After a painless, non-stop flight from LAX, we arrived at the Austin airport at 2:35 PM. We grabbed our rental car and dropped off our bags at our not-so luxurious hotel north of the city on I-35. Starving, we jumped back in the rental and pointed it south towards Guero’s. My favorite thing about Guero’s has always been the Margaritas. They don’t screw around with off-the-shelf sickly, sweet margarita mix – it’s fresh-squeezed lime juice and Cointreau. At times, this can make for some pretty sour margaritas, but mixed with some delicious Tres Generaciones tequila and it’s alright with me. And the chips and salsa at the Mexican restaurants in Texas are so good. They tend to lean towards those really thin chips. The food itself at Guero’s has never blown me away, but it’s always good. Today I had one Al Pastor taco and one Chicken Al Carbon taco. My inner 15 year old was geeking out because Mike Mills from R.E.M. was sitting at the table next to us.
After eating lunch so late, dinner didn’t really creep into our thoughts until after 11:00 PM. You’d think that in a college town with such a great reputation for its nightlife, there would be a plethora of options, but there really isn’t. We walked into Casino El Camino for one of the best burgers in town, but it was just too packed. Since we’d originally planned on eating migas everyday, we decided to try Kerbey Lane next. We hopped in our car and drove to the location on South Lamar, only to discover that they were on an hour long wait. We had late night plans, so that wasn’t really in the cards. Somewhat reluctantly we pulled into the Taco Cabana parking lot (not that there’s anything wrong with Taco Cabana). The Taco Cabana on South Lamar was the site of the first meal I ever had as an Austin resident back in 1999, so there was even a little sentimental value to the meal (I distinctly remember watching a giant cockroach run across the salsa bar as if to say “you’re a Texas resident now my friend”). After downing my Super Tex Mex plate (cheese enchilada, crispy taco, bean and cheese chalupa and quacamole) I felt revived.
My first thought upon waking up was “shit my back hurts from this awful mattress” but my second thought was Magnolia for migas. After showering, I decided I’d rather go somewhere with a TV so we could watch some March Madness. As my hunger grew, I though comfort food. I pointed the Sebring south towards Hoover’s Cooking on Manor Road. Usually when I go to Hoover’s I get the ½ BBQ Chicken. A lot of the barbecue chicken I’ve ordered at restaurants is super dry and gets stuck in my throat. But not at Hoover’s; Hoover Alexander makes some of the moistest, most flavorful chicken I’ve eaten anywhere. But today I was craving chicken fried chicken (probably because you rarely see it on a menu in Los Angeles). Best decision ever. At most places chicken fried chicken is served with a steak knife, but not at Hoover’s. The chicken is so moist and tender, that your fork easily cuts through it. The batter and creamy gravy are delicious too. SL ordered the gumbo and a side of mac ’n’ cheese. The gumbo had a really pretty, dark roux. It was honestly better than any of the gumbo we managed to get on our last trip to New Orleans. The mac ‘n’ cheese was just ok.
March Madness interfered with our dinner plans. I had plans to watch my Jayhawks with my old college roommate. Champions at 4th and Trinity is totally convenient to downtown/SXSW action. I ate some pretty good Wings with classic spicy sauce and the Jayhawks won. Success.
Late night shenanigans led to late night hunger. I tried to convince SL to settle for the Burger King next to our hotel. She insisted on driving around until we found a Whataburger. After one taquito with bacon, egg and cheese, I passed out. Slight acid reflux ensued.
On Saturday morning we had plans to meet some friends at Rudy’s Bar-B-Q on South Capital of Texas Highway. When you factor in drive time, waiting in line and overall quality of food – Rudy’s is my favorite barbecue place to hit during SXSW. Some people knock it because it’s a “chain” (30 locations mostly in Texas) but those people obviously haven’t tried to find good barbecue in Los Angeles. My stomach was growling as I watched the TV displaying the “Cutter’s Cam” – a camera trained on the guy in the back slicing the brisket. SL and I ordered 3 pork ribs, ½ pound of moist brisket, ½ sausage link, 1 small potato salad, 1 small cole slaw and a small side of beans. The brisket was delicious -completely moist and flavorful. The ribs beat anything I can find in LA, but too fall-off-the-bone for me to really love them. I tend to like a little chew in my rib and I could literally pull these off the bone with my fingers. The sausage was very good and the sides were pretty good for a barbecue spot (but sides really aren’t the point). Overall, a very good experience (and all that food cost us under $25 with fountain drinks).
After fighting a few crowds, we decided we needed an afternoon snack. Since we were in the neighborhood, we stopped in at Perla’s on South Congress. SL overhead some women in the bathroom talking about their trust funds and shortly thereafter a woman approached her to ask about her nose “I’m shopping noses right now.” Weird. When in Rome…I ordered a sazerac and SL ordered a champagne cocktail – both were good. Some tuna tartare and a couple of oyster shooters later and we were revived. Total bill, before tip, was around $50 (ouch).
After that monster feast at lunch, we didn’t start to get hunger pangs until around 9:30 PM. We briefly considered our downtown dining options before deciding to get in our car and drive to one of the restaurants I ate at the most when I lived in Austin (because I could walk there) – Trudy’s. When you’re a student at UT and don’t have any Friday classes, nothing beats heading to Trudy’s on Thursday afternoon after class for some margaritas. SL prefers Tex-Mex to the regional style Mexican cuisines, so I figured Trudy’s might satisfy that craving. One of the things Trudy’s is known for is their Mexican Martinis. The server brings out a regular sized cocktail shaker full of margarita and a martini glass with olives. They’ll only serve you two of them. Another great item on their menu is their queso; it’s almost impossible to get good queso in LA. Trudy’s queso is not too thick with lots of peppers in it. I had a combo plate with a chicken enchilada and beef taco. Nothing revelatory, but damn good.
On Sunday morning we woke and went to Spider House for some coffee. There’s not a whole lot of Slacker-era Austin left, but Spider House (although it’s expanded quite a bit) is sort of close. With all those monstrous condo complexes and the gentrification of East Austin, sometimes I miss that old Slacker-era of Austin.
After the caffeine fix, we jumped in the Sebring for Lockhart. While Austin is the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World,” Lockhart is the self-proclaimed “Barbecue Capital of Texas.” Located about 30 miles southeast of Austin, Lockhart is home to three very famous barbecue joints: Smitty’s, Black’s and Kreuz. Since Kreuz is closed on Sundays, we decided to try our luck at Smitty’s (which is actually housed in Kreuz Market’s original space). The line at Smitty’s didn’t look too ridiculous, but damn did it move slowly. The first thing you notice when you finally get inside is that there’s a pile of burning wood on the floor. I’m not really sure what that’s for (I’m guessing smell/ambiance so that smell of wood stays with you until you change your clothes and shower)? SL went inside to the side/drink line and I ordered the meat: ½ pound of pork ribs, 1 pound of brisket and 1 hot ring (sausage). The total cost for the meat was around $18. The sausage was fantastic - probably the best I’ve ever had. The casing is a little thick, but the contents were delicious. I know I complained about the ribs at Rudy’s not having enough chew, but the ribs at Smitty’s probably had too much chew (it’s a very fine line). There was a nice smoke ring, but just a tiny bit too tough. I tend to remove the membrane when I make ribs, but at Smitty’s they leave it on. It’s all personal preference. The brisket however, was delicious. No complaints there. Great flavor. I was torn about whether or not to try the prime rib, and ultimately decided to skip it. Next time I’m going to try that prime rib. The sides were passable. SL actually really liked the watery beans. And contrary to what I’d read – they do have barbecue sauce at Smitty’s. I don’t recommend it at all (way too sweet), but if catch them on a bad day and your meat is super dry, it’s available.
Later in the afternoon March Madness was in full effect. Unable to find parking at the Tavern, we headed to Third Base to watch the Longhorns and then Jayhawks play. We got some queso (it was no Trudy’s, but still pretty good for a sports bar) and watched UT lose and KU win. Boo Texas.
Once again, and after all that fatty food, we didn’t really get hungry for dinner until around 10:30. I did a quick internet search for “late night dining Austin” and the name Justine’s popped up. We pointed the Sebring eastward and drove. Located in a house in (far) East, industrial Austin, Justine’s (a French brasserie) was packed at 11:00 PM on a Sunday night. The host said it might be 45 minutes so we went to the bar and got some wine. Those first glasses were not cheap ($13) but they were good. After about 30 minutes we were seated. I ended up ordering the fish special (can’t remember the details) and SL ordered a salad and French Onion Soup. My fish was delicious. SL’s food was really good too. Cool ambiance, attentive service and really good food. It was a pleasant surprise.
With most of the SXSW attendees gone, we finally made it to Magnolia for migas. They did not disappoint.
For our last meal in Austin, we opted for Salt Lick at the airport. SL ordered a brisket sandwich and I ordered a turkey sandwich. Both are just coated in their disgusting barbecue sauce. When I’ve eaten at the restaurant I’ve always skipped the sauce, but today I forgot. Missed opportunity…