Take a Bite Out of Texas
If you’ve never visited Austin, or if you’ve only been during South By Southwest, when the town is a souped-up, Disneyland, branded version of itself, the best advice I can give you before booking your ticket is this: Stuff the great mythos of Texas in a box with a lock, and stow away the key.
That’s sound advice for any traveler, but I’ve found that the idea of Texas—boot-scootin’ boogie, guns-and-cowboys dreamscape— looms particularly larger than it should, which can be… eh, problematic. When traveling to the Live Music Capital of the World, please lay down your armor, rid your mind of Texan caricatures and let your experiences guide you.
There’s so much more to the Hill Country oasis than tacos and great barbecue (of which there is plenty). There’s so much more than the stereotypes you’re no doubt familiar with and, like people everywhere, Austinites will surprise you. Bat City (a nickname owed to the nightly emergence of the world’s largest bat colony from under the Congress Avenue bridge, a tourist attraction) is teeming with transplants anyway. According to the Austin Chamber of Commerce, Austin ranked first among the 50 largest U.S. metros based on net migration as a percentage of total population in 2015. A whopping 6.4% of Austin residents in 2015 lived elsewhere one year earlier. It’s a city dealing with massive population growth, cultural shifts and intense gentrification of what was once a famously weird and affordable bohemian haven for artists and musicians. New Yorkers can certainly relate.
Though I was not raised in Texas, I come from a long line of proud Texans (four generations strong), and I spent roughly two years living in the Velvet Rut city (called so because its laid-back vibe can be so comfortable, à la Dazed and Confused), where I wrote a weekly food blog for a website wholly dedicated to “what to do in Austin.” My parents moved there around the same time I did, so I still spend ample time visiting Austin throughout the year.
There are far too many new places popping up every month to conceive of naming them all. It would be impossible to even expound on all of the classics. With that in mind, let me show you around my ideal long weekend in Austin, Texas.
Drop your bags. We’re hailing a ride from Ride- Austin (there’s a great deal of competition between Uber and Lyft and the homegrown ride-hailing companies that grew up in their absence last year. Let’s support local businesses, shall we?) straight to Salty Sow’s back patio (in East Austin) for happy hour. One of the best deals in town, with nearly every item on the happy hour menu at $5. Folks form a queue outside the snout-to-tail meatery about half an hour before opening.
To drink: One of those wee, potent cocktails—the Little Larry—a Grand Marnier–topped frozen blood orange Margarita. A good follow-up is the fizzy Rosemary’s Piglet, made with pomegranate juice and rosemary syrup. It comes with one of those large, hunk-hewn ice blocks and a sprig of rosemary (obviously) that makes me feel dignified and classy.
To eat: Truffled deviled eggs topped with housemade bacon (naturally) and duck fat fries covered in a pleasant, hazy goo when the “110-minute” egg perched atop is poked and prodded to spill forth.
Next up: Get thee to East Side King, at the OG food truck location, in The Liberty’s backyard. The playful and addictive Japanese street food was created by Uchi/Uchiko alums Paul Qui and Moto Utsunomiya (the former also a “Top Chef” winner), and is inspired by Asian art, rock bands and Austin’s laid-way-back vibe. Their iconic colorful truck and brick-and-mortar branding was designed by Peelander Yellow, a Japanese artist who lives in New York, but spends ample time in Austin.
Feast on: Poor Qui’s pork belly steamed buns, fried Brussels sprout salad (cabbage and sprouts doused in a sweet and spicy chili sauce) and Thai Chicken Karaage (deep-fried sweet and spicy chicken thigh) with Liberty Rice (steamed jasmine with ginger, garlic oil, soy sauce and fresh herbs). If you have the stamina of an Austinite, you won’t even think about calling it a night yet. This dinner has sustained you and plunked you smack dab in the center of Austin’s best nightlife; locals avoid the downtown “Dirty Sixth” drag like the plague, opting for a more low key scene farther east and south—though even many beloved “secret” spots have become overcrowded as the city has rapidly expanded over the past several years.
Austin cool kids congregate: At Yellow Jacket Social Club’s outdoor, fenced-off picnic tables, gulleting Texas-brewed beers like Firemans #4 or, for the cash-strapped, good ol’ Lone Star. It’s also a popular brunch spot to see and be seen on the weekend, but I prefer nighttiming here.
Wakey, wakey. Organic farm-fresh eggs and hickory-smoked bakey. Today’s adventure begins at Pacha, a cozy bungalow-converted-coffeehouse and café on the north side of town. When it’s not too busy, this place is the ultimate comfort spot for me, with its earthy handpainted tabletops and color-popping Bolivian art, pottery and jewelry. They’re known for their pancakes, but I favor the fluffy sourdough french toast with that fairy-dusted powdered sugar and melty maple pecan espresso butter.
For later: Do yourself a favor and purchase at least a half-dozen pecan drop cookies. I first experienced them during East Austin Open Studios (http://east.bigmedium.org/) —I was found alone in a gallery space’s kitchen popping one after another into my greedy little mouth, mustached with snowy sugar. I’ve had a penchant for them ever since.
Mid-day meal: Keep it light and easy with a breezy, romantic lunch in the garden patio at Elizabeth Street Café in South Austin. This pretty, airy Vietnamese café and French bakery is typically pretty crowded, but well worth the wait. All banh mis are made on house-baked baguettes with perfectly crisp cucumbers, daikon, carrots, cilantro and a dab of mayo. I go for the grilled marinated pork and punctuate it with the daily macaron (baked in-house).
Kick it on the patio: Whatever the season, whenever I’m in town, I meet my girlfriends for drinks on Hotel San Jose’s patio. It’s a calming maneuver, and a familiar space that somehow makes me feel like I belong (something I don’t always feel in the hubbub of more raucous, censorious venues around town). Frosé or a Rosso Amaro (prosecco and grapefruit) followed by a Shiner Ruby Redbird, with some house olives to munch on—a smattering of girl talk. I can think of nothing better.
Date night: Dim the lights low. Tonight we’re headed back east for a sultry night out with a slightly higher price tag. Justine’s Brasserie is more than a hip French restaurant. Housed in a 1937 bungalow with a light-strung patio, Justine’s manages to capture a feeling, creating a mood in a way few places manage to these days. With a tagline like “When you think you’ve gone too far, keep going,” you know you’re in for a cheeky ride. There’s a full roster of babes on staff; they’re winky and coy, and seem straight out of Paris or an old-school pin-up. This always encourages me to dress to the nines so I can blend in at Justine’s too.
Order: The ample charcuterie platter while you quaff the potent cocktails at the bar (expect a wait; prop up with a French 75), sop up olive oil with fresh baguette slices, share a side of ratatouille and try one of the daily specials from the chalkboard (expect rotating seasonal items like duck confit, cassoulet and grilled octopus).
Don’t miss: Getting your picture taken in Lumiere Tintype’s backyard mobile studio while you’re all dolled up in velvet, lace and witching hour-confidence. You can find Adrian and his old-fashioned camera back there from October onwards. Take a gander through the mirrorlined Infinity Room and snap some photos of your own while your one-of-a-kind photo develops.
Keep drinking (kombucha on tap): Most people will be heading to various shows around town by now, and you might as well tag along and head nod with the rest of them. It’s obligatory. When you tire of the scene, or if live music’s not your thing (if that’s the case, then pray tell, why are you even in Austin?), you can lurk around Cheer Up Charlies until the cat drags the chain-smoking, tattooed and leathered locals in. A beloved Austin gay bar, music and events venue and safe haven for the LGBTQ community and beyond, it’s another comforting place I’ve kept coming back to year after year. It captures the true spirit of Austin, that kind, funky, fun-loving freak that is this city’s authentic heart. Not even moving from East Sixth to Red River in 2014 could stop their shine. In the words of co-owner Tamara Hoover, “It’s a great place to be who you are.” I typically order one of the cleverly named (Banana Hammock, anyone?), fresh-squeezed juice cocktails or kaleinfused Margaritas, find a seat in the yard and wait until I start to see familiar figures appear beneath the parachute tent out back. When the DJ begins, I dance like nobody’s watching, but everyone is watching, and I am a star.
Late night: If hunger pangs hit, you oughta know—Arlo’s vegan food truck shares the lot with Cheer Ups, and they make a mean seitan Bac’n Cheeze burger. (Or if you haven’t had your fill of East Side King, they share the space as well, where they hawk a slightly different menu.)
A lazy Sunday brunch is mandatory after a night out on the town. For a cute and refined late-morning affair, head to Blue Dahlia Bistro, where breakfast is served all day, as it damn well should be. It’s true that I prefer to share a plethora of dishes with my dining companion(s) no matter where I am, but it’s particularly true at Blue Dahlia. Ricotta-stuffed blueberry blintzes could be a step too much/ too sweet when dining alone, but make for a blissful treat when shared, alongside an egg fritatta and sundry fresh-baked breads.
PSA: Coffee drinkers will leave this Euro-bistro thoroughly jacked—servers here are borderline insistent on keeping your Texas-sized stein topped up at all times.
Meat sweats: I suppose you can’t leave Texas without some genuine barbecue, and here’s a little secret: When you’re just in town for a short interlude, you don’t need to mess with the never-ending, day-long queue at Franklin (which sadly, was closed indefinitely at the time of printing anyway, due to a Hurricane Harvey–related fire). Just down the road, Micklethwait Craft Meats is no mere honorable mention—their meat platters will send you to hog heaven. Go to town with the three-meat plate, and you’ll cover more ground. I opt for the kielbasa sausage, the brisket and colossal beef ribs with jalapeño cheese grits (not too spicy for those with delicate sensibilities) and potato salad, all fresh-prepared inside their food truck every day.
Cocktail hour: A special hidden gem not to be missed before you fly out, Garage Cocktail Bar is, as its name suggests, built into the parking garage of the American National Bank/McGarrah Jesse building on the corner of Sixth and Colorado. A uniquely located craft cocktail spot, Garage doesn’t just rely on its valet booth past and dim-lit mahogany and tile interior to sell itself. The menu’s three categories (custom, vintage, refurbished) feature both stalwarts—like a Cucumber Gimlet—and a rotating cast of tipples to test drive, like the Ingrid Bergman (hibiscus rye, Thai basil, orange and lime)—each one painstakingly labored over with the precision of a laser beam welder.
Feed: Didn’t I just get through warning you away from the downtown area? Yes. But you have to take every warning with a shot of tequila and a grain of salt. Sixth Street does have its merits, and one of its violet crown jewels is tucked inside an unassuming, no-frills sports bar called Lavaca Street Bar. Head to the Turf’N’Surf window for some of the absolute best fish tacos you’ll get outside of a beach town. I get the blackened tilapia or mahi mahi tacos—praise to the holy heavens for their cilantro-ranch-dressing-covered goodness.
Local Taste: BEYOND THE BARBECUE PIT
Believe it or not, Texas is very much its own culinary amalgam. Beyond all the barbecue and brisket tacos (which are obviously delicious), my favorite boîtes happen to serve up more fused fare. At Tacoway Beach, the laid-back surfer vibes, order-and-linger-in-the-yard service, fried fish tacos, fresh guac and refreshing watermelon drink make me feel like I’m back in Austin. There’s even breakfast tacos, a Lone Star state staple.
Tacoway Beach: 302 Beach 87th St., Rockaway