Years and years ago, like maybe 12 now, I was sent to Austin, TX for a project when I worked at Dell Computers. There, I met a guy from our UK office, named Rich. We hit it off, became friends, some stuff happened, then we weren’t friends for a long time. But, once again, magical rainbow unicorn poofy stuff occurred via Facebook and we reconnected. Now, Rich is one of my bestest besties. We pretty much tell each other urrything. So recently, I traveled to Austin to spend a few days doing just that.
The last time I was in Austin, my experience was very different. Stereotypes about Texans and ‘mericans in general were rife. Because we were twentysomething kids with expense accounts, we acted like we were at some kind of glorified daycamp and consumption was the name of the game. As such, we experienced such novelty eateries as Dot’s Place, which, if memory serves correck, consisted of a series of trailers in the middle of fallow field.
I also remember a bar that my co-worker, Steve, took me to. There wasn’t a floor in this bar. It was just dirt. As I remember it, we walked in, everyone in the place turned to look at us. They were all wearing cowboy hats. The music stopped with an abrupt record scratch. A clock ticked loudly. Close-up pan across mens’ eyes squinting in our direction. Cut to a shot of Steve, long hair past his shoulders, probably in an obscure horror film T-shirt, me — just Chinese. SFX: a gun being cocked. Cut to the swinging bar doors through which Steve and had just dashed. That’s how I remember it anyway.
Some other random memories: obese Bubbas drinking Big Slurpees of Mountain Dew for breakfast, their gun on display on the dash of their pick-up; signs for No Smoking and No Guns on the front doors of the head office building; hearing about someone who baked cookies on the dash of her car.
Fast forward 12+ years and I’m back in Austin. Quelle différence! The theme of this trip was Quality Indulgence. After Rich fetched me from the airport, he took me to El Chile Café y Cantina. I had something called Tamal Oaxaqueño, which loosely translates to a whole lot of delicious on a banana leaf. The top shelf margaritas were lovely as well. What made it all extra nice was eating outside in the steamy night, blabbing away with my buddy, our technologically-aided conversations, since the last time I saw him when he visited Toronto last summer, blending seamlessly into real life dish.
The next day, we set out in full tourist mode. Our first stop was Blanton Museum of Art. Here’s a pic of me, walking around an exhibit that consisted of a sunken pit, curtained off with black sheers. Inside the pit, millions of pennies. Hanging from the ceiling were ghostly-lit femurs.
After the museum, I think we went for pho. This seems like a good place to mention the heat. Summer in Toronto this year has been hot – damn hot. I’m not saying it’s not. All’s I’m saying is this is NOTHING compared to Austin. Here’s how I would describe my heat experience in Austin: stepping outside, the heat crushes me like walking into a wall of liquid magma. It feels really good for about 10 seconds, then my mind goes immediately to planning on being inside again. Most outdoor patios have water misters permanently installed. There are cacti growing out of the sidewalk. It can feel eerily quiet downtown because there aren’t a lot of people out and about in the middle of the day. This is simply because they are avoiding catching fire. This is necessary:
Next, we went to climb Mount Bonnell. Saw this sign in the parking lot:
We heeded its warning. After creeping Michael Dell’s house from the top of the hill, we decided to go see a movie. Back in the air-conditioned car, Rich reserved seats at Violet Crown Cinema on his phone. As far as movie theatres go, this place is super fancypants, complete with bar and sophisticated movie snacks menu. Valet parking too – whaaaat!
For dinner that night, we went to Snack Bar. It was kitschy, hipsterrific, but totally quality. I wondered how a place like that would represent in Toronto and came to the conclusion that it would do great, only it would be priced doubly expensive. Because our dollar was at par this visit, and the demand for fresh, quality, locally-grown, organic-where-possible ingredients, not to mention genuinely friendly and skilled service, is so high in Austin, the prices are shockingly affordable. Or maybe it was just that I was in holiday spending mode. At any rate, this meal, as were all others, was much enjoyed. Notable mention to the flash-fried brussel sprouts. This would be the first of two times I enjoyed this dish on this trip. It seems it is a developing food trend in Austin, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing it over here soon. Here’s me taking in the kitsch, enjoy a Remonaké (lemonade and saké). P.S. It was happy hour. Very happy:
After dinner, we headed to the parking lot of The Austin American-Statesman. This is where people park when they go to see the bats. Under The Congress bridge, there are thousands of bats that, at a certain time of night, all fly out in a mass of screechy black wings, searching for their evening meal. On this particular night, the bats made us wait for 2 and half hours before appearing when it was already dark, so we didn’t get the show we’d had the first time we’d been gobsmacked by them. But this is what it looks like when the bats are not being lame:
Friday, Rich took me to a shopping/living area called The Domain. It reminded me a lot ofShops at Don Mills in Toronto. This is a new concept of urban living where inhabitants are encouraged to live, shop, and work within the confines of a highly-developed city within a city within a city. It’s an interesting idea. I like the idea of never having to drive anywhere but there’s something off-putting about limiting one’s experience to a certain area that has a very distinct, commercially-driven aesthetic, not to mention a very particular socio, political, fiscal, racial demographic. I guess I won’t live there.
Rich had to go off to an appointment, so he arranged for me to have a foot reflexology session. Um, it was weird. But nice. And weird. That’s all I got for that.
Back to Rich’s place for a quick swim, then got ready to meet his gf, Jamie, for a fancy dinner at Uchiko by celebrity chef, Tyson Cole. OK, this place was next level hipster, but so deelish. Again, flash-fried brussel sprouts and so much more. There was one dish that did not make my eyes roll back into my head with pleasure and that was the Tobacco Cream, which consisted of tabacco-flavoured chocolate sorbet. The recipe contains actual tobacco. Basically, it tasted like licking an ashtray. Don’t ask me how I know how that tastes. I said don’t ask.
I should mention that Jamie is an ultra cool chick who works for a video game company as a designer and whose house was being photographed for ApartmentTherapy.com the next day. No big deal.
After dinner, we went to an open air drinkery called Contigo. Austin seems to be full of places like this, gems in the middle of nowhere off a highway. Laid back tattooed patrons relaxed with their dogs. And I was introduced to my new favourite drink, a Moscow Mule, which is ginger beer and vodka. Goes down easy on a hot Austin night.
Saturday morning. Having missed out on the diverse Austin food truck experience this relatively short trip, Rich took me to Torchy’s for a breakfast taco. Yes, this is a real thing. And lo, it was good. I had the deep-fried avocado with refried beans and vegetables on a house-made corn tortilla with poblano sauce. $3.50!!! Here’s me, trying unsuccessfully to pick the thing up. I had to resort to a fork after the picture was taken.
Across the street from this place were several crossfit gyms. Crossfit is this new trend in fitness where instead of precision-engineered exercise machines, participants subject themselves to such self-torture as rolling a tractor tire up a hill, or hammering it repeatedly with a sledge. On this particular day, as I stuffed my fat face, I watched a woman holding two kettlebells above her head, walking quickly around the open-fronted former auto mechanics that served as her gym. Yes — outside in Austin. Those crazy cowboys.
After breakfast, we went to Targé. Then I had my first raw food experience at Beets Caféand I must report that not only was it delicious, but it was filling as well. And affordable. I was envious of those living in the area, including Rich’s daughter and her mum, with whom we experienced the deliciousness. At those prices and level of quality, they could easily enjoy eating like that every day and feel great for it.
After lunch, we went to Whole Foods, or, as some people call it, Whole Paycheque. I know, we have Whole Foods in Toronto, right? But not like this:
This is Whole Foods’ flagship store at 80,000 square feet. On this Saturday afternoon, it was jammed with healthy-looking folk. Even the people helping themselves at the Artisan Cookie Bar looked fit (and rich):
And then, my trip was over. Austin, you impressed me much. I’m recommending you as a destination to all my friends who enjoy quality eats, friendly (mostly white) people, and a view of the good life. The standard of living, from what I saw anyway, is remarkably high. I choose to ignore the possible contrasting side for the time being. I was on holiday, after all.
Muchas, muchas gracias to my good friend Rich for being such a gracious host. Can’t wait for our next plunder.
Originally posted July 22, 2012