Saturday 16th March. An early rise, a cloudless blue sky, and our introduction to South by Southwest (SXSW). After a wrong bus journey and a brief walk around the downtown area (typical acclimatising to any new city) we made our way to the legendary downtown 6th Street. 6th is lined with numerous music venue, dive bars serving up giant burgers able to settle any Texan appetite, high-end rooftop bars, tattoo parlours, niche art galleries displaying local work, upscale restaurants and casual cafés. Such ecliptic living attracts an equally ecliptic crowd, so much so that on weekend evenings the seven blocks of 6th Street that have heaviest foot traffic are closed to vehicles from 10pm onwards. In short it’s organised chaos and during SXSW this area is the heartbeat of the festival, permanently closed to traffic and packed with all walks of life.
Our first stop, a venue rented by New York based, hipster music blog, Brooklyn Vegan where Red River meets 6th Street. At this stage I’ll share some words on the ‘official’ SXSW… originally started to showcase upcoming and exciting new talent, now an excuse for music industry A&R folk to descend on the city of Austin, sucking the life and soul out of any rising music talent like vampires. In short, a corporate monster that no normal music loving fan could ever afford. And your prize if you do shell out for a glossy all-access pass, 5 minute sets from desperately unhappy musicians. BUT, and a huge but, the regular music loving fans, such as you and I, and all the dedicated and driven bands that fill their SXSW schedules with upwards of eight shows in the week do not give up that easily. Because of this, SXSW is now more importantly knows for its ‘unofficial’ side, with free parties taking place around the city 24/7. Sure, these events are still staged by huge companies like Ray Bans and Converse, desperately trying to be seen as ‘cool’ and ‘hip’ to the music loving kids, but due to these companies drinks are free, food is free, merchandise is given away for free, and most importantly you can stroll from venue to venue watching and listening to a huge array of music for… FREE. This is the SXSW I encourage you to be a part of.
Moving on… first up were Teen, an alternative rock band from Brooklyn, consists of three sisters. Nothing offensive, fairly similar to Montreal based Braids and a pleasant start to the day. Next up were a band I’d seen before supporting Mystery Jets on their most recent UK tour, Peace. I’m a fan of the tunes this homegrown foursome spit out, with a particularly soft spot for single Wraith. A few more trips to the bar and the next act on stage were Feathers, I gather these gals are from Austin and there was plenty of love in the crowd for this all female synth-pop band. Although by this point I had become fairly distracted by the jalapeño cheese sauce smothered nachos that were being handed out to punters. Filled up on nachos and armed with Brooklyn Larger attention was thrown back towards the next band who have recently been sending the music world in to a frenzy, MS MR. A well polished act, full of energy that noticeably rubbed off on the jaded SXSW crowds, shaking away any remaining seven-day hangovers. If you’ve never heard of MS MR check out their first ‘official’ video for single Hurricane.
As temperatures started to rise into the mid 30s we made the sensible decision to refuel and shower before the evenings chaos unfolded on the streets of Austin. With this came the first Texas burger experience, courtesy of Burger Tex 2, situated in the uptown University District. A mound of fresh ground chuck, I’d say at least a half pound, is flattened on the flat top and cooked to juicy perfection within minutes. The burger is presented on a toasted white bun with American cheese, and it’s up to the patron to dress the sandwich using the various salads, sweet pickles and condiments on hand. For me that means mayonnaise, mustard, sliced tomato, raw sliced onion, lettuce and as a reminder it’s Texas, jalapeño peppers. Not only is this a great burger, the meat is super flavoursome, meat to bun ratio is perfect and I’m a fan of the loose textured patty. Possibly the best burger so far… Not only that, the mound of fries that sits beside this burger and FANTASTIC! Definitely best fries I’ve eaten on this trip, if not best fries ever. Just writing this makes me sad I won’t be visiting Burger Tex 2 any time soon.
Recounting the whole evenings activities is difficult, to say the least, but the most memorable story to come to mind has to be strolling down 4th Street to see a ten foot projection on the side of a bar, this projection showing the band playing the rooftop of that bar, and not just any band, the drummer happened to be the guy we bought our van from back in Brooklyn. Crazy! Needless to say we headed straight for said rooftop to see our friend and take advantage of the awesome rooftop setting.
Luckily our trip to Austin wasn’t just a fleeting visit for SXSW. Instead we decided it was time for a break from the on the road lifestyle of living out of a rucksack, calling motel rooms home. Instead home for the next fortnight would be a charming bungalow in the south Austin, Riverside District. Close to our new home was South Congress, an area known for its boutique antique shops, thrift stores, contemporary local art galleries and plentiful food spots. Highlights include Home Slice Pizza, dedicated to producing authentic New York pizza.
Fairly good, and certainly numbed our pizza cravings, but unless you’re in New York it just ‘aint New York pizza. Hopdoddy is a destination for any burger enthusiast, focused on using high quality, local and organic produce to craft their many burger delights. Not only does Hopdoddy focus on quality ingredients they have a number of locally brewed craft beers on tap, including Live Oak Brewing Company and Austin Beerworks, who have an excellent Pale Ale and IPA.
Moving from entrée to desert, a favourite for an immediate sugar high is Hey Cupcake!, one of Austin’s numerous food trucks. We chose the Red Velvet and 24 Carrot cupcakes, although the John Lemon (lemon buttercream topped lemon cake) and Michael Jackson (cream cheese atop a chocolate cake) were tempting.
Cross the Colorado River to north Austin and many more culinary delights await. Frank, a joint dedicated to the humble hotdog (all sausages are made in-house from 100% Vienna Beef) and more amazing local craft beer. We sampled the Chicago Dog (dressed with pickle spear, fresh tomato, onion, day-glo relish, jalapeño peppers and celery salt), Hot Polish (dressed with spiced Düsseldorf mustard and sauerkraut) and Slaw Dog (dressed with sweet southern coleslaw), as well as Frank’s Reuben Waffle Fries (thatched potato fries that can hold a ton of topping, in this instance melted swiss cheese, sauerkraut, hot corned beef and thousand island dressing).
For a slice of history be sure to stop in at Hut’s Hamburgers, a locals dining establishment since 1939. As you can imagine from the name Hut’s has many a burger to choose from, in fact at Hut’s you can even select the type of beef used for your patty; Longhorn, Angus or Buffalo. On this occasion we were after an alternative lunch sandwich and opted for the Corned Beef Reuben and to satisfy our five-a-day requirements, Edward’s Veggie D-Light, as well as a hearty portion of half and half (half fries, half onion rings) – well we are in America after all!
One of the more well known names in town when it comes to Austin’s food trucks is East Side King, started by chef Paul Qui in 2011, East Side King is the truck that started the food revolution in Austin. The first East Side King food truck remains at its original location in the back patio of The Liberty Bar in East Austin. This bar is great, everything you want from a dive, cheap drinks (some as low as a dollar), great jukebox, diverse crowds and of course, excellent food. East Side King is a fusion of Asian and American cuisine, with a focus on using top-notch, local produce. On our numerous visits we sampled Thai Chicken Karaage (brine chicken is deep-fried to order, super tender with a crispy coating, tossed in a sweet-spicy sauce and dressed with fresh herbs and jalapeño), Poor Qui’s Buns (slow roasted pork belly in steamed buns dressed with hoisin sauce and cucumber kimchi), Fried Brussel Sprout Salad (fried brussel sprouts and red cabbage in a sweet dressing, topped with fresh herbs and a deep-fried croton bun) and Beet Home Fries (cubed and deep-fried roasted beetroot, kewpie mayo, schichimi togarashi and green onion). All dishes were exceptional, but the real stars were both vegetarian dishes. Beet Home Fries were so good I got accustom to ordering a side of these when going out for beers. East Side King has three other locations, two of which are in other bars (Shangri-La and The Grackle) along East 6th Street, barely a stones throw from The Liberty Bar, and a brick and mortar full kitchen at legendary music bar, Hole In The Wall, in the northern University District. Each has a different menu so be sure to stop by at as many as possible on any trip to Austin for some truly great food and drinking.
From food to drink and Austin has numerous drinking possibilities as well as a huge craft beer scene. I’ve already mentioned a couple of places to take advantage of the happy hour, kick back with a beer and enjoy the band playing; Hole In The Wall, The Liberty Bar and Frank are all great options. Casino el Camino is another great bar located on historic 6th Street. Casino el Camino not only has a great drinks selection and a constantly blaring jukebox, but it’s also home to another famous burger. Casino el Camino use three-quarter pound of freshly ground Angus beef for each patty, cooked to a perfect medium rare. What gives this burger a difference is once dressed with cheese and placed between a toasted bun, the burger is cut in half (the burger is so big this makes it less intimidating) and then each half is placed back on the open flame grill (slice side down) giving smoky char-grilled marks. Another speciality of Casino el Camino are the Buffalo Chicken Wings, lightly dusted wings, deep-fried and then smothered in sauce. Be warned, the hot sauce is explosive, it’s the kind of hot sauce that you feel on your lips the next morning!
If you’re after more subtle ambience to relax and sip on an Old Fashion then look no further than Elephant Room, a softly lit basement cavern that plays host to local jazz musicians, a pleasant change from the usual rock and country outfits. Or check out the Continental Club, the premier club for live music in Austin since 1957. And of course, no trip to Austin is complete without attending a Texas Longhorns (University of Texas) sports fixture, on this occasion we made a trip to the ballpark to see the Longhorns take on local rivals the Bobcats (Texas State).
That’s it for now y’all, but be sure to tune in for more Austin culinary adventures in the next instalment of English Hippy Eats America – Beer, Barbecue, Breakfast Tacos and… Chicken Shit Bingo!