East Austin, the ArModelo & Longhorn Caverns

I spent last weekend in Austin with a few good friends from grad school. We’re spread across the country at the moment – two in Boston, one in Boulder, and one in San Francisco – and decided to get together somewhere that (1) is fun and (2) had cheap direct flights for all of us. Austin delivered on both fronts, easy decision.

Before continuing, I have to thank my amazing wife Laura, who encouraged me to have one last weekend away before our son arrives.

So, a quick recap on some highlights.

I’ve been going to Austin at least once a year since 2012 to visit Laura’s family, and I’m still excited to find excuses to go back. No other US city has Austin’s mix of food, live music, hikes, outdoor swimming holes, breakfast tacos, and quirky bars. Nashville might be closest, sans the breakfast tacos, but still not quite at Austin’s level.

We spent all of our nights in a small corner of East Austin. On my first visit in 2012, I stumbled upon The White Horse by accident with Laura and her brother, Dave. It’s the perfect bar: good beer, live honky tonk music from 8pm-2am, and an outdoor area with a taco truck that stays open until 1:45am. And there’s a ton of dancing. The kind of dancing that reminds me I don’t have a clue how to dance properly (which is probably why they offer free swing dance lessons a few nights a week). This sort of thing:

I’ve been back many times since 2012, including twice last weekend. It’s without a doubt my favorite bar in Austin. What I hadn’t realized until this visit was how many other incredible places are within walking distance.

Right around the corner is La Perla. It’s an old cantina that only sells beer and probably hasn’t changed much in 40 years, while everything around it has. In this sense it reminds me a bit of Whitey’s in Southie, but it’s cleaner, has better service, and there’s a much smaller chance of accidentally getting mixed up in a bar fight. It’s the type of place that’s filled with regulars from the neighborhood, and that squeezes lime and sprinkles salt around the outside of a Corona bottle before putting the lime in. They’ve also invented, and have developed a bit of a local reputation for, the ArModelo: a Modelo beer with Tabasco, lime juice, and salt for $3. It’s basically a simple michelada. It’s delicious:

A few other places we discovered in the area that are worth sharing are The Brixton,  Hotel Vegas, and Whistler’s. All five bars, and plenty more we didn’t check out, are along a half mile stretch of E 6th street. Anyone living in Austin who likes these sort of places probably knows this stretch well, but if you’re visiting, it would be easy (and a shame) to miss:

So that’s what we did at night.

I was hoping to have more opportunities over the weekend to take pictures, but only ended up using my camera one afternoon. We left the city for a day to check out Longhorn Caverns then get BBQ at Cooper’s in Llano. The caverns were interesting to see, but you have to take a tour to get in. I understand why, as there are parts that are a bit dangerous, and the most of the cavern is an active mineral site that could easily be damaged or looted. But I generally prefer to going at my own pace in these sorts of places. Tours mean lots of people, and make it much more difficult to photograph a single spot for a while. I was still able to get a few good photos, mostly long exposures, when I let the tour get ahead of me. Here are some highlights:

The mouth of the cavern before we entered:

Samuel Kornstein: US National Parks &emdash; Longhorn Cavern-1

The first area inside the cavern:

Samuel Kornstein: US National Parks &emdash; Longhorn Cavern-2

Apparently during prohibition there was a makeshift speakeasy in this chamber, the the locals would come for a night of drinking:

Samuel Kornstein: US National Parks &emdash; Longhorn Cavern-3

It’s called Longhorn Cavern because there used to be a number of small openings in grassy fields, and it was common for longhorns grazing above to fall into them and get stuck in the cavern:

Samuel Kornstein: US National Parks &emdash; Longhorn Cavern-4

Many of the mineral formations are active, meaning stalactites and crystals continue to grow:

Samuel Kornstein: US National Parks &emdash; Longhorn Cavern-5

This is my favorite shot, from the ground looking up:

Samuel Kornstein: US National Parks &emdash; Longhorn Cavern-6

We continued on from Longhorn Caverns and ended that afternoon at Cooper’s BBQ in Llano, which Laura’s dad introduced to me. It’s a bit of a drive, but completely worth it (except for the part where you’re thirsty and don’t want to eat meat for about 18 hours after the meal). You order lunch by the pound, and eat on a piece of wax paper. If I had to rank order what we tried, I’d say beef ribs, beef brisket, beef sirloin, pork ribs, then turkey. With sauce.

So those were a few highlights. I could go on and list out all the great restaurants (Uchi) and food trucks (Al Pastor), but I won’t. Because there’s no shortage.