March 12, 2010

Food, Drink, and Fun in Austin for SXSW and Beyond

I initially wrote about some of my favorite Austin restaurants and hangouts for campaign workers during the 2008 primary election. Since then, I have updated my listing for visitors and renters, so I thought I would post it for the yearly deluge of SXSW visitors, and for interested locals as well. Bon appétit, y'all!

Ruby’s Barbecue – 512 W. 29th, 78705:
All-natural meat and tasty sides in an Austin institution. Festooned with the autographs of traveling blues musicians who were playing at Antone’s, which used to be next door in the EcoClean /I Luv Video building. Not to be confused with Rudy’s, which is a chain and just OK.

Trudy's Texas Star – 409 W. 30th St., 78705:
A long-time student favorite, Trudy's has Tex-Mex, burgers, breakfast, outdoor seating, draft beer, a full bar, and kick-ass frozen and rocks margaritas and Mexican martinis. Sit outside at the downstairs bar for lunch/brunch Thursday through Sunday, or for happy hour on a nice day. Inexpensive Tex-Mex food, burgers, salads, sandwiches, and chicken fried steak/chicken (don't ask about the redundancy of that dish's name).

Taco Shack: Breakfast tacos made locally at several locations, including in the Frost Tower downtown. The "Burnet Road Burrito" is a great, filling breakfast item. And their coffee is good, too.

Little City 916 Congress Avenue, 78701: Fantastic locally-roasted coffee, right on Congress. Their lattes will make you feel so warm and fuzzy and huggy you'll wonder if they spiked it with E. Too bad they abandoned their location on the Drag near campus. Also kind of a gay hangout, just in case you were wondering why the men are so darn friendly!

Hotel San Jose 1316 South Congress Avenue, 78704: The courtyard is Nouveau Austin Central, serves drinx and snax, and is a see-and-be-seen scene.

Spider House Café – 2908 Fruth St., 78705:
Located just north of the UT campus, the quintessential Austin coffeehouse and restaurant has WiFi, coffee, draft beer and a full bar, a nice shady porch and garden, and serves breakfast all day. There's always a DJ or live music, and during SXSW, there is free music every night, no wristband required. It's located in an old house, and has a shaded porch and garden furnished with mismatched cast-off metal furniture and Venus-de-Milo'd garden statuary. There are twinkly lights and DJs at night, and a wide assortment of hipsters, Bali-Shag-smokin' bearded intellectuals, over-35 locals, and just plain oddballs. Their iced toddy coffee is cold brewed like Lionel's song--All Night Long, so watch out--if you haven't had caffeine in a couple of days, it will Kick. Your. Ass.

Thai Kitchen – 3009 Guadalupe, 78705:
Delicious Thai food at reasonable prices; available to eat in or take away.

Guero's 1412 S. Congress Ave., 78704:
I personally think their margaritas are kind of bitter (spend a bit more for top shelf, mos' def'), but the SoCo address is great for people-watching, and there is free live music during SXSW. Oh, and it was a location for the Tarantino/Rodriguez “Grindhouse” movie.

East of South Congress at 614 E. Oltorf is Curra's, which not only has Tex-Mex, but an especially tasty menu of interior Mexican dishes such as Cochinita Pibil, from Yucatan. Try the avocado margarita, which is thick, but super-yum.

Speaking of “Grindhouse,” the Texas Chili Parlor at 14th and Lavaca was also a major location, and is also a fave hangout of legislators, downtown workers, as well as grizzled aging-hippie Austinites.

Cisco's, which is over on the East side, at E. 6th and Chicon (1511 E 6th St.), is one of those insiders' spots, and is a long-time hangout of Texas pols, movers, and shakers, including LBJ, Ann Richards, Bob Bullock, and the like. More lively when the lege is in session, but always popular with locals. Last time I was there, I saw golfer Ben Crenshaw. Decorated with 40+ years of memorabilia and testimonials to Rudy Cisneros, the late founder, namesake, and cantankerous ol' guy who harassed and insulted everyone equally, no matter how famous or powerful. If you've never had migas, a Mexican breakfast item, try them here.

Another great Eastside place for the El Cheapo Breakfast is Juan in a Million, way east at 2300 Cesar Chavez, rockin' the '02 zip code. If you're on a budget, or are nursing a hangover from too many tequila shots, the "Don Juan Taco" is a mountain of potato, egg, bacon, and cheese which will fill you right up. Order a couple of extra tortillas, because you'll need 'em.

Central East on Manor Rd. (pronounced "MAY-nor," BTW) is El Chile, which has high-quality Mexican food and really great drinks, including prickly pear margaritas, and micheladas, or giant chile-rimmed schooners of Mexican beer mixed with lime juice. Forget that Miller Chill mess. This is the real deal. The owners/chefs are alumni of Jeffrey's, the city's premier fine dining estab., so the food is more authentic and a big cut above the usual Tex-Mex. Oh, and did I mention that the table salsa is this smoky tomato-y wonder that you will want to keep on scooping it up until you explode like the fat guy in "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life." Don't say I didn't warn you. They're selling jars of this salsa now, and trust me, you'll want to buy some to keep with you for those late nights with nothing to eat but bags of leftover tortilla chips. Also in a new location: 1025 Barton Springs Rd.

Just a block farther east at 2219 Manor is El Chilito, a taco/burrito/coffee stand that's the quick-n-tasty little sibling of El Chile. The food is good, cheap, and authentic, and is also a great place to spot bed-headed hipsters, musicians, film people, and slackers who are getting their caffeine and capsicum fix. They even serve beer and sangria along with the kick-ass coffee, in case you're wanting to nibble both sides of the mushroom.

The Sixth Street district tends to be more focused on places where barely-legal drinkers wearing cheap, trendy clothes and too much makeup can get real drunk real quick, although there are exceptions to the venues and the clientele. The police block off a big section of the street for SXSW and on weekends, and it can be entertaining watching the under-25s stagger down the street propped up on the shoulders of their friends. For about five minutes. Shakespeare's has been there for ever, and has a decent beer selection. Casino El Camino is a popular alternative hangout with big-ass burgers for your late-night cravings. The best food on Sixth, in my opinion, is the pizza tattooed wildmen sell out of a window on the north side of the street, while death metal blares out of the kitchen.

If you're in Austin for SXSW, you'll probably end up at Emo's punk club sooner or later. Outside of South By madness, the venue still has cool bands like Gogol Bordello, and a wide cross-section of patrons. The coolest thing on Sixth is the newly relocated Alamo Drafthouse Theatre at the Ritz, where you can eat and drink real food, wine and beer while you watch your movie, which is always preceded by well-researched movie-specific vintage trailers, commercials and other features. Also, the projectionists know what they're doing, so the film is always perfectly framed and in focus and bright. No cheaping out by turning down the bulb brightness here. There are several locations of the Drafthouse, on South Lamar, and in the Village shopping center on Anderson, but be sure to go to one of them while you're in Austin. Tarantino talked about this kinda theatre in "Pulp Fiction," he thanks owners Tim and Karrie League in his "Kill Bill" end credits, and it's a fave hangout when he's in town.

I have to put in a plug for the Austin improv scene, since I took improv classes for a year. Coldtowne Theatre is over on Airport, and features a lot of refugees from the wreckage of the NOLA improv scene. The Hideout coffeehouse and bar at 617 Congress is a great place to watch improv; the Friday and Saturday-night shows are always good, although the theatre is dark during SXSW this year.

Farther west on Sixth is another newish group of bars, including the Belmont, which has a clubby, Rat-Pack decor, serves food until late, and usually some kind of live jazz inside. Outside is nice on warmer nights. Mother Egan's Irish Pub has trivia on Tuesday nights, and a good selection of beer. Opal Divine's has food and a great beer and single-malt scotch selection. Katz's does have NY-style Jewish deli food, but it's always been at NY prices, too. Marc Katz ran for mayor a few years back. Eddie V's is kind of expensive, but they do have good seafood.

The Fourth Street/Colorado district, including Cedar Street, Fadó, Péché (a new absinthe bar) (Málaga, the tapas bar that was next to Cedar Street has moved to 440 West 2nd Street) and Saba, has been around for 12-15 years now, and is more upscale and popular with slightly older partiers. 219 West has these nifty little appetizers, including mini-burgers which are cheap and filling. They are also one of the few bars to serve real mint juleps.

In the new 'hood around the expanded convention center are some bleah chain restaurants like P.F. Chang's, but also a thrice-relocated Old Austin standby like the Cedar Door, which claims it invented the Mexican Martini. Nice to sit outside on a warm day. Around the corner, past the Convention Center and next to some of the oldest houses in Austin is Moonshine, at 303 Red River, which is open during the week and has a good happy hour with yummy corndog shrimp thingies on skewers, but most importantly, has a fabulous Sunday brunch buffet with migas, steak fingers, fluffy biscuits, and these green chile cheese grits that are to sell your grandma for.

Wheatsville Co-Op – 3101 Guadalupe, 78705:
Newly renovated and expanded, this super-granola grocery store is on Guadalupe just north of 30th, and has organic food, including fresh dairy, fruits, vegetables, and coffee, and a deli with prepared food. Open until 11 p.m. A little history: Wheatsville was the name of the freed slaves colony that used to be on the other side of Guadalupe.

Central Market – 4001 N. Lamar, 78756:
The original location of HEB’s gourmet market opened here in the mid-90s, and has a wide selection of superb fresh produce and artisan bread, cheese, and prepared food, as well as an excellent beer and wine selection. The café has free WiFi and serves breakfast and lunch/dinner until closing at 9 p.m. Live bands daily.

HEB Hancock Center – 1000 E 41st St., 78751
HEB S. Congress –  2400 S. Congress, 78704
Convenient locations of the big, reasonably-priced grocery store are at 41st St. and I-35 in the Hancock Shopping Center, and at S. Congress and Oltorf, in case you’re stocking up on soda and snacks for the week, or the road trip home.

Whole Foods Market – 525 N. Lamar Blvd., 78703
The building, which also houses the corporate offices, takes up an entire city block at the southeast corner of 6th and Lamar. The flagship in the WFM empire, the store’s 80,000 square feet contain a dizzying array of minibistros serving all kinds of prepared and made-to-order food, including pizza, sushi, pasta, barbecue, fish, soup, and salad, and a walk-in beer cooler. You can buy a bottle of wine or beer in the store at retail price and drink it with your meal at one of the in-store restaurants. Kind of the eighth wonder of the world, it’s worth a quick stop just to check it out and wonder at its sheer size. The original WFM used to be down the street in what is now the Cheapo Discs building on Lamar.

Waterloo Records – 600A N Lamar Blvd, 78703; 512-474-2500:
On the northwest corner of 6th and Lamar, Waterloo is an independent store, and a great place to check out free in-store live shows, usually with free beer, stock up on local music, buy gear, such as Daniel Johnston’s iconic T-shirt designs, and get tickets for touring shows. Great used CD selection.

Cheapo Discs – 914 N. Lamar Blvd., 78703; 512-477-4499
At Whole Foods Market’s original Austin location, this has a great selection of new and used CDs.

The entire South Congress district south of the river is teeming with cool shops and restaurants. One of my favorite places is Parts and Labour, at 1604 S. Congress, where you can find Will Heron and other local artists’ clever T-shirts (Baracoli, anyone?) and lots of one-of-a-kind but reasonably-priced jewelry and accessories. (Attention gift shoppers!) Jo’s Coffee has live music, and is a de rigeur stopoff.

Lyndon Baines Johnson Library (at UT)
Without LBJ, President Obama would never have been possible. Free admission (a donation is only suggested) and there’s often an excellent actor playing LBJ who answers questions about the Texas icon.

Harry Ransom Center (at UT)
Houses both art and the papers of many of the world’s most eminent writers, actors, musicians, and artists, with rotating exhibits.

The Blanton Museum (200 E. MLK Blvd., south end of UT campus)
A brand-new building with attached café has rotating displays spanning the history of art since the Renaissance.

March 4, 2010

Oscar Party 2010

It's hard to believe that this is my 13th annual Oscar Party. I will miss all my Austin friends, but am carrying on the big-screen tradition in Dallas. Featured drink this year: the Avatar.

Avatar Cocktail:
2 oz. Tropical Pucker schnapps
1 1/2 oz. vanilla vodka
Lemon-lime soda
Lemon sour egg

Add schnapps and vodka to ice-filled highball glass.
Fill with lemon-lime soda.
Garnish with Na'vi eyeball.

Oel ngati näkeie
(I drink you)

August 6, 2009

Changes at KUT

A friend of mine recently sent an email about a gathering to protest changes in the KUT radio schedule, which includes reducing the hours of several long-time DJs, including Larry Monroe, Paul Ray, and Jay Trachtenberg, and using a syndicated show during overnight hours. I responded to him, and posted a comment on the Austin American-Statesman website as follows:

I've been listening to and supporting KUT since I moved here 17 years ago. I just got an email from KUT (which they should have sent earlier, it's true) explaining the reasons for the recent changes. They are financial and listener based.

"...listenership to our weeknight music programs has been flat for 10 years while the station’s total listenership has more than doubled. The programming that we ended, along with canceling an online podcast, will save KUT more than $120,000 a year—money that needs to be invested where more listeners can benefit."

KUT is changing the weeknight shows because not enough people were listening. Radio is not a static entity, and it's not like that comforting old paperback novel that you turn to every couple of years when you can't sleep. Without listeners, radio dies, and however great Larry's, Paul's and Jay's shows were, people took them for granted and quit listening, and new listeners didn't take their place.

The percentage of KUT listeners who are members (i.e., they give at least $40) is shockingly low, although as they have gained listeners, NPR has charged them more for news and other programs. People who give money and fill out the membership surveys affect the programming. Folks who are really interested in keeping certain shows on the air, and not just preserving the status quo for its own sake, should give, write management, and get involved. Listeners aren't contributing enough to pay for programming, so KUT is increasingly turning to corporate support to run the station.

While I like a lot of things about all the old shows, having the same three or four baby-boomer men dominating all the station's music programming for thirty or forty years is pretty monolithic and doesn't allow for new or different points of view. It's a good idea to start finding newer DJs that can carry on the best of the KUT tradition but also bring a fresh sensibility. We all have our memories of the perfect summer, but I don't expect to find a local radio station that will pretend that it's 1985 for the next 30 years, and the aging hippies can't expect to have Armadillo HQ redux forever, either. Things do change, and because they do, we can look back with fondness. The provincial, small-town, Austin-is-better-because-it-never-changes attitude gets tiresome.

I love that "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" was added to the schedule, and I try to listen every week. I don't begrudge anyone who just loves folk music, but I can't say I'm a big fan of "Folkways" or the fact that it takes up such a big chunk of Saturday.

However, I have enjoyed John Aielli's Eklektikos show, and I don't know how anyone thinks he's a moron--if anything, he's almost too didactic and well-informed for radio. Back when he used to do theme days, every day, I marveled at how he could come up with so many different ideas for tying the morning together. Sometimes I have caught him in a good mood and sometimes he's cranky as hell, but overall, I've heard a lot of great music and obscure album tracks I wouldn't have known about otherwise: Fountains of Wayne's "Bright Future in Sales," for example! While I did sometimes get tired of hearing umpteen versions of one song, it's too bad that his playlist has become so homogeneous. All those free-association riffs took listeners on quite a thrilling ride.

KUT, thanks for the memories.

August 1, 2009

Is the Fire Department a Socialist Organization?

Everyone who thinks that all American entities should make a profit, remember this: before we had our current "socialized" police and fire departments, these functions were performed for profit by gangs of street thugs who demanded payment before responding to a crime in progress or dousing a fire. In case of fire, if you hadn't paid off a particular gang or didn't pony up the cash, your home or business would burn, frequently taking the whole block with it. Whichever gang arrived first supposedly got dibs on fighting the fire (and getting the payment), but often several gangs would arrive simultaneously and battle over who was going to get paid. Meanwhile, the fire would burn out of control. This was a major factor in the 1837 conflagration which consumed Manhattan's entire downtown business district, including the merchant exchange and the post office. Some of you may recall this state of things from Martin Scorsese's film "Gangs of New York," about the Five Points neighborhood in the period surrounding the Civil War. There were numerous historical inaccuracies, including the conflation of the Draft Riots and other gang uprisings, but the general lawlessness and misery were not exaggerated.

This is sort of what happens with health care these days, only it's the insurance companies who are fighting not to pay for your care, and they don't have colorful names like the "Dead Rabbits," but soothing marketingese names like "Humana," when they should be called "Inhumana." While you and they fight over who's going to pay your doctor bills, you might get sicker and die before you can sue, or you might give up because you're too sick and tired to fight, or you might just pay up. All of these outcomes benefit the insurance company, which then doesn't have to pay. And now that they've got you on record as having an illness, they can refuse future claims or insist that these must "count towards a deductible," which is always, always the default position on a major claim.

In my experience, I have never had an insurance company cover everything it said it would, including basic care items such as mammograms (deductible), routine annual labs such as pap smears (deductible), ER visits (deductible), and even hearing tests (outright refusal). They always manage to weasel out of paying and threaten my credit history if I don't pay.

The ACL reconstruction surgery I had 15 years ago was preapproved and precertified, and I used an in-network orthopedic surgeon. In return for this, 100% of my costs were supposed to be covered after my co-pays. Instead, I got nasty letters on red paper for five years afterward, telling me that I owed more than $2,000, and threatening my credit rating. At one point, I lost a temp job because I went over my lunch break by two minutes while trying to sort out this problem for the umpteenth time.

Even though I used an in-network doctor and hospital, the insurance refused to pay for the pathologist because they claimed he was "out of network." The pathologist examines the bits that are excised and affirms that the right parts were cut, although if the surgeon has gotten it wrong, it's too late to rectify the situation. I didn't even know a pathologist was necessary until I got the bill; I certainly had no say in who he was, since I was under anesthesia at the time, so how would I have protested? I wondered if I were really supposed to rise up off the operating table in a morphine-induced stupor and ask, "Etthhkyoothe meh. Ith thath an in-nehwuk fpthologst?"

July 27, 2009

Otty Sanchez Sounds Like Andrea Yates All Over Again

There's a tragic story this week about a San Antonio woman who has allegedly killed and mutilated her own baby. If you have a weak stomach, you might want to skip the next paragraph.

Even though Otty Sanchez had been in and out of a mental hospital, she was caring for her three-and-a-half-week-old son and her sister's two children Sunday morning when she "'used a dismember the child, and ate parts of his body, including his brain, before stabbing herself in the torso and slicing her own throat,' police said Monday." She survived her suicide attempt, and is now in the hospital recovering, charged with capital murder and held on $1 million bond. Police also claimed Sanchez said that the "devil told her to kill her son and that she was hearing voices."

Thankfully, such horrendous incidents are rare, but it sounds a lot like the case of Andrea Yates, the Houston woman who drowned her five children in her bathtub in 2001. I read quite a bit about that case, and it was pretty clear from her history of postpartum psychosis that she should not have had more children after her first psychotic episode, much less have been left alone with her children for any period of time. I would say that Yates' behavior was the very definition of insanity--voices were telling her that Satan was inside of her, and she felt her children would go to hell if she didn't kill them--twisted logic, to be sure, but not anything that a stay in prison would change.

Sanchez' mental condition wasn't specified in the intial reports, although it sounds a lot like schizophrenia and/or postpartum psychosis. Unfortunately, most people are still extremely ignorant about mental illness and somehow imagine that people with sick minds can control their harmful impulses or turn off the voices in their heads. It's kind of like expecting a man with broken legs to stand upright. I don't know what it will take to convince people that this isn't possible without medication and treatment. Although in real life, the hallucinations are auditory, not visual, at least "A Beautiful Mind" tried to portray what it's like to be schizophrenic.

The comments posted below the Stateman's story were of the usual "no trial, just fry her" variety, which prompted me also to comment.

The key portions of this story are "Police said Sanchez told them the devil told her to kill her son and that she was hearing voices" and "Sanchez's aunt, Gloria Sanchez, said her niece had been 'in and out' of a psychiatric ward."

Why is a woman who is seriously mentally ill allowed to care for children? Like in the Yates case, the fault lies with the other adults who let this happen. It's like letting a blind man drive a car. She is obviously "sick," as Hook'em98 says, and needs help, not punishment. Her extreme psychosis and its tragic results are punishment enough. Do you think it's any picnic being schizophrenic and hearing voices telling you to do horrible things and then feeling compelled to do them? I can't imagine a hell worse than that. When will people realize that no one signs up for mental illness?

July 14, 2009

Whatever Happened to Civility?

I'm a longtime fan of Roger Ebert's writing, and not only do I enjoy reading his movie reviews, both before and after seeing a film, I also find his blog to be both enjoyable and thought provoking. A recent post, entitled "I Am a Brainiac," deplored the anti-intellectual climate in this country, and the harsh reaction to his panning the new "Transformers" movie. I was moved to comment on his post, and was pleased that he in turn commented on my comment.

I think there are a huge number of people who never bother to consider anything on an individual basis, but merely apply the same sort of knee-jerk approval or dismissal that their parents did--whether it's movies or art, politics or religion. Everything and everyone--respected critics and quote whores alike--gets painted with the same broad brush, and nothing is worthy of a moment's analysis or consideration. Marketing campaigns are swallowed whole. There is no debate, just ad hominem attacks or the loud yelling of some trite comment or slogan--Critic! Liberal! Tree-hugger! Elitist! Socialist!--and trying to drown out the other person. This is a bullies' all-or-nothing, kill-or-be-killed mentality.

To address Chris' comment above, I think most boys are hard wired to like conflict and explosions and fighting more than most girls--but some people, both male and female, appreciate subtlety and nuance, and see the journey as more important than the destination. I don't think that movies that pander merely to our basest instincts can ever be worthwhile art, whether those instincts are bellicose or sexual. Most pornographic movies are laughable as narratives, because they dispense with all attempts at realism or suspense in their headlong (ahem) rush to "get to the good stuff." Movies that don't have any believable characters or plot, but just hurtle headlong into explosions and car chases are equivalent--they're action porn. Unfortunately, I have met men who prefer porno highlight reels to "A Room With a View," and for them, perhaps a movie like Transformers, that makes no sense but is the equivalent of an explosion highlight reel, is just the ticket. Give me "Michael Clayton" any day--it earns its explosion.

Ebert: Porno makes the fatal error of rushing toward and dwelling upon the least visually interesting elements of sex: The rumpy-pumpy and the "money shot." These are the exterior manifestations of events that have their importance in what takes place in the mind. If there were were seduction and foreplay...but the actors don't even kiss. I find it inutterably depressing that people who are flailing at each other's genitals don't even like each other enough to kiss.

I agree with Mr. Ebert. Kissing is the best part. Gotham Chopra said in a recent interview that Michael Jackson called him before marrying Lisa-Marie Presley, and asked for advice on how to please her. The answer? "Foreplay."