The murals and art around (a small sampling of) Texas

This fucking 3d mural, you guys. I drove to San Antonio to see it, among other things, including a shop where you could buy tacos AND donuts from the drive-through, because of course that’s a place I would go. The 3d mural, Vision del Futuro, has its own permanent 3d glasses to view it, so naturally a helpful soul broke out both lenses. I suspected that might be the case beforehand, so I packed an old pair of 3D glasses from Halloween Horror Nights…and those only sort of worked. It was at this point that I realized I didn’t have my phone after frantically checking all of my pockets and every compartment of my purse. I then spotted it on the ground behind my rental car and dashed over: the screen was shattered and it seemed like it might have been run over by a car. Sigh. I suppose if it was going to happen, it’s better that it happened while Jason was there with his phone because otherwise I would have been alone and lost in an unfamiliar city. As it was, that was the end of the day I had planned and instead it became a tour of the endless strip mall that is San Antonio, first visiting my cell carrier’s store and not finding the phone I had intended to buy, and then visiting an electronics store only to find that they only sell the phone I wanted for other carriers because while you may be familiar with Murphy’s Law, Melissa’s Addendum states that not only will everything go wrong, but it needs to be the biggest, most expensive pain in the ass possible. I really did not want to buy a $600+ new phone that’s a runner up to the one I actually wanted, so I needed to find some other option. Eventually I found myself at San Antonio’s UBreakIFix, and while they didn’t have the screen for my (admittedly a couple generations old) phone, they called every other UBreakIFix in the greater San Antonio/Austin area and found ONE shop in the Austin area that had one. I begged them to hold it and told them I’d be there when the doors opened the next morning. It only took the better portion of the day and that’s why there’s practically no San Antonio to show for my efforts. 

This piece was made to draw attention to the critically endangered Houston toad, of which there is estimated only 3,000-4,000 remain in the total population worldwide.

This was near the churro food truck that I tried to visit three times that was always closed. I think it would take less effort to start my OWN churro food truck than actually catch this place open.

I don’t know what kind of armadillo centipede you’re trying to create here, sky prince, but I’m not here for it and I don’t think the people of Texas will stand for it.

No.

Art for the People is a cool gallery with a surprising amount of art packed inside at all price points.

The Pit Room in Houston, TX

We made a cardinal error attempting to go to The Pit Room in Houston for the first time in the evening–they were sold out of everything except sausages and chopped pork, because that’s what happens at BBQ restaurants: you have to arrive early enough in the day to get what you want before it sells out or you get the dregs of everyone’s last choices. So we went to Jinya Ramen for dinner and resolved to be back first thing in the morning for some world class barbeque. 

I am not even kidding: we were the first people through the door in the morning and though there was not a line, there should have been, because this was the best barbeque I’ve ever eaten in my life. We ordered a beef rib, pork ribs, brisket, elote, and mac & cheese. Of them all, the mac and cheese was the weakest component, coming off as rather bland. Everything else was the best in its class, so delicious that at one point it felt like my soul left my body because there was no room for it in there with all of that BBQ based joy I was feeling from head to toe. 

The beef rib alone was a cool $30, and it was enormous, like something Fred Flintstone would eat, a slab of meat baaaaaaaarely attached to a prehistoric bone, heavily crusted with a beautiful bark. It was so meltingly tender that you could just pull bites off with a fork, and it was rich and juicy with a peppery bite. The brisket was incredibly tender and flavorful, and the pork ribs were perfection: toothy but tender, not so soft that they fell off the bone immediately, but pulled clean with a light amount of pressure. None of the meats needed any of the provided cups of tangy BBQ sauce, but it was a delicious extra.

Also perfect were the elote: charred streetcorn, served in a cup* and fully dressed with mayo, cojita, cilantro, and chile powder. The heat of the corn melts the mayo, softens the cheese, and turns into a smoky, crunchy, creamy delight with a bit of brightness. 

And then there was the pickle bar. The Pit Room is the first BBQ restaurant I’ve visited to have a full complimentary pickle bar, stocked with all kinds of pickled veg and salsas with varying levels of heat. These briny, tangy, spicy bites made all the difference, because the acids cleanse the palate of the meat’s richness which makes every bite of barbequed meat like the first, best bite. 

We laid waste to that tray, friends. They have an entire selection of desserts at The Pit Room that I had no room in my pit for, but I wouldn’t have done anything differently. After I got home, I sent The Pit Room an email begging for their elote recipe, but no dice. It’s fine, in the intervening time I’ve learned to make a pretty solid elote myself. Now all I need to do is learn to smoke a perfect beef rib and I’ll never have to go to Houston again.

 

 

 

*My understanding is that they are esquites when served in a cup, not elote, but I’m calling ’em by the name on the menu.

Buc-ee’s, a friend to all travelers in need

It’s hard out there on the roads in Texas. Their highways are bigger, faster, and more complicated. You’ve got to watch out for flash floods and there are yellow warning road signs for churches so I guess you have to watch out for those, too. I still have minor PTSD thinking about my drives through Houston with its ten lane highways all swirling about one another with left and right unmarked exits and oh shit I need to cross six lanes right now. Lanes in general in Texas seem to be…more like suggestions. Same deal with speed limits and apparently driving while drunk, as it seemed like every stretch of road I traveled featured a sign with “drive sober or get pulled over” or “plan while you can.” I had a lot of time on these roads to think about these rhyme-based slogans and I’ve come up with some snappier ones that the state of Texas is welcome to use, free of charge:

  • share the road, you greedy toad
  • cut the chatter or get splattered
  • to these words pay heed: don’t you dare fucking speed
  • don’t make the highway a dieway
  • E.T. Leave your phone alone
  • when you drive like trash, don’t be surprised when you crash
  • drive drunk and johnny law will punch you in the junk

Sure, some are more usable than others due to potential copyright infringement issues but that’s for the courts to decide. I hereby absolve myself of all legal or financial responsibility should the state of Texas use any of these as their new road slogans. 

The point is, the night is dark and full of terrors on Texas highways something something chainsaw massacre and from that darkness emerges a friendly face on a yellow sign. Buc-ee Beaver ready to welcome you at all hours to his obscenely large convenience store, one of which is the largest convenience store in the world. 

THE LARGEST CONVENIENCE STORE IN THE WORLD. The world’s largest convenience store, featuring:

A size so immense it continues almost to the vanishing point!

Its own BBQ restaurant inside!

An almost shocking amount of Buc-ee brand souvenirs. “This is the magnet I bought to remember the time mom ate those bad tacos and we needed to pull over.” 

A straight-up ridiculous amount of Buc-ee brand preserves, candy, and baked goods, and charcuterie!

A coffee bar that has everything and you can make a gallon size coffee if you want. Plus walls and walls of drink and other food options. 

In case you didn’t realize just how large this flask truly is from the previous photo. This is the flask of a cave troll or a dedicated alcoholic.

A whole section of explicitly “Texas-y” merchandise–lots of leather and hide, flashy silver bits, big hats, gun rhetoric. My favorite thing made out of cowhide was definitely the coasters made to look like miniature cowhides. Are cowhides even good coaster material? Who cares!  I myself bought the flashiest, rhinestoniest belt with a fist sized buckle from a Buc-ees, and when I wear it, I look like a lumpy disco ball. It’s glorious.

PLUS this place has the greatest bathrooms. THE GREATEST. Tons of stalls. They’re huge and private. Hand sanitizer in each stall. Plus tons of sinks and mirror space and it’s cleaned constantly throughout the day. It’s the complete opposite of every gas station bathroom horror story you’ve ever heard, and it is a blessing to anyone who has ever spent three plus hours in a car and still aren’t at their destination. 

Oh yeah, and one station I visited had the world’s largest carwash, too, so now all I need for Buc-ee Bingo is the world’s largest  gas pump, which I have to assume is out there somewhere. I’ll keep an eye out for it the next time I’m in Texas: don’t let me down, buddy.

 

Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, TX

One hundred and forty four people live in Driftwood, Texas. At any given moment, visitors to Driftwood’s Salt Lick BBQ outnumber the residents: cash in hand, waiting in line for their turn for pork, bison, and beef ribs basted with their signature pecan sauce, their tender brisket, coleslaw flecked with mustard, thick slices soft white bread with a generous sifting of sesame seeds on top, and slabs of pie and warm cobbler, nestled with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. On the weekends, there’s a bonus menu with items not on offer during the week with a down-home comfort food feel, like scalloped potatoes and green bean casserole. On our BBQ tour of Texas, Salt Lick was Jason’s favorite–he really dug the bison ribs and he’s also a big fan of the pecan sauce, so much so that we ordered some to try in tandem with our new smoker. Now to find a bison rib supplier…

Photo post: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX

Jumping spider? Maybe? 

The famous Texas Bluebonnet was juuuuust coming into bloom on my visit. I particularly like the way its fuzzy leaves appear to be softly highlighted in chalk.

What is this!?!

Looks like a Texas spiny lizard to me! Someone or something startled it and I heard its rustling through the leaf litter and looked until I found it. 

Cecropia moth

 

VIA 313 and Steel City Pops in Austin, TX

I visited these places one right after another and I’m not even going to pretend like I didn’t. Via313 was recommended to me as an Austin must-try, and I kind of love that an Austin must-try is Detroit-style pizza. What is Detroit-style pizza? It’s a soft, tender thick crust baked in a rectangular pan for crispy edges all the way around, and the only sauce is a thick swipe of red down the center of each piece. Cheese and toppings are generous because the more substantial crust can hold it. It doesn’t reach the casserole-y levels of a Chicago deep dish but it’s a thick bite. I ordered “the detroiter” which added a layer of smoked pepperoni under the cheese and still more pepperoni on top. All that generosity makes for a heavy pizza, however, and my appetite tapped out after one piece. But leftovers are a good thing–of course, it’s pizza!

I visited Steel City Pops for the first time after eating at Via313, but over the course of my two weeks in Texas, I went back several times. If you’re a new customer at Steel City, they give you a popsicle stick to redeem for a free pop on your second visit, but even if I hadn’t gotten a free pop, I still would have gone back. And then Jason joined me on the trip and I had to take him. These fresh popsicles are perfectly balanced icy treats. The cucumber lime pop was super refreshing with a good balance of flavor, not too vegetal, not too tart. The lavender in the lavender lemonade pop was subtle but I’d rather that floral flavors be subtle than bold anyway. And their patio is a great place to hang with a book and watch cute dogs walking by.

Tyson’s Tacos in Austin, TX

Still not 100% on what a kiss blown is. A kissairconditionerasted?

clockwise from upper left: burnt ends, al pastor, crispy duck, tasty basterd

Tyson’s Tacos is a charming restaurant with an inventive menu, though none of those things are what brought me here. I was lured to this establishment by two rumors: first, that there’s a ukulele at the ordering counter and in case anyone would like to sing for their supper, Tyson’s is willing to make that trade, at a going rate of one song per taco. The second rumor was that of a gold toilet in their restroom. I stalked my way all the way around this building and the only toilet I found was tragically white.

The ukulele, however, does exist, though the kind of off-key error-riddled song I could play on a uke would only be worthy of the saddest taco, the lonely little scamp trying to run away from home and make a new life in the dumpster. And I didn’t want a sad taco, I wanted a robust taco. Four of them. Al pastor, burnt ends, tasty basterd, and crispy duck, specifically. Plus a horchata, like the two kinds of agua fresca they had available gratis wasn’t good enough. 

The decor at Tyson’s is eclectic, with chippendale chairs next to chunky blonde wood chairs with carved in butt grooves and neon rainbow spatters dot the black ceiling. Rainbow dots among other things–birds come right inside and conduct their business. In addition to the type of business you already thought of, they also hop on the tables and chairs and scream at people for food.

They couldn’t have mine.  I did not love my al pastor taco, as I found it full of gristle. However, the tasty basterd, a surf & turf taco with shrimp, fajita steak, sriracha, and cheese surprisingly works. I mean, come on, it’s an unholy trinity: seafood and steak and cheese. Those very specific textures don’t tend to enter my mouth in tandem, but I was intrigued enough by the pure fortitude it took to invent this taco and then put it on a menu to order it and it really does work. By the end of it, I was a little creamied out, I think it ended up being too much of a good thing. I felt the same about the burnt ends taco. With onion rings, jalapenos, and valentina cream, it was delicious but I was done with it before it was finished. The last, the crispy duck, was a perfectly fine taco. I thought the crispiness of the duck and the fresh crunch of the cucumber was a wonderful pairing; I’m just not personally a huge fan of duck. I would’ve loved to see all these tacos in a smaller version so I could try more kinds of tacos, but that’s just greed talking. Greed and my failure to order five tacos so I could try the Prince taco. 

Spotted on the Roadside: Congress Bridge Bat Colony in Austin, TX

Before dusk, crowds start to gather on the Congress Avenue Bridge overlooking the Colorado River and the lawn in front of the Austin American-Statesman. On the day I visited, there were people holding up a giant white cross on the bridge itself, so I elected to go to the park instead. The park immediately felt like the right choice as I chatted with people and pet their dogs. Out on the river itself were a number of swan boats, canoes, kayaks, and even a party boat, all there to watch the bats. When I visited in March, it was early in the season, but still thousands of bats streamed out from the bridge, all hunting for dinner. Or is it breakfast? I bet they go to a diner so they don’t have to decide between eggs or a meatloaf sandwich. Over the course of the evening, as they become satiated, they’ll return back to their spot under the bridge as individuals. 

The truth is you do have to experience it to understand just how many bats live there, but I didn’t choose to post no bat photos to force you to go see it for yourself. I have no bat photos to post because every “bat photo” I took was an indistinguishable grey blur against a white background interspersed with like a thousand branches. These photos look like an x-ray of a nightmare. 

Footpath starts at 200 S Congress Ave in Austin, Texas.

Museum of the Weird in Austin, TX

In case it somehow isn’t 100% clear to you from the photos that I absolutely, positively loved Austin’s Museum of the Weird…I absolutely, positively loved it. The Museum of the Weird has every classic roadside attraction element:

  • A museum incorporating lots of sensational posters, travel ephemera, movie props, and taxidermy including at least one feejee mermaid
  •  An area with a larger legend surrounding it that you can look at but not photograph
  • Enter and exit via a gift shop

In addition, this museum has another museum built on top of the first one full of classic horror movie icons rendered in wax and your tour guide for the legendary part of the tour you can’t photograph is a man who claims to be a wizard and does a brief cold reading show. You heard me. A mother-flipping wizard. 

But first: The legendary Ice Man. The owner of this museum saw the Minnesota Ice Man as a child when it came around on tour in the 60s, which is not really the sort of tour you see going around anymore. Admittedly, I don’t browse ticket buying sites often but I still don’t think “dead guy in block of ice” has much of a chance if it’s in town the same dates as The Book of Mormon. Regardless, dead guy in a block of ice made a big impression on this child, and he began to collect weird items, like a mere glimpse of the ice man radicalized him to a gothic awakening. In 2013, that same Minnesota Iceman was listed for sale on eBay, and the only way I can explain as to why I didn’t know about this/bid on it was that I was going mildly insane with wedding planning at the time. Otherwise I never would’ve missed a chance to bid on something that had a feature on Unsolved Mysteries

On to the wizard: In the ice man room, the wizard put on a show. He had a man in the group picture a person in his mind while holding a crystal in his hand. He gave me another crystal and told me to vividly picture a place I found special or interesting, real or imaginary, somewhere I would want to go. I chose Egypt because I’m dying to go and have wanted to visit since I was a kid, so I suppose in a way Hatshepsut is my Minnesota Iceman. He had the man and myself write down who or what we were picturing, respectively, fold the paper twice, and hand them to someone else in the audience. She mixed them up until she didn’t know which was which, and then she handed them to someone else, who also shuffled them. Saul Ravencraft (the wizard) took one of the papers and burned it. There was then a whole thing about the man in the group’s person but since that part’s not about me and I don’t know how true or false any of his guesses general statements wizard oracles were, let’s skip to the part that’s about me.

…As I go through my notes, it’s clear to me how this particular wizardry worked but it’s delightful all the same, and if a visit to Egypt does indeed “inspire a very interesting creative work” I’ll be sure to quote the wizard on my book cover.