Things to do in Austin for foreigners short on time

An older post from my newsletter, but probably still helpful.

Breakfast tacos at tamalehouse

I navigate life, mostly, though food, rather, eating. Thus, my suggestions for things to do in Austin are primarily about things to eat. Also, I have a nine year old and have lived in Amsterdam for a year. So, my knowledge of “the hot spots” is about a decade out of date. Some of the places I recommend below may even be closed!

Nonetheless, here’s what I would do, and try to do, when I go back:

  • Eat breakfast tacos in the morning – the breakfast taco is a tortilla with scrambled eggs, cheese, and other things, usually bacon. If you’re vegan, get potatoes and beans, maybe gucamole. I would start with the basic, which is both the benchmark and the standard: eggs, cheese, bacon. Breakfast tacos must be served in a flour tortilla, white flour preferably. Breakfast tacos on corn tortillas are a fraud and should be stomped on. As a bonus round, try a migas breakfast taco. In fact, I would suggest pairing a standard breakfast taco with a migas one: eat the standard first, and then the migas one. If you’ve never had a migas breakfast taco, you want to prime your mouth with the standard, a sort of palet cleansing. Order these at aa Taco Deli, a Torchy’s, or any restaurant with a Spanish word and a number in it’s name, e.g., “Arranda’s #4.” If you can go a little out of the way, got to Tamale House or Mi Madre’s. I would recommend ordering extra salsa to put on the tacos (see below).
  • Have BBQ for lunch – Texas BBQ is not sweet, and is smoked. There are sauces that go with it, but these are optional. Eat brisket, ribs (pork, or if you’re lucky, a beef rib), sausage, and chicken. Don’t waste your limited time on sandwiches – delicious as they may be, those are for when you have many days to eat over. Get beans and coleslaw, cobbler if you want a dessert. Eat the BBQ with your hands – don’t be a monster and eat with utensils – it will seem wrong, and you may see other people being monsters. Trust me, here: the experience of eating BBQ includes all of the sense, esp. touch. (Sound? I’d argue it’s that the sound of people eating, the regionalisms and Texan accents in speech, and the sound in your head of crunching on cartolige and even the sound of grease). BBQ can be eaten for any meal, including breakfast. As for where to eat, there are many, many options, most of which I’m no longer familiar with. I’d recommend Cooper’s downtown (free beans!) or Stiles Switch if you can drive a tad north of downtown.
  • Eat Tex-Mex for dinner – do not confuse Tex-Mex with “Mexican.” These are very different things. Also, don’t confuse Mission/California burritos with Tex-Mex. That is also a different thing. Proper Tex-Mex is served on a platter, covered in cheese, and comes with refried beans and rice. Order enchiladas, soft tacos, chalupas, and, best, fajitas. If you’re confused about how to eat fajitas, ask your server: it’s an assemble your own taco type of thing. As a baseline (which is to say, can’t mess it up good), try a Chuy’s (the one on Barton Springs Road, likely) or Guero’s on South Congress. Really, though, in Austin, you have to try really hard to get bad Tex-Mex.
  • Chips and salsa – chips and salsa is like olives in Spain, bread in Italy, cheese cubes in The Netherlands: they’re part of the furniture. A good Tex-Mex place will bring you chips and salsa without asking, and they’re free (some places charge for chips and salsa, we can forgive them but that policy is downright stupid and rude). Since you’re trying to maximize your experience, also order queso or, if available, questo compuesto. The second goes by many names but it’s queso with a bunch of stuff in it. If there’s no “questo compuesto” on the menu, ask the server for “queso with all the stuff in it.” Queso is melted cheese, but creamy and liquidy. Also, order guacamole. This is mashed up avocado with seasoning it it. Queso compuesto will commonly come with guacamole, but I would order it on its own as well. You can put it (the guacamole) on your other food as well. There are a few fancy places (Manuels, I think) that will serve Mexican queso which is, essentially, a warm block of cheese. Don’t order that: you want real, Tex-Mex queso. Ah, and chips. There is much to say about tortilla chips. There are two variants: thick and thin. They’re both made of corn, and should be crispy and salty, a little greasy. My personal delicacy is when you have three or four chips that have stuck together, leaving the center chip a bit soft. You can ask for refills of chips and salsa. I recommend getting a lot of salsa to add to your other dishes. Chips and salsa is also good at breakfast. Ah, an import note, that may not be obvious: you pick up a chip, dip it in salsa or queso, and then eat the chip, not necessity all in one bite. I wouldn’t worry about double-dipping: no one has time for worrying about that. Also: nachos. Who has the best chips and salsa? This question could occupy Austinites for many, many nights. Because I was brought up on them, I think Chuy’s chips are the best, but their salsa is wanting compared to others. Tamale House has the best salsa, and their chips, as I recall, are good. Mi Madre’s has good salsa, but the chips, for me (I’m not judging the chip, no, ma’am, just my reaction to it), are too chunky. Whatever you get will be fine; I only recommend getting all the salsa: ask the server for some of each salsa that they have – they may have just one, but many places will have at least two, if not three or five different ones.
  • Steak – well, of course. If you get a steak, get a t-bone or rib-eye. I would order rare, but medium rare is fine. As with BBQ, don’t put any sauce on-top, just salt and pepper. The steak will come unsliced and you’ll get a steak knife to cut it up. It’s perfectly accepted, once you’ve sliced off all the meat, to pick up the bone and eat the meat off it. I’d suggest having a salad with the steak.
  • Margaritas – these are very important. For your first few, don’t order anything fancy, just a regular margarita, always shaken on the rocks, never that slurpie bullshit (“frozen margaritas”). Order top-shelf tequila, not whatever the default is. I always order Herradura. Here’s how you order it: “could I have a margaritta on the rocks with Herradura?” As you progress, you can order variants of a margarita; sadly, they always let you down. (Again: don’t order frozen margaritas.)
  • Ice-tea – order some ice-tea. Don’t get sweet tea, order “regular ice-tea.” Oh, and it’s exactly what it says in the name.
  • Beer – here are the beers to drink, if only to sample them: Shiner, Firemans’s #4, Lone Star (see below), and Bud Light. There are many, many new beers and micro breweries in Austin (and America). What I’m recommending here are the standards (and, one of my personal favorites). Europeans will find all of these abominations – I’m willing to concede that if they’re willing to concede that the majority of European food is bland and that their meat tastes wrong. Each country has it’s own thing, it’s own beliefs about what “good” is. You don’t roll into a new culture and tell them why their cherished cuisine, full of history and personal value, is terrible compared to whatever you grew up with. I don’t come and piss in your lager and Belgian beers – I drink them and learn to love them in the context of the centuries of culture they’re part of. Do the same with our beers, and you will be rewarded. And, yes, Bud Light. Have one of these and just shut your mind the fuck up. Texas runs on Bud Light: I have painted houses in August, cleaned up yards, and moved houses full of furniture (not even my own – but friends! There’s a great bumper-sticker in Texas that reads: “yes, this a truck, and, no, I will not help you move”) floating along on Bud Light. Drink it or you’ll have missed out on an essential part of Texas. (Lonestar I could take or leave, but it is the self-proclaimed “national beer of Texas.”)
  • Wine – I mean, if you’re from Europe or other parts, you could try a California, Washington, or Oregon wine just to see what that’s like. But this is Texas. Have a beer and a margarita.

A bunch of BBQ

Other activities:

I would suggest that if you have a short amount of time, you spend all of your time eating and drinking. But, there are other things to do in-between meals:

  • Walk around Town Lake – natives like me call the river that runs through Austin Town Lake – it’s actually called Lady Bird Lake now (important: Lady Bird was the wife of LBJ, a Texan US President – her name can only be said in reverence for reasons too numerous and complex to cover here – don’t question why it’s called Lady Bird…unless you’re one of us townies who’ve earned the right to regard this renaming with a twinkling smile by nature of being born in the city) (related: yeah, genius, we all know it’s a river. Don’t mention that lexicographic oddity – just say “lake” and move on with your life). Anyhow. There’s a great trail that goes around Lady Bird Lake. Ask how to get to it and walk around it.
  • The Bats – there’s a bunch of bats that live under the Congress bridge. People seem to like them, and you’ll be asked if you saw them, so you should probably try to go see them at dusk. Personally: ¯_(ツ)_/¯
  • Barton Springs – another Austin shrine, a spring-fed pool in Zilker park. It’s the same temperature (mostly) year round: breath-taking cold…which means it’s warm in winter and utter salvation in summer. If you have the chance, go swim there.
  • Toy Joy – long moved to downtown, Toy Joy is a whacky, very Austin toy store. It’s for kids and adults. Go buy some little figures and witness Austin hipsters running the till.
  • 6th Street – the part of 6th street that runs between Congress and I-35 (the big, hulking, working highway that divides Austin into West and East) is full of bars that are full of music, every night of the week. On Friday and Saturday nights, the street will be shut-off for cars and full of the 50,000 students that go to the University of Texas, plus townies and people who drove in. It’s crazy and worth experiencing if only to hear all sorts of music as you walk by each bar.
  • Manhattan and a burger at the Driskill – the Driskill is an old hotel on the corner of Congress and sixth. Find the bar and go there for as much Texas as you can handle: cow-hide couches, cowboy paintings, and an amazing Remington statue right in the middle. Get a Manhattan (always top-shelf bourbon, even rye) and one of their burger (cooked rare, or medium rare if you’re a morally deficient). (Oh, sorry, this is back to food. I mean, this could be something you do between lunch and dinner, tho.)
  • Walk from downtown (let’s say 2nd and Congress) across the Congress bridge to “south Congress.” There’s some quirky stores and restaurants there (Guero’s is down there). Get a margarita while you’re down there. Be sure to visit the costume shop and Uncommon Objects, but otherwise just meander. There’s an Allen’s Boots down there. Locals wouldn’t buy their stuff there (they’d go to large places further out), but go in there, smell the leather, see the tightly dressed cowboy kids, and get a taste of what a Western store is like.

A few operational comments:

  • I’ve left many of the ceremonies and practices for eating out. Eating a taco, for example, has some operational concerns (you don’t want it to squeeze out of the far end); the way you divide up a communal pile of BBQ; &co.; how to squeeze a lime into a bottle of beer (did I mention putting limes in Mexican beers? You should get a Dos XX’s, or, if you’re really doing it right, a Tecate in a can, and put lime in it. You only put lime in Mexican beers, DO NOT put lime in others beers [which beer to put lime in is expert level Texan, so just stick to Mexican beers]). If you’re confused about how to eat something, just ask the server – they’ll be happy to share their culture with you, if a bit confused.
  • Non-Alcoholic drink refills are free. Hand to God.
  • Wait-staff will constantly check on you to “see how you’re doing.” Treat this as charming and compassionate rather than intrusive and annoying.
  • In America, you never demand what you want at a restaurant. There are two ways to order: saying “may I have a margarita” or “could I have the chalupas” or “I’ll do some fajitas.” I find the third dumb, but it’s a very popular phrase. Saying you “want” something or “I will have” is a bit too pushy. While the wait staff are there to serve you, the proper attitude is to treat them like they’re doing you a favor. Wait staff are a micro-chosem of American culture: they’re expected to work tirelessly and hard; they are expected to attend to your every need; putting “the customer first”; they’re paid terribly; so part of their compensation is being treated very well. People who yell or are rude at waiters are considered vile creatures who should be sent to the lower levels of hell. Which brings us to:
  • You must tip. If the service is good, you tip. If the service is middling, you tip. If the service is terrible, you tip. Tipping is not an option, it is required. If you’re fancy enough to be traveling for work, not to mention expensing meals, tip 20% of the total bill. Don’t fucking argue about it, just fucking do it. Cf.: rant on Bud Lite. Bartenders are tipped a dollar a drink; don’t flash your cash at them before you order – we don’t break the elaborate illusion of tips and shit-pay at play here.
  • Like most of America, to really see things, everything, you’ll need a car. Most of what’s here is for people who’ll be downtown without a car.
  • Whenever you meet someone, the proper greeting is “hi, how’re you?” The only answer permitted is “good, yourself?” to which the only answer allowed is “good.” Then you can move onto the business at hand. This applies to people asking you “how was it?” and variants. The only answer is “good, thank you.” (Cf. tipping.)
  • In exchange, if there’s something truly wrong with your food, you can politely point this out and usually you’ll get a replacement and you either won’t be charged for that item or you’ll get a bonus item, like a dessert. If you merely don’t like the food, just don’t eat it. If asked why, DO NOT SAY YOU DON’T LIKE IT: just say you’re full, maybe you had a beef rib for lunch, or something.
  • (Are you catching on here? In Texas, being polite and deferential is extremely important. You pretend to care about people, e.g., “how are you” and everyone knows you actually don’t – or maybe you do – we’ve lost track, which is the point. Part of all this is being casual, relaxed…and pretending that an elaborate class system does not actually exist. Don’t try to decode the class system and the power dynamics running behind the smiley surface, we even find it confusing.)

A beef rib.

Notes:

  1. Native and long-time Texan eaters will have many, wide opinions on all of this, as do I. There’s much more nuance and options to be said for all of this, but I want to cut this all down to something manageable for y’all from other parts.
  2. I’m sure, once published, I’ll realize at least five obvious things I left out. Apologies in advance, to you too.
  3. I’m serious about the Bud Light. If some local shrivels their nose at that, tell them, “hey, I just want to experience it and then I’ll drink whatever fancy piss in a bottle you prefer” and if they still throw a fit, send them to me and me and them will, as they say, sort it out.
  4. Coffee. This not an issue in the local culture, but especially important for Europeans. No, coffee in America won’t ever be as good as your coffee. That is not what we do. There are plenty of places that try, and are probably good. Just order a flat white and pretend you’re enjoying a cup of invigorating, warm milk, or a double espresso. At least once just order (say this exactly) “a coffee.” This is what you’d call “brew” or “batch” coffee. You can put sugar or milk in it, but I’d try it black if you can. You may detest it, and tell your friends back home that it’s “dirty water,” but you should at least know, first hand, what American coffee is. If you end up not liking it, see the notes on being polite (and tipping– I have my eye on you, yes, you!) above. (You might even like it – but probably not.)
  5. When I say “foreigners,” I mean the set of all people not from Texas (and by “from,” I mean who’ve lived there awhile, if not natives).