Sunday 23 September 2018

It's no good unless you have to queue - How to eat, drink and party like a local in Austin

Thousands of Americans relocate to Austin each year. Katie Wright heads stateside to see if it lives up to the hype.

Sunset over Austin. Picture credit: PA Photo/Geoff Duncan/Visit Austin.
Sunset over Austin. Picture credit: PA Photo/Geoff Duncan/Visit Austin.
Katie Wright at Lambert's Downtown Barbecue. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Downtown Austin from Doug Sahm Hill Summit. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Austin's HOPE Outdoor Gallery. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Juicy burgers at Odd Duck, a restaurant which started life as a food truck called Humble Pig. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Rainey Street, where former residential bungalows have been converted into bars. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
A neon sign which sums up the spirit of Texan hospitality. PA Photo/Katie Wright.

Kate Wright

Depending on who you talk to, anywhere between 60 and 100 people arrive in Austin every day - ready to call the city home, making it one of fastest growing places in America.

Why the influx?

Well, it's partly because young professionals are being priced out of places like San Francisco and Seattle, but the Texan metropolis certainly has plenty of 'pull factors' as well.

And it's now easier (and cheaper) than ever to get a slice of the action, with budget airline Norwegian flying direct from Gatwick and more transatlantic services (and connections within the US) than ever from Ireland.

Katie Wright at Lambert's Downtown Barbecue. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Katie Wright at Lambert's Downtown Barbecue. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Sunset over Austin. Picture credit: PA Photo/Geoff Duncan/Visit Austin.
Downtown Austin from Doug Sahm Hill Summit. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Austin's HOPE Outdoor Gallery. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Juicy burgers at Odd Duck, a restaurant which started life as a food truck called Humble Pig. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Rainey Street, where former residential bungalows have been converted into bars. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
A neon sign which sums up the spirit of Texan hospitality. PA Photo/Katie Wright.

My own arrival in ATX - as everyone calls it - is something of a baptism of fire.

First stop, after dropping my bags at the shiny new Fairmont Hotel, is Ranch 616 (theranch616.com), an old-style Ice House decked out with buffalo skulls and neon signs, where I'm tasked with downing a Fire in the Hole - a shot glass filled with tequila and a hollowed-out jalapeno.

The trick, says the restaurant's owner Kevin Williamson, is to drink the liquor from the jalapeno first, then from the glass, and then chase it with a bite of chilli - a combination that leaves my throat burning but my spirits soaring.

Tequila, I soon discover, is the unofficial beverage of the Lone Star State, which is why it's vitally important that you line your stomach before a night out. But you'll have no trouble doing that, because Austinites are nothing short of evangelistic about eating.

Juicy burgers at Odd Duck, a restaurant which started life as a food truck called Humble Pig. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Juicy burgers at Odd Duck, a restaurant which started life as a food truck called Humble Pig. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Sunset over Austin. Picture credit: PA Photo/Geoff Duncan/Visit Austin.
Katie Wright at Lambert's Downtown Barbecue. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Downtown Austin from Doug Sahm Hill Summit. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Austin's HOPE Outdoor Gallery. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Rainey Street, where former residential bungalows have been converted into bars. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
A neon sign which sums up the spirit of Texan hospitality. PA Photo/Katie Wright.

Barbecue is the king of cuisine around here, and the mere mention of the B-word sparks fierce debate amongst locals.

Some say La Barbecue (labarbecue.com) is the only place to go for hunks of succulent beef or pork, rubbed with seasoning, then slow-cooked over a hardwood fire, while others swear by Salt Lick's (saltlickbbq.com) unparalleled rub (it's actually too salty, argues someone else).

Low-key lunch spot Franklin Barbecue (franklinbbq.com) may not look fancy, but it serves the best brisket in the whole of Texas, let alone Austin, says Kris Weaver, who I get chatting to in a bar one night - and I'm inclined to believe him, because he also claims to be a former World Barbecue Champion.

Arguments aside, one thing's for certain: If you want to sample any of the most in-demand barbecue joints, don't think that you can just rock up when you're feeling peckish.

Rainey Street, where former residential bungalows have been converted into bars. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Rainey Street, where former residential bungalows have been converted into bars. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Sunset over Austin. Picture credit: PA Photo/Geoff Duncan/Visit Austin.
Katie Wright at Lambert's Downtown Barbecue. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Downtown Austin from Doug Sahm Hill Summit. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Austin's HOPE Outdoor Gallery. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Juicy burgers at Odd Duck, a restaurant which started life as a food truck called Humble Pig. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
A neon sign which sums up the spirit of Texan hospitality. PA Photo/Katie Wright.

Most open at 11am and will be sold out by 2pm, all that brisket and ribs hoovered up by ravenous carnivores who swear by the 'it's not good unless you have to queue for it' mantra.

Come evening, dining is more of a munch and move affair, with all three courses rarely eaten at the same establishment.

"We might start at Guero's (gueros.com) for tacos and margaritas," says Casey Barks, a communications manager who relocated to Austin 18 months ago, describing a night of grazing that starts on trendy South Congress Avenue (aka SoCo).

"Then we'll go to Tatsu-Ya (ramen-tatsuya.com) for ramen with brisket, then Chi'Lantro (chilantrobbq.com) for the amazing kimchi fries."

Downtown Austin from Doug Sahm Hill Summit. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Downtown Austin from Doug Sahm Hill Summit. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Sunset over Austin. Picture credit: PA Photo/Geoff Duncan/Visit Austin.
Katie Wright at Lambert's Downtown Barbecue. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Austin's HOPE Outdoor Gallery. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Juicy burgers at Odd Duck, a restaurant which started life as a food truck called Humble Pig. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Rainey Street, where former residential bungalows have been converted into bars. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
A neon sign which sums up the spirit of Texan hospitality. PA Photo/Katie Wright.

Then there are the food trucks that are dotted all over town - people's eyes light up when you ask about their favourites - either lone trucks adjacent to a drinking spot, or clustered in 'parks' with seating areas.

"Food trucks win every time," insists Jason Weems, a musician who also leads fun and informative tours with Austin Detours (austindetours.com), citing Gourdough's doughnuts (gourdoughs.com) and Bananarchy's chocolate-dipped frozen bananas (bananarchy.net) as must-scoffs for dessert.

Hunger sated? Then it's time to party.

A neon sign which sums up the spirit of Texan hospitality. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
A neon sign which sums up the spirit of Texan hospitality. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Sunset over Austin. Picture credit: PA Photo/Geoff Duncan/Visit Austin.
Katie Wright at Lambert's Downtown Barbecue. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Downtown Austin from Doug Sahm Hill Summit. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Austin's HOPE Outdoor Gallery. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Juicy burgers at Odd Duck, a restaurant which started life as a food truck called Humble Pig. PA Photo/Katie Wright.
Rainey Street, where former residential bungalows have been converted into bars. PA Photo/Katie Wright.

It's apt that the bat has become the mascot of this urban jungle, because this really is a city of nighthawks.

Every night, about half an hour before sunset, 1.5 million winged creatures take flight from their home under the Congress Avenue Bridge in search of a mosquito dinner.

To get a decent view of the incredible mass exodus, sit on the grass slope on the south side of the bridge, and be sure you look up to see clouds of bats disappearing into the darkening sky.

Back at street level, Austin's youngsters are also on the move, flocking in droves to Sixth Street, affectionately called 'Dirty Sixth' because, well, it kind of is.

Everyone agrees that a stroll down the infamous strip is all you need to understand why it attracts a hard-partying college crowd. But don't hang around; instead head to what Austin-born musician Relph Vega calls "legit places", like The Side Bar (thesidebaraustin.com) or The Blackheart (blackheartbar.com) on bustling Rainey Street, a row of bungalows that have been converted into bars.

And, of course, you're never far from a gig in the Live Music Capital of the World - they've actually trademarked that tagline - with C-Boy's Heart & Soul (cboys.com) and The Continental Club (continentalclub.com) frequently cited as the best blues venues.

Head to the latter at 6.30pm on a Monday to see the excellent Peterson Brothers who, I'm told, are given the early slot because they aren't yet 21.

"Almost all the big bars have a second bar as well," Jason Weems tells me, like the Gallery upstairs at The Continental, "but they're not going to shout about it."

That's the thing about Austin; it's full of amazing hidden haunts that you can only locate (or get into) through word of mouth.

So it pays to socialise, but that's not hard when everyone is so exceedingly friendly.

Chat to the right resident, for instance, and they might be able to tell you the security code that unlocks the door of Floppy Disk Repair, which is not actually a tech support store, but the front for a speakeasy bar.

I had no such luck, sadly, but hey, it's good to have a challenge for next time, right?

How to get there

Norwegian (norwegian.com/ie) has launched a new direct route to Austin International Airport - the only non-stop service from London Gatwick, operating three flights a week. Fares start from £159/€183 one-way and £309/€355 return in LowFare economy and £585/€673 one-way and £1,075/€1,237 return in Premium, including all taxes and charges.

Rooms at the Fairmont Austin (fairmont.com/austin) start from $249 (around €202).

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