My friend Leah and her family just moved to Austin, Texas, which gave me the perfect excuse for a quick solo trip to the fastest-growing city in America.
Austin prides itself on its weirdness, to the point that weird is nearly mainstream. Although it’s known as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” I was there for the food and the funkiness.
Our first destination in search of the former was Kerbey Lane Cafe, famous for its brunch. We visited the original location actually on Kerbey Lane, which has spawned several spinoffs all over town. Weekends are crowded, but the restaurant offers reservations via the NoWait app. I enjoyed their Chilaquiles, which are crispy corn tortilla strips tossed with verde sauce then topped with two over-easy eggs, queso fresco, sour cream, and cilantro and served with a side of refried black beans and rice. It sounds like a lot of food, but it was barely enough to soak up the carafe of mimosas Leah and I shared. Off to a great start!
Along with Tito’s Vodka and more than 50 of the country’s Fortune 500 companies, YETI Coolers also calls Austin home. Leah wanted to visit their flagship store to pick up one of the limited-edition pink YETI cups, and I agreed to the stop. Mostly because she claimed the store had a bar.
It was a believe-it-when-you-see-it moment, but sure enough, there was an al fresco bar. And it served (canned) prosecco. There was also a live music stage and several giant props that included a full-sized bass boat. Understandably, there were also lots of families with small children crawling about.
After the coveted pink YETI cup was acquired, we made our way across the bat bridge toward the state capitol. Austin has a rather large bat population that lives under the South Congress Bridge, and loads of statues and murals pay homage to the winged mammals. Tourists also flock to nightly tours hoping to catch them in flight. It’s definitely a thing.
Continuing our pink theme, we headed toward the famed Voodoo Doughnuts, creators of such delicacies as the Bacon Maple Bar, topped with actual strips of fried bacon; the Old Dirty Bastard with its chocolate frosting, Oreo cookies, and peanut butter; and the Marshall Mathers, which is, of course, covered in M&Ms.
Before we could reach the bakery, however, we stumbled upon the 37th annual Pecan Street Festival. I say “stumbled upon” since you must remember that Tony and Leah have only been in Austin for a few months, so they had no way of knowing what was happening. We perused the booths of funky handcrafted art, freshly-baked dog treats (Austin folks love their dogs), and cringe-worthy children’s entertainment before we made our way to deep-fried dough heaven.
We weren’t the only ones craving The Loop. The line stretched the length of the bakery, which had virtually no air conditioning despite outside temperatures in the upper 80s. But patrons waited patiently, entertained by the quirky art and cases of shirts and stickers with questionable sayings. After all, the magic is, indeed, in the hole.
Leah enjoyed the much-anticipated Loop, covered in Froot Loops cereal, while Tony ordered one of the baker’s daily specials and I had a Viscous Hibiscus. We shared a soft drink (with no available ice) before braving the Austin heat once more.
After making our way back to the car, we got our geek (and our air conditioning) on at the esteemed BookPeople independent bookstore.
Brick-and-mortar booksellers may have suffered across America, but BookPeople is alive and thriving. With two full floors of tomes, BookPeople has been the leading independent bookstore in Texas since 1970 and voted best bookstore in Austin for more than 15 years. They have a regular schedule of interesting and famous authors stop in for book talks, including Pulitzer winners and former presidents.
It was a struggle to narrow my purchase to just one book, but traveling only with carry-ons does have its limits. I went with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice: or, On the Segregation of the Queen (which was utterly enjoyable and which I now highly recommend).
You might think that a huge brunch and giant doughnuts would be enough Austin foodstuffs for one day, but you would be wrong.
It was bar-b-que time, as it technically always is in Austin.
From among the city’s many, many, many choices, we had dinner at The County Line, purveyors of finely smoked meats since 1975. We chose the location on Lake Austin, which Tony and Leah’s son appreciates for its duck- and turtle-feeding opportunities while you wait for your plate.
I chose the brisket-covered baked potato, which was scrumptious but nearly killed me — the thing was easily the size of my head. Did I take half of it with me in a to-go box? I most certainly did not. As they say in Texas, go big or go home. And I wasn’t ready to go home just yet.
After a good night’s sleep and a handful of Tums, Leah and I headed back downtown to Austin’s Mexic-Arte Museum with special exhibitions on Día de los Muertos and Diego y Frida, a look at the lives and love of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
The Mexic-Arte is a small but colorful museum with a regularly-rotating roster of exhibitions and a terrific gift shop featuring traditional Mexican textiles, candies, and other items along with handmade arts and crafts by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in Texas.
It always seems to be mealtime in Texas, so we stopped for a late lunch at RA, a non-BBQ sushi bar and Japanese restaurant just around the corner from the museum.
It was nearly empty at 2 p.m. and the air conditioning was chilly, both of which were welcomed after walking around downtown. I selected the Tuna² Salad with seared ahi tuna and albacore tuna over mixed greens with sliced avocado, jalapeño, cilantro, and cashews, and it was a very nice change from the previous day’s smoked and fried selections.