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