For Brits, and probably most Europeans, Texas is a curious mix. On the one hand there’s a certain familiarity to it, Dallas (the TV show), the Kennedy assassination, George Bush, cowboys…and on the other hand there are vast swathes of the biggest of America’s lower 48 states that we know nothing of. With that in mind we set off early from Oklahoma headed for the Lone Star State.
Drive in an almost perfectly straight line down from Oklahoma City and in about three hours you hit Dallas. Famous as the capital of the oil industry in the US, Dallas is also infamous as the place where JFK was assassinated. An obsession for conspiracy theorists the world over, its impossible not to be drawn to Dealey Plaza, gawping at the “X marks the spot” markings on the road just a stone’s throw from the Grassy Knoll. Behind that sits the Texas School Book Depository from where Lee Harvey Oswald fired his fateful shots (depending on your view of the conspiracies of course). The Depository is now a large museum with fascinating exhibits and historical records of the assassination. Dallas is in the course of trying to re-make itself as a tourist destination and when it does, the JFK museum will be a major focal point.
We didn’t have time to stay overnight in Dallas so it was onwards for us, further to the south and the state capital, Austin. The city is gaining in popularity in the UK as a haven for creative types, not least when the South by Southwest music and tech festival comes to town each year. It had been on our to-do list for a long time and you’ll be pleased to hear it did not disappoint.
We dumped our bags in the Austin Motel, a reasonably priced and comfortable hotel in an almost painfully cool part of town. It was just a short 15 minute walk to downtown Austin, but our first appointment was with a BBQ pit about a half hour drive in the other direction. We managed to out-run a particularly fearsome storm and made it to the Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, where the vast car park is an indication of how popular this place is. Fortunately we only had a half hour or so to wait before we got a table and boy oh boy this place is worth the wait. We both ordered a combo plate, opting for the brisket and smoked sausage. The brisket was soft and tender, as you’d expect from any self-respecting Texan BBQ joint, while the sausage was sweet and smokey. Believe us, from walking past the BBQ pit on your way in to chowing down on the picnic bench style seating, the Salt Lick is well worth the drive.
As ever we had a packed schedule for the next day so it was up with the larks again. We took a leisurely walk down Congress Avenue and headed straight for the Capitol. We didn’t take much persuading to join the free guided tour which lasted a fascinating hour and took in the State Senate and House, as well as the famous old rotunda.
It was a typically hot Texan day but undeterred we decided to head on foot over to the University of Texas campus, checking out the old clock tower and the cute turtles in one of the campus ponds. We couldn’t resist sneaking a peak at the ridiculously big Darrel K Royal stadium, home of the Texas Longhorns football team as well.
Just a short walk from there is the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library which is architecturally impressive from the outside and equally impressive on the inside too. We knew right from the start, where you encounter an animatronic Lyndon Johnson telling jokes that we’d love this place. It tells the story of a man who struck fear into the hearts of many a fellow politician as a Senator, and then worked to pass meaningful Civil Rights legislation as well. It also, surprisingly, doesn’t overlook the disastrous aspects of the Vietnam war.
We desperately wanted to sample some of Franklin’s BBQ for lunch, but the inevitable lengthy queues put us off so we opted for Stubbs BBQ instead where another couple of brisket sandwiches were duly demolished. We had grand plans for that afternoon but for the fact that we soon stumbled upon a brilliant bar – Frank’s – just off Congress Avenue. Frank’s is actually a hot dog joint, but has a cool bar attached and it was there that we drank away about $80 worth of beer, bourbon and an assortment of cocktails with a chatty barman named, weirdly, Austin.
Drunk as skunks by dusk, we stumbled back along Congress to the bridge to try and catch the famous bat exodus, but thanks to our over-indulgence we only saw the stragglers, two or three slow coach bats making a last minute dash. Technically we had seen the bats though…
We needed some dinner, stat, so we ambled back towards our hotel and Home Slice Pizza just across the road. After inhaling about eight big slices of delicious pizza we still weren’t done and had Amy’s Ice Cream in our sights. Having sampled offerings from San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Creamery and Molly Moon’s in Seattle Amy’s had high standards to live up to and their Belgian chocolate and Mexican vanilla scoops were pretty damn good. Having stocked up on food and still pleasantly drunk we stopped by the Continental Club to take in some live music (and yes, some more cocktails).
So we were maybe a little hungover on leaving Austin. Fortunately though we only had a short drive and our next stop was one we were both extremely excited about. The title “BBQ capital of Texas” must be hotly contested but Lockhart, just a half hour or so south of Austin, must surely lay the strongest claim. Home to institutions such as Smitty’s, Kreuz Market and Black’s, Lockhart had seemingly been calling us to visit for many a year. In the end, after much deliberation, we decided to opt for Black’s BBQ for our lunch stop. It’s hard to put in to words just how fun and tasty an experience Black’s was. We joined the line and ordered our brisket and sausage from the unassuming and cheery staff, but we couldn’t have been prepared for the taste sensation. The other BBQ we’d had up to that point had been delicious, but this was on another level. Such was the level of smoke in the sausage it was like eating a firework, and the brisket was just spectacular. If you’re ever within 250 miles of Lockhart, go there, you won’t regret it.
Reluctantly we had to get back on the road, San Antonio, our final stop on this leg of our American odyssey, needed our attention. We made a quick stop at the San Antonio Zoo to check out (the now sadly departed) Thelma and Louise – a tiny two headed turtle, before heading down town. Our hotel for the night, the Havana, was crazily cool, complete with Smeg fridges in the rooms and perfect decor throughout.
Just a ten minute walk from the hotel and you’re in downtown San Antonio. Of course you can’t come to San Antonio without checking out the Alamo – the site of a famous battle between Texan and American forces. It’s a little over-touristy as you might expect but its still a worthwhile stop. From there we took a leisurely walk along the beautiful River Walk which is, again, very touristy but also largely tasteful! After a final stop for some cocktails (including a giant margarita with an up-turned full bottle of beer in it) and Tex-Mex at Rita’s on the River (possibly not the most authentic Tex-Mex admittedly) we headed back to the Havana for a night’s rest.
There was one more BBQ stop we had to make, at Goode and Company BBQ just off the expressway on the way to our flight out of Houston. While it was tasty and comfortably better than most other BBQ we’d tasted, coming so hot on the heels of Black’s BBQ it was hard to compete!
Texas in three days is almost no Texas at all. There’s so much more we’d love to see – Big Bend National Park in the South West of the State, and the Gulf Coast in the South East to name just two. But what we did see of Texas we almost universally adored. They say everything is bigger in Texas and its hard to disagree, we absolutely loved it and we will be back again before long!
Rate the State:
Good for: BBQ. This really is the BBQ capital of the world. Its good in other places, but in Texas is is unreal. Austin and San Antonio are also effortlessly cool and stylish cities.
Bad for: Not great if you don’t have a car, or if you don’t like BBQ!