Thursday, May 18, 2017

#84: Casino El Camino

The Bar


Casino El Camino. 517 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701

Visited 5/3/17 @ 11pm.

The Drink



Bloody Mary. Homemade mix, BBQ sauce, Worcestershire sauce, Guinness, Trinidad scorpion pepper, Carolina reaper pepper, Sriracha, capsaicin extract. $8.50.

Casino El Camino's Bloody Mary at spicy level 10 is one of the hottest drinks I've ever had. The Trinidad scorpion and Carolina reaper, at 1.2 million and 2.2 million units respectively, were each the hottest pepper in the world when they were first introduced, so the use of pure capsaicin extract took what already would have been a fairly spicy drink and turned it into a world of pain. I'm one of those Scovophiliac bozos who, when asked "How hot do you want it?", always smugly replies "As hot as you can get it!". Well, this drink washed that smug right off my face, down my gullet, and back into my face again. Multiple bartenders asked me, sir, are you sure this this is really what you want, and the smiles on their faces in response to my confirmation unnerved me, as did the double-price penalty if I didn't finish it. Well, I've overcome Scoville skepticism before, so I raised the glass and took a test sip first, just to see what I could taste: big mistake.

I had about a tenth of a second to ponder the flavor profile of the non-radioactive parts of the drink before a flow of lava, a wave of molten glass, a river of fire poured down my tongue and into my unsuspecting stomach. I paused, faced with a big decision. I've participated in spicy wing challenges before, and the #1 rule is to just keep eating, because the second you stop to acknowledge the pain and tears rolling down your face you're done for; it just doesn't get less hot when you slow down. Likewise with this drink: I could either admit defeat and pay for my hubris, or I could down it all in one go and transfer the torture from my mouth to my stomach. I decided to take the Scaevola path of honor and just chugged the drink as fast as I could. The drink has to stay down for it to count, so I sat at the bar and waited while each and every single one of my internal organs was coated with a mixture of enraged fire ants, active uranium rods, and poorly grounded 10-gauge electrical wire, until the pain settled and I could eat a burger in triumph, even if it was a Pyrrhic victory.

Next time I'll be fine with a level 8. Sheesh.

The Crew


Aaron, Kyle, Karen.


Notes


Casino El Camino regularly ranks highly on Best Burger in Austin lists, and might draw about as many patrons for the food than just for the drinks alone. It's been open for 23 years, so it's been attracting all manner of guests (this was the last place I saw Leslie before he passed away) for the drinks and the burgers for long enough that it's clear they know what they're doing; they're much like Jackalope in that way. After a long night of drinking we took the plunge on the food as well - the gigantic and perfectly seasoned 3/4 lb Amarillo burger and cheese fries we ordered were the perfect delicious balms to soothe my poor stomach after the Bloody Mary had finished having its way with my insides. There's a secondary location down south, which maintains the excellent (and cheap!) drinks but sadly omits the food because unlike at this location, there they don't own the building. The decor is divey by way of the dark side, with all kinds of fun Satanic imagery like skulls and demons and whatnot festooning the dimly red-lit walls; the perfect tenth-circle closing joint to hit at the end of an evening drinking quest.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

#83: Flamingo Cantina

The Bar


Flamingo Cantina. 515 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701

Visited 5/3/17 @ 10pm.

The Drink



Caribbean hurricane. Myers rum, J Wray rum, pineapple juice, cranberry juice, sour. $9.

Every time I see the word "hurricane" in a drinking context, my liver involuntarily spasms at the memory of too many hurricanes in New Orleans. I have a lasting distrust of those brightly colored hangover machines, smuggling bleary mornings in under a cover of sweet sapidities and flashy glassware. My heart skipped a beat when the bartender recommended the Caribbean hurricane, but I'm firmly committed to the principle of dealer's choice, so I forced my rebellious stomach into calm and agreed to consume one. The Caribbean version is much like the New Orleans version: a delicious medley of tropical flavors that conceals a great crime of liquor. Myers and J Wray are both venerable members of the Caribbean rum family, with the former dating back to 1879 and the latter even farther back, to 1825. Our one-and-done discipline was a great help to me here, as the sweetness of the pineapple juice balanced out the tartness of the cranberry juice so neatly, betraying no hint of the rum beneath, that I would have certainly had another. When it comes to hangovers, your own greatest enemy is yourself twelve hours ago, and a piece of knowledge that memories alone can't seem to turn into wisdom.

The Crew


Kyle, Travis, Hannah, Aaron, Karen, Chris.


Notes


As a mere mortal, there are many, many things I don't know, but I'm still somewhat surprised that a bar on Sixth can have been around for 26 years without me having any knowledge of its existence whatsoever. Especially given its unique status as an independent woman-owned/operated bar, which is a true rarity on Sixth Street (the proprietress is named Angela); you'd think I would have at least seen it on a list or something. Regardless, this is a heavily Rastafarian environment, both in the general aesthetic of the bar/lounge areas and in the particular types of music they play in their capacity as a concert venue for reggae/dub/ska/Latin/hip hop/electronica acts. When we visited, there was a DJ spinning some background tunes - not to criticize him, but that's the non-impression his sonic wallpaper left on me. There's a sort of concert pit on the ground floor once you enter, with a ziggurat of seating ringing the two walls facing the stage. Upstairs is a smoking area with a kind of treehouse vibe to it, a giant oak shading a deck that overlooks the alley between Sixth and Fifth. The view from outside isn't so great, unless you're a connoisseur of leaf-obscured parking lot vistas; the real action is inside, where the people-watching offers a better chance of entertainment.

Monday, May 15, 2017

#82: Dirty Dog

The Bar


Dirty Dog. 505 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701

Visited 5/3/17 @ 9:30pm.

The Drink



Black tooth. Whiskey, Coke. $2.

A whiskey Coke is one of the fundamental drinks of bar-hopping, for its simplicity and ease of concoction, for its reliable and predictable taste, for its balance of flavors between Coke's acidulous syrup and whiskey's aromatic pungency, and perhaps most of all, for its traditional cheapness. Dirty Dog doubled down on that last virtue, serving up what was by far the cheapest drink I've had so far. Granted, it's not like it was a full cocktail, but compared to some of the other shots I've gotten, this was a welcome surprise. We've mostly stuck to a round system on this journey, and the incredible sense of relief on someone's face when they discover that a whole round will cost them less than $20 is a sight to behold. No breaking the bank at Dirty Dog! Granted, we only discovered this drink after the bartender begged off of making anything fancier, but he was right: Dirty Dog is a dive bar, and a steady, reliable drink like a whiskey Coke is what you get.

The Crew


Chris, Karen, Hannah, Aaron, Travis, Kyle, Cristy, Louis.


Notes


I'd been to Dirty Dog a few times before in its capacity as a concert venue; they play mostly metal but also other bands in the hard rock vein. My fondest show memory is probably seeing The Life and Times there one SXSW, and my fondest non-show memory is drunkenly standing out in the street while Eve 6 blasted out the door during another SXSW, watching everyone else groove to their 30th favorite FM radio rock band. Dirty Dog also runs a tailgating tent during football season which is pretty decent. They're pretty regular-driven, which every bar likes to claim but which I can attest to in the case of Dirty Dog since one of my friends has been coming here for years and years. They have what is unquestionably the stupidest logo on all of Sixth Street, which tells you something about the kind of image they want to project. In general I'm a defender of what many would consider slovenly, unkempt, dirty dive bars, but something about the grossness of the logo is a little beyond the pale, even if it does represent the name. Still, one of the things that regulars appreciate about their dive bars is the barriers to entry that they place to repel outsiders, and if plastering a little cartoon dog humping a woman's leg all over the place helps build some solidarity among the regulars, then  that logo will have done its job. Whatever: you're here for the cheap drinks, not to have your morals elevated.

Friday, May 12, 2017

#81: Two Bucks

The Bar


Two Bucks. 503 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701

Visited 5/3/17 @ 8:30pm.

The Drink



Whiskey sour. Jim Beam, simple syrup, Peychaud bitters, egg white, lime juice. $9.

An excellent whiskey sour! The bitters might not be standard in a whiskey sour, as was the substitution of lemon juice for lime, but everything else about it was pretty by-the-book. There are lots of drinks that I enjoy but rarely order, and a whiskey sour is one of them. I love whiskey, but for some reason I don't usually think to get a whiskey sour specifically; maybe the siren song of the very similar Old Fashioned is just too powerful. I had thought that the Old Fashioned was the oldest known cocktail, but evidently that is in dispute. Regardless, Two Bucks' version is excellent, everything you could want in a sipping cocktail. They have a number of other great cocktails as well; judging from my samples of everyone else's drinks, there wasn't a misfire among them. I can imagine that the more complex drinks might not advisable orders during the Friday night crush, but even with a small crowd on a Wednesday, they came out fast, strong, and well-crafted.

The Crew


Chris, Louis, Kyle, Cristy, Travis, Hannah, Aaron, Karen.


Notes


The blaring pop punk riffs of the classic 1999 Lit single My Own Worst Enemy greeted me as I walked into the bar, and I instantly felt at home. Curated by the bartender himself, a lengthy playlist of all of the songs you remember from FM radio during high school around the turn of the millennium accompanied us all the way through our visit, and it couldn't have been better-chosen. I'll readily admit that I can be pandered to, and almost nothing puts a smile on my face faster than the choppy operaticisms of Serj Tankian blasting out of the speakers. Two Bucks is the sister bar of Buckshot, which we had just come from, and it had been open for less than two months as of our visit. You wouldn't have known that by the number of people there, though, and while I wouldn't credit the awesome music for all of the crowd milling around, it surely didn't hurt.

Almost more appreciated than the music, though, was the fact that this was about the most laid-back craft cocktail bar I've ever been to. You're not going to see drink wheels at Midnight Cowboy, for example, and this place has four different drink wheels - one each for beer, shots, and cocktails, and then a special birthday wheel where each spin is $10. You won't see a giant Jim Beam-branded plinko board either, which takes up a whole chunk of wall in the back and offers a great way to spend a few minutes challenging your drunk friends to games of. I like the calm atmosphere of your standard craft cocktail bar, which gives you a place to concentrate on your drink and your conversation, and basically make you feel like a higher class of person. But it turns out that you can have your two-dollar-sign-on-Yelp cocktails in a more proletarian setting as well without losing anything. We barely even glanced at at HOU @ SAS during our visit, having a blast as we were, and moved on only with reluctance.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

#80: Buckshot

The Bar


Buckshot. 422 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701

Visited 5/3/17 @ 8pm.

The Drink




Colt .45. Pearl pomegranate vodka, X-Rated liqueur, mango juice, spicy salt. $6.

At a shot bar, you get a shot. This was one of the bartender's favorites, or so he said. If I were a bartender, I'm sure at first I'd start out with an ambitious mission to sample the entire menu, before regressing into a jaded, surly drink-slinger whose hatred for concept shots is matched only by my contempt for my customers, but luckily our bartender actually cared about us. I haven't seen a whole lot of pomegranate so far on this journey, and was looking forward to it, but it was hard to taste over the mango juice and the liqueur, which according to their marketing copy is "a sensuous blend of ultra-premium French vodka and blood oranges, mingled with mango and passion fruit". I don't know about sensuous, except in the loose way that taste is a sense, but think a tropical fruit base, with the spicy salt making the whole ensemble taste like one of those tasty Mexican street snacks that's fruit dusted with Tajín chili powder. I'm not sure how that flavor relates to the name, but it was delicious all the same. Even better, they had well drinks for $1.50, so even if you hate Mexican street snacks like some kind of monster, you can wash it down with an insanely cheap gin and tonic. Which I did, followed immediately by yet another shot.

The Crew


Cristy, Louis, Aaron, Chris, Kyle, Travis (not pictured), Hannah (not pictured).


Notes


Buckshot is a shot bar, as you might guess from the name. Now, shot bars have a negative reputation among many people, for a few different reasons: they tend to have fairly no-frills decor, they often don't have a wide selection of drinks beyond shots, and, perhaps worst of all, they tend to attract the kind of people who go to shot bars, meaning people who want to get (even more) drunk as quickly as possible. Well, I don't care so much about decor as long as it's not actively unpleasant, I'm willing to accept a wide range of drinks, and the kind of person who goes to a shot bar happens to include me, and I tend to be very forgiving of myself.

One of my questions to the bartender was how he felt to be competing with Cheers, right down the street and far more of an institution. Everyone knows about Cheers. Well, Buckshot has existed since 2012, backed by Bob Woody as a silent partner no less, and with its few years under its belt it's been able to carve out its own place. Not just as "the other shot bar", even though it's always good to have choices, but as a full-fledged bar of its own. Another frequent criticism of a shot bar is that they don't tend to be conducive to becoming "your bar", since most shot bar patrons are one-round transients, yet they have plenty of regulars, and there's no enmity or sense of rivalry between the two (just as well, given how one-sided a rivalry would most likely be). I could see this being worth a fairly lengthy stop, although there's only a bit of seating, so it was with hesitation that we finished off the third of our three rounds, watched the end of TOR @ CLE, and departed.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

#79: Voodoo Room

The Bar


Voodoo Room. 419 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701

Visited 4/26/17 @ 11:30pm.

The Drink



Green tea shot. Jameson, peach schnapps, sweet & sour. $6.

I realized that the last time I got this at Lux, I didn't actually describe what it tasted like. Well, as you'd expect, it tastes a lot like green tea, or at least a lot like a cheap brand of generic green tea that you'd find on the bottom shelf at HEB. Sometimes you get a drink that feels like a main course and sometimes you get an appetizer, and this was the latter: a quick and tasty drink that gets you ready for more. After I had one of these I felt ready for another round, but this was unfortunately our last stop of the night.

The Crew


Aaron, Hannah, Travis, Davis.


Notes


According to the bartender, Voodoo Room and Majestic, which sits upstairs, used to be the same bar, until some kind of divorce occurred. I didn't inquire too deeply into the details of the split, because we're focused on the here and now. Voodoo Room bills itself as "A Premier Bottle Service Lounge and Club", which explains all the little VIP nooks with couches and room for bottle service. There weren't too many other people then when we visited, so by default we became the VIPs. Winning by default is still winning, I suppose. There's all kinds of eclectic decoration around the interior to enjoy while you lounge in your couches, like the icosahedral light fixtures, the giant neon American flag, the swings hanging from the roof (tragically unused during our visit but I bet they're a ton of fun), or any other attractive VIPs that might be in your general vicinity. Like I've said, I'm not really a patron of bottle service places, because they cater to the kind of people who buy bottle service, but they can be a good time in the right circumstances.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

#78: Vulcan Gas Company

The Bar


Vulcan Gas Company. 418 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701

Visited 4/26/17 @ 11pm.

The Drink



Gin and tonic. $3.

The guy who made this was not their regular bartender (on Wednesdays I guess they can afford to turn the keys over to the JV squad), and as a consequence he was not putting up with any of my nonsense about "drinks that best represent the bar". He was adamantine in his refusal to accept the burden of choosing me a drink, so after I'd finally exhausted my repertoire of synonyms for "whatever you recommend", I accepted defeat and just ordered my go-to of a G&T. It worked out for both of us though, because in return for my simple order he made me one of the most eye-wateringly stout G&Ts I've had in a long time, the kind of drink where you take one sip and go "Whoo!" while making that involuntary half-pained/half-incredulous facial expression like one of the wretched lush characters in a William Hogarth print. A gin and tonic might be one of the few drinks that can actually claim some legitimate health benefits, beyond that legendarily apocryphal "one glass of red wine a day" thing, but a few of these would take you right back to the hospital. Hooray for bargains!

The Crew


Hannah, Travis, Aaron, Davis.


Notes


If you're here, you're here to dance. Vulcan has a long history as a music venue first and foremost, and even on a Wednesday with a bare smattering of patrons, all the action was on the dance floor. As we were walking in, the doorman said half-jokingly "Where's the party at?" and I confidently proclaimed "The party's here!" As it turned out we were not the party; not even close. Perched on our barstools chatting amongst ourselves as we were, we couldn't match the revelry of the small group grooving their hearts out on the floor to the music of the band, or even the liveliness of the couple in the corner playing beer pong. But whatever: we're on a bar crawl, not a dance crawl.

Vulcan has multiple levels, which weren't quite so relevant on the quiet Wednesday we visited, but are necessary when there's a big show there, which there has been the past few times I've been there. Unlike the old Vulcan, which was legendary for its place in the 1970s "cosmic cowboy" psychedelic rock scene in Austin, the new venue focuses more on hip hop and EDM. If you're sad about that, just accept that times change, and music popularity changes as well, no matter how great the music scene in Austin was back then. EDM (let's, just call it that, because getting into subgenres is indistinguishable from mental illness) is a $7 billion market segment, it's fun to party to, and you really can't ask for more than that. Also unlike the old Vulcan, they sell alcohol. That's great for their operating revenue, seeing as how crucial a moneymaker alcohol can be for music venues. but this was unbarlike enough to ensure we didn't stick around for very long.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

#77: Touché

The Bar


Touché. 417 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701

Visited 4/26/17 @ 10pm.

The Drink





Hot apple pie. Fireball whiskey, apple schnapps, pineapple juice. $9.

Once again, a bartender tried to give us a Flaming Dr Pepper, and once again, we demurred in favor of a slightly different fire-adjacent drink. I don't know what your opinion of Fireball whiskey is: to me, it's a necessary evil at best. Its aggressive cinnamon bite over a cough syrup-y undertaste, in addition to its "shots for idiots" marketing strategy, makes it something I usually try to avoid. But I'll drink just about anything once, and our bartender was so good at his job that he had us practically champing at the bit to drink these flaming Fireball shots over a schnapps/juice base. What do you know, they tasted exactly like hot apple pie, or at least the gloriously deep-fried McDonald's version from about 25 years ago (feel free to mock me for that "Only 90s kids will remember this!"-type reference, but I ate about a billion of those as a kid and those memories are cherished). It was a great choice on his part, but I was also intrigued by all the other cheap drinks they had, including a this-can't-be-real $1 shots special. Normally I go for a one-and-done strategy at the bar, but our bartender was so convincing he got us to stay for multiple rounds of shockingly cheap drinks. If you insist!

The Crew


Aaron


Notes


Somehow I had always overlooked Touché, even though it's practically primeval in Sixth Street terms. It dates from 1986, meaning that of the non-Driskill bars, only Maggie Mae's is older. Like I already said, we had truly superb bar service here, so the onus is probably on me for not seeking them out (like our bartender said about a dozen times, they're a "regulars-driven bar"). On the other hand, there's just a ton of bars on Sixth, and while you might have your own views on whether the paradox of choice is true or not, it remains indisputable that often you have to choose something and just stick with it, since you can only drink at one bar at a time. Everyone else sitting at the bar looked fairly well-ensconced, so perhaps it's worth paying them a few more visits.

I liked Touché's layout. It was nothing fancy, just the typical long walkup to the bar, but the tiny group of tables next to the entrance was perfect for us, since after downing several rounds of the drinks we were cajoled into buying, we were able to sit down, relax, and watch the foot traffic go by. I'll always prefer rooftop views just for the sheer pleasure of gazing down at the lights of the street illuminating the thousands of drunk people in churning Brownian motion, but nothing beats sitting just on the right side of the glass from the seething mass of humanity that promenades down inebriation avenue. Well, not that seething, since it was only a Wednesday, but there were certainly enough curious characters to make it difficult to focus on Celtics @ Bulls. I wonder how a graph of the motion of street drunks compares to, say, ants in their colonies. There's a question for a $1 shot.

Monday, May 1, 2017

#76: Cheers

The Bar

Cheers. 416 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701

Visited 4/26/17 @ 9:30pm.

The Drink



Inception. Part 1 (blue shot): Vodka, lime gimlet, blue curaçao, grenadine. Part 2 (clear shot): Coconut rum, peach schnapps. Part 3 (base): Red Bull. $9.

Cheers is a shot bar, but not the kind of shot bar that gives its patrons Rumpel Minze; unless you were to request it, that is. They don't have one of those shot wheels, so you'll just have to rely on your friends to order you something good, and not a "my friends are jerks" scam drink like the infamous Blue Wave. At least, not more than once. On the contrary, we got a round of one of the most complex drinks we've had so far. The very first three-part drink I've had, the Inception was not only really nice-looking but nice-tasting as well. The bartender was all set to make us some Flaming Dr Peppers, but after learning that we'd just had some Flaming Dreamsicles at their sister bar Big Bang, he decided to mix it up a bit and give us a shot with a show. The way this works is that you pull out the blue shot, which makes the clear shot drop into the Red Bull, drink the blue shot, then drink the clear shot/Red Bull mixture. Easy. Perhaps a true Inception shot would featured a smaller version of the drink inside the larger version, or you would have to listen to an Édith Piaf song while drinking it. Either way, I cannot emphasize enough how much more pleasant this was than another Rumple Minze shot.

The Crew


Aaron, Davis, Hannah, Travis.


Notes


Cheers is the third in the TV show-themed bar family we've visited, after Friends and Big Bang. It's been on Sixth for a long time - 24 years, according to the bartender, which doesn't make it quite as antediluvian as the Driskill, but still far more venerable than almost any other spot on the block. Yet another one of my college classic hangouts, Cheers is "just" a shot bar, but with 99 different varieties to choose from it goes quite a bit beyond your typical shot bar. That might seem like a dead-simple subgenre of bar to specialize in, but if it's so easy for "just an average shot bar" to stay around for nearly a quarter of a century, where's all the others? Clearly they're doing something right, and Cheers has certainly earned its place on Sixth.

In fact, while we were being served I had a major nostalgia moment, and once we were done with our drinks, and even though a good chunk of the bar was closed for renovations they let me wander around to indulge myself. Back in college I spent a lot of time here, almost as as much as at The Library. Cheers is huge, with four different bars arrayed on multiple levels of roof and balconies amidst large leafy trees, and when I was surveying the temporarily empty landscape outside I had flashbacks to my younger drinking years, when we'd get round of shots from one of the outside bars, standing in a floodlight-bathed semi-circle wearing weeknight best and drunkenly toasting to school, life, each other, and whatever came to mind. Over a decade later, I feel like I have more to toast to, but I do it less often. Maybe all toasts are aspirational, and as time goes on you have less to aspire to, whether because your wishes have come true, or because you've stopped wishing. Either way, I'm glad Cheers is still around.