Austin, Texas: Why You Need to Go

“Topographically, Austin is where east and west fuse. Politically, the blue dot in a blood-red state. Culturally, where barefoot and boots come together.” So says Taylor Bruce, founder of the Wildsam Field Guides. Let the Austin edition of these field guides be your bible. The Wildsam books are more than “best of” or “what to do” books; they are a look into the who, where, what, why and how of some of America’s best-loved cities.

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Three days in Austin gave us a just a taste of what this city has to offer – more like a teaser and only served to whet our appetite. In December the weather was pleasant with days a constant 17 Celsius, and a nice break from the -20 we were experiencing in Alberta.

First stop, food trucks. Austin’s food truck scene, even in December, is rocking. Carts, wagons, trailers, trucks, anything with wheels: it is predicted that Austin will see nearly 2,000 food vendors on the streets in 2015. Pretty impressive for a city with a population of just over 240,000.

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The South Austin Trailer Park & Eatery on South 1st Street is home to Austin’s eponymous taco truck, Torchy’s. Torchy’s now has several locations throughout Texas including some brick and mortars, and is one of Austin’s most recognized taco purveyors.

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“Damn good!” is what you will say at first bite. Yes, they were damn good, extremely damn good. Some of the finest tacos I’ve eaten.

Baja Shrimp Taco
Baja Shrimp Taco

A couple of blocks down is another food truck park, this one home to Gourdough’s. To say Gourdough’s serves doughnuts is like saying Pisa is home to a really big tower. Gourdough’s doesn’t just server doughnuts: they serve deep-fried, golden-hued, orgasmic delicacies.

The lineup at Gourdough's
The lineup at Gourdough’s
Gourdoughs donuts
Left: the ODB (Coconut over cream filled doughnut holes)
Right: Blue Balls (Doughnut holes with blueberry filling and blue icing)

Like any city, Austin has its districts and each district has a different vibe. So, depending on what you’re in to (food, shopping, touristy stuff, history, fancy, low key, music, drinking), do some research to see what area suits you for accommodation.  We stayed near the State Capital Building at the Hampton Inns & Suites on Lavaca Street.

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The area near the Capitol is fairly quiet but near to museums and easy access to South Congress area and the East North Loop. Staff at the Hampton Inn had a refreshing “can-do” attitude. The hotel itself is impeccable and the rooms were large, immaculate and well-appointed. It is also right down the street from the Texas Chili Parlour, a dive bar that caught the attention of Anthony Bourdain and where Kurt Russell shot a scene of Quentin Tarrantino’s Death Proof. Bourdain, Tarrantino, death…that should make you just a little curious. That, and the fact that its spittin’ distance to the State Capital, well, you never know who you might be rubbing shoulders with in the TCP. Initially, we scoffed at this place with its tacky exterior and huge neon sign. We were sure we’d be disappointed. It ended up being one of the best experiences of the trip. Be prepared for over-worked waitresses, crusty tables, and dark, dingy rooms but also killer margaritas and kick-ass chili.

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Sometimes we take a break from eating (no, really) and take in the attractions of the city.

The Bullock Texas State History Museum is a great place to get a dose of Texas history and it was the perfect backdrop for my new “Texas All Night Long” boots I picked up from a vintage consignment shop in the East North Loop called Big Bertha’s Paradise If you love vintage clothing, make sure you stop in to see Henry at Big Bertha’s. He’s a gem and loves having fun with his customers. And, how can you not love a man who calls you the “Canadian Bombshell”.

Bombshell accoutrements courtesy of Henry at Big Bertha's Paradise
Bombshell accoutrements courtesy of Henry at Big Bertha’s Paradise
A man looked at these boots and said, "Them are 'Texas All-Night-Long Boots'.
A man on the street looked at these boots and said, “Them are ‘Texas All-Night-Long Boots’.

Mid-Century Modern lovers will be in heaven at Room Service, a large space dedicated to furniture, knick knacks, lighting fixtures, and all things that are of the Atomic era.  There are great coffee shops and restaurants (like Foreign and Domestic) in this not-so-touristy-area making East North Loop a definite part of Austin to put on your itinerary.

Breakfast tacos. Get used to it; you’re going to overdose on these things because nowhere else, other than Mexico, will you get first-rate breakfast tacos like you get here. Don Juan’s was recommended to us by our server, Patrick, at the Goode Co. Seafood in Houston. When it comes to sussing out the real deal for Mexican breakfast dishes like tacos, migas, and chilaquiles, Patrick knows his stuff. This place is off the beaten path, and totally worth it.

Breakfast at Don Juan's
Breakfast at Don Juan’s

A hearty breakfast is what you’ll need to fuel a day of exploring South Congress, a neighbourhood full of boutiques, galleries. coffee shops, restaurants,  antique stores and live music venues.

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The Continental Club for live music.
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Stellar pizza at Homeslice
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Eclectic boutiques in South Congress area

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Austin has so much going on. The food scene is off the charts and no matter what your tastes are in food, you’ll find Austin has incredible fare for everyone: sushi, fine dining, food trucks, pizza, barbecue, even hot dogs — but hot dogs in true Austin style which means, mind-blowing. Lots of places like to think they make a gourmet hot dog, but there are very few who could make it to the top ranks. Frank, in Austin, is one of them. This is gluttony at its best. Go hungry.

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And when you go to Austin, go thirsty because their cocktail, beer and wine scene is fantastic. Wine made in Texas? Yes. Serious, brilliant, beautiful wine from McPherson Cellars made from grapes grown on the high plains of the Lone Star state.

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Austin is a city that begs to be explored. I love it, I miss it and I can’t wait to go back.

Surprisingly, the one food we didn’t delve into as much as we would have liked is barbecue. Austin’s barbecue joints are legendary. You need to line up at the crack of dawn for some of them and you’ll find articles and posts written solely about Austin barbecue.

About 30 miles to the southwest is Salt Lick Barbecue, a rambling ranch house that has served up ‘Q since 1967. You’ll smell barbecue in the air from miles away.

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The food here will make you weep and the drive alone through Texas Hill Country will make you glad you stepped off the beaten path. Stay off the highway, take in the sights of sprawling ranch country with its creeks and ravines, scraggly trees, rolling hills and longhorn cattle.

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Always take the back roads, you never know what you’ll find. Read about my Houston to Austin back road adventure here. Plan your own Austin adventure with the Wildsam Field Guide and for even more info on Austin, check out the online resources below:

Austintexas.org

Southern Living

Condé Nast Traveler