You can’t go to Texas without buying cowboy boots. Well at least one of us can’t. We’d just scored the perfect pair — cherry red boots with broncos bucking down the shins — when we heard a twangy version of Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue” coming from South Congress Avenue.
It was James Anthony Johnson, whose cowboy hat and guitar picking matched his twang. He’s been singing the blues on South Congress for 15 years and he’s watched the neighborhood change. “Used to be, it was full of transvestites, prostitutes, and transsexuals …and politicians cruising to find them,” he said.
Nowadays it’s full of retro shops where you can buy the ugly clothes we wore in the ‘60s; folk-art stores with the obligatory Day of the Dead skeletons and turquoise squash blossoms; shoe shops where the half the proceeds go to Haitian children; and high-end booteries where you can easily drop $2,000. And that’s just on one block.
South Congress is the trendy section of Austin’s main drag, 10 blocks from the state capitol and just across the famed “Bat Bridge” over the Colorado River. From March through October, 1.5 million bats — the largest bat colony in North America — roost in the crevices underneath the bridge. And every evening crowds gather to watch the clouds of bats fly off for dinner. While we missed the bats, who were keeping warm in Mexico, there was still plenty of entertainment on the south side of the river: Pin-striped suits in the rear-view mirror, blue jeans, ironic beards and tattoos dead ahead.
City marketeers have been trying to re-brand this seven-block area, “SoCo,” a nod to New York’s SoHo, that locals find amusing at best. “No one but tourists and PR people call it that,” we were told repeatedly. The trendiness has spilled one block west to the edgier First Street, with funkier stores like the vegan grocery called “Rabbit Food.”
We wandered both streets for a couple of days, shopping, eating and just getting a taste of urban Texas hip. Just like you can’t go to Texas without buying cowboy boots, you can’t go to South Congress without eating a Hopdoddy burger and their killer truffle fries. Here’s where it pays to be old. Eating dinner at 5:30 is now normal, which is good at Hopdoddy because when the hipsters eat, the line stretches out the door and into the parking lot.
When we walked in, the average age skyrocketed. The wait staff wore T-shirts saying, “Hopdizzle fo’ sizzle” and “We spank our patties and they like it.” In the first 10 minutes we counted 10 ironic lumber-sexual beards (think Luden Brothers cough drops). “Beardos,” our waiter said, who was sporting the fullest one of the bunch. The burgers — of course made from humanely raised cows never fed antibiotics or growth hormones — were delicious. The truffle fries and aoili dipping sauce — scrumptious. But the real magic: the Nutella Pretzel Milk Shake. That alone is worth a trip to Austin.
While the South Congress area has its share of fancy restaurants, we zeroed in on the food trucks where we found everything from cupcakes to ravioli to fried chicken to dal. But we were in Texas so we went straight for the elevated tacos at Torchy’s in a food court of sorts on First Street. The complicated fried oyster taco and green chili pork taco were so good we headed back there for our final Texas meal, two breakfast tacos with brisket, eggs, potatoes, avocados and surprising sauces.
South Congress has a handful of stores that have survived its raunchier days. Folk-art gallery “Mi Casa” has been there for 20 years. Owner Jim Luedeke pointed to the far wall covered with religious paintings and said, “The working girls used to live right above there.” The antique/junque store Uncommon Objects, where you can buy everything from used horse shoes for $4 to a millinery store head for $398, has been there 25 years. Allens Boots, where we scored our boots has been there 38 years. And The Countinental Club, where we listened to a rockabilly singer, has been there for 58 years.
Our favorite place, Lucy in Disguise With Diamonds, started 31 years ago as a vintage clothing store and morphed into an enormous costume emporium. Asked why Austin needs 8,000-square-feet of wigs, masks, feather boas, makeup kits, and costumes, employee Walter Young said, matter-of-factly, “People will dress up and just go downtown all year round. We dress them up for lots of crazy things.” Like, 26-year-old Maxim Pozderac, who was hosting a Star Wars Christmas party, and trying on a Chewbacca costume.
South Congress likes to dress up, too. The blocks are daubed with cute neon signs, painted storefronts, mosaics, and tricked-out food trucks. And on the corner of James and Congress, is the area’s most famous graffiti, the spray-painted message — red-letters-on-green wall – “i love you so much.” Talk about a Kodak Moment.
We came to Austin right before the holidays – the decorations outside Doc’s Bar and Grill included cacti wrapped with Christmas lights – and every store piped in Christmas music or country music or country-Christmas music. “Silent Night” meets “Boot Scoot Boogie.”
Speaking of boots, we can’t end this postcard without telling you about Jeff Blaylock, who started making boots 25 years ago after getting bashed up one too many times as a bull-rider. He was showing us around Texas Custom Boots over on First Street where he works. The conversation turned toward riding when he dropped these wise words about work and pleasure: “I ain’t got no business riding a horse,” he said. “A horse is a tool not a pet. It’s like a truck driver going out for a Sunday drive in a truck. But if a pretty girl wants to come around for a ride, I’ll get on a horse. I’m a sucker for the pretty girls.”
And we’re a sucker for cowboy boots and South Congress.
John and Jody