Tag Archives: Austin

Texas: Austin

Drive friendly my arse

Drive friendly my arse

Yes, I am in India right now.  But I must finish my US posts for some peace of mind!

I visited Austin last March for the first time for Josh’s bachelor party and loved it, so I was happy to return for Jenni’s inaugural appearance.  This time was a tad tamer.

We drove straight from New Orleans, and you know Texas is big when the first exit you see on the 10 Freeway is # 878.  Despite the welcome sign suggesting that driving friendly is the Texas way, I would say the drivers on this leg were undoubtedly the most aggressive and consistent left-lane-for-no-reason offenders of our entire road trip.

Our first night we sought a quick bite after a long day and ended up at Surf N’ Turf Po Boy.  It is more of a bar with lots of TVs and Skee-Ball and a lively atmosphere for the Texans MNF game.  They were out of fried oyster and the buffalo shrimp was good but paled in comparison to the firecracker shrimp po boy we had at Parasol’s in New Orleans.

Monday was one of the very few rainy days of our trip so we erased any thoughts of renting bikes.  We crossed under I-35 to the grittier part of town for an excellent, cheap, authentic Mexican breakfast at Juan in a Million.  I got the machacado and the migas breakfast tacos and they were so good.  Chips and salsa at 10 am is a nice touch.

Austin has several pockets of hip and/or fun areas, including dirty 6th, west 6th, east of I-35, 4th street, Rainey, Red River around 7th and South of Congress.  We hit this last one first, parking by Elizabeth to walk around.  It is a great stretch of several blocks with restaurants, bars, funky shops and vintage looking signs.  More in “Practical Info” below.

This is also one of the many Austin neighborhoods with several food trucks.  These are very popular here, and is with Portland they are slightly more permanent vs. those in Los Angeles that actually drive around each day.

From here we passed Hula Hut on the lake, a fun place for beverages on a sunny day, and took Scenic Road near the water through nice neighborhoods.  We parked on Mt. Bonnell Road and ascended the ~100 steps of Covert Park to the highest point in Austin at 775’ elevation.  This spot has nice views of downtown and the river with some spectacular homes.

Covert Park

Covert Park

We continued through the University of Texas campus which is nice if a little more urban than I realized.  Oh, on my last visit I had breakfast at the Torchy’s Tacos by campus and it was awesome.  Though Franklin was on tomorrow’s agenda, I figured why not double up on BBQ so we lunched at Iron Works, which I wrote about here.  On my last visit I ate at the Salt Lick in Round Rock, which was a fun outdoor place that I’d locate behind Franklin and ahead of Iron Works on the spectrum.

Dinner at Chuy’s was better than Hangover 3 on Jenni’s computer.  It has some bright moments but the trilogy’s temporal order certainly matches quality.  At Chuy’s I tried the Texas Martini which is a margarita in a martini glass rimmed with salt and jalapeño stuffed olives.  The meal was solid overall, and when they bring chips to your table be sure to ask for the creamy jalapeño sauce.

After dinner we met Sam’s friend Jamin on Rainey Street, which stands out in a city that oozes cool.  Within a couple blocks are perhaps 10 houses that were converted into bars/restaurants.  Most have substantial outdoor space and there is also a food truck square.  I would be sure to check this out.

Our final day in Austin lasted much longer than expected due to the crazy line at Franklin BBQ, but as I explained in detail in my BBQ Post it was worth it, and then some.

Capitol dome

Capitol dome

Practical Info

Accommodation: We stayed at the Extended Stay Hotel at 6th and Guadalupe because it was reasonably priced and well-located.  The Driskill is a classic property with a fantastic location, and there is also a W.  There are a couple spots on South Congress and I’m not certain which looked interesting, but I think it’s Hotel San Jose.

Areas:

South of Congress…some food spots that caught our eye include Amy’s Ice Cream and Hopdoddy.  Uncommon Objects has tons of antiques.  The Big Top Candy Shop had a most impressive selection, including things like pimento olive chocolate almonds and gummy fried eggs.  Allens Boots has an astounding selection of cowboy boots and attire.  Nearby is Barton Springs Pool, a very popular natural springs swimming area which wevwould have visited were it not cool and raining.

Rainey…we had drinks at Bar 96.  Kaitlyn had recommend G’raj Mahal food truck, which is so popular that it has now taken over one of the old houses.

Dirty 6th: refers to 6th street east of Congress which is packed with bars and at times nears a Bourbon Street feel.  Though technically east of Congress, the Driskill is a classy hotel with a bar and restaurant.

West 6th: refers to 6th street west of Congress which also has several bars and restaurants but a slightly older and more mellow crowd.  I enjoyed the Rattle Inn on my last visit.

4th Street: also calmer than dirty 6th, on my last visit I liked dinner at Peché and drinks at Hangar Lounge.

November 3-5, 2013 (Sunday-Tuesday)

BBQ

BBQ

Now I know y’all didn’t think I’d venture through the South without trying a little BBQ?!  While I did not indulge my gluttonous desires for smoked meat as fully as I expected, I did try a few “legit” spots and had something approximating the concept at least a couple other times. To get straight to the point, Franklin BBQ in Austin slaughtered the competition.  It was like me fighting Mike Tyson, and I’m talking back in my prime and when he was already over the hill.

I am certainly not a BBQ expert, but it strikes me that more than most cuisine types BBQ is judged on factors beyond how good it tastes.  This may seem odd to the casual observer, and it merits philosophical debate beyond the scope of this post.  By way of example, Houston’s ribs might not earn high praise at a BBQ competition, despite that many find them delicious!

Let’s start with just a few words about the BBQ-resembling meals I had in the South.  There was the pulled pork sandwich at Top of the Hill in Chapel Hill.  It consists of slow roasted pork, house-made beer cheese sauce, garlic sauteed spinach and frizzled red onions.  Hard to judge the quality of the meat with those accoutrements, but beer cheese sauce was interesting.  I enjoyed it, despite that I felt my arteries hardening with each bite.  Then there was the pulled pork po’boy at Parasol’s in New Orleans.  Parasol’s is phenomenal, and this sandwich was delicious.  But again, we are not talking pure BBQ.  On to that…

The Brick Pit is in a small house-like structure in a fairly nice part of Mobile, Alabama.  Like most places outside Texas, the emphasis is on hog.  The walls inside are covered with writing from patrons.  They had TV screens on CSS Encore showing an old college football game with Auburn dominating.  One orders inside at a pass-through counter, I got the combo plate with ribs and pulled pork, and it comes with coleslaw, BBQ beans and a piece of Texas toast (basically extra thick white bread).  The pit master uses 75% pecan (which is all over the Southeast) and 25% hickory for smoke.  He goes 3.5 and below, meaning the rack should weigh less than 3.5 pounds.

The ribs were smoky and fairly good, as was the pulled pork.  But this was perhaps the clearest illustration to me of the “good BBQ” vs. “tastes great” issue above.  My meal did not taste great.  It may be good, true BBQ, but it just was not supremely enjoyable.  Perhaps my biggest beef (haha) is they do not season the meat, instead choosing to let the smoke impart all the flavor.  The result is meat that is just not THAT tasty.  I think I prefer the Memphis style with a nice dry rub, where sauce is pretty much optional.  They also did not remove the silver skin from the back of the ribs.  This is a controversial subject, but I think I prefer it removed.  The beans here were smoky and excellent, definitely the best of the beans I had.  The cole slaw was pretty heavy on the mayo and also quite good.  Jenni went with the sourdough brick bites which is a $4 slider that was actually a decent-sized sandwich.  Unsweetenened iced tea is available here, and pretty much everywhere in the South.

Next up was Iron Works BBQ in Austin, Texas.  I think it is widely believed at this point that Franklin is superior, but Iron Works gets mad respect.  There are framed pictures of George Bush and of Barack Obama eating there.  Parking is ample and the inside is old-looking and charming.  I got the combo plate with beef brisket, a beef rib and sausage.  It also came with potato salad and beans.  Here again, the distinction arose.  This brisket was sliced thin, and while enjoyable to be sure, I have enjoyed more a brisket I cooked in my oven from a Jewish recipe book.  The sausage was quite tasty, and the beef rib was delicious.  I did not realize until I was in Austin in March 2013 for Josh’s bachelor party how much I like good BBQ beef ribs.  That time I visited Salt Lick at its Round Rock location, and I would say that was the second best BBQ after Franklin.

And now for the champion.  Franklin BBQ is not merely a meal, it is an experience.  It opens at 11 am and I am told it has sold out every day since it opened in 2009.  Having been told by a local that we could safely arrive at 10:30 am, we showed up at 10:10 am for extra caution.  We were met by a line halfway through the parking lot.  I parked the car and returned to find Jenni standing directly BEHIND a group holding the “Last Man Standing” piece of cardboard.  OH, THE HORROR!  The woman working the line informed us there was no guarantee we would get any food, and the kicker was that we probably would not know until after 1 pm.  The likelihood of getting ribs was almost non-existent.  It seems there is a concept of pre-ordering, but I do not know how this works.

We thus faced one of the hardest decisions of our lives.  Cut our losses and move on, or tough it out and go for the glory?  To my everlasting relief, while we debated she informed us that the owner had decided to push back the line and we were now safe.  Hallelujah!!

We broke out the boat chairs for the first time in ages and read and made some phone calls.  At 11 am the doors opened and the first large group entered the restaurant.  But things move very slowly from there.  So at several minute intervals the line would move up a handful of feet, meaning you have to pick up your chairs etc. and relocate.  There was a guy across the street actually renting folding chairs for $5.  Supply and demand at its finest.  There was another Franklin employee walking the line and selling beer and soft drinks so Jenni got a blonde ale and I a lemonade.  Some groups also brought their own beer for the wait.

We entered the structure at about 1:10 pm and got served at 1:30 pm.  So here is the secret: show up early!  Like 8 am.  If you show up at that time, your overall commitment is actually equal if not less and you are guaranteed a selection of anything on the menu.  Plus, you would never have to move your waiting position as long as you are far enough up in the line to enter with the first group.  So show up at 8 am and order at 11 am from the full menu, or show up at 10:10 am and order at 1:30 pm with NO RIBS available.  By the way, Franklin serves pork ribs even though this is Texas.

Upon reaching the counter, your order is taken and filled (i.e. sliced, cut, etc.) by the owner and legend himself, Aaron Franklin.  Despite the immense popularity and praise (Bon Appetit declared it the best in the country), Aaron could not be nicer.  He does not subscribe to the theory of “my food is amazing, therefore I can be a dick.”  He asked whether we wanted fatty or lean brisket, and before we even answered he confirmed our suspicion by murmuring his own response of “fatty.”  Obviously.   He hooked us up with a couple large bites laid on the counter, which reminded me of Katz’s Deli in New York.  It was at this very moment we knew the nearly 3.5 hour wait was worth every minute.

There were three guys sequentially working the counter, and we had pleasant exchanges with each.  First with Aaron himself who asked where we were from etc.  The next guy on the line overheard us mention we had been to a Packers game and then said the prior night’s game was his favorite because he is a Bears fan.  The third guy told us a story about how he ordered a salad at a Whataburger in Oklahoma and the woman asked if he was from Los Angeles.

Back to the food…Jenni and I each got a two meat plate which comes with two sides.  One plate was brisket and turkey with cole slaw and potato salad.  The other was brisket and pulled pork with beans and potato salad.  The beans were good, the cole slaw was very good and the potato salad was OK.  The turkey was sliced white meat and very good, considering the materials.  The pulled pork was delicious, nice and moist and peppery.  I found it far better than the Brick Pit, which is known more for pork vs. beef.  The brisket, though, was fall out of your chair good.  I mean just ridiculously scrumptious.  It was cut very thick and was incredibly moist and flavorful.  They have three BBQ sauce options: a Carolina style vinegary sauce, an espresso flavored sauce, and a Texas style sauce that was a little tangier and spicier.  Sometimes with BBQ I want almost all my bites with sauce but make sure to try some naked bites to savor the pure dead animal.  At Franklin, this was reversed.  We also ate a banana bourbon pie that was yummy.

I would note that we did not order one, but the Tipsy Texan sandwich looked great.  It is chopped brisket and sliced sausage on a white roll with cole slaw and pickles.  There are several tables inside and a handful of picnic tables on a deck outside, which is where we sat.  Folks, when you are next in Austin, do yourself a favor and get to Franklin early (and often).