Austin has been on my bucket-list of places to visit for a while. My college roommate, Amy, went to grad school there and she kept telling me how amazing a city it is. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to go while she still lived there, but we finally took a mini-vacation there and it was incredible!
It’s funny that it’s part of Texas because the city feels more like Portland, OR. There is a big emphasis on shopping local, there is art on every street corner, and it is full of friendly hipster people and non-chain restaurants. It’s a bigger sized city, but they somehow managed to keep it really clean and preserve so much nature that it’s the best of both worlds.
It seems that everywhere you look is another mural or sculpture.
We flew in on a Thursday and started by wandering South Congress Ave where there are lots of funky shops. We were originally planning to have lunch at Torchy’s Tacos, but we realized that that particular location was actually still under construction, set to open a week after we left town. Instead, we stumbled upon a restaurant called Lucky Robot Japanese Kitchen. It smelled so good from the outside we thought we’d have to give it a try!
It was bright and cheery inside and decorated with Star Wars memorabilia. Several of the tables had swings suspended from the ceiling which I’ve never seen at a restaurant.
If I had to pick one kind of food to eat for the rest of my life it would probably be Japanese. Or maybe Vietnamese or Thai. Really any Asian food is my favorite. The menu at Lucky Robot had all sorts of interesting takes on Japanese food.
Lance ordered their “nomnomiyaki”, which had pork belly, fried egg, cabbage, tonkatsu (we didn’t know what that was, but it turns out it’s deep fried pork cutlets), with scallions and sriracha. He had it with a Lone Star beer (which is essentially Texas’ version of Budweiser…I didn’t think it was anything special…) But his pork belly nomnom dish was delicious!
I did one of the build-your-own bowls with tiger shrimp, veggies, brown rice, and Thai coconut curry sauce. They brought a pretty large portion of rice but it was nice that it was on the side so I didn’t eat as much rice. The sauce was pretty spicy, but I liked it a lot! It was a large portion, but we devoured the whole thing.
Their manager, David, actually noticed how many pictures I was taking and I told him about my food blog. Even before my blog I took too many pictures of my food, but at least now I have a legitimate excuse.
After that we checked in to our hotel which is by far the coolest place we’ve ever stayed. It’s rented by a company called Soco Spaces that has several modern-style guest homes in the Travis Heights neighborhood in the south-east area of Austin. We found it on hotels.com, but it was more like an Airbnb style apartment with a full kitchen and all the amenities we could possibly think of!
I loved the mid-century modern style and that we had our own kitchen. Lance was most excited I think that they had Trader Joe’s whole coffee beans with a grinder included in the kitchen so he got the best coffee he’d ever had at a hotel. They even had some little snacks like popcorn and oatmeal in the pantry.
That evening we visited Blue Owl Brewing, one of the newest local breweries. It had a modern style (which was pretty prevalent in Austin…) and was very dog-friendly.
There is some crazy local law that prevents their breweries from selling beer on-site, so as a loophole, they sell you glasses then fill it with “free” beer. For $15 you got a really cool designed glass with 4 fills.
Blue Owl specializes in sour-mashed beers. I had only ever had a sour beer at Green Bench brewing – and those tend to be lighter beers. Blue Owl actually had all sorts of beer styles in sour – wheat, pale ale, red and stout. Lance would have liked if they had a sour IPA, but I thought it was a nice variety. My favorite was the Professor Black – a sour cherry stout.
Afterwards we headed to dinner at Salty Sow – a gastropub pig-themed décor. It was cold outside but their patio had heaters.
I ordered their duck breast – with turnips, oil-cured olives, and cardamom orange sauce. Lance had the slow-cooked beef shoulder – with mashed potatoes, glazed root vegetables, and a fried egg.
My meal was well made and tasty, but the portion was a bit small for the price. Lance’s beef shoulder was served in a saucepan which was different but it was extra tender – that’s what I’d come back to order again.
The next morning we had planned to take a long bike ride, so before we fueled up with breakfast tacos at Mi Madre’s. I drank a horchata for the first time and loved it – rice milk with vanilla and cinnamon. It’s extra tasty if you sip it through the cinnamon stick!
They had a pretty wide range of tacos to pick from – some with breakfast style fillings like eggs, potatoes, sausage, and bacon – and others with more traditional taco fillings like beef, pork, and beans. I think the best one was the pork carnitas with avocado and cilantro.
It was pretty quiet when we were there – there was a whole back section of the restaurant that was empty. The back area had decorations on the walls teaching you different words in Spanish.
We rented bikes and went on a loop around the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail. This is by far the best biking trail I’ve done before – the Colorado River runs through the middle of the city, and this trail spans the whole length of the river then crosses bridges to create a 10-mile loop.
The scenery is breathtaking and it winds through lots of pretty parks. We stopped at Barton Springs, the UMLAUF Sculpture Garden, and Zilker Botanical Gardens along the ride. Really would recommend it!
That evening, we headed to Hops & Grain Brewery. Again, you had to purchase a glass to fill with beer.
This was one of the best brewery tours we went on because they didn’t just give you the same old spiel about “this is how beer is made”. They really showed sincere appreciation for us visiting their brewery. Craft beer only accounts for a very small percentage of the Texas beer market, and a lot of the politically connected distributers are making it difficult for the craft breweries to thrive.
We found out that Hops & Grain is really focused on sustainability. They use a portion of their spent grains to create dog treats. They support their local environmental non-profits by giving back 1% of their annual revenue. They have a water reclamation tank that collects the water used to cool beer and reuses it for cleaning tanks and floors. Plus, they give their employees bonuses for taking sustainable modes of transportation to work and give paid days off for community service. I love this business model.
They invested in an on-site lab that ensures that their beer is consistent each time. So no matter when or where you buy a Hops & Grain beer, it will taste the same every time. And they had some pretty great beers – I especially liked the ALTeration, a German-style Altbier that won a gold medal at the 2012 World Beer Cup.
After the brewery we went to dinner at Fukumoto – a high-end sushi restaurant that Lance took me to as a late birthday dinner. Luckily we got there before the crowds showed up because they don’t take reservations for small parties, and it really was packed by the time we headed out.
Our waiter greeted us with a small dish with what looked like mentos on it, but he poured hot water and they grew into mini towels. The menu was pretty difficult to read since it was hand-written.
We started with the snapper 4-ways – one regular snapper, one that had been fed green tea, another that was fed oranges, and the last one was a marinated spicy version. I liked the marinated the best.
Lance ordered a local beer and I had the Fuku-mule, their take on a Moscow mule, but with sake. I’ve only had sake one other time and wasn’t a fan, but thought I’d give it a try. I still wasn’t really into it…must be an acquired taste.
After that we had miso soups, which were the best I’ve had. They cook it with bacon and cabbage so it’s very flavorful. They actually mistakenly brought us out another pair of soups, so we passed them on to our neighbors at the bar since we had already each had a whole soup.
Next we had the ebi combo tempura which came with shrimp, salmon, and oba. I wish it was a bigger portion because I really liked it – you only got one bite of each.
We finished with a more traditional tuna roll wrapped in rice chicken gizzards, and chicken wings. I wouldn’t have ordered gizzards, but I’ll try anything one. A bit chewy – but Lance liked them. The wings were incredible though – they were rubbed with spices and had nice crispy skin.
That night we headed to Lambert’s for live music – part of Free Week (10 days of live free music & performances). A band called the Shivery Shakes were playing that evening, so we thought we’d check them out. It didn’t start until 10pm, so we had s’mores bread pudding while we waited to head to the bar upstairs. I was already full from dinner, so it was a little dense for me, but tasty.
The music started a lot later than we expected so we didn’t get to stay late enough to see the Shivery Shakes which was more my style of music – we saw an opening band called Mean Jolene. They were good, but most of the songs sounded pretty much the same to us, and we were pretty exhausted by the time their set was over. I don’t do well staying up late anymore…actually I’ve never been a late night person. Now that I have to get up so early for work, I’m usually in bed by 10:30pm.
After some Trader Joe’s granola & yogurt the next breakfast, we drove about 40 minutes outside of Austin to Hamilton Pool Preserve, where there’s a natural swimming hole with a 50-foot waterfall! Of course it was much too cold to swim in January, but this was one of my favorite things we did on this trip. The drive wasn’t bad at all and the hike around the pool is really scenic. I couldn’t stop taking pictures.
We spent the whole day out in nature, next taking in a view of the river from the top of Mount Bonnell, then visiting all the peacocks at Mayfield Park.
Austin is also known for their barbeque, so we went to the best-known place in town, Franklin’s, for a late lunch. We had read online that there is usually several hours wait for their food, but we figured we’d stop by to see how busy it looked. I think since it was past the normal lunch hour, we lucked out! There was only a 30-minute wait!
The line went by quickly and we even saw a picture of Lance’s man-crush, Harrison Ford, on the wall (he was on the cover of a magazine that had a write-up about the restaurant…)
We ordered the brisket, sausage, and baked pinto beans. And after hearing a woman in line talk about how much she loved their pies, we decided to take a bourbon banana pie to go.
The food was pretty greasy but delicious. The brisket was my favorite – you didn’t even need a knife. We were going to just take a small taste of the pie and bring the rest home, but we ended up finishing it & bringing home some of the meat instead (in our defense it was a small pie…about the same amount as a single slice, but served in an individual round graham-cracker crust…) And we timed it perfectly because when we were leaving, they had put a “sold out” sign on the door.
Next, we visited Hope Outdoor Gallery, which is made up of multiple levels of walls coated with layers and layers of graffiti. Some was done by serious artists, but anyone could add their own layer to it (unlike the Wynwood area of Miami we had visited last year where it was all clearly done by professionals…) We found paint cans on the ground & added to the layers.
It seems like all our vacations now revolve around food and beer. We really don’t drink much on a regular basis, but we always want to try out local beers wherever we go. Lance should have his own beer blog, but he thinks it would be too much work, so it all ends up on my food blog. So next we stopped at Austin Beer Garden Brewing (or ABGB), which was recommend to us by the guy who rented us the bikes the day before. It had a nice outdoor area with picnic tables, but it was so cold outside, we found seats indoors.
They serve pizza, but of course we were still full from our BBQ. It would be a nice laid-back place to meet up with friends. They didn’t have the same rule as the other breweries about selling you their glasses (maybe because they were a full-scale restaurant and not just a tap-room…) I liked the Road Trip Saison best.
On the way back to the hotel we wandered some neighborhoods with really cool modern homes. I’m a bit jealous that so many people seem to appreciate modern design in Austin. Tampa does have a handful of homes like this, but it’s pretty rare. It seems like every street in Austin has a couple modern style – and even the more traditional homes have modern elements to them.
That evening and finished our BBQ leftovers while watching the Steeler’s game (they won! Lance was happy…)
Our final day we walked around the capital building and checked out the campus at the University of Texas. Since we didn’t get the chance to eat at the under-construction Torchy’s Tacos the first day, we went to their food truck for our last lunch in Austin. Food trucks are a big thing in that city – South Congress Ave is lined with them. Most of them seem like they are permanent fixtures though. The Torchy’s Taco truck was parked at an area called Trailer Park Eatery.
The problem I’ve had with food trucks is that it seems like they always run out of food and there is such a long wait. This wasn’t an issue at Torchy’s. Since it seems to permanently be stationed there, they had plenty of ingredients and were well-organized.
We started off with guac and chips – which was a really generous portion with nice big chunks of avocado. We also got a side of the street corn – fresh roasted off-the-cob with ancho aioli, queso fresco, cilantro, and New Mexico red chile powder. It was a spicy, but in a good way.
I ordered the Brushfire taco with Jamaican jerk chicken, jalapeños, mango, and sour cream. Lance had a beef barbacoa taco along with a fried chicken taco with queso. I can see why they have a larger brick-and-mortar restaurant being built because their tacos were great and their food truck was busy!
The last place we stopped before heading to the airport was Lick Honest Ice Cream. They pride themselves on having no artificial flavors or colors, no preservatives, and no high fructose corn syrup. The milk comes from a local Texas dairy farm their spoons and cups are all compostable. I love how everywhere in Austin seems to be environmentally-conscious.
Lick has all sorts of crazy concoctions of flavors – some of the ones I sampled were goat cheese/thyme/honey, plum jam/gin cake, and roasted beets/fresh mint. They were all surprisingly tasty – and none of them were ingredients I’d normally associate with ice cream. I ended up getting scoops of the coconut chia chai and the candied pecan with bourbon. Lance had the caramel salt lick and the chocolate peanut butter brownie. The scoops were pretty small but it was perfect since we were really still full from lunch earlier and were just using the “but we’re on vacation” excuse to indulge and get some ice cream. I wish we had this place locally – although the Revolution Ice Cream in Brandon does come up with some pretty unique flavors as well.
We really enjoyed our trip eating around Austin. If I were to leave Florida I would happily live there (but I love Florida too much, so I’ll just have to go back and visit!)