Archive for October, 2014

3 Days in Austin

October 14, 2014

I knew we were in Texas when we walked out of our hotel and saw someone riding a horse down South Congress, a busy four-lane road in Austin. There were other clues as well: the traffic lights hung horizontally rather than vertically, and the butcher shop on the corner advertised “quality smoked meats and deer processing.”

texsflag-austin

Last November we’d headed to Austin for a short vacation. We like visiting cities, and Austin sounded like the kind of city we like to visit — a progressive, walkable place with good food, hip hotels and independent bookstores. Although it was tempting to visit Austin during one of the city’s many music festivals, I wanted to see Austin first in its normal state, the way (I hoped) a local might experience the city.

Cities often offer clues about what they’re about, what they’re interested in and where their priorities are. And it was clear that music is a big deal in Austin. Generic-looking downtown restaurants had open-air second stories that were set up for live music with professional-looking lights and sound equipment. These venues also seemed like a way that Austin made the most of its mild climate. (We were in jeans and t-shirts at 11pm in November.)

austin-river

Outdoor dining, particularly food trucks, were another way that Austin seemed to take advantage of its nice weather. Food trucks (and trailers and school buses and shacks) were just about everywhere we went in Austin — even in areas that didn’t seem like robust neighborhoods or places that didn’t seem (to me) to get much foot traffic. There might be a group of food trucks set up in an empty lot (and there were a fair amount of empty lots), or there might just be one truck parked out on its own or tucked behind another business. We walked by a hair salon one night that had a ravioli food truck out back.

Along with the ravioli truck, there were doughnut trucks, taco trucks, chicken trucks, coffee trucks, pizza trucks, Thai food trucks. (The aptly named Short Bus Subs made me laugh.) In SF, most food trucks move around to different areas of the City on different days, but in Austin some trucks weren’t mobile. They had infrastructure set up — dedicated seating areas with strings of lights hung over ahead, and even serious signage like the chicken truck (pictured below) near our hotel.

austin-chickentrailer

Austin has its own food obsessions, too — something I really appreciate in a city. Breakfast tacos are one of their obsessions, and I much preferred the eclectic, freshly made tacos we ate outside at Torchy’s (a food truck) to the gummy, pre-made ones at Jo’s.

Barbecue is another obsession, and here is where we made a grave mistake: we flew into Austin on a Sunday, arriving after most of the barbecue places had sold out or closed for the day, and most of the barbecue places we’d hoped to try were also closed on Mondays (John Mueller is now open Thursday through Tuesday). This gave us just one day to eat barbecue. I do not recommend this.

austin-barbecue

With limited time, we didn’t want to risk waiting and not getting into Franklin so we took the bus to John Mueller Meat Company, on the eastside of town, and Mueller’s delivered: we worked our way through terrific barbecued brisket (I really appreciated Texas’s focus on brisket) as well as barbecued ribs, a stack of white bread and a pickle. It was definitely one of the more memorable meals we had in Austin.

Austin also has a pretty good coffee scene. Traveling with a coffee fiend like Mr. WholeHog often involves a lot of coffee drinking, and we hit at least four coffee shops and one coffee truck. (Houndstooth was our favorite, despite its drab financial-district location).

austin-sign

With travel, there’s often some friction between the way I think a place is going to be and the way a place actually is, and that was true for me in Austin. The things I expected to like about Austin turned out to be pretty underwhelming (see: Book People, Hotel San Jose). And while I got the sense that Austin is very different than other Texas cities, compared to San Francisco, it didn’t stand out as particularly liberal or “weird” or even that walkable.

But Austin also impressed me in ways that I didn’t expect. To me, Austin felt a lot like another capital city built a long a river — Sacramento. And yet Austin has become a destination in a way that Sacramento can only dream about at this point. Austin has figured out how to be a place for people to come to music festivals or to meet with their state legislators; a place that supports both yoga studios and shops that sell only cowboy boots; a place where, within a few blocks, you could buy some fried chicken from a truck and then walk over and get your deer processed. There’s something to be said for that.

 

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Bernal Adjacent

October 9, 2014

We live in the part of Noe Valley that is “Bernal adjacent” as a recent Bernal Heights blogger put it. We even share a zip code with Bernal Heights.

Bernal used to seem completely off the beaten path to me. It felt like the last SF neighborhood before Daly City. But these days it’s the center of my City life. It’s where one of my best friends and her husband bought a place, and they recently had a baby so that’s a draw. It’s also one of the most dog-friendly neighborhoods in a pretty dog-friendly city. And it’s also a great walking neighborhood with laced with my beloved SF’s stairways and full of breath-taking views of the City.

bernalview2012(Pretty sure Mr. WholeHog took this incredible pic)

The neighborhood is anchored by Bernal Hill, a great off-leash area for dogs that offers panoramic views of the City. (We were up on Bernal Hill just last night to watch the moon rise.)

Getting to Bernal Hill is part of the fun. I prefer to link together some of the many stairways that lead up the hill (there’s also one set of slides for the way down). Some of the streets that back up to Bernal Hill have little trails that lead up there, too.

Another reason to walk around Bernal? Some of the homes were once earthquake shacks from 1906. The streets tend to be narrow, which is fine for walking, but a bit of a pain if you’re driving.

bernalstairs

Most SF neighborhoods are lucky to have just one good place for dogs, but Bernal has a few options. On the north slope, there’s Precita Park, which is flat and grassy. Dogs are supposed to be leashed at Precita, but there’s usually a few dogs running around off-leash.

Holly Park, on the south side of the Hill, seems to be the local’s dog park. After work on weeknights, neighbors and their dogs congregate below the children’s playground. When the ball field is free, it’s often used as an unofficial dog park (“He likes third base,” one dog owner told us about his dog). When there’s a game, there are usually dogs run up and down the grassy slopes and through the trees.

hollypark

Holly Park is one of our dog’s very favorite spots to run around, and it’s one of our favorites, too, since it’s close to our friends’ house, and it’s just a block to Holy Water, a dog-friendly bar on Cortland Street, the main commercial stretch of Bernal Heights. Holy Water is darker than I’d ideally like my neighborhood watering hole to be, but it has a good beer selection (including a rotating sour beer on tap!), and it feels like a treat to get to have a drink with the dog.

In the morning, I’m more apt to leash the dog in front of Pinhole Coffee, one of the only legit coffee shops in the area. Run by a longtime Blue Bottle alum, Pinhole brews coffee from many good local roasters, including Blue Bottle, Linea and Verve. It’s a much needed addition to the area.

pinhole-facebookimage from Pinhole’s Facebook page

And if we need something other than coffee or beer, we can usually find it on Cortland. There’s Avedano’s, a woman-owned butcher shop that sources good quality meat (read: not-factory-farmed), or The Good Life, a conventional (but independent) grocery store. There’s a cramped little pet store and a small library. There’s The New Wheel, a shop focused on electric bikes, which was opened by a friend of ours from the farmers market and her husband.

Bernal can feel like a small town, which is why when Mr. WholeHog suggests, as he does from time to time, that we cash out of the City and move to a smaller town, I don’t see the point. It feels to me like we’re already in a small town, or at least adjacent to one.