Keep Austin Weird (Part 1)
Updated: Dec 2, 2022
I recently had dinner with three friends who immigrated to the United States from abroad. They shared with me that their goal was to visit every state in the U.S., a goal that I too share. We quickly realized that in one short decade, they have seen more of this country than I have, and I was born here! I found this unacceptable on my behalf so, I have been trying to visit cities across the country that I have not yet seen.
One of my first stops was Austin, Texas where you will hear and see signs featuring the phrase, "Keep Austin Weird" everywhere you go. Austinites will tell you that it is actually a rallying cry that encourages tourists and residents alike to support local businesses, which I tried to do throughout my visit to this famous city.
l landed in Austin just in time for lunch and ready to try the food that Texas is most known for -- barbecue! And if I was going to have barbecue, I was determined to try it at the place that is hailed to have the best barbecue in the U.S. So, I picked up my rental car and set off for Franklin Barbecue.
The late Anthony Bourdain said the following about Franklin Barbecue: "It is the best. It is the finest brisket I've ever had. I can't imagine anyone could surpass this. It's unearthly in its moistness, in its perfect balance. Listen -- I waited in line an hour and a half to get in there. [Laughs.] I stood in line. That's part of the experience, to stand in line. It's a whole social thing. But let me tell you, by the time I was, oh, 10 feet away from that brisket, looking at it, I understood why I'd waited in line with everybody else. I could tell just from the way it hit the cutting board that this was going to be just earth-shatteringly good. And it was indeed."
And so I drove straight from the airport, mouth watering, full of expectation, to find this:
That's right! Sold out! In fact, Franklin Barbecue has been sold out every day since it opened in 2009. Their hours read, "11 - Sold Out (2 - 3 pm)." I put my back-up plan into place and headed deeper into East Austin.
Nixta Taqueria is another Austin staple that came highly recommended as a place where you can order the traditional or unconventional taco. I went with the latter.
Duck carnitas taco with salsa cruda, shaved onion, radish and cilantro, on a house-made, blue corn tortilla
I thought the use of duck was very clever and I was impressed with the preparation, which rendered a very moist and succulent duck filling that was indeed reminiscent of carnitas. The duck was over-salted and the tortilla was undercooked however, which was a bit disappointing.
For dinner, I visited Foreign and Domestic, recommended by Food Network as a "must eat" Austin restaurant. Foreign and Domestic is known for being a "nose to tail" restaurant, priding themselves on using the entire animal (from nose to tail). Their prix fixe menu showcases this strength, so that is what I ordered.
Veal sweetbread roulade with tomato caramel
Black pasta with goat bolognese
Capra lamb heart with risotto rouge and glazed shallot
Foie mousse with peanut glass and sherry-cherry jam
This was a very creative prix fixe menu featuring combinations I had not tried before. I found many of the dishes a little too salty though. The dessert however, was perfection. Each element was executed flawlessly, and together, they created a beautiful symphony of flavor in my mouth.
I woke up ready to explore Austin so, I booked a tour to get a lay of the land. Here is some of what we saw:
The Texas State Cemetery, where you can only be buried if you meet certain qualifications including, but not limited to, serving in state office or making a significant contribution to the state of Texas.
The shortest highway in Texas (and probably the country) which runs through the cemetery and measures only .51 miles.
The University of Texas at Austin. (Hook em horns.)
The Texas state capital.
Be sure to enter the building if you visit, as they have a beautiful rotunda and ceiling, among other features.
Everything is big in Texas, including the door hinges at the state capital. Each one is hand crafted and weighs over seven pounds.
And perhaps my favorite stop, the Historic Victory Grill. This is a restaurant and bar that was birthed in 1945 by Johnny Holmes. When black soldiers defending the U.S. returned from WWII, they returned to a segregated Texas. Holmes created the Victory Bar as a place for them to have a drink, eat a meal, and listen to music. Since its creation, the Victory Grill has hosted greats including Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, Etta James, Billie Holiday, Chuck Berry and Janis Joplin.
After working up an appetite exploring the city, I decided to give Franklin Barbecue another try.
Barbecue success! I waited for 30ish minutes and got to the front of the line just as they were getting ready to close. Even better, they weren't sold out of the brisket, which was the cut I most wanted to try. This was the most tender barbecue I have ever had. A little bit goes a long way because the meat is extremely rich and dripping with lots of fat and flavor.
After lunch, I wandered over to Barton Springs. Like Portland, Oregon, Austin has a huge food truck culture. Picnic is just one of the areas you can go to sample food truck delights.
I visited the Cannone Gelato truck and ordered a small cup of the salted caramel gelato. This was a great way to cool down on a hot day. (By the way, every SINGLE day that I was in Austin was hot.)
Another great way to cool down, was a swim in the Barton Springs Pool, which is where I headed next to work off some of those barbecue and gelato calories.
Barton Springs Pool measures three acres and is fed by a natural, underground, spring with several diving boards and an average, year-round temperature of 68 degrees. I was fortunate to visit when it wasn't too crowded so I had plenty of time and space to swim in the refreshing water.
From there, it was off to the restaurant I was most excited to visit on this trip.
Uchi is a sushi restaurant featuring quality fish, creatively prepared, and therefore, long waits. Pro tip: go for happy hour when the same menu is available but, wait times are significantly reduced.
"Uchi" means "home" in Japanese, which is where James Beard award-winning chef, Tyson Cole originally opened the restaurant; in a refurbished bungalow in South Austin. Chef Cole described the style of food best when he said, "The cuisine I create is playfully multi-cultural, mixing the Japanese tradition with tastes that inspire me.” The meal I had here was superb.
Prior to my meal, Uchi offered me a complimentary, pallet cleanser made of cucumber basil juice with a splash of Thai chili oil.
Bincho (albacore with garlic kimchi), kanpachi (amberjack, tamari and kizame wasabi) and madai (Japanese bream, shiso and lemon)
Hamachi (yellowtail with serrano pepper), maguro (big eye tuna and negi dare), hotate gunkan (raw diver scallop, aioli, cucumber)
The fish was incredibly fresh and the addition of chilis, wasabi, and various aiolis were fantastically matched to complement each piece of nigiri.
From there, I went to a bat flight watch on Lady Bird Lake. Yep, that's right. I took a cruise on the lake to see bats.
Apparently, Austin is home to one of the largest bat colonies in North America. All 1.5 to 2 millions of these Mexico, free-tailed bats reside under the South Congress Bridge from March to September. They take flight many evenings at dusk and fly around the city eating roughly 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of insects, including mosquitoes. (You would think there wouldn't be any mosquitoes left in Austin but, let me tell you, there definitely are.)
Spoiler alert: The bats did not fly on this particular night, even though they had quite the audience waiting on the bridge and in boats littering the lake.
That said, this adventure was not in vain because I got to watch the sun set on Lady Bird Lake, which was absolutely beautiful...
...and the Austin city skyline light up just after dusk.
Did you know that Austin is the live music capital of the world? On any given night, there are numerous, live music performances of every genre, taking place across the city. That is where I headed next.
The Elephant Room, in the Swift Building, came highly recommended as a place to see live music. Why is it called the "Elephant Room?" Well, when the developer of the building started digging out the earth to create the parking garage of this high-rise, they struck what is now known to be the largest archaeological discovery of mastodon bones west of the Mississippi.
The Elephant Room has hosted many great jazz bands, including this local band. After a relaxing end to day two in Austin, with great company and great jazz, I headed back to my hotel to rest and prepare for day three.