Keep Austin weird. We’re not sure we’ve seen any major weirdness in Austin, but the truth is we had fun in the Texas capital. We stayed for four short days and found Austin to be a city of contrasts and unlike the American cities we’ve visited before. Here’s some tips for a visiting European.
- You need a car. Just rent one and it’s easy. We always tried to organize our days in “clusters”: drive somewhere, park, try to see a few things in clusters, sit in a car, drive somewhere else. Prepare to be driving a lot more than you though, and prepare to get stuck in traffic sometimes.
- Walking through Austin can be a challenging experience, especially on the East side of the town. Austin is clearly undergoing the first stages of gentrification due to the influx of high tech companies, but it’s not there yet. Walking between restaurants and cafes in Eastern side is walking between gentrified islands in areas that can still be pretty rough.
- Although the weather is nice outside, take a sweater. Air-conditioning levels can get intense down in Austin. We found ourselves choosing outdoor seating more often than we would just because it wasn’t as cold as the interior seats. Even on a cloudy, rainy day.
- Get into the music scene. It’s fun and a big part of what makes Austin fun. There’s a live band playing somewhere in Austin as you read this. We even played country music in our car as we drove through the city and it was the perfect soundtrack
- We found ourselves spending more time in the southern parts of the city. Spending time in downtown seems logical but we hardly found anything there that would be as interesting and fun as in the South Congress area, for instance.
Where to Stay
We stayed with our friends in Cedar Park slightly north of Austin, but we looked into hotels, too. The coolest one we found was the Hotel San Jose in South Congress, which reminded us a bit of the Jupiter Hotel in Portland, OR, but with more style and finesse. Great location among some cool shops and restaurants, too. We ended up staying in the AT&T Congress Centre hotel for one night after an extended dinner. It’s a humongous hotel for teaches and conferences by the University of Texas right next door. It was perfectly fine and good value, and very interesting to see. The sizes of universities simply don’t compare. We could not imagine the Charles University running a Hilton-size hotel just for its needs.
The first brunch of our Austin stay, Odd Duck is clearly a popular hangout for locals. Sit at the bar, order two Mimosas and you’ll be friends with the next couple before you know it. Great atmosphere and the brunch menu is ample and inventive. Odd Duck later becomes a great place for lunch and dinner, too.
There are several locations of Tacodeli around the town, but we went to the one on Spyglass right next to the river. There is something magical about sharing tacos with friends in the sun outside. Mind you, this is not fine dining: it’s a taco fast food, but we liked them a lot, actually. The vegetarian Space Cowboy and the Frontera were our favorites.
East Side King
Okay, we have a confession to make: we are addicted to Top Chef, and one of the reasons why we visited Austin was Paul Qui, the winner of the … season, who lives and works in Austin. We visited two of his establishments, starting with East Side King on South Lamar, a fast food place (which started as a food truck) that marries Mexican and Asian influences. Not everything was a winner (we did not like the octopus taco and the pork buns can’t match those in Momofuku Ssam bar or in Ippudo) but we loved, absolutely loved the fried kimchi, and the brussel sprout salad, simple yet delicious, will be something we will remember for a long time to come. And we loved the funky interiors, too. This was also a place where we fell in love with root beer.
Walk in Dai Due and the first thing that hits you is a beautiful smell of smoked meat. You know this place will be about Southern comfort. Three open fires in the kitchen make sure you get that perfect sear, and the fridge full of dry-aged beef is full of promise. We got the Central Texas breakfast with eggs, grits, ham, toast and see potatoes, and the Reuben sandwich. Both were delicious and HUGE. The outdoor seating in the back is really nice and complements the dining experience.
While Gardner, the sister restaurant of Contigo (the latter having a more Tex-Mex focus) was not in our original plans, they gave us a shoutout through Instagram, so we went for pre-dinner snacks, and oh boy, were we happy we did! The whole place, from the menu to the interiors, had a whiff of Nordic cuisine in it, with some fermentation and a big focus on vegetables with nearly no “sides” in the menu. We ordered a few tastes and wished we had the time to come for dinner. It was Monday, which meant they offered a fixed-price four-course menu for USD 28, which seemed a great deal for the quality. Added tip: loved the cocktails!
Foreign & Domestic
Foreign & Domestic was our main dinner with our friends. We arrived on Monday only to learn that their regular menu was out and the only thing they had was oysters and fried chicken. Which was great because we hate oysters, and Zuzi does not like one thing, it’s chicken. We ended up loving it. The oysters were probably the best we’ve had, and they had us question the quality of the oysters served in Prague, and the fried chicken, which came - just like the oysters - with lots of sides, was tended and delicious. It was Southern cooking at its best. The restaurant is tiny and includes an open bar/kitchen, which makes for a great atmosphere.
No, we did not go to Franklin Barbecue. We drove by just past 10am, nearly one hour before their opening, and there was about a hundred people waiting in the line. We don’t like likes that much. That’s why we drove to...
…where the line only took for about an hour (we came on Veterans Days). And we ate it all in about five minutes. But was La Barbecue worth it? Yes. It’s all about the context: you wait in line with hungry locals, get some soda from the bathtub full of nice next to the trailer where they sell the meat, and just eat under the shady pecan tree. We had the brisket, the sausage, a but of pulled pork, and then the bean salad, slaw and pickled okra. It was all good but the brisket was the best. The three smoking trailers in the corner of the property were smoking full time while we were there. Barbecue is a must when you’re in Texas, and we were happy we chose this one.
A dinner at Qui was one of the first things we planned for Austin. (We told you, we love Top Chef!) The restaurant gets the whole “fine dining in a casual setting” right: the interior design is minimalist with some graffiti on the outside, dim lights, and old-school hip hop playing throughout the dinner. Paul Qui was present in the open kitchen, but he did not cook. The liked that the tasting menus - the regular and the vegetarian - had completely different dishes, not vegetarian and meaty versions of the same dishes. The food was great: not every dish was a winner, but that’s what you get with a tasting menu, and some of the flavors were great. Added bonus: they had a Czech Gruner Veltliner by Mr Michlovsky in the wine list!
Our final dinner in Austin. We deliberated between Uchi and Uchiko but ultimately chose the latter because we read the flavors were a bit bolder. We sat at the sushi bar and that seemed to be a crucial decision: the chef, Angela, just took care of us throughout the evening. We also came in at 5pm and learnt it was happy hour, which meant a selection of the menu items were available in smaller portions. We ordered all of them, and then let Angela choose sushi and dessert for us. It was the best ending of a great stay. We love sushi but honestly rarely had it outside of Prague. This was one of the best we've had so far. Loved the atmosphere, the food and the drinks.
Sadly, we did not have the time to visit Hruska’s store way out of town for some great Texan kolachees, brought to America by Czech settlers, but we did get our fix at Lick, a beautifully designed ice-cream parlor at S Lamar. Nearly twenty flavors done right. We’re sure the flavors change but mark our words: the dark chocolate with salt and olive oil and the toasted coconut with lime were the highlights, just as the buttery waffle cone. Could eat that alone.
Patika Wine and Coffee
Well, we have not tasted any wine in Patika, but we did love the coffee. Roasted by Wild Coffee in Austin, it was a lighter roast and better than most of the coffee we had in NYC. We liked the place so much we went twice. Latika also serves breakfast (with two items on the menu) and - duh - wine. It’s a small but popular place on South Lamar just a few steps off East Side Kings, so we recommend you combine the two.
Recommended by Jirka from Misto café in Prague, Cuvée on the East Side of the 35 highway is known for its cold brew (nitrogenated Black & Blue) which they have on tap along with a selection of craft beers. Calling this cafe cosy would be a stretch: it’s an industrial design in a space largely without windows that looks more like a rock club, but it’s open to the parking lot in front of it and the bar in the middle in undeniably cool. No wifi.
Houndstooth Coffee place has several locations (one next to Uchico on N Lamar) but we had coffee at the Downtown location at Congress st. They have a beautiful Kees van der Westen Spirit machine, and the coffee was the best we had, next to Patika. The downtown location lacks something in atmosphere: it’s in an office building, but it has wifi and we could imagine doing lots of work there.
Seventh Flag Coffee
A beautiful cafe south of the river with nice interiors and even better outdoor seating area. The coffee at Seventh Flag was okay but the appearance of the place made up for it.
Flat Track Coffee
The tiniest coffee in an otherwise fairly run down area about half a mile from La Barbecue. Flat Track is what you’d call a hipster cafe: tattooed barista, cool styling with cyclist references and an edgy feel. The coffee was actually good and can be best enjoyed on the bench outside, Their merchandise is fun and they are moving into roasting their own coffee, so buying a mug and a bag of coffee will be possible soon.
Okay, Sister Coffee may be one of the cutest cafes we have ever seen: just a tiny trailer with one table under a tent and a fun styling with one of the funnest and - dare we say feminine - mug designs. Sadly, we did not like the coffee: it was too hot and the milk was over-steamed. Still, undeniably cute.
A wildly popular spot on South Congress. Jo's Coffee is the best place for observing people, and you do have material to observe as a woman is making her own poncho or a group of athletes exercises and activists try to promote a charity. The coffee was okay at best but the iced tea was very nice. Right next to the San Jose Hotel, which looked uber cool.
Whole Foods Market
Yup, the first Whole Paycheck… sorry, the Whole Foods Market, was founded in Austin in 1980. No matter what you may think of this whole chain of organic foods, if you’re a foodie from Europe, this is amazing. The assortment is just something out of the Old World.
Wanna wear new boots to your weekend rodeo? Allens Boots on South Congress will deliver. Choose anything from plain to plain crazy. They have it all. Yeehaw!
We visited both locations (N Lamar and S Congress) and we loved both shops, with a slight preference to the smaller one at S Congress. Beautiful apparel, home accessories and shoes. That said, we did not buy anything: the brands were mostly European and we wanted to buy something local. Still, By George is a beautiful store where we could spend long, long minutes.
A cute, tiny store just East Site of the I-35. They sell boots, just not the boots that Allens Sell: Helm Boots are your modern boots that look good with a flannel shirt and a waxed, perfectly styled mustache. Just buy a pair, choose any of their laces in striking colors, combine with Austin-made socks and your good to go. We were not in the market for boots so we actually bought some nice thank you cards for our hosts.
Austin calls itself the “Live Music Capital of the World”, and a walk through the Sixth Street will convert any doubters into believers. It could easily be dubbed the record store capital of the world, because Waterloo Records, just across N Lamar from Whole Foods Market, was the biggest record store we’ve ever seen. If you like records, you could spend half a day here. They had some usual suspects and hidden gems, too (incl. one of Jan’s guiltiest pleasures, “Show Some Emotion” by Joan Armatrading. Yup, she recorded better albums, but hey, we like this one, okay? Three bucks in Waterloo!)
Stag sells modern and traditional apparel for men with a slightly hipster twist. Anything from raw denim to watches to shirts to bracelets. Just combine with Helm Boots and Goorin hats next door to complete the look. Nice selection of Austin-themed shirts that are not tacky.
A tiny food store right next to Dai Due restaurant, In.Gredients sells some organic and other fun provisions to the neighborhood. The first place we've seen that sells granola with crickets. Crickets!
We always like to see a movie whenever we travel, and Alamo might be the funnest we’ve ever visited. They make their own pre-show programs, which can be more fun than the movie itself: we went to see Spectre, and the 30-minute pre-show about Bond knock-offs was hilarious, and included footage from a Czech movie! This place is clearly run by movie nerds (witness the carpet from the Shining by Kubrick in the S Lamar location) who love their jobs. Every two seats have their own table with waiters crawling around during the movie and checking everybody has everything they need. Super fun.