So, let’s say you have two and a half days to spend in Austin, Texas; can you: visit two taco shops; eat at two barbecue restaurants; sample beers from four local breweries; visit two museums; see some music; buy some cowboy boots; buy a couple of local books AND get your picture taken with a giant orange longhorn? You betcha! Follow along for the tale of one whirlwind weekend in Austin!
We landed in Austin around 2:30 in the afternoon on Saturday. Since we left San Diego ultra-early, I hadn’t bothered eating breakfast, so naturally we headed straight for tacos. We stopped at Taco Xpress, the first of three(!!) stops on our trip that Rachael Ray also visited on her Austin $40 a Day episode.
Taco Xpress was fun, with colorful decor and an impressive variety of tacos. To maximize our exploration potential, we got 1 each of four different types of tacos: Al Pastor, Barbacoa, Pollo Guisado, and Beef Fajita. The rich and tender barbacoa was my favorite, followed by pollo guisado. First noted differences between San Diego and Texas mexican food? The emphasis on tacos rather than burritos in Texas, defaulting to flour tortillas instead of corn for the tacos, and the salsas in Texas were less chile-based than in San Diego.
First taco fix complete, we headed over to our hotel, the Mansion at Judges’ Hill to get settled and plot the rest of our day. The hotel was all decked out for the holidays, and the courtyard reminded me a little bit of all the off-street courtyards dotting New Orleans.
After researching our music options for the evening, we headed out to wander around downtown, and made our way to Casino El Camino for dinner. (This place was featured by Guy Fieri on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. It was a very Food Network day for us.) There, We split a Amarillo burger (with roasted chiles, chipotle mayo, and pepperjack cheese) and some chili cheese fries, and enjoyed some brewed-in-Texas Shiner Bock. The burger was ok, but the chili cheese fries were excellent! After dinner we headed over to the Amsterdam Cafe for our Austin music experience, choosing an intimate performance by two singer/songwriters, Jackie Bristow, just settling into Austin from New Zealand via Los Angeles, and Elizabeth Wills, returning to Austin from Colorado. We had a lot of fun at the show, as both singers shared stories and inspiration as they performed, and the folk/country music was well suited to the small setting.
On Sunday, we woke bright and early (just kidding, we slept in til about 9!), and headed out to breakfast – tacos again! This time, we went to Torchy’s Tacos, which I discovered in the Austin Chronicle’s Best Of Austin awards. The goal of this visit was breakfast tacos, plus the Green Chili Queso that won raves from the Chronicle. For good measure, I added a fried avocado taco to our order, just because I’ve never seen those on a menu before!
The queso was addictive as promised, and the breakfast taco with potato and bacon was sheer yumminess. The fried avocado taco was a bit odd – I tried the avocados by themselves, and can see how that would make a tasty appetizer or garnish, but I think they got a little lost among the lettuce, tomato and cheese piled on top.
We spent Sunday afternoon museum hopping: we visited the O. Henry House museum first, and got a personal tour of the four-room museum. If interior pictures were allowed, there would be many close-ups of wallpaper included below, as the turn-of-century reproduction wallpaper featured at the museum was stylish and fun.
We then visited the Austin Museum of Art, where we enjoyed the Texas Chair Project exhibit, featuring 80 different artists who created their own interpretations of a chair – each work was created in 6 months or less, and was required to fit in an 8x8x8 inch box – although some chairs got around this requirement in creative ways!
After our museum hopping, we stopped by Lovejoy’s for the first of our Austin-based beer sampling. We tried their Brown Ale (which my extensive tasting notes say was “kind of bitter, a little sour”), and 604 Stout (“dry, buttery flavor/mouthfeel”). Those are some good tasting notes! One of the cool things about Lovejoys was the delightfully weird art adorning the walls. My favorite was “Metamorph”, a large portrait of a sad-looking girl with antlers, but “Batalope” was fun too. From the Austin Chronicle:
BART FARAR: JACKALOPE MYSTERY THEATRE Recent works by this excellent artist in watercolor, ink, and pencil on wood. Reception: Wed., Nov. 5, 6-8pm. Exhibition: Through Nov. 30. Lovejoys, 604 Neches
We also headed down to the Congress Avenue Bridge to try to see the famous bat emergence, but unfortunately most of them seem to have migrated south for the winter already.
Following our failed bat-watching adventure, we headed south of the city to The Salt Lick, a barbecue joint and our second stop in Rachael Ray’s footsteps for the trip. Eating at the Salt Lick, I am both happy and sad to report, was my first Barbecue-In-Texas-is-infinitely-better-than-in-San-Diego experience.
I had the three-meat plate, so I got to sample all of their deliciously smoked goodies. The brisket was pretty good, but my favorites were the sausage and pork ribs – the ribs especially were amazingly tender and tasty – the meat was so good that I used hardly any bbq sauce (although both flavors were rather tasty – more savory/tart than the sweeter sauces that are more common in SD). The homemade pickles were also good, and so was the blackberry cobbler we shared for desert. It’s a little bit out of town, but the Salt Lick is definitely worth a visit.
After sleeping off our barbecue coma, we woke up on Monday morning ready for some breakfast and shopping! First things first – coffee and a full southern breakfast. We headed over to Hoover’s Cooking, another find from the Austin Chronicle “Best of Austin” lists.The Chronicle was touting the “hoe cakes” – pancakes made with cornmeal in the batter – so of course I had to get those:
Plus (since I don’t know when I’ll next be in the south) it seemed like the perfect time to try grits, so I got an order of the Cheddar Garlic Grits (plus bacon. breakfast is always better with bacon). So that we could sample a wider variety of Hoover’s tempting pancakes, Chuck got Chicken ‘n’ Cakes, with sweet potato pancakes:
I did like the hoe cakes, but the sweet potato pancakes stole the show – they were rich and lightly sweet, and though I’m not sure I would identify the sweet potato by flavor, they were tastier than the average pancake. The grits were tasty too, although the garlicy kick threatened to overwhelm. I balanced it out with a little tabasco mix-in for a spicy garlic treat. (verdict on grits: they’re like cream of wheat, but with corn. they’re good spicy, would probably be ok with some brown sugar or maple syrup too (just not at the same time as garlic!)).
After breakfast, we went to the University of Texas co-op, where they sell EVERYTHING you can dream of, branded with a Texas Longhorn theme. Seriously – Jansport backpacks, Nike golf gear, cowboy boots, doggy sweaters, even crocs! – they’re all Texan now! The Caltech bookstore, I am sad to say, cannot compete.
After the co-op, we headed to local bookseller BookPeople – a little bit smaller than Powell’s in Portland, but also less overwhelming! We browsed around for probably two hours, and I limited myself to only two books, both Texas-related (but I put a lot more on my Christmas wishlist as a result!).
Next stop: more barbecue! For lunch we went to Lamberts Barbecue in downtown Austin. They call it “fancy barbecue”, and use interesting spice rubs for a fun twist on Texas classics. Between the two of us, we sampled the brisket, beef ribs, and pork ribs (plus mac and cheese). I didn’t write down my beer selection there, but I *think* it was a Live Oak IPA (or maybe the (512) IPA – tasting notes fail!) – in any case, it was a good IPA from one of the local breweries, and a good pairing with the barbecue.
As much as I loved the pork ribs at the Salt Lick, I think the beef ribs at Lamberts were my favorite meat of the trip – so tender, with incredibly rich flavor. Really, everything there was good, and in a barbecue-induced ecstasy I decided that I should live in Texas (maybe if i live there I can even keep an okapi in my backyard! I hear the wildlife regulations aren’t quite as strict…).
And then, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the final Rachael Ray stop on the trip, the moment I’ve been dreaming about ever since that fateful $40-a-day episode: Allens Boots! I’ve been intending to buy cowboy boots for a while, and since we were going to Texas anyway, it only seemed natural to get them there…
With an almost endless expanse of boots, it was a little bit overwhelming to pick just one pair! After trying on a few, I finally picked the most perfect ones, although I’d be happy to make Allens Boots a birthday tradition!
As you can see above, I also got some jewelry at the Museum of Art to round out my “Happy Birthday to Me” presents. I like jewelry from museum shops – they always have stuff from fun local artists. And, I like cowboy boots!
Shopping mission accomplished, barbecue and tacos consumed, and an early morning flight waiting for us the next morning, the last thing to check off our Austin itinerary was a stop at the Draught House pub and brewery. A little bit north of the city, the Draft House has dozens of beers on tap, and is the perfect destination for sampling the local brews.
My tasting notes from DraughtHouse:
- (512) Pecan Porter: this was the one local beer I was really hoping to try, and my excitement was well rewarded! My notes say “pecan scent, rich flavor”, but my remembered happiness is greater than that succinct description. It was my favorite of the evening.
- Saint Arnold Christmas Ale: “Christmas-y, copper”. Note to self: take better notes. I only had a few sips of this one, but “Christmas-y” means “good”.
- Draught House Double IPA: “sweet scent/flavor, crisp bitterness, lingering bitter aftertaste”. If I remember correctly, not as flowery as a typical West Coast double – maybe different hops are used to give it the sweet scent insead.
- Draught House Century Stout: “strong coffee aroma; dry, strong roasted flavor”
- Oskar Blues Ten-Fidy Imperial Stout: ok, so Oskar Blues is in Colorado, but how you can dis someone who says “It’s time we mess with Texas”? I remembered Oskar Blues from last year’s Stone Anniversary festival, and since I haven’t seen it on draught in San Diego, ten-fidy was fair game. And, totally worth it. The extensive tasting notes say: “roasted coffee flavor, sweeter than Century”…really, these were all good beers, and I’m glad we got to try them. I think my pocket notebook would be improved if it had beer-tasting templates instead of blank sheets of paper. Someone should invent that.
So there you have it – two and a half days, seven tacos, barbecue, beer, books, and boots! (but no bats!) We had a great weekend in Austin, and I want to go again!