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Austin's Hot Music Scene

The upstairs bar at Lamberts Downtown Barbecue.

Photo: João Canziani

Our honky-tonk music quest was in overdrive when we landed at the Continental Club, a venue where Amber Digby, a Patsy Cline–like chanteuse, held forth in front of a dapper ensemble that included a slide guitar, an instrument whose mellow crooning flavors this town as much as chiles do. The dance floor here was at least a few steps more intense than Ginny’s, and riveting. We watched a lone wolf cut in on a thirtysomething couple—the woman shod in white cowboy boots—and everybody winced. Once the crowd had thinned and the margaritas had taken hold, we found ourselves out on the dance floor, too.

A trip to Austin needs to include at least one Mexican meal, and since we couldn’t tuck into the famous migas at Las Manitas, we set our sights on El Borrego de Oro #2 and its birria, a hearty Mexican goat stew. The light burgundy broth had an oily sheen, and we showered it with minced jalapeño, onion, cilantro, habanero chile, and lime juice. Blended together, it was about the tastiest thing we had encountered in months: the beautiful gamy shredded goat was made fruity and smoky with all the chiles stewed into the brew.

The birria was uplifting—a culinary triumph as wondrous as our first taste of mole poblano—so we felt compelled to visit the shoebox-size Mexic-Arte Museum that afternoon. Art from South of the Border includes several José Clemente Orozcos and Rufino Tamayos (and a number of other painters of a heroic, postrevolutionary mode), as well as a collection of gorgeous 19th-century earthenware pitchers for serving pulque, a viscous agave beer. It’s a compelling collection that highlights how much traditional and contemporary Mexican, Chicano, and Latin American art and culture have influenced the art of Texas.

From the afternoon’s journey back to the 19th century, we launched far into the future that night to dine at the distinctly new-Austin restaurant, Bess Bistro on Pecan. We’d heard locals grouse about Bess—“Austin doesn’t need Balthazar” one said—but make no mistake, Bess translates an idealized French bistro into western terms (pewter bar; encaustic tile; distressed mirrors). Yes, it serves killer steak frites, but there are plenty of smart Lone Star touches: grilled quail, for example, is glazed in guajillo honey (an ingredient recently inducted into Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste). We sat at the bar, polished off our steak and quail, and ended with a “Texas snowball”—a brownie topped with local Blue Bell ice cream in a shell of flambéed meringue. Sandra Bullock, who has taken over Willie Nelson’s mantle as this town’s most name-dropped celeb, is the owner here (and at the nine-month-old Walton’s Fancy & Staple, a flower shop, bakery, and deli where the motto is Perishable, cherishable, fetishable), but when we visited, the tourists hadn’t yet discovered the place.

We seemed to be the only nonlocals at the Continental, too, where we returned to find a crowd that was far younger and more boisterous than the previous night’s, and much more inclined to dance. The wistful trio Shotgun Party worked up a sweat singing in a warbling style that might have issued from an Edison wax cylinder—more revivalist than renegade. Next up was a hard-charging Bill Monroe type: a skeletal, oily dude who sucked up to the crowd in black leather pants that barely clung to his posterior. The energy level was high, but a few songs in, our pals tugged at us to move on.

The Broken Spoke may be just three miles from the Continental Club, but this roadhouse feels like it’s far out in the country, with a gravel parking lot and a big oak tree in front (a horse tied to the tree wouldn’t have been out of place). Past an anteroom filled with dusty curios was the cement dance floor, with red checkered-cloth tables set along the sides. Here, laid-back Austin was on display: the crowd was jovial, slow-moving, and as family-friendly as a bar can be on a Thursday night, with kids dancing with their grandpas. The music was more country than rockabilly, and Jeff Hughes, a man in a gray cowboy hat, had us sprinting back to our drinks between numbers and back to the dance floor with his clever country covers of the Cure, Billy Idol, and Neil Diamond. Later on, we found Hughes, hat off, nursing a plastic cup of liquor at the bar. He met our compliments with the shrug of someone already a thousand sets into the new century: “I like to shake it up a little.”

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