Veg Out: Austin
The man who sat behind me on the plane to Austin spoke to his colleague in some digital language that I did not understand, save for the bits about his work schedule. It was Presidents Day Weekend, and he could not wait to work on a holiday. Vacation days made him feel anxious and “un-American.”
Processing this statement nearly kept me from falling asleep while listening to Lady Gaga. Nearly. But I did it. I am an American. Persistence courses through my veins.
As is our custom, Jules went to Austin to check Texas off his Marathon Maniac List of States, and I went to check out the food. Our newly opened hotel offered a discount to marathon runners and gleaming lobby floors and supersexypants sculptural fireplaces. It was just down the street from Austin’s Google Fiber Space, where you can test drive Google’s 1,000-megabit-per-second Internet service.
I felt excited to be at the center of Austin’s energy and creativity. And yet I also felt somewhat old and cranky. Perhaps this was because I have been somewhat old and cranky on the inside since childhood? Or perhaps I just needed a snack?
“Who needs the Internet to run at 1,000 megabits per second?” I asked myself.
“If you have to ask, you’re too old to need it,” came the response from the nether regions of my brain. Cheeky nether regions!
As we walked the trail around the lovely Lady Bird Lake and explored the rest of the city, signs appeared everywhere. Oh, the brutally cheerful signs! That spirit of the plains, that manifest destiny, hurtling toward me at 1,000 megabits per second.
Did any of you feel TOTALLY EXHAUSTED just reading those?
Me too. Let’s recover during a long, leisurely, sun-dappled brunch, shall we? Perhaps on the patio of the uber-charming Josephine House, a living Kinfolk Magazine diorama located in Austin’s Clarksville neighborhood?
I instantly and fully surrendered to Josephine House’s myraid perfect details, right down to the coasters, which are letterpressed in the same rich blue as the house’s exterior.
Almost too pretty to use, right? But I did, because I slurped down nearly all of Jules’s brunch cocktail after claiming that I only wanted “a sip,” as is my custom.
We ordered two vegetarian mains: socca, a chickpea-flour pancake, topped with roasted squash and broccoli, a fried egg, and chimichurri sauce; and a black rice bowl topped with a formidable pile of vibrant roasted brassicas. I would have been perfectly happy eating only the yogurt they brought out because our entrees were running late. I might even have been happy with just a sizable handful of the yogurt toppings: tart pomegranate seeds and pecans bearing a flavor I can only describe as marzipan toasty.
Of course, nothing cheers me like bread and cheese, which I generously applied at Home Slice. It was just over the Congress Avenue bat bridge from our hotel and, thus, far too close to base camp for me to visit only once. As we sat on the curb outside during our first visit, a storm blew over South Congress Street. Raindrops slithered down my back, but a slice topped with with fresh spinach and fat dollops of ricotta warmed my hands.
Visit #2 featured cozy indoor seating and Monday’s special: a thick, square, pillowy pizza duvet of a Sicilian-style slice, complete with olive-oil-fried crust. (Here is a link to plans for an actual pizza duvet. I love pizza so much, and yet this concept seems so wrong. Why?)
Feeling better? I think we’re ready to venture out on an Austin Taco Expedition. May I suggest a stop at South Austin’s Papalote Taco House?
Jules and I originally sought this place out because the their tortas di coliflor was the Austin Chronicle critic’s choice for best vegetarian taco, but our favorite turned out to be the rajas y hongos, topped with cream sauce and queso fresco to complement the deep, abiding heat of poblano peppers. We tried several other veggie taco options (think fried avocado; mushrooms and hominy; or all-day-breakfast-style with scrambled eggs, cactus, and calabaza; all available on your choice of corn or flour tortilla). In between tacos, we scooped chipfulls of a dead-simple guacamole so freshly prepared that I could still make out the avocado’s silhouette, a faint outline marking the scene of the smashing.
I drink so much sparkling water that I am pretty sure my innards froth, so I was very much looking forward to washing my tacos down with a super-bubbly Topo Chico. But then I was mesmerized by Papalote’s margarita machine and forgot to order water. Please try a Topo for me, if you go. Also please try a tamarind agua fresca, or at least convince your dining partner to try one and then steal some of it. Just don’t steal sips of Topo, or you could be accused of STEALING FIZZY LIFTING DRINKS. We all know how that ends.
Dinner at modern, vegetable-centric Gardner quickly returned us to Austin’s cutting edge. Its interior is the kind of minimalist space that usually makes me afraid to move my chair for fear of squeaking, but somehow the restaurant still managed to feel warm and friendly.
On the menu: Small plates, plus somewhat bigger plates. Flavors and textures that alternately comforted and challenged my bread-and-cheese-addled taste buds. Fried cauliflower and soft-as-silk gnudi soothed, but then, upon tasting the beet terrine with smoked curds and dill, my immediate reaction was, and I am not making this up, “This tastes like Ikea.” Dessert paired smooth milk chocolate with gelatinous pops of rose, beet, and pomegranate.
Back in our hotel lobby, Jules and I met up with one of my dearest friends. I hadn’t seen her since she moved to Austin several years ago. As we discussed our ever-earlier bedtimes, I told her that I’ve totally won the prize for oldest and crankiest, because I now sleep with my nose connected to a Darth Vader Machine prescribed to treat sleep apnea.
“My dad has that!” she said. About 90% of the people I have told about my sleep apnea have this same response.
“O.K. WHY does everyone I tell about my sleep apnea say, ‘My dad has that’?”
She looked at me with a bemused compassion that reminded me why we have stayed friends for so many years. “Because it’s true,” she said. “The list of People in the World with Sleep Apnea includes Everyone’s Dad. And you.”
And we belly laughed and belly laughed and our laughter traveled through the sleek hotel lobby and past the supersexypants sculptural fireplaces and out into the streets of Austin, traveling at a speed of approximately 1,000 megachortles per second, past new signs and better signs.