Austin, TX – May 2016
Austin has been a place that we have wanted to visit for awhile. We looked to go in May 2015 when we had a friend going there for a conference. We opted out because I was being “responsible” since I was in the middle of the interview process for a new job at the time. It was slightly disappointing because we would have transitioned from staying in our first hostel to staying at the Omni for free. (Oh and I guess I should mention we would have been with our friend too.)
In March, before we listed the house, we decided that we should use our frequent flier miles since we would lose them while in NZ. After spending an entire Sunday afternoon on the internet and phone trying to get 2 seats on the same flight to Austin, we were finally able to book for mid-May. (Thanks for the “easy” process American Airlines.)
We were scheduled to leave for Austin on 5/10. On 5/9 I was on CNN.com and learned that Uber and Lyft had to ‘pause’ operations due to voters upholding a rule requiring that these companies complete fingerprint background checks of their drivers, same as the cab companies were required. We looked into this a little more before our departure to learn that it definitely seemed true. I’m not going to lie, we had a tiny bit of hope that there still would be some cars driving since this was the case in Pittsburgh when we had legal disputes. Sadly we learned as soon as we landed that there was no hope in getting an Uber or Lyft. This was going to make transportation and navigating a little different than we expected.
We stayed at a VRBO in the SoCo District (South Congress). The VRBO was less than a block off of South Congress and within walking distance to vintage shops, food trucks, and restaurants. The VRBO owner greeted us with their very tasty homebrewed beer. We saw this on the reviews prior to booking so she quickly won our hearts. The loft had some nice amenities in addition to the beer upon arrival – a refrigerator stocked with refreshments (including local beer), a snack basket, and free bike rentals. The owners were very knowledgeable and made suggestions on places to visit based on our interests.
You may have heard the unofficial slogan of “Keep Austin Weird.” It is said that Red Wassenich started the slogan and movement in an attempt to highlight the uniqueness of the city. He wanted to promote small businesses and avoid commercialism and overdevelopment. He did not trademark the slogan and it was trademarked by a group in 2003. The group now promotes the slogan on merchandise from t-shirts and mugs to stickers.
While we won’t speak directly on commercialism in Austin, we definitely can say we found uniqueness while there. We loved seeing the murals and graffiti on building walls and are always on board with eating from a food truck. SOCO had a decent share of stores that could be considered weird in the sense of what they sold – Lucy in Disguise, Uncommon Objects, and many vintage shops. A trait we like in a city is seeing people of all ages out and about enjoying life, and Austin people definitely enjoy life.
We made it to the historical Continental Club on South Congress to check out a live show. This is one of the oldest and most famous music venues in Austin. It originally opened in the 1950’s and after getting away from its roots, it was remodeled and revamped in the late 1980’s to make it back to how it looked in the 1950’s. It was small, dark, and exactly how I thought a live music venue should be.
The Food and Beer Scene
We had some really good food in Austin. We don’t eat fancy so I can’t give any insight to that kind of cuisine, but I can provide some info on the everyday places that people chow down. Here are a few worth a mention.
- Mellizoz Tacos – Austin is known for breakfast tacos. We stumbled across this food truck while biking to Barton Springs. Anthony informed me the day prior that he wasn’t interested in eating breakfast tacos during the trip. These hit the spot, especially when nursing a slight hangover.
- Doc’s Sports bar – Doc’s had great bartenders, waiters, and the food was better than typical bar food. Since the Pittsburgh Penguins were in the playoffs we spent a fair amount of time here since there aren’t many venues in Austin that show hockey games. We met Tim who was from Friendship (outside of Pittsburgh) and got to celebrate a big win over the Washington Capitals with him and his friends. It never gets old for me to go to establishments where most of the restaurant is open to the outside. Pittsburgh doesn’t have a ton of places like this since it doesn’t have the best weather.
- Gueros – This was our first stop/meal in Austin. It was close to our VRBO and we stopped while waiting to check in. In our opinion a salsa bar is always welcome. They have a large outdoor area that has concerts on certain nights, although we never actually made it to a show.
- Torchy’s Tacos – Torchy’s is known for their chips and queso and they didn’t disappoint. I thought it was going to be white cheese dip but it was a bowl full of orange deliciousness. We went on Saturday during the early afternoon and the line was out the door. You do not have to wait if you choose to sit at the bar. We chose this option as we normally sit at the bar. The service was horrible. If we weren’t honest people we would have walked out on our check. It took about 40 minutes to flag someone down to request the check and actually have it brought to us. One other thing to note, this location didn’t serve alcohol, but they were in the process of obtaining a permit. Overall we hope our service experience wasn’t the norm especially because the food was so good. They seemed to have a high demand for to-go orders which may be because of the service.
- Via 313 Pizza – Detroit style pizza. If you are like me and weren’t aware Detroit had a style of pizza, let me tell you a bit about it. It is a pan style rectangular pizza with the edges sprinkled with cheese. To me the crust really was the burnt cheese on the edges (and burnt in a good way). We ate at this food truck twice, partly because the pizza was good and also because we really liked CraftPride on Rainey Street. They had over 50 taps with beer only from Texas. Since we can’t get these beers in Pittsburgh we definitely had a job to do with trying new ones. The bartenders were also all very knowledgeable which always makes beer drinking better.
- Homeslice Pizza – New York style pizza located on South Congress. Better NY style pizza than we can get in Pittsburgh.
- The Snack Bar at the Austin Motel – We had breakfast here one day, stopped for a drink a few times (Sangria and espresso, not just beer), and also had some snacks. Service was excellent and they always went above and beyond.
- La Barbecue – We heard that La Barbecue and Franklin BBQ were the 2 best BBQ joints in Austin. We opted for La because we knew we would have a wait in line for hours at Franklin and also because the owner of La used to work at Franklin prior to opening La. We took a cab from downtown to La because it was definitely too far to walk. We were a bit surprised to find out that it was a food truck in a trailer park with other trucks. We got brisket, sausage, and spicy slaw. I would have liked to try the smoked turkey but they were out of it by the time we got there. While both meats were good I can’t say that they were mind-blowing. I think that is because we favor Kansas City BBQ more than Texas BBQ. Texas BBQ is known for the brisket and sausage while KC BBQ is more known for ribs, pulled pork, burnt ends, etc. We like those cuts off meat better and KC really focuses on the sauces while Texas seemed to focus more on the smoking of the meat and less on the sauce.
- Hey Cupcake – We went to the original on South Congress. They have 2 other locations. We stopped here one evening after day-drinking. They were out of the red velvet (a personal favorite) so we opted for the Vanilla Dream and Michael Jackson cupcakes. The Michael Jackson was a very moist, rich chocolate cake with cream cheese icing. I’d recommend it especially as a substitute when they are out of red velvet. The Vanilla Dream was a vanilla cake with buttercream icing. In my opinion the cake was a bit dry and it wasn’t worth the $5. I’m not one to be cheap when it comes to food but I would have preferred my homemade funfetti cupcake to this one. Hopefully it was just a bad batch or the booze talking.
A big highlight of the trip was taking a tour of the 512 Brewery. We found that the brewery wasn’t too far from where we were staying so we booked a tour. We took the bus to a bus terminal and then it was a very short walk to the brewery (remember no Uber and Lyft, and thank you Austin for having an excellent bus system). The cost of the tour was $10/per person and included a 512 pint glass to keep. They allowed you to try any of the beers they had on tap. And by any, I mean you could try them all, repeat any of the beers, and have as many as you want. They asked if you wanted a full or half pour. No chintzy 5 ounce glasses here. The $10 cost was worth the cost of the pint glass and tour. The free beer was just the icing on the cake.
We learned that they have approximately 25 employees including a biochemist on staff. I’m pretty sure that a guidance counselor never told Anthony or me that if we majored in biology we could work at a brewery as our profession.
The employees are very proud to work at 512 (and they should be). They don’t mind when they have to work overnight or long hours because they want the best product possible. Brewing beer doesn’t stop at 5:00 PM like most jobs. Ryan was our tour guide and he not only gave us the story behind 512 but also taught us about the brewing process. One thing to note is that only 512 employees are in contact with your beer until the bartender pulls the tap. They brew it, package it, deliver it, and even clean the lines at the bars to ensure the best taste. We have been on a handful of brewery tours and often they focus on the history of the brewery and the details about the capabilities of the facility but don’t talk much about the nerdy specifics of the brewing process. We were happy to get the additional education during the 512 tour.
We went to a few places on 6th Avenue downtown. During the day most establishments are empty unless they serve food and can draw a lunch crowd. The evening is a different story with most bars having decent size crowds and the street being very busy. The street is shut down so no cars are allowed and the police ride on horses at the end of the night to force people to leave. It has a very college party kind of vibe.
We went to Rainey Street a few times, however, we were always there early so didn’t get a good feel on how crowded the bars could get. It is a cool street that is more upscale and trendy than 6th Street. The street has bars, clubs, and restaurants. Majority of the bars do not serve food but have a food truck permanently set up out back. We enjoyed the look of Rainey street and the establishments but it felt as though some of the bars were “trying too hard”. They could almost be too hipster. (Remember that we are “old”). The lack of Uber and Lyft also contributed to the limited amount of time we spent on Rainey since it wasn’t super close to SoCo and we despise the taxi business.
Outside of Austin
We rented a car for a day and drove to Hamilton pool and then to Lockhart, TX for some BBQ. One thing that we found odd is that you can really only rent a vehicle from the airport in Austin. They have rental car locations within the city however most are affiliated with repair shops and only rent to those getting their car fixed. The others had very few cars and had to be booked well in advance. The cost for renting was also much more expensive at these locations. We had gotten a day long bus pass the day before which was good for 24 hours so Anthony took it to the airport and drove the car back to pick me up. Again, with no Uber or Lyft operating things, it was a bit more difficult to get from point A to B.
Hamilton pool is a natural pool that was created thousands of years ago when an underground river collapsed. It is about a 45 minute drive west of Austin. When we went you had to plan to get their early because it was first come, first serve. They have limited parking and the beach area can only accommodate a certain amount of people. We learned that this year during May 15 – September 30 you must make reservations online prior to visiting. It is about a ¼ mile walk to the pool. It’s an easy walk and we were in flip flops. The beach area is rocky and so is the pool, which sometimes made it a bit of a challenge to walk. The water was definitely “refreshing,” just as the locals described it. You can walk entirely around the perimeter of the pool and behind the waterfall. You can take a cooler and snacks to the beach. They do ask if you have alcohol because you can apparently drink there but they don’t like to advertise it.
After leaving Hamilton pool we decided to drive to Lockhart, which is south of Austin. We figured that since we had the car it was worth a stop. Lockhart and Smitty’s BBQ was recommended by our VRBO owners. When they mentioned Lockhart the town sounded familiar. Then I remembered they were filming part of Season 3 of the Leftovers there.
Smitty’s was a traditional TX style BBQ restaurant. The meat is all cooked in a giant smoker/grill room. The cooks take your order, pull some meat off the heat, chop it to the size you request, and pile it onto some heavy duty paper. You pay for your meat in the meat room, then you walk next door to the cafeteria style dining room where you can purchase drinks and sides, then find yourself a seat at a picnic table with some strangers. We got some turkey, ribs, brisket, mac’n’cheese, and two Shiners. It took a few bites and some eagle vision before we located the BBQ sauce, but fortunately we found it and could rely on more than just beer to wash down the meat. Everything was excellent and we would highly recommend a detour to Lockhart and Smitty’s for anyone visiting Austin.
We took advantage of the free bikes from our VRBO and rode to Barton Springs. Barton Springs is a natural pool whose water comes from underground springs. The pool itself is very big, about 3 acres. Some areas are very shallow while other are about 8 feet. Again the locals warned us that the pool is very “refreshing”. We can confirm that it definitely was refreshing with the water temperature being around 68 degrees year round. The bottom of the pool is natural so it can be slippery when trying to walk through the pool. We were surprised to see a topless sunbather/swimmer while we were there. This is totally legal in Austin and we just weren’t aware of it at the time. They do not serve food at the pool so we left for lunch and walked to The Picnic, a lot full of about 8 food trucks.
Austin didn’t feel like Texas to us. By Texas I mean the stereotype of cowboys and yeehaw. It is a beautiful and large city with so many places to see and things to do. There is an abundance of outdoor activities for the outdoor enthusiasts, bars and clubs for those that like to party, live music, and delicious food. While Uber and Lyft would have definitely made our trip easier, we made the best of it like we always do.