A Few Days In

Can Austin Live Up to the Hype? The Answer Comes Quick and Simple: Yes, Y’All

by Tarajia Morrell
Breakfast Breakfast at Carpenter's Hall. All photos by Tarajia Morrell.

New York-based food and travel writer Tarajia Morrell shared her newfound love for Austin with us before the pandemic, and unfortunately we had to hold the story. But the last 18 months have only made Austin more popular with people reconsidering what's important in city life. Indeed, The New York Times Real Estate section alone deemed it the Hottest Market in the Country as it noted the creative capital's increasing appeal to Hollywood exiles. Have a read, and you might find yourself booking the next flight, too.

AUSTIN, Texas – Expectations are slippery. In relationships, we're told that having them is dangerous. But when it comes to travel, expectations are the raison d’être — the reason we spend our savings and commit our time. As a food and travel writer, I’m often responsible for stoking those expectations in others. Go to this exceptional exhibit in Vienna, I tell readers. Visit this region of France for its unsullied organic vineyards and unpretentious attitude. If I don’t mean what I say, I find it hard to live with myself, but I also understand how the tourism and public relations industries work and accept that not everything one reads is indicative of what one might actually experience.

In my network of editors, writers, foodies, and friends, the Austin hype has been deafening — for years — fueled in part by the yearly schedule of festivals that lure visitors from around the world. The tentpole events are the music-tech-hipster magnet SXSW, the food-centric Austin Food & Wine Festival, and Austin City Limits, the music festival inspired by event that sprung out of the live music performance and TV show of the same name. Smaller, more intimate culinary affairs include Wild World Natural Wine Festival and Hot Luck Food and Music, co-founded by Austin barbeque impresario Aaron Franklin. Just a few of the signs that Austin’s creative heart is going strong.

So when I had the chance to visit the Texas city that my cohorts perpetually rave about (and to which approximately 150 people seem to move to daily!), I was at once eager, curious, and slightly skeptical. Like finally being set up with that brilliant dreamboat friend-of-a-friend that you’ve been hearing about for years but never actually met, I had to wonder, could Austin live up to the tremendous buildup?

A food industry pal’s concurrent work travel there meant I had a much-adored wingwoman and her lovely colleagues. Our common desires were clear from the word GO: excellent food, cold drink to fend off the Texas heat, a bit of culture, and a lot of laughter.

The Carpenter Hotel. Photo by Alex Lau.

The Carpenter Hotel, the first project from The Mighty Union hospitality team, made for a soft landing. Tucked on Josephine Street, off main drag South Lamar Boulevard, the Carpenter’s entry, lounge, and restaurant, Carpenter’s Hall, are housed in an airy, mid-century, pale brick building, formerly a carpenter’s union headquarters. Minimalist yet warm, with terracotta, turquoise tiles, playful features, and subtle southwestern details, the hotel welcomed us like an old friend.

I’ll come right out and admit it: I’m a native New Yorker who’s never thought much of Tex-Mex food. Unfortunately, I associate it with taco day in grade school or family meal when I was working in restaurants, when authenticity wasn’t the goal as much as sustenance in preparation for a track meet or a busy Friday night service, and the nachos and burritos sat in our bellies like bricks. Leading up to my Austin trip, I wondered: Can Tex-Mex, a cuisine predicated on fusion, ever be authentic? (And I could I ever learn to love it?)

It took our first meal in Austin, at Matt’s El Rancho, to realize that (a) it could indeed be authentic and (b) I did love it. We pillaged a delicious melted cheese and meat concoction dubbed "the Bob Armstrong Dip” with crispy, house-made fried tortillas the size of sows’ ears, followed by fish tacos and a fiery, creamy, crunchy slaw. I occurred to me that the Tex-Mex I’d had before was like listening to an old cassette tape of Willie Nelson in a 1983 Volvo with a broken speaker vs. experiencing Beyoncé’s latest hit from the front row at the Barclay’s Center. (They’re both Texas natives, and there’s simply no comparison.) Tex-Mex in the heart of Texas is irresistible, especially in Austin’s tried and true spots, where every element is made in house from impeccable local ingredients.

Austin is known for having great vintage clothing. As committed vintage shoppers, much to the consternation of locals, we walked off lunch (a bit like LA, no one really walks in Austin; it’s a driving city), by wandering from Feathers Vintage to Bloomers and Frocks to Flashback Vintage. There seems to be a "we rise in circles" mentality in Austin, as every shopkeeper was genuine and genial, mapping out where we should drink, eat, and listen to music for the next three days, something we New Yorkers found to be bizarre...and refreshing.

Thirsty from our wander and eager for our evening to begin, we made our way to Hotel Saint Cecilia, the dreamy bohemian-chic enclave created by pioneering hotelier Liz Lambert and now owned by Bunkhouse, to catch our breath, admire its central exquisite ancient oak tree, and sip a bottle of icy cold rosé. Here we were at a spot that I’d been told was perfect so many times by so many travelers whose opinions I value. I’d even heard it lovingly described as "haunted by good ghosts." I didn’t experience enough of Saint Cecelia to properly weigh in, but what I did find was an extension of what I felt elsewhere: that I was in a city that cared for its residents, albeit in a particularly picturesque and gloriously quiet courtyard within Austin’s sometimes raucous city limits.

The best ways I know to acquaint myself with a place — to take its temperature and glean its mood — are to walk its streets, talk to its locals (when one must take a cab, local drivers can be the most informative and amusing company), and eat, of course.

Breakfast taco at Veracruz All Natural.

The Ultimate Austin Food Crawl

We certainly ate our way through Austin. Breakfast tacos at beloved Veracruz All Natural (don’t skip the migas, egg tacos with tortilla chip “croutons”). We sipped micheladas, the most refreshing midday drink to combat the hot weather and spiciness, at Joann’s Fine Foods. We feasted at Suerte, the upscale modern Mexican eatery that has been touted by Food & Wine Magazine as a best new restaurant, which epitomizes how too much hype does not a great or consistent experience make. A carrot tostada with "walnut yum yum sauce," left me cold, though goat barbecoa accompanied by avocado tarragon salsa, sesame habanero salsa, and mint sorrel yogurt, was A+++.

Less nationally known, but far more interesting to me, was Bufalina, a Neapolitan-style pizza place that served natural wine — a concept that may be common in New York here seemed novel and deeply appreciated by locals: It was packed when we walked in at 10 p.m. on a Friday night and full until we left at midnight. Carpenter Hall at the Carpenter Hotel typifies the trend that a city’s best dining is often within a hotel. The thoughtful menu offers something for everyone, but each element is pitch-perfect: from two "breakfast salads" to a totally filthy (in the best way) burger made from pristinely sourced ingredients, shrimp and grits, and a mushroom melt with brie and gorgonzola.

Ellsworth Kelly's chapel.

A Work of Art

To work off those meals, we took advantage of Austin’s extraordinary cultural offerings, from a world-class art collection at the Blanton Museum, including Ellsworth Kelly’s chapel, “Austin” (2015), and art by Willem De Kooning, Yayoi Kusama, and Alice Neel. University of Texas at Austin has sculptures by such luminaries as Louise Bourgeois, Sol LeWitt, and James Turrell ensconced on its campus, as well the first photograph ever taken, View from the Window at Le Gras, by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, circa 1826. This image that changed the course of seeing is there in the cool silence of the Harry Ransom Center for all to study, for free. (The Harry Ransom Center is temporarily still closed due to Covid, but will reopen.)

Deep Eddy Pool.
Paddling along Barton Springs.

Pool Party

"Always have a swimsuit with you," Andrew Knowlton, former Bon Appétit restaurant editor and co-founder of the Carpenter Hotel, told me. "In Austin you invite people to go for a swim the way we used to invite people to meet for drinks."

We followed his advice and went from our cultural activities directly to Deep Eddy Pool, a spring-fed swimming pool where folks of all ages frolicked and floated in the cool, clear water, and also to Barton Springs, the man-made swimming hole from the largest of Zilker Park’s natural springs. Austin-ites (and this visitor) cued up to launch themselves off the springy diving board into the jade abyss — because nothing makes us feel the joy and innocence of youth like being airborne and splashing into cold water on a summer day. Honestly, verdant Zilker Park and Austin’s public swimming spots alone were enough to win me over to Austin forever.

A Tuneful Coda

And of course there’s live music — and two-step dance to — all over town, every single night. The focus of our trip was more food than music, though we managed to catch a bit of country music at Mohawk and dexterous locals two-stepping to crooners at the White Horse, a veritable honkytonk where a fellow was playing an upright piano in a side room by a pool table. The Continental Club promises a lively showing until 2 a.m., and I cannot wait to visit Antone’s, where Muddy Waters and B.B. King performed in the ‘70s on my next trip.

That’s the truest testament to how impressed I was by this town is that I am already making lists of where I want to go on my next visit. Y’all, Austin is just fantastic.