So naturally, I was looking forward to the 'weirdness' (at least by Texan standards) that Austin promises. And it did not disappoint! Being a weirdo myself, I found Austin to be generally delightful, creative, and fun, if altogether way too hot and bizarrely erratic in the sidewalk department.
Here's what I'd recommend to any out-of-towner looking for a fun experience in Austin:
Museum of the Weird
HOPE Outdoor Gallery
West 2nd Street
Toy Joy is the crown jewel in what will hopefully become a thriving shopping district. It's a cramped, chaotic, and truly enjoyable toy store for all ages. In fact, there were more adults than children when I went. It's incredible how much they're able to fit into a relatively modest storefront, but there's a solid variety of offerings: from wooden playsets to graphic socks, Japanese mascots like Rilakkuma and Pusheen, board games, MMRPGs, and more. It's a great place to get unique gifts for your friends and for yourself.
The Alamo Drafthouse
Naturally, I'm thrilled to know that Alamo Drafthouse plans to open a branch here in San Francisco! I can only hope that they have some exciting treat in store for us like they did with their new South Lamar location in Austin- although I saw Mad Max: Fury Road (ridiculous and amazing) at the classic 'Ritz' location on Sixth Street (pictured above), I made a special trip to the South Lamar lobby just for the carpet. Yes, the carpet: a custom-ordered recreation of the 70s-tastic hexagonal hallways of the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. It thrilled me to no end to stand on it. And then quickly scamper away, because that thing is creepy A.F.
For dessert, head south to a little cluster of food trailers in a grassy lot, where you'll find the hilariously named Bananarchy. It's fairly straightforward- frozen bananas dipped in chocolate and a variety of other toppings, with a number of vegan options. Naturally, there is a menu item named for Gob Bluth. Across the street from Bananarchy you'll see a menswear shop named New Brohemia and a record store named End of an Ear. It's hard not to like a city that enjoys its puns.
Just a few steps further south is Rabbit Food Grocery, Austin's premiere all-vegan grocery! They have everything your heart could desire, from soy curls to fair-trade chocolate. Because I've been relatively spoiled over the past year with the Bay Area's own V Republic, I wasn't as desperate to load up on foodstuffs as I have been on past trips out of town. Even so, Rabbit Food set forth a solid offering of things I had to snap up, including some awesome John Waters-themed greeting cards and beautiful cork and faux-leather handbags from Pixie Mood. I also grabbed a bottle of Sweet Ritual salted caramel sauce, since it's a local Austin delicacy- be sure to check The Vegan Sweet Beat in the next couple of weeks for a full review from Ashley and Elysse!
South Congress (SoCo)
Tacos, tacos, and more tacos
My most memorable tacos in Austin were at the never-not-delicious food truck Arlo's, parked at Cheer Up Charlie's, one of the greatest bars I have ever been to in my entire life. I also enjoyed the highly futuristic touch-screen taco ordering system at the Whole Foods flagship on Lamar, as well as their extensive and generous salsas y condimientos bar. While I enjoyed many more tacos through my trip, I regretfully did not get the chance (yet) to try Cool Beans ATX or The Vegan Nom, and while I ate at Bouldin Creek Cafe twice, I was too overwhelmed by their enormous vegan-friendly menu to even consider classic tacos. Oh well, just means another trip to Austin, right?
Topo Chico (a.k.a. Topo Pipo)
I'll admit, I'm not the biggest fan of sparkling water. That said, I couldn't help but fall for Topo Chico's charms. The bubbles aren't as big or as harsh as other waters, and I'll be damned if it isn't immensely refreshing on a sweltering Texas summer day. It's a bit of a tongue twister for the uninitiated, though- the first time I ordered one I meekly said "a Topo... Topo.. Chee...ko?" My friend Amey, also from California, boldly pronounced it "Topo Pipo" and from there it stuck. Now we're both on a mission to find Topo Pipo here in Northern California! Our fellow aficionados, a.k.a. the Topo Pipo Posse, have similar missions to locate the fizzy water in their respective communities.
But it wasn't until I tried Yellow Bird habañero hot sauce at Bouldin Creek Cafe that I knew I'd found The Austin Hot Sauce for me. I don't know what it is about habañeros, but they make up some of my favorite hot sauces- I think it's the sweetness that goes along with the intense sting of what is one of the world's hottest peppers. Yellow Bird does it right- they know that the secret to a truly spectacular habañero sauce is using a carrot base! Not only does Yellow Bird come in generous, Texas-sized bottles, it's made right there in Austin itself! Yellow Bird also has serrano and jalapeño flavors, both of which I need to try just as soon as I make my way back to Austin. Good thing I've got 19.6 oz to last me till then!
Another way this manifests is the Texan love of queso. 'Queso' merely means 'cheese' in Spanish, but Texan queso in particular is very specifically a type of spicy, liquid nacho cheese, often augmented with chunks of tomatoes and/or peppers. It's very Texan and very delicious. The newest location of Wheatsville Food Co-op has an enviable hot foods and salad bar, and nestled in amongst the sensory overload of all the delicious things I wanted to get, was a piping hot vat of vegan queso. Speaking of Wheatsville...
That's why I'm so incredibly jealous of Austinites and their access to Red Rabbit Cooperative Bakery donuts at Wheatsville. These donuts are divine- fluffy, soft, impossibly fresh, and with that unmistakably yeasty tang of a good raised donut. They come in your traditional flavors, such as maple-walnut, coffee, chocolate, and apple fritter. But where Red Rabbit really shines is in their specialty flavors: Austin creme (a modified Boston creme donut) and- get this -peach. A peach donut! It's like someone hacked into the appetite center of my brain and decided to give me a very special present. I also tried a maple-chocolate glazed donut at the Vida Vegan Con bazaar, which the Red Rabbit dude told me was a 'mistake' flavor. I BEG TO DIFFER GOOD SIR.
Wheatsville knows it's got something special, and I applaud them for it. You keep on churning out that popcorn tofu, guys. I'll keep coming back to eat it up.
A kolache carries on in the grand global culinary tradition, from pierogies to pupusas, of "meaty/veggie stuff crammed inside of carby stuff." Kolaches in particular look like a baseball-sized dinner roll, golden brown on the outside, and stuffed inside with different types of traditional and 'Texan' fillings. I had two kolaches from Capital City Bakery, a vegan 'ham and cheese' variety, and loved them! Although after waiting in line for a good half hour, I was too jittery from hunger and excitement to get a proper photo, as you can see above. Definitely get them warmed up, they're better that way.
Real Creole cookin'
Naturally I was thrilled to find Baton Creole, a donut-box-pink food truck on East 6th Street, just a short walk from downtown Austin, which offered authentic creole cookin' with vegan options! I ordered the jambalaya on a stick, the long-anticipated beignets, and (of course) a Topo Pipo. It was just as charmingly Southern as I'd hoped it would be- as soon as I finished placing my order, the woman at the counter called out to some customers waiting behind me: "your etoufee is ready, y'all!"
The jambalaya on a stick was heavenly. It was spiced tofu on a skewer, rolled in dirty rice like a corn dog is rolled in batter, and then deep-fried, with a squirt of delicious Remoulade and a sprinkling of chopped cilantro. Genius! I was worried about there being too much food when my order was ready; travel and hot weather usually do a number on my stomach. But after my first bite of jambalaya that was no longer a concern. I ate the whole thing, no problem, it was that good. The beignets were everything I'd ever hoped for. I mean, you just can't go wrong with deep-fried sweet dough dusted in far more powdered sugar than is necessary. They reminded me a bit of New Mexican sopapillas, or Navajo fry bread. FYI, apparently the brick-and-mortar location of Baton Creole uses a different, non-vegan beignet recipe, so be sure to head to the truck if you want your heavenly little sugar clouds to be cruelty-free!
That's what's on offer at Via 313, which has a food truck directly across the street from Baton Creole on East Sixth Street. Detroit-style, for the uninitiated, is a square personal pan pizza with a thin and greasy crust, and the cheese underneath the sauce (what the?). If pressed to name this particular 'style' of pizza, I'd say "middle school cafeteria." That said, Detroit-style tastes way, way better, even if it looks the same. Via 313 can make nearly all of its menu offerings vegan as well as omnivorous, and there's a lot of seating and drinking next door at the Violet Crown Social Club. The kind folks of Via 313 will even deliver your pizza to you in the bar! It's dreamy bar food, and I imagine it even tastes delicious sober, too!
Thanks, Jojo, for the delicious photo of your birthday pizza! It was too dark and... drinky... for me to take a picture when I had mine.