The VICE Guide to Austin
Make Austin weird again. A local's guide to the ATX.
Photo by Ben Sklar
Welcome to Austin! We don't know what the fuck is going on either!
The "Keep Austin Weird" bumper stickers pretty much only show up on sorority girls' 4Runners now, and a more common one these days is "Welcome to Austin, Please Don't Move Here." Everyone and their cosmic Cowboy uncle has an opinion on how Austin has changed; it will be the primary conversation you have with Uber drivers. For good or ill, that's open to debate. An area of town you haven't been to in a few months can still look completely different (condos, always condos), and the list of iconic establishments that are now but foundations for "boutiques" continues to grow. Black flight is a real thing here as the city becomes more homogeneous, with more and more design-focused white yuppies coming every day to take advantage of whatever they can.
The irony isn't lost on anyone. The same "authentic" things that made Austin appealing in the first place—the strange little blueberry in a cherry pie, the arts scene that's a shotgun wedding between hippies and cowboys, cheap housing, SXSW—are pretty much being smothered by progress and brands and the commercialization of a special thing. All the best and worst parts of gentrification. It's a mini tech corridor, still a proponent of music, and very livable if you make a few sacrifices.
The result is a town in flux, suffering growing pains and undergoing a learning curve. On the same street, you'll see start-up jocks, old Austinites of lore, hipsters, health food and yoga cultists, "gosh, y'all" Southern belles, and plenty of cowboy boots. It'll take you longer than imagined to find someone who's actually from here (everyone's so young!). In other words, it's a super interesting time to be here. It won't ever be like it was or how it's been advertised, but that's OK. This is the new-ish land of opportunity. Come on in, the water's fine enough.
NEIGHBORHOODS WE TOLERATE
In the midst of its rapid rise as a city of importance, Austin is still trying to figure out how to define itself, not just compared to other cities, but the areas that comprise it. Yes, everyone knows The Drag, and Dirty Sixth, and the other main booze-and-food strips people seem to frequent. And yes, while the city has its official list of "districts," you'll have to do better than saying "Old West Austin" or "Judge's Hill" when talking with others. Everybody knows Clarksville's where all the rich people live, and Hyde Park's classy in that old Austin way. But everyone seems to have a personal, and personally revealing, opinion about the Realtor®-friendly use of SoCo for South Congress. And do all the new shops on South Lamar mean that it counts as its own area now, too? More often than not, navigation and bearing-gathering revolves around singular places. This being a young person's town, those singular places are more often than not coffee houses, bars, or taco shops. Oh, you live by Paco's Tacos? Gimme 20 mins. Ugh, yes, traffic on I-35 just keeps getting worse.
Dirty Sixth/ Red River
No one with any sense actually likes Dirty Sixth. It is like every boorish, loud, overcrowded party street in every major town, complete with "shot bars," cover bands, and the kind of people you would never associate with in public or private. As if that weren't enough, the number of police who stand guard during the busy hours lend the street an extra sense of menace. Day time ain't much of an improvement, as it's taken over by the aggressively destitute (the homeless shelter is the next block over), and the aroma of stale piss is so strong as to overwhelm those simply driving by.
The area gets a little better just a few steps away from the drunken horde, with a few decent locations like the Southwestern-horror-punk bar Casino El Camino offering legendary burgers and Bloody Marys, as well as Easy Tiger, half a block from the highway that divides this downtown district from the East Side. Inevitably, you will find yourself on Dirty Sixth, often when some friends visiting from another Texas town will want to meet up in that area because they, like tourists, don't know any better. Just brace yourself and do what everyone else is doing: get sloppy drunk to dull the pain.
It's weird how things can change in just a few city blocks. All but capping off the horror of Dirty Sixth is Red River Cultural District, which, while still crowded and full of untouchables, is somehow, magically, ten times better than Sixth Street. Perhaps it's the fact that the city insisted on adding "cultural district" to its official name. More likely it's the Texas-favorite fare (pizza, barbecue, Mexican), and gay-friendly venues like Barbarella and Cheer-Up Charlies keeping everyone honest. Not to mention the fact that, unlike Dirty Sixth, drunk pedestrians must keep to the sidewalks, as people do in civilized societies. Not only can you spend an entire night on Red River without once stepping foot onto Dirty Sixth, it's much advised.
It's hard to put a finger on what makes Rainey Street both appealing and suspect. For one, it's an actual neighborhood. As in, every bar is a converted house. Just a few years ago, Rainey seemed like a small, boozy oasis, with a great BYOB open-air restaurant, G'Raj Mahal Cafe. Now, with high-rises being built on both sides, G'Raj having been turned into a glitzy brick-and-mortar spot, and more and more people flooding in on the weekend, the area can feel a little claustrophobic. There's not much difference between the various bars, although beer lovers gravitate toward Bangers and its massive tap selection. The crowd, too, is hard to describe. No one's unpleasant, per se, but if Dirty Sixth is where the dropouts and college sophomores go to party, Rainey is the spot where the preppier, upperclassmen go to get hammered.
East: 6th, Chavez, Manor
Austin doesn't really have "districts." Or rather, we haven't come to a unanimous consensus, due in large part to the fact that the city has developed so rapidly. We're still trying to get our bearings. But for simplicity, just about anything east of I-35, south of Manor St., and north of the river is considered "the East Side." Basically, those are the areas that the city used to force its ethnic populations to live, which are now being infested by yuppies.
East Sixth, of course, is the heart of hip Austin. But please-please-please don't make any references to "Brooklyn" while you're there. Yes, you'll see a higher concentration of hipsters here than any other area of town, but for a mostly young white crowd, it feels surprisingly diverse. Condos and boutique-looking businesses are sprouting up on any parcel of land big enough for an outhouse, so the area is likely in phase two of its "cool" demise. But the area is just the right size: bustling and busy without feeling cramped. And it includes a variety of watering holes, including local favorites like Violet Crown, The Liberty, and Rio Rita.
East Chavez is experiencing a sped-up version of East Sixth's development, and of Austin's in general. Traditionally a Latino neighborhood, a few remnants like the restaurant Juan in a Million remain. But when a local piñata shop was unceremoniously torn down by developers to make way for a goddamn cat cafe, Chavez became the evil poster child for the Austin's relentless gentrification. The area still looks rough around the edges, and the neighborhoods immediately around the street still look homely. At last one immediately popular bar has sprung up, Stay Gold, while a couple others that look suspiciously cat-friendly have opened recently. Maybe do a little something on that street, then meander up a few blocks to East Sixth.
While not exactly right nearby, Manor Rd., up near 22nd St., has that Austin-y feel of being a little worn-in yet working on reupholstering. Crowd-wise, it's kinda the hippish kids from East Sixth who finally made salary and don't feel like raging all night. The higher-end Salty Sow is there, catty-corner to El Sapo, a Tex-Mex burger joint in a converted gas station/auto shop. Then, of course, there's the famous Mi Madre's and the original, can't-lose El Chilito. The new-ish bars are relaxed if mostly forgettable, and every tattooed technophile packs into Thunderbird Coffee to steal the WiFi. Bike a few blocks south to the Austin Daily Press and Bennu Coffee (open 24/7) on MLK. And for the adventurous, go another mile south to the hip bar/cafe/grocery store Quickie Pickie on 11th.
Barton Springs Rd.
The neighborhood on Barton Springs Rd. is nice and pleasant in the way sociable people without any apparent vices who enjoy spending weekend afternoon frollicking in the park are nice and pleasant. It's a neighborhood for people whose favorite season is late spring.
Right next to Austin's biggest park, Zilker, Barton Springs just feels brunchy. The employees at Thom's Market, where you can buy cheese and wine for a picnic, are pleasant. The chill-out-on-my-front-lawn feel of The Shady Grove is also pleasant. The enclosed, brick-lined patio of the Green Mesquite BBQ is pleasant (its wings are more than pleasant). Even the Pecan Grove RV Park situated in the middle of the neighborhood looks like the most pleasant home-away-from-home ever. It's all so very—what's the word we're looking for here?—pleasant.
If you're feeling particularly chipper, stop in at Barton Springs Bike Rental, and set your iTunes to "Sunny." Whether you've taken along the one-hitter dugout or not, check out the nearby kayak and paddle boat rentals on Lady Bird Lake.
South Congress/ South First
There's an ongoing debate about what to call South Congress. SoCo just sounds so douchey and pretentious. But the name has become so ubiquitous that even longtime residents will use it, albeit with some sort of caveat or acknowledgement of how uncool it sounds. All of which is just another way of saying that SoCo is the result of those who've perfectly commodified the "Keep Austin Weird" aesthetic. The area feels a little quirky, but in that safe, harmless way that facilitates the purchasing of quirky stuff. It's the consumption district for people who claim to dislike consumption districts. The costume store Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds, and the curated antique store, Uncommon Objects, selling "eclectic oddities," are everyone's favorite places to window shop. Maybe grab some street fare at the always popular Home Slice? Naturally, you'll find a few vintage clothing shops, an art gallery, and a few upper-end diner and/or afternoon drink spots. All so eclectic! Yes, that "I love you so much" graffiti at Jo's Coffee is the same one you see on the profile of every single Tinder profile of every woman who's ever been in Austin, ever. A fine neighborhood to take your visiting parents.
South First hasn't seen quite the same boom as South Congress. A few boutiques have opened, and some restaurants are clearly newer than others, but the area still feels run-down and local in that good kind of way. Just a random collection of shops and food trailers! The neighborhood also has plenty of established Mexican restaurants for when out of towners want "Tex-Mex" and you can't be bothered to think too hard, although take those you really like to Elizabeth St. Cafe for Vietnamese fusion. More refined connoisseurs of taking-pictures-in-front-local-art will find the "Welcome to Austin" mural easily enough.
Hyde Park/ North Loop/ Airport
In terms of neighborhoods with that neighborhood feel, this collection is probably the best. Hyde Park proper has old, though moderately sized family homes, but its edges are loaded up with youngish, post-grad types in relatively cheap apartments. As a result, the amenities are accessible, although hardly dive-y. Dolce Vita is a popular hangout since it serves something for everyone: booze, gelato, coffee (for whatever reason, the terminally hip employees can be real fucking dicks, but whatever). And the cash-only Julio's Cafe is a neighborhood standby. Everyone, too, knows The Flag Store (you'll immediately understand its name), where it's got a huge pick-your-own beer selection and sell just about every knick-knack for your utility drawer imaginable.
Airport's, like, totally gonna be the next big thing. Thankfully, it's too far from the central hotspots to become the target of dick-swinging condo developers any time in the very near future. The Austin staple Tyson's Tacos is there, and The Grand is the kind of grimy billiards bar everyone can get behind. That said, the swanky Spanish-themed Bullfight restaurant just opened, and the annoyingly busy Kome Sushi Kitchen is every couple's favorite quiet night out spot. It's going to be the next Austin neighborhood you don't recognize in a few years.
North Loop is the real gem. One of those tiny neighborhood areas that feels like it won't ever expand too much. Everyone moves a bit slower here. There are a few small bars, a popular coffeehouse/workstation, one of the city's best vintage furniture shops, and some very specific food trailers (no kebabs here), among other treasures. There's also Phara's, a very strange-in-a-good-way Mediterranean restaurant with a belly dancer and plenty of hookah huffing. More could be said, but North Loop has probably already been jinxed.
Second St./ Warehouse Districts/ West 6th
You have money, a job, and maybe a hot-looking something. Congratulations! This area's for you. It's here where the high-rises are shooting upward like the jagged formations of some distant planet. When you've got clients in town, the Dirty Sixth is too dangerous, and East Sixth is far too young and hip, so you send them here. The streets have been scrubbed of refuse and riff-raff, the restaurants are both high-end and high volume, and the bartenders (though never snobby mixologists) are adept at making martinis. If this is more your scene, but you still want to walk down a bar strip, head over to budding West Sixth, which is starting to look like a slightly nicer version Dirty Sixth (no one's called it "Clean Sixth" yet). Fair warning, though. We've been making fun of the new Steampunk Saloon since before it even opened. So if you go there, tell no one.
West Campus/ The Drag
There's something uplifting about all the pretty young college kids going about their business on The Drag. Their lives have meaning! They seem so happy! Their futures are still ahead of them! The Drag's basically the bustling "main street" for the University of Texas crowd. So there's that. Daniel Johnston's famous "Hi How Are You?" graffiti has been religiously preserved, although it and the Hole in the Wall are about the only things left of the golden age of UT, that time when Richard Linklater made Slacker and the likes of Matthew McConnaughey and the Wilson brothers roamed the campus. Whatever. It still beats the main drags of other college towns.
West Campus, however, is a place of nightmares. Imagine if the lost boys of Neverland had been allowed to reach puberty, or the children of Pinocchio's Pleasure Island had moved away to get degrees in business or communications. It is a hodgepodge of co-op living quarters, cheap dorms, and run-down frat houses. No half-adult in Austin mentions West Campus without a tinge of disdain, born partly of fear. In other words: a fantastic area to roam at twilight in a stoned haze.
WHERE TO EAT
Austin is known for tacos and BBQ, and for good reason—there are no shortage of options for those things, and even the worst ones in Austin are pretty good. But there's more to the food in Austin than just the Texican staples. In the past ten years, the rise of food truck culture gave aspiring chefs the chance to try out proof-of-concept menus that have evolved to some of the city's best brick-and-mortar restaurants. Meanwhile, the city's population boom has meant that cuisines that have typically been uninspiring in Austin—Thai, pizza, Japanese, and more—now finally have enough of a constituency that places are serving them up well. You'd be a dummy to come to Austin and not eat BBQ or have tacos for breakfast most mornings, but you'd also be making a mistake if you kept your Austin menu restricted to just those things.
You've probably heard about Franklin by now, because the place is fucking famous. It's famous because it has a long line, and it has a long line because it's genuinely the best brisket you'll ever eat. Initially our thought was to leave it off the list because you'll find it on every Guide to Austin ever written. But that'd have been dumb. The brisket is good because pitmaster Aaron Franklin sources only the best meat, which is also why it sells out so quickly, and why people start lining up at sunrise for a place that doesn't open until 11 AM. It's worth it, though—set an alarm, bring some lawn chairs, and just make a morning of it.
East Side King
Odds are pretty good you'll find yourself at an East Side King at some point during a trip to Austin, even if you didn't mean to, just because they're everywhere. The constantly-expanding Asian fusion food stand got its start as a truck with a menu created by Paul Qui—probably Austin's most celebrated chef—but now there's a combination of trucks, brick-and-mortar locations, and backyard setups at a half dozen bars serving pork belly buns, beet home fries, chicken kara-age, and brussels sprouts salad. Well worth the time.
Bouldin Creek Cafe
Basically every vegan in Texas ends up moving to Austin in their 20s, and they all do it because there are restaurants like Bouldin Creek Cafe. Every item on the menu is either vegetarian or vegan, and this place can swap out the regular cheese with vegan cheese for 50 cents. The staff aren't specialists in any type of cuisine—you can get pasta or enchiladas or fake BBQ or teriyaki stir-fry—but if you want to eat something extremely satisfying that involved zero animal suffering, you're in a good place.
Bowie BBQ at Whole Foods Market
If you can't do the line at Franklin, it's OK. It won't be nearly as cool to brag to your friends back home that you went to a fucking Whole Foods for some authentic Texas BBQ, but the flagship location on 6th and Lamar (which really has to be seen to be believed) has plenty of meat, no wait, and is near the top of the city's second-tier BBQ spots. It's not Franklin or La Barbecue, but it's a hell of a lot better than whatever slop they're passing off as BBQ wherever it is you're from. Get the moist brisket, watch a game at the bar, and try to pretend you're not at Whole Foods and you'll be unearthing a hidden gem.
Veracruz All Natural
There's so much delicious Mexican food in Austin, you're unlikely to go wrong with any of it. Like, if you just see some random Mexican restaurant five minutes away from where you're staying, it's probably going to have pretty good tacos. But if you're looking for the platonic ideal of the sort of Tex-Mex standards that people come to Austin for, Veracruz is the place to go. The menu is simple—breakfast tacos all day, steak or chicken fajitas, veggie tacos, quesadillas, aguas frescas, etc.—but Austin is a town of simple pleasures.