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Austin Texas – The Culinary Experience

There is quite a lot of good food in Austin. There’s also some not so good. I ate at some of both while visiting.

Heard about a great breakfast spot called Kerbey Lane Cafe. So I headed over and squeezed into a parking spot – it was crowded – and went on in. Got a spot at the bar right away (one of the benefits of traveling and eating alone is you usually get a seat quickly). The bartender was a frenzy of activity. Sunday morning here, as most places, means hair of the dog in the form of mimosas and bloody maries. The guy must have made a hundred of these while I was seated. The bartender never had to pause as he juggled OJ, vodka, coffee, food, and all the other myriad tasks he had to do. Watching him work was worth the price of admission alone. Great food, world class service, inexpensive and very highly recommended.

If you’re out at night on 6th street, it’s worth it to sample some of the street food. That’s one of my favorite styles anywhere and it’s gratifying to see it here where it lacks in so many other American cities. Three patterns stand out among the street food of Austin: pizza, sausage and food trucks. The first two are self-explanatory. And so is the third, really. It’s a pretty simple formula – get an old truck, van, camper, bus or whatever you can find, put a kitchen in it and hang out a sign. They’re all over. Unfortunately the one run-in I had wasn’t good. But then again I went against my better judgement and got some fake buffalo wings. Some kind of fake soy-based chicken-like substance deep fried and tossed in hot sauce. The sauce was good and they were cooked well, but the imposter meat substitute was like juicy sawdust. Steer clear of that abomination and you should be good.

I have to say, I’ve never understood the Texican fascination with barbecued beef brisket. I’ve yet to have any that compared favorably to a better than average pork BBQ. I just don’t get the fascination with it. You take perfectly good steak and don’t cook it like a steak? How is that supposed to be awesome? Maybe it’s an acquired taste to ruin something great, like when the X-Files kept filling their shows with the conspiracy theory stuff. It was just misleading and dull. Kind of like brisket.

But putting my personal feelings aside I tried two of the finer establishments. In beef barbecue that means one was in the middle of a cattle field and the other was at a gas station. No really, that’s not a snarky comment these were the two most highly recommended places in town. The first place I won’t mention, but when you ask around town it’ll be the first place mentioned. I stopped by the one up in Round Rock, just north of the city. My appetizers were the waft of manure that would occasionally waft in and the feast of flesh my eyes got looking at the waitresses and clientele. Both reminded me that just outside Austin, Texas lurks. The ribs were alright but weren’t anything to write about (despite the current activity I’m engaged in). The pinto beans were bland. The cole slaw was essentially shredded cabbage in vinegar. The potatoes au gratin were cold and that’s the best thing I could say about them.

The second place I visited is called Rudy’s Country Store and BBQ. Here too I visited the Round Rock location – where they also serve as a Shell station and convenience store. The highlight was when they asked if I’d eaten there before. I said no and so was pronounced a Rudy’s virgin, entitled to a tasting of their various meats and a walkthrough of the menu and ordering process. It proceeded well and I got to sample some food. I chose my meat – the moist, rather than the lean, cut of brisket, a couple of sides and a Mexican Coke with real sugar. The food was fairly good – the sides were better than the first place and the brisket was tasty. But still after a few bites I found myself wishing they’d made a burger out of it instead.

A couple of places on 6th street I had good luck with I’ve already mentioned when discussing Austin’s nightlife: Jackalope and Casino El Camino.  Jackalope has great quesadillas. Casino El Camino has pretty good burgers. Each has great atmosphere.

There’s a place south of 6th where I had a great breakfast, called Crepe Cafe. Run by an authentic Frenchman (in Texas!) who takes pride in his work. Good coffee there too. And lots of French kitch inside. His wife runs an antique store in town, so I’m told.

Nightlife in Austin

The bar district is eponymously called 6th street, which they seem to close off after a certain hour on the weekends. It runs from Congress to the interstate. Yes, the debauchery starts at Congress. It’s the opposite of irony, Alanis. This is a college town, not a beach town but it has some of the same feeling of a Panama City or Daytona. Faux real, rather than fo-real. But under the surface the real underbelly seeps through. That’s what I’ve heard has given the town it’s reputation. Keep Austin weird is the rallying cry.

So as I have the habit of doing I accidentally found a great spot. It’s called Shakespeare’s ale house. As I was walking up somebody was getting hassled for not meeting the dress code. An inauspicious start for someone of my wardrobe. But as it turns out they were dressed too nicely. No polos allowed. Fo-real. Walking inside the beer tub distributor called out “you want a beer?” I turned to see a bearded guy with a grimy shirt hovering over a keg in a plastic tub dorm party style. Oh yeah I’m home. As I explored the place I found it was huge inside with several other bars in a courtyard, around back and upstairs. Reminds me of a place I went to in Budapest that way. If it’s packed out front head down the alley off Trinity.

The great thing about college towns is the economy. Cheap drinks are plentiful, street food is more common and if you tip the bartender you’re made of gold. The bad thing about college towns is the economy. It’s hard to find a great meal because most of the nicer places are chains. And you can’t find a decent beer despite the neon signs that decorate the walls of the places because nobody buys them. Except in the places where professors and businessmen hang out. And who wants to go there?!

Or did I speak too soon? There’s a place called the Jackalope has unsavory characters, quality draft beer and good late night food. Naked women decorate the walls and menus. Obscure punk and beach boys music undertone the conversation. Run out to the back bar and get your ears peeled by Bad Religion, Social D and other punk favorites.  Might be trouble for those who live here. Austinians? Austinites? Austinites I’m told by the bartender. That delicious smell near and in the Jackalope? Jack’s pizza. They’re connected. Get it? Also connected but less sensical is the Mooseknuckle.

I’m starting to get a feel for the place. The Austin beneath the capital tinsel and college teeny-boppers. A place where you’re likely to run into a Mod fresh from a Duran Duran video drinking with a guy dressed like he’s at a 70s disco, listening to NOFX and drinking Shiner. Their eyes ping ponging between a cult movie and a Rangers preseason game.

And further down the road toward I35 is Casino El Camino. A bar cum burger joint. Guinness and Shiner on tap. Good top shelf liquor and even port wine. Very eclectic jukebox. Monkees and Beatles mix with Black Keys and Cee-Lo Green. Hipsters mix with argyle shirt dockers wearers mix with tatted rockers. Good burgers. Not vortex quality but good. Made the mistake of doing the Amarillo Burger at the same time as what the bartendress called a “dark and spicy” bloody Mary. Fire in the hole!

If you continue on past the Interstate you’ll run into another, weirder part of town. On the left there’s a place called the East Side Show Room. Six quality beers on tap. It’s got the speakeasy feel without the pretense. This place seems like how a real speakeasy would operate – bartenders with their sleeves crumpled rolled up and their ties loosened, shirts untucked, constantly in motion. The band takes the spotlight and beats out a rhythm for the place. I’d call them all girl but three quarters of them are in drag as men. When the band takes a set break they throw a movie on the projector and a vision of yesteryear comes to life. The visage of Buster Keaton is cast upon a canvas framed by, well, a picture frame hung above the stage. But the star of the show is the real cocktails. Some are aged for six weeks. Sounds wild I will agree but just try them. The Norwegian Wood is aquavit (when have you ever seen this outside Scandinavia?), vermouth and other players, aged for six weeks in a whiskey barrel. Or the New Pal, also aged, which features a sweetness on your lips but a fiercely bitter aftertaste. Makes you want to drink more. But take note that the bar stools are not made for anyone with hips wider than 30″. It’d be painful if there weren’t ample anesthetic. I think I’ve got to add this as one of my top 10 bars I’ve been to.

Next door is a shack. In the back of the shack is a yard. In the yard there are food trucks and trailers. And picnic benches for eating on. On the benches are hipsters. This is a bar for them. And you if you want too. The place is painfully hip. I don’t think it even has a name. Keep Austin weird.

Austin – A State Apart From Texas

Initially on arriving I wasn’t quite sure whether Austin would fulfill its promise to be in Texas, but not really a part of Texas. But after having been here a few days I’m ready to pronounce the capital of Texas a state unto its own.  It is a state of mind well away from the plains and reigns which are associated with the land around. Geographically, Austin is in what they call the hill country. Everything is bigger in the mind of a Texan. These aren’t so much hills as piles and ditches by most standards. But it’s not arid here like much of the state, nor is it overly humid like the coastal cities. It’s warm and pleasant tonight after a high of 90 during the day.

There’s a great outdoors area just south of the heart of downtown called Zilker Park. It’s packed this weekend since the weather is so nice. It’s free to come in and just wander around. There are many different areas but the one I was most drawn to was the Barton Springs Pool. This is a partially man-made rectangular-ish area with a diving board and life guards and a grassy hill on each side. But the water is constantly refreshed by a freshwater spring and at the opposite end it flows on down the river. The temperature hovers near 68F year round, which is just pleasant enough in the 85-90 degree days.

In downtown it’s strange to say but you’re not reminded as much of Texas as you’d think. Even though you’re in Texas and the state capital is at the center of the city, it just doesn’t feel like what I’d expected. Granted I haven’t spent a whole lot of time in the state, but most of it has been driving through desert or underwhelmed  Dallas and Houston. And just outside of Austin you get back to the sprawling suburbs and suburbanites that you expect from the state. But the city itself seems out of place. And that’s a good thing.

Much of that difference is probably linked to two factors – University of Texas and the city’s status as “live music capital of the world”. The first brings a constantly refreshed pool of youth and diversity. As an example, when I was here there was a festival going on at the campus called the Forty Acres Fest. Lots of students out walking around, booths set up for the various university clubs and organizations. Games on the side like inflatable obstacle course, climbing tower, slam dunk, etc. Talked with the folks in the Travel Club of Texas – a group dedicated to talking about where they’ve been, where they want to go and raising money to go.

And there were dozens of student union groups for different nationalities. I got a Malaysian drink and brownie from one fundraiser. Other groups included most of the nationalities of Asia. That’s surprising for a state often known more for its xenophobia than its openness. But this is Austin, not Texas.

And the festival featured the other feature Austin is known for, live music. There were some local groups and some comedy improv during the changeovers. The groups were good – even the ones during the day. And I didn’t hear any country and western music. One band was clearly in the pop-rock scene. Another an indie group. One was a weird funk band that was as entertaining to watch as to hear. But the real highlight of the show was Big Boi of the group Outkast. Another Atlanta boy in town for the weekend.