For the Labo(u)r Day long weekend, we took our first trip out of Houston since moving in late June 2021. We stayed in East Austin and loved the slightly grungy vibe, with good coffee shops and breweries within easy walking distance. Our days were packed with running around Lady Bird Lake, lots of eating and a few cultural attractions. We didn’t see much of the famed live music, so will have to return soon!
After a week of long, late evening meetings we were looking forward to getting away, and hit the road after lunch. As per usual we were amazed at the multi-lane highways and crazy Texan driving. There were a few patches of heavy rain, and it felt like we were the only people driving to the conditions as cars and trucks sprayed water everywhere, hooning past in the left hand lanes.
We made it safety to Austin and checked into our accommodation, the Cat Noir Hotel, in East Austin. This boutique hotel has only 14 rooms, an awesome rooftop deck and most importantly a large, somewhat aloof black cat called Louie. He is so unusually proportioned that the hotel has a specification sheet for his dimensions! (There was also another tabby cat but it didn’t get the attention of Louie).
After a couple of months in non-pedestrian friendly Houson, we were excited to be able to walk around the neighbourhood. A few blocks away, we spotted a coffee shop (Revival Coffee) and whilst Mark had a pick-me-up espresso, I had a cheeky cocktail. A lot of the bars had patios with semi-permanent food trucks and stages set up. Due to covid, not all were open but they looked like pretty cool spots.
The next place we came across was Easy Tiger, a bakery and brewery. There was a huge beer garden with lots of tables and umbrellas, and a relaxed Friday afternoon vibe. We tried a couple of beers – I had a “shower beer” which I don’t know if it was created for drinking in the shower (like past times in K-town!) – but it went down prettily easily so maybe it was made for getting ready for a big night out?! Being a bakery, we also had to try the bread and ordered a garlic loaf and some brussel sprouts which were both pretty tasty.
There were heaps of bars and restaurants just behind Easy Tiger on 6th Street, but we continued on the beer theme and got some more drinks at Zilker Brewing. These were some of the best craft beers we’ve tasted so far and again there was a nice outdoor area with a food truck. To maintain the bar/food crawl we had fried chicken and a very spicy Asian salad.
To round out the evening we trundled along the road to Gelateria Gemelli for a ice cream before the short walk home!
Our first morning in Austin started with a long run around Lady Bird Lake. It was fairly warm and I had to stop often at drink fountains (also probably a bit dehydrated from the night before!) The lakeside trail is a nice 10 mile loop which includes shady sections along the water, bridge crossings and a boardwalk section. There were heaps of people out walking, cycling and running; as well as lots of paddle-boarders and kayakers on the water. The only scary moment was when a tree came crashing down from nowhere and landed on the path on the other side of where I was running, about 10m ahead. Strangely most people didn’t seem to notice but it could have caused a pretty serious injury.
After our long run, brunch was in order and just up from our hotel we stumbled across Try Hard Coffee. This ended up being a great find, with awesome coffee (Mark ended up going back every day) and a cute outdoor patio area with a disco ball! I had a delicious version of ‘mushrooms on toast’ with pickled and preserved mushrooms, labneh, za’atar, Thai basil, and koji sourdough. It was pretty umami and apparently very good for gut health! Mark had griddle cakes which were made from Koji porridge sourdough starter filled with corn, and topped with herbs, pickled radish, labneh and spicy tamarind chilli jam. This was the first place we’ve been to in Texas that is on par with the best breakfast options in Perth – for both food and coffee.
With covid still an issue, the second best BBQ in Texas*, Frankins, was only doing kerbside pickup. This required ordering a minimum of 3 pounds of each item. Plus, even with pre-ordering, a lot of the main items were already sold out! So for lunch (yes brunch and then lunch!) we walked to Micklethwaite Meats which is currently ranked 8th on the Top 50 BBQs in Texas*. There was a nice outdoor section, luckily with shade as it was pretty hot by this stage of the day, and free beers! We had brisket, a giant dinosaur sized beef rib and some really tasty sides (lemon poppy coleslaw, citrus beet salad and jalapeno cheese grits). The beef rib was yummy and the sides were great but the brisket was a bit of a letdown and drier than some we’ve had.
*Actually new rankings came out this week! Franklins is still top 10, Micklethwaite still top 50.
To arrest the meat coma, we walked into the city and headed to Texas Capitol. Ironically, since being the location of the no mandatory masks decree, there were plenty of signs strongly advising mask wearing inside! We joined a free tour and had the entry way statues and paintings explained, saw the portraits of all the Texas governors which line the walls of the rotunda (up to the fourth floor) and visited the Senate chamber.
The love of state (and what is an ex-country!) was everywhere from the ornate lights which spelt out Texas, to the giant Texas Capital door hinges which weigh over 3 kgs! We also walked through the Capitol Extension, which holds a lot of offices for the politicians and was built underground so that it wouldn’t impose on the beautiful old building and it’s magnificent dome.
It was interesting to learn some Texan history such as the six different flags flown over the state – Spain, France, Mexico, Republic of Texas, Confederate States and United States of America (plus there would have been the original indigenous population).
We also enjoyed walking through the gardens which had lots of statues, and great sight lines to the building. At the top of the Capitol Dome is the Goddess of Liberty, who holds a sword in her right hand and gilded (Texas) star in her left. As she is quite tall, she helps make the Texas Capitol taller than the US Capitol in Washington DC!
In the late evening, we joined a Bat Kayaking tour. We kayaked (some in more of a straight line than others) a couple of miles to Congress bridge and then waited for the bats to emerge. Only boats with electric motors are allowed on the lake so there were a few commercial boats and mainly people travelling under their own steam. We had to dodge an electric paddle-steamer and some donut boats (circular drinking boats).
There are estimated to be 1.5 million bats living in the narrow crevices of the Congress Bridge, making it the largest urban bat colony in the US. The bats are Mexican free tail bats, which are present from March to October. The night we visited, the bats didn’t leave the bridge until it was quite dark and being small, it made spotting them challenging from under the bridge. However, when guides shone their torches towards the tops of the pylons there were constant streams of bats exiting and heading in a long column along the tops of the trees. Some work colleagues who were also in town viewed from the top of the bridge and found it a bit underwhelming, though one did forget her glasses so everything was a bit blurry anyhow!
As it takes a while for all the bats to emerge, about 40 minutes, we watched for a while and then when it really became too dark to see much we kayaked back. This was very enjoyable with the city lights in the distance and glow sticks round our necks.
By the time we got back to the hotel it was pretty late, so we had leftovers on the rooftop deck at our hotel (and some drinks from the downstairs bar).
On Sunday morning we set off again for a run around Lady Bird Lake. We were a bit earlier than the day before and so it was cooler and hence more pleasant. As it seemed remiss not to take the opportunity to try the brunch cafes near our hotel, after our run we headed to Hillside Farmacy. The building used to be a drugstore and the focus is farm to table food, hence the name. I had some tasty pancakes and Mark had a healthy granola bowl.
Next on the itinerary was checking out South Congress (SoCo) which was supposed to be a good place for shopping, eating and drinking. Being the long weekend it was super crowded and actually very hot to walk along the strip so we didn’t find it that pleasant. However we did find some some cool stores which were distinctly Austin, though the top end of the street was full of larger chain stores.
Some of our favourite shops included Allens Boots, where there seemed to be cowboys boots available in every colour and style; Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds which was a mind-blowing costume shop; and Parts and Labour which had nice Austin souvenirs.
As it was so hot, in the afternoon we decided to drive around Austin and check out some murals, from the luxury of the car’s air-conditioning! It was good fun and there were a range of different murals to spot.
That evening we enjoyed a lovely dinner at Emmer and Rye. The restaurant focuses on seasonal and local cuisine and even includes a forager on the staff! We selected the tasting menu and highlights included yellowfin with sweet potato and apple, peaches with creme friache and miso granola (which wasn’t a dessert but a mid-dinner salad) and basil gnocchi. It was interesting to see the hybrid of Central Texas and Farm to Table. For example, there was a sourdough biscuit instead of traditional bread and butter, but it was so flakey and very tasty and served with an excellent terrine.
Emer and Rye is located at the end of Rainey Street, so after our early dinner (the only time we could get a table), we checked out the pub scene. Basically the street has lots of old houses which have been converted into pubs and clubs. Being the Sunday night of the long weekend it was pretty crowded and lots of the places didn’t look very covid safe. It is kind of strange what you get used to, but lots of people without masks seemed weird. We laughed at all the young things dancing to music from the early 2000s – multiple places were playing The Killers as we walked past!
On out last morning, we headed to Barton Springs. I walked around while Mark did some more running. The slower pace allowed me to admire the clear water, which is fed from underground springs. There were heaps of fish and plenty of red-earred sliders (aka the inspiration for teenage mutant ninja turtles)! In one section of the springs, about ten came up for air simultaneously.
We also had a dip at the Barton Springs Pool. It is pretty refreshing with the water temperature about 20 degrees all year round. It is semi-natural, with the bottom being rocky (and slimy in places!). There were some ducks swimming in the shallow end and some sections where the endangered Barton Springs Salamander lives, though we didn’t see any.
Of course there was time for a final coffee at Try Hard (and a breakfast taco) before we stocked up on some bread from Easy Tiger and began the drive home to Houston.
On the way back we stopped at Bu’cees, for a ‘cultural experience’. Bu’cees is a chain of highway food and petrol stores (with souvenirs, smokers and other odd things available). The stores are huge, the Katy store has the world’s longest carwash and the New Braunfels store is the largest convenience store in the world. It was absolute madness and the closest we have probably been to ‘real Texans’! It was a pretty successful first trip in the US.