“Oh, that hurts,” says a man standing three spots ahead in line.
“Oh, that really hurts,” says the guy just in front of me, whose hurt must be bad enough that he almost immediately turns on his heels and abandons his place in line, walking off across the baked dirt toward the road. And then another person orders, and there’s more hurt, and the line thins again. Almost every time someone else steps to the window, it happens: The guy working the register bows apologetically beneath the frame of the trailer’s side window, leans out with a long strip of masking tape and smooths it over another item on the menu board. Brisket? Gone. Curry goat sausage? Gone. Pork shoulder? Gone. With each fluttering strip, there are groans and the crowd lined in front of Micklethwait Craft Meats continues to wither as the supply of barbecue steadily dwindles.
Standing second in line as another strip of tape is applied—oh, pulled pork, why?—I think about the nine hours I just spent in the car with the express intent of ordering the now-depleted brisket. (Toward the end of said trip, my enthusiasm for said brisket had eclipsed casual interest and veered into savory hallucinations. Yes, really.) Crestfallen, I wrench my attention away from the trailer to the surroundings—to the shaded picnic tables haunted by evil-eyed, stilt-walking grackles, to the cabooselike cart with its screened-in smoker, then to the sight of the Texas flag through a break in the live oaks folding on the breeze. I find myself thinking it all seems very Texas. And as I’m called to the window, I look to the line still trailing behind and think to myself that this, the line, feels very Austin.
“People joke that the state bird’s become the crane,” my friend Robert says later in the evening when I meet up with him and his wife, Beverly, at the upscale East Austin eatery Launderette. Having moved to the capital city from Houston some 16 years back, Robert has a fairly distinct perspective on his adopted hometown. He’s seen it change—has seen the city sprawl outward and its property values soar. He says that back then, when he was attending the University of Texas before enlisting in the then-nascent tech sector, he used to work not too far from where we’re sampling pieces of mini brioche topped with chicken-liver pate, and crab toast with fennel aioli and avocado. Back then, lacking similar eateries opened by star-worthy chefs, he’d have tacos—namely from the long-standing (and brilliantly named) Juan in a Million.
But, of course, you only need five or six minutes to see that real change has taken hold throughout the city. You see it in the cranes that stretch in blue and red and yellow steel helices throughout downtown, as constant a fixture in the skyline as the buildings themselves. You see the change in the shifting focus of South by Southwest’s Festivals (specifically, the interactive portion, which has taken off significantly since providing Twitter the necessary platform and audience to launch into the technological stratosphere). And you see it in places such as the neighborhood occupied by Launderette, where the onset of gentrification’s looming pressures is in full effect, where you’re just as likely to see pushcarts of popsicles and cats rummaging through residential recycle bins as a string of new-model Range Rovers and BMW SUVs (at least for the time being).
And you see it—sigh—in the lines.
Upon arriving at the gorgeously and perfectly appointed Kimber Modern boutique hotel, I find a copy of Austin Monthly, a local city magazine, with a headline that reads: “New To Austin? Get In Line.” (A footnote just below notes, “There are 158 people moving here every single day, after all.”) Included in the accompanying 35-item guide of things for visitors and newly arrived residents to know, the editors note the following: “21. You’re going to be waiting in line—a lot.”
But as pervasive as the lines might be, there’s a reason for them being there, and that’s because this is a city where there’s always—always—something happening. In the time that I spend with Beverly and Robert, I hear about what they’ve found to do these past few months. There was the choreographed dance with employees from the city’s Urban Forestry Division (put on by Forklift Danceworks); dinners where established chefs tested menus for potential restaurants in mystery locations (dinnerlab.com); and an interactive concert held in a parking lot with an ensemble of 80 vehicle horns, sound installations and “choreographed pedicabs” (called Traffic Jam). And what’s more, no matter the nature of the event—whether it’s a symphony of angry klaxons or the onstage antics of any of the burgeoning population of musicians—the lines, for all the frustration they inevitably elicit, are a reminder of something else. They suggest not only a city of opportunities, but an engaged population of similarly enthusiastic people anxious to be involved in any number of eclectic, weird, tech-savvy cultures that somehow persist in coexisting.
All of which is to say, if there’s any solace whatsoever for having to wait in line, it’s the fact that by being there, you’re part of something special. Except if those jerks get the last of the brisket.*
*Full disclosure: After whining to the ever-understanding Micklethwait employees, I did wind up with a sampler of brisket and sausage. (They had some prepped for an event later that evening.) And yes, totally worth the drive.
THE APEX OF ATX
Stars in the heart of Texas
Hotel San JosÉ
It was just about 20 years ago that Liz Lambert, a lawyer with the state attorney general’s office, scooped up the then-hourly motel in the hopes of creating a chic, bungalow-style hotel in the less-than-great area of South Congress. Three years and $3 million later, she opened a hotel that helped spur much of the development now emanating along the three major strips of South Congress, South First and South Lamar—and that continues to be a heckuva fine place to stay. (1316 S. Congress Ave.; sanjosehotel.com)
Truth be told, most of it doesn’t seem real. Clean lines and coordinated colors both within the rooms and without. A multitiered courtyard where Texas live oaks shade hammocks, clusters of chairs and glass-embowered fires. A glassed-in common area that seems just perfect, with an Eames coffee table and Arne Jacobsen egg chairs (not to mention a fridge with complimentary beer and cider). It’s a place where every detail has been artfully and deliberately evaluated. And it shows. (110 The Circle; kimbermodern.com)
The Driskill Hotel
It’s a little tough not to lapse into hyperbole when talking about The Driskill, mostly because with a nearly 130-year history of attracting the likes of U.S. presidents and A-list musicians under its leather-studded belt, the hotel more than warrants hyperbole. And even if you can’t score one of the 189 rooms at the hotel, there’s no reason you can’t get a feel for the place by rubbing a finger across the cowhide-stretched furniture or, more deliciously, getting a taste at the bar. (604 Brazos St.; driskillhotel.com)
//EAT & DRINK
Fair warning: It might not look like a doughnut. Because if you order, say, the Granny’s Pie, a super-caloric stratification of pecans, caramel, graham crackers and fresh bananas, you’ll have to dig to find the base of molten dough and decadence. But it’ll be damn good (even if you can’t order the famed fried-chicken-topped “Mother Clucker.” But if they’re not out of chicken, we hear you should.) (gourdoughs.com)
Micklethwait Craft Meats
Look, it might not be the end of the world if you don’t quite make it in time for the beef ribs. Or the brisket. Or the varying blends of sausage (say, curry goat). Or the pulled goat (served on Saturdays). Or the buttermilk pie. Or the lemon-poppy slaw. Or the jalapeno cheese grits. On second thought, when making plans to hit this truck in East Austin just a few blocks from the famed lines of Franklin Barbecue, just get there early. (1309 Rosewood Ave.; craftmeats.com)
Um. Charred octopus with upland cress, garlic aioli, beluga lentils and avocado? Pickled green tomatoes with smoked yogurt, caraway and fried jalapeños? Blackberry cremeux with peaches, Greek yogurt and chamomile-honeycomb ice cream? We know, right? And while the menu ought to be more than enough to sell you, just consider that this recent addition to the Austin culinary scene was crafted by two of its stars, executive chef Rene Ortiz and pastry chef Laura Sawicki. And if that’s not intriguing enough—it’s housed in what was formerly a laundromat. Boom. (2115 Holly St.; launderetteaustin.com)
Now, you really can’t go all the way to Austin and not get some really good Mexican food. And while options abound—to say nothing at all of the area’s fascination with breakfast tacos—we found this Texas Monthly-lauded spot (No. 2 on a recent rundown of the best Mexican food around) in Travis Heights to be as fine an option as any. Case in point: We swabbed our mole-smothered plate clean with the housemade tortillas. (614 E. Oltorf St.; currasgrill.com)
East Side Showroom
Walking into this East Austin bar, it takes a moment before your eyes properly adjust— before you can see the red walls painted with what appear to be fleurs de lis and adorned with antique portraits. The films silently projected on one wall by a vintage projector. The five shelves of bottles—accessed via ladder—used for the finely crafted cocktails such as the Martinez, made with Old Raj Blue, Carpano Antica, maraschino liqueur and bitters. But, full disclosure, once you get settled, you might not want to leave. (1100 E. Sixth St.; eastsideshowroom.com)
Jester King Brewery
Let’s clear up a few things: If you’ve never had a farmhouse-style ale or sour beer, you need to go to this sprawling ranch-slash-brewery. (And that goes double if you have.) If you think the menu explanation for the Black Metal imperial stout-meets-farmhouse ale (described simply as “you’re welcome”) is an exaggeration—um, nope. And if, while looking over the broad, uninterrupted expanse of the ranch from one of a few scattered wooden picnic tables, you think you’ve found heaven, you might be right. (13187 Fitzhugh Road; jesterkingbrewery.com)
Odds are the view from the 785-foot mountain overlooking Lake Austin has changed a fair amount since picnicgoers first started making their way to the promontory the better part of a century and a half ago. However, there’s still nothing quite like seeing the sun dip below the hills after making your way up the 106-step climb to the top. Protip: Once you’ve watched the sun go down, cool off by heading to Barton Springs for the belighted night swim. (3800 Mount Bonnell Road)
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema (The Ritz)
How do you feel about talking during movies? Like, reciting them line for line, one one-liner at a time? Or perhaps singing along? In addition to offering noninteractive cult favorites and new releases (The Goonies and Magic Mike XXL were both showing the days we were there), this darling among silver screens also offers Quote- and Sing-Alongs. Also, be sure to check out their myriad options from their “Signature Series.” (320 E. Sixth St.; drafthouse.com)
Blanton Museum of art
On a campus home to more than 50,000 students during the school year, it’s a little difficult not to feel at least kind of overwhelmed by the sprawl. However, seeing as that sprawl also includes the 17,000 works included in the Blanton Museum of Art’s permanent collection (be sure to catch Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm, which is sticking around through Nov. 15), we’d say it’s worth braving. Also worth a visit? The Harry Ransom Center, which houses the first photograph ever taken and a copy of a Gutenberg Bible just a few feet from the entrance. (200 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.; blantonmuseum.org)
The Contemporary Austin-Laguna Gloria
Let’s say that, hypothetically, you’ve visited the Contemporary Austin downtown, and someone mentions that your admission also covers a visit to Laguna Gloria. You should go—because the opportunity to see the dozen sculptures that dot the 14-acre grounds (including the recently installed 32.5-foot stainless-steel sculpture Looking Up, by artist Tom Friedman) overlooking Lake Austin (part of the Colorado River) is not one to be missed. Seriously. (3809 W. 35th St.; thecontemporaryaustin.org)
Mercury Design Studio
Before entering this downtown boutique, you’d never guess how much stuff you really need. Egyptian alabaster made in a family-owned workshop in Cairo suburbs? Mounted busts of papier mâché hippos, flamingos and a solitary unicorn? Tiny pieces of art dealt from a repurposed cigarette machine redubbed an “Art-o-Mat”? And if, perchance, you don’t find what you’ve been looking for, an entire line of boutiques (aka the 2nd Street District) is just outside the door. (mercurydesignstudio.com)
Shops on South Congress
Strung largely along five blocks south of the river, the colorful shops on this stretch of Congress are a fine place to find both what you’re looking for (say, menswear from Stag, or shoes and a coffee from TOMS) and even a whole bunch of stuff that you’re not (costumes from Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds; virtually everything else from Uncommon Objects). And for those engaged in marathon bouts of shopping, be sure to try Jo’s Coffee next door—the iced Turbo Dog is a must on hot days. (South Congress)
It seems a little bit too good to be true, because with a roster of upcoming author appearances that includes the likes of Jonathan Franzen (Sept. 19) and Buzz Bissinger (Sept. 20), scores of earnest, well-written staff-penned recommendations for books new and old, and an entire frickin’ section devoted to McSweeney’s—how could it not? (For those less inclined to the written word, there’s an REI and an Anthropologie right across the parking lot.) (603 N. Lamar Blvd.; bookpeople.com)