Keeping it Weird with Detroit Style Pizza
The capital of Texas wants to “Keep Austin Weird.” Million dollar condos springing up all over the city makes this difficult, but folks are trying with offbeat attractions, weird museums, and a slew of music festivals.
A Short History
The Clovis people were the first known inhabitants of the region around what is now Austin. They lived here at least 11,200 years ago. Later, when Europeans arrived, Tonkawa Native Americans inhabited the area.
In 1730, a short-lived Spanish mission was established but it wasn’t until the early 19th century that more permanent Spanish settlements were established. Shortly after European Texans gained independence from Mexico, Austin was quickly built and established as the new capital of the Republic of Texas in 1839.
By 1860, nearly 40% of the people living in Austin were slaves. After the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation by a Union general in Galveston, Juneteenth was celebrated and subsequently several African-American communities sprung up. However, segregation and discrimination continued to plague the area as African-Americans and Hispanics were routinely barred from public life by both legal means and societal norms. Today, less than 10% of the population is African-American and 35% is Hispanic.
The University of Texas was established in 1883 and is a major employer in the city. Many members of the faculty and students have stayed in Austin and started businesses, especially in the booming tech sector.
As the state capital, the state government is also an important employer in the city. While Texas as a whole is conservative politically, Austin is seen as a bastion of Texas-style progressivism and environmentalism.
Things to Do in Austin
Keep Austin Weird
Austin’s unofficial slogan is “Keep Austin Weird,” a motto to publicize the oddball and offbeat city. Only thing is, Austin is a lot less weird than it used to be. And it’s getting less weird every day.
Fifteen of the twenty tallest buildings in the city have been constructed in the last decade. And with every skyscraper packed with million dollar condos that goes up, every high rise stuffed with Silicon Valley refugees, every hotel catering to tourists, something else is displaced.
Today, walk around downtown Austin and you’re more likely to see men and women dressed business casual with sensible shoes rather than hippies or hipsters with guitars slung over their shoulders. The truly weird, left-of-center slackers who worked as bartenders or pedicab drivers part time to support their music or art or marijuana side hustle have been forced out when their affordable, and kinda grimy, crash pads were razed to make room for a shared workspace.
But, there are still a few places where that almost extinct Austin still lives. At the Little Longhorn Saloon, there’s chicken shit bingo every Sunday afternoon. Yes, it’s just what it sounds like. The floor of a chicken cage is marked off as a grid. You pay $2 and get a square. If the chicken does his business on your square, you win the money! Can you think of anything weirder than barroom patrons cheering on a chicken to do his business?
Perhaps nothing captures the “Keep Austin Weird” spirit better than the Museum of Natural & Artificial Ephemerata. Located in the East Austin living room of the home of Scott and Jen Webel (yes, the museum is IN THEIR HOUSE), this offbeat attraction offers tours on a limited basis with a changing exhibition of artifacts like the supposed last cigarette smoked by Marilyn Monroe, a lock of Willie Nelson’s hair, a ghost detecting device, and even a spoon supposedly bent by telekinesis. But, even more entertaining than the objects themselves is the charm and humor with which they are presented by the Webels.
Or, maybe the King of Weird crown should be placed atop The Cathedral of Junk. Built by Vince Hannenmann in his backyard, the cathedral is a monument of found pieces arranged by Vince in what sometimes seems to be random order, other times making perfect sense. Like, the Zen Garden of TVs, or the CD Tree. The main attraction is a tower, at least 30 feet high, held together by pipe and wrought iron and decorated with surfboards, hubcaps and bicycle parts. Call first to make a reservation. 512-299-7413.
The South Congress Street area used to be ground zero for weirdness in Austin. While there are still some oddities to be found, high rents have forced a lot of businesses out. Even SoCo stalward, Uncommo Objects, the strange and wonderful antique shop, recently had to relocate. And Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds, an oddball costume and jewelry store closed their doors recently.
My favorite spot on South Congress used to be Yard Dog Gallery. It’s still a great place, but has since moved off South Congress to a new location across the river. Starting out by featuring outsider artwork from the Deep South, Yard Dog has expanded its scope to include artwork from all over the world. Musician Jon Langford (of Mekons and The Waco Brothers fame) has quite a few of his extraordinary paintings on display at Yard Dog. His best known works are portraits of legends Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Joe Strummer.
The I Love You So Much mural on the wall of Jo’s Coffee has become a popular tourist attraction on South Congress. Musician Amy Cook created the mural for her partner Liz Lambert, who owns Jo’s Coffee. It’s a simple message that has resonated with people. So, you may have to wait several minutes in line to get your selfie.
The Live Music Capital of the World
And speaking of music, Austin bills itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Used to be you could catch Alejandro Escovedo once a week at The Continental Club, but he moved to Dallas. Still, legends like James McMurtry regularly play the Continental. When Robert Plant briefly lived in Austin, he played there. The Continental is small and dark with a cramped stage. In other words, it’s a can’t miss.
The show Austin City Limits has been on TV since the first episode was filmed in 1974 (Willie Nelson, of course). Since then, it has become the most famous and influential musical TV show in history. Country legends like John Prine, Merle Haggard, George Jones, and Emmylou Harris have all performed for ACL. But the show has also featured diverse musical styles like Fats Domino, Neil Young, Taj Mahal, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Tom Waits, Pearl Jam, Arcade Fire, Jimmy Cliff, Iggy Pop, and The Pretenders. Best of all, you can attend a taping. Tickets are free and distributed by an online lottery system.
Austin is also the center of the known universe for music festivals. South by Southwest (SXSW), aka Southby, grew out of a small festival in 1987 with 700 attendees to become the sprawling ten day festival of music, film, and interactive events throughout the city attended by almost 200,000 people. Thousands of artists perform tens of thousands of sets in intimate settings all over the city. Expensive tickets, in the form of wristbands, are required for official Southby events, but there are hundreds of non-official events during the festival which are open to anyone who wants to buy a ticket.
Austin City Limits puts on a festival, ACL Fest, over two weekends in October. Held in Zilker Park, this festival features some of the top names in music (Paul McCartney and Metallica were among the headliners in 2018) along with dozens of other acts.
Two hours west of Austin in Kerrville is the Kerrville Folk Festival. Held for 2 ½ weeks in May and June, this festival brings artists and fans from all over the world. Many people camp out for all or part of the festival where impromptu jam sessions with campers and performers can break out at any time of the day or night. If you’re a purist, this is about as close as you can get to the real thing.
If you want a slice of Austin music on the radio, tune to KUTX, 98.9. It’s one of the best stations in the country and features local music prominently, not just during a special hour, but all day, every day. In fact, they have in studio performances from local and national artists on an almost daily basis.
Detroit Style Pizza in Austin
When it comes to food in Austin, you’ll only hear about two things; barbecue and tacos. They’re everywhere. Places like Franklin’s and Salt Lick are world renowned, but barbecue fanatics have their own favorite spot. When it comes to tacos, you can find a stand, food truck or hole in the wall on every block in Austin. Most are bland and boring, relying on their sauce to liven up the sameness of the Tex-Mex. Ask a local for their favorite spot, but don’t be surprised if they steer you to Torchy’s, a local chain with excellent tacos and a lot of variety. I always go for The Independent whenever I visit Torchy’s; the hand-battered and deep fried Portobello strips are unbelievable. Not to mention the ancho aioli.
I’ve seen rankings of the top pizza cities in the US and, of course, New York, Chicago, and Boston, are always on the list. Providence too, as it should be. Surprisingly, Austin often pops up on these lists. There are lots of places in the city advertising “Neapolitan” and “New York” style pizza, but frankly, most of them underwhelm.
Then there’s Via 313. Starting out as food truck serving pizza to the drunken masses at the Violet Crown Social Club on East Sixth, Via 313 has since expanded to three brick and mortar locations as well as two trailers (the one outside Violet Crown has since moved to Buford’s on West Sixth).
Far and away my favorite location is the trailer at Craft Pride on Rainey Street. Craft Pride has dozens of microbrews on tap from IPA to Kölsch to Stout to Sour, whatever you need to pair with your Detroit-style pizza. Now, your next logical question might be “What is Detroit-style pizza?” And that would be a good question. I’d never heard of it before even though I spent part of my childhood living in Birmingham (a Detroit suburb).
So, here’s the deal. Detroit-style pizza is a deep dish pizza, but not like Chicago-style. The crust is what makes the pizza unique. The yeast dough is baked in a buttered or oiled rectangular pan that gives the dough a wonderfully crispy bottom and edges, but a chewy interior.
The pans are not pizza pans or even baking pans, but aluminum pans that were used to store auto parts; don’t forget Detroit is the Motor City.
The dough is then topped with cheese and your favorite toppings, although Via 313 does offer a vegan option, put back in the oven and served crispy, gooey, cheesy and chewy.
The main reason I choose the Rainey Street location to get Via 313 isn’t the food. You can get the same pizza at the other Via 313 locations. The reason I go is Rainey Street itself. When looking for nightlife in Austin, most visitors immediately head to Sixth Street, known locally, and derisively, as Dirty Sixth. But, Rainey Street is a much better choice. It’s a little more tame, and you’re much less likely to see fights and general drunkenness on Rainey than Dirty Sixth. And Rainey has a lot more character. Dozens of old Austin bungalows have been converted into bars and restaurants, each having its own personality.
That said, there is some controversy over the takeover of the former quiet residential neighborhood of Rainey Street. Even so, the deed has been done as the last resident of a bungalow on Rainey sold his house and moved out in late 2019.
Craft Pride and Via 313 are on the far end of Rainey, so it tends to be a little more quiet, but still with plenty of atmosphere. Take a cab or an Uber to get to Rainey, unless you’re staying within walking distance; parking is a nightmare.
Austin (like many places in Texas) is a city whose populace is hyper-proud of their city. And there are some very good reasons for this. But, to me, I find it funny that one of the best things about Austin is Detroit-style pizza.
The high hipster quotient in Austin means that finding a vegetarian meal is relatively easy. But, you need to be aware that Tex-Mex food is often made with lard. Ask about the beans and the tortillas before ordering.
Bouldin Creek Café on South First Street is an Austin institution. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus are all vegetarian, with most items available vegan as well. I like the Wanna-B.L.T.A with the house-made tofu bacon.
The Beer Plant is tucked away in a small strip mall next to Austin Pets Alive! animal rescue. Their all vegan menu is highlighted by their Carolina style banana blossom BBQ. Outstanding! They also have a take on Nashville Hot Chicken made with battered oyster mushrooms. Plus, their beer selection is quite good.
Rebel Cheese in the Mueller development in Austin. They make incredible vegan cheese and meat substitutes like pigless ham and meatless salami. The sandwiches at Rebel Cheese are amazing. I’m quite partial to the vegan Bacon, Brie, Me, but really, everything I’ve ever had there has been amazing.
Juiceland has 22 locations in and around Austin with a couple others in Texas and one in Brooklyn (Park Slope, natch). Their juices, smoothies, shots, and tonics are all vegan, of course. They also have a refrigerator filled with vegan sandwiches, burritos, and bowls.
Counter Culture is a fully vegan comfort food restaurant on East Cesar Chavez. This was the first place I ever had garbanzo bean “tuna” salad. I recreate the recipe at home and frankly, I like mine better. Update: Counter Culture closed in Dec. 2022 when their lease expired. They said they’re looking for a new location.
The Domain & Mueller
A few live/work/play communities have popped up in Austin. They’re popular places to live for residents, but also are great places to visit for tourists.
Sprouting up in the early 2010’s, The Domain has grown so quickly that it has become known as Austin’s Second Downtown. Facebook and VRBO have large offices in The Domain and several other tech companies are nearby, so workers are flocking to this area.
The Domain has pedestrian friendly streets and lots and lots of shopping, restaurants, and bars. In my opinion, Rose Rock, one of the most popular areas in The Domain, has been overrun, at times, with bachelorette parties and loud techno music. If that’s your scene, my all means, enjoy. It just seems a little too sanitized and homogenized for me.
That said, there are some good places to check out. True Food Kitchen has locations all over the U.S. and their spot in The Domain has excellent dishes made with fresh ingredients. This is my fave place in The Domain.
Another popular live/work/play planned community is Mueller. On the site of the old Austin Airport, Mueller is much quieter and more family focused than The Domain. But, that doesn’t mean Mueller has nothing to offer.
One of Austin’s best farmers markets is here on Sundays. Alamo Drafthouse, one of the original brew & view movie houses has an outpost here as well. There’s a food truck park along with several brick and mortar restaurants as well.
My favorite thing to do, however, is just sit by the small fabricated pond and watch the people (and turtles).
Pictures For Your Instachatbook Feed
Everywhere you turn there is street art in Austin. That means there are great places to pose for pictures to share with your friends/followers. From the “I Love You So Much” mural at 1300 South Congress to the “Greetings from Austin” wall at 1720 South 1st Street to the iconic “Hi How Are You?” frog painting on 21st and Guadalupe done by local outsider artist Daniel Johnston, there are plenty of places to places to choose from.
Or maybe you’d rather grab a selfie with a celebrity. The Willie Nelson for President mural at 1423 South Congress lets everyone know your political leanings. The Stevie Ray Vaughan statue at Auditorium Shores is another good place for a photo. Doug Sahm, a pioneer of the Cosmic Cowboy movement in the 70’s is honored with his own mural at 1131 East 11th Street. Next, someone needs to get a Townes Van Zandt and/or an Alejandro Escovedo mural in the city.
The Hope Outdoor Gallery at Baylor and 11th is a mashup of murals, artwork, graffiti, and trash on the foundation walls of long torn-down buildings. Act fast to see it; the land owner sold the space to a developer and word is it will be moved to a new location in summer 2021. A small section of the gallery has been moved to Carson Creek Ranch as well.
The Texas Hill Country is incredibly beautiful dotted with quintessential small towns. Places like Blanco which hosts the annual Lavender Festival. Or New Braunfels, where the historic Gruene Dance Hall still hosts concerts. Willie Nelson, George Strait, and Lucinda Williams have played here.
But, the highlight of a Hill Country visit is Fredericksburg. German immigrants arrived in this part of Texas in the 1840’s. They spoke what became known as Texas German, a dialect of German spoken by a populace who refused to learn English.
Today, Fredericksburg is the center of Texas grape growing and winemaking. Hilmy is a winery and working farm with a unique story. To keep chemical use low (albeit not organic) they have Guinea fowl to eat insects, Goats to mow weeds, Great Pyrenees dogs to chase deer, and a cat on rodent and bird patrol. Very clever.
If spirits are more your speed, Garrison Brothers in Hye, Texas is the place. They make excellent whiskey out in the middle of nowhere. Their tour is a lot of fun, but reservations are required. Back in the day, you could just show up and wait for someone to come down and show you around. If not, oh well.
This part of Texas lies on a bed of limestone. Because of erosion, natural pools and swimming holes are everywhere. The most scenic of these is the Hamilton Pool, located west of Austin in Dripping Springs.
Thousands of years ago, there was an underground river in this area. Eventually, the water eroded the rock, causing it to collapse. This created a natural, open grotto with a fifty foot waterfall and pool. Moss grows on the rock and stalactites punctuate the ceiling. There is a short picturesque walk from the car park down to the pool, which is a little steep and uneven. Check with park employees when you enter; swimming is often prohibited due to high bacteria counts.
Flights available from all over the US and limited international flights.
There is limited bus service to the airport. Uber/Lyft and taxis are also available as well as shuttle service. Austin is rather spread out with limited public transport to outlying areas, so a rental car might be a good idea.
If you’re staying downtown, you might get away with using public transportation (bus) or Uber. Cap Metro also operates a single sparsely used light rail line. But, if you’re going to the Hill Country, Hamilton Pool, San Antonio, or even The Domain, you’ll need a rental car.
Index of Things to Do in Austin
Great dive bar and live music venue on South Congress.
Huge festival held outdoors over two weekends in October.
Iconic TV show filmed at the Moody Theater in Austin. Tickets are free but incredibly hard to obtain. Look for the great statue of Willie Nelson outside the theater.
Music, Film and Interactive festival that takes place in March of each year.
A more intimate festival with unprecedented access to many artists.
Held in a different location every year, just look for the cloud of purple smoke
Authentic Texas dance hall still hosts concerts from the likes of Lyle Lovett and Dale Watson.
The club that featured live entertainment like Elvis and Johnny Horton was also the location of Hank Williams last public performance. Club has been demolished but here are some of the sites associated with the Skyline.
Watering hole full of atmosphere and home of chicken shit bingo every Sunday.
Located in the living room of the Webel family in East Austin, this oddball museum takes weird to a new level.
Cathedral of Junk
Bizarre collection of odd and ends randomly arranged into displays that sometimes make sense. The centerpiece is the huge tower built of pipe, bicycle parts, and who-knows-what. Call for an appointment 512-299-7413.
Murals, artwork, and graffiti cover the walls. New works pop up every day. Moving in 2023.
One of the original view and brew moviehouses with several locations in Austin, including Mueller.
Mueller Farmers Market
There are several good farmers markets in Austin including this Sunday market in Mueller.
Whole Foods started in Austin and the massive store on North Lamar is a pilgrimage spot for foodies.
Held every June in Blanco, Texas. Close your eyes and take a deep breath and you might think you’ve been transported to Provence.
Unique winery and farm in Fredericksburg, Texas that uses their farm animals to keep chemical use low. Reservations recommended for parties of six or more in the tasting room.
Texas whiskey makers. In Hye, Texas.
Natural pool and waterfall formed when the rock over an underground river collapsed thousands of years ago. One of the most beautiful spots in central Texas. Reservations required. Located in Dripping Springs, Texas.
Radio station featuring an abundance of local music.
Index of Shopping in Austin
One of a kind antique shop. Used to reside on South Congress, relocated to south Austin.
Fantastic gallery featuring artwork from all over the world, but specializing in folk and outsider art.
Record shop specializing in vinyl with frequent in-store performances.
Index of Food & Drink in Austin
Austin institution now has locations all over Texas and Oklahoma.
Authenic Mexican tacos. Tortillas made in house daily
Detriot-style pizza deep in the heart of Texas. Rainey Street location is behind Craft Pride pub. Several other locations in Austin and San Antonio.
Vegetarian and vegan menu. No reservations accepted.
Excellent vegan restaurant with outstanding beer selection.
Outstanding plant based cheese shop and restaurant.
Originally a food truck, now with six restaurant locations and a food trailer in Austin. Get the kimchi fries.
Locations all over the city. Fresh made juice and smoothies, vegan take-out, too
Home of the I Love You So Much mural.
South Congress institution. Several other locations in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio.
Chain with quality food in The Domain
Good spot in the busy Rock Rose section of The Domain
Healthy chain with a location in The Domain
Austin’s most famous BBQ joint. Long lines.
Another famous BBQ spot in Austin. Multiple locations.
Index of Places to Stay in Austin
Fixture on South Congress for over 75 years. Funky and right in the heart of the action.
Right around the corner from Rainey Street with a good restaurant and bar right next to a rooftop pool.
Chic eco-cottages in the heart of Austin. Vegetarian and vegan breakfast.
About the Author
Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He lived in Austin for many years and now resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.