We’ve officially departed Spain and are in the thick of our congressionally-mandated month of home leave. You’ll recall when we left Yemen, we spent our home leave driving around the American West and then up the coast of California. It was magic. This home leave we’re taking a different tack and going south. First stop: Austin Texas.
I’ve never had a great desire to explore the state of Texas as a whole — which, by the way, is larger than the country of Spain — but the city of Austin has always seemed to me an enclave of cool. Also, tacos. After 48 hours in Austin, I can declare that it is cool, resplendent with funky restaurants, the lion’s share of America’s food trucks, quirky shops, live country music, and abundant craft beer. And the tacos. Oh my, the tacos. However, I couldn’t quite get past how spread out all of these things are (our rental car came in handy). There seemed to always be cars – scratch that, trucks – zooming close by on a four-lane highway no matter where we were. Omnipresent traffic aside, we left Austin impressed by the city’s casual and quirky charm.
Barton Springs Pool
This three-acre pool is fed from underground springs, making it clean and cool (about 70 degrees the day we were here). It’s been operating as a swimming pool for nearly a century. Robert Redford learned to swim here! We spent a lovely hot afternoon reading on the grass and cooling off in the water. (2201 Barton Springs Rd).
The taco game in Austin is mesmerizing, which was splendid for me because I love tacos, as well as all Mexican/Tex Mex food. Breakfast tacos, in particular, rule the city of Austin, so we made sure to eat several the moment we landed (in the airport, but they were tasty). Later, we went to the “trailer park” location of Torchy’s Tacos (1311 S 1st St.) a local chain which began in 2006 as a single trailer and now has over 30 stores throughout Texas, serving up creative tacos, many of which are vegetarian. I ordered The Independent (fried portobello, refried black beans, roasted corn, carrots, queso fresco, cilantro, avocado, and ancho aioli) and The Dirty Sanchez (scrambled eggs, a fried poblano chile, guacamole, carrots and shredded cheese). Both were super satisfying and served with an array of spicy sauces. We washed them down with local beers that Mr. Dame in Spain ran across the busy road to buy from a convenience store where he spoke to the clerk in Spanish. The clerk was having none of it. The sounds of country music, classic rock, and giant truck tires grinding gravel were the backdrop for our meal. When an El Camino slow-rolled through past the food trucks, I was like “So this is Texas.”
Uchiko (4200 N Lamar Blvd) is an upscale Japanese restaurant that is the more casual outpost of Austin’s famed Uchi. Both are helmed by chef Tyson Cole. As a vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish, I can’t say Japanese is at the top of my favorite cuisine list, but this place has an entire vegetarian menu with options such as roasted golden beets with skyr yogurt, bitter greens and acacia honey; and a crispy rice, mushrooms, poached egg combo. My favorite thing was a dessert of sweet corn sorbet served atop polenta custard.
The Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin is home to North America’s largest urban bat colony. More than a million Mexican free-tailed bats fly out from under the bridge every summer night, darkening the sky like swirling smoke. We gathered on the bridge at dusk, along with hundreds of others to watch the spectacle. Just when we suspected there were no bats, that perhaps the colony migrated to Mexico a month early, they started pouring out over Lady Bird Lake. By then, it was too dark to make out their shape, but I enjoyed watching the endless dark cloud of flying mammals go forth to eat mosquitoes.
We had a good time looking through the unique shops on South Congress Ave., including the menswear store Stag (1423 S Congress Ave), Tesoro’s Trading Company (1500 S Congress Ave), and Uncommon Objects (1512 S Congress Ave). Uncommon Objects is the most organized, best-curated antique and vintage store I’ve ever stepped foot in. Or, as it calls itself, a “one-of-a-kind emporium of transcendent junk.” Although the booths are owned by individual dealers, there’s a cohesiveness to it all that makes it especially delightful to roam through.
Town Lake/Lady Bird Lake
Town Lake/Lady Bird Lake or, as the rest of the world calls it, the Colorado River, flows through the city of Austin. You can rent kayaks and stand-up paddle boards (or do a bat boat cruise in the evening). We didn’t have time for that, but Mr. Dame and I jogged in the scorching heat on a nice boardwalk, where I experienced a moment that reinforced all the Texas things I learned from Friday Night Lights. A toddler was running, football under his arm, pumping his teeny legs, while his very fit dad ran backwards in front of him, barking orders like “Run, boy! This ain’t no stroll!” We saw them later, cooling off at the drinking fountain and the dad said “That was a good practice, son.” The little boy said “Yeah, I did weely good.” Dad said, “I didn’t say ‘really.’ I got the feeling they don’t give participation trophies in Texas.
I’d also highly recommend visiting the Rainey Street Historic District, a street of bungalow homes turned into bars and restaurants. Craft Pride (61 Rainey Street) is especially good, and has a Detroit-style pizza truck parked out back called Via 313. (I’m from Detroit but didn’t know Detroit had it’s own style of pizza. It’s basically a pan-pizza on soft focaccia-like bread and it’s damn good).
Also very fun: A pint and ping pong alongside the canal at Easy Tiger (709 E 6th St).
We rolled out of Texas after a delicious American comfort food lunch (artichoke canneloni for me, rosemary pork loin for Mr. Dame) at Eastside Cafe (2113 Manor Rd) and a quick stop at Antonelli’s Cheese Shop (4220 Duval St) for road trip cheese supplies. After lots of flat roads, blue skies, swooping solitary birds, a peanut factory, Texaco stations, yard eggs, day lillies, tack, saddles, cutting horses, and more tractor stores that you can shake a bull horn at, we arrived to a lake house in Cajun country, Louisiana. Next up is New Orleans, so stay tuned.