Texas – The Lone Star State


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April 14th 2014
Published: April 14th 2014
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Austin – The Capital of Texas & definitely ‘The Food Truck City’ of the World!

We’re up very early as our bus leaves at 6-15am from the Amtrak/Bus station and we've been advised to get there 1 hour ahead as they tend to overbook seats. We share a cab with 2 girls from Switzerland - Nora and Solange, also going to Austin on the same bus. It’s pretty quiet and all the fuss was for nothing. We get on board and leave a few minutes late. We have some drama on the road as there is an incident and the main highway blocked by police and we are delayed to the mid-way. Slight concern as we only have a ½ hr window to transit at Houston. No need to worry the driver makes up the time and we are on time.

We get to the Firehouse Hostel which is in the heart of downtown Austin next to the historic (not sure why) 6th street district, with all the bars, clubs etc by hopping on a bus No: 10 Bus just outside the Greyhound station to 6th & Congress. The hostel is pretty new & slightly expensive, with free towels everyday if you want, however, there are limited options to cook as they have no cooker but do have a fridge and microwave. Their breakfasts definitely are fantastic – so much fruit wow. They have a bar area that you access behind a sliding bookshelf (a bit like in the prohibition era) but it’s pretty expensive – mainly cocktails and they have live music each night from 8 pm which we can hear upstairs anyway.

One complaint we have is that the rooms are too warm as the air con doesn’t work in them – so we have to leave the door open to let the air con in from the corridor to cool down the room. Nuts!

Austin is pretty wide spread around a small centre and a few interesting neighbourhoods. The city is well planned and really clean. Like most cities in the US it has pockets of dereliction and cleared areas which operate as expensive parking areas. The main roads are 6 lanes deep and go on forever, while the side streets are 4 lanes. The Legislature for the state is based in Capitol Hill which is a pretty impressive building (like the White House in Washington DC but red) made of local red granite. It dominates the view of downtown at the head of Congress Ave.

Historic 6th Street District – is another Beale Street as in Memphis (though not as tacky as Bourbon Street in New Orleans). Despite their claim to be the Live Music Capital of the US/World – they are not – at least not around 6th Street. The music from a lot of the bars is crap and it seems like it is more very loud and rock and roll rather than Jazz, Country or Blues the latter of which is what they like to promote. It’s for the students in Texas University here. And it’s another party central over the weekends.

One impressive thing about the hostel is that they have recommended places to eat set out in framed plaques on the walls with the best dishes of the house. Most of the places are small Food trucks around the city. We try lunch at the Torchy’s Tacos in an area where food trucks do their thing, one of many we discover over our time in Austin. The food is fantastic and very reasonably priced. This definitely is the city for Food trucks with great eats. The locations are pretty good and the facilities are amazing – London could learn a lot from here. We definitely feel that they are the Food truck Capital of the World.

Later we go to the nearby Texas Capitol Hill Visitor’s centre and are really impressed with the information available, the video show is very informative about the history and culture of Texas as is the Museum like displays. We learn a lot about Texas History, about Cowboys (no one is sure where the name came from), the Tejanos people from Mexico who were the original migrants here who’s language gave words to many things that is part of Texan speak today. The state is referred to the Lone Star state, however, the reason for or the origin of this name and design of the flag is unknown – a few theories exist but there is no proof.

Only 800,000 people live in Austin, Houston has 2.3m, Dallas 2m. Texas is the 3rd most visited state in the US apparently. The inner city area is predominately full of white folk; quite a few Indians study here in the University, most of the black folk seem to live outside the centre and at a Homeless drop in centre nearby 99%!o(MISSING)f the folk were black Americans with their possessions in bags or in a supermarket trolley cart. There are quite a few folk who seem to live and sleep rough in the centre – of all colours. We also notice that the number of very obese people in Austin seems high – too much Cola, Tex- Mex junk food and BBQs we guess.

One thing we do note is the deep pride people in the US seem to have for initially their state & also being part of the US. It’s not something we experience anywhere else in the world. They definite buy into their location and country and market it vigorously.

After a desperate attempt at finding a decent bar on 6th Street and being unsuccessful, we get some beers to have at the hostel and then go for dinner at Llama – a Peru Creole (if there is any such thing) Food truck suggested on the hostel list. The food was pretty good – not outstanding but very reasonably priced.

Talking to some of the other travellers though it seems we missed a trick by not going to the South Congress (SOCO) area of town and the Continental Club gig that night. The U Tube confirms this as the artists on show there were much better than anything here. Unfortunately the other famous music club Antone’s closed 6 months ago after years of building a great reputation.

We have a lovely surprise on the 2nd (after Ben’s April Fool’s Facebook comment about Louise being pregnant again!!) when Louise does a Face Time call with her and Olive on her 6 month’s birthday – bouncing around at home on her little bouncer looking happy as ever and making a few noises. It’s a great start – sets us up for the day!

We catch the 30 bus to Barton Springs which is where the river runs and & there’s a natural water swimming pool area been created for local folk. It’s by Zilker Park and we can imagine the area being packed in the summer. Down from here a 10 min walk away we come across Barton Springs Picnic Food Truck area. The developer has agreed with the local council to substitute building a Commercial Centre just off the building site (of new homes) by creating a permanent parking area for a load of Food Truck concerns that were being moved on elsewhere. He’s provided great seating facilities (under cover) and toilets or Restrooms as they refer to them here. Great idea and a win win situation for all concerned.

Later we go to the East End of town on the no: 4 Bus just across the I 35 from 6th Street. We find a few more Food Truck stations, quite a few funky shops and bars & we go to Brew & Brew for coffee. This is definitely the up and coming area for Austin after SOCO.

We decide to go back to the Barton Springs area for Lunch at Chuys a Mexican diner recommended by a few folks inc the hostel. We have the Elvis Special – which was a combo of mixed Enchiladas. We have one to share and it’s a good decision. The portion is huge but the taste wasn’t that awesome. The place though was decorated as a creative retro diner. It was pretty busy.

We then make for Amy’s Ice cream parlor – it also comes recommended – and we try the butter pecan vanilla ice cream which is delish, though we found the cone a bit disappointing. Up the way from here is the Castle Hill Art project which is a fun and really colourful place to visit. It’s essentially a large area that is derelict but has a load of walls at different levels up the side of a hill. It has graffiti or murals or art – call it what you like – all over and the result is brilliant. We take loads of pictures!!

On the way back we find more Food Truck areas in the Warehouse District on 5th street. Boy these guys are all over.

Downtown there are quite a few impressively designed buildings, apart from the Texas Capitol Hill, the outstanding building for us is something that would fit easily into a Batman Movie it’s a tall skyscraper with an open lotus design roof which looks great at night when it is lit up. One expects the caped crusader to leap off anytime.

One quirky attraction in Austin is the evening Bat Flight from under the bridge at dusk each night. Apparently millions of them come out to eat and make an amazing sight. So we felt we had to do the tourist thing and see what the fuss is about. We arrive just before dusk and are amazed at the number of people waiting, on the bridge, and on each bank, there are folks in tour boats under the bridge, there are guys on surf boards and peddle boats on the river under the bridge etc. Wow – this must be good we feel. After waiting for about an hour and getting pretty bored they come out but by then it’s pretty dark and you can hardly make the mites out. We really can’t quite see what the fuss is about and most of the folks there were local and stayed on for hours after we left.

We decide to go to SOCO but wait for 35 mins for the No 1 Bus and then give up. We could have been better walking there as it’s only a mile up the road. But by then the damage is done so it’s back to the hostel & later dinner at Casino El Camino on 6th Street. They do the best Burger – Amarillo burger ¾ lbs to share, cooked to perfection. It’s awesome.

Lockhart

After breakfast at the hostel we get to the airport on the No: 100 $1.50 each from downtown Austin to pick up a car we have hired for the weekend. It takes about 30 mins and we go into the relatively new and clean Arrivals lounge. The first thing we notice is that the baggage area has a load of funky coloured guitars hanging over the carousal – nuts. Welcome to Austin – allegedly the music capital of Texas? The US? The World? Who knows ……. and cares.

We do the formalities at the Alamo desk – all reserved via Economy Car Rentals to pick up the car, a standard compact. As usual they try and offer and upgrade, we decline but get the Emergency cover (sort of AA service for $5 per day – we really should be able to get this cheaper given the amount of travel by road we are going to do!). At the car pick up point we get a pretty neat sports model with leather trim, heated seats (it’s a bit cold outside) etc as a ‘free upgrade’ – probably the only car of the size we wanted but we are not complaining. And off we go.

After a brief stop to pick up our gear and check out of the hostel we hit the road and go to South Congress area first as we have heard some nice things about it but for various reasons haven’t quite made it here yet. It’s a nice area of about 5 or 6 blocks of bars, shops, eateries, music clubs etc. As it’s the local Hot Rod Car show, there’s quite a few around and parked along the street. We decide we will come back on Sunday after our 2 day trip to San Antonio.

So we set off for the I-35 to avoid the tolls and just as we are about to take the slip road to join the highway a truck goes into the side of the car, spinning it and we stop on the grass verge. Thankfully no one is hurt – shaken up a bit but all is well. The police are on the scene pretty quick as are the paramedics who check everyone is ok and leave in 5 mins. There are about 5 police that attend. They are very helpful given the circumstance. The woman police officer actually changes the tire on our car which has burst. You would never get this service in the UK.

Our car is essentially a right off but we can drive it. After all the formalities and exchange of details with the police and truck driver etc, one of the traffic cops decides it might have been our fault so decides to give M a citation certificate (as this is only a minor accident) and we can appeal or ignore it (as we are from out of town) or contest it in the court or pay a fixed penalty fine of $276. This all seems a bit nuts (it’s as if someone had to be made responsible & we are not sure if the truck driver got a similar citation) as we are still trying to get over the initial shock and given that the lorry guy hit us from behind. So we’ll have to try and fight it, as long as it doesn’t affect our travel in and out of the US. Something to ponder as we can’t get advice (it’s the weekend and the Traffic Citations department is closed!)

We make it back to the airport and the Alamo guys are pretty matter of fact about the whole thing as if it happens every day and very helpful and we get a new car in about 15 mins – a Jeep this time. Not as new as the right off but it will do and we set off again……..belatedly.

Spring is definitely in the air as the blue bonnets (a sort of bluebell/grape hyacinth looking flower, the State flower) are out all everywhere. The landscape is pretty flat, but greener, then we go through some very small settlements and one (we think it was called Maxwell) looked like an old wild west town that had been abandoned 100 years ago or was used as a movie set.

Eventually we get to Lockhart (declared the BBQ capital of Texas apparently by the Legislature) at 2.15pm and go straight to Blacks for their famous BBQ (it’s been going since 1932 & are just about to open a place in Austin). We only know about this from a programme on the Food Network TV station back home and that clinched it for us!. They ship their food and sauces across the country.

It’s a non-descript looking building in a very small street in a very small town. Inside it’s like a Cowboy’s Honky Tonk with Bulls Horns on the walls etc, a sort of typical cowboy eating house you would see in the movies. The place is a bit quiet but the food is just fantastic and the choices are endless. We go for the large Beef Rib (recommended by an America guy just passing through & it’s the best he’s ever had). It truly is awesome. We also try the moist (read - with fat in it) Brisket to die for and their Jalapeno sausage (not bad) in a bun. It is so good we do what all the others are doing we get a take-out as well which we can have the next day for lunch or dinner. We will be back on Sunday and try one of the other BBQ places that are famous here for lunch.

Lockhart, the town is relatively small with a very large and impressive courthouse in the centre with small shops all around the square. A Typical Cowboy town look and feel to the place, but they have 4 very famous BBQ joints here – maybe it’s something in the air that keeps them going here. The place has history as there were wars fought with Santa Anna for Texas Independence, there were wars with the Comanche’s at Plumb Creek and here was the centre of the Chisholm Trail where cattle were driven to Kansas to be shipped around the country. It later made a name for good cotton growing. It also has some large Antebellum Houses from the good old days.

As we are running late we give Gruene (a small settlements where Germans set up camp many years ago and it’s supposed to be quite pretty) a miss for now and may be back on Sunday on the way back to Austin - via Lockhart of course.

As we near San Antonio we notice more horse ranches but we have not seen any large ranches with loads of cows/longhorns or for that matter any pig farms at all in the whole of our time in the US – yet they eat pork a lot everywhere. Our view of Texas is so unlike the scenes in the movies – which are largely in Arizona we guess as it’s more atmospheric there. Texas seems like miles and miles of flat boring land mass so visualising all these wild west stories need a definite rethink.

San Antonio

We arrive in San Antonio at about 4.45pm. We are staying at the Knights Inn Motel (La Hacienda) on E Commerce just 15 mins walk to downtown. It looks pretty new and the room is big and comfortable.

After a bit of rest after the excitement of today we decide to pop into town later to get a feel for the place – it’s party central with a small centre with The Alamo and The River walk (the 2 big attractions) areas well lit. This is where most of the action is. It’s Friday night so the bars and clubs are full and pumping even at 8 pm. There are plenty of college kids in strange hats (Sombreros and Stetson for the guys and strange multi coloured head gear for the women) – mostly in shorts and T shirts. They can’t all be having a stag or hen night? Or is it the start of the local Fiesta due in a week?

It’s the first place we see a lot of men wearing cowboy outfits – Stetsons, cowboy boots and all. These are the sober grown men. The place seems small and compact and easy to walk around and feels safe. It’s a bit kitschy but seems likeable. The Riverwalk is definitely the US at its best in creating a sort of Disneyland feature running through the centre of town – a canal with tourist boats, and bars and restaurants on either side along a long looped walk way. We catch the no: 25 bus back which stops just outside the hotel but seems to travel all around town – we might have been quicker walking back.

As we had pigged out on so much meet for lunch we decide to counter balance the fat intake and have a fruit dinner – with beers of course – as you do. We are directed to HEB, a local supermarket chain that we see subsequently all over Texas. If Publix was Waitrose, then HEB is Morrisons. It’s incredibly cheap and has some good stuff.

Next day the weather is cooler and unfortunately cloudy – crap for pictures. As we only have a day here we walk down to town for some of the highlights. There are quite few areas with some great murals and then it’s the town centre. We learn that there is a weekend fiesta at the Mexican market so we make or way there. On route we pop intoSan Fernando Cathedral which is impressive and looks very Mexican in architecture and inside the statues are definitely more akin to those in Mexico – the dark skinned Lady of Guadalupe, Juan Diego who had an apparition of her near México City, the dark skinned statue of Christ etc. It seems like Mexico meets The US here.

This impression is further confirmed when we do get to the Mexican Market. We are not sure why it is set just on the outside of Downtown. However, it’s a square (a bit artificial with colourful buntings draped across) with bars, restaurants, souvenir shops with arts and crafts stalls in the centre and a live Mexican band playing some great mariachi music. We have some local food from the stalls – Gorditas and Taquitos with various fillings and the trimmings. There’s also a Hispanic Elvis posing to complete the picture.

Next stop - The Alamo. It’s a story M has grown up with as it was made into a block buster movie when he was young. One of the heroes was played by John Wayne (Davie Crockett). There was also Jim Bowie and the legendry Bowie knife etc.

The true story is that The Alamo was a mission. It was name was Mission San Antonio de Valero and building started in 1724. It was later occupied by Mexicans from Alamo de Parras, Coahuila and got the name Alamo. It played a critical role in the Texas Revolution against Mexico for Texan Independence. It was considered key to the defence of Texas by some and here in 1836 about 200 men stood up to the might of the Mexican army of 1000s and after 13 days of fierce fighting perished on the 6th March.

However, this symbolised the spirit for the freedom of Texas from Mexico and Santa Anna (the Mexican Dictator) was soon defeated (after this victory) at San Juanito by Sam Houston the first president of Texas – when it became a Republic.

The Alamo (or what’s left of it) is now a shrine to those who died there. It is referred to as the Shrine of Texas Liberty. The original mission was 6 acres in size, much of it is where the new town stands and looking at the tacky ‘Believe or Not’ store, souvenir shops and bars etc, one wonders if the martyrs would have surrendered if they could foresee what would become of the land they fought so bravely for?

In the square in Alamo plaza we notice amazingly a ‘Turkish Festival’ in full swing, it’s a very small affair but the Turkish community put on a good show under the circumstances. Though some of the music was pants. Not sure why people from Turkey would want to be here above all places. A Mystery!!

We walk along The Riverside and try and take in what it has to offer. The weather is a bit miserable so we don’t quite see it in its best light. Along the way we pop into historical La Villita – the small market area which is now a arts and crafts market. Its ok is the best we could say about the place – a lot of tat on sale unfortunately.

Having run out of time to see the other Missions around the area (there are 4 remaining and are up to 6 miles away) we head back to a warm & cosy room and buy some tickets for a baseball game in Denver vs the San Francisco Giants when Pete will be there – a sort of birthday treat for him. Also a first for us as the season is full swing here and we’d like to see a game as part of our trip.

For dinner we tuck into food from Blacks BBQ we ordered as a ‘take out’ but the salad we bought to go with it we discover has frozen in the fridge – what a f**k so we have to wait till it thaws. That doesn’t work though. On TV we watch Guy in some new episodes of Triple Ds. He definitely has a nice job.

At the motel we awake to a very wet and miserable day. After getting ready we set off at about 9.30 am for Lockhart. We had intended to visit Gruene on the way back but as the weather is so heavy with fog and rain we give it a miss. We do however, stop off at Luling (once the most violent place in Texas and where they first struck oil in the state). It has an oil Museum – nothing more than a tall tower with make shift rigging below and a bell. Strange or what?

Lockhart again

Then it’s on to Lockhart where we decide to go to Smitty’s BBQ for brunch at 12noon. It’s one of 4 famous BBQ places here. The Texans are so into their BBQs and there must be something about the BBQs in this part of the world as they have produced a ‘BBQ Trails Tour’ leaflet.

We enter Smittys straight into the cook house with huge fires at either end of 4 very large smokers. We try their 2014 award winners - the ribs are pork and pretty decent, the brisket is very tender & rare beef (better than a roast but not as good as Blacks smoked). The food is served in paper with plastic cutlery and we eat at communal tables. Simple, cheap, tasty and effective. We finish off with a large single pecan ice cream.

Austin again

We head back to Austin and check into the Super8 motel on the edge of downtown as we couldn’t book into the hostel for some reason – they were full. We head straight to the South Congress (SOCO) area. It’s Sunday so it’s interesting to observe Austin at play. Despite the weather SOCO is a great area to come to. It’s only about 6 or 7 blocks of shops, bars and restaurants, but it has a lot of charm. There’s live music being played at various locations and all sound good. There’s even a spot where folk dance in an open air square.

The shops are colourful adding to the feel good factor. We could spot the good eateries and bars as they all had queues outside.

Austin is pretty interesting in lots of ways. Its quirky, funky and chilled. We note a number of businesses have humour in their name – e.g Naan Sense – for an Indian restaurant, Coat & Thai for a Thai place etc. A good sense of fun.

On the other hand we notice many women with Tatoos on their legs and thighs which didn’t quite go with the look and seemed untidy. While some women had the works with arms and legs totally covered in tattoos. Interesting fashion statement!

Austin has the slogan “Keep Austin Weird” and there’s a lot of truth in that.

We return the car – unharmed this time - and get the 100 bus to downtown. Bus fares are pretty cheap here. $2 gets you unlimited travel for 24 hours. Great deal.

It’s off to Brew & Brew (coffee & beers – so get the name?) in the East End recommended to us by Annie we met in New Orleans. They have some great beers on draft. We try the Live Oak Big Bark and Schwarzbier – both pretty good. Also the atmosphere in the place is fun and funky.

For dinner we go to the local food truck stands at East King Trucks and try Detroit style Pizza Greek style its C’s choice at VIA 313, $14 and not too bad after all that meat we have been eating. We take it back to our room and pass Franklins BBQ on the way back. We tune into a channel doing just Big Bang theory stuff we haven’t seen before so we settle down to an entertaining evening. Great stuff! Jim Beam & ice for cheers!



Next it’s off on Route 66 in Oklahoma …… a nostalgic trip


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