We had four food objectives for Austin:
- BBQ, specifically a top-notch brisket, the Texas specialty
- Queso, cheese dip that Texans get defensive about
- Kolaches, originally a Czech pastry that immigrants have adapted to the region around Dallas and Austin
- 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.
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.
|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.