3 Days in Austin

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.”


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.)


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 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.


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).


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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