AUSTIN TX: WITH THE KINGS OF KEEPING IT WEIRD
If Ann Arbor had been about spending time with old friends then Austin TX was going to be all about meeting new ones.
An early flight from Detroit had me arriving in Austin’s small but rather fun little airport around Midday and, within about fifteen minutes of arriving, I had picked up my small hire car and pointed it towards my accommodation, the utterly fabulous Austin Motel whose sign evokes an extended middle finger giving it to “the man” and whose motto reads “So Close Yet So Far Out”
The only other time I had visited Austin with my brother, Robin, it was to hunt down good BBQ. I had pretty much the same intentions this time, but was resigned to the fact that I was going to have to make the journey alone. When she heard this, my NYC chum, Cathy insisted that I get in touch with another food board stalwart, Jane King who lives in Austin and who, she was sure, would be more than a match for any food obsessive.
So, I did and, what a good thing I did too because the extra-ordinary hospitality of Jane and her husband, John, before then, complete strangers, turned my time in Austin from being one that I knew was going to be good to one that was up there in the highlights of the trip so far.
On my last visit, I rather fell in love with Austin. I liked its quirkiness, the conscious attempts of its locals to “keep it weird” and the laid back vibe which meant that everything happened at its own steady pace.
It had changed a bit some five years later. There were more signs of chain dominance with the inevitable Starbucks across the street from the motel and a Chipotle Grill just up the street. But, it still had the same spirit, which I noticed immediately I checked in and headed out to lunch.
The people behind the desk suggested Threadgill’s ,another local institution for a meal and, as it was Sunday and the place was packed, I squeezed myself into a small space at the bar and ordered a welcome Shiner Bock.
Their speciality, the man behind the bar told me, was a Chicken Fried Steak. I had heard of these things and knew the origins came from German immigrants who used cheap cuts of meat which they pounded, battered and cooked in shortening. It sounded just my sort of thing, particularly when served with a mound of collard greens and another cold beer. In truth, however, it was a bit grim. But, I liked it. I asked a fellow diner on a neighbouring stool if this was a good example.
“best in the city” he declared ‘best in the city”
If that is, indeed the case, I suspect I just have very low standards. It is one of those times when you question your own foodie credentials and come to the conclusion that you are actually just a greedy person or at least I did as I mopped up the gravy on my plate with one of the soft, scone like biscuits they gave me for just that purpose.
Anyway, it sat heavily enough in my stomach that, after a short walk to see the entirely grim Sixth St with its shabby titty bars and dreadful restaurants, I was ready for a bit of a nap in my well air-conditioned room.
My wake up call came about an hour later courtesy of my new chum, Jane.
Not only had she agreed to meet me, a feat in itself, but she had also arranged a bit of a get-together with some other local food board habitués which would involve, I was promised, lashings of Tequila and some prime examples of Tex-Mex cooking.
I was dog tired, but how could I turn down an offer like that. I could not.
So, half an hour later, I was standing by the entrance to The Austin Motel, showered and shaved as JK’s pimped up ride pulled into the driveway with the top down and the wind in my hair, ok work with me on this one people, it was easy to see why this city gets under your skin and why people who come here seldom leave.
As we arrived at Jane’s house, husband, John was busy unloading beer from his car into the porch. I liked him already. Mind you, dressed in shorts a T-shirt and a Straw Stetson worn without a hint of irony, he is a man it is almost impossible to dislike. This attraction was re-enforced when he handed me the first of too many shots of tequila.
I have to be honest and say that I knew almost nothing about proper Tex-Mex cookery. I assumed it was very different from Mexican, but since I knew nothing about that either I could not have told you how. My experiences of it in London have always verged on the disgusting and I assumed that it was basically just an excuse to use up residual amounts of bad cheese that may have been laying in the back of the fridge.
Well, it is certainly meat & cheese dependent and there is no way you would ever call it a refined cuisine, but, on the evidence of what was put in front of me, it is entirely delicious.
“Armadillo Eggs” were a particular favourite. Made of jalapeno peppers stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon, I shovelled down about six of them before I realised that everyone else in the porch was staring at me with a look mixing horror and disgust in equal measure.
So, I moved on to the chilli con queso, a dip made with ground beef and yet more cheese. If they would have had the chance, I am sure that The Kings would have told me not to stand on ceremony. I did not give them a chance as I stood right by the table with all the food on it and helped myself until they began to stare again. This time, I am pretty sure I heard an “eeew” noise from one of them.
These were just the starters and soon a huge dish of enchiladas stuffed with pulled pork and a large bowl of beans appeared. Jane produced a pico de gallo in a vain attempt to keep things on the healthy side of heart attack, but it was too late. The enchilada were so good it was all they could do to stop me stripping off and taking a bath in the dish.
I am also slightly ashamed to admit that I may have knocked over their charming daughter Natalie in my rush to get to the crispy bits at the edge of the bowl. I apologised, of course. Mind you, I like to think that it taught her a useful lesson she can take with her into later life. You’re welcome.
After making a considerable pig of myself, I flopped down on a rather pretty pink rocking chair and helped myself to yet another glug of tequila.
They say, I believe that Texas is just “a state of mind”
Well, I was in a hell of a state and no one seemed to mind.
I had two more days left in Texas and, thanks to my newest chums, I was pretty sure I was going to enjoy them.