The Austin Experience: Footloose and Fancy-free
Lori Moffatt plays hooky—and tourist—for the day
A whooping-and-hollering plunge into the deep end of Barton Springs pool—the three-acre, spring-fed swimming hole that has welcomed swimmers for hundreds of years—delivers an instant jolt of gratitude, perspective, and refreshment. In the winter, steam rises from the 68-degree water and creates a serene, painterly scene. But I love the pool most in the summer, when the water and pecan-shaded hillsides come alive with teenagers walking hand-in-hand, sinewy yoga devotees practicing poses near the deep end, doughy-kneed toddlers in rainbow-hued floaties hesitating poolside, and devoted swimmers slicing rhythmically through the water. Four laps makes a mile’s swim, and after a hot solar shower and a change of clothes, I’m in full vacation mode.
The nationwide food-truck trend is alive and well in Austin, and some trailers have graduated to brick-and-mortar status, launching chefs such as Bryce Gilmore (whose Odd Duck trailer birthed a dining hotpot called Barley Swine in 2010) to celebrity-chef status. Food trucks are by nature ephemeral; they go where the crowds—and real estate—are, so it’s a good idea to have a Plan B. (Websites about the city’s food trucks include www.austinfoodcarts.com and www.bestaustinfoodtrucks.com.)
And so, flexibility came in handy as I dreamed of a spicy Vietnamese banh mi—grilled lemon-grass pork on a baguette with shredded cucumber and carrot—from the popular Lulu B’s food truck, currently parked at the southeast intersection of Oltorf and South Lamar. Discovering the trailer closed for the day, I pointed my car a few blocks north and headed to Lick, a tiny ice-cream shop serving flavors such as caramelized carrots-and-tarragon, goat cheese-thyme-honey, and cilantro-lime ice creams. Lick uses ingredients from such Texas spots as Austin’s Boggy Creek Farm, Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, Texas Olive Ranch in Carrizo Springs, and Mill-King Creamery in McGregor.
Lick’s neighbors include the aforementioned Barley Swine and a cheese-and-charcuterie shop called Henri’s, where I stopped for a goat cheese-and-arugula sandwich before indulging in dessert next door. Two petite scoops (lemon-poppyseed and beet-mint) set a sweet tone for the rest of my day.
The building boom that sputtered in 2008 has rebounded, with construction cranes jutting into the skies throughout the city and retail and restaurants opening at a lively clip. In the downtown area, perhaps no area has been transformed as much as the 2nd Street District, a bustling cross-hatch of streets anchored by the Austin Music Hall performance space; dozens of boutiques, nightclubs, and restaurants; the swanky W Hotel and Austin City Limits theater; and Austin’s gleaming, copper-and-limestone City Hall. I found easy street parking ($3 for 3 hours) near the Music Hall and set off on foot to explore.
The bronze Willie Nelson statue in front of the W Hotel may be the 2nd Street District’s most famous piece of public art, but artwork also abounds inside City Hall, which for nine years has hosted an annual exhibit of more than 150 paintings, sculptures, photographs, and mixed-media pieces from regional artists. Found in the hallways, lobbies, and conference spaces of City Hall’s first three floors, the People’s Gallery works for 2013 include sculptures made of paint rollers and handmade pom-poms, blown-glass lungs, and recycled newspaper pulp. My favorite this year: a 1950s-style dress sewn from cotton printed with artist Bethany Cobb’s collection of rejection letters. Pick up a guide to the exhibit on the second floor; admission is free.
Depending on your mood and pocket-book, other fun 2nd Street activities include a meal and an art-house movie at the Violet Crown Cinema (free three-hour parking at the garage on 2nd and San Antonio); Spanish tapas and sangria at Malaga (happy hour starts at 4; I love the fried artichoke hearts with lemon aioli); and shopping for Austin souvenirs like T-shirts and locally made jewelry at Austin Rocks. (Also, don’t overlook the teen emporium that is Urban Outfitters; amid the frayed denim short-shorts and crocheted vests is an old-fashioned photo booth: The resulting photo-strip is a kitschy, fridge-worthy souvenir.)
After Austin’s central-city Robert Mueller Airport closed in 1999, the runways, hangars, control tower, and vast acreage lay fallow for nearly a decade before new development began to slowly take root. Today, amid homes, condos, retail, and the soon-to-open Dell Children’s Museum (relocating here from 2nd Street), a Saturday Farmer’s Market and hike-and-bike trails draw visitors from elsewhere in the city. Nearby is Contigo, an open-air restaurant that has brought a new culinary sensibility to a part of town previously untouched by the farm-to-table trend. Here, Chef Andrew Wiseheart oversees a changing menu of dishes like smoked shiitake mushrooms and ox tongue sliders, house-made pickles and rabbit pâté, and my favorite Contigo snack of all time—green beans fried in a light rice-flour batter and served with chili-spiked mayo. The Contigo mixologists are just as creative with their craft cocktails. As I wrapped up my day over a concoction called a Vinegaroon (tequila, sage, pineapple, and the licorice-flavored liqueur Herbsaint), I toasted to Austin’s inventive spirit. Cheers! Here’s to a great city.
From the July 2013 issue.