Austin is a city I’ve always wanted to visit. I kind of thought I might have waited too long and all the tech hipsters might have drove the prices up and all the cool places might be replaced by soulless condos and expensive margarita joints. But to my surprise it was still pretty fucking cool.
Loads of great food trucks spread all around the city in little magically cobbled enclaves with patchwork seating, christmas lights zigzagging overhead, and fun reasonably priced fare from all over the world. There are interesting murals everywhere. It seems like if a bar or restaurant wants to compete they have to have amazing and quirky (and often neon) signs with bizarre murals covering the walls and top notch dive or upscale trash chic interiors with excellent spatial dynamics. It’s a wonderland of cool places to drink and eat.
The city has nothing if not space so instead of dense urbanity like Seattle it’s spread out over lots of smaller neighborhoods in the 1-2 story kind of variety. Vegan and gluten free is king and crunchy health food is abundant but not too judgey or pretentious. But just as many really bad for you fried chicken taco and queso places or drippingly fatty knock your socks off BBQ houses.
And even in the time of COVID the live music scene in Austin survives and you can find live bands playing either outside stages or well spaced indoor venues every night of the week.
Not surprisingly the downtown is dead center of the city, a swath of skyscrapers mixed in with some older places still hanging in there and plenty of neon even amongst the shiny behemoths. North is the University of Texas at Austin and the college area of The Drag. South of downtown is South Congress Street with all of its well known high weirdness. East of downtown has a couple of populated areas with bars and restaurants, the lower on East Cesar Chavez where we stayed and a few blocks north on East 6th street.
Our little pink house by the Colorado river
We found a cute pink house on the far end of East Cesar Chavez near the Colorado river. We wanted to settle in after a bit of driving and have a comfortable spot to watch the 2020 presidential elections (and a few days to recover) and ended up extending our stay a bit after that cluster fuck. It was an easy walk to everything on the east side and to downtown and South Congress. Plus Austin is very flat and there are electric scooters everywhere so if you get tired you can zip on home whenever you want.
The world famous Franklin Barbecue. Some people say it’s overhyped but fuck me, it’s delicious. It’s one of those foodie meccas that even though it’s a pain in the ass you have to give it a try. Opened in 2009 by Aaron Franklin, he sold out of brisket on his first day and every day since. Aaron was awarded a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Southwest, the first chef specializing in barbecue to be nominated or win the award. Barak Obama stopped by once and even had brisket flown in for an event.
Normally when the world isn’t ravaged by a pandemic, you’d be lining up at 8am in the Texas sun to wait four hours till the place opens at noon, just to place an order before they sold out. A notorious and epic line. Online orders would normally fill up 6 weeks in advance. But it’s very different now. They still sell out every day but you can usually get an order a few days in advance with a 3 pound minimum order. No in person pickup, you have to queue in your car with a 30 minute pickup window throughout the day. Cars block the road all the way up to their building just east of downtown, then turn down and into the parking lot where you park with an open trunk until your order gets dropped off there. Compared to before it was fairly pain-free. After a 30 minute wait we were back off to our house to unwrap the greasy meaty goodness.
East Cesar Chavez Street
We stayed a block off of this street on the far end of the main good stuff. Lots of good trucks, whacky murals, vegan coffeeshops, taco joints, fun bars, and interesting art. Every little neighborhood had it’s own sort of fun but we didn’t feel like we were missing anything hanging out here.
After walking along the Colorado river on a nice riverwalk by our house we eventually popped out in a residential neighborhood a bit south of Cesar Chavez and right at Launderette. And as luck would have it, 5 minutes before happy hour. It’s a small unassuming place in a converted laundry with a cool neon sign not really close to anything else. I’d already read about them online for upscale new Americana eats and the open air seating made us feel safe from the covidz.
Lustre Pearl East
This place was a couple blocks east of our house on Cesar Chavez, a bit further down from the other places. Ringed with a wall covered in cool murals, the space opens up into a series of spacious outdoor seating areas and open area bar and other smaller buildings with their own bars and cool seating inside. I talked the bartender through a Mexican Martini recipe and we bought some tacos and hung out for a bit.
South Congress Street
South Congress might be the most famous area of Austin, just south of downtown across the river. This is where you’ll find Allen’s Boots, Home Slice Pizza, Torchys Tacos, Güero’s Taco Bar, and all the old favorites you see on travel shows. Parallel to S Congress you’ll find S 1st Street with the Welcome to Austin Mural and other fun spots.
Güero’s Taco Bar
If you haven’t heard of Güero’s Taco Bar, you might remember it from the movie Chef where the main character has a heart to heart with his son on the food truck roof while live music is playing. Güero’s is an Austin staple with both an inside dining area and an outside bar with a stage and live music under an enormous live oak. Fun place.
Torchys Tacos is a slightly better than fast food taco place with a kitsch-licious facade and delicious food. We got the white trash taco with fried chicken and cheese and some of their famous chili queso. Delicious.
Downtown Austin honestly feels like most downtowns, like Seattle’s downtown. The large newer buildings are predominantly soulless and I didn’t find much going on there. Though some places managed to survive in between the new stuff with some exceptional old school neon. This is where you’ll find the capitol building. There’s a section down on the river called Rainy Street Historic District packed with bars and food trucks that looks like it would be crowded and bumpin’ on the weekends and a lot of fun. And beyond that you’ll find the riverwalk along the Colorado with great bike paths and chill places to hide away. Apparently the South Congress bridge houses thousands of bats that fly out in swarms at sunset during the summer. We didn’t get to see it
On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, a student at the University and marine, stabbed his wife and mother to death, then barricaded himself into the tower observation deck with several rifles and handguns. He killed three people in the tower and another 11 shooting from the tower and injuring 31 others. He continued shooting for 96 minutes until the observation deck was breached and he was shot dead. At the time it was the largest mass murder by a single gunman in American history until it was surpassed 18 years later.
Before the shooting he sought psychological help for “overwhelming, violent impulses”, including fantasies about shooting people from the tower. But was not detained.
After killing his family he cashed bad checks and purchased a .30 caliber rifle, two magazines and 8 boxes of bullets, went to another store and purchased more magazines and six additional boxes of bullets, and a shotgun at Sears. No background check or waiting period was required.
He put three rifles and 700 rounds, 5 handguns, and a shotgun into a footlocker and drove to the tower. He also packed food, coffee, vitamins, Dexedrine, Excedrin, earplugs, jugs of water, matches, lighter fluid, rope, binoculars, a machete, three knives, a transistor radio, toilet paper, a razor, and a bottle of deodorant.
Upon arriving the elevator was locked but an employed opened it for him. And after killing the receptionist on the top floor with the butt of his rifle, two students saw him with the rifle but assumed it was just for shooting pigeons and did not report it.
The Mean Eyed Cat – A Johnny Cash Bar
This is the furthest west of downtown we ventured. A delightfully crusty Johnny Cash themed dive bar with a great drink menu and good eats. We ordered the frito pie which was enormous and some specialty drinks. Good vibe, good food. Had a great time there.
East 6th Street
This area was a bit north of Cesar Chavez and pretty much the same vibe. We wondered around and ate at a food truck park and caught some live music at the White Horse, a legendary honkytonk.
The White Horse
A crusty honkytonk with live music most nights. We drank some Lone Star beers and settled into the twang. Full on country isn’t really my scene but Katy had a hankering for it so I helped her scratch the itch.
The Drag – by the University of Texas
This area of shops and bars runs parallel with the University for several blocks north of downtown. Great murals and some interesting bars and an In-N-Out Burger. We wanted to go to the Spider House, a bar/venue/food truck area but it was sadly closed.
A couple of movie locations
As it turns out, lots of movies I like have been shot in Austin. The first that really shaped my perception of Austin was Slacker, a cult hit I’ve seen a dozen times. Most of the locations are unrecognizable after 25 years but I did manage to find a particular coffee shop that survived. Office Space was filmed here. I found the Initec building along with the main character’s apartment and the “pieces of flair” restaurant (now a bank in north Austin). Chef obviously. Along with several Tarantino movies and most of Rodriquez’s movies. And more.
Katy really wanted to see another honkytonk show so we found a band called the Buffalo Gals playing in a dive bar way down south next to a pawn shop. Great venue with three stages and food trucks in the backyard. Almost no one was there but that made us feel a bit safer indoors watching the show. The band was amazing and even better live than on their album. The fried chicken sandwiches with pimento cheese were out of this world and almost too big to eat. We had a great time.
Delicious things delivered to your door.
We also stayed in a lot, drank, and ruminated about the prospect of our democracy. It was a turbulent week (with no end in sight) and indulged heavily in all of the things. I think I may have eaten left over BBQ almost every day we were there.
One of the things we wanted to try was the Mexican Martini made famous by Trudy’s. It’s essentially a margarita made with gin, a bit of olive juice, and an olive garnish. We didn’t manage to make it in for one but discovered they actually deliver them. So we bought 4. They came in these little take out tubs and you had to assemble.