(It’s Michelle again!)
I first decided I wanted to visit Austin over a year ago. Matt and I had heard great things about its thriving food scene and quasi-cowboy-hippie-culture. So when Matt was booking our tickets home from Cancun, we opted to use our free stopover for a short trip to Austin. We were scheduled to land in San Antonio in the afternoon, at which point we would drive to Austin and spend a relaxed evening walking around/finding ourselves some tacos. Unfortunately, our flight was delayed five hours for no apparent reason (thanks American Airlines!). We got to our Austin hotel – Habitat Suites, very highly recommended – well past midnight and we immediately fell asleep.
In light of the delay, we shifted our plans and cut out San Antonio almost entirely in order to recover lost time. Luckily Austin doesn’t have too many specific tourist sights so we were able to spend most of our time leisurely walking around and eating.
We ate a lot. I woke up the first morning and scoured Yelp/Zomato/TripAdvisor for all the best food recommendations. This is my usual job on our travels – Matt researches the locations, books all the flights and day-trips, and figures out our overall itinerary; I am in charge of the food. So when I started my foodie investigation and found that almost all popular Austin restaurants were well above our budget, I was pretty upset. I looked up cheap eats, ethnic restaurants, casual spots, but nothing seemed to work for our tastes and finances. It was only once I discovered the amazing food truck scene that everything began to make more sense. Austin may have great restaurants – or it may not, I actually don’t know, we literally didn’t go to a single restaurant – but their food trucks are very, very hard to beat. The prices are reasonable and the food is restaurant quality. Most of these trucks are permanently stationed in a given location, and each is replete with surrounding picnic tables and wait staff to bring your meal to your table. After writing down a quick list of some trucks, we were ready to head out for our first morning.
We chose to start our day walking along South Congress, which is a great strip chockfull of restaurants – check out the new Torchy’s Tacos stand-alone resto! – and boutique stores, mixed in with authentic cowboy boot shops and BBQ joints. It’s pretty eclectic and really fun. We parked at the bottom and made our way up, snacking all the way. Some helpful women in one of the stores suggested that we try out Home Slice Pizza and we happily complied. The slices are very large so one is more than enough for two people. And if you’re still hungry, try the red velvet cupcakes at Hey Cupcake!, a food truck permanently parked on South Congress right across the street from Home Slice.
Some sights on South Congress not to be missed:
- The Austin Motel: a super weird, super Austin, super quirky hotel on the main strip.
- Check out one of the cowboy boots stores – all the boots are $500+, but they’re beautiful and they remind you that you’re still, in fact, in Texas, and not in some hippie colony meets BBQ haven limbo world.
- The boutique stores are great if you like shopping – they’re cute and all have similar reasonably priced merchandise. I picked up a summer dress and a pair of shoes, and mentally noted that the prices were much lower than comparable stores in other big cities (including Montreal).
- The store Uncommon Objects is so, so fun. If you’re a borderline hoarder (hello!), you maybe shouldn’t go in. It sells everything from old shopkeepers’ financial records to antique tins, bones, maps, furniture, and cameras. Just everything. We spent a good forty-five minutes walking around the store, taking in all the random things. Thankfully the Canadian dollar is so bad that I couldn’t justify buying anything.
- TORCHY’S TACOS. Go to Torchy’s Tacos. Eat a taco.
Once we were finished our walk and pre-lunch eats, we made our own way to Torchy’s truck, which was a 10-15 minute walk from South Congress. At the time, Torchy’s stand-alone store had yet to open (it opened on our last night), so we steered ourselves towards the food truck. The food was delicious, the prices were good, and the ambiance was fun. We ordered at the truck before finding ourselves a picnic table among some large families likewise capitalizing on Torchy’s good food and fair prices.
We learned so much about patience in Texas. Directly before arriving in Austin we had been travelling in Mexico, where “Mexican time” tended to turn a quick meal into an hour-long wait. We expected that when we returned to the US, food/everything would arrive in a timely manner. Clearly, we weren’t ready for Austin. Austin is slow. In our limited experience with four different food trucks, we never waited less than thirty minutes for our food. Don’t be fooled: we were not visiting at busy times, and there were never many people ahead of us waiting. It’s just a slow process and that’s okay. But prepare yourself! Don’t come starving. Expect to wait.
That being said, it’s well worth the wait! I ordered the fried avocado taco and it was delicious. I love that everywhere in Austin has good, well thought out vegetarian options. In my research, I had no trouble finding restaurants that both Matt as a meat-eater and I as a vegetarian could enjoy. We also got an order of the Migas (a breakfast themed taco with eggs, tortilla chips, and peppers) to share, which was similarly delicious. We’re small people, but one taco each was more than enough. We couldn’t finish the Migas despite our best efforts.
After lunch we made our way to the famous Austin postcard sign and took the requisite tourist photo. It was only a 5-10 minute walk from Torchy’s and definitely worth the trek for the fun memory! There were some other tourists/new Austin transplants there who were happy to snap the pic for us.
Afterwards we walked back to South Congress and took our time returning to the car. Many of the restaurants had live bands playing outside, and the entire street was surprisingly lively for a weekday. There were lots of young families with dogs, eating outside, listening to music. It was a very idyllic Austin experience.
Once we had thoroughly explored South Congress, we went back to our hotel for some downtime. All the rooms at Habitat Suites are, as the name would imply, suites, and our room came with a full kitchen (full sized fridge! Four-burner stove!), good sized living room, and a large bedroom. I kind of wish we could have stayed there for a week, but it was not meant to be. For $120 USD a night though, this place would be a great deal even at full price. We were able to get a $70 USD a night deal so we were very happy with our purchase. And the breakfast at the hotel was fantastic! All made-to order and all vegetarian. They had a list of a bunch of meals from which you could pick – from breakfast tacos, to full breakfasts, to a hashbrown-mountain covered in eggs. I think there were eight options overall, in addition to a small buffet offering a continental breakfast.
Around 4:30, we drove to Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon for a real Austin experience. That is, Chicken-Shit Bingo. Matt had been talking about this for a few days and I was somewhat reluctant about it – chicken-shit bingo sounded kind of gross. But these weird experiences are the kinds that you remember long after the trip is done, so we went. And thank god we did. Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon is a small building filled to the brim with chicken-shit fans and honky-tonk dancers. Out back, another 100+ people hang out by picnic tables listening to music and drinking. It all seems very relaxed until 5:00pm comes around and the bingo tickets go on sale. At that point, what feels like ten thousand people rush to get a spot in line to buy a ticket. The tickets all sell out well before everyone can purchase one, at which time all ten thousand people somehow squeeze into the tiny building that is Ginny’s Saloon and proceed to madly cheer for their chosen number.
We were going to leave after we saw the line for tickets, but on a whim decided to grab a good viewing spot before everyone could get inside. From our vantage point we were treated to a great show. The loud music, the smell of alcohol, the complete absurdity of the game; it was certainly a memorable Austin experience. Everyone from ten year old girls to sixty-five year old camera-wielding men were fighting for a spot to watch the much awaited chicken shit on a grid of numbers. Chicken-shit bingo: the great equalizer.
Following that memorable experience, we made our way to Lumiere Tintype. Lumiere is a photography trailer parked behind the trendy restaurant Brasserie Justine. I’ve followed Lumiere on Instagram for over a year and have long intended to pick up our own tintypes if we ever made our way to Austin. We last got tintypes in San Francisco at Photobooth SF, which has since closed down. If you have the opportunity to get tintypes of you and your family, you should definitely consider it! It’s a dying art form that is truly beautiful. Very few people in North American continue to offer direct-to-consumer tintypes. In fact, this one in Austin may be the only place left doing it. Almost all other tintype photographers are fine art professionals with whom you’d need to book a private session for a few hundred dollars in order to get a tintype portrait done.
Our tintype cost $60 USD for a 5×7 and we were allowed to do one together rather than two separate shots costing twice the price. The only thing to consider is that the tintype takes 45-60 mins to develop/stabilize, so you may want to look into doing something else in the area to pass the time. Lumiere’s photographer suggested that we get dinner at Brasserie Justine – which was really nice and we definitely would have loved to! – but it was too expensive for us.
Us being still ignorant as to the hyper-slow ways of Austin food trucks, we decided to grab a quick dinner before returning in about an hour to pick up our tintype. I chose Arlo’s for dinner, an all-vegan truck serving burgers and fries about ten minutes away by car. It’s located in the back of a bar through which you have to pass in order to access the truck. We ordered cheeseburgers and fries, and were told the wait would be 30-40 minutes. Since there were only two or three other parties waiting for their meals, we were left somewhat in disbelief. Matt actually made the man repeat the wait-time twice over.
Faced with 30-40 minutes to waste, and it being pretty cold at night in Austin, we hopped back into the car and drove back to Lumiere to pick up our tintype, which would by that time be ready. We then drove back to Arlo’s to get our meal. Taste-wise, the food was very good. Compared to the other food trucks we visited during our visit? Arlo’s comes in last. Still, if you’re going to be in Austin for awhile, we would definitely recommend a stop here.
We spent the next morning exploring the Capitol building. The building is a really beautiful old structure surrounded by a lot of open green space. Perfect for some morning walks or afternoon picnics. Following the recommendation of a friendly staff woman at the information office, we opted to join one of the free tours offered at the Capitol. These tours are only forty-five minutes and give a great impression of the history of the building. As for our tour guide, she was funny, friendly, and informative; she didn’t dwell on anything for too long, and she kept us moving and interested.
We followed up the tour with a short walk through downtown before heading to Gordough’s Donuts, another great food truck. I was amazed that even this truck, an all-donut food truck, had a 20-30 minute turnaround time. Again though, it was worth it. I got a cream cheese/banana/brown sugar concoction and Matt got a fruity chocolaty monster donut.
These donuts are not for the light of heart. They are to be eaten with a fork and knife. They are a full meal in themselves. I couldn’t even finish mine. Definitely a must-visit in Austin, and it’s right near the Torchy’s truck so if you somehow have a bottomless stomach you can get Torchy’s for your meal and donuts for dessert!
More donut than human at this point, we took a long walk around Zilker Park. There are a ton of awesome outdoor activities to do in Austin around Barton Springs, but it was a bit cold when we were there so we mainly limited our activities to walking around the park. I don’t know if you’re allowed by law to let your dogs off-leash in Austin, but of the 50+ dogs we saw around the park, all were running free. If you’re a dog lover like I am, you can spend an entire day walking around and petting happy puppies.
That evening we ate at East Side Kings, a food truck located behind Liberty bar. This truck came very highly rated, and for good reason. It’s founded by chef Paul Qui and you can definitely tell it’s chef-owned.
It’s important to note that while many of the food trucks we visited were situated behind or around bars, only this one asked for ID in order to walk through the bar to the food truck out back. So make sure you’re 21! Other than that, just eat as much as you can. I ordered the deep-fried peanut butter curry bao and the Veggie Meshi (fried Brussels sprouts, sweet & spicy sauce, shredded cabbage, basil, cilantro, mint, onion, jalapeño, steamed jasmine rice, ginger, and garlic oil). The Veggie Meshi was one of my favourite foods ever. Order it. We left thoroughly satisfied – and stuffed.
The next morning we woke up early and drove about an hour to Black’s BBQ in Lockhart, otherwise known as the BBQ capitol of Texas. A lot of people visit Lockhart with the intention of consuming three courses of BBQ at Lockhart’s three famous BBQ restaurants. Sadly, we only had time for one meal before our flight. I don’t eat meat, but I still enjoy a good BBQ restaurant. These restaurants always have great sides – Mac and cheese! Cornbread! Baked beans! – and a fun country ambiance. Black’s was no exception. The food was very good and the staff was friendly. Still, it wasn’t the best BBQ place either of us have visited. At the top of that list would be Mighty Quinn in NYC (suuuch good sides, and Matt claims the brisket was the best ever) and Oohs and Aahs in DC (amazing mac and cheese, amazing ribs). But Black’s was still a fun experience, and hey, what’s a trip to Texas without some BBQ?!
From Black’s we drove to San Antonio, where we took a quick tour of the River Walk. Though we got to spend all of forty-minutes in San Antonio, I’m already confident that I want to return. The architecture was beautiful, the streets were wide and clean, and the River Walk was more fun than I had expected. Lined with shops and restaurants, the River Walk is less tacky and more magical than you would think. I’d definitely like to come back some night, sit outside on the “river,” and enjoy an overpriced dinner at the touristy restaurants. No sarcasm. It really is pretty magical.
But that will be an adventure for next time! And there will definitely, 100%, be a next time. I’m not done eating my way through Austin, or exploring San Antonio, or seeing all of Texas for that matter. And we certainly haven’t had our fill of Texas BBQ.