Austin Review

I’ve been told time and time again that Austin is my kind of town, but it took 35 years to get my ass out there. After a piece of cake flight, I met up with one of my girls and we grabbed a rental car. The drive from the airport to a friend’s apartment was amazing; rolling hills with bridges over serene water. I was awestruck by the contrast of the stone cliffs cut through the intensely green hills. Of course, the trip was not free from my insane clumsiness. We couldn’t get through the gate at the apartment complex because she’s got no home phone to buzz us through. A car came out and I tried to discreetly sneak through, but the damn thing closed too fast. I had to back up to the side to let another car in and was then instructed by my passenger to “gun it” to follow them through. Of course, gunning it would’ve been much more productive had I not still been in reverse. Barely avoiding jumping the curb and hitting a tree, we proceeded through the gate after the next car, unable to breathe through tears of laughter.

Once united, we headed downtown to figure out what all the bat fuss was about. For the Austin neophytes, apparently the Congress bridge is home to 1.5 million bats who take off at night in search of food. As it’s the largest urban bat colony, there is even a “bat hotline” to call for parking information and expected takeoff time. We planted ourselves on a couple blankets in the grass and watched as bats filed out from under the bridge in large clouds. As you can see from the picture, it’s difficult to snap pictures of the bats themselves, but it’s quite a tourist attraction and was a nice introduction to the lively vibe of the city.

Having survived bat-mania, we headed down South Congress for a late dinner and a little nightlife. Toiling over the decision about where to eat, we landed inside the South Congress Cafe, a trendy spot with a 15 minute wait at like 9:30pm. Despite the posh atmosphere, the vibe was quite comfortable and welcoming.

Thanks to a ringing endorsement from our waitress, we started with the most tender calamari I have ever had in my life (and trust me, I’ve eaten a LOT of squid). When the entrées came out we were in such a pleasant mood that we just couldn’t resist some food or foul/fowl antics with the Goat Cheese and Bacon Stuffed Quail dish. Don’t let the immaturity fool you, the flavor was incredible with a balsamic blackberry sage “gastrique”. I ordered the Beef Milanesa that quickly became the hit of the evening. The waitress was kind enough to bring an extra dish of the crawfish cream gravy that I proceeded to drown my beef, garlic mashed potatoes, and even the remaining bread from the basket in… it was outstanding. Unfortunately, the crab enchiladas appeared to be a bit of a let-down in comparison to the indulgence of the other dishes, but we left quite happy with our decision to dine at South Congress Cafe in a land of culinary treats.

The amount of people out on the streets in the middle of the night was overwhelming; there’s no denying the energy of this city. The crowd is incredibly diverse and yet comfortable, with everyone embracing the idea of keeping Austin weird. We slept with the windows open to a beautiful cool breeze and I awoke to the sun rising over the lush landscape… then proceeded to flip over and sleep another couple of hours. We debated about breakfast and took a tweeps suggestion of Torchy’s for breakfast tacos. Sure enough, they were fresh and tasty and went well with the creamy guac and chips we got on the side. The “Little Nookies” weren’t so much the deep-fried chocolate chip cookies described, as they came out chewy cornflake-coated cookie dough balls. Horrible texture, but you can’t win ’em all.

We headed back to South Congress to see what the daylight had to offer us beside blistering heat. We lucked out with little humidity, but after a few funky galleries and some ridiculous spending on jewelry at the artisan tents, we were toast. Austin has a great street-food culture and refreshment was calling. I snapped a picture of these awesome condos I was checking out while chillin’ with my “tiger’s blood” sno-cone (the top floor supposedly houses an indoor hot tub).

After driving to check out the sites and taking much-needed showers, we headed out to Fino for dinner.  The Za’atar Potato Chips with Preserved Lemon Yogurt was an exciting combination and the Pork Pinchito Skewers were tender and tasty at happy hour prices. The Fried Anchovie Olives left a bit to be desired, but seeing as how they were on the house, we were hardly swayed to run. I have to admit I was also thrown by my sangria that was pink and seemed packed with green apple slices, but my entrée was a tasty treat with a light and flaky Loch Duart Salmon over roasted corn and local tomatoes. The Texas Grass-fed Steak was huge, but surprisingly tough against the melt-in-your-mouth Yukon Gold Potato & Manchego Gratin. And finally, the Roasted Dewberry Hills Farm Chicken was unbelievably tender and juicy, with the smoked paprika glaze forming a beautiful crust. Having some time to kill before the big show, we went to Téo for some gelato (highly recommend the caramel flavor) and relaxing conversation on the patio.

It was now time to head to the infamous Antone’s to check out the Austin music scene. The opening “band” (I put that in quotes because I’m not convinced they were unified in any sense) was a horrible rendition of a high school band warm-up session. Saxophone and trumpet blaring with a weak beat on a drum set and scratching on electric guitar strings does not a band make. It was painful for all involved and, had I not known the main act was incredible live, I would’ve walked out with a sour taste for the local talent. However, I had faith that the sounds would get better and was proven correct with the second act called The Soldier Thread, a solidly talented group of youngin’s. While not exactly lyrically complex, the vocals were haunting and the addition of the viola and xylophone took it up a notch to download-worthy.

My one wish for the night was that I had gone with my usual concert attire and donned my docs. Unfortunately, I dressed up and my toes were numb before the main act even took the stage. As I watched Bob Schneider chat up the VIP crowd in the comfort of his “hometown,” I could barely resist the urge to strangle him for making me stand around in heels, waiting for him to take the stage; I was literally standing on pins and needles and any excitement was draining fast. It was well after 11pm when the band kicked in and I have to admit they seemed to have a different air about them from the Phoenix performances I’ve witnessed. I think it was a little bit of laziness mixed with some fun funkiness. I obviously wouldn’t have seen Bob perform numerous times if I didn’t think he put on an amazing live show and this was no exception, between the one-handed keyboarding and the harmonica strapped to his chin, I have never known anyone to hold such diverse talent. He sings everything from rap to bluegrass to romantic ballads, but what took the cake was when he picked up a trumpet and (after drenching him in valve-oil), kept up with the incredible Ollie Steck. You’ve officially impressed me once again, Bob.

After crawling back to the apartment and soaking my feet in a bathtub of cold water, we slept in until some ungodly hour. The Triumph Cafe provided a solid breakfast with a patio perfect for lounging, surrounded by big trees and active birds. I was sad to leave this place where I felt so at ease and yet so energized and even sadder to say goodbye to good friends. I was almost convinced to stay an extra couple days, I had the time off and Bob was playing an even more intimate show the following night. My friends took opposing sides like the angel and devil on each shoulder, but I decided to depart with a longing in my heart (and some money left in my wallet and diet plan in the works).

Until next time, Austin…

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