Keeping it weird with Detroit style pizza
The capital of Texas wants to “Keep Austin Weird.” Million dollar condos springing up all over the city makes this difficult, but folks are trying with offbeat attractions, weird museums, and a slew of music festivals.
A short history
The Clovis people were the first known inhabitants of the region. They lived at least 11,200 years ago. When Europeans arrived, Tonkawa Native Americans lived here.
In 1730, a short-lived Spanish mission was established but it wasn’t until the early 19th century that more permanent Spanish settlements were established. Shortly after European Texans gained independence from Mexico, Austin was quickly built and established as the new capital of the Republic of Texas in 1839.
By 1860, nearly 40% of the people living in Austin were slaves. After the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation by a Union general in Galveston, Juneteenth was celebrated and subsequently several African-American communities sprung up. However, segregation and discrimination continued to plague the area as African-Americans and Hispanics were routinely barred from public life by both legal means and societal norms. Today, less than 10% of the population is African-American and 35% is Hispanic.
The University of Texas was established in 1883 and is a major employer in the city. Many members of the faculty and students have stayed in Austin and started businesses, especially in the booming tech sector.
As the state capital, the state government is also an important employer in the city. While Texas as a whole is conservative politically, Austin is seen as a bastion of progressivism and environmentalism.
Keep Austin Weird
Austin’s unofficial slogan is “Keep Austin Weird,” a motto to publicize the oddball and offbeat city. Only thing is, Austin is a lot less weird than it used to be. And it’s getting less weird every day.
Fifteen of the twenty tallest buildings in the city have been constructed in the last decade. And with every skyscraper that goes up packed with million dollar condos, every high rise stuffed with Silicon Valley refugees, every hotel catering to tourists, something else is displaced.
Today, walk around downtown Austin and you’re more likely to see men and women dressed business casual with sensible shoes rather than hippies or hipsters with guitars slung over their shoulders. The truly weird, left-of-center slackers who worked as bartenders or pedicab drivers part time to support their music or art or marijuana side hustle have been forced out when their affordable, and kinda grimy, crash pads were razed to make room for a shared workspace.
But, there are still a few places where that almost extinct Austin still lives. At the Little Longhorn Saloon, there’s chicken shit bingo every Sunday afternoon. Yes, it’s just what it sounds like. The floor of a chicken cage is marked off as a grid. You pay $2 and get a square. If the chicken does his business on your square, you win the money! Can you think of anything weirder than barroom patrons cheering on a chicken to do his business?
Perhaps nothing captures the “Keep Austin Weird” spirit better than the Museum of Natural & Artificial Ephemerata. Located in the East Austin living room of the home of Scott and Jen Webel (yes, the museum is IN THEIR HOUSE), this offbeat attraction offers tours on a limited basis with a changing exhibition of artifacts like the supposed last cigarette smoked by Marilyn Monroe, a lock of Willie Nelson’s hair, a ghost detecting device, and even a spoon supposedly bent by telekinesis. But, even more entertaining than the objects themselves is the charm and humor with which they are presented by the Webels.
Or, maybe the King of Weird crown should be placed atop The Cathedral of Junk. Built by Vince Hannenmann in his backyard, the cathedral is a monument of found pieces arranged by Vince in what sometimes seems to be random order, other times making perfect sense. Like, the Zen Garden of TVs, or the CD Tree. The main attraction is a tower, at least 30 feet high, held together by pipe and wrought iron and decorated with surfboards, hubcaps and bicycle parts. Call first to make a reservation. 512-299-7413.
The South Congress Street area used to be ground zero for weirdness in Austin. While there are still some oddities to be found, high rents have forced a lot of businesses out. Even SoCo stalward, Uncommo Objects, the strange and wonderful antique shop, recently had to relocate.
Walking down South Congress, the first thing to catch your eye will probably be the crazy, psychedelic mural above the storefront to Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds. This huge costume, accessory and jewelry store has anything you could possibly want for Halloween or a costume party or dress up day with the kids. Most of their stuff is available for rent as well.
My favorite spot on South Congress is Yard Dog Gallery. Starting out by featuring outsider artwork from the Deep South, Yard Dog has expanded its scope to include artwork from all over the world. Musician Jon Langford (of Mekons and The Waco Brothers fame) has quite a few of his extraordinary paintings on display at Yard Dog. His best known works are portraits of legends Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Joe Strummer.
The Live Music Capital of the World
And speaking of music, Austin bills itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Used to be you could catch Alejandro Escovedo once a week at The Continental Club, but he moved to Dallas. Still, legends like Dale Watson and James McMurtry regularly play the Continental. When Robert Plant briefly lived in Austin, he played there. The Continental is small and dark with a cramped stage. In other words, it’s a can’t miss.
If you visit the Whole Foods Market mother ship on Sixth, be sure to cross the street and check out Waterloo Records and dig for some vinyl. They often have in store live performances.
The show Austin City Limits has been on TV since the first episode was filmed in 1974 (Willie Nelson, of course). Since then, it has become the most famous and influential musical TV show in history. Country legends like John Prine, Merle Haggard, George Jones, and Emmylou Harris have all performed for ACL. But the show has also featured diverse musical styles like Fats Domino, Neil Young, Taj Mahal, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Tom Waits, Pearl Jam, Arcade Fire, Jimmy Cliff, Iggy Pop, and The Pretenders. Best of all, you can attend a taping. Tickets are free and distributed by an online lottery system.
Austin is also the center of the known universe for music festivals. South by Southwest (SXSW), aka Southby, grew out of a small festival in 1987 with 700 attendees to become the sprawling ten day festival of music, film, and interactive events throughout the city attended by almost 200,000 people. Thousands of artists perform tens of thousands of sets in intimate settings all over the city. Expensive tickets, in the form of wristbands, are required for official Southby events, but there are hundreds of non-official events during the festival which are open to anyone who wants to buy a ticket.
Austin City Limits puts on a festival, ACL Fest, over two weekends in October. Held in Zilker Park, this festival features some of the top names in music (Paul McCartney and Metallica are among the headliners in 2018) along with dozens of other acts.
Two hours west of Austin in Kerrville is the Kerrville Folk Festival. Held for 2 ½ weeks in May and June, this festival brings artists and fans from all over the world. Many people camp out for all or part of the festival where impromptu jam sessions with campers and performers can break out at any time of the day or night. If you’re a purist, this is about as close as you can get to the real thing.
If you want a slice of Austin music on the radio, tune to KUTX, 98.9. It’s one of the best stations in the country and features local music prominently, not just during a special hour, but all day, every day. In fact, they have in studio performances from local and national artists on an almost daily basis.
Detroit style pizza in Austin
When it comes to food in Austin, you’ll only hear about two things; barbecue and tacos. They’re everywhere. Places like Franklin’s and Salt Lick are world renowned, but barbecue fanatics have their own favorite spot. When it comes to tacos, you can find a stand, food truck or hole in the wall on every block in Austin. Most are bland and boring, relying on their sauce to liven up the sameness of the Tex-Mex. Ask a local for their favorite spot, but don’t be surprised if they steer you to Torchy’s, a local chain with excellent tacos and a lot of variety. I always go for The Independent whenever I visit Torchy’s; the hand-battered and deep fried Portobello strips are unbelievable. Not to mention the ancho aioli.
I’ve seen rankings of the top pizza cities in the US and, of course, New York, Chicago, and Boston, are always on the list. Providence too, as it should be. Surprisingly, Austin often pops up on these lists. There are lots of places in the city advertising “Neapolitan” and “New York” style pizza, but frankly, most of them underwhelm.
Then there’s Via 313. Starting out as food truck serving pizza to the drunken masses at the Violet Crown Social Club on East Sixth, Via 313 has since expanded to three brick and mortar locations as well as two trailers (the one outside Violet Crown has since moved to Buford’s on West Sixth).
Far and away my favorite location is the trailer at Craft Pride on Rainey Street. Craft Pride has dozens of microbrews on tap from IPA to Kölsch to Stout to Sour, whatever you need to pair with your Detroit-style pizza. Now, your next logical question might be “What is
Detroit-style pizza?” And that would be a good question. I’d never heard of it before even though I spent part of my childhood living in Birmingham (a Detroit suburb). So, here’s the deal. Detroit-style pizza is a deep dish pizza, but not like Chicago-style. The crust is what makes the pizza unique. The yeast dough is baked in a buttered or oiled rectangular pan that gives the dough a wonderfully crispy bottom and edges, but a chewy interior. These pans are not pizza pans or even baking pans, but aluminum pans that were used to store auto parts; don’t forget Detroit is the Motor City.
The dough is then topped with cheese and your favorite toppings, although Via 313 does offer a vegan option, put back in the oven and served crispy, gooey, cheesy and chewy.
The main reason I choose the Rainey Street location to get Via 313 isn’t the food. You can get the same pizza at the other Via 313 locations. The reason I go is Rainey Street itself. When looking for nightlife in Austin, most visitors immediately head to Sixth Street, known locally, and derisively, as Dirty Sixth. But, Rainey Street is a much better choice. It’s a little more tame, and you’re much less likely to see fights and general drunkenness on Rainey than Dirty Sixth. And Rainey has a lot more character. Dozens of old Austin bungalows have been converted into bars and restaurants, each having its own personality.
Craft Pride and Via 313 are on the far end of Rainey, so it tends to be a little more quiet, but still with plenty of atmosphere. Take a cab or an Uber to get to Rainey, unless you’re staying within walking distance; parking is a nightmare.
Austin (like many places in Texas) is a city whose populace is hyper-proud of their city. And there are some very good reasons for this. But, to me, I find it funny that one of the best things about Austin is Detroit-style pizza.
Pictures for your Instachatbook feed
Everywhere you turn there is street art in Austin. That means there are great places to pose for pictures to share with your friends/followers. From the “I Love You So Much” mural at 1300 South Congress to the “Greetings from Austin” wall at 1720 South 1st Street to the iconic “Hi How Are You?” frog painting on 21st and Guadalupe done by local outsider artist Daniel Johnston, there are plenty of places to places to choose from.
Or maybe you’d rather grab a selfie with a celebrity. The Willie Nelson for President mural at 1423 South Congress lets everyone know your political leanings. The Stevie Ray Vaughan statue at Auditorium Shores is another good place for a photo. Doug Sahm, a pioneer of the Cosmic Cowboy movement in the 70’s is honored with his own mural at 1131 East 11th Street. Next, someone needs to get a Townes Van Zandt and/or an Alejandro Escovedo mural in the city.
The Hope Outdoor Gallery at Baylor and 11th is a mashup of murals, artwork, graffiti, and trash on the foundation walls of long torn-down buildings. Act fast to see it; the land owner sold the space to a developer and word is it will be closed in October, 2018 and torn down. A small section of the gallery will be preserved and moved to Carson Creek Ranch in the spring of 2019. Bring your GoPro and see it while you can.
The Texas Hill Country is incredibly beautiful dotted with quintessential small towns. Places like Blanco which hosts the annual Lavender Festival. Or New Braunfels, where the historic Gruene Dance Hall still hosts concerts. Willie Nelson, George Strait, and Lucinda Williams have played here.
But, the highlight of a Hill Country visit is Fredericksburg. German immigrants arrived in this part of Texas in the 1840’s. They spoke what became known as Texas German, a dialect of German spoken by a populace who refused to learn English.
Today, Fredericksburg is the center of Texas grape growing and winemaking. Hilmy is a winery and working farm with a unique story. To keep chemical use low (albeit not organic) they have Guinea fowl to eat insects, Goats to mow weeds, Great Pyrenees dogs to chase deer, and a cat on rodent and bird patrol. Very clever.
If spirits are more your speed, Garrison Brothers in Hye, Texas is the place. They make excellent whiskey out in the middle of nowhere. Their tour is a lot of fun, but reservations are required. Back in the day, you could just show up and wait for someone to come down and show you around. If not, oh well.
This part of Texas lies on a bed of limestone. Because of erosion, natural pools and swimming holes are everywhere. The most scenic of these is the Hamilton Pool, located west of Austin in Dripping Springs.
Thousands of years ago, there was an underground river in this area. Eventually, the water eroded the rock, causing it to collapse. This created a natural, open grotto with a fifty foot waterfall and pool. Moss grows on the rock and stalactites punctuate the ceiling. There is a short picturesque walk from the car park down to the pool, which is a little steep and uneven. Check with park employees when you enter; swimming is often prohibited due to high bacteria counts.
The high hipster quotient in Austin means that finding a vegetarian meal is relatively easy. But, you need to be aware that Tex-Mex food is often made with lard. Ask about the beans and the tortillas before ordering.
Bouldin Creek Café on South First Street is an Austin institution. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus are all vegetarian, with most items available vegan as well. I like the Wanna-B.L.T.A with the house-made tofu bacon.
Juiceland has 22 locations in and around Austin with a couple others in Texas and one in Brooklyn (Park Slope, natch). Their juices, smoothies, shots, and tonics are all vegan, of course. They also have a refrigerator filled with vegan sandwiches, burritos, and bowls.
Counter Culture is a fully vegan comfort food restaurant on East Cesar Chavez. This was the first place I ever had garbanzo bean “tuna” salad. I still try to recreate the recipe at home.
If you go:
These handy travel bottles
are TSA approved
Flights available from all over the US and limited international flights.
If you’re staying downtown, you might get away with using public transportation (bus) or Uber. But, if you’re taking a day trip to the Hill Country, Hamilton Pool, or San Antonio, you’ll need a rental car.
Great dive bar and live music venue on South Congress.
1315 S Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78704
Austin City Limits Festival
Huge festival held outdoors over two weekends in October.
Austin City Limits TV show
Iconic TV show filmed at the Moody Theater in Austin. Tickets are free but incredibly hard to obtain. Look for the great statue of Willie Nelson outside the theater.
South By Southwest Festival
Music, Film and Interactive festival that takes place in March of each year.
Kerrville Folk Festival
A more intimate festival with unprecedented access to many artists.
Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic
Held in a different location every year, just look for the cloud of purple smoke
Authentic Texas dance hall still hosts concerts from the likes of Lyle Lovett and local hero Dale Watson.
1281 Gruene Rd, New Braunfels, TX 78130
The club that featured live entertainment like Elvis and Johnny Horton was also the location of Hank Williams last public performance. Club has been demolished but here are some of the sites associated with the Skyline.
Little Longhorn Saloon
Watering hole full of atmosphere and home of chicken shit bingo every Sunday.
5434 Burnet Rd, Austin, TX 78756
Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata
Located in the living room of the Webel family in East Austin, this oddball museum takes weird to a new level.
Cathedral of Junk
Bizarre collection of odd and ends randomly arranged into displays that sometimes make sense. The centerpiece is the huge tower built of pipe, bicycle parts, and who-knows-what. Call for an appointment 512-299-7413.
4422 Lareina Dr., Austin, Texas 78745
Hope Outdoor Gallery
Murals, artwork, and graffiti cover the walls. New works pop up every day. Closing October, 2018 and moving to Carson Creek Ranch.
Blanco Lavender Festival
Held every June in Blanco, Texas. Close your eyes and take a deep breath and you might think you’ve been transported to Provence.
Safely pack bottles
in your luggage with
Texas whiskey makers. In Hye, Texas.
1827 Hye-Albert Rd, Hye, TX 78635
Hamilton Pool Preserve
Natural pool and waterfall formed when the rock over an underground river collapsed thousands of years ago. One of the most beautiful spots in central Texas. Reservations required. Located in Dripping Springs, Texas.
Radio station featuring an abundance of local music.
One of a kind antique shop. Used to reside on South Congress, relocated to south Austin.
1602 Fortview Rd, Austin, TX 78704
Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds
Costume shop on South Congress. Far out, man
Yard Dog Gallery
Fantastic gallery featuring artwork from all over the world, but specializing in folk and outsider art.
1510 S Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78704
Record shop specializing in vinyl with frequent in-store performances.
600 N Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78703
Austin institution now has locations all over Texas and Oklahoma.
Authenic Mexican tacos. Tortillas made in house daily
102 West Powell Lane, Austin, TX
Detriot-style pizza deep in the heart of Texas. Rainey Street location is behind Craft Pride pub.
Food truck featuring great vegan hot dogs and fries.
603 W Live Oak st., Austin, Texas 78704
Bouldin Creek Café
Vegetarian and vegan menu. No reservations accepted.
1900 S 1st St, Austin, TX 78704
Innovative vegetarian restaurant.
5011 Burnet Rd, Austin, TX 78756
Originally a food truck, now with six restaurant locations and a food trailer in Austin. Get the kimchi fries.
Locations all over the city. Fresh made juice and smoothies, vegan take-out, too
Vegan comfort food.
Increcible vegan BBQ. Check FB for hours, they often sell out and close early.
3301 E 5th St., Austin, Texas 78702
Austin’s most famous BBQ joint. Long lines.
900 E 11th St, Austin, TX 78702
Salt Lick BBQ
Another famous BBQ spot in Austin. Multiple locations.
Fixture on South Congress for over 75 years. Funky and right in the heart of the action.
1220 S Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78704
Hotel Van Zandt
Right around the corner from Rainey Street with a good restaurant and bar right next to a rooftop pool.
605 Davis St, Austin, TX 78701
Park Lane Guest House
Chic eco-cottages in the heart of Austin. Vegetarian and vegan breakfast.
221 Park Ln, Austin, TX 78704