On an im­promptu trip, a tast­ing menu of all things Austin.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY RACHEL MUIR travel@wash­post.com Muir is a writer based in Ar­ling­ton.

With a Texas-size shiny, red boot kick­ing up its heel on the roof, Al­lens Boots was hard to miss. In­side were more than 10,000 pairs of cow­boy boots, sil­ver belt buck­les rang­ing from merely shiny to mas­sive state­ment and stack after stack of Stet­son hats.

Not to be out­done, Lucy in Dis­guise with Di­a­monds, a few doors down on South Congress Av­enue, was crowned with an out­size statue of its own: a 12-foot-tall ze­bra in full Car­men Mi­randa cos­tume. In­side, cloth­ing racks were packed with cos­tumes and vin­tage clothes: Cleopa­tra to Care Bears and al­most ev­ery­thing in be­tween.

On the same block was Un­com­mon Goods, a self-de­scribed “em­po­rium of tran­scen­dent junk,” where a taxi­der­mied bob­cat frozen mid-pounce vied with risque tarot cards for cus­tomers’ at­ten­tion. The Austin Mo­tel, a cou­ple of blocks down, looked like it had sur­faced from a groovy time cap­sule with its long­time bill­board pro­claim­ing it­self “So Close and So Far Out.” Across the street, a busker gamely spun his drum­sticks in front of a “Wil­lie Nel­son for Pres­i­dent” mu­ral.

There was not a Star­bucks, Gap or CVS in sight.

We were in Austin’s SoCo neigh­bor­hood — the off­beat heart of the cap­i­tal city fa­mously de­scribed by for­mer gov­er­nor Rick Perry as “the blue­berry in the tomato soup” of Texas. My only pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence in the state was a fool­hardy spring break road trip from Ann Ar­bor, Mich., to South Padre Is­land at its south­ern tip. While that did im­press upon me the sheer size of Texas (a 12-hour drive from stern to stem), suf­fice it to say, my visit to Austin this win­ter was dif­fer­ent.

First off, my 15-year-old daugh­ter, So­phie, and I had a di­rect flight on South­west from Rea­gan Na­tional, mak­ing for an easy six­hour door-to-door trip. Also, Aus­tinites as­sured us we weren’t ex­actly in the Lone Star state.

“I could never live in Texas,” tour guide and mu­si­cian Ja­son Weems, said. “This is Austin.”

We spent four nights in Austin over my daugh­ter’s win­ter break in late De­cem­ber, in­spired by lit­tle more than a sale fare and a sense that Austin was cool. Rather than stay­ing in a ho­tel, we opted to rent a small house through SoCo Spa­ces, which man­ages nine prop­er­ties in the South Congress Av­enue area. Ours, “The Orange Door,” was a mod­ern two-bed­room ranch in the quiet Travis Heights neigh­bor­hood, an easy 10-minute walk to the main strip on South Congress.

To get any­where beyond walk­ing dis­tance, we used Fas­ten, Austin’s al­ter­na­tive to Uber and Lyft. Rides around town typ­i­cally cost $5 to $10, and we only once had to wait more than five min­utes for a ride.

After a late-evening ar­rival, we spent the morn­ing of our first full day in the city on Austin De­tours’ two-hour “Real Austin” tour. The small group van tour, led by Weems, in­cluded stops at some of the cap­i­tal city’s high­lights. Our tour started in SoCo and headed north over the Colorado River on the Congress Av­enue Bridge.

We saw Austin’s land­marks: its tow­er­ing, sun­set-red state Capi­tol build­ing — its taller-thanthe-U.S.-Capi­tol stature a brag­ging right for Tex­ans ev­ery­where, Weems said — and the ex­pan­sive Uni­ver­sity of Texas cam­pus, in­clud­ing its clock tower, fa­mous as a cam­pus cen­ter and in­fa­mous as the site of the first mass shoot­ing of the mod­ern era. Also, the LBJ Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary is there.

Our progress was marked by street art, from the “Hi: how are you?” frog mu­ral near the uni­ver­sity fa­mously worn on a T-shirt by Kurt Cobain to the pretty, loop­ing cur­sive “I love you so much” on the side of Jo’s Cof­fee in SoCo, orig­i­nally writ­ten by a wo­man to her part­ner but widely seen as a love let­ter to the city it­self.

We also stopped to see street art on an al­most dizzy­ing scale at the Hope Out­door Gallery, an aban­doned con­struc­tion site turned into a com­mu­nity graf­fiti park. Color, tags, car­toons and slo­gans blan­keted ev­ery dis­cernible space of the three-story, one-acre park. In my line of vi­sion were Count von Count from Se­same Street, an alien, a vik­ing hat and the phrase “Global warm­ing is a hoax.” It was a lit­tle like look­ing into a strobe light.

Weems also in­tro­duced us to our first Austin food trailer, Gour­dough’s, with its im­mensely sat­is­fy­ing — and just plain im­mense — dough­nuts. (A waiter at an­other restau­rant told us he only lets him­self eat one a year.) Con­sumed: the “Fly­ing Pig,” a salad plate-size pas­try cov­ered in maple glaze and topped off with a mound of ba­con. Un­like food trucks in D.C., Austin’s coun­ter­parts are mostly Airstream trail­ers and mostly sta­tion­ary, set up on what were once empty lots.

We tried the pop­u­lar Odd Duck for our first din­ner. The restau­rant, which got its start in a trailer, fo­cuses on pair­ing lo­cally sourced in­gre­di­ents in un­ex­pected ways, in­clud­ing the salty, de­li­cious pret­zel pig-face car­ni­tas and a tasty red­fish ce­viche with sweet potato curry and grape­fruit.

The next day we checked out three Austin re­tail leg­ends lo­cated within a block of each other on the busy thor­ough­fare of La­mar. We browsed at Water­loo Records, an Austin leg­end at which cus­tomers can hear any of its mas­sive col­lec­tion of CDs and vinyl be­fore pur­chase. I bought my first CD since 2009 (the awe­some live mu­sic sam­pler “KGSR Broad­casts, Vol. 24”).

Next we mar­veled at the 80,000-square-foot Whole Foods, now topped with an ice rink, just a few it­er­a­tions from the hum­ble nat­u­ral food store that opened its doors in Austin in 1980. Fi­nally, we made our way to Book Peo­ple, the city’s largest in­de­pen­dent book­store, a place damn close to heaven on Earth for an avid reader.

After pe­rus­ing its stacks, laden with hand­writ­ten staff pick cards, and chat­ting with em­ploy­ees seem­ingly at the ready with off­beat rec­om­men­da­tions for any genre, I emerged with five books by au­thors un­known to me.

We con­cluded our day at Fixe, a rel­a­tively new restau­rant that aims to “cel­e­brate the soul of the South,” which re­minded me how ex­cel­lent South­ern cook­ing can be. The leg­endary bis­cuits are fluffy, but­tery, served steam­ing with a heav­enly pork spread. The restau­rant also of­fers up a fan­tas­ti­cally crispy fried chicken and mul­ti­ple sa­vory vari­a­tions of that South­ern sta­ple, grits.

Since we were cel­e­brat­ing the soul of the South, we made it a point to sched­ule a Texas bar­be­cue stop. My pulled pork sand­wich at La Bar­be­cue — a food trailer in Ce­sar Chavez Park fa­vored by lo­cals — was per­fect, tangy bar­be­cue bal­anced with a sharp chipo­tle coleslaw. It also of­fers frozen fare that you can bring back in your suit­case, like the five-pound brisket I made my daugh­ter lug home.

With tem­per­ate weather much of the year, a lot of life in Austin is lived out­doors. We made a short­lived at­tempt to fol­low suit, em­bark­ing on an af­ter­noon bike tour that was cut short by rain.

“Lady Bird Lake is ab­so­lutely beau­ti­ful,” said John Mutch­ler, our guide from Rocket Electrics, which runs the com­pany’s daily bike tours along the lake trail. We had an ex­pan­sive view of the Austin sky­line across the wa­ter, one Mutch­ler says is con­stantly chang­ing given Austin’s ex­po­nen­tial growth in the tech sec­tor, and of the few crew teams that braved the rain to prac­tice. The trail winds around to Bar­ton Springs — an out­door pool fed by nat­u­ral springs and open year-round — and the city’s much-pho­tographed Ste­vie Ray Vaughan statue.

Like Weems, Mutch­ler is a work­ing mu­si­cian as well as a tour guide. “Mu­sic is what brought me,” he told us. Austin has about 250 live mu­sic venues, he said, rang­ing from Austin City Lim­its to clubs on Red River Street, north of the Colorado River.

So­phie, of course, was too young to get into most of the city’s clubs, but live mu­sic per­me­ates the city — in cof­fee shops, on restau­rant pa­tios, street cor­ners, in parks. We stopped to watch the “Wash­board Tie Guy,” clad in trade­mark cap and per­cus­sive tie (yes, he plays it), set up his stage on South Congress Av­enue.

On our last night in Austin we ate at a place we still can’t get out of our heads — Uchi, the sto­ried sushi restau­rant that a decade ago cat­a­pulted Austin into a new class of food city. Cer­tainly it rev­o­lu­tion­ized the way I think of sushi, which ad­mit­tedly was not par­tic­u­larly so­phis­ti­cated be­fore. We tried “bi­endo,” a take on spring roll with shrimp tem­pura with sliv­ers of grapes on top; a vari­a­tion on what Ja­panese chil­dren have for break­fast with salmon and green tea (which seems to have ru­ined Chee­rios for So­phie); and “hot rocks” with Wagyu beef. Each dish was a mi­cro work of art.

Early the next morn­ing, New Year’s Eve, I wan­dered down to a still mostly empty SoCo for a last look and cof­fee at Jo’s be­fore we packed up and headed to the air­port. A week later, we feasted on the brisket, a smoky, ten­der taste of real Texas bar­be­cue on a cold, win­ter D.C. day.



CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Crowds line the Congress Av­enue Bridge in Austin for a nightly spec­ta­cle — thou­sands of bats tak­ing wing; Al­lens Boots of­fers more than 10,000 pairs of cow­boy kicks, among other ac­cou­trements; the Hope Out­door Gallery, an aban­doned con­struc­tion site, has been turned into a com­mu­nity graf­fiti park; Austin Mo­tel’s sign cap­tures a bit of the left-of-cen­ter spirit of the city for­mer gov­er­nor Rick Perry called “the blue­berry in the tomato soup” of Texas.



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