Austin, feeling in many ways like a rambunctious, western-influenced Berkeley, is a most unlikely capitol for American’s largest red state. But as a long-time resident reminded us, Austin’s hippie roots do go back years.
We start out early from the VanZandt Hotel for a brisk morning walk up S. Congress street, heading to the impressive domed capitol building. Flat, with broad sidewalks and lots of shade trees, Austin is an ideal walking town. We can’t help but notice the distinctive (and preserved) architecture. We’re reminded that Texas won its independence from Mexico (the Alamo is only 79 miles away) and Mexican colonial buildings blend with some 1870’s gothic revival for a distinctive streetscape with graceful iron balconies, scalloped and embellished facades. At street level, independent coffee shops, artisan grocers, art and curio stores and vintage clothiers hum with energy.
The Contemporary Austin, claiming a bold corner with its bright, modern façade, is featuring a film series With Liberty and Justice for All. The headline film, Two Spirits, investigates the spiritual nature of gender. Not exactly what we expected to find on the marquee in central Texas, but a symbol of how culturally aware Austin is.
Tacos earn their own paragraph in our report. Austin is a city obsessed with tacos — breakfast, lunch and dinner. We sampled some pretty fine A.M. versions, eggs, bacon, avocado, wrapped in a flour tortilla and lightly grilled ala a panini. By lunch we were ready for Torchy’s, undoubtedly the town’s taco mecca.
Feeling refreshingly apolitical, we ordered both The Democrat, (shredded beef barbacoa, topped with fresh avocado, queso fresco, cilantro, onions & a wedge of lime), The Republican, (grilled jalapeno sausage, shredded cheese and pico de gallo), Dirty Sanchez (scrambled eggs with fried poblano chile, guac, escabeche carrots and cheese) and the politically neutral Mr. Pink (ahi tuna, cabbage fresca, cilantro and queso fresco with chipotle sauce). We had to stop ourselves from literally drinking the queso dip from the bowl and the chips were what chips should always be — crisp, salty, and ready for a squeeze of lime.
We were here to look at food, and boy did we find it! Stopping at Austin based Whole Foods to see what the home retailer had to offer and we found it’s a veritable feast of experiences and offerings new to us. Sit and sip at the wine bar, sample craft brews, try some fresh sushi at the seafood bar, get your bones at Bowie BBQ, meander past the bakery and end at the juice and coffee bar, located right by the doors for quick AM in-and-out.
Next was Central Market, an Ikea-like wander-about along a prescribed trail that tempts the tastebuds at every turn. This is not a place to come when you just need vinegar. Rather, endcaps and gondolas overflow with temptation. The produce area is color cacophony with piles of fruits presented closer to eye level than most markets — visually challenging you to ignore the ripe lusciousness. Signs are fun — casual, easy to read and provide facts and fancy product, care and usage. Clever tone of voice makes messaging appealing and read-worthy. As we traverse from produce, past fish and meat, we round the corner to a well laid out wine department with excellent varietal navigation.
Central Market has the best local (Texas) assortment of products, across categories, I’ve ever seen. Beers, salsas, chocolates, and snacks, every type of small producer represented. Again, the navigation and journey is unpredictable, offering surprises at every turn. The marketing drills home the point that so much is made from scratch, right on premise, that the “local” message becomes store-centric. We end the journey, sensibly, with prepared foods ready to grab-and-go. My personal favorites are their clever portionings, “dinner for one, dinner for two, etc.” which eliminates any excuses and makes it silly to leave empty handed.
After the food coma was over, we headed South of the river where Congress Street continues and where the relaxed vibe loosens even further.
Continuing down South Congress, we are swept up into the vibrant, creative and hip neighborhood. It’s clear it’s a neighborhood in transition — but where some cities struggle, Austin embraces its change with relaxed attitude. Upscale new eateries and boutiques nestle comfortably between Mexican bars and graffiti storefronts. This is Austin of the movies, with open-air music venues, relaxed patios for cocktails and new restaurants. We landed at Perla’s Seafood, sitting on the broad wood patio, under spreading oaks, to sample chilled oysters, grilled octopus, and several of the unique craft cocktails. After dinner, we strolled past local boutiques and like-minded brands like Tom’s Shoes and Kendra Scott Jewelry. The Continental Club, which has been pulling crowds in with roots, rockabilly and swing music since 1957 is still there, but we didn’t visit this time.
We landed at Perla’s Seafood, sitting on the broad wood patio, under spreading oaks, to sample chilled oysters, grilled octopus, and several of the unique craft cocktails. After dinner, we strolled past local boutiques and like-minded brands like Tom’s Shoes and Kendra Scott Jewelry. The Continental Club, which has been pulling crowds in with roots, rockabilly and swing music since 1957 is still there, but we didn’t visit this time.
Back to the Hotel VanZandt, as students of retail, we have to say their retail offer (positioned in the coffee lounge) was a study in just right. Every hipster category was covered: men’s grooming, retro Texas vinyl, grilling and artisan cocktail books, local coffee and caffeinated accoutrements, and the requisite T-shirt collection with proprietary graphics.
Which brings up the subject of bats. We were surprised to learn Austin’s more casual sobriquet: Bat City, owing to a huge population of bats that live under the Congress Avenue Bridge and swoop out every evening at dusk for a big mosquito meal. We found the representations of bats on graphic posters and T-shirts at first confusing, but all became clear once we witnessed the evening swirl.
We finished our second day with a visit to Uchiko for some sublime sushi. I think we settled on glistening, ivory white bream as our favorite among many splendors. In the few moments we took our eyes off the food, it was to admire the stunning wall art (not wood, but rolled paper) by artist Sodalitas Painting Group, Jan Sweck and Shay Little.