by: David A.F. Sweet
A wild romp through Austin, Texas, with a tour guide forty-four years in the making…
The only way to be introduced to Austin, Texas is to be steered into town by a cab driver with bushy white sideburns who, after forty-four years in the environs, offers better insights than Yelp.
“If you meet a short girl named Maddie at the Irish pub, do not think of drinking her under the table,” he exhorts, blue dolphin dangling from the rear-view mirror. “She’s drunk University of Texas football players under the table.”
His warning noted, my wife and I also find out from our guide that Esther’s Follies vaudeville theatre is “reliably raucous” while a certain barbecue spot is “fan-damn-tastic.” Armed with this information, we head into the Hilton on 4th Street to check in. Once that’s accomplished, the cabbie’s energetic attitude seems long in the past as we ask the hotel concierge how to get to Elizabeth Street Cafe.
“Why would you want to go there?” he says, after pushing aside a bellhop we had originally asked. “That’s on the other side of the river.”
Despite his unconcierge-like manner, we happily walk a few miles in the heat and arrive at the artful restaurant serving principally Vietnamese fare. The young, friendly waitresses — all dressed in similar colorful dresses — gather four or more at a time to pick up the food from the open kitchen. The pho with spicy pork meatball has a deep, delicious taste.
It’s not easy to get a cab in Austin unless you’re departing the airport or standing in front of a hotel, and Uber has been banned from the city limits. So we wander back under the midday sun. There is really nothing inspiring about Austin on the whole – the architecture is as appealing as the design of a Dell computer. So thank God we were there for the live music and good eats.
The Continental Club offers solid old-time blues. With its old ceiling fans whirring and a black-and-white movie playing on an outdated TV, well, there’s no artifice in the least. A number of Lone Star beers – “the national beer of Texas,” as it announces on the label – went down smoothly, though it’s one of those lagers your father drank in the 1970s without a heckuva lot of taste.
My wife, doing all she can to keep Austin weird.
Thanks to a Vanity Fair article entitled “Daddies, “Dates,” and the Girlfriend Experience: Welcome to the New Prostitution Economy,” we grab some drinks at the Geraldine’s Restaurant inside Hotel Van Zandt. The piece says sugar daddies roam the place picking up young ladies for a trade off (sex for paying off student loans, for instance), but none were apparent this night, perhaps because U of T was on summer break.
The next day’s brunch will never be forgotten. At Max’s Wine Dive, the taste of the jalapeño cheese grits with spicy pulled pork and a side of grilled sourdough bread – with a dollop of homemade cayenne sauce within reach – almost makes me weep. I even eat it slowly, forgoing my usual animal-like behavior when a plate of morsels is set in front of me.
Finally, that evening, we stop in the age-old Casino el Camino on Sixth Street. Sitting at the bar, with the movie Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies on – and United States’ 16th Commander in Chief branding a sickle as he endeavored to chop off heads – we finally understood why we had bought our children the souvenirs we did: T-shirts that said “Keep Austin Weird.” Next time we need to buy one for our favorite cabbie.
Follow David A.F. Sweet on Twitter @davidafsweet or buy a copy of “Lamar Hunt: The Gentle Giant Who Revolutionized Professional Sports.”