Lone star sen­sa­tion

Even the street food is big­ger and bet­ter in Austin, Texas

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - SEAN CON­DON

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.