Making Peace with Texas: A Long Weekend in Austin

I know, I know. You assumed that the next time you heard from the Red Clogger, she would regale you with interesting tidbits about the month and a half she spent in Europe recently: 6 weeks, 7 countries, a veritable tapestry of sublime experiences and succulent tastes. You’re absolutely right to assume such a thing.  

And we will get to that. But I’m just back from Texas and it’s high time to settle a score from 32 years ago.

Let me come clean right off the bat. I’ve never much liked Texas. My first foray was on a family (mom, dad, me) cross-country trip in the back seat of a rental car.  I was 13 — an age that really doesn’t go smoothly for anyone involved. What were my impressions of Texas? Well, we very nearly ran out of gas as we traversed the panhandle around Amarillo. We racked up a few more stays at the orange bed-spreaded Motel 6 chain where they left the lights on for us. And we ate barbecue somewhere “out in the boonies.” 

Things went downhill from there. At 24, as a brand assistant at Procter & Gamble, I spent my days envisioning how to better market Charmin toilet paper. I devised a promotion to foster repeat business, I helped strategically shift the angle of the baby’s face on the packaging, and I co-introduced a new color palette; now you could grab your TP in seafoam green or delft blue to complement your bathroom hues. But my crowning achievement was, without a doubt, the analysis I performed which segmented toilet paper users into…wait for it…Folders, Wadders, and Crumplers. For this outstanding accomplishment, I was promoted and sent off for 2 months of sales training “in the field.” “The Field” was typically a geographic location of your choosing – in my case, I requested any of the following options: Boston, NY, Chicago, San Francisco, or Jacksonville. But my boss had other ideas. Namely, Dallas. So off I went to Texas, with the eager attitude of a mid-20-something, and a too-casual, boot-deficient wardrobe.

I did well enough on the job, which was no mean feat given my assignment – calling on local grocery stores to sell as many P&G paper products as I possibly could. Just picture a fresh-faced, 5’3” Boston girl trying to engage drawling “Big Bob” Watkins, a Dallas store manager, to buy truckloads of pantyliners to stock on his grocery shelves.

This scene repeated with Stetson-hat-bedecked Billy Clive Smith in Lubbock; only it was diapers. Boot-cut, denim jeans-wearing George Nunez in El Paso? Toilet paper. You get the idea.

In every case I was at least 10” shorter, a decade or three younger, and lacking in Texan savvy. But I was raised with the motivational Latin phrase “Per Aspera ad Astra” (“through difficulties to the stars”), so I persisted.

Texas and I were getting on ok until one night when someone tried to kill me. I had rented an apartment near the alluring Preston mall; aside from the awesome location, it came with a Murphy bed! Little did I know that the owner, a young professional and supposed lawyer, was also involved in a drug ring. Immediately after moving in, I was awakened at all hours of the night to deep breathing and husky throat sounds. “Lance” demanded money and went on about “goods” and South America. This continued for a few weeks until one night, when I was on the kitchen phone (remember those days when phones were attached via cords?), a very large rock came flying through the window, narrowly missing my head. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it say, the remainder of my sales training experience involved a prolonged stay at the Embassy Suites. Oh — and a lawsuit for breaking my short-term lease. Seriously?

Any warm feelings I might have had for Texas vanished. Subsequent business trips did nothing to repair my impressions.

But now I am pleased to inform you that my emotional barometer has shifted to more positive territory, thanks to a truly outstanding long weekend in Austin. And ironically, it was with the same group of Cincinnati friends who were there to support me during the original rock-throwing debacle. 

 

Texas state capitol rotunda
Those of you who know Texas, and especially Austin, will quickly point out that Austin isn’t really Texas, it’s “Texas-Adjacent.” I can understand this claim, but maintain that if a state capitol is in a city, that city must be in the state! And Austin boasts a pretty darn impressive state capitol. This we learned about while touring the iconic building and grounds. We began in the spectacular rotunda, surrounded by portraits of past governors (including George HW Bush who died a few hours later).
Festive House chamber, Texas state capitol
Our feisty guide, Georgia (Georgia is leading tours in Texas?) pointed out all sorts of interesting info such as the fact that the Texan state capitol was inspired by the one in DC and is the largest U.S. state capitol thanks to an extension which is a ground level reverse of the pretty incredible dome.  Apparently, things really are bigger in Texas.  Georgia drew our attention to unique brass door hinges engraved with “Texas State Capitol.” We learned about battles with Mexico. And she marched us over to the Senate and House of Representative chambers which were beautifully decorated for the holidays. Although I still can’t get over the fact that the senators and representatives are prohibited from consuming any food or drink in those chambers. I mean, really, who can sit through hours of filibustering without at least one double foamy nonfat latte?
Holiday time at the Driskill Hotel
After all of this historical learning, we were thirsty for something other than facts. And so we headed to what became our favorite watering hole – the lovely Driskill Hotel.  The Driskill, spruced up for the holidays with a lavishly-decorated tree, was the scene of LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson’s first date (which ended in a marriage proposal later that day!). I’d like to think they enjoyed the same thirst-quenching “Batini” (named for Austin’s famous nocturnal residents — the Mexican free-tailed bats) and addictive truffled popcorn (ahh, popcorn — more to come).
Batinis, truffled popcorn and Voodoo donuts for the perfect happy hour
The Batini is heralded as The Official Cocktail of Austin and features Tito’s handmade Vodka, house-made Hibiscus and Ginger juice, Agave and Sweet and Sour. It was as tasty as it sounds.
Other highlights included a sublime steakhouse experience at Vince Young’s, the holiday light show at Mozart’s on Lake Austin, highly creative tacos at Torchy’s Tacos, and the LBJ library. 
Fun times at Dueling Petes

Of course, with Austin being the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the U.S., there was a sensational music and fishbowl glass-filled night at Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar, and the Saxon Pub (now opening at the airport!).

Segways AND a cookbook cafe, score!

We loved riding Segways around town; it provided the perfect opportunity to get up close and see details, like facial expressions on the Confederate soldiers’ monument and the inside of a cookbook café!

One evening, we needed a break from all the steak and ribs, so we headed out to Loro’s, a casual new fusion restaurant that combines the best of barbecue and Asian cuisine. Kicking off the creative and flavorful meal was something I’m still thinking about — Candied Kettle Corn with brisket burnt ends, togarashi and seasalt.  OH!

Donuts always feature prominently in our reunions, so we were delighted to spot the signature pink awning announcing the presence of Voodoo Donuts in town.

Do Nut pass these up – Gourdough’s

But as good as these were, they were completely outdone by a Donut Situation that occurred on a patch of grass adjacent to the Gourdough’s Airstream.

Heritage Boots, a museum of artistic footwear

We had been strolling and shopping along lively South Congress St, including popping in to view the $2000 horsehair-embellished boots at Heritage Boots. Convinced that asking locals is always the best way to find great eats, I was told to check out a local ice cream house called Dolce Neve Gelato, so off we went. Just one block shy of this spot, we found ourselves in front of the Gourdoughs Donut Airstream. At Gourdoughs, the donut is incredible, but it functions more as the vehicle for the enhanced gustatory experience.

Dedicated researchers that we are, we deemed it essential to sample at least three different kinds, my favorite being the Funky Monkey, heaped with grilled bananas, cream cheese icing and brown sugar.

Gourdoughs – Donut Masterpieces

The Black Out was also tasty – brownie batter atop a perfect donut, finished with fudge icing and chocolate covered brownie bites. It took a fair amount of restraint not to also try the cleverly-named Son of a Peach, Fat Elvis (grilled bananas and bacon with peanut butter icing and honey), or the Mother Clucker which features a donut base topped with a fried chicken strip and honey butter. (My arteries are clogging just recalling all of this).

 

 

Dolce Neve, delicious ice cream

After consuming every last crumb, was our sweet tooth satisfied? Well, ummm… errr… the gelato was just right over there…and so, yes we did top it all off with delicious gelato in unique flavors such  as custard with lemon zest, chocolate with candied orange peels, and ricotta, honey and pistachio.

 

Unfortunately, that did not herald the end of the caloric damage as we still had the next day ahead of us. After racing at the Circuit of the Americas, we were tipped off to head to Moonshine Grill for lunch.

Moonshine Grill, built mid 1850s

Moonshine is in a historic Texas landmark structure. Originally built between 1850-1875 for a German immigrant named Henry Hofheintz, it functioned as a grocery and dry goods store for nearly 100 years. And now it serves really tasty and very filling Southern food. 

Fried chicken and waffles, one of many delicious Southern plates at Moonshine Grill, Austin

We started with another take on popcorn, big baskets of salty yellow kernels flecked with a reddish spice blend, and then made our way through the hot pretzels with whipped pimento cheese, fried chicken and waffles (with chipotle cream gravy), green chile cheddar grits, baked macaroni, sweet potato fries, mini corn muffins, and – oh — a salad! 

Skillet apple pie with salted caramel ice cream – who could resist?

Well, technically, a salad, if you count cornflake fried chicken on greens as salad. Skillet apple pie with salted caramel ice cream?

Why… sure, bring it on! 

I promise you that after consuming this meal, I could not eat another morsel for a full 24 hours. Not the free samples of chocolate at the flagship Whole Foods store later that day. Not the Salt Lick Barbecue (directly AT my airport gate) which had been recommended by just about everyone who heard of our trip. Nor could I engage in my other favorite activity – perusing cookbooks (at a great shop called Book People). That should give you an idea of what gluttons we were – and how tasty the food was. 

Newfound Austin Fan

So I am now officially a fan of Austin and in recovery mode from my earlier Texan tribulations.  I’ll be reliving our Austin-tacious weekend by cooking up some of the best bites and I’d love to share these with you. Inasmuch as the fried chicken and waffles were amazing, you’re not really going to make those now; it’s much too busy a time of year.

Instead, I’m gifting you with a recipe for something that will come in handy around the holidays AND represents two of my favorite experiences in Austin: popcorn and pecans – here are Pecan Praline Popcorn treats!

We ate popcorn 4 times in 4 days and one of my fondest memories was collecting just-fallen pecans at the edge of the capitol building, where Georgia, the Texan, waited to welcome us.

Bowl of holiday goodness

Pecan Praline Popcorn Treats 

Ingredients 

Pecan Praline Caramel Corn

1 ¼ cups sugar

5 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into bits

½ cup coarsely chopped pecans, toasted in a 350 degree oven for 4-5 minutes (watch carefully so they don’t burn)

½ tsp cider vinegar

¼ tsp salt

8 cups plain popped popcorn 

cayenne pepper to taste, if desired

Directions

Oil a 9” square baking pan.

In a wide heavy pot (at least 4 quarts), add the sugar and stir over medium heat so that it melts evenly.

Stop stirring and cook, swirling pot occasionally until sugar becomes a deep golden caramel (watch carefully so it doesn’t burn).

Reduce heat to low. Stir in butter, pecans, cider vinegar and salt. When butter is almost melted, add popcorn and stir to coat. Turn off heat.

Quickly press mixture in baking pan with spatula or using wax-paper to guide pressing the popcorn into the pan. Mixture will be very hot and sticky, work as quickly as you can.

Cool completely before cutting or breaking into pieces.

(original recipe from https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/pecan-praline-popcorn-treats-355029)

The perfect holiday snack

 

Comments (28)

  • I am having second thoughts about Texas after your fun post. Now I want to visit Austin — what a tasty adventure! Thanks for sharing such great stories, Alysa.

  • Always a pleasure reading your blogs. Makes me want to return to Austin. My few hours were spent listening to LBJ at his library. Still cannot believe you ate all those donuts!

  • So, one of the donuts at Gourdoughs had grilled strawberries, the other bananas, and the other nuts – that’s practically a fruit salad! : ) Seriously, thanks for documenting this great adventure in such a wonderful way – so glad I got to experience (at least most of it) with you!! Hugs, Dee

  • Great post, your written words sounds just like you!! I’d happily follow in your culinary footsteps in Austin given your glowing review!

  • Martha Aines-Lessard

    what fun! u r such an artist with words.i feel like i had a wonderful time in austin right alongside u.yahooooooooooooo!!!

  • Mother Clucker??? All these years I have been pronouncing it incorrectly. (Just kidding) You have just erased all of my former prejudices. Alysa, Texas, Austin at least, has suddenly become a place I must visit.

    • Ha! I cannot yet muster the same exuberance for the rest of the state, but I can confidently say that Austin merits a visit.
      thanks for writing.

  • I think I enjoyed reliving the weekend through your words almost as much as I enjoyed it the first time around! I wish reading about Gourdough’s donuts tasted as good as eating them!! Thanks for putting our amazing trip into such beautiful words. Looking forward to our next adventure!! XOXO

  • I just gained five pounds just from your description of all the delicious food. Sounds wonderful. The city of Austin should hire you as a PR executive. On top of all that, you’re a great writer.

    • Thanks, Marilyn. It was quite the food frenzy, that weekend. But for the most part (excepting a bad bbq/ribs place), it was all really tasty and heck, we did take occasional breaks for history lessons and a bit of walking… 🙂

  • Now y’all went and made me hungry, lil sister!

    Thanks for the report; I also fell in love with Austin and was forced to revise my earlier impressions of Texas…

  • What wild (and occasionally dangerous) experiences you’ve had in my native state! And some of the food hardly seems either appetizing or nutritious, but who am I to judge. What a wonderfully lively report! And you look great in a stetson!

    • I didn’t recall it was your native state! Hope I didn’t offend… but Austin was great. And to be fair, there was a bit of healthier fare too, including brussel sprouts and spinach..it’s just that they weren’t as memorable. Thanks for writing.

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