’s so over the top from a caloric sense and I want to eat other food later. So there are some things that I had to not consume, but if you were to tell me, “oh, yeah, the Indian food’s real good,” I’d be like, “yeah, the magic eight ball would say, ‘not likely.’” But you know what? It was and I’m looking back at this bowl going, “I need to try this again…”