Austin: Top Ten
an experiential guide
It was T. S. Eliot who might have measured his life by the coffee spoon, but here in Austin, I tend to use a different measure. I’m often asked for a list of place to visit while entertaining visitors. What places are important, what’s a sight that really should be seen, and so forth. It’s hard to be tourist in my own town, but I can hit a few highlights. It’s my version of Austin, Texas.
I’ve long since had a taste for the strange, the different, and the slightly offbeat. These guidelines should reveal what I think is important in town. It’s entirely subjective. I won’t claim any objectivity at all. Where’s the fun in that?
I should point out that it’s possible to hit Amy’s, Sparks, Waterloo and Book People, all in one stop. Same for Maudie’s, New Age Books and Big Bertha. Bookstore, food, shopping. I wonder if there is a pattern here.
Top Ten of Austin List:
- 1. Amy’s Ice Cream — 6th & Lamar — the very best in sugar coated fixes in the world. Nothing is finer. Well, there is one thing that is finer… Ruta Maya’s Amy’s Ice Cream shake. But that’s so close to heaven it ought to be illegal. Amy’s on Sixth, right by Waterloo records, and close to Book People (and close to the flagship store for Whole Foods) is the current favorite. But I also like the one up on Guadalupe. At Amy’s on 6th, you can wander in Sparks, next door for a chance to find a good postcard to send from Austin — ice cream is welcome in Sparks. Then go to Waterloo and buy some Austin Music. Best flavor to come out of Amy’s is the "Mexican Vanilla" — best thing in the world for what ails you. Of course, if you like chocolate, they are ALWAYS able to satisfy, too (I have this from a variety of expert opinions).
- 2. Magnolia South — 1920 South Congress Avenue — this is an all-time, all around favorite. Open 24/7, and with a diverse menu, yes, "all-time, all around" are very good words. There’s a companion store, over on Lake Austin Boulevard, but for some reason, I never did quite get "with it" at the other place. The only drawback to Magnolia is that it’s caught on with more people — darn tourists invading our space. I’ve been in Mag South at various times of the day. Before going on air for a local radio station at 5 in the morning. Coming back from a concert at 4 in the morning. Right after the music shuts down at 2 in the morning. Coming home from a girlfriend’s house at 6 in the morning, for breakfast, from 7 to 11 in the morning, lunch at the usual time. Even dinner on occasion. The late night menu, gets a special "thumbs up" because it’s the perfect sort of weirdness you would expect at a place with a dinosaur hanging in the dining room. Tattoos, earring, piercings, dreadlocks, the whole gambit of attire is there to see. And there are the patrons. It is frequented by famous musicians. Ask for Jeff. Best thing on the menu: Gingerbread pancakes. No, the best thing is "Mag Mud" a queso dish. No, it’s their Migas, no it’s the pasta, no it’s the salads, no it’s the entrees, no it’s the breakfast tacos, no it’s the fish tacos….
- 3.Ruta Maya — 4th & Lavaca — In this day an age when there’s a corporate cappuccino machine on every corner, it’s nice to relax in place that’s definitely not corporate. The clientele range from students to street people to executives. The coffee is the best in town, 11 months out of the year. Of course, around the corner at Starbucks, they have Eggnog Latte during the holiday season, but the rest of the time Ruta Maya is the best coffee. Some of the local grocery stores carry their coffee in the burlap bags. It’s a folksy, poetry reading warehouse. Literally. With a roaster at one end, and little tobacco shop with marginal humidor tucked away to one side, it’s still the best of all worlds. From a cool respite in the hot summer months to warm retreat on cold winter nights, it’s the best of places, and with its politically correct coffee, it’s still the best. Politically correct coffee? "100% of the moneys for the coffee beans we buy goes to the indigenous growers in Chiapas, Nicaragua and so forth, not like some companies where to grower gets about 10%."
- 4. Threadgill’s World Headquarters — Barton Springs & Riverside — The best chicken fried steak I ever had was not at Threadgill’s. It was a truckstop north of Belton, a place called "Peel’s" (and worth the weight). But if you sidestep the signature Chicken Fried Steak, and skip the so-so "fried green tomatoes," you will find that vegetables are excellent, the fried chicken livers are heavenly, and whatever the special of the day is, that works out pretty good. The staff is friendly, efficient, and in the afternoon, you stand a good chance of running into Eddie Wilson himself, the friendly proprietor. He’s a Scorpio, just like my Mother. And even my Mother has found the greens at Threadgill’s "are better than mine." There’s a plus, on most evenings, there’s a strange brew of music in the backroom. It has certainly become on my favorite venues to hear Don Walser. Frequented by famous people. The original location is up on North Lamar, but it’s too far for my tastes. Hard to miss, though, it used to be a gas station. "But don’t bring your American Express — they don’t take it."
- 5.Texas Coffee Traders — 411 W. Monroe — Cool coffee warehouse. I don’t mean like a place where you hang out like Ruta Maya, but a real coffee warehouse. They do know the difference between Kona Blend and real Kona Bud coffee.
- 6. Rosita’s Al Pastor — East Riverside — Step on over to the East Side, it’s not very deep into South East Austin, and it’s a good example of the fine food purveyed here. Don’t expect much in English. This is where I had a terrible experience, I had been conversing in my street Spanish with the waitress, and she came back with some more food, asked me a question, and I responded in flawless French. I realize it’s the advantages of a Liberal Arts degree, but she just thought I was another crazy white guy. At least, that’s what I figured. But the food is good — get anything that’s got the Al Pastor stuff in it. It’s a slow roasted pork that’s real tasty. Make sure you try the green salsa they offer, and there is a David Byrne/Selena duet available on the jukebox. Closest thing you’ll find the an English title.
- 7. Jo’s — 1300 South Congress Avenue — South Congress finally has a coffee stop. It’s a little diner looking stand that seems lonely all by itself. Rumor on the street is that it’s somehow attached through corporate families to the renovated motel next door [opening soon]. It’s too soon to say for sure, but I do know that anytime I stop by Jo’s for a cup on the walk home, I hit the word processor will full force and wax eloquent about something. Could be the relative strength of the coffee or it could be the location, or it could because it’s so close to the South Austin Bermuda Triangle.
- 8. Big Bertha’s Bargain Basement — 1050 South Lamar — Shop. Stuff, lots of stuff. If you are looking for the best outfits culled from sources around the world, and some of the local garage sales, this is the place. It’s the shop where I acquired my finest piece of black velvet artwork. The store owner should be famous for once telling me, "You can never have too many nudes in your living room." Words to live by.
- 9. New Age Books — 1006 South Lamar — this is one of the places that endeared me to Austin in the first place. It’s a New Age bookstore, only, it’s been around since long before new Age was hip. Weird little storefront on South Lamar, right in the middle between Big Bertha and Maudie’s. The shopkeepers — Gemini and Virgo — have sincere interest in spiritual matters and that makes the difference here. Support your local small, family operated bookstore. Besides, this place doesn’t usually have best sellers, just the stuff that popular with my crowd. Pick an esoteric topic, and they have a section for it.
- 10. Austin’s Bermuda Triangle — It will suck you in, one day. I was giving directions on how to meet me at the bookstore for a reading, and I realized that just about all out of town visitors get tangled up in the directions, once they hit this area. It’s Barton Springs, Riverside, the River, Town Lake, the First Avenues, Congress. Someplace in there. You will get lost. Of course, since it covers less than a full city block, you ain’t going to be lost for long. But it will get you, our secret little place where even natives get lost. I wonder if there’s a coincidence that Threadgill’s is so close at hand?
Other Austin perennial favorites:
- Guero’s — Oltorf — Excellent cuisine. Of course, it’s Tex-Mex. What were you thinking? Nice, south Austin location, too. But good food. Make sure you try their Green Sauce.
- El Sol y La Luna — South Lamar — Attached to the Austin Motel. Hotel. Whatever. Excellent food. Not your Tex-Mex variety. Frequented by famous musicians.
- Maudie’s Too — South Lamar — advertised as Tex-Mex Heaven, that is partially true. It’s plain and simple fare served with courtesy. It dependable, fast, and certainly ranks as some of the typical good Tex-Mex that is a dietary staple here. I’ve started eating there whenever I have to work at the bookstore. There are several restaurants in the area, but I’ve found that Maudie’s has a special flavor, and it is always good.
- Various Shops on South Congress — the quality varies from outright junk to some high quality artwork. There’s been a gradual "greening" of this area. What was once run down is now pretty cool stuff. On a nice afternoon, it’s a great place to pick up trinkets from Austin. Rubbish to rubies, we got it all.
- Pho Cong Ly — Man cannot subsist on Tex-Mex alone. There must be some Asian food, too. The first Cong Ly I went to was up in north Austin, and I found it was the freshest and best of all the noodle shops. There’s a new one down south here, and it’s the same menu, and the food is just as good. Better, in fact, because I don’t have to go so far from home in order to enjoy a good bowl of, well, whatever those animal parts are, it’s delicious. Some things are better not known.
- Mozart’s Coffee — 3825 Lake Austin Blvd. — which is the perfect place to wait while you’re on the list to eat at the Hula Hut. Bubba and I found this place was a more than acceptable coffee stop especially since there are a number of outdoor tables which are cigar friendly. On those not – so – rare days when you want to be outside with a fine cigar and glass of chocolate milk, or a cup of high-powered java, this is the place. Or one of them, anyway. The coffee isn’t that great, but they have started roasting their own beans so it’s taken a step up, although I don’t find the coffee itself as good as Ruta Maya. The desserts also rock, according to my chocolate experts. Try a "Death by chocolate" for the sweet tooth craving. Bubba assures me it goes well with a Dominican cigar.
- Hula Hut — This place acquired a slight taint to its reputation because it got famous, as in the "the" place for a little while. It’s on the lake, and dining on the pier is one of the place I always try to take visitors. Where else can you enjoy Tex-Mex – Polynesian food? "Right, a pu-pu platter with some nachos?" asked one visitor. Whatever it was he joked about was actually on the menu.
- The Flight Path — Way far north, and named because it’s in the flight path of the present airport, it’s actually a quiet place with interesting choices in artwork.
- 6th Street [in general] — make sure you check out who is playing at Babe’s on 6th and the Black Cat Lounge. Stop by Bobalu’s for a cigar. I recommend the "Texas Draw" because it’s a good cigar for the price, I think it’s Honduran.
- Driskill Hotel — we spent Bubba’s 25th birthday up in a room with a balcony, hurling ice cubes at the street below. Wait, that wasn’t us, the statue of limitations ain’t run out yet.
- Little City Coffee — Good coffee shop. Certainly a better alternative to Starbucks which is about half a block away. Excellent atmosphere.
- Congress Avenue Booksellers — Cool bookstore, about half a block south of the state capital.
- Kerby Lane, especially the south Lamar location — The original location has more taste and looks nicer, but it’s always busy. The South Lamar place looks like a plain cafeteria or whatever on the outside. The food is uniformly really good. They maintain some sort of a farm deal where they grow their own tomatoes, or something like that. I never did read all the PR on it. But the food is good, service is what you would expect in South Austin, and they have the second best Gingerbread Pancakes in the world.
- Antone’s — The legend lives on. Excellent live music venue, right up the street from Ruta Maya.
- Waterloo Records — 600-A North Lamar — They stock a lot of local music, it’s a big enough store, and it’s not really a chain.
- Book People — This used to be a really cool bookstore., And even though it’s not a chain store, it has taken the feeling of a chain store. They do offer signing and other author promotions which are nice. And it is a huge store with a vast selection. And a coffee shop in one corner of the ground floor. Still, it’s not the "A" List but it’s listed.
- State Capitol Building — made from, uh-mmm, some sort of cool pink granite or something, mined by convicts, I think. So? So my history is a little rough. Just because the building is less than a mile away doesn’t mean that I’ve been there that much — I took the nickel tour when Ma Wetzel was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame. But it is a cool place to take a tourist. And it is taller than the capital building in Washington.
- Bobalu Cigar Co. — 6th Street — Looking for a Macenudo? Won’t find it here. Bobalu imports their own cigars and even raw tobacco, from the usual sources. They do offer a smoke friendly environment. And what better place to sit and watch the best floor show in town, the crowds on Sixth Street while enjoying a fine cigar and some nice beverage? Works for me.
- Congress Avenue Bridge — Since I can see part of the bridge (well, almost) from my patio, I don’t actually hang out here too often. But is a good place when the bats are in season — Mexican Free Tail Bats, I believe, who are here usually March to October, and the best bat times are in the late summer because the colony is at its largest then. Watching the stream of bats head off at sunset for a night of eating bugs is a strange sight. Imagine about a bazillion of the critters taking to wing as the sun sets picturesquely to your back. I can watch them from my patio, and it’s an awesome sight, on a summer evening.
- Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail — I discovered this after living on the edge of the Eastern Branch of this trail for over a year. It was about a four mile loop to walk the Eastern Branch which winds down to the Longhorn Dam, which makes Town Lake, then the trail heads up to I-35. The Eastern loop winds by some old East Austin neighborhoods, and the trail far more open on this side of the freeway. It’s a much better route, in my eyes. There is also more wildlife around on this side. Scenic stops long the way include the dam itself and the Holly Street Power Plant. The route that most people do starts at I-35 and heads west to MoPac where there is a pedestrian bridge under the freeway, just for us walkers, runners, joggers and the dreaded sport bicyclists. Then it winds back, skirting the shore of the river until it hits Barton Creek. On hot summer days, the leafy foliage of the Western branch makes it a cooler walk because a lot of the trail is out of the direct sun. I just never did understand why I encountered more females wearing makeup and perfume on the Western Loop. Natural wildlife visible includes those little rat like looking guys who swim around in the lake at night, swans, various ducks, geese, I guess, turtles, snakes (small and harmless) and a few heron.