Monday, March 18, 2013

Illini Visitor's Guide to Austin

As most of you know, the Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team will be playing in Austin, my current hometown, for the 2013 NCAA tournament this Friday, March 22.  I decided to write this blog post to benefit the Illini fans who will be visiting Austin.  But let's start off by listing my credentials - the credentials that I believe allow me to write a valid "Illini Guide to Austin" blog post.  I grew up in Illinois - the northwest suburbs of Chicago to be a little more specific, and I went to The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for 4 years (2005-2009).  In October 2010, I moved to Austin for a new job.  Since then, I've been exploring Austin for the sole purpose of writing this very blog post.

During my time in Illinois, I became a die-hard fan of all things Illinois/Chicago: sports, weather, food, the skyline, and people (except politicians).  These loyalties have been tested and examined now that I live squarely in the middle of "ya'll" & boot country - neither of which have I adopted into my vocabulary or wardrobe, respectively.  I've had to defend the Cubs, Bears, and Illini on many occasions; I've almost rehearsed my rhetoric on the "magic" of winter and beauty of fall; yes, we put an entire pickle spear on our hotdogs and our pizza is thicker than your accent; supposedly everything's bigger in Texas, but I'm pretty sure our Tower tops anything down here.  The only reason I'm taking the time to delineate all these things is to clarify that I haven't "sold out."  The opinions of Austin that follow are free of the "don't mess with Texas" nationalistic mindset that is superbly prevalent in most anyone who was born here (they have stars and/or the outline of the state everywhere, for goodness sake).  So, please continue - my 23 years in Illinois and 2+ years in Austin are the background for this post.

What we know so far is that Illinois is a 7-seed playing Colorado on Friday.  I'll assume that most fans will arrive on Thursday evening/night.  I'll also assume that those traveling to Austin will be staying in town until Sunday night whether the Illini win on Friday and play again on Sunday or lose on Friday and don't play again until November.  This schedule really gives you approximately 2 days to explore Austin, which I will try to take into account, but I don't think it would be possible to fit all the fun below into two days unless you're riding on horseback (which isn't out of the question).

Usually when friends come to visit us in Austin, we spent part of the time showing them around but most of the time eating.  There are so many cool places to dine in Austin; here are a few "must-eats" during your short stay.
  • Rudy's BBQ - sarcastically titled "The worst BBQ in Texas" due to the fact that they're all located in gas stations and feature wax paper instead of plates, Rudy's moist beef brisket is the main reason that cows exist.  This is a must.
  • Torchy's Tacos - while you couldn't go wrong with several taco places in Austin (like TacoDeli, for example), Torchy's is still my favorite.  There are multiple locations and great menu choices for breakfast, lunch, or dinner - my wife loves the "Fried Avocado" taco.  These are "Damn Good Tacos."
  • Food from a truck - Austin has a thriving "trailer food" scene that has come to partially define the culinary experience.  If you're looking for Asian (East Side King or Coat & Thai), Indian (Nomad Dosa or G'Raj Mahal), Sandwiches (Snarky's Moo Bawk Oink or All City Subs), or anything else your heart/stomach desires, someone will be happy to hand it to you thru a truck window.  Other must-trys are dessert trucks - Hey Cupcake and Gourdough's are worth the trip.  Check out Food Trailers Austin for an extensive map list.
  • Hopdoddy Burger Bar - Texas burgers!  "Hopdoddy was created to express the perfect union of burgers and beer."  All natural, hand-crafted burgers and a celebration of local beer; if you're in the mood for some beef, this is the place.  (It's also located conveniently on one of the most visited streets in Austin, South Congress.  More on that later.)
  • Chuy's Tex Mex - there may be more authentic or healthy options for Tex-Mex in Austin, but there's not a more "Austin" Tex-Mex place in Austin.  Chuy's helps keep Austin weird with their strange decor and "Chicka-Chicka Boom Boom" sauce.  Not only that, but if you get there during happy hour, they have discount margaritas and free chips, salsa, queso, and beef!
  • Whole Foods - you've probably heard of Whole Foods, the king of natural food grocery stores, whose corporate headquarters are in downtown Austin.  While it's still a (very large) grocery store, the downtown location does offer lots of great options for fresh cooked food in their cafeteria area and a good view of the surrounding Austin streets from the rooftop tables.
  • Uchi or Uchiko - a little more taxing on the wallet, but these two neo-Japanese restaurants are the most highly acclaimed establishments in the Austin area (Uchiko is a spinoff of Uchi by the same owner and chef).  The aura and menu are both designed to create an experience that won't disappoint.
I would give you a list of bars to visit, similar to the restaurants above, but the nightlife scene is more about the desired atmosphere instead of the actual drinks on the menu.
  • If you're looking for a crazy, drunk night where the street on which you're stumbling is shut down for easy access to all the bars on either side, go to 6th Street.  It's great people watching if nothing else, but you can find the occasional good show and even some hidden gems, like Midnight Cowboy, located along this historic strip of entertainment venues.
  • If you're looking for the progressive hipster/young adult scene where all the bars are old, remodeled homes, Rainey Street is the spot.  There's at least 9 or 10 bars in this former neighborhood that are worth your time, especially Icenhauer's (a personal favorite), Bar 96 (gotta love playing bags), and The Lustre Pearl (pictured above - ping pong anyone?).
  • If you're looking for a country bar, let me remind you that I'm from the northwestern suburbs of Chicago, and I don't know anything about places like that.  I actually avoid them if I can.
  • There are also a few good dive bars and pubs in different locations around Austin such as the Pour House, Barfly's, The Flying Saucer, Hopfield's, Red's Porch, and Moonshine (the last two are more restaurants, but good places to grab a drink outside).
It would be tough to fit all these places in during a weekend visit to Austin; I've even left some out, like Barton Springs Pool & a few music venues, because I know you're visiting in March for a weekend.  (Just making sure you remembered that I designed this blog post for you Illini fans).  But while you're here, I hope you can mark a few of these off and experience some of the best attractions that Austin has to offer.
  • Texas State Capitol & Bob Bullock History Museum - when you come to the Capital you have to see the Capitol, and since the history museum is just right up the road, why not get your full share of Texas history & nationalism in one fell swoop!
  • South Congress - I originally had "SoCo" further down the list (only because I was randomly writing things down), and I planned on saying, "This should be further up the list."  But instead, I decided to move it up.  The quintessential Austin street, this is where you'll find food trucks, restaurants, old-time candy shops, lots of hipsters, lots of tourists, stores full of weird artifacts, and a famous "I love you so much" wall, in addition to lots of other little places - all with a great view of the Capitol building.  Don't miss it.
  • Mount Bonnell - one of the highest points in Austin, you can get a great view of the city, the surrounding hills, and some of the most expensive houses in town.  A good spot to take some pictures and enjoy the nice weather.
  • The Oasis - another great vantage point, the Oasis is the spot to visit if you want a fantastic view of the sunset over Lake Travis. Unfortunately, Lake Travis is approximately 40+ feet lower than normal, due to recent drought conditions, so it's not as picturesque as usual.
  • Alamo Drafthouse - I'm not sure I would really recommend this place since it's a theater, and there's so much else to do during your short amount of time in Austin.  But if you have an overwhelming urge to see a movie, find the nearest Alamo Drafthouse, and don't eat beforehand.  It's dinner AND a movie all in one with some great beers available.  Definitely an Austin staple.
  • Zilker Park - if you have an afternoon and want to explore Austin's largest park within city limits, head over to Zilker. This is where the annual Austin City Limits Fest is held each year, as well as the Trail of Lights during Christmas time, and several other events throughout the year.  When it's not hosting one of those things, it's a great location to bring your dog, play some soccer, frisbee, volleyball, football, or simply read on the grass.
  • Explore Town Lake - also known as Lady Bird Lake, it looks a lot more like a river to me.  Town Lake sits in the shadow of the Austin skyline, and provides runners, bikers, kayakers, and canoers with a great location for all types of exercise.  If you're not interested in running/walking around the lake, there are many places nearby to rent a kayak or other water vehicle.  Town Lake sits conveniently in between downtown Austin and South Congress, so you could easily plan it into one of your day's adventures.
Maybe all this information will be helpful to at least one person who will be visiting Austin this week.  I know that there are many other places on the internet that provide you with travel tips and recommended sights, so I appreciate you taking the time to get all the way thru this post (if you just scrolled to the bottom to see how long it is, then just go back to Yelp or TripAdvisor).  Does the opinion of a guy from the northwest suburbs of Chicago living here in Austin mean something to you?  I would hope so (unless you're a Sox fan).  But either way - go out, enjoy the city, and go Illini.