Issy and I ended our short weekend in Austin with lunch at a small taco truck in a car park between a piñata wholesaler and a pet shop. Six local Mexicans in cowboy hats shuffled up in unison to make space for us at the only table, as a fleet of motorbikes spluttered past up the street. A giant Texan flag billowed slowly in the hot breeze and a group of students touched up a panel of street art, crouching down to restore the last letter of the mantra plastered across three walls – ‘Keep Austin Weird’. A blues song came to a crashing finish from a neon-painted tattoo studio, while a monstrous silver truck pulled in to the nearby ‘Kwik Kar Wash’. We looked down at our basket of achingly delicious pork tacos, simmered in a dark, garlic-spiked sauce. The magic of Austin is that the greatest things are found in the most unexpected places. It was the city that set the wheels in motion for the world’s recent obsession with food trucks. There are over two thousand strewn across the city, anchored in car parks, in front of bars and on lonely roads where the crowds that surround them are the only people braving the afternoon heat. Rather than second rate restaurants, the food trucks act as labs for some of the city’s greatest cooks. Many of the finest restaurants in town began life as a trailer. “Food trucks epitomise the ‘Keep Austin Weird’ movement.” A manager at Paperboy trailer tells us. “If you have a strange and wonderful recipe you can start your own food truck. The weirder it is, the more people flock to it.”
Echoes of the music legends that flocked to Austin in the 60s and 70s can still be heard, influencing a new wave of artists at play. Red River is the beating heart of its music scene, with an almost constant din of live bands piping through the streets. Music in every imaginable guise seeps from every pore of the city, from gospel brunches to blues bars, punk clubs to big bands in German beer gardens. “Willie for President” posters line the city’s walls paying homage to Willie Nelson, the musician that activated the ‘cosmic cowboy movement’, uniting politicians, cowboys and hippies. Threadgill’s, famous for its Southern food and live music, was a haven for Janis Joplin and the place where she perfected her sound. Antone’s was the playground for the founding fathers of blues music; John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and BB King. Music shaped Austin, splashing colour across the city and turning it into the open minded, forward thinking kaleidoscope it is today.
El Primo operates out of a small white truck in a car park. The Mexican cook in charge whips up tacos, burritos, tortas and quesadillas, more authentic and flavourful than you will have ever had before. Share a table with construction workers school children, hipsters and chefs, and make your way through the smoky tripas, chicken and beef tongue tacos, drizzled in their homemade green chilli sauce.
2011 S 1st St, Austin, TX 78704
The menu of this sunny trailer is all about seasonality and tasty local produce – organic meats, locally farmed fruit and veg and bread from local bakeries. Try the sweet toast with ricotta, blackberry jam, peaches and granola, or the steak and potatoes with braised pork belly and poached eggs.
1203 E 11th St, Austin, TX 78702
Ms P’s Electric Cock
When the craving for cock calls, locals head to Ms P’s. These silver, bullet-like trailers can be found in a few locations around the city, serving up crunchy, dangerously moreish fried chicken. It is prepared using a two step brining process before it is seasoned in twelve different spices and fried in fine peanut oil.
1101 S Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78704
Veracruz All Natural Food
The question of Austin’s best Mexican food is a contentious one. But for many people, the vibrant flavours of Vera Cruz’s breakfast tacos, light quesadillas and citrusy fish tacos win every time.
1704 E Cesar Chavez, Austin, TX 78702
Micklethwait Craft Meats
Barbecue pilgrims flock to this tiny trailer, which is run by pitmaster Tom Micklethwait. The meat is smoked fresh every day in a small smokehouse a few feet away. Using long, temperature-regulated smoking techniques, Micklethwait has become renowned for its juicy brisket and five types of sausage, served with tangy barbecue sauce.
1309 Rosewood Ave, Austin, TX 78702
BRICKS AND MORTAR
People used to make their living on Craig’s List being paid to stand in the queue for this legendary Barbecue joint. In fact, the only person who has ever skipped the line is Barack Obama, who swiftly bought everyone lunch. Well-documented as the best barbecue on Earth, Franklin serves up glistening brisket, pulled pork and succulent ribs. Dolly Parton will almost certainly be playing over the speakers.
900 E 11th Street, Austin, TX 78702
Odd Duck is the second permanent restaurant from chef Bryce Gilmore, and sits on the exact site of his original trailer. The same ethics are applied in this wood-clad space: creative, colourful dishes made using produce from local farms. Try the corn scramble with fried soft shell crab and mango relish at brunch, or the Wagyu rib eye with oyster mushrooms and beef crackling potatoes for dinner. All of this goes rather nicely with a barrel aged whiskey cocktail.
1201 S Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78704
The brunch, dinner and bar snacks on the menu at this east Austin spot are all delightfully shareable. Take the dinnertime mussels with sauerkraut, lardons and smoked pork broth, or the grilled octopus with caper berries, chilli and mint. Come brunch, there are dishes like hot chicken with dill crème fraiche and banana bread with chamomile butter to squabble over. Sit on the shaded patio or grab a booth seat in the main dining room with its teal walls, terracotta plant pots and Aztec finishes.
1914 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702
Emmer & Rye
A team of unreasonably good-looking kitchen staff magic up dishes from locally-sourced ingredients in this elegantly casual dining room. They have their own fermenting programme, with homemade pickles and preserves garnishing the dishes. The menu changes daily, and dishes like heirloom tomato salad, beef tartare with plantain leaves and smoked beetroot granite are wheeled out on carts in the restaurants unique ‘dim sum style’ service.
51 Rainey St #110, Austin, TX 78701
Kissed by the same glossy white tiles, orange lights and brassy bar as the original Brooklyn location, this offshoot has a uniquely Austin twist. There is Art Deco wallpaper, crimson booths and a small food menu of dishes perfect for sharing. While the interior glows, the palm-shaded backyard is pretty tempting, with a regular line up of DJs. The real reason for Weather Up’s fame is its cocktails, which are prepared with the concentration of a brain surgeon and served over hand carved ice.
1808 E Cesar Chavez St, Austin, TX 78702
Minimal, cosy and ridiculously friendly, Fleet is a newbie on the Austin craft coffee circuit. Their ‘Morning Ritual’ - doughnut infused milk with espresso, served with a sugar-dusted doughnut hole - has become their gimmicky (and delicious) staple. But the simple coffees, made from Madcap roasts, are quickly making this a local favourite.
2427 Webberville Rd, Austin, TX 78702
White Horse Saloon
A glittering medley of hipsters, old locals and dedicated out-of-towners flood like moths to this legendary saloon to hear live blues, rock and ‘real country’ and dance the honky tonk in a sea of diamante jeans and cowboy boots.
500 Comal St, Austin, TX 78702
The Victory Grill
One of Austin’s last remaining Soul clubs, the legendary Victory Grill was set up in 1945 as a restaurant/bar for African American soldiers during times of segregation in the city. Owner and band manager Johnny Holmes pulled in acts like Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Etta James and James Brown. A mural outside proclaims “Trust your Struggle”. Top quality Southern food and regular blues gigs have kept Victory Grill’s flame burning into the twenty-first century.
1104 E 11th St, Austin, TX 78702
This girl-centric coffee shop serves craft beans from female suppliers and serves it in cups with boobs on the front. It is attached to a shop selling sumptuous clothes and an array of empowering literature.
913 E Cesar Chavez St, Austin, TX 78702
Bearded baristas pour exceptional coffee brewed from the on-site roastery at this bicycle shop, which is next door to a gas station. We paid them a visit to down ice coffees and play with the manager’s shaggy dog, while cyclists refuelled before braving the 40 degree Texan sunshine.
1619 E Cesar Chavez St, Austin, TX 78702
Pull up a seat on the wooden porch of this cosy cocktail bar and watch the students, stags, artists and drag queens file by. The drinks are strong and inventive, muddled up by expert bar tenders who know their craft spirits as well as their hand carved ice. (Austin is in the grip of an ice addiction. The more pure and sculpted, the better.)
75 1/2 Rainey Street, Austin, TX 78701
Hotel Van Zandt
Named after the cult Texan singer-song writer Townes Van Zandt, this elegant but hyperactive hotel celebrates Austin’s musical past and present. Hotel Van Zandt presides over Rainey Street, a small web of wood panelled houses converted into stylish bars and music venues, with the same rocking chairs still swaying back and forth on the front porches. The hotel joined the fun back in 2016, and has already become an entertainment destination in its own right. The interior is sleek and mature, from the glitzy, industrial-style concierge awash with golds, bronzes and grey bricks to the simple palettes and clean lines of the 319 rooms. The suites are dotted with record players, many with sweeping views of the Colorado River. Employees press a cold beer into your hand upon arrival, before pointing you in the direction of the daily cocktail hour in the lobby, which is filled with squishy sofas, a roaring fireplace and a flock of birds made of old records. The hotel has invested millions in lighting and sound systems, which are at play in every corner, from the hotel restaurant Geraldine with its 365 nights of live music a year to the outdoor pool, where tunes play underwater.
South Congress Hotel
This eye-wateringly beautiful boutique hotel lives slap bang in the middle of South Congress, the treasured main drag of cowboy boot stores, vintage shops and iconic taquerias. Balancing somewhere between a Harajuku concept store, a Hollywood mansion and a Tribeca loft, this sumptuous space is comprised of three restaurants (a 12-seat, impossible-to-get-in-to Japanese multicourse experience; an extremely sexy grill; a Californian-inspired café), a rooftop pool overlooking Downtown Austin, a coffee and juice bar, a New York nail salon, a huge bar area and a bevy of unique bedrooms, some with adult-sized bunk beds, some with doors opening onto the pool area. The entire hotel is decked in greenery and reclaimed furniture, encased in bronze, glass and brick walls.
South by Southwest Festival
Austin sets the stage for hundreds of festivals a year. But by far the most celebrated is SXSW, an annual spectacle of film, music and ground breaking conferences spread out across the city. Past keynote speakers include Johnny Cash, Mark Zuckerberg and Bruce Springsteen.
When the temperatures soar, locals pack up a picnic and head over to Hamilton Pool. A palette of blues and greens, this glorious natural swimming grotto that came to life when the domes of an underground river collapsed.
South Congress (or ‘SoCo’) is a strip of iconic low-rise boutiques, antique shops, bars and food trucks jutting towards downtown Austin. The gleaming red spurs of legendary cowboy boot store Allen’s Boots sits beside Guero’s, the taqueria featured in cult movie ‘Chef’. It is the site of some of Austin’s earliest food trucks, like Torchy’s experimental tacos. National Outfitters is a giant cowboy clothing shop famed for its live music, usually involving a guitarist playing a set while perched atop a live horse. Down the street, the owner of Jo’s Coffee vandalised her own shop, spraying the words “I love you so much” on the wall following an argument with her lover. Hundreds of people have since popped the question underneath the letters. At the centre of it all stands the historic Austin Motel, with the words “So close yet so far out” beneath a big neon sign. “Probably the most phallic sign in Austin.” Says comedian Steven Kent McFarlin. At weekends, the street fills with food vendors, pop up markets and buskers, a snapshot of the Austin locals are working hard to retain. The famous ‘Keep Austin Weird’ mantra was born after a tech boom swept the city, bringing in moneyed outsiders and threatening to phase out the creatively-charged spirit that had defined it for so many decades. 160 people move to Austin each day, and as the city continues to grow into one of America’s leading business centres, locals are on a mission to retain its soul. Which is why it brims with as much life as ever before.