I have to admit, I expected to be annoyed by Austin. The combination of rampant gentrification and development, leftover hippies angrily protesting rampant gentrification and development, drunken sophomores, and drunken state legislators all kind of put me off before I got there.
Well, it's true that the rampant development outside the city core, which seems to consist entirely of faux roadhouses named Drunky McYeeha's Lone Star Bar-B-Qabana & Yacht Clubbe, separated by Home Depots, is deeply unlovely. The more of it they can hide with nine-level expressway cloverleafs, as seems to be the plan, the finer by me.
But that said, the heart of Austin, the lifestyle of Austin, is pretty damn likable, like a San Francisco populated by younger people with Southern manners. Even the faux roadhouse thing is, after all, a manifestation of deeply democratic desires (the equality promised us all by St. Elvis, whose image is everywhere in such places), and it's a city with lots of public amenities in which the classes mingle hedonistically and unselfconsciously. (The one we made the most use of was the river-- Myles loved a spot where people frolic with their dogs in the water; it was here that my sister also observed, and I could not help but agree, that Austin may be the most tattooed place in America.)
It's a city with lots of history (here's the only historical plaque that ever made me hungry, a few blocks from the capitol):
--and it's even a city with a surprising amount of Art Deco:
I'm sure it's not all sweetness and light-- it didn't escape my notice that the north edge of the city is very much working class white, and the south edge is very much Mexican, and never the twain shall meet-- but apart from the horrendous traffic, which will simply take some number of years to deal with, it was a city that, in a couple of days, I grew to like a lot.
Anyway, some restaurants we ate at:
1. Hut's/Opal Divine's
Descended, circuitously, from two different burger joints both founded in 1939, Hut's is a collegiate favorite and set the tone for what to expect in a typical Austin restaurant-- walls plastered with crap (I'm sorry, I meant American pop culture ephemera) and loud music, basically. But my sister said Hut's made a damn fine burger and she was exactly right-- a stockyard-fresh-and-slightly-funky slab o' beef accompanied by fresh-cut fries, reminiscent of Five Guys in the DC area. I'd like to go back and try something more ambitious, like the chicken fried steak.
Later that evening we wound up at a 6th street bar not far from Hut's, Opal Divine's, mainly for its patio but also because a banner announced that it had won the local alt-paper's best french fry award twice running. Well, the patio was nice (that's where I snapped the waitress bearing the city slogan above) but the fries, even with a chipotle mayo to dip them in, weren't half as good as Hut's, being of the seasoned-frozen rather than fresh-cut variety, I believe. Also, despite having an extensive menu of somewhat interesting looking mixed drinks, they badly botched a mojito which I had to rescue myself (with a couple of sugar packets) from tasting like Rose's lime, straight. Oh well, the patio was pleasant.
Although there is probably some very good Mexican (the south side seems to be, even to Chowhound's Texas board, a world of unexplored riches), I was less interested in authentic Mexican* than in Tex-Mex, in understanding what makes it distinct from Mex-Mex. Step one was Chuy's, a local chain. Good, very thin and light chips, accompanied by a very good finely chopped pico de gallo with significant heat, and a very bland tomato-sauce salsa; my sister had perfectly okay enchiladas with a more interesting and complex ranchero sauce than you'd have on average; I had a stuffed piece of flank steak covered with cheese and salsa verde, which was a big gloppy mess. Results: inconclusive.
* For which I learned a new term: here, close (well, closer than Chicago) to the border, the way you indicate that something is not
Tex-Mex is by calling it "interior Mexican."
3. Fonda San Miguel
Still in a Mexican food mood, but stuck north-sidish where little authentic Mexican seemed to be, we decided to take a chance on the city's most acclaimed (and expensive) Mexican restaurant, the one spoken of in the same terms as the likes of Rick Bayless-- they even have a book,
just like he does-- though the chance part came from the fact that the most recent discussion
of it on Chowhound's Texas board was quite negative. Well, forewarned is forearmed.
If nothing else, it's a truly beautiful restaurant-- this is the sunny foyer, while the darker dining room is reminiscent of the old Ixcapuzalco. Chips came with an okay red salsa and a really nice green one with, I would swear, spinach in it; nice flavor if not much heat (nothing had much heat). We thought the appetizers looked most interesting (and gave us the most chance to try different things) so we mainly stuck to those, and I would say they hit about a 50/50 mark. Some little masa cups were quite good, filled with guacamole and shrimp or cactus salad or diced fish; but a tostada with cochinita pibil tasted like simple roasted pork, well prepared but none of the achiote flavor I've had in Mexico (or at Chuck's BBQ). A special appetizer involving smoked salmon, which I ordered wondering what a Mexican restaurant would do with smoked salmon, answered the question like this: absolutely nothing that any country club in America wouldn't do, it was simply smoked salmon and cream cheese on a tostada.
Entrees, happily, were more interesting. A cheese enchilada, ordered for Myles and hardly promising sounding, turned out to be the best thing we had, thanks to its tangy sour cream sauce; a chile relleno, made with a poblano pepper and stuffed with raisins, goat cheese and other such things in jitomate sauce, was an inventive take on a standard.
The real downside to Fonda San Miguel was that service was incredibly inconsistent-- the first greeter was kind of snippy, yet the second couldn't have been nicer; the chile relleno had to be sent back when it arrived with a cold center, and to do that we had to summon a busboy, since our waiter (nice as he was) only swung by on an elliptical orbit every ten minutes. It is perhaps significant, in a number of ways, that it seemed to be mainly staffed by Anglo college kids, rather than Mexicans, apart from two ladies in traditional dress on display in one highly visible workstation. Fonda San Miguel is one of those restaurants that's been around too long, and probably serves twice as many covers on a busy night as it should, and has just kind of gotten lazy, and really needs some top-level, serious competition to scare it into sharpening up its game and being as good as it clearly can be.
An entirely different service ethic was on display at the outpost we visited of this local ice cream chain, which was staffed by a single sturdy gal working fast as she could to do the Marble-Slab-Creamery-beat-the-ice-cream trick for a steady stream of customers-- all the while rattling off the proud facts about how they make each of their ice creams from Belgian chocolate, Mexican vanilla, Bailey's Irish Cream, and other such ingredients. Excellent ice cream-- my sister's Mexican vanilla, which made you want to point out undernotes of this and that like it was a fine Bordeaux, was especially good. I left a big tip (for ice cream, anyway).
So that was Austin, a fun city, and one which I would happily-- what? You say I forgot something? Oh, right, bats!
As night starts to fall, Austinites gather at this particular bridge, under which live, for some reason, one and a half million bats. As darkness falls, they start to swarm out, in a steady stream, like a bat cyclone, following the river in search of whatever it is they eat. They move so fast you could mistake them for birds, but look closely and you see that there's something alien-ly non-bird-like about the way they careen across the sky. And every once in a while, when someone's flash (not mine) is powerful and fast enough to freeze them in their flight--
You get a vision that gives you the shivers.
807 W 6th St
Austin, TX 78703
Tel: (512) 472-0693
700 W. 6th Street
1728 Barton Springs Rd
Fonda San Miguel
2330 W North Loop Blvd
Austin, TX 78756-2327
Amy's Ice Cream
13770 183 North at Lake Creek Pkwy.
P.S. G Wiv-- I think Christopher was making another Lovecraft joke about Innsmouth, TX. At least I couldn't find it in my atlas (but then even those who once knew of Innsmouth now no longer speak of it at all, and some frankly deny that it ever existed...)
Unfortunately, they only have barbecued cthulhu on weekends...