25 October 2010

Heel-kicking Good Time: What to eat and see in Austin, TX

Calaveras, a common symbol of Dia de Los Muertos, welcome me to Austin

Everything I previously knew about Texas, I learned from the screen. I've watched "Dazed & Confused" countless times, and I'm obsessed with TV's "Friday Night Lights." I'd only been to Texas airports, connecting in Dallas and Houston but never stepping outside of the ports. My sister-in-law even lives in Big D (aka Dallas), but she usually comes to Seattle to visit family in her hometown.

I had this vision of what Texas would be: all boots and hats; big hair and bigger cars; beer and BBQ and ballgames.

So when my husband mentioned a trip to Austin for the Austin Film Festival, I knew I had to tag along. For five days, we made a condo on boisterous 6th street our home. My husband and his filmschool friends spent their days in film festival presentations. I eventually got a weekend badge so that I could access some of the late night parties, but there was plenty of time to kick around town in search of good food and finds.

Some like it hot! Rows of choices at Whole Foods.

We didn't rent a car, so I walked (or ran) nearly everywhere. I hoofed it down 6th St. toward the Whole Foods flagship store (aka the Mothership). Along the way, I found a quaint and quite delicious deli called Walton's Fancy and Staple, which I thought had been recommended to me by a friend. Turned out I was confusing it with the new Ethan Stowell restaurant of nearly the same name here in Seattle, but it was a wonderful mistake: the "turkey sweet" sandwich perfectly fueled my trek. I can still hear the crisp croissant crunching around salty bacon and heaps of roasted turkey, caramelized onions, and diced apples.

The "Turkey Sweet" from Walton's Fancy and Staple

The next day, I ran Congress St. across the river toward the hip SoCo district. My excuse was exercise, but it was also a scouting mission to spot shops and restaurants. I made a mental note of the storefronts that displayed Dia de los Muertos shrines in their windows, and located Jo's coffee next to the Hotel San Jose.

On Saturday, after attending a very informative panel at AFF, it was back to SoCo. Lord help me, I could not find a bus or cab that would take me the 1-mile trip south; turns out the street was closed due to a Lance Armstrong bike race. Everything was on detour. And so, back to me and my feet making the rounds. Back over the water (which smelled especially rank that day thanks to the 1.5 million bats that reside below the South Congress bridge). Back to the shopping district -- this time with a checklist and an open pocketbook.

My first pitstop along the 2-block strip was Jo's: the iced Belgian Bomber (half cold-press coffee; half chocolate-hazelnut deliciousness) amped me up. Next, I wandered in to Tesoros Trading Company, a veritable Dia de los Muertos mecca. Then Uncommon Objects, a well-touted antiques store. And finally in to Allen's boots, where I spent more than an hour poring over a 3-shelf-high rack of boots that stretched the entire depth of the store. All in my size.

Decisions, decisions, decisions... Endless rows of boots at Allen's.

It was in Allen's where I had a decidedly Texas moment. As I waded through the cowboy kickers, I observed a young couple. She trying on boots; he patiently watching and waiting, quietly encouraging her to get whatever was most comfortable. "That's something I've learned in the last few years, baby," he drawled. "Make sure your boots are comfortable." This guy sounded *just* like "Friday Night Lights'" Tim Riggins.

A few hairs later, as the University of Texas football game buzzed over the radio in the background, the National Weather Service interrupted the game to announce an impending tornado in a nearby county.

"We've gotta get outta here, baby," said "Riggins." Ever the eavesdropper, I assumed he wanted to get going because of the storm.

"I can't hear the game in here," he explained.

I guess my preconceived perception of Texas -- all boots and ballgames -- wasn't so far off the mark.


If you go to Austin, here's a must-do list:

To Eat
Walton's Fancy and Staple (609 W 6th St.): All frills on the outside -- and all fills on the inside. This retro, black & white & floral chic cafe is the perfect place to refuel. Order from the counter, making selections from fresh pasta salads, sandwiches, and specials of the day -- part of the "fancy." Or choose from "staples" that are always on the menu. For $6, I got an intensely tasty Turkey Sweet sandwich: a perfectly flaky croissant brimming with sliced turkey, crispy bacon, sweet caramelized onions, and crunchy diced apples. Plus a pickle. While you wait, browse more fancies -- including fresh floral bouquets, home-decor trinkets, and toothsome treats. Before you leave, take a peek in the dessert case and consider a cupcake or cookie to go.

Garrido's (360 Nueces on W. 3rd St.): Decidedly unique, inspired, modern Mexican fare. I didn't get the chance to dine-in at this restaurant; rather, I sampled a couple of offerings at the Austin Film Festival's Food + Film soiree. The lobster tamale (who would've thought?) oozed with goodness. And the nibble of blackberry mole sauce that accompanied short ribs was a revelation: the mole we get in Seattle just does not compare to this rich, spicy, warming concoction.

Whole Foods (flagship store at 525 N Lamar St.): The mothership

Clay Pit (1601 Guadalupe St.):  High-end, inventive Indian delights. We waited a long time for a table (more than an hour) as intoxicating smells allured us. Sidling up to an appetizer of curried mussels -- dainty bivalves swimming in orange curry -- was worth the wait. As was the complexly seasoned Saag Paneer, which, rather than a bowl of mushed spinach, shone in intricacy: my eye could discern each fleck of chiffonade spinach. Order extra naan to mop up the sauces.

Jo's (adjacent to the Hotel San Jose at 1300 S. Congress St.): Eat -- and drink -- at Jo's. This walk-up window emits casual cool. Order an iced Belgian Bomber -- a concoction of half cold-pressed coffee and half chocolate-hazelnut-cream -- and sip it in the shade of the covered porch while scouting for rockstars emerging from a haze at the Hotel San Jose next door. If you want migas (a breakfast staple of scrambled eggs and tortilla strips), get there early: They were out of all breakfast items by my 11.30 arrival.

To See
Austin Film Festival -- a screenwriter's haven. Days of intense, insightful presentations and panels, dotted with film stars (ahem, Ed Burns!). (October)

Congress St. Bats! (Under the Congress St. Bridge) -- I missed these and regret it! They say you should always leave something for the next visit... I will be back for those bats.

To Shop
Allen's Boots (1522 S. Congress St.) - endless rows of cowboy boots, hats, and plaid shirts. The real deal.

Uncommon Objects (1512 S. Congress St.) -- classic antiques by the truckload.

Tesoros Trading Company (1500 S. Congress St.) --  arts and crafts from around the world. Looking for calaveras (Dia de los Muertos skulls)? This is your place.

Cattle is big in Texas. Whether as wall art in Uncommon Objects...

Or overseeing the Driskill Hotel bar.
Where all the cool kids stay: Hotel San Jose

Iced Belgian Bomber from Jo's

Austin is known for its live music; we were lucky enough to catch one of my favorite bands -- The Old 97s -- for FREE on  4th St.

Dia de los Muertos Cerveza! (Spotted at Whole Foods)


  1. Amy, You saw so many sights-- I'm jealous! This was my second time to Austin, and I swear I've never ventured beyond a half mile radius from AFF central. I'm going to take notes and venture out next time! You're going next year, right?! I wanna visit Walton's so bad; those sandwiches are legendary, plus I loooove Sandra Bullock, and will kindly funnel more dollars her way. She owns Bess Bistro across the street, too. I guess the only thing I can one-up you on is the bats, but they were too stanky, so I can't even brag about that. If only there was some drama there, I could recommend. But it's really very dark, and their tiny little bodies just shoot out into the darkness. Okay, so, next time, I need to find me some good Tex Mex. And the Mothership, too; it was outside my radius! Thanks for the lowdown. Cheers, Paula

  2. I'm jealous, too! Old 97s for free! I want me some boots. And some Riggins. Applause all round.