Road Trip Part 12: Thanksgiving in Augusta & Charlotte

We left Austin early Saturday morning, knowing we had a long drive to Memphis ahead of us.  I took the first leg, getting us out of Austin and into Arkansas (literally JUST into Arkansas...took exit 1).  Because of timing and knowing that we wanted a meal in Arkansas to cross the state off the list and never have to return, I had already looked into restaurants in the southwest section of Arkansas.  There aren't many.  The food for Arkansas is a chopped beef sandwich, so we went to Big Jake's BBQ, a local chain, and got a chopped brisket sandwich (Adam), a baked potato with pulled pork (Melissa), and a fried pie (that was about 4x the size we were expecting).  All things considered, the food wasn't bad, although our stomachs didn't feel too great afterwards.

Yes, that giant thing taking up 3/4 of the photo is the fried pie.

Lucky Adam got to drive the rest of Arkansas, a pretty long stretch from the bottom left to the top right of the state until we got to Memphis (for those who are not geographically inclined, Memphis is pretty much right on the border of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi).  The drivers in Arkansas were NOT good - probably some of the worst in the country - and really enjoyed tailing you as closely as possible.  It was a pretty long day of driving, but we made it to Memphis and were planning on going to Beale Street, since it's the most famous street in Memphis.  I had checked the basketball schedule, and I *thought* I had seen that the Grizzlies were out of town that night - however, when we got downtown, it was very clear I saw the schedule wrong and that they had a home game.  Their arena is right there, the streets were very crowded, and parking was a mess.  We quickly switched drivers (I'm the one who typically does the city driving - I'm more used to it, and I am a quicker parallel parker), drove around for a few minutes, and then made a decision to head out of Beale Street and to a restaurant I had found that wasn't too far from our hotel called Hog & Hominy.  I dropped Adam off while I looked for parking - even though it wasn't as urban as Beale Street, it was still a mess and I ended up having to valet.  Adam had grabbed seats at the bar and holding down an empty one was getting harder, but thankfully I got there and we were able to have a great dinner of a small pizza and an octopus appetizer.

Our favorite pie shop in Brooklyn, 4&20 Blackbirds, does Thanksgiving pies every year and our favorite is their Bittersweet Chocolate Pecan Pie - we bring to Pam & Brian's every year!  Well, they have become so popular that this year, during the holiday season, Whole Foods is selling this particular pie in their stores for $15 (pie from the shop is $42).  We were so excited to see this and were determined to find one for our Thanksgiving!  Unfortunately, Augusta's only Whole Foods closed in February, so we went to both Whole Foods in the Memphis area to finally find one before we headed out to Augusta - but we were able to continue the tradition for 2017.

Our plan for Sunday was to get breakfast in Mississippi and lunch in Alabama so that both those states could be crossed off.  The breakfast in Mississippi proved harder than it seems, as apparently everything is closed on Sundays in Mississippi.  We FINALLY found what can only be described as a Mississippi gas station version of Waffle House, where we split a breakfast consisting of scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, grits, and bacon, totaling $5.89.  After breakfast, Adam took over driving and got us to Birmingham, Alabama for a food Adam had been dying to try.

Our $5.89 breakfast in Mississippi.

While the Thrillist list says the food for Alabama is fried catfish, the real Alabama food Adam had been wanting to try is Alabama white barbecue sauce.  This wasn't too high on my list as it's a mayo based barbecue sauce, but I looked around and finally found a place in Birmingham that appeared to have Alabama white barbecue sauce.  Oh my god was this place good.  Saw's Soul Kitchen was only about five minutes off the interstate, and it was worth it (after the fiasco in Mississippi, and despite Google saying they were open on Sundays, I called to confirm).  We discussed it, and we both agree that as good as the brisket was in Texas, if I was going to have one barbecue place regularly, it would probably be Saw's.  I got a fried green tomato BLT, Adam got a sweet tea brined fried chicken sandwich, and we split an order of wings.  These wings...perfectly charred on the grill, with just a bit of a thin vinegar-y bbq sauce, with a light coating of Alabama white sauce on top.  It was not at all what I was expecting - it was about 1000x better.

Sweet tea fried chicken with white bbq sauce, and my friend green tomato BLT.

Some of the best wings I've ever had.

To make the day even better, we got to Lauren's house in Augusta about 3 minutes before she got home - we hit absolutely zero traffic in Atlanta, probably the first time anyone can say that.  While she was off from her school job for the week, she was working at Dick's that week (holiday season and retail means not much time off!).  She didn't have to work until late afternoon, though, so we were able to spend Monday checking out downtown Augusta; she was off on Tuesday and took us to Phinizy Swamp Park, which was beautiful - we spent that day walking around there.  Adam found this awesome stick on our walk around the swamp that he wouldn't share with me.  He kept the stick, hoping that Squirt would like it, but she couldn't have cared less about it.  Squirt is Lauren's cat, and she shares an opinion on visitors with Pluto and Skittles, Adam's parents' cats - that is, she doesn't like them.  While she wasn't as mean to us as Skittles is, she literally would squirrel under the blankets so as to hide from us.  When Lauren wasn't home, we wouldn't see Squirt except when we would go looking for her.

Downtown Augusta.

Phinizy Swamp Park.  I'm a turtle!

On our way home from downtown, we stopped at a local butcher shop for the pork shoulder and the sage sausage.  It was a great local shop, and they had exactly what we were looking for - and the prices compared to NYC were AWESOME.  Adam and I took advantage of Lauren working to get the rest of the groceries and prep Thanksgiving dinner.  Since there were only three of us, we didn't make as much as we normally would - only did a pork shoulder, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and stuffing for dinner, and our bittersweet chocolate pecan pie and a pudding pie for dessert.  Dinner turned out great - the pork shoulder was really good, and the sides all came out great, too (we made all the sides from scratch, including the green bean casserole.  All of them came out great).  Lauren had to work at 5pm, so Adam and I cleaned up and then settled in for a very lazy evening - I got most of my Christmas shopping done online Thanksgiving night.

Adam, Lauren & me 

Our meal!



Dessert!

We got on the road around 9:45am on Friday, and we made it to Charlotte to see our good friends Cal and Jodie and their kids by 12:15pm - just in time for Thanksgiving leftovers for lunch.  Most specifically, mac and cheese - this was the one side we really wanted but just couldn't justify making for three of us.  Thankfully, they had some from Thanksgiving, and we were able to get our fix.  They have two adorable kids - Madeline is in kindergarten and Jake will be 3 in January.  It was so good to see them and hang out with them and have them show us around Charlotte!  Charlotte was beautiful - the weather was fall-like, the leaves were colorful and falling, and it was a great weekend.  The children's library was really nice, and we stopped by a food hall near the library for lunch - I had grilled cheese and tomato soup, Adam a hoagie.  Cal was telling us about this amazing fried chicken place near them, and we tried to get this for dinner Saturday night, but they were closed for the whole weekend because of Thanksgiving.

Ava was VERY happy to see Adam.

Saturday night we went to Lake Wylie, SC to see one of my old roommates from college and her family.  I hadn't seen Stacey since her baby shower for Ali - who is now SIX.  They also have a little boy, Luke, and it was so nice to see Stacey and Derek and to meet Ali & Luke.  And to top off the great night, Clemson kicked the snot out of South Carolina, 34-10 (and it wasn't even that close).  We spent the night there and headed back to Cal & Jodie's in the morning.  As Stacey texted me that morning, we never took a picture while we were at their house - this was a common theme.  Out of all the friends and family we saw, I think the only photo I have of us with friends/family is in Miami with my friend James - which was pretty much the next place we went after Stacey's comment!  We were able to check out some local coffee houses and breweries on Sunday with Cal, Jodie, and their friends - it's a really nice, growing city, with decent public transportation.  It's too bad we were there a week too early, since Clemson stomped Miami there the very next weekend in the ACC Championship game, held about a mile from Cal & Jodie's.

Charlotte.

Since we'd left San Diego in the middle of November, Adam had been interviewing for positions in San Diego & Denver.  One of the processes had been progressing very quickly, and they wanted to fly him out for an in-person interview.  So on Monday morning, I dropped Adam off at the airport at 6:30am and headed down to Florida by myself.  The drive was REALLY easy considering I hadn't driven 8-9 hours alone in quite some time, and I made it to Aunt Carole & Uncle Pete's by 3:45pm.  As a morning person, I was very thankful that Adam's flight was so early as it meant the majority of my drive was earlier in the day - I didn't really get tired until I was about an hour from their house, which wasn't too bad.

Adam's amazing fried chicken sandwich from The Crack Shack, back in San Diego

Road Trip Part 11: Austin!

We had four food objectives for Austin:
  1. BBQ, specifically a top-notch brisket, the Texas specialty
  2. Queso, cheese dip that Texans get defensive about
  3. Kolaches, originally a Czech pastry that immigrants have adapted to the region around Dallas and Austin
  4. Breakfast tacos, late to the list but Melissa's friend tipped us off that Austinites are crazy about their breakfast tacos. Maybe all of Texas -- we saw signs for breakfast tacos as soon as we left Las Cruces
With only two full days in the city and a live music bar scene to check out, we were busy. Fortunately, Melissa's high school friend who lives in Austin (but wasn't there that week!) wrote us an amazing email that helped out immensely.

Day 1 we took the bikes our AirBnb provided (not the best fits but manageable) and rode to Mickelthwait's for priority #1: brisket. Now back in Brooklyn, the BBQ scene is really coming along. Actual smoked meats in New York were almost unheard of ten years ago, in part because it's tricky to operate a smoker with no open space. We've tried most of the best brisket in New York and it's very good. Like really good.

But Texas is the land of brisket, so we'd been waiting a long time to see what it's all about down here. Mickelthwait's was surprisingly not a restaurant at all. We rolled up to the extra-large food truck and smoker truck in a lot. We leaned the bikes up against a fence and got in line to figure out the menu.

Mickelthwait's, smoker bus to the right

Melissa and I usually order completely different things when eating out so that we can share and cover more of the menu. Not here; we came for brisket and we didn't want to share. It was excellent. Really, really good. I'd say better than our favorite in New York (Hometown BBQ) although not by a huge margin. A few solid percentage points for sure but not a whole 1 out of 10 points better.

The sleeper hit was the jalapeno cheddar grits though. Melissa has eaten a lot of grits from her time in the South, yet was scraping the plate clean. I give them credit for interesting sides too; the slaw was different and rest was solid. We're really happy with our visit to Mickelthwait's, and are thrilled that we now have at least one data point for Texas brisket.

Brisket up front, Tex-Czech sausage to the left, a really good slaw and ridiculous cheddar grits.
Melissa's brisket sandwich in the background

After the meal we biked around town to see 6th Street, lots of downtown and the state capitol building. 6th Street is really long and much of it is packed with bars. During the day it's not much since everything is closed. We really liked downtown, it's perfect for a mid-sized city. Active, bikeable, walkable, a very livable feel.

We walked our bikes through the state capitol area to check out the building and grounds. There's a statue there, several really, in remembrance of the Civil War. Melissa's used to these, having lived in the South. I wasn't too surprised to see a Confederate statue, but the inscription on the statue really shocked me.
Died for state rights guaranteed under the Constitution. The people of the South, animated by the spirit of 1776, to preserve their rights, withdrew from the federal compact in 1861. The North resorted to coercion. The South, against overwhelming numbers and resources, fought until exhausted.
My favorite part of this was the omission of "slavery," and the implicit statement that states' rights are more important than human rights. Also the complete lack of accountability in the war, up to the way they covered the surrender. I guess most of the Confederacy stuff in the news has always been abstract to me, but this statue made it real, and ugly.

The state capitol

As we left the state capitol grounds on our bikes, we appreciated that our visit came in November, one of the only tolerable times of year for the weather here. Austin was in the 80's most of our visit, so biking uphill got us sweaty but downhill with a bit of a breeze was perfect.

I was on a mission for dinner. Austin features a few branches of the Alamo Drafthouse, a movie theater chain where you can order drinks and food while you watch your movie in casual, spacious seats. Nothing was out that we really cared about, so we got tickets to Thor: Ragnarok and checked out the menu.

Here we crossed off #2 on the food list: queso. I don't know what makes Texas queso different from cheese dip anywhere else but it is really good and kind of unique. I haven't had any queso quite like that before and I can see why locals care about it so much.

I personally think that this style of movie theater will largely displace the traditional theater model. Or at least it should; it's great to combine dinner and the movie, and especially great to be able to have a few beers during your show. I also think drive-in theaters could make a comeback, though, so we'll see.

After the movie we found ourselves in the middle of 6th St after dark on a Thursday night. This is one of the most distinctive party streets in the country, along with Bourbon St in New Orleans and Broadway in Nashville. Coincidentally these streets (or cities) are all known for live music and dive bars.

I dragged Melissa to a place that wasn't too college-y and had table shuffleboard. On nights like this she's usually along for the ride, but I love table shuffleboard and as it turns out Melissa is really good at it. I think we played a high-level game and put everyone else in the bar to shame but it may have been the beers. We had a good time, but the UT presence is strong here and college bars aren't our cup of tea so we walked back to the AirBnb after a few rounds.

Day 2 we got up early (not too early, doesn't seem like things open very early here) and walked straight to the breakfast taco food truck we'd decided on. I'm glad we got there early; this converted school bus had a bit of a line and was still getting some of the meats ready for the day.

Our tacos were excellent. It's hard to choose what to focus on in a breakfast taco because if you go for all the seemingly essential ingredients it won't fit in a taco. Breakfast burritos are better suited for the kitchen sink.

Breakfast tacos

Our great AirBnb host (from Iowa!) strongly suggested that we bike over the river to Barton Springs; it's a great destination in Austin and the bike path has great views. Sadly we were a little pressed for time and a bit tired so we drove to the springs and around South Austin to get a feel for the area.

South Austin (or whatever they call it) was actually really cool; for some reason the architecture in this city is great. It's hard to describe, not giant, famous buildings like Empire State or the Arch in St. Louis. Normal buildings like restaurants have really unique, interesting designs that contribute a lot to the feel of the city. It was a huge plus for us.

Barton Springs is a natural spring right in the heart of Austin; I figured it would be 20 miles away from downtown. There's a big patch of green in the middle of Austin terminating at a park right on the Colorado River or Lady Bird Lake. The springs are where the fresh water under this part of Texas surface. In the summer these are surely packed; in November we saw a few swimmers in the frigid water.

I was shocked to see how big the springs are. I estimate 200 meters long, kind of like a huge swimming pool with varying depth. The publicly accessible waters in the spring are slightly altered by engineers, and each end is a dam (fenced off and shored up) so water flows into and out of the pool. Signs educated us about the two salamander species that may only live in this spring that visitors are not allowed to disturb at all.

Barton Springs

Downtown in the distance

We both loved the springs and were surprised at how big and beautiful it was, and how relaxed the site is. You can't bring in food or beverages but it's perfect for casually hanging out on a hot day.

To wrap up our Austin visit we headed to the eastern end of 6th St for some recommended bars that sounded perfect for our tastes. We checked menus at several outdoor food truck courts on the way to find a good dinner option, but didn't commit to anything and focused on getting some drinks first. We loved Whisler's bar: great cocktails and a lively crowd who talked to us about our trip and the merits of various US cities.

While we were waiting for the mezcal bar to open upstairs, Melissa discovered that the Thai food truck at the bar was actually run by one of the best Top Chef contestants in the show. We happily lined up for street food from Thai Kun (very good, fantastic fried chicken) and I got to have a mezcal conversation upstairs with the knowledgeable bartender. We stopped in a few places on the way back, but Whisler's really did a lot to endear Austin to us.

This city is the best mix of urban and relaxed that we've visited in the US. We made easy friends here, at a nice bar where a well-worn t-shirt is almost the nicest thing anyone's wearing, but I can still get craft cocktails and taste mezcals. We appreciated the entire city, but this night out focused on the best aspects of it. I'm writing this after our future city has been decided but Austin nearly made it into the finals of our city selection process.

How we'll remember Austin

That's not to say that it doesn't have problems. The homeless problem here may be worse than San Diego, it has a lingering, sweltering summer, and compared to San Diego and Denver, there's not quite as much to do once you leave the city. Still, we had a great time here and would love to revisit.

One the way out of town the next morning we had only one stop to make for food item #4: the kolaches. I got into these when I visited Prague a few years ago and we lived off of train station kolaches and hot dogs for breakfast. Since we were leaving town early we couldn't go to the best places for kolaches and settled on a chain called Lone Star Kolaches.

Not train station kolaches

I think it's cool that this unique pastry is loved well enough here to support a practically single purpose food chain just to sell it. Our kolaches were fine; one thing you'll definitely find in Texas that you won't in Prague is variants like brisket filled kolaches. We got one sweet and one savory for breakfast, enjoyed them at the shop and hit the road.

Overall Austin was great. Texas brisket and the Alamo Drafthouse had been high priority goals for me for a long time so this stop crossed a lot off my list - and we'd definitely recommend visiting in November.

Road Trip Part 10: The long drive out of the West

After an excellent and productive month in San Diego we loaded up the car and strapped in for two long days of driving through California, Arizona, New Mexico and Western Texas.

Before we could leave our temporary home city though, we had to break the diet and get the food I most strongly associate with San Diego: the breakfast burrito. When I visited a friend here in college, the culture of breakfast burritos here changed me. They were so good but so simple, why didn't we have these in New York? Sure you could get an expensive yet mediocre version from New York's (then struggling) Mexican restaurants, but in San Diego this was quality, every day food, akin to pizza by the slice.

We took advice from a local friend and went to a quality place just two blocks from our apartment the morning we left. It did not disappoint, although with our newly shrunken stomachs we ended up splitting a single burrito between us and were more than satisfied.

Our first and last breakfast burrito from Lucky's Lunch Counter, right across from Petco in downtown SD

These southwestern states can be brutal to drive through. The roads are fine and some of the sights are pretty but there just isn't much for hundreds of miles. I'm glad we were able to see the mountains and land just east of San Diego, but after that we only encountered some shockingly green farmland and miles of the most stereotypical desert that we've ever seen.

Desert

Without many destinations along the way we headed straight for Las Cruces, New Mexico for the first night, just before the Texan border. The food on our list for Arizona was the red chile chimichanga: a fried burrito smothered in a red chile sauce. We didn't venture into Phoenix given our aggressive driving schedule, but did find a place in Casa Grande, AZ that seemed likely to have it.

Beef filled red chile chimichanga from Mi Amigo Ricardo in AZ. Melissa's tamale & tostada in the background.

This wasn't a destination restaurant, but the food was great. This is the everyday, family restaurant that makes up much of America, so we were thrilled to find a winner like this amidst our never-ending search for the best, highest ranked food places in every city.

Other than the great food, our big excitement for this day of driving popped up in southeastern AZ when we stopped for gas. For at least 20 miles on I-10 we'd seen provocative signs for "The Thing" in a cryptic font. We didn't try to stop for it, but The Thing happened to be at the gas station we turned off the highway for.

The storefront gave no clues as to what was inside. We pumped gas and headed into the huge gas station and curiosity shop. They actually had an interesting hot sauce collection up front, along with tons of jewelry, kids toys, southwestern art and souvenirs, plus the usual gas station snacks and drinks. It actually took me a while to find The Thing in this huge place, but I'm glad I did.

The Thing

Is this authentic? What it appears to be? Should we be scared? From what I could tell the thing is some kind of southwest indigenous mummy. A worthwhile amusement for this part of a cross country trip.

Both of us had visited Arizona before, but this was our first stop in New Mexico each, aside from a Four Corners visit for me which barely counts. New Mexico is rural. It's desert, it's empty, and it is one of the least populated states in the union. I can't remember a thing about our drive through there until Las Cruces (editor's note: It was DARK.  We had a stop at a rest area so I could use the restroom, and it was just so dark with so many stars, and this was at 6:00pm).

The shocking thing about the Las Cruces area is how strong the Mexican influence is here. Most of the Southwest used to be part of Mexico a hundred years ago. Many place names in California, Texas and Colorado are clearly Spanish. New Mexico takes it a step further; the streets are not called "streets," but calles or avenidas which are the Spanish words for street or avenue.

And the Mexican food here is legit. We haven't encountered food like this since Mexico. Many Western cities pride themselves on their Mexican Cuisine but what we saw in New Mexico blows them all away in breadth and similarity to Mexican Cities.

The state food for New Mexico from our list is "Christmas style enchiladas," which is just a mix of red and green chile sauce topped enchiladas. We arrived in Las Cruces after dark, and navigated the calles to a well-regarded Mexican restaurant not far from our hotel that looked promising.

We couldn't find anything online that actually promised "Christmas-style," but quickly learned that this is simply something everyone here knows. Our waiter brought us hot, just-fried tortilla chips with honestly spicy salsas and assured us that we could order our chicken enchiladas Christmas style. This place was great, but the chicken enchiladas were just fine and while colorful, Christmas style doesn't really mean much for flavor. The sauces didn't taste distinct but we still really enjoyed the meal.

It's hard to see but these are Christmas-style, red and green sauce. The chips and salsa here were incredible

Halfway through our dinner, I saw the gentleman at the next table stand up in front of his date and drop down to one knee. I looked at Melissa to see if I was reading this correctly; the two of us could only try not to stare as we witnessed a wedding proposal in the middle of the restaurant. I don't think I'll ever be comfortable with those moments but she said yes. Melissa sneaked a few pictures that she sent to them and we got something to talk about after dinner.

For those keeping count, that brings us up to three Mexican meals on the first day, each a distinct, regional dish. My preference goes in the order we had them but we didn't eat a bad bite all day.

Day 2


West Texas is endless. Our only excitement came right at as we crossed the border into Texas at El Paso. There, the interstate goes so close to Mexico that we could clearly see houses on the other side of the border. El Paso looked like a modern southwest citym but since we passed it first thing in the morning we had no time to stop.

We're on I-10, those houses are in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
One thing that you may only see in Texas is green road signs showing distances to in-state cities, over 500 miles away. Alaska may have higher numbers on their signs, but for this trip Texas stood out.

As we drew close to Austin after hours of straight driving, we passed through a town called Fredericksburg. Just driving through town we could see that it had a lot of Old World charm -- it's practically a German city in Texas. They had a huge Christmas display set up in the park (this was before Thanksgiving) with the ornate stars and their Christmas pyramid.

The Fredericksburg German Christmas Pyramid, from the city website
We arrived in East Austin after dark and keyed into our Airbnb. So many US cities have old areas that are up-and-coming after being forgotten warehouse, industrial and low-income neighborhoods for decades. It's clich├ęd to call them "the Brooklyns" of those cities but it does get the point across. East Austin is (one of) the Brooklyns of Austin: close to the city center, less expensive housing and many exciting new restaurants, bars and cafes for us to explore.

After settling in we decided on a sushi + more restaurant within walking distance that would take us through a bit of the Eastern part of 6th St, Austin's most famous commercial and social district. We enjoyed a great, pricey dinner as both of us tried not to eat too much and ruin our good streak coming out of San Diego.

Crispy river crabs from the sushi place, eaten whole
Tired from back-to-back long driving days we turned in after dinner and one bar and got ready for a busy two days of exploring Austin and phone interviews.