What makes Austin a loving, awesome city
A trip report over July 4th weekend
I’ve long heard good things about the Austin— Texas’ version of San Francisco, liberal, energetic, home to festivals that are emblem of our generation: SxSW, Austin City Limits. It’s also the state capitol of Texas, bearing witness to history.
Yet, I didn’t know what to expect of Austin, much less a city that I think I’ll be back at some point.
Sleepy-eyed at 4:50am in the morning, I dragged myself out of bed. A few hours and a nap later, I was whisked away by a Southwest flight to an unmistakable Texan welcome to Texas: 95ºF heat, 60% humidity.
As I found out over the next three days, the heat was just a first taste of the warm hospitality and passion of Austinites.
“Welcome to Texas.”
As soon as we got to our Airbnb, we were greeted by Catherine, a genuinely hospitable host that beamed with energy. Delightfully, we found out that Cat had her own herb garden out back, outgrown mint shrubs, fragrant rosemary, lime trees, everything! Indoors, magnetic spice holders adorned the kitchen walls. What a lovely and well-designed place!
Although that was our only interaction, it was apparent that behind Cat’s big smile was a woman that had a passion for living.
If you knew me at all, you may know that I like coffee (if you don’t, check out my Instagram). If you knew my friend Ruobin, you’d know that he’s a wizard at finding the best kept secrets through Yelp.
We got to work.
To my surprise, Austin has a ton of good third wave coffee shops. Throughout the trip, there wasn’t a single shop that disappointed, and the density seemed to even put the Bay Area to shame. If I had to compare, I’d say Austin closely resembles Melbourne in this sense.
Every coffee shop we walked into had all the right ingredients of delight: La Marzocco espresso machines, well crafted roasts from Stumptown (Portland) to Huckleberry (Denver) to local roasts, and fittingly eclectic decor. Moreover, they all showed heart and care, from the owners that designed the concept to the baristas that served up cup after cup of jolly goodness.
You just know it’s a great city when the coffee culture is vibrant.
But it wouldn’t be a complete Austin trip without the BBQ. After all, I secretly think that’s how we all agreed to come to Austin, in the blistering heat, for a “vacation.”
It was about 2pm now. my friend Ruobin soon found a place, Micklethwait Craft Meats, just a short 2 blocks away from our Airbnb. Starved by only having had peanuts since the wee hours, we eagerly marched on.
There was barely a line when we got there. Having heard horror stories about Franklin Barbecue’s 5 hour line, I was taken aback. That changed as soon as I took my first bite into the brisket.
You know that feeling of having the “real” version of some food for the first time? Like having omakase sushi in Tokyo, a solid margarita pizza in Naples, or Xiaolongbao in Shanghai? I felt like I was having BBQ for the first time.
I learned that there are lean brisket and fatty brisket, and I (guiltily) prefer the fatty variant. Between the slightly charred rub, the melted fat, and the oh-so-tender meat, I was in meat heaven.
3lbs of meat for 4 people is a ridiculous amount of food, but we were undeterred. Micklethwait was amazing, but we wanted to give one other place a try, if only for comparison purposes: la Barbecue. It’s commonly talked about as the second place for BBQ in Austin after Franklin (which we weren’t about to tackle for its notorious long lines).
The next morning was July 4th. We woke up and dragged ourselves to la Barbecue — it’s a whole different scene here! When we arrived at 10:20am, 40 minutes before it opened, the party has already started, and boy it’s quite the scene.
In what would otherwise be an empty lot, a series of trailers dotted the edges. These are the stars of the show: smokers, trailers, and other contraptions that cook up the magic. In the middle, a duo of singer-songwriter serenading the crowd. And a deceptively long line that we ended up queueing over 2 hours in.
But it’s such a beauty to watch a master at work, with grace and precision. That was how it felt like watching the the people at la Barbecue, when we finally got to the front.
Bam! — a slab of brisket, wrapped in butcher paper, dripping in juice. A few graceful slices later, we were treated to yet another hearty, delicious, and all-American wonder.
Austin is known for its vibrant music, and sounds permeate the city, from bars to live music at BBQ pits.
We gathered on Congress Ave Bridge at dusk, waiting for the daily bat flight and Fourth of July fireworks. As it happens, a convertible drove by. A giant American flag draped behind it, and the speakers blasted the song, “Proud to be an American”. I thought to myself, how fitting.
To me, barbecue and music are a microcosm of Austin’s culture. A city and a people that take their craft very seriously, but take themselves lightly. It’s the passion and dedication that produce top quality products, and it’s the lighthearted and welcoming spirit that underlies the genuine hospitality.
Angela remarked on the trip that Austin is very prideful city. In California or New York, you don’t see the state flag on top of every building, but in Austin — you are constantly reminded that this is the Lone Star Republic. Well, they have every right to be proud of it!
The last season before Phil Jackson retired from the Lakers was his farewell season. The Zen master silently noted that each away game meant saying goodbye to a city.
As he takes his final lap through the N.B.A., Jackson occasionally pauses to note a milestone, telling his assistant coaches, “This is our last time in Milwaukee.”
— NY Times
To a younger me in 2011, the concept of farewell was foreign. Yet as I traveled more, I start to see a divergence between places I’ll return again, and places that I won’t. There are some places that are truly “once in a lifetime” — while wonderful, probably not worth a second visit.
This is not a story of one of those places. This story isn’t over —
Austin, I’ll be back.