Living like a local in Austin

Austin has somehow become like a third home to us over the last few years. Starting with our first visit for the Formula One race in 2012, then proceeding with two more trips for work, and finally followed by a recent trip for our third child’s babymoon, we’ve seen our fair share of the incredible Texas State Capital. From running the banks of Lady Bird Lake to hanging out on Rainey Street to a relaxed weekend day beneath the shade of trees at a local brewery in Hill Country, it feels like we’ve received a great sample of what makes the city great.

With the arrival of our third child approaching, we wanted to get away briefly, leave the kids at home, and relive some of our earlier memories in a warmer clime but still with easy access to medical care if needed. We ended up combining a work trip to Houston with a detour in Austin which even in the middle of January, was warm and sunny. Having enjoyed the restaurants, breweries, and live music, we were excited to get back into town and see how it held up.

Overall, we were shocked with home much Austin has grown and changed. Areas that were entirely under construction when we visited in 2012 are now hopping areas combining restaurants, outside bars, and modern apartment buildings. No where was this more obvious than on Rainey Street which is now lined with packed restaurants and was nearly empty before. On the other side of town, there are now business stretching further, a massive Whole Foods, and restaurants to encourage a visit further from the center of Downtown and 5th street than before.

Where to stay

Taking our living like a local approach in stride, we rented out an apartment in The Guild Downtown. The Guild is a growing operation where unleased apartments are rented out, often in great locations. This was perfectly situated right downtown. There were even amenities like a breakfast taco gathering for tenets and visitors alike on the weekend, plenty of coffee stocked in the full kitchen, an Apple TV with Netflix and other shows, and even a gift card to a local coffee place to encourage people to get out and sample the local fare. It truly felt like we lived in an apartment right downtown.

What to eat

Austin is a phenomenal food city. Not only is it top rated for BBQ with some of the best spots in the entire country, but the Mexican and Tex-Mex food is incredible and super authentic as well. Breakfast tacos are a great starting off point and we began our voyage through the Austin culinary scene at Tamale House East, a bit of a walk but easily doable from our apartment. In the traditional and spacious setting where we took a secluded table outside in a serene garden-like courtyard, we enjoyed truly delicious tacos while I sipped a hand made michelada to get my day going. It doesn’t get much more authentic.

For a lighter and more liquid based breakfast, Jo’s Coffee is a mainstay around Austin. On our first visit to town, we stayed at an Airbnb, actually our first use of the service, down off of South Congress Street and walked to the Jo’s there for delicious iced coffee in the morning. Since we were close to the downtown location this time, we went there for breakfast and coffee a few times. Since the temperature wasn’t in the 90s like the summer we visited before, I tried their latte and found it just as tasty. We didn’t have their migas this time, but I recalled how good they were as we saw them delivered to multiple tables inside.

Perhaps regarded as one of the best places to get simple but delicious tacos at any time of day, though we mixed breakfast and lunch into a new thing we call brunch, Veracruz Natural Food has several locations around town including the food truck spot we visited to the east of town. While it did involve a bit of a wait due to the popularity, the tacos were amazing and lived up to the hype. With numerous choices of protein and other toppings, there is a pretty good variety of choice for a food truck as well.

While out in East Austin, it’s worth a pilgrimage to a less known, but just as well renowned BBQ joint as some of those in town, Micklethwait Craft Meats. Don’t let the austere food truck and trailer hitched smoker fool you, this is some high quality smoked meat. Whatever meat they have available is what you should get. We sampled an incredible spicy sausage, some succulent smoked ribs, and of course the brisket. The plate of these was plenty of food for two of us, and we enjoyed the different flavors and of course the depth of flavor that came from the low and slow smoking of each. It was also a perfect rest stop after the walk around the area with picnic tables nestled in a nice shady grove in a quiet section of town.

Also out in East Austin, Ziker Brewing is a great place to grab some brew and spend time with friends. While we sampled the light but flavorful fruity sour and IPAs, we played Uno with some of the cards from the brewery for the first time in years, all while enjoying the tables outside in the front. They were even brewing as we sat there, surrounding us with the aroma of malt and hops. It was hard to leave after only two drinks, especially since the sour and IPA I had went perfectly with the warm sun and fresh air.

On the other side of town, well actually in numerous locations across the state, Torchy’s may not be the prime example of authentic Mexican street food tacos, but the inventive approach to flavors and styles has served them well as they’ve expanded from food trucks to huge brick and mortar locations across the state. The location on South Congress is great for soaking up some sun on the expansive patio while enjoying a variety of tacos. Sadly they didn’t yet have a liquor license for the taps at the outside bar when we visited, but they promised they were working on it. You really can’t go wrong with any of the delicious tacos, but it’s always a good idea to mix the menu staples with the specials.

As great as Austin’s downtown and surrounding areas are, it’s also nice to get out into Hill Country for some different scenery and possibly some fun out in the sun. One of the best memories from our previous trip was a journey out to Salt Lick BBQ, often touted as the best in the region. We couldn’t believe how much it had grown since we visited. Not only is the restaurant about twice the size, there is a wine cellar, huge picnic area, and live music. It definitely caters to the tourist crowd, but that doesn’t mean the food isn’t incredible. Even better, it’s BYO, so pick up some local craft brews to enjoy with the meat. The food had stayed just as good with excellent smokey flavor and bark on the ribs and brisket. I’d say it’s worth the drive alone, but there are some other great spots to detour to in the area.

Nearby, Duchman Family Winery has an idyllic location that feels almost more like the rolling hills of Tuscany than Texas. The large winery is perfect for a relaxing tasting at the bar or even better, out on the lawn. While everyone else foolishly went for reds and whites because it was “only” 60 degrees outside in mid-January, I knew rose season had started in my heart, and found their offering perfect for the sunny day where I actually picked up a lovely pink color myself.

For a different type of beverage and a respite from the direct sun, Vista Brewing made for the perfect resting point once things started getting warmer. The huge farm setting includes a large tasting room and a wonderful shaded grove to enjoy at tables, on relaxing love seat swings, or circled up in Adirondack chairs. The extent of beer styles is impressive too. From collaborations with other local breweries to beer made with honey from the farm’s apiary, there’s a wide range to suit any taste.

Revisiting the area we called home on our trip in 2012, we rediscovered some of the excellent food and drink in South Congress. Frequently among the top rated and recommended of Austin’s taco spots, we had eaten at Guero’s tacos on our earlier trip and thought it good, but not great. After finding it on so many lists for Austin in the intervening years, we decided to give it a try again. This time, thanks to a great seat outside in front, we found it lived up to the hype. The Mexican food was delicious, massive, and authentic, and they even had a few local craft brews. We then enjoyed a relaxed stay in their beer garden while a band played live and we enjoyed the final hours of light before the sun set and it cooled back down.

Another favorite of ours from the earlier trip was Hopdody Burger Bar which we discovered when we couldn’t find a table anywhere else and were able to get in at the bar. This time, we chose to sit at the bar just for some more local craft beer of which they have plenty, and didn’t actually eat. Still though, we saw they are still serving up the same massive burgers that looked and smelled just as good as they had years ago. Even with the area around changing massively in this time, the food and drink have stayed true to form.

A new discovery this time around was a bit further off the main stretch of South Congress, further than we walked the last time. The Austin Beer Garden Brewing Company lives up to the name with a large beer garden and a great variety of beer. They might take the prize for some of the best dark beer in a town primarily focused on lighter IPAs and ales. As a super dog-friendly spot too thanks to the big outdoor area, it’s perfect to stay outside on a nice day with four legged friends. They even have a stage inside, so swing by for some live music.

Just because Austin has so many great neighborhoods surrounding the downtown doesn’t mean that downtown isn’t worth exploring. Lamberts, an upscale modern bbq restaurant is the perfect place to grab something a bit different than just a platter of smoked meat. We really loved the wild boar ribs as well as the brisket. As a place to catch live music, the upstairs is also great just because of the relaxed vibe of the lounge. It’s easy to get a table just for drinks or even to get food from the kitchen during a show.

Another spot that’s great for drinks and entertainment, though completely different, is The Rustic Tap. I’d wager it’s the best place to catch a football game in town thanks to numerous large TVs all around and the seating which is comprised entirely of tailgating chairs. Situated around fire pits, it’s great even on colder days. The entire space feels like a large courtyard in the middle of town. While it probably gets a little rowdy for us during LSU games since it’s the official bar for the school, it was perfect for catching football games.

Over to the west, Austin has grown a ton since we were last there. Last time it was all construction and cranes. Now, it’s big retail shops and restaurants. One such, the ice cream spot Frozen Rolls, has perfected the rolled style of ice cream done on a freezing slab with unique flavors mixed in. It’s incredible how great a squirt of milk with some flavors and later toppings mixed in can taste.

Also over on the western side of town is the massive Whole Foods flagship store. Well worth a visit just for the size, it’s also a great place to grab some food from the large café out front, the bbq spot inside, or even a drink at the full craft beer bar inside, featuring beer that’s also carried inside the store. There’s even an ice skating rink up on the roof during the winter.

Also a short walk from downtown, Rainey Street has become the trendy place to hang out in town. There was maybe one bar in the area before and blocks of construction. That bar, Lustre Pearl, has grown almost beyond recognition, and the entire street is now packed with bars and restaurants among residential apartments. The bar itself used to feel like an old house in the middle of a yard which had ping pong tables, a few chairs, and a food truck. Now, a mass of shipping containers forms a second floor above the original building, the yard is expanded, and there’s even a tent in it with more seats. While Lone Star tall boys aren’t $1.50 now like they were then, the menu has expanded a bit.

Just down the street is a great spot to grab some food along with a huge menu of around 100 beers on tap, Banger’s Sausage House and Beer Garden. Like a German beer hall, it’s a cozy spot inside with a big menu of sausages with different meat, seasoning, and flavor options. Whether it’s a traditional brat or something a bit more exotic like elk or boar, there are tons of options on the menu. The huge variety of beer on tap also means there’s a perfect brew to pair with any choice.

A bit further outside town, actually right under the airport, Live Oak Brewing is another great place to get some local brew along with a great spot outside. My favorite was their smoky rausch beer. It would have gone perfect with some of the great bbq we had found in town. The huge outdoor space feels almost like a county park with lots of green space and tables. When we got chased inside by some sudden rain, we found more football on the tv while we played cards from the collection the brewery had.

Austin is the perfect slice of heaven for lovers of food and beer. It’s certainly not an undiscovered place now and it’s grown up considerably in the 10 years since our first visit. A little of the weirdness is gone, but it also feels more varied and friendly now. Areas that were dark and full of construction sites before are grown out and up now, and the city has grown a ton. There’s far more than just BBQ and tacos around Austin these days. A world class craft brewing scene has emerged and Hill Country has some truly great wine. After ten great years of visiting the city, I can’t wait to visit again over the next ten.

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