Lone star sensation
Even the street food is bigger and better in Austin, Texas
Twenty years ago I drove across Texas and spent time in all the hit cities: Houston, Dallas and San Antonio; Btowns such as Galveston and El Paso; and a tiny little nothing called Sanderson, population 800, 40km up the road from Mexico, where I drank beer, played pool and got myself a dusty tan.
Somehow I missed Austin and, not least because of its rapid ascent up the ladder of America’s most liveable cities, to say nothing of the hypefest that is now South by Southwest, I have always wanted to come back to Texas, drop by Austin and see what all the fuss is about.
I arrive in the state capital on a frigid February Friday — the temperature hovering around 2C, which nobody who’s not from Texas expects — so I’m relieved to get into the lobby of my hotel, the warm and stylish Westin Austin. It’s the best-smelling lobby I’ve ever been in, a heady combination of jasmine, bergamot and luxury, and I can’t stop from asking the tall young woman behind the reception desk what it is. “It’s our signature scent, White Tea,” she tells me in a heart-melting Texan accent. She also says that while I’m in town I have to try the red beet home fries at East Side King. I don’t know what she means but nod enthusiastically.
My first destination is the Texas State Capitol building. It too is beautiful. I enter the south foyer just in time to join one of the twice-hourly free guided tours, this one hosted by a witty young woman named Amy. She introduces us to the near-life-sized marble statues on either side of the rotunda beneath the impressive dome high above. There is “Father of Texas” Stephen F. Austin (“he has the best hair of anyone in the building, alive or dead”) and Sam Houston, remembered for bringing Texas into the Union.
Standing in the middle of the rotunda’s terrazzo floor, right on the laurel-framed white star in the centre of the state’s Great Seal, is a man wearing a bathrobe. He also has a yellow towel on his head and around his waist a plaited leather belt. He is delivering a diatribe about serving two masters, “God and His sister”. Policemen with M16s slung over their shoulders observe him impassively. Amy explains that there are more than two million stars in various forms throughout the building. “Because we are the Lone Star State and we like to remind people of that,” she says. “Frequently.”
Upstairs is the Senate chamber, a large, impressive room with uncomfortable-looking chairs, heavy wooden desks and eye-wateringly green carpet. It is covered in oil paintings, including two by early Texas artist Henry McArdle: The Battle of San Jacinto (which lasted 18 minutes) and Dawn at the Alamo (still unforgotten). They are neither historically accurate nor great art, but they are big, because, as Amy says, “subtlety is not a Texan virtue”.
As the tour concludes and we leave the building, once again passing the rotunda, Amy shares what is for me the most remarkable fact about this fascinating edifice, which is if you placed the Statue of Liberty on the floor right where we are standing, the flame she holds aloft would not touch the top of the dome. “And that’s just part of why Texas is better than everywhere and everything.” This time I’m not sure if she’s kidding.
Next morning I grab a bike from one of the many rental facilities scattered through the downtown area, which costs $US8 ($11) for 24 hours, no helmet-law included. Ten minutes later I have crossed the wide, brown Colorado River that divides the city and am making my way along the hipster retail district of South Congress.
Even before midday there are lines forming outside any and every place that sells any and every kind of food: pizza, Tex-Mex, cupcakes. I suppose that with about 150 people relocating to Austin every day, queues such as these should be no surprise. Among the longest, apparently, is the snaking, swelling stretch slowly inching toward Franklin’s BBQ on 11th Street, which can take up to 2½ hours for the tail to reach the mouth.
Luckily I’m not here to eat (yet). I’m here to look for clothes that will make me look young, slim and handsome. But despite almost an hour of the best efforts of the young, slim, handsome (and bearded) staff at the menswear store Stag, I leave looking pretty much as I did when I entered. Wax jackets, plaid shirts, denim bucket hats and extra skinny jeans are not for me.
Before I leave I am once again admonished to “try East Side King’s beet home fries”. But this time I ask what any of this actually means: East Side King is a famous food truck located at the Liberty Bar on East 6th; beet home fries are fried beetroot.
Until recently the east side of 6th Street was a less desirable area of industrial plants and low-income housing but it has quickly become hipsterised. The Liberty Bar looks like a place where you would stage a bar fight in a movie, its low ceiling covered in tar paper. There’s a black-and-white checked vinyl floor; coloured lights strung across the bar create an air of the kind of desperate gaiety you might find at the very beginning or the very end of a high school dance. The barstools are vinyltopped aluminium. There is bad music on the jukebox.
The East Side King truck is located at the rear of the large courtyard behind the bar. I weave my way through wooden picnic tables, packed with mostly young people drinking beer and eating small bites out of white paper trays. I join the end of the line that leads to the order window of the truck. It is covered in a colourful, psychedelic mural depicting a squid-guitar whose legs are being eaten by a yellow monster who is either crying or sweating a lot. The cooking space inside the truck is minuscule; how the two chefs inside cater to the hungry hordes is a miracle.
The menu offers 11 dishes, including Thai chicken karaage, pork belly buns, chicken buns, beef tongue buns and vegetable meshi. There’s a strong link to Asian street food — hoisin, soy and fish sauce, along with fresh herbs, kimchi and jalapeno. Prices range from $US4 to $US8.50.
As I inch closer to the window — to the red beet home fries — I overhear a young man talking eloquently and with great passion about Dutch soccer, a somewhat unexpected topic considering where I am. But over the next couple of hours I will learn that this particular fellow can expound eloquently and with great passion about pretty much anything: the influence of neighbourhood associations in transforming large swaths of Austin from residential to commercial districts; why Ted Cruz will win the Republican presidential nomination (he has since retired from the race); and how to sound like a local when you order a cocktail (ask for Tito’s vodka).
He is a lawyer and former Texas Senate legislative aide named Santiago Diaz, 28 years old, born in Racine, Wisconsin, to Colombian parents, both academics. Coincidentally, he is wearing a Filson waxed cruiser jacket, the same style I tried on so unsuccessfully at Stag; it looks good on him. He is young, slender and very sociable, and invites me to join him and his girlfriend at their table, where we combine small plates.
Everything is delicious — fresh, unfussy and tasty — including the RBHFs. Santiago says they’re roasted for two hours, giving them a slightly sweet flavour and soft texture, then fried to create a crisp, paper-thin exterior. They’re served with tangy Kewpie mayonnaise. They are delicious and if you come to Austin you have to try them.
Shortly before midnight I leave the Liberty. It is a long way back to my hotel and my trademark Westin Heavenly Bed, and I pass many tempting food trucks on my way (indeed the later the hour the more lively the mobile outdoor dining scene becomes) but I do not stop. I’ve got what I came to Austin for and I am more than satisfied. • austintexas.org/visit/
Clockwise from main: the Texas State Capitol in Austin; the building’s rotunda and dome; hip shops on South Congress Avenue; Westin Austin lobby; one of the city’s many popular food trucks