Tag Archives: Texas

Flashback to: Austin

Two years ago we were in Austin Texas for the first time.

I’d never been to Texas and had little idea what to expect. My imaginings mainly centred around desert, ten-gallon cowboy hats, guns and other things that can kill you.

While I knew that Austin wasn’t really like the rest of Texas (it’s a pocket of Democrat blue in a Republican red state) I hadn’t been prepared for the city – tall buildings rising, glittering, into a sky shimmering with heat. Bigger than DC, its grid system sprawls for miles beyond the Capitol building in the north and the river just south of the downtown area (everything’s bigger in Texas). Unlike in DC, the grid is unfazed by geographical features, its roads making light work of the sandy creek to the west of downtown and the red river to the east. And the interregional highway cuts through the city, splitting East Austin from the rest of the city and forcing pedestrians into underpasses crowded with panhandlers.

This first time in Austin we hadn’t quite worked out the distances involved in just walking around downtown, so ended up walking miles in the baking hot sun. It was worth it though, as the city has so much to see and experience. Our longest walk was probably out west and north to Graffiti Hill. As we reached residential areas we began to doubt that we were on the right track, and then we found it – a series of graffiti walls leading up to the castle. It’s a strange place, but then Austin is famed for being ‘weird’.

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Keeping Austin Weird: experiences

Another bizarre experience was going to see the bats. The South Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin happens to have the world’s largest urban bat colony living under it (I told you – everything’s bigger in Texas). Every evening, just before sunset, all the bats stream out from under the bridge and fly out to enjoy the evening. Every evening, having checked their phones to find out when sunset will be, all the tourists crowd onto the bridge to watch. You can also watch from the river itself by hiring a kayak or similar, or from the bat observatory and the riverside.

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It was quite weird. The squeaking as they flew out from under us, the fluttering, whirring, rasping sound of their leathery little wings, but most unexpectedly, the faint smell rising from the cloud – reminiscent of rodents, but not quite the same.

Slightly less weird, but still pretty wild, is Austin’s nightlife. This centres on 6th Street, west of Congress Avenue and down to the highway. Austin is known as the ‘live music capital of the world’, and here on 6th street pretty much every bar will have some form of live music at some point in the evening. Some have a charge to get in; we decided just to hit as many of the ones without cover charges as possible, and we ended up seeing some weird bands! We also ended up in some weird places. One bar, called Nook, once we got in, turned out not to actually have a roof, so we were just drinking in the open air. Another is themed around the mythical creature, the Jacalope, and has at its heart a bucking bronco – except of course it’s a bucking Jacalope.

One of my favourite of Austin’s weird bars was on Brazos Street. Located on the ground floor of a hostel and reached through a secret door disguised as a bookcase, is a really great cocktail bar. I’m not going to tell you exactly where it is – that would spoil the fun – but if you’re ever in Austin, do go and look for it!

Food in Austin

Everywhere there’s good beer, excellent burgers and Mexican food, and good barbecue – though this is more traditionally eaten for breakfast or lunch. I wrote about our experience of Austin’s barbecue joints in my blog post on the difference between barbecue and grilling. Austin has some great outdoor barbecue places with, of course, live music. Here are the places we went to for food:

  • La barbecue – outdoor barbecue with live music and picnic tables. There’s a long wait but it’s definitely worth it. Having looked on Google I think this may have moved to East Austin now, further down Cesar Chavez street.
  • House Park Bar-B-Q – really old barbecue joint near Graffiti Hill.
  • Casino el Camino – great bar with possibly the best burgers in America
  • Chuys – a bit of a way out, on Barton Springs Road, and I know it’s a chain, but it’s probably the best Tex Mex I’ve had.

East Austin

When we visited Austin for the second time (I was at the university on a fellowship – you can read about it here) we got to explore the slightly more chilled and hipster East Austin.

East Austin is more residential, and I was staying with a local couple in an Air B&B in the lovely Swede Hill district. While the residential bit was lovely, the highway just to the west was a bit of an issue. When I arrived, my taxi drove under the highway and I was struck by the fact that I would have to negotiated this underpass on my way to the university every day. Luckily I found an overpass, just a few minutes out of my way, to the south, which gave me far easier access to the main city.

While we didn’t find such good food in east Austin, we did find some quirky places to get really good coffee. The Vintage Heart coffee shop certainly won our hearts with their great coffee and delicious doughnuts. And the Quickie Pickie grocery store had a lovely outside area where you could sit, eat and drink in the calm of the evening. A very different vibe to 6th street!

More Conventional Austin

As I mentioned, the second time we visited Austin I was there for a fellowship at the Harry Ransom Library, based at the University of Texas, Austin (hook ’em horns!)

The university is a great example of one of those big, well-funded state universities with top of the range sports facilities and one of the top college football teams, as well as enviable research facilities. One of the reasons for its financial stability is that in the early twentieth century they found oil on land that belonged to the university, and the rest is history.

As well as the Harry Ransom library, which has regular exhibitions, the university campus also houses the Lyndon B. Johnson museum, which is well worth a visit. It might be one of my favourite museums. I knew very little about LBJ before I visited, but he really did accomplish a huge amount in only one term as president. His work on equal rights should be better known over here – while Kennedy spoke about equal rights, it was Johnson that got through the legislation, and it was his experiences teaching Mexican American students in a segregated school that inspired his mission of social reform. The museum also has a life-sized, animatronic Lyndon B Johnson, which just has to be seen to be believed!

Nearby the University is the Texas State Museum, which is also very much worth your time. Before I went, I knew I should ‘remember the Alamo’, but after my visit I knew why I should remember it, and that I should probably also remember the massacre at Goliad as well.

Right now, from rainy London, where it’s struggling to remain above 20 degrees at the moment, I’ll just enjoy my memories of Austin. We had two great trips and, while I’m not sure I could live in that climate, if I ever get another chance I’ll enjoy ‘keeping it weird’ again in Austin.

 

Barbecue vs Grilling

If you asked many Americans, especially Texans, to come to your barbecue they would probably be confused. When we in the UK think of barbecuing we think of what the Americans call grilling. Or tailgating if it happens in the parking lot before a sports event. Barbecue is a word reserved for the cuisine that results from cooking meat slowly in a barbecue smoker oven

We’ve done quite a bit of grilling now in the States. There’s a gas grill on our rooftop, but because that was a bit hit and miss, we bought a little smoky joe charcoal grill, which we’ve used to grill mainly steak so far; we’ve tried out various marinades, chopped it up for sandwiches to feed a crowd on July 4th, and added it to salad. It’s been good.

Barbecue though, has been a revelation. For starters, there’s a different kind of barbecue in pretty much every state (and according to this Wikipedia article, even in different parts of Texas). So far we’ve both tried barbecue in Texas and South Carolina, and R has had barbecue in Oklahoma and Kansas too.

The main thing to remember is that Texas is a beef producing state, so Texas barbecue focuses largely on beef brisket. They dry rub the meat and cook it slowly in a smoker until it practically falls apart. Their sauces are rich, sweet and can be hot. Our most memorable experiences of this barbecue were in Austin last year. First we went to House Park Bar-B-Q in the West of Downtown Austin, near the graffiti wall at Castle Hills. This place was a real old barbecue shack, with a hunting and fishing theme to the interior decoration. We were a bit nervous as to how they would react to two Brits on vacation from DC, but we needn’t have worried. They were really friendly and happy to explain their menu, recommend a can of Big Red (incredibly sweet) to go with our brisket sandwiches, and even show us their 50-year-old barbecue oven. The next day we queued at la Barbecue (as I mentioned in a previous post) and ate brisket in the open air from a trestle table, dousing it liberally with bbq sauce.

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In North Carolina we stopped on the way back from our road trip at a proper barbecue place – Fullers Old Fashioned Barbecue. It was buffet style, and felt both authentic and wonderfully democratic. People from all walks of life were there having lunch. We queued for a short time, paid for two buffet meals with sweet tea, were seated, and then investigated the buffet. There was a salad bar, but like most people we skipped that and went straight for the hot food, where we found collared greens and fried okra, biscuits, and of course the meat. There were two kinds of chicken – crispy fried and smothered with barbecue sauce – but the main draw was the pork. South Carolina is pig country, and they do their barbecued pulled pork in a vinegar/mustard dressing, which was just delicious, especially with the biscuits.

In DC it’s often said you can’t get good barbecue. [People always ask me about Freddie’s place in House of Cards, but the truth is there’s very few places like that left in DC – they filmed those bits in Baltimore.] However, we’ve found two good places, and one comes with the seal of approval from Texans. Smoke and Barrel on 18th street is a great place to try barbecue for the first time, and has become our place to take visitors. You can get a sampler to share which includes chicken, sausage, pulled pork, brisket, ribs and sides. Sides include smoked asparagus, coleslaw, potato salad, sweet potato wedges, and grit cake. You can of course order extra of anything you particularly like. They ask you how you want the chicken barbecued – dry rubbed, wet with sauce or ‘muddy’ in a mixture of rub and sauce (I never understand why anyone would go for anything other than muddy) – and then there’s a range of barbecue sauces, including hot, sweet, and sweet and sour mixtures of maple syrup, honey, and chilies.

Fat Pete’s up in Cleveland Park turns out to be the choice of the few Texans we know. They have a similar range of barbecued meats to Smoke and Barrel, which you can get in a sandwich or as a platter with sides, and the traditional barbecue sauces. The only thing that raised eyebrows was the white barbecue sauce. I think it was made with horseradish, but our friends were highly suspicious of this innovation, so we avoided it. Still the beef brisket was pronounced pretty good – and from Texans that’s high praise.

Apparently you can now get authentic American barbecue in London. I’ll believe it when I taste it though, because at the moment the Camden Blues Kitchen’s ‘Texan pulled pork’ is ringing some alarm bells…