If there’s one flavor that truly embodies the spirit of Texas, mesquite just might be it. A native, drought-resistant crop, the mesquite tree serves as a source of firewood, smoking chips, pods and beans that have taken on new, innovative culinary applications. When roasted, mesquite’s nutty flavor is akin to wheat or oat bran, with a distinct sweetness and uniquely smooth texture that strike quite a chord with local culinary talent. Mesquite is currently experiencing a newfound surge in popularity, appearing on menus across Central Texas.
The rise of mesquite as an ingredient in Austin is credited to culinary innovator Sandeep Gyawali of Miche Bread. After winning an Austin Food & Wine Culinary Alliance Grant in 2016, Gyawali kickstarted the mesquite boom with the purchase of a hammer mill, located at Barton Springs Mill in Dripping Springs. By pulverizing whole, roasted mesquite pods into flour for a variety of culinary applications, Gyawali incorporates this native ingredient into many of his breads, cookies and sweets for Miche — as well as novel concoctions like mesquite butter. “The beguiling flavor of mesquite shines through within a rich base of butter; the effect is visceral. People's eyes light up, and they smile like a child experiencing something magnificent for the first time,” describes Gyawali.
The enthusiasm for mesquite caught fire within Austin’s restaurant scene around the same time, appearing on menus at The Brewer’s Table, Lick Honest Ice Creams and many more, and it even inspired a festival in the summer of 2018. Gyawali joined forces with the Desert Door Sotol Distillery and Two Hives Honey to host the Mesquiteers Fest, aimed toward “working with members of [the] community to harvest these delicious beans, process them in myriad ways and develop novel products that highlight their uniquely complex flavor.” The lineup featured several Austin-based food vendors showcasing unique uses of mesquite in their wares, mesquite-smoked nuts from Buster’s Smoked Pecans to Two Hives Honey harvested from bees found in mesquite-dense regions to SRSLY Chocolate bars dotted with roasted mesquite beans.
Acclaimed East Austin restaurant The Brewer’s Table showcases
mesquite by incorporating it across their food and beverage menus. Driven by their commitment to zero-waste, chef Zach Hunter and head brewer Drew Durish have developed innovative ways to use every last bit of their house-roasted beans, from infused maple syrup for banana pancakes to their popular Baltic Hash beer. “To me, the flavor of mesquite is similar to caramel, with notes of cinnamon and vanilla,” says Hunter. “It has an earthy nuttiness that evokes memories of holiday meals and smoldering campfires.”
With the growing accessibility of mesquite as an ingredient comes the task of introducing its unique heritage and flavor profile to the public. Lick Honest Ice Creams incorporates mesquite flour and pods into the cookie crumble and base flavor for its Roasted Mesquite Bean Cookie ice cream. “Ice cream can be a non-intimidating vehicle for almost any ingredient you can imagine — it can be sweet, and it can be savory,” says Anthony Sobotik, co-founder and chef of Lick Honest Ice Creams. “We are able tell the story of the season and introduce people to things [that] they may never have heard of before just by letting them try our ice cream and hear the story behind every flavor.”
Like any other trend, an understanding of mesquite’s complicated history only enhances its allure. “Mesquite is Texas' native food source — one which was of great historical importance, but has since been mostly forgotten about,” explains Gyawali. “The beans were the primary food for the indigenous peoples of this area, and the tree was vitally important to all aspects of their lives, including medicine, property boundaries and spirituality.” While mesquite trees are native to Texas, they are also considered by some to be a troublesome, weed-like species that requires careful regulation, and that regulation is aided by its newfound culinary applications.
“By finding new and interesting uses for each part of this species, we as chefs and diners are able to help control its rapid growth,” says Hunter. “The locavore movement has led to chefs and home cooks shortening their reach when searching for new ingredients, and mesquite is well within reach for us Texans. Most of us are familiar with using mesquite wood for smoking food, but surprisingly many are still unaware of how amazing the fruit, or bean, of the mesquite tree tastes.”
Mesquite’s bright future in Austin will only continue to evolve, as expanded accessibility and growing enthusiasm for its unique flavor profile have put it on the fast track to become a new staple of our culinary culture. “In a time where we're paying more attention to eating locally and sustainably, mesquite is an obvious choice for the Austin food scene to promote,” says Gyawali. “While most cities' cultures are beginning to look like replicas of each other, mesquite gives us that sense of a unique local identity.”
Written by Rachel Johnson • Photographs by Rachel Johnson and Nathan Beels
Find mesquite products and learn more about this movement by following @txmesquite on Instagram.