Monday, October 24, 2011

24 Hours in Austin: In Search of Tex-Mex

Is it possible I’ve been avoiding Texas all these years?  Never spending more time in the Lone Star State than an hour-long layover in Dallas?  I have friends in Texas, and family, yet for some reason never felt compelled to do more than a quick flyover while traveling cross-country. 

Room to Read’s Austin Chapter event a couple of weeks ago presented just such a chance to come and experience a part of Texas that I had been assured I would love.  “The best live music!”  “The best running trails!”  “The best Tex-Mex in Texas!”  With so many superlatives flying at me, I was pretty sure even with just 24 hours I would be in for a good time.

Unfortunately, a busy week with a weird eating schedule and a flight that interfered with lunch hour, meant John and I arrived in Austin lightheaded with blood sugar levels dipping dangerously low.  After dropping off our bag with a friend whose apartment we were crashing at, the next stop without question was food. 

Our friend Kristin, a simultaneous health food fanatic and Tex-Mex lover, steered us toward Guero’s, not far from her apartment.  More Mexican than Tex-Mex, Guero’s Taco Bar was exactly what we needed in a pinch.  Help-yourself salsa bar, quesadillas stuffed with spicy chicken, chunky guacamole, and tacos al pastor.  It was one of those meals that is hard to judge fairly as cardboard would have tasted pretty good at that point.  But it did the trick, even for this biased Southern California native raised on real Mexican style street tacos.

Not two hours later we were at Four Hands, a renowned specialty furniture store and gracious donor of space for that evening’s event.  To Austin’s credit, people sure are friendly.  About 150 such friendly, generous, stylish people mixed and mingled through the aisles of reclaimed wood tables over glasses of Austin’s own Deep Eddy Sweet Tea Vodka and lemonade and Shiner, a favorite Texas brew. 

The evening was a success.  Attendees dug deep to fund a school in Sri Lanka, provide 46 years of scholarships for girls, and donate 2000 local language books published by Room to Read to an orphanage run in India by The Miracle Foundation

In all the excitement, John and I forgot to eat.  Again.

6th Street, the main artery of downtown Austin’s legendary nightlife scene might not be my first choice at this point in life- UT was getting ready for a big football weekend and the streets were packed with co-eds gearing up for the big game a couple of days away.  And Chupacabra would probably not be my first choice for dining on a normal night given the monstrous neon blue punch bowls of liquor with 15 straws that sat in the window table surrounded by college girls when we walked in that evening.  But we were hungry, it was late, and Chupacabra sells $1 beef tacos after 10pm.  We came, we ate, we left to drink margaritas elsewhere and celebrate the night’s victory with the Austin Chapter.

Over a morning latte at Progress, an alternative coffee shop that seems better suited to Portland than central Texas, John and I mused that we did not, in fact, see any live music and all the Tex-Mex we’d had up to that point was eaten out of necessity rather than pure pleasure. 

But our Austin adventure was not over yet.  In a nutshell: we went for a run on Lake Austin with the owner of Four Hands, a five mile run turned into a seven mile run when I got lost, I was found, we were late for our flight, the flight was delayed, never have we been so happy for a delayed flight.

More than just not missing our flight, the benefit of the delay was it gave us time to pick up one last Tex-Mex meal in Austin, this time at the airport. 

Maudie’s, part of a mini Austin chain of Tex-Mex restaurants, stood out from the rest of the fast food fray by the long line to order and the crowd waiting to pick up from a selection of tacos, queso, and enchiladas.  We ordered up a double dose of chicken enchiladas with chile verde.  Snug in our seats on the full plane, passengers sitting around us had to be either jealous or annoyed but we didn’t waste any time digging into our foil wrapped enchiladas.  Through the kitchen window we had watched tortillas hand-rolled to order around shredded cheese and chicken then smothered in spicy green sauce.  This was the real deal of enchiladas.

Wheels in the air, Austin growing smaller and more distant as the plane climbed, the last plastic forkful of chicken enchilada disappeared.  The humor was not lost on me that it took leaving Austin, and one last attempt at Tex-Mex in the airport, to understand the appeal of the city’s food.  If there is more food like Maudie’s to discover in that big state, I know one thing for sure, no more avoiding Texas.  I’ll be back.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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