Austin Trip Notes

Several cities in the U.S. have a sort of reputation about them – that “one thing” that even the geographically challenged know about the place. Las Vegas equals gambling, for instance, just like San Francisco equals the Golden Gate and Full House and, um, being just all-around awesome, I guess. Well, for me, Austin, Texas has meant music, ever since I first caught Stevie Ray Vaughan on Austin City Limits back in high school. Back in the fall, I joined Gina on a work trip there as a sort of mini-vacation and scouting trip. What I found is that Austin does equal live music, but it’s also much more.

Our first night there, a Saturday, we heeded the collective consciousness and walked from our hotel down to Austin’s (in)famous Sixth Street. Based on a bunch of Yelp reviews, I was prepared for a den of salaciousness and hedonism, with bars at every turn, naked people freely walking the streets, dogs and cats living together – basically a Texas-sized version of Bourbon Street. What we got instead was a possibly more varied version of a college-town Saturday night, mostly due to the University of Texas’s main campus being blocks away (which was another surprise to me).

Sure, there were bars everywhere, each blasting live music of every conceivable genre, so that if you wanted to hear, say, some punk folk on any given night, you could probably find it somewhere on Sixth Street. There were ingenious pizza windows operated out of the side of restaurants in order to feed the drunken masses into the wee hours, as well as representatives of the omnipresent Austin food trucks on several corners. The population we saw was a mix of good-ol’-boys still dressed for the football game that afternoon, sorority girls, frat boys, hipsters, hippies, punks, Goths – nothing too shocking. Maybe we were just there on an off-night. But all in all, it was a cool vibe, and some of the most famous and historic clubs in the South are all within a few blocks of where we walked. As it turned out, due to the timing of our trip there was basically no band playing that I wanted to go out of my way to see, so despite my visit to the Live Music Capital of The World, I did not hear much live music in its entirety. That’s something I’ll have to fix on a return visit.

While my live music habit was ultimately neglected, my recorded music needs were met quite nicely by a trip to iconic Waterloo Records. Upon entering Waterloo, I knew I was at home. Though I’ve always dabbled in virtually every genre, if I had to plot my current musical tastes on a map, they would fall directly on Austin. The eclectic mixture of blues, jazz, country, folk, Americana, and rock that comes out of so many Austin artists is something that my friend Stuart and I were unwittingly emulating all throughout our teens and twenties as we carved our musical tastes out of small-town West Virginia. I’ve lamented in this space before about the demise of the American record store, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time I write about it, but it makes me happy that places like Waterloo and Bull Moose up in Maine still exist and seem to be thriving. I’m hopeful there’s enough of a niche market of music geeks that will still want to own albums and treasure their music for a lifetime, instead of just streaming the latest Beyonce album on Spotify and forgetting about it a few weeks later, that will keep this part of the industry alive. Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox to say that I dropped some money on some great albums at Waterloo, which had some great deals and tons of stuff from local artists that is tough to find anywhere else, even on Amazon and iTunes.

When Gina and I felt that we’d experienced the musical side of Austin well enough for a weekend, we explored the foodie side of the city. Across the street from Waterloo stands the flagship Whole Foods store, which was founded in 1980 and is still headquartered in Austin. We don’t do a lot of shopping at Whole Foods here at home, mainly due to convenience and price, but if all of them were like this flagship location we could completely sustain ourselves without ever leaving the store. It easily surpassed Wegman’s in terms of experience, though if you start by imagining an all-organic-food Wegman’s and go from there, you kind of get the idea. There were areas for creating your own custom-made soup mixes, trail mixes, and/or nut butters. The produce section extended beyond the horizon line, featuring every vegetable. I mean, I had no idea there were a dozen different varieties of sweet potato, but they all were represented there. Fresh pork BBQ was being slow roasted in the middle of the store, filling the aisles with that unmistakably American aroma. A full-service coffee bar, smoothie and juice counter, and hot entrees were all available. It was impossible to leave there without buying something to eat.

That's a nice potato.
That’s a healthy potato.

Fulfilling a Texas requirement, we also dined at one of the local BBQ fixtures later in the weekend: Ruby’s. While not the top-ranked BBQ in Austin, an honor that seems to drive locals into a very lively conversation as to which establishment is worthy of the title, Ruby’s was very good. I could have had my own miniature Meatfest there. Between that, a classy dinner at the historic Driskill Hotel, some tasty Mai Thai before we left town, and lunch on our first day at the Yelp-recommended Taqueria Don Mario out near Lake Austin, we sampled a pretty nice variety of Texas cuisine. We also got dessert at local favorite Amy’s Ice Creams, though in the end we weren’t that impressed with it.

Given my passion for food trucks here in DC, I ventured out on my own one afternoon to get some lunch from some kind, any kind, of truck. The only hard part was choosing, since a guy can basically trip on one food truck in Austin and fall on another. I settled for Turf & Surf, a place that wasn’t so much a truck as a walk-up window attached to a restaurant, but the fish tacos and hush puppies I had were tremendous.

Aside from the food and the music, we also did a fair bit of traditional sightseeing around Austin in the short time we had. What struck me about the scenery was how green and hilly the Austin area is, completely different from the stereotypical Texas tumbleweeds-and-flatland further north. The Colorado River helps with that, as several scenic lakes dot the area. Gina and I toured Zilker Park and the famous Barton Springs. The Springs were closed due to both the off-season and recent flooding, but it was neat to see the literal town swimming hole. We rode the Zilker Zephyr, a miniature railroad snaking through part of the park, just to have something to do. It was a nice diversion for a few minutes. The park itself is huge and dotted with all sorts of sports fields and green spaces. If it had been a bit warmer that day, we could have spent a lot more time there. And again, if the timing of our trip had been different and Gina hadn’t been creeped out by the idea, we would have certainly stopped to see the daily flight of the Congress Avenue Bridge bats. Maybe next time.

While Gina was working, I also spent a few hours at the LBJ Presidential Library on the UT campus. This was my first presidential library visit, so I didn’t know what to expect, nor did I have any basis for comparison. I can say that I had a good and educational time. My favorite exhibit was a touchscreen / phone interface where you could listen to many of LBJ’s then-private phone calls to various Congressmen and journalists. In each, you could hear his signature style of politicking to sway the listener to his point of view on the issue of the day, all in that Texas drawl. The mid-60’s mock-up of the Oval Office was also a treat. As I hope all presidential libraries do, I believe the curators did a fine job of presenting all aspects of his presidency, warts and all. I look forward to reading more about him one of these days.

So there you have it. Before we knew it, our time in Austin was over, but not before impressing me like few other cities have. Great food, a hefty touch of weirdness, strong individuality, culture, history, and great music? Austin and I are going to be good friends.

Check out the slideshow below for some photos from the weekend.

Peppered Past

Peppers are a lovely vegetable. I’ve always enjoyed bell peppers, a staple in my Dad’s garden for many years. However, in recent years I’ve also come to a good understanding with progressively hotter varieties of chiles, going along with my increased appetite for spicy food. Mexican, Thai, and Chinese just wouldn’t be the same without them. I respect the pepper. I haven’t tried all the varieties, but most of them sound inviting and slightly mysterious (or at least the name of a nice housing development in Arizona): Poblano. Serrano. Cayenne. Sure, I’ll drop in and stay a while.

I mentioned my Dad’s garden. I’ve tried my best to replicate even a tiny fraction of his vegetable paradise on our deck the last couple of years, without much luck. I’ve mainly tried a few varieties of tomato and green bell peppers every year, and I maybe get a few tomatoes and one pepper out of any given plant if I’m lucky, and even then the squirrels or bugs would get to them before I could. When it came time to try again this spring, Gina and I were visiting a local greenhouse that was having a moving sale. We enjoyed digging through what was left on the slightly disorganized shelves, getting plants for our front yard at good prices. As a lark, I picked up another baby pepper plant. The tag for this one intrigued me: it was the Sweet Chocolate Beauty.

Healthier than an M&M, but just as seductive.

It was the best-looking plant left in the greenhouse, so I picked it up thinking I had little to lose. And if the pepper turned out as great as the picture, then I was surely a winner.

Months later, the pepper plant had stayed healthy thanks to some particularly diligent watering and feeding on my part. When you have a jewel this rare on your deck, you have to tend to it. And before I knew it, three little peppers started growing! Sweet chocolate beauties, I was ready!

The only problem was that as these beauties grew and ripened, they were … small. And orange. Neon orange. Decidedly not chocolate looking.

I blamed myself. Surely I should have put the plant in a bigger pot! I should have fed it more! My chocolate beauties were stalling out in some kind of weird orange phase and were never going to fully ripen! More days and weeks went by, and my pepper status didn’t change. It looked like I was stuck with half-formed degenerate peppers. By the time I swallowed my disgust and went to pick them, two of the three peppers had begun to dry out on the plant, so I threw them away. The remaining one looked okay and seemed ripe enough, so I took it to the kitchen and set it aside on a paper towel. The pepper was so small, half the size of my thumb, that I didn’t know what to do with it. I figured I’d wait until I made some kind of salad and then try it out.

Recently, Gina and I made some kind of salad. I had admittedly been putting off using the pepper, partly because I was afraid that it was not truly ripe and would taste sour or something, and partly because I was hoping it would magically turn into chocolate one night. Since it never did, I had run out of excuses. As the finishing touch to my lunch, I cut the little orange pepper in half, cleared out the seeds, and plopped it on top of my bowl of salad.

Lunch was pleasant. We had our normal polite conversation and planned out our afternoon. I ate my sandwich first because I was starving, then I picked around the salad, still avoiding the pepper just in case. Finally, I forked up half of it and tossed it in my mouth, thinking that if it tasted weird I would at least know for sure and then I could give up on growing peppers from a pot on my stupid deck.

I bit down. Instantaneously, a volcano erupted in my mouth, melting my teeth and sending my tongue hiding for cover down my throat. My face contorted as sweat formed on my brow and my nose began to run. I managed to choke out, “This is hot as fire” before spewing flames – and the half-bitten pepper – like a dragon. Gina rushed to the kitchen and poured a glass of milk for me, which I immediately tossed back and let fill the molten lava pool where my mouth used to be. At that point I would have taken a bath in milk or at least dunked my whole head in there.

Gina pointed out what I should have realized all along: this was not the plant I thought I had. Thinking back, there were many many warnings I had chosen to ignore: disorganized plant markings at the greenhouse. Bright orange coloring. The fact that neither squirrel nor insect had touched these peppers. As it turns out, my green thumb worked perfectly, I just had the wrong type of pepper. Instead of sweet chocolate beauties, I got a 100% authentic habanero plant. For some perspective, a habanero is roughly 25 times hotter than the hottest jalapeno. While not the hottest chile out there, depending on which “Scoville pepper scale” image you Google, a habanero usually sits in the top three. And I had just unwittingly let it invade my mouth, raw.

All of this I discovered after my mouth cooled sufficiently for me to function again. Later, I peered out the deck door at the innocent-looking plant. Two more baby peppers had started to form. I squinted across at it, staring it down. I had taken its challenge and survived.

Think of the cartoons along the top as a reenactment of my progressive reactions to the habanero.

The saddest part? I still don’t know what a Sweet Chocolate Beauty tastes like.