Monday, February 29, 2016

Stuff I Love: Friends, Food, and Films

Happy Leap Day! I hope everyone made the most out of this extra day. You only get an extra day once every four years so you gotta make it count. I came back from vacation and went to work so there's that.

I thought we'd close out a month of "Stuff I Love" talking about three things I love separately and together: friends, food, and films. All three played a role in my recent visit to the great city of Austin, TX. I used to think that having friends all over the country (and world - hey Shellie in India!) was the worst part of being an adult who has friends. I have a lot of friends who live more than a 2 hour plane ride away. While I love my DMV friends, I miss my other friends and the ease of going to happy hour or grabbing brunch on a Saturday. Sometimes an event inspires the feeling: With new Gilmore Girls episodes on the horizon, I want nothing more than to schedule pizza and tv with Heather and Mary. Heather lives in Wisconsin and Mary lives in Washington state so that's not going to happen.

Here's what I was ignoring: having friends all over the place means I can go visit them OR they can come visit me. This equals new places to explores and excuses to play tourist in our own cities. If we're feeling really adventurous we might even plan to meet somewhere in the middle for a true adventure. I assume this is how I'll finally make my dreams of visiting the Dakotas happen; one of my friends has to want to do that too.

My friend, Jessica, moved to Austin a few years ago and we've been trying to schedule a visit ever since. We've failed pretty miserably since life and work seem to always get in the way. I've been to Austin before but not really; I was there for a work event four or five years ago and never made it past the gates of the resort where the event was being held. The travel gods finally showed us favor and I bought my ticket back in January. We've been emailing and plotting ever since. Of course the plotting and planning culminated in Jessica creating this:

Yes, that is an Excel spreadsheet planning our activities and meals. This is one of the reasons Jessica and I are friends.

Two themes immediately emerge from this spreadsheet: 1. Jessica takes food very seriously 2. A movie was involved each day. Jessica is a great host. She made sure we had plenty to do while also including downtime (we all need downtime). She indulged my record buying habit and did some very tourist-y things at my request because that's what friends are for. She also instinctively knew that dancing to 80s music at a bar/club called Barbarella was something I needed in my life at this exact moment. Lastly, she decided that the only was to keep us from getting lost on our adventures around Austin was to be guided by Morgan Freeman. No, the actor was not physically with us but his voice guided us around clear and present dangers on the highway and to our destinations as quick as possible. Always trust Morgan Freeman.

(Side note: Waze has a Morgan Freeman option right now in conjunction with the new movie London Has Fallen. Do yourself and your country a favor and use it.)

Austin is definitely a food city. It's a lot of other things too but we don't have time for everything today. When I say food I'm referring to three specific groups: BBQ, breakfast tacos, and queso. This is pretty much what we ate the entire time I was in town. I estimate that I'm 40% taco right now. 

Breakfast tacos are a revelation. I had never had one until this trip. There are subtleties to the breakfast taco that I never considered: flour versus corn tortilla (flour is sturdier, corn has a richer flavor); salsa and salsa combinations, egg to cheese ratio, and the wonder of migas. It's a lot to take in all at once. Everyone has their favorite place. We went to three places:
  1. Tacodeli
  2. Maria's Taco Xpress
  3. Rudy's
I experienced tacos to go (Tacodeli) and sit in tacos (Maria's, Rudy's, and Torchy's - those were dinner tacos).  I built my own (Rudy's). I tried seven different types of salsa (and combined several for even more options) and three distinctly different cups of coffee. I can understand why Autinites (Austintonians?) are so into their breakfast tacos. Breakfast tacos are the best parts of breakfast with the best parts of a taco. I don't know what I'm going to do without them.

My favorite overall was Maria's Taco Xpress. This is one of the few places I was able to add to the list. I saw it on an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives and some Travel Channel show on tacos. The owners is a hoot and they're consistently named one of the best taco places in Austin. The experience is like being in someone's garage where delicious tacos are made. There's a lot of eclectic decor and fun signs. I had the Cactus taco and it was awesome.

Tacodeli wins best salsa. To say that I would like some right now is an understatement. It was the right level of spicy and tasted homemade. We picked up tacos from Tacodeli on our way to Franklin Barbecue, a popular BBQ place where you have to wait in line for hours and may not actually make it in. Jessica (remember she's a great host) planned our day perfectly so that we'd grab our tacos to go and make it to Franklin's by 9:15 am to wait. Yes, we waited in line for three hours for BBQ. Yes, it was worth it. In addition to our tacos, we came prepared with beer (allowed in line), additional snacks, and bottled water (the most hipster bottled water of all time).

The line at Franklin's is part of the experience. As Jessica told me, it's also why a lot of native Austinites (I'm sticking with that) avoid it despite the fact that the food is awesome and the service outstanding. Austin is know for barbecue and there are lots of places you can enjoy it (Jessica and I also went to Rudy's - yes Rudy's for both barbecue and tacos). But you know me, I love an experience. That's part of travel, in my humble opinion. The thing about place like Franklin Barbecue and Rudy's is that you buy meat by the pound. This means that you have to guess how much you want to each and consider sides since you're going to want sides. I'm terrible at ordering this way because I think I want more than I actually can eat. This happened at both places although I feel like I did better about setting expectations at Rudy's.

The line was fun. We got there right on time and it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Jessica prepared me for a long wait in the sun with the potential that we wouldn't even get food. I'm guessing that the fact that we went on a Thursday helped us; most people we at their jobs. We brought chairs and beer and enjoyed eavesdropping on the groups around us. We also found Carmen Sandiego. We didn't make friends but we did learn a lot about whether the girl behind us was a Swiftie or a Bielber (Bielber) and that the guys in front of us were out as part of a bachelor party. Their next stop: the barbershop. Calm down, dudes.

Anyway, the food was excellent but we did order too much. My decision to order potato salad was a poor life choice but ordering pecan pie was not (although I didn't eat until returning to DC). My favorite thing: brisket with pickles and onions and espresso barbecue sauce. It was well worth the three hour wait. I'd do it again too.

After indulging in Franklin's, we decided to make our way to the area near UT Austin. I wanted to see the Daniel Johnston mural at 21st and Guadalupe. It's now attached to a Thai restaurant much to the chagrin of some people. However, if the owner of that restaurant wants to protect the iconic mural, I say let him. We also walked around the area (known as "the drag" or so I'm told) and eventually made our way over to the State Capitol area. Along the way I found some great historical markers for various buildings and some equally wonderful street art. Both Jessica and I had a hard time getting over how creepy the school children of Texas tribute statue is; I'll spare you the photo.

We finished out the day taking in our first film of the week, Deadpool. I had already seen it opening weekend but as I was planning on seeing it again it made sense to enjoy it after a long day of waiting in line, eating all of the food, and walking. The second time around was just as funny so if you haven't seen Deadpool go ahead and do that now.

After excellent tacos at Maria's we head to South Congress Street. It's a cool area filled with vintage shops, made in Austin places, and great coffee at Jo's Coffee home to another famous mural and excellent coffee. I also found the coolest thing in a vintage store: an old UT notebook that a woman (possibly two) used to keep recipes and her address book in. There are handwritten recipes and recipe cards stuck in throughout the pages. At the back is an address list. I'm planning on writing a longer post about this little find; by far the coolest thing I've ever purchased from a vintage store.

I also did what I assume is required when visiting Texas: I tried on cowboy boots and hats. I still believe I was not meant to wear hats but it was still fun. I did find a few pairs of boots I liked but as they are rather expensive, I decided trying them on was enough for one trip.

Which brings us to our third food group: queso.

Why doesn't everything come with queso? I would add queso to the list of perfect foods (along with potatoes, bread of all forms, and cheese). We had queso at Trudy's and later at Torchy's (where I also had a dinner taco which I guess is just a taco). I could have just eaten the queso at Torchy's and I would have been happy but then I would have missed out on peach habanero jam and no one wants that. This also gave Jessica and I ample time to discuss our evening of another movie and dancing at Barbarella.

I've never been to the Alamo Drafthouse here in Virginia so I was excited to go to one in Austin, where the theatres were founded. It's a great experience and coupled with the amazingly funny Master Pancake, my first Alamo experience became the highlight of my trip. If you like MST3K you'll love Master Pancake. It's like a live action version; the cast provides commentary while watching the movie with the audience (this time Mad Max: Fury Road) and there's a skit in the middle. Jessica's pizza was stolen during the skit but she did get a thanks so there's that. I'm not entirely sure I'll ever be able to watch Fury Road without thinking of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" or how perfectly "Lost Yourself" fits into the action. If you have a chance to see them, do it regardless of what movie they're showing. The show was at the Alamo location on 6th Street so I got a taste of that craziness too. It's like a tamer, less dirty version of Bourbon Street. We stopped at two places, Easy Tiger and Barbarella. I'm not what you'd call a club person but I do like dive-y bars where you can dance to good music. By "good music" I mean 70s punk, 80s anything, and some stuff from the 90s. It was fun and while it made me feel a little old ("Is that Madonna?" a twenty-something exclaimed when "Lucky Star" played), I was okay with that feeling. I'm not a twenty-something and that is perfectly fine with me.

My last day in Austin included a great view from brunch near the Arboretum before jetting off, with Morgan Freeman's help, to the Domain to see our final film of the week Zoolander 2. The Domain is this super swank shopping mall with a super swank movie theatre called iPic. It's basically a cocktail lounge where movies happen to be screened. We ordered a fancy cocktail for our viewing of one of the most ridiculous movies I've seen in a very long time. Y'all know I have I have a healthy suspension of disbelief but this one pushed it a bit even for me. It was still funny but left me with one very important unanswered question: was Billy Zane the bad guy in this one? I don't want to think that for even a second.

My visit to Austin and with Jessica was a much needed break from the the usual February doldrums of NOVA. Did we do everything we could have done? No, but we did enough and I enjoyed every minute of it. Austin is a cool town and definitely worth another visit soon.

The only thing missing was my impression of Wooderson from Dazed and Confused. You'll just have to imagine driving down the street listening to War's "Low Rider" and me saying "All right, all right, all right."

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