We had come to Austin for everything—the music, the food, the culture—but also because we’d heard some vexing reports that the city’s very soul was endangered. Las Manitas Avenue Café, the legendary Tex-Mex brunch spot, was being demolished to make way for a chain hotel. The annual South by Southwest festival, founded in 1987 to spotlight emerging music talent, had become a mere showcase for the likes of Pete Townshend and Metallica. And those Keep Austin Weird bumper-stickers you used to see on ancient, sun-bleached station wagons clattering around town? They are now emblazoned on the bumpers of Mercedes SUV’s parked in the lots of loft-condo complexes that skirt downtown.
But at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, a cramped honky-tonk bar on Burnet Road, we felt a distinctly Austin vibe. We ordered cold Lone Stars, the easy-to-love house beer of the state of Texas, as the Horton Brothers thumped into a rockabilly groove, singing tight harmonies and luring a couple into a courtly swing routine on the worn spot in the linoleum dance floor. At a neighboring table, a woman pulled a bottle of tequila from her purse. In short order, the bartender plunked down a bucket of ice, two cans of Texsun grapefruit juice, and two plastic cups. Our friend Karen explained: Ginny’s isn’t licensed to sell spirits but does provide the setup—the ice and juice—for only a few dollars. A bar that encourages patrons to bring their own liquor? This town has renegade charms aplenty, if you know where to look.
It may be the capital of the biggest, baddest, brashest state in the Union, but during the five days we spent in Austin, we noticed a soothing one-horse feel. Our first stop in search of the city’s counterculture core was the Hotel San José, which a friend from L.A. had described to us as Austin’s Chateau Marmont. True, there’s a lively terrace pool scene with hip young things reading on chaise longues. But instead of Us Weekly and Star, the San José’s habitués are poring over dog-eared books by Cormac McCarthy and Kinky Friedman. In the shade of the open-air cabana at Jo’s, the coffeehouse adjacent to the hotel, we sipped large iced coffees and people-watched, as the neighborhood—an appealing blend of bohemian and blue-collar—shuffled to life.
Although Austin gets more ink for music and film, the town has a distinctive food culture—a blend of old-school Tex-Mex, traditional Mexican, and barbecue. It’s also the birthplace of Whole Foods and the Texan locavore’s emporium, Central Market. On this trip, we wouldn’t be hoofing it out to the sausage and brisket meccas in Elgin, Luling, and Lockhart (towns in the hills and prairies outside the city). Still, we were hungry for Texas’s much-heralded beef brisket, so for lunch we made a beeline for Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, a spot that had ’cue hounds buzzing on the Web. The postmodern barbecue joint, housed among mid-construction condo buildings in an airy, historic brick warehouse, delivered outstanding barbecued chicken, moist and with a clove-y smoke character, which we chased with a hoppy Lost Gold IPA from Blanco, Texas. The brisket was textbook: super-wet and judiciously smoked.