Highlights from Austin, Texas

When I went on long service leave in 2014 I was determined not to fall behind on my travel write-ups afterwards. Well, despite my best intentions, life got the better of me and I failed resoundingly. As you’d imagine, as more time passes, it gets increasingly difficult to remember details and write the blog posts, even if I’ve taken notes.

It is tempting to leave all those photographs and stories behind, buried in my memory and sitting on hard drives, but how could I not share the highlights from Austin, Texas?

Jac and I had a great time in Austin. Hawaii was wonderful, but on this leg of the trip we met one of my internet friends Melinda and her family in person for the first time. I’m not going to get all mushy here, but over my 10+ years of blogging, I’ve made genuine friends all over the world, and it’s fantastic to have the opportunity to actually meet up and hang out – you know, like friends do.

Our rental car Our rental car in Austin was a shiny new black Volkswagen. Jac had to sheepishly ask the car rental guy how to start the car. Turns out (somewhat counter-intuitively) she had to hold down the brake rather than the accelerator like she’s used to. Once we got going it was fine, Jac driving the car, me driving Google Maps.

The Salt Lick BBQ

I’ve had The Salt Lick BBQ on my To Eat list for a long time and it did not disappoint. Here, I had one of my favourite meals of the entire trip and of all time. We went for lunch at the original Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, home of that legendary BBQ pit.

With Melinda, her hubby and kids, we ordered Family Style (US$21.95 per person, kids aged 4 to 11 $8.95, kids 3 and under free), which includes beef brisket, sausage and pork ribs served with sides of potato salad, vinegary coleslaw, beans, bread, and sour pickles – free refills included. Although cooked slowly on the fire, the meat is kept incredibly moist with repeated basting. The brisket is cooked 20 to 24 hours, pork ribs 2.5 to 3 hours, and the sausages are smoked for 3 hours with 45 minutes on direct heat until they start to swell and spit juice. As you can imagine, it’s succulent, flavoursome carnivore heaven, best enjoyed without cutlery! Nothing was wasted either – you can take your leftovers home in a takeaway box.

The menu Salt Lick menu

The BBQ One of the most amazing sights (and smells) of my life: The Salt Lick BBQ pit. The Salt Lick crew are used to people taking photos and just standing here mesmerised…

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Pecan pies Pecan pies

Our family style order arrives - I was bursting with excitement at this point! Our family style order arrives – I was bursting with excitement at this point!

Beef brisket, sausage and pork ribs Beef brisket, sausage and pork ribs (yes, we did get a refill of meat!). The brisket had the distinct pink smoke ring just under the blackened crust/bark.

DSCF2245A magnificent first meal with our friends. Seriously, it couldn’t be better than this.

Pecan pie with ice cream A generous wedge of pecan pie with a big scoop of ice cream.

DSCF2261The bench-style seating is perfect for groups.

This way This way

In case you don’t get the chance to go to Salt Lick in Driftwood or at Round Rock, you can get a taste of Salt Lick BBQ past security at Austin International Airport. The Salt Lick BBQ is also at Dallas Fort Worth Airport and Oklahoma City Airport.

The Salt Lick at Austin International Airport Salt Lick BBQ at Austin International Airport (Gate 12, West Terminal)

The Salt Lick's Taco Bar at Austin International AirportThe Salt Lick’s Taco Bar at Austin International Airport (Gate 10, Central Terminal)

The Salt Lick BBQ
18300 Farm to Market Rd 1826, Driftwood, TX 78619 USA
I’d go back to the Salt Lick in a heartbeat.

Stiles Switch BBQ

I suppose the Salt Lick set the Texas BBQ bar extremely high for us. We were keen to try another BBQ place while in Austin. I’d have loved to go to the famous Franklin BBQ but there was no way Jac would consider lining up for 4 or 5 hours. We went for an early lunch at a newer, less hyped place with good online reviews – Stiles Switch BBQ at Violet Crown Shopping Center. Loved the tender ribs, sausage (we had the Thorndale, their mild sausage) and corn casserole, but my BBQ heart remains Salt Licked. Next time we’re in Texas (and there will be a next time), there’ll be more BBQ joints on the To Eat list.

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Sausage, ribs, beans Sausage, ribs, beans with corn casserole and beans, onions, pickles and bread. After The Salt Lick BBQ, everything seemed more restrained, leaner and less juicy, but it tasted pretty good. In the container, chocolate and banana pudding, which looked unappealing but was a perfect way to finish.

Pouring gravy on sandwich Pouring gravy on a turkey sandwich

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Stiles Switch BBQ
6610 N Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78757, USA

Gourdough’s

Gourdough’s was another place on my To Eat list – it’s been featured on various cooking/travel TV shows, tempting and torturing me for years. We drove out to the Gourdough’s vintage Airstream trailer at 1503 South 1st Street in suburban Austin for a brunch of doughnuts and root beer. Jac and I shared two doughnuts – the Flying Pig, with bacon and maple icing; and the Mother Clucker, with a fried chicken strip and honey butter. Were they good? Oh yes.

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Flying pig - with bacon and maple icing Flying pig – with curly crispy bacon and maple icing

Mother Clucker - fried chicken strip and honey butter Mother Clucker – fried chicken strip and honey butter. Guess who burned her tongue on the chicken? Hint: it wasn’t Jac.

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Gourdough’s Big. Fat. Donuts
1503 S 1st St., Austin, TX 78704 USA
Check out Gourdough’s locations for opening hours and details of the two Gourdough’s Public Houses.

There were other food trailers/trucks at this location, including Mellizoz Tacos and Shawarma Point. Alas, we only had room for doughnuts at the time.

Frank

We found Frank – “purveyors of artisan sausage” on one of our many walks around downtown Austin and were chuffed with our meal and the service. The place had a relaxed feel and the staff made us feel welcome the moment we walked in. The hot dogs are interesting (there’s regular bratwurst, but for the more adventurous, more exotic meats such as kangaroo, smoked duck and alligator), and the ‘Frank Extras’ looked great – to go with our dogs we chose the Corn Cup (US$5.50) – grilled corn served off the cob with chili mayonesa (mayonnaise), lime juice, cilantro and cotija cheese – which reminded me of a similarly terrific ‘street corn’ back home at El Publico in Highgate. There’s chocolate-covered bacon on the Frank menu too (hickory-smoked bacon dipped in milk chocolate, turbinado sugar and sea salt) – perhaps next time…

Hot dog Jackalope (US$9.50) – custom-made smoked antelope, rabbit and pork sausage smothered with cranberry compote, sriracha aioli and cheddar on a Frank bun.

I saw ‘currywurst’ on the menu (I love currywurst!) and didn’t really read the rest of the description, so was a little taken aback by the appearance of said currywurst – I guess you’d call it deconstructed; it’s certainly a unique presentation, and definitely not a hotdog. But the sausage and curry BBQ sauce were delicious, and the toasted bread was remarkably tasty smeared liberally in sauce. I’d have preferred a boring old hotdog in a bun, but devoured it all and would eat it again.

Currywurst Currywurst (US$7) – smokey local-made sliced bratwurst dressed with curry BBQ sauce and curry powder, served with toasted Frank bun slices. In the background, the Corn Cup.

They’ve got some interesting infusion drinks here – Jac tried the Banana Jameson and Bacon Maker’s Mark. A bit of a gamble, especially on the bacon – sure we love bacon, but as a flavour for bourbon whiskey? We were impressed – both were surprisingly easy drinking!

Bacon Maker's Mark Bacon Maker’s Mark is red, and unsurprisingly, Banana Jameson is yellow.

Infusions menu Infusions menu

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Frank
4th and Colorado St, Austin TX 78701 USA

Zilker Park and Barton Springs Pool

We spent a warm morning at Zilker Park where we rode the Zilker Zephyr (Zilker Park’s miniature train) and dropped by Barton Springs Pool for a swim (well, Jac swam while I kicked off my shoes and chilled out in a cool shady spot on the grass).

The Zilker Zephyr trundled along at a leisurely pace, taking us on a track winding around Zilker Park, Barton Creek and Lady Bird Lake for ride that took roughly 25 minutes. A hat, sunglasses and sunscreen are highly recommended.

Zilker Zephr The Zilker Zephyr

On the train On the train

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Barton Springs Barton Springs Pool is man-made and fed by a natural spring that keeps the water at a cool 68 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s 20 degrees Celsius). As I sat here in the shade, I rang another internet friend in Virginia and confirmed our pickup details at Richmond Airport in a few days’ time. It’s kind of surreal to hear the voice of someone for the first time after you’ve been interacting online for years. No LOLs, but actual laughter.

Zilker Cafe Zilker Cafe

Ice creamFrom Zilker Cafe, a cold brew coffee-flavoured Goodpop All Natural Frozen Pop.

Barton Springs change rooms Barton Springs Pool change rooms

Zilker Park
2100 Barton Springs Road
Austin, TX 78746
Zilker Park provides the venue for the famous American music festival Austin City Limits. We were in Austin during the first weekend of ACL 2014 but managed to avoid the festival traffic/crowds pretty well.

Barton Springs Pool
It’s free at certain times – check the website for details. Otherwise, it’s still cheap to get in: Seniors $1; Adult $3; Junior (12-17) $2; ages 11 and under $1.

Zilker Zephyr (Zilker Park Miniature Train)
Train departs every hour, payment by cash only.
Little (age 1-11) US$2; Big (age 12-54) $3; Well Earned (65 and over) $2; Infants free (under age 1, must sit on guardian’s lap).

We also stopped at Barton Springs Picnic, a food trailer park, for a cold drink and ice cream.  We also stopped at Barton Springs Picnic, a food trailer park on Barton Springs Road, for a cold drink and ice cream. I would’ve tried a Hot & Crunchy Chicken Cone from The Mighty Cone (another item that’s been heavily featured on food TV shows, but they weren’t open at the time.

Ice creamI didn’t just eat a Goodpop popsicle, I also photographed its 15-foot sculpture cousin at the North end of the Congress Avenue Bridge, on the corner of Cesar Chavez in Austin.

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downtown1

Street

Band

Bat Bar The Bat Bar on 6th Street.

A night on the Bat Bridge

And this is why the bat motif can be seen all over Austin. We spent the best part of an evening hanging out with a crowd on Congress Avenue Bridge waiting to see Austin’s bats. From March to October, if you’re lucky to be there at the right time (research suggested approximately 20 minutes before sunset), you may get to see up to 1.5 million bats emerge from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge, affectionately referred to as Austin’s Bat Bridge. The bats roost in the crevices underneath the bridge – they are the world’s largest urban bat colony. I must point out, although Jac generally resists queueing for restaurants or waiting around for anything, she was fascinated by the prospect of seeing the bats in flight and showed remarkable, uncharacteristic patience as we waited on the bridge for something to happen. Just when you think you know someone after 19 years, they surprise you: She wouldn’t line up for barbecue, but she waited on a bridge for bats!

Below us on the river, we saw kayakers and a couple of bat-watching riverboat cruises, and more people waiting along the shore. Alas, on this breezy night in early October, it wasn’t to be. We waited, excitement dwindling, until it would’ve been too dark to see much of anything, let alone take photographs – no mass exodus of bats. A bird flew by and got our hopes up for just a moment, damn it. We wandered back to the shops on 6th Street where Jac bought a “Keep Austin Weird” T-Shirt and I chose a magnet for our fridge to commemorate the occasion.

Despite the not seeing the bats, Jac was perfectly happy that we’d been outdoors for a few hours – she enjoyed the people-watching; I was probably a little more frustrated at the time, but it was a memorable experience, anyway.

Waiting for bats Waiting for bats

Waiting for bats Waiting for bats

Waiting for bats Waiting for bats

More about Austin’s Bats
Austin’s Bat Bridge – where to view the bats
Austin’s bizarre – but ubiquitous – bats
Top ten tops for visiting the bats of Austin
Be warned, it gets crowded on the bridge – you’ll need to get there at least a couple of hours ahead to secure a spot, well before sunset. Congress Street is very busy (both foot and vehicle traffic) and there’s not a lot to do while you wait on the bridge – if we do it again (and I would, only if Jac was keen), I’ll stock up on snacks. I would’ve been less grumpy if I wasn’t hungry.

downtown2Right next to the bridge, pedicab drivers were waiting to take weary tourists back into town. Pedicab services operate throughout downtown, especially around the entertainment district.

In Austin, we stayed at the Omni Austin Hotel Downtown. Our room had a balcony with a view of downtown Austin and we were just a block away from the 6th Street entertainment district.

Our bed at the Omni Austin. We had a Classic Deluxe Room with King Bed at the Omni Austin Downtown.

View from our balcony View from our balcony.

Cooking my omelette at the breakfast buffet The Omni breakfast buffet at the downstairs restaurant Ancho’s had the standard offerings including an egg station, where I ordered an omelette with ham, tomato and spinach. They also have an a la carte breakfast menu (and lunch and dinner).

Omni Austin Hotel Downtown
700 San Jacinto Blvd, Austin, TX 78701, USA
Check in 3pm, check out, 12pm.
Heated rooftop swimming pool, Starbucks in the lobby (I’m not a fan but many are)
Free wifi if you join Omni’s loyalty program, Select Guest.

Chile con queso After spending an afternoon with Melinda (which included our first trip to Walmart), we headed back downtown and grabbed dinner at Iron Cactus, a Mexican Restaurant and Tequila Bar on 6th Street. After eating far too many chips dipped in this gooey chile con queso (with hatch green chiles, pico de gallo and roasted jalapeños), it grew too dark for photos. But we had a terrific time upstairs on the rooftop patio.

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I will catch up on my photo editing and writing from this US trip. There’s still Dallas and Fredericksburg, Virginia. And then there’s more from my Myanmar trip.

And later this year, in November, I’ll be back to the United States briefly – en route to Cuba.

About this series

I went to the United States twice last year – this post is about my second trip, in which Jac and I went to Hawaii (Oahu and Maui islands), Texas and Virginia.

If you haven’t already done so, you may like to check out my blog series about my first (solo) trip to the US, which included California, Wyoming and Colorado. Start with the first post: Santa Paula, California USA.

Hawaii posts

Texas posts

  • Highlights from Austin – this post

Coming up next: Dallas.

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