By Roy Furchgott
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, September 21, 2008
It may be time for Austin to dispense with its unofficial motto, "Keep Austin Weird." How much encouragement is needed when it seems no one would want it any other way?
In just one weekend there, I was photographed with El Vez, the Mexican Elvis; had drinks next to a guy with an ostentatious mustache and the garb of a 1920s movie cowboy; was overcharged at not one but two fine establishments; and was befriended by people who cheerfully claimed to have done jail time.
Weird, right? But also, maybe, the best weekend trip ever.
What drew me to Austin was a chance Internet search that showed a number of bands I liked playing there the same weekend. Not surprising, considering that Austin's motto -- this one officially trademarked -- is "The Live Music Capital of the World."
The town's music reputation may hinge on South by Southwest, the city-clogging music and film festival held in March, and the Austin City Limits music fest in September, but there is no lack of music on any day of the year.
Austin's nexus of weirdness and music is an area called South Congress, or SoCo. It's an artsy-funky part of town, on South Congress Avenue, easy walking distance from the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, where tourists gather at dusk to see the world's largest urban bat colony take flight.
SoCo is lined with restaurants, stores and the occasional bar-slash-venue. Chief among the last group is the Continental Club, founded in 1947 and now an official historic landmark. The place is an underwhelming open space with a long bar, but you never know what musical finds are to be had there. I stepped in for a free happy-hour performance by Redd Volkaert, best known, if at all, as a guitarist for Merle Haggard. A bartender warned that Volkaert looked like a red-haired Junior Samples, "but I wouldn't want to follow him on stage." She was right. The man could make a Telecaster do anything short of mixing a drink.
After an evening of rock or blues, you can head just down the sidewalk and upstairs to the Continental Club Gallery, a smaller space with live jazz and cocktails.
It's worth a walk across the bridge to Antone's, a club founded on blues. It's a large stage in a room that has all the character of a warehouse, but with such upcoming bills as Marc Broussard (Oct. 24) and Maceo Parker (Oct. 29), you'll hardly be surveying the architecture. (If it's architecture you want, head over to the Paramount Theatre, for classic movies and live music amid opulent paint and plasterwork.)
I checked in for the weekend right across from the Continental Club, in the Hotel San Jose, a charmingly spare hotel, with a courtyard where people gather for happy hour and the signature drink, a Michelada: beer spiced with lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce and Tabasco. The San Jose is appropriately funky-chic, with concrete floors, platform beds and music posters for decor; also, the staff push-pins the occasional poem to the wall. You can rent a bicycle, iPod, CDs and DVDs or, if struck with a creative impulse, a typewriter. You might want to pack earplugs, in case you have a neighbor who likes to rock out with the windows open (I did) or need to counter a cloud of grackles rending the evening air (ditto). One sour note: I was charged a half-day penalty for leaving early, even though I had pointed out the booking error in my reservation when I arrived.
If your taste is for shabby-chic, just down the street is the Austin Motel, opened in 1938 and, yes, with a motto of its own: "So Close Yet So Far Out." Each of the rooms is decorated in a one-of-a-kind motif.
You won't starve in SoCo. The area is a hotbed of hot stoves. Jo's Coffee, next to Hotel San Jose, serves a strong brew and a selection of sandwiches and snacks with sidewalk seating. Occasionally Jo's has free music and pet events; regular events include Thursday-evening movies "under the stars" and the Sinner's Brunch (served with beer) on Sundays.
Although Tex-Mex food is everywhere, South First Avenue has a concentration of authentic Mexican food. I was told I could spot Polvo's by the jammed parking lot. On the recommendation of the waitress, I had the fish fajitas (the menu is unusual for the number of fish dishes), which was red snapper served on a bed of corn, zucchini, tomato, carrot, mushroom, cabbage and onion. The fish was flaky and the veggies toothsome but largely devoid of spice. That was solved at the serve-yourself salsa bar, where I tried a mild house-made tomatillo and a smoky hot salsa of roasted jalapenos.
On the other side of SoCo is Curra's Grill, whose street cred was confirmed, at least to me, by the presence of Texas political pundit Jim Hightower at a neighboring table. The queso is made with onions, spices and roasted chilies, which put it miles ahead of your common cheese goo. Be warned, the salsa is hot, hot, hot.
If there is one meal that was worth leaving SoCo for, it was the famous Sunday buffet at Fonda San Miguel. Advice: Go hungry, because there are four long tables of foods, each worth a taste. The seasonal menu when I was there included quail with a dry spice rub, corn souffle, tortilla casserole, guacamole with house-made chips, Mexican wedding cake and poached pears in vanilla creme. The chef serves the foods and also enjoys dishing the history and ingredients of the dishes.
If your shopping habits run to treasure hunting, South Congress Avenue is the place. It is lined by shops offering antiques, collectibles, knickknacks, jewelry and furniture. There are buys to be had: I found an art deco airplane trophy for $12. But it's becoming a touristy area, so watch out. One store advertised cowboy shirts for $18, then charged me $95 for the one I picked. "Must have been a special order," the clerk said.
Despite the occasional overcharge, a large part of Austin's charm is how friendly Austinites are. Two people stopped at my cafe table to discuss the book I was reading. Strangers struck up conversations just walking down the street. One guy I kept bumping into had a peculiarity -- asking repeatedly if I was a cop -- but he and his girlfriend also invited me to sit with them in a restaurant, and he insisted on buying me a drink when he saw me at a bar. He even insisted on introducing me to his group of friends. "So," I asked the group, "where did you guys meet?" "In jail," one replied.
Great music, great food and friendly felons. Since everything else in Austin seems to have a motto, I'd propose that endearingly eccentric SoCo adopt its from a T-shirt I saw on a passerby. "Austin: We're All Here Because We Aren't All There."
Roy Furchgott last wrote for Travel about wide-angle lenses for travel photography.