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So I went on a jaunt
I’ve always wanted to take a gander at what is supposedly becoming one of the new (affordable) Silicon Valleys. In case you hadn’t heard, in the Valley it can now cost you USD$1 million to buy a basic 3 bedroom house with a smaller yard, a basic garage, and middling suburban prettiness, versus, say, $300,000 for a mansion, at least an acre of land, and a garage to park 3 cars with rolling neighborhood beauty for miles in other US states. It’s all very depressing. But we digress.
Austin has been on the map with articles on its flourishing techie hipsterdom and giddy university appeal for a solid 3-5 years now in publications like the Wall Street Journal, and for some time I’ve been curious. Everyone says (on the interwebs): Go to Austin, don’t leave the city, and the music and going out scene is great. Everything’s walkable and Uber-able. Great food, great music, great vibe.
So, here’s the skinny …
Austin, TX: The data says …
Estimated median house or condo value in 2013: $234,800 (it was $120,800 in 2000)
Yeah, you pretty much can’t walk 10 feet without bumping into some dude in plaid, jeans, comfortable looking beat up Converse sneakers or loafers, and a beard. Other than the beard, the rest of him will seem comfortably wrinkled like a well-loved couch throw, and very well-groomed. (Though some of them were sporting the longer Duck Commander chin-bits) They don’t write about this explicitly in the upmarket publications my friends, but let me be clear: if you like hot, upwardly mobile young men who also give off the air of being able to change a tire or cuss words believably while they *assert themselves* (feel free to insert whatever fantasy you like there), they are HERE. All over the damn place. And they are TALL. Drinks. Of. Water. And in the summer when it’s like, 90 degrees out, you can get damned thirsty.
Longhorns are everywharr
The steer logo is everywhere. On clothes, the backs of heads, the front of caps, the back of jeans, the front of shirts, the backs of truck bumpers, the front of SUV windshields, mud flaps, shoes, tattoos — EVERYWHERE. There is some serious longhorn pride, here. There was even a longhorn skull (probably fake? eh?) above the TV in our rental house living room. This is the only comparative graphic I could find, which is not an exact match for the logo, but you know, close enough.
Thickness is okay
As a plus-sized brown girl myself, I keep an eye on the undercurrent of romance and dating in a new scene, particularly if I’m busy eyeing lumbersexuals, and I noticed something: there were a LOT of hot dudes with women who were more on the BBW side. The women were comfortable in their skin, and we ran across the pairings frequently. You don’t see this much in California, so I was delighted to see that being plus-size doesn’t automatically condemn you to roaming the wastes alone in the mental subconscious romantic id thought bubble of Austin.
Overt racism was not witnessed by this brown girl; there were no insults, and there was no open hostility, or direct bad behavior. However, there was one instance of extremely reluctant service by a female, tattooed, vaguely Rockabilly-looking female bartender on the diner/eat-ing side of the Jackalope, who on multiple occasions deliberately bypassed black women (including me) when ordering even when the customer was completely alone with no line. She moved past them to service someone who came *after* these patrons to the counter, or walked away to service folks who were not, perhaps, Caucasian, but definitely lighter-skinned (Mexican).
She only serviced you if she basically had no choice / nothing else to do instead. Which was interesting. She seemed to get along well with her fellow Caucasian bartenders, who themselves demonstrated no rudeness to black patrons. I tipped her, before I realized what she was doing, then stopped tipping her. And gave her a nasty look on the way out. She knows what she’s doing, and just doesn’t care, but isn’t man enough to look you in the eye and if I were another type of woman she’d get her ass handed to her but I don’t do that in public — a dark alley, perhaps, on another day.
Otherwise, as we went about our business on this trip, I did notice amusement and/or surprise as people interacted with my friend and I — they seemed to immediately know we were from out of town after exchanging some words, so, there’s definitely profiling going on but, nothing scary. I’m sure if I went outside the city limits, as the interwebs warns brown people not to do, I’d have experienced some other things. But I did see interracial couples! So it’s out there! But it’s not nearly as common to see as it is in California, alas.
On the BBQ
They like their BBQ smoked here. We tried out what has been listed on Bon Appetit’s Top 5 BBQ Joint in America: Franklin Barbecue. Now, it’s complicated. Here are my personal barbecue preferences:
- I like my barbecue sauced. Already. Marinated in a bit during the cooking process. And the sauce thick and cooked somewhat into the meat. (Doesn’t have to be marinated in the sauce overnight or anything, just, for example, basted as it’s cooked, or near to the end of its cooking time.)
- I like my barbecue a little charred. A little crusty. But moist and tender and flavorful on the inside.
- I am a fan of smoke — but that should not be the predominant flavor. I don’t care what flavor wood chips you use, I just don’t want to only be tasting that flavor. I want to taste the MEAT.
- I am not a fan of mustard or actual ketchup. I like vinegar, but not too much of it. I am a fan of slightly sweet barbecue sauce but prefer savory over sweet elements.
- It think it is absolute sacrilege to boil ANY meat as part of your process of barbecuing it. THAT IS NOT BARBECUE. Throwing barbecue sauce on something is not barbecuing the meat.
Ok, so now that we got that out of the way — we visited Franklin 1.5 hours before closing time, waited 40 minutes in line, and got the “end of the day” bits. Which left us only the sausage (not cooked onsite), Turkey, Brisket, sides, and desserts. If you come earlier in the day you will get better options. We got our choice of “moist” brisket (I guess you can request “lean” and “fatty”). I’ll write elsewhere on my specific feelings because this post is about Austin the City, not Franklin Barbecue, but I will say that it was VERY GOOD. The Brisket, that is. I do wonder if i’d come at 6 in the morning to wait in line like other people do to get first choice, if it would have been AMAZING. Not sure. But it was very good. Was it DELICIOUS? No. I had to pour my own sauce on it, and the sauce they used was vinegary. And thin. They had 3 glass bottles on the table of variants of their sauce — which was a good sauce, sure. But not a GREAT sauce.
So, I’d say it was the best of the barbecue we had in Austin, and we tried a couple places. It was definitely an experience, and you should go. Follow-up post on this to come later, with details on the full experience and all that.
The Club Scene
So, I like to go dancing with help from refreshing beverages. This is something I do. I used to do it once a week in my youth, but now it’s more like every few months when I get the energy up. And that’s OK, I’ve pretty much seen the scene and there’s very little new out there to surprise me. That being said, sometimes you just need to dance it out on the dance floor and baby should never be left in a corner. The locals and web will tell you the Dirty 6th (street) is where locals do NOT go and where the tourists and college kids go. They’re right. However, if you attempt to go to the un-dirty 6th, you will encounter people who wear jeans, sit at patio tables, and drink and talk and sweat in the heat doing nothing in particular other than that. My friend and I were advised by our Uber driver that the other end of 6th was up our alley; we dressed up, thinking that meant “grown and sexy” (like us) and then showed up at a joint that was playing heavy metal in a thicket of trees off an unlit service road near a rail line. We hustled out of there right quick.
If you want to DANCE — stick to 6th street. For a comparison — it is rowdy and loud like NOLA’s (New Orleans’) Bourbon Street BUT — dialled down. That is, if Bourbon Street were an 8 on the Richter scale of loud, dirty, smelly, seedy, tawdry, unclassy, undesirable, and unmentionable, Austin’s Dirty 6th is really like a 4-5. It’s kind of adorable. Because effectively, Austinites apparently do not have context on Las Vegas or NOLA so to them, 6th is “dirty” and “extreme.” But to the rest of America, it’s really just “vaguely demonstrating juvenile delinquent behaviors that will clean up in a couple years when it gets a real job and a car of its own.” The street is extremely wide, giving plenty of room for wandering without knocking into strangers, and, there are a gazillion police in the city with only 800K citizens, so they have significant manpower to actually send and monitor. (As opposed to the probably like, 8 horseback police you’ll see patrolling Bourbon, you will see that number of police at multiple intersections along 6th, chill and waving and doing things like taking selfies with their iPhones.) They have a meaningful force present but it doesn’t feel like a beatdown is impending; rather, it feels like they are letting people party and just trying to cull out that 10% who need a beatdown. Which I liked very much, actually, it felt nice and safe. Plus the streets were uber wide so you had very few interactions with horse poo, and the vomit was to a minimum (if any), unlike Bourbon street where you ought to wear very tall heels or a hazmat suit if you want your shoes to come home with you alive.
The only downsides are, they really like hiphop (which I actually like) — but they like slow undanceable hiphop. Every bar wants to play Fetty Wap, par example (even when it basically has 1 black person in it, and it’s amusing to see all the local college kids demonstrate their cultural appropriation of this music on the dance floor) – which a DJ in one of the cooler joints specifically noted. This DJ likes to play danceable 90s HipHop (DJ Jazzy Jeff and the French Prince was played), however, so after 30 min we even gave up on that. It took some work, but here and there we did find upbeat Top40/hiphop/pop here and there, but it was a grind. We also probably weren’t entirely drunk enough. But if it wasn’t slow hiphop, it was usually techno (blech) and so we’d have to vacate near immediately.
It’s actually pretty cool to “shop” for clubs — you literally just walk down 6th, and then pause and listen at a door, and keep an eye out for lines. Usually a long line means the music got good; which can also mean that by the time your line gets in the good music has stopped. Other good news — no cover! Cover is apparently charged for people 21 and under, but not 21 and over, which was delightful (probably b/c 21 and unders can’t buy alcohol).
Clothing was a mix, with most people doing that plaid and jeans thing, or dressing up a bit. My favorite entertainment of the night was a wedding party in the VIP section (not much of one, they don’t really do Vegas style in Austin) at one club, where 4 of the guys were dressed in jeans and Texas color shirts (some vague pale pumpkin color we saw EVERYWHERE on the trip on gals and gals, who seemed to be frats/sorors). These fellas were super goofy and hilarious, climbing and humping the walls, out of their mind drunk (or high). At one point their leader dragged up a trash can, and they all backed up to it to demonstrate their booty thumping/twerking skills. Amusing and hilarious. They were also very sweaty, and it was hot in there, so we ran away after laughing a bit.
All in all, we enjoyed the club scene, and if you like to dance, we highly recommend 6th. You’ll see a mix of ages here; yes, more 18+ kids but, there are also local couples out for their date night and out of towners or groups of adults who just want a little something “active” over sitting over a pint at a patio table in the dark with friends. It’s also akin to San Diego’s Gaslamp District, but probably rowdier (SD would be like a 2-3 on the rowdy scale, but has the same vibe of open space and bar hopping in a local grid that’s easy to access.)
Oh man, this was hella cheap. $5 to get across town for 15 min drives — super affordable. When it’s peak time pickup from 6th street at 2 in the morning — they scare you with the “ACCEPT THE 2-3x SURGE PRICING!?” alert, and then you get home and it’s like, $11. Totes awesome. So it makes sense — you can stay in a rental apartment or house and uber away, though we did end up getting a car just for being able to get around and do things in the heat and not worry about luggage transport and all that. Rental car was a bit pricy at $50 a day for the cheapest company.
It was 90+ degrees and the kind of dry baking hot that means you can’t really think straight when you’re out in it if you’re not used to it. I can thrive in humid weather but dry heat makes my soul slowly deflate. This was the end of September, so, just know it stays that kind of hot deep down into Fall dates. Make sure you buy water if you’re staying in a rental — a lot of it — and you keep hydrating throughout the day. Especially if you’re drinking. Sunscreen, sunglasses, big floppy hats and visors — we saw a fair amount of folks with sunhats, shorts, and flipflops, like they were at the beach. It barely gets any cooler at night, either, even though you’ve got open land — no wind moving through really, it all just sits in one place.
Music / Comedy
Austin is known for both of these scenes, and we failed miserably at properly accessing them, but we’ll be back. I think it’s mainly because we were baked out by the heat, focused on food, and feeling lazy on this trip. We did manage to hit up a last-minute local improv show that was … wanting, but sweet, and I certainly appreciate that it exists. We laughed a bit for 10 min at the beginning and then it was just meh, from there. But what else can you expect on a Sunday night when you didn’t research shows in advance? When we’re back we’ll definitely take a look at local music festivals and shows, to make up for our failure on that part.
I would avoid fine dining here unless it’s Southern, Tex-Mex, or Barbecue or something specifically Texan. This is effectively because, while they may have a Thai restaurant and that Thai restaurant could very well be the best in all of Austin or Texas, if you live in say, California, where there are a meaningful number of Thais offering a variety of fabulous food in great Thai restaurants, you’ll have already tasted something equal to or better than the equivalent in Austin. Austin is known for Southern Food and BBQ — so that’s what we went and did.
Apparently it is also known for seafood, and we went to Liberty Kitchen, a new and fairly popular new seafood joint, and I found my baked oysters were dried to near husks and my lobster chewy and overcooked (although the service was exceptional) — but it’s only the one restaurant. They did get the deep-fried oysters right. Why? Deep frying is Southern food.
My gut tells me the dining scene is best at New American / Traditional, but if you’re craving something on your trip and you just have to have it — lower your expectations so you aren’t disappointed. Also, if you get anything deep fried in Austin (probably all of Texas) it will be delicious, because you will be at the source for a proper handling of dredging and frying that ends up in crisp, crunchy, flakey, and not soaked in greasy breading. None of that beer batter business here. Heavenly bliss, is what!
Waffle House was also on the itinerary — this place is the love of my life. I thought it was a dream come true to discover they were as far west as Texas, as they’re a Southern only chain but Texas is kind of pushing it distance-wise. Glory, hallelujah — simple food, no pancakes, BETTER THAN DENNY’S and cheaper! The Austin locale was blander than I’d expected, which I think entirely has to do with the location being so far west. Further east, the grits will be less watery and even creamier, and the sausage will have more spice/flavor. You may mock me, but once you’ve tried a Waffle House, you will be a convert. Trust me. 24/7.
Oh, and pies. The South understands pies, unlike everything west of Texas, so I highly recommend if you come across a pie, you eat it. Your mind will be blown.
For more specific reviews, keep an eye out for itinerary posts later for the restaurants and locales we tried along the way!