Saturday, July 29, 2017

#106: Zilker Brewing

The Bar


Zilker Brewing. 1701 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702

Visited 7/30/17 @ 12am.

The Drink



Zilker Marco IPA. $6.

I like American IPAs - they're hoppy enough to have a good bite to them to them, yet are smooth enough that I don't get sick of them after one or two, plus there's usually some other interesting flavors going on. Zilker's entry in the famous category that played such a big role in the craft beer movement is no exception, with enough hops to be noticeable but not overwhelming, and a good malt background. My favorite IPA is still 512's superb edition, but this hangs right in there with it, and at 7%, it's nearly as alcoholic as 512's 7.2% contender. Plus they advertise it as being burnt orange in color, and while it might not be up to Pantone standards, as a shameless Longhorns fan I can't help but be charmed by such open pandering.

The Crew


James, Aaron, Rome, Wolf, Anthony.


Notes


If you've been to one brewery you've been to nearly all of them - big gleaming fermenters, spools of tubing, harsh fluorescent lighting over unadorned concrete floors, hastily scribbled-on chalkboards, long wooden picnic tables, and (most importantly) a row of taps for the beers. Zilker's layout checks off just about every one of those boxes, so don't go in expecting some kind of ornate, elaborate Settecento architecture. The focus is on the beer, as it should be. The brewery itself has been open for a bit over two years, although it feels like I've seen their beer around for longer than that. Has it really only been since 2015 since we've had the Coffee Milk Stout and the Parks and Rec Pale Ale? False beer memories aside, they've become a great meeting place on that stretch of East Sixth, a worthy place to grab a beer and wait for the rest of your party to show up before you go elsewhere. Or, in our case, a great place to end the night on.

#105: Milonga Room

The Bar


Milonga Room. 1201 E 6th St., Austin, TX 78702

Visited 7/29/17 @ 10pm.

The Drink



Milongüero. Bulleit rye whiskey, amaro meletti, Angostura bitters, orange. $12.

A milonga is a variety of tango, and güero (or güera) refers to lighter/paler persons, so a Milongüero might best be translated as a "white guy's dance". But, since we're here for mixology as opposed to the etymology or choreology, no matter how amusing the drink puns might be, I will concentrate more on the gustatory qualities of this riff on an Old-Fashioned than the linguistics. The major high point of this drink was the inclusion of amaro meletti, one of the many delicious Italian liqueurs I've become such a fan of. The meletti is not as astringent as some of the other amari, so it gave the Old-Fashioned a richer, more savory complexion than I'm used to, which was further reinforced by its lack of sweetness compared to an off-the-shelf model. We really liked ours, and since this was so good, we also had some other drinks: they made a killer version of a Last Word, an underrated cocktail if there ever was one, and the bartender was determined that we try a few selections from their legendary fernet selection. Well, if you insist!

The Crew


Anthony, James, Aaron, Wolf, Rome (not pictured), Will (not pictured), Jackie (not pictured), Chris (not pictured), Jessica (not pictured).


Notes


Milonga Room is nestled below Buenos Aires Cafe, an excellent Argentinian/Argentine restaurant with phenomenal food and a welcoming, homey atmosphere. Unfortunately "welcoming" is decidedly not an adjective I would use to describe Milonga Room, which follows the age-old speakeasy custom of artificially fostering an air of exclusivity solely to make its patrons feel like they're part of a club. Yeah, their reservation-only policy is not very different from many other places like Midnight Cowboy, but they were far harsher than they needed to be in accommodating members of my party that arrived separately, especially when we were nearly the only ones in there, spending heavily at the bar. I will never shake my affinity for the democratic spirit of the dive bar, even if I recognize that enforcing exclusivity makes the inside more pleasant than the outside. So if you have the stomach to make it past the door, you'll find an excellent little bar with a classy interior and some seriously skilled bartenders. There's one main room with a bar that seats about five or six, lined with benches and a few tables and couches, upholstered and wallpapered to evoke the kind of languorous Argentine brothel you'd visit after a good tango session. The lighting was at just the right mix between intimacy and darkness (dimtimacy?), and the drink service was pretty excellent. If you can handle some snobbery, a one-two combo of the restaurant upstairs and the bar below would make for a great date night.

#104: The Grackle

The Bar


The Grackle. 1700 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702

Visited 7/29/17 @ 9pm.

The Drink



Old-Fashioned. Draft. $10.

Before this bar crawl, the idea of an Old-Fashioned on draft would have blown my mind. Just imagine - the nectar of the gods on tap! Ingredient quality and mixology skill be damned, the convenience alone could be revolutionary, worthy of a slot in the Pee-Wee Herman breakfast machine. Of course, now that I've become an impossibly jaded drinking veteran, who's even received Old-Fashioneds in a can on Sixth Street, an Old-Fashioned on draft is a bit less revelatory than it might have been before. If you suspected that this wouldn't be the most immaculately prepared Old-Fashioned you've ever seen you'd be right - at least the ice and the peel were added by hand - but it was still a worthy cocktail, since The Grackle is justly famous for its liquor selection and there's no way they'd skimp of the underlying ingredients. I got a smooth, strong Old-Fashioned for about what a regular Old-Fashioned would cost, and it was very similar. I wouldn't call this the world's greatest innovation, compared to all the other great labor-saving inventions in history, but it was one of the more drinkable cocktail advances I've come across.

The Crew


Wolf, Jessica, Rome, Chris, Aaron, James, Will, Jackie, Anthony (not pictured).


Notes


In terms of animals in Austin, the grackle is far from the most loved. Armadillossalamanders, and even golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos have traditionally gotten more respect than the grackle, which is just what you'd expect from a bird whose mass noun is an "annoyance". Yet maybe those heroic attempts to hipsterize the grackle have worked - even I have grackle socks from KUTX - and so perhaps we should learn to love those feathered hustlers as much as this bar does. They've been around for a little over 6 years, working as both a bar and a concert venue. I've seen some great bands like Magnet School and Peelander-Z here, as well as plenty of other SXSW bands; their outdoor seating is spacious and comfortable, to say nothing of the big caliche front lot where the bands actually set up. I dig the interior too, which gives their impressive liquor selection top billing while allowing for enough seating for you and your crew. I'm not sure what the mass noun is for drinkers, but either way, The Grackle is a good place to roost for a while.

#103: The Liberty

The Bar


The Liberty. 1618 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702

Visited 7/29/17 @ 8pm.

The Drink



Party Radler. Jimador tequila, grapefruit Stiegl radler. $10.

Like most people, I get a little involuntary smile on my face whenever I'm presented with a giant pitcher of anything. "Quantity has a quality all its own", as the saying goes. More booze = better than. But there's a time and a place for everything, and so I was glad that instead of a pitcher of whiskey coke or Long Island Ice Tea, we got something more appropriate to the miserable summer heat. A radler is a shandy, a low-ABV mix of beer and some type of fruit soda. Stiegl's grapefuit radler is no exception, at 2% ABV and a nice grapefruit flavor. However, any reduction in strength provided for by the shandy was easily outmatched by the tequila, except that all you could taste was the refreshing tang of the radler. If you can handle tequila and grapefruit, this might be the ultimate summer patio drink, a tasty way to get hammered in the sunshine.

The Crew


Rome, Wolf, Aaron, Anthony.


Notes


The Liberty is another member of the family that includes siblings Shangri-La, the Grackle, and the Brixton. It's existed for 8 years with a silent owner - to most bar managers, the best kind of owner - on the same rapidly changing stretch of road as my namesake apartment complex the Arnold, as well as famous concert/festival promoters C3 Presents. I know that the category of "upscale dive bar" was designed to be mocked, but it seems to leap naturally to the mind when I try to describe The Liberty. The interior is dim, but it's clean; the drinks are cheap, but the selections are varied and there's nicer cocktails; the clientele includes a lot of regulars, but they seem like they all live in loft apartments. Even the bar food is awesome: East Side King has a trailer set up out back to serve up its incredible Asian fusion, so you don't have to worry about being stuck with the same old burgers-and-fries options when you're a few beers in. I'll be honest, when we were out relaxing on their spacious back patio, sipping away at our refreshing tequila pitchers, snacking away on some karaage chicken and jasmine rice, it was tough to leave. If this is what a profanation of the concept of a dive bar is like, then bring on the sacrilege.

#102: Hotel Vegas

The Bar


Hotel Vegas. 1502 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702

Visited 7/29/17 @ 7pm.

The Drink



Lone Star. $3.

Another refreshing Lone Star! Apparently this bar was the top-selling Lone Star vendor on all of Sixth Street for 2016, and they even have a plaque to that effect affixed to the wall behind the bar that was bestowed by the brewery itself. I can't find any statistics on Lone Star sales in Austin, let alone on Sixth Street specifically, but knowing the local love for Lone Star, that's an impressive feat. I wonder how you would do the Fermi problem for this:
  • Hotel Vegas' sales = (Total sales) / (Austin's share of total sales) / (Sixth Street's share of Austin) / (Hotel Vegas' share of Sixth Street)
As with all math involving alcohol, this problem would best be tackled after about three beers, which is enough to start wondering about numbers like this, but not so many as to get belligerent when you realize that you can't even guess at the relevant quantities involved. The third Lone Star is known as the "mathematician's Lone Star" for precisely this reason, and as it happens, this was the third Lone Star I was recommended on this quest. I leave the solution as an exercise for the reader.

The Crew


Rome, Aaron, Wolf, Anthony (not pictured).


Notes


I've seen a lot of great shows at Hotel Vegas. Like I've mentioned, it's the sister bar to the Volstead, and it focuses more on live music as opposed to being "just" a bar. The stage is centered in the room when you walk in, so that it gets really really loud during each band's set. Of course, if for some reason live music isn't your thing yet you happen to be at the bar anyway, you could escape to the outdoor patio... except that sometimes there's bands playing there too! At least outside you can sit down on their park benches, under tents that protect you from the burning sun, which is an amenity that not all bars remember to provide. It might not matter during the winter, but during the appalling Texas summer there's not much worse than feeling yourself cook like an egg under the pitiless gaze of our greatest nemesis. One feature of Hotel Vegas that I can't believe I never noticed was the apartments on top. According to the bartender they used to be the rooms of a brothel, which is a fun historical tidbit. Those days are sadly long gone, thanks to the grim march of gentrification (and the onset of the age of Tinder), but as colorful as the epoch of the no-tell motel must have been, I'm glad that it's become Hotel Vegas.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

#101: The Volstead

The Bar


The Volstead. 1500 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702

Visited 7/26/17 @ 10pm.

The Drink



Irish Tenant. Jameson Caskmates whiskey, lemon, apricot, almond, Bittermen's ‘Elemakule Tiki bitters. $8.

For this night only, their specialty drink got renamed to "The One With Whiskey" because there was a Friends trivia night going on when we visited. Much as I'm sure everyone is dying to hear my opinion of Friends, it has nothing to do with the drink, which I would have preferred on the rocks. Just as with all frozen drinks, the Irish Tenant forces you to drink it slowly. I'm not sure if this is one of those angry-old-man things, but I've found myself increasingly irritated by drinks that force me to go at their pace and not at mine, even if taking it easy might be a good idea after a few rounds. If I want to pass out in the gutter like a Flann O'Brien character that's my right! I had never heard of Jameson's Caskmates brand, but it's interesting - a whiskey that's aged in a barrel that was previously used to condition a stout, which was itself conditioned in whiskey barrels. The circle of life complete! You are unfortunately not able to taste any of this cosmic journey through the whiskey Lifestream because the drink is so damn cold; that's what happens when you turn what would have been an excellent cocktail into a snowcone flavor. However, the drink itself was still not bad at all, with a pleasant sweet taste, and it even introduced me to a new and excellent type of bitters, which is from Austin. Not bad!

The Crew


Hannah, Travis, Kaylee, Aaron, Michael.


Notes


For a long time, like years and years, I wasn't really sure what the deal was with The Volstead and its next door neighbor Hotel Vegas, so eventually I did what I should have done from the very beginning and just asked the bartender: it has the same owner but a different manager than its sister bar. Mystery solved! There's a very loose separation between the two, and I've seen drunk people try to cross back and forth many times. This is the more bar-focused venue, as opposed to the more show-focused Hotel Vegas, though there is often a DJ for regular hip hop nights. When we were there it was Friends trivia night, as I said, so every square inch of the spacious outdoor patio was crammed with people who wasted their lives memorizing details of that terrible show. Those people made it a drag to get to the awesome food trucks in the back, to get more of the great drinks from the bar - it was awful! Nothing is worse than other people having a good time that has nothing to do with you.

#100: The Eastern

The Bar


The Eastern. 1511B E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702

Visited 7/26/17 @ 9pm.

The Drink



Lone Star. $3.

"We're a dive bar, man, so what you see is what we are." Thus spake the bartender, shortly before handing me a Lone Star, which is for me the beer that truly defines not just Sixth Street, but a huge percentage of my drinking life. I know that Austin Beerworks' Pearl Snap is the "official beer of Austin", and that there are plenty of other pale lagers that rank even higher than Lone Star on review sites, and there are hundreds of individual beers on tap across the whole length of the street, but for me it doesn't get any simpler than a Lone Star. Even though its parent company Pabst is now partly owned by a Russian and headquartered in LA, which I can hardly believe, Lone Star itself has such a strong connection to Texas that no one would mistake it for anything other than a cheap and reliable standby beer. This was only the second time I had been recommended it, and the first on its own. But as long as your tastes run towards the cheap and simple, you can't go wrong with anything else here.

The Crew


Kaylee, Michael, Aaron, Travis, Hannah.


Notes


The bartender was exactly right about what kind of a joint this is; among my circle the Eastern possesses a certain amount of infamy for its particular brand of squalor and peculiar clientele. Though property values on East Sixth are rising fast enough to make your head spin, The Eastern remains resolutely low-rent; the kind of place where, when you're asked what kind of whiskey you want, the answer is always "well". Normally they have live music, typically hip hop on the weekends, but this Wednesday was fairly silent. That gave us the space to start chatting with the bartender about the venue, its history, and Austin more generally, but you shouldn't expect that kind of intimacy on regular nights, when it's all about inhaling as many cheap but potent drinks as possible and seeing what kinds of fascinating people you bump into.

#99: Kuneho

The Bar


Kuneho. 1600 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702

Visited 7/26/17 @ 7:30pm.

EDIT: Kuneho is now closed.

The Drink



Cheeky warbler. Suntory Toki whiskey, Blanco tequila, yellow chartreuse, honey butter gardenia syrup, orange, lemon, absinthe, passionflower sprig. $15.

As Kuneho is relatively famous for their craft cocktails, despite only recently opening, it would have been a crime not to order the craftiest of them all as determined by my bartender. Wonderful choice: this was one of the smoothest cocktails I've ever had, to the point where I would have bet money on this having some egg white in the mix. The combination of whiskey and tequila might give some people pangs of incipient hangovers, but the mix was quite congenial. Suntory itself is a global behemoth, and the Toki brand is one of its blended whiskies. You can't really taste it, since there are so many other flavors in here, but they all blend to a really creamy, harmonious whole. Sometimes you get a cocktail that you want to savor like a meal, and this was one of them. I would call this a high point in cocktail-drinking, except for the very next one I ordered....


Rosso G&T. Genius Old Highborn gin, cannonau tonic, Topo Chico. $12.

I loved the last cocktail so much I decided to order a second, and because it was one of the greatest gin and tonics I've ever had, I decided to include it here as well. The first thing you're probably thinking when you look at it is "Why does a gin and tonic look like a watered-down Bloody Mary?" That's because the tonic is infused with cannonau grapes, a variety of Grenache red grapes primarily produced in Sardinia.You can read all kinds of those amusingly dubious articles about how wines made with those grapes make you live longer; marketing nonsense aside, the resulting tonic was absolutely delicious, with a rich wine flavor that went incredibly well with the gin. Old Highborn is a product of the Genius distillery from right here in Austin, and I can vouch for how smooth the gin is on its own, with some really tasty botanicals. With the tonic, it was incredible. This might in all seriousness be the best gin and tonic in Austin, and if it isn't, someone needs to tell me where a better one is pronto.

The Crew


Travis, Aaron, Hannah, Kaylee, Michael.


Notes


Kuneho is another Paul Qui product, which very recently replaced the modestly-named Qui. The name is Tagalog for "rabbit", which presumably indicates that there's some sort of continuity between the last restaurant and this new "concept" (I hate that term - why can't a restaurant just be a place to get food?). I never ate at Qui, and we didn't eat here either, although I have been to Uchi and Uchiko, but Kuneho looked of a piece with the new wave of high-end restaurants washing up on the shores of Sixth Street: classy, elegant, expensive. The bar has a very carefully curated bottle selection, and the rest of the restaurant has plenty of wood paneling and minimalist design accents to "enhance the value-add proposition", as they say. The bar section itself is not very large, but the service is excellent, and the bartender was funny, helpful, and quite good for having only worked there for a month and a half. I don't think I'll ever make enough money to be the kind of person who comes to Qui frequently, but their cocktail selection is so good that between our party we tried every single one on the list.

#98: La Perla

The Bar


La Perla. 1512 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702

Visited 7/26/17 @ 7pm.

The Drink



ArModelo. Modelo Especial, Tabasco sauce, lime juice, salt. $3.

A humble specialty for a humble establishment, this working-class tribute to the noble animal so beloved in Austin gives one of the least pretentious beers out there just a few sidekicks in a sort of very low-key michelada. There's a ritual to consumption: after the bartender pours the additions on top of the beer, you pop the top, let those additions mix in a bit by tilting and rotating it, and then drink it either fast or slow, depending on your tolerance for Tabasco in your beer. I had never thought to put Tabasco in my beer before, although I've had it in cocktails (and, regrettably, in shots), and it turns out that Tabasco sinks to the bottom and makes the final few sips an unpleasant vinegar stew. I should have chugged it faster - aren't specialties generally meant to be savored, not to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible? - but perhaps that's my fault for treating a beer like a Scotch. Read the room! This would be a good first beer to buy your friend on a birthday bar crawl.

The Crew


Aaron, Kaylee, Michael.


Notes


Despite what Google tells you, La Perla is not related to either the lingerie maker or to the South Austin oyster joint, although I'm sure some entrepreneurial mind has had visions of synergies dance in their head in the past. It's a traditionally Hispanic working-class bar with a multi-decade-long history in one of the fastest-changing parts of Austin, sharing basically nothing with the upscale craft cocktail joints and high-price restaurants springing up around it. In a different world, La Perla might be considered in the pantheon of beloved longstanding dive bar institutions like Deep Eddy Cabaret or Buddy's Place, but instead it'll probably end up like Poodle Dog, shuttered and sent off to a Sixth Street upstate one day. There's a documentary about its place in the community in the works, but for now it's still here, a cheap, dingy, not especially well-lit bar with a small drink menu and loads of regulars. Tejano on the jukebox, fútbol on the TV, borrachos at the bar. You can tell a lot about a bar by its decor, and this is the kind of place that coats its walls with graffiti and curling Polaroids of regular patrons from decades past rather than polished sconces or $400 abstract paintings. For that exact reason it's unlikely to attract enough new patrons to be able to keep up with the rising rent and property taxes in this area for too much longer, but for now you can still step in and be transported back to a different era of Austin. We shouldn't romanticize the past - this is, objectively, not a fantastic bar for an outsider - but we shouldn't forget it either, and I'm glad that this place is still perched on its street corner.

Friday, July 21, 2017

#97: The Brixton

The Bar


The Brixton. 1412 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702

Visited 7/22/17 @ 1am.

EDIT: The Brixton has closed.

The Drink



Brixton mule. Tito's vodka, ginger beer, lime, jalapeño. $8.

A fairly standard take on the Moscow mule, with the daintily floating jalapeño the lone deviation from the mule script. Nothing fancy, which suits me - despite Tito's not actually being "handmade" (it's just as industrial an operation as you'd expect anything selling over a million cases a year to be), it and fellow hometown hero Deep Eddy are my favorite vodkas, and they don't need any special twists to shine in a drink. One thing that I've learned throughout this journey is that it really doesn't matter much to me how closely drinks adhere to their traditional formulas. I've had excellent drinks that fit the dictionary definition to a T, and excellent drinks that share nothing but the name with their supposed archetypes. That infamous American Standards Association Safety Code and Requirements for Dry Martinis document which declares that vodka "is never employed in a dry martini" is both a laudable attempt to provide some clarity to drink preparation, and a Sisyphean struggle against the human desire for novelty. Sometimes you want a classic, sometimes you want to roll the dice, but either way, only the skill of the bartender and the quality of the ingredients stands between you and disaster. I survived this experience just fine.


The Crew


Aaron, Alexis, Chris.


Notes


I first knew The Brixton as a punk-themed bar, named after the Clash song of course! They've undergone some changes in the years since they've opened, most famously due to their appearance on Bar Rescue. I'm not sure how accurate this account of that interaction is, but I'm glad they declined to stick with the stupid "Rocket Room 6" name that the show suggested. It's one thing to spruce up the interior, get nicer cups, and add some higher-margin drink options to attract more patrons, even if that's hardly the "punk" thing to do; it's another thing to pick a name that was almost certainly inspired by some consultant literally just looking around the room ("The name was inspired by a rocket tattoo on Tim’s arm with the number due to the bar being at Sixth Street"). In its current form, The Brixton is somewhat cleaner than it's been, with the hardly the scuzzy atmosphere you'd normally associate with punk. I vividly remember it being the very first place I ever saw Shiner Ruby Redbird on draft, which converted me from a hater to a fan. They've usually got multiple movies showing on the TVs around the interior - I've seen everything from Godzilla to Escape From New York to Independence Day playing. To even further enhance the viewing experience, they've also added a projection screen outside, which was showing The Craft when we were there. Also not the most punk movie! Oh well, at least the bartenders are still friendly, and if you can hang onto that, then you've got most of what counts.

#96: Revelry

The Bar


Revelry Kitchen + Bar. 1410 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702

Visited 7/22/17 @ 12am.

The Drink



RKB Mint cherry limeade. ​Zodiac black cherry vodka, mint syrup, lime, Topo Chico. $8.

Sometimes it pays to read. When I saw this drink on the menu right before the bartender suggested it to me, I was hoping it would be an alcoholic version of the famous cherry limeade from Sonic, one of the best fast food drinks out there. I've drank gallons of Sonic's copiously-iced beverages over the years, so I had an immediate reaction when the taste of Revelry's liquor drink did not quite match up: it had a better cherry flavor (though I was quite fond of Sonic's wildly artificial cherry syrup), less lime, and far more mint than I was expecting, even though it's basically the first word in the title of the drink. Maybe I should pay more attention sometimes! I don't know how you feel about the combination of sweet and minty flavors: sometimes it works, as in the mint julep; sometimes it feels a bit off. I think I honestly would have preferred the equivalent of some vodka dumped into a Sonic cherry limeade, but perhaps that says more about where I was at that point in the night than the drink itself - you really can't blame a bartender for the low class and dull palate of her patrons.

The Crew


Chris, Alexis, Aaron, Lisa, Jeff.


Notes


Revelry was one of the places that wasn't on my list, so I had to find it the hard way: on foot, as a serendipitous discovery right before The Brixton. You get to it by climbing up some stairs, where you're greeted by a patio centered around a massive, beautiful old pecan tree. The pecan tree is rightly the state tree of Texas and a valuable part of the Austin treescape, even if we have far more ashe junipers, cedar elms, and live oaks by the numbers, and despite our esteemed governor's pontifications, I think the economic, environmental, and social benefits of our efforts to preserve our trees result in much more pleasant buildings, bars included. The interior also makes great use of wood, as seen in the bartop, the tabletops, the exposed rafters, and so on, so as long as your idea of great decor involves varnish, spalting, and chatoyance, you'll be in heaven. They've got a bunch of TVs and an excellent kitchen as well, which makes it one of the more inviting establishments on the street for a long stay. I could see myself spending a pleasant afternoon here if I wanted the amenities of a sports bar without the atmosphere.

#95: Latchkey

The Bar


Latchkey. 1308 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702

Visited 7/21/17 @ 11:30pm.

The Drink



Jameson shot. $5.

Yup, that is definitely a shot of Jameson whiskey in a plastic cup, the drink that my bartender decided best represented the bar. You know, sometimes when I'm writing these posts, trying to capture my reactions to the wildly varying quality of drinks I receive, I have to smile about how subjective life is. In a lot of contexts, this would be a comically terrible drink to offer someone, bordering on insulting - here I am at this fancy craft cocktail lounge or other upscale joint, and you're serving me like I'm a college sophomore at an afterparty? In this context, though, it was both funny and appropriate for the venue, exactly what we needed. I have nothing left to say about Jameson whiskey itself after the countless times I've discussed it - it remains this popular for a reason - but as an instrument for expressing this bar, a friendly place in a transitional period, it was perfect.

The Crew


Aaron, Alexis, Chris, Lisa, Jeff.


Notes


​I knew when I started on my quest that I would be fighting against the natural entropy of bar closings, remodelings, and relocations, but I did not expect one of the victims to be one of my favorites. Rio Rita closed in December of 2016 and moved its incredibly potent Bloody Marys over to 12th and Chicon, leaving its old spot on East Sixth to be inhabited shortly afterwards by Latchkey. There's a full redesign pending, but if you go to Latchkey right now, expect a fairly Spartan interior: all bare shelves and blank walls, like the house of of a college student in West Campus circa the 90s who hasn't finished moving in and unpacking all the boxes despite the semester being nearly half over. It has the atmosphere of a post-exam house party, with the owner and bartender as the older students in grad school who can legally buy alcohol to entertain impressionable young undergraduates, so there's cheap well whiskey and even cheaper clear plastic Solo cups, unframed pictures on the wall and a ping pong table tucked away in a side room, the intimates of the host gathered around the dart board while the tangentially invited friends-of-friends cluster at the couches to the front and chat to each other. We weren't there for long enough to start smoking clove cigarettes, drinking rare European unfiltered absinthes, or discuss the Lacanian psychoanalytic underpinnings of the films of David Lynch, but I wouldn't have been surprised if a colloquium on Hegel had broken out any minute. I was genuinely surprised no one started passing a bottle around. I can't wait to see what the owner does with it in a few months.

#94: Licha's Cantina

The Bar


Licha's Cantina. 1306 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702

Visited 7/21/17 @ 11pm.

The Drink



Mexican 76. ​Código Rosa tequila, grapefruit juice, Pamplemousse La Croix, brut rose. $11.

The name of this drink is an obvious riff on the French 75, even though at heart it's basically a Paloma. Its ingredients likewise match closely, mutatis mutandis. As it turns out, tequila and grapefruit is an excellent substitution for gin and lemon, even if in my heart, tequila will never replace my beloved gin. I've had a number of tequila and grapefruit quasi-Palomas so far on this journey and I have to say that they have all been quite good. Interestingly, Licha's website lists a different tequila in this cocktail, Casamigos reposado, than what was on their menu, but I'm not sure I would have really noticed the difference, as the tequila mostly took a backseat to the grapefruit flavors. I don't know the exact reasons why La Croix is any more popular than any other brand of sparkling water (branding aside), but as long as you avoid any tedious thinkpieces about it, it's a welcome addition to just about any drink. A great choice by the bartender.

The Crew


Jeff, Lisa, Aaron, Alexis, Chris.


Notes


Despite the large Hispanic population in Austin, who are in general amply provisioned with places to drink, Licha's is one of exactly two places on Sixth Street which brand themselves a cantina, and given that Flamingo Cantina is really a reggae bar, Licha's is probably the only place that actually deserves the name. The most famous cantina these days is probably from Star Wars, but once upon a time they were very different than the fruity margarita-heavy generic Tex-Mex variety that On the Border exemplifies. I'm always interested in how bars separate themselves into genres like dive bar, Irish bar, karaoke bar, tiki bar, etc, so it's worth noting that while cantinas were originally a sort of refuge for rich guys hiding from their wives, they have gradually evolved the way of most exclusive institutions and morphed into family-friendly establishments with only the menu remaining to link them to their pasts. Licha's in particular hangs on to its heritage with an extensive list of high end tequilas and interior Mexican food, so even if you're just in for a single drink like us, there's still some autenticidad to sample. We spent some time enjoying the interior, which is fairly luxe, but we hung around outside for most of our visit to enjoy the patio, which is fairly spacious, with a large number of patterned tables. Had it not been for our mission, we might have stayed for another round.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

#93: Violet Crown Social Club

The Bar


Violet Crown Social Crown. 1111 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702

Visited 7/19/17 @ 9:30pm.

The Drink



Orange whip. Vodka, orange. $4.

This tasted like a frozen dreamsicle version of the screwdrivers I drank a ton of in college: cheap, boozy, delicious, but extremely cold. Weirdly, the was the first time I had ever tried their most famous drink, even though I've been to Violet Crown dozens of times. In my defense, their regular drink prices are so good - $3 wells, $2.50 Lone Stars, cheap craft beers - that I didn't even think to try the special. Also it's frozen, and I generally don't like frozen drinks since I don't like having to fight brain freeze to get drunk. But once you accept the idea that this is a drink for sipping it makes sense, because this is the definition of a potent potable. I wouldn't want to have to operate heavy machinery after a few of these, and though I had not had a screwdriver in years before this drink, taste by taste it brought back all kinds of pleasant memories, because there's something about a screwdriver's flavor that never fades - the sweetness of orange and the sharpness of cheap vodka took me right back in time, to endless nights of drunken fun with friends. Taaka vodka and Simply Orange might not be a madeleine for everyone, but it brings me right back. And in the heat of summer, even anyone else should welcome one of these as well.

The Crew


Davis, Aaron.


Notes


I consider all the bars in this family - Barfly's, Mugshots, The Hideout, Bender, Pour House, Pour House Pints & Pies - as some of the last redoubts of traditional Austin drinking culture, which is interesting since Marcos, the owner, is an El Paso native and his first venue Barfly's has "only" been around since 2001. Regardless, he's got a formula that has worked perfectly everywhere he's tried: solid drinks, strong pours, great prices, and good crowds. Each one of the bars he owns is like the optimal version of whatever it's around, and so Violet Crown is just about the perfect East Sixth bar. You get the same impeccable bar service and affordable prices that all of this series of bars has, but with the expected eclectic hip crowd, some slightly fancier drinks, a solid patio (though it could be bigger), and excellent trailer food, with the first installation of what is now the pizza empire of Via 313 still parked right out front making phenomenal Detroit-style pizzas until late at night. I know I sound like a paid marketing shill, but in a city with as many bars as Austin has, and and especially with such pointless soul-searching agony over what makes something "authentic" or not, it's just really refreshing to find a bar where the biggest worry you'll have is when the next visit will be.

#92: Ah Sing Den

The Bar


Ah Sing Den. 1100 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702

Visited 7/19/17 @ 9pm.

The Drink



Maria Victoria. Mezcal, lime, toasted Thai pepper syrup, kumquat/orange, cilantro. $12.

My road to mezcal appreciation was a long one, with many detours. First of all, mezcal was not exactly commonly available until fairly recently, so I didn't have a lot of experience with it. Secondly, I had the typical "one too many tequila nights" superstition, and so the devil liquor and all its derivatives were demons to avoid. Third, I didn't have an appreciation for smoky flavored liquors until I took a trip to Scotland, where I learned that I actually enjoyed the peatier varieties of Scotch, which mezcal is somewhat similar to. So when you combine its recent availability, my willingness to let go of my hangover memories, and my newfound appreciation for stronger flavors, you have the perfect opportunity for a new drink to charm its way into my heart. While the kumquat was unfortunately not available this night, forcing them to substitute orange in its place, the rest of the drink really showed up. The lime enhanced the mezcal's smokiness, and the toasted Thai pepper syrup was exactly the right mix of spicy and sweet behind it. The cilantro wasn't actually in the drink at all, just perched on top of the ice for the floral bouquet, so if you're one of those people with a genetic/behavioral dislike for cilantro you can just pluck it out, no worries.

The Crew


Davis, Aaron.


Notes


Ah Sing Den is far from the first "concept bar" I've encountered so far on this trek, but it got me thinking about the power of marketing, and how differently the two types of bar can appear to the casual customer. A year ago Ah Sing Den was East Side Show Room, a fancier Italian/Creole joint that I hardly ever went to. They still served craft cocktails, but it had a different attitude about it; less memorable except for the high prices. Now the same owners have opened this different concept and I found myself really digging what they have done. The interior is really nice, an example of the "opium den" style. I'm not sure why "opium den" has become a style - not only has essentially no one in Austin ever been to an opium den, I'm pretty sure that the real-life establishments where people take opium are not nearly so attractive and unsqualid as Ah Sing Den - but I guess the dim red lights and couches evoke an environment where you could do opium with a minimum of hassle, and they're hardly the only ones trying it on. I've heard that their food is good, but we didn't try any this time. The exterior section is even nicer than the interior, with some cool-looking red light lanterns, no two alike, and a lot of groovy 60s lounge music piped over the speakers. This would make for an excellent date spot (assuming, that is, that your date is into opium), but even just for cocktails it's a really classy joint. Amazing what some red lights and couches can do for the mood.

#91: Shangri-La

The Bar


Shangri-La. 1016 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702

Visited 7/19/17 @ 8pm.

The Drink



Shangri-lada. Mount Gay black rum, Finest Call piña colada, cherry. $8.

Forget for a moment that the "real" Shangri-La was situated somewhere near Tibet; to judge by the drink that the bartender chose to represent it, Shangri-La is actually somewhere in the Caribbean. A frozen drink seemed right for the season. I'm generally not a huge fan of frozen drinks, due to the annoyance of brain freeze (I get my margaritas on the rocks), but in the Austin summer, colder is better. I first tried Mount Gay rum back in college, when someone gave it to me as a "hilarious" birthday present. It's actually a really good rum, which is unsurprising since it's the oldest rum still in production in the world. As for the piña colada portion, I don't think I'd ever heard of Finest Call before, but they make a totally serviceable pineapple/coconut mix. There are far worse drinks to consume in this miserable heat, but in case you're not feeling something frozen, they have a few draft beers and some pretty cheap cocktails as well. But then you'd miss out on the jaunty umbrella perched on the rim of this cocktail, and wouldn't you feel silly then!

The Crew


Aaron, Davis.


Notes


If the drink was drawn more from the Caribbean than the Himalayan, the rest of the bar is positively Polynesian. Though the tiki theme isn't overwhelming, in fact it might be more accurate to call it tiki accents, it adds a bit of color to the divey interior, which is typically dingy and underlit. It's a slightly different aesthetic than the other bars in this family, the Grackle, the Liberty, and the Brixton. I've mostly come to Shangri-La for post-show beers, because it's cheap and their pours are strong. There's a pool table off to the side of the main seating/standing area, on the other side of the jukebox, in case you get bored of talking to your friends or watching whatever movies they're playing on the TV.

Outside is where you want to spend most of your time though, on their enormous patio ringed by a palisade of rattan fence topped by lights. Interspersed among the big beautiful old oak trees there are long rows of picnic tables, a seating style I've always appreciated since it's both space-efficient and conducive to serendipitous conversation. They have always had consistently excellent food options available; though I miss the superb East Side King, you can't go wrong with Baton Creole, which is currently parked out back. Some bars do enough things well that they're natural magnets for meetups, and Shangri-La is definitely one of those go-tos.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Sixth Street Sector Roundup: Dirty Sixth Part 2

I really slowed down for the second half of Dirty Sixth. I did the first half in one month, and then spent almost four times as long on the rest of it. Looking back at my notes, it seems like the first half was conquered in a few massive swigs, while the second half had to be sipped patiently, a few drops at a time.


And yet even though it took longer, this stretch of Dirty Sixth went down far easier than the first half. Despite containing bars that are just as dirty, if you will, I didn't encounter any of the lows here that I did there. No bugs in my whiskey! No awful Rumple Minze shots either, or more than the expected number of gimmick drinks, which actually turned out to be quite good, more often than not. No matter if it was a college bar, a dive bar, a club; most of them really rolled out the red carpet for our crew, giving us a good selection of cocktails, and even when they were reduced to offering shots, they were always good and only very rarely tourist-priced. I lost count of the number of bars that bragged that they were "regulars-driven", but their boasts were based on some solid truths: somehow, despite it all, thousands of Austinites brave the parking and the heat, the drunks and the homeless, the festivals and the holidays, the tourists and the cops, the short pours and the hefty tabs, to make themselves feel at home on what is still at heart one large third place, a stretch of road nearly unique in the United States.

I think part of that sense of uniqueness comes from the historic preservation of the storefronts, which is similar to the spirit of Bourbon Street save for the fact that Bourbon Street was primarily residential before its transformation, unlike the commercial heritage of Sixth Street. Drinking is literally serious business here. You can't drink architecture, of course, but after enough visits, the aesthetic really grows on you. Robust brickwork, sturdy timber high ceilings, broad live oaks, just enough neon, and music everywhere - eventually you can't imagine a stretch of bars looking any other way. It's an interesting historical twist of fate that the preservation of the majority of Austin's vintage buildings was primarily accomplished by transforming them into bars, but perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising; even the oldest residential building on Sixth was itself once a bar. If you're looking for physical proof of Austin's dedication to the good life in spite of the heavy alcohol regulations imposed on it by a conservative state, just look around you!

And now for some statistics!

Top 5 Bars


Using a completely subjective formula that takes into account the quality of the drink, the ambiance of the bar, the friendliness of the bartender, and my own level of intoxication, here are my top five bars:

  1. Touché
  2. The Gatsby
  3. Casino El Camino
  4. Jackalope
  5. Easy Tiger

Booze Brothers participating


Total: 26

  • Aaron: 28
  • Travis: 17
  • Hannah: 12
  • Davis: 11
  • Karen: 8
  • Rome: 6
  • Kyle: 5
  • Cristy: 4
  • Louis: 4
  • Chris: 4
  • Cecilia: 4
  • Vince: 3
  • Gary: 3
  • Stephanie: 3
  • Michael: 2
  • Kaylee: 2
  • Kyle H: 2
  • Phil: 2
  • Charles: 2
  • Geoff: 1
  • Elijah: 1
  • Cat: 1
  • Ryan: 1
  • Tim: 1
  • Jacob: 1
  • Bobby: 1

Establishments visited


Total: 28

  • Bars: 27
  • Venues: 1

Drinks consumed


Total: 28*

  • Cocktails: 18
  • Shots: 9
  • Beers: 1
  • Other: 0
  • Wines: 0

* Obviously I drank WAY more than that.

Money spent


Total: $220.50*

* That doesn't include taxes, tip, or the food or extra drinks I bought.

Friday, July 14, 2017

#90: Rhino Room

The Bar


Rhino Room. 1012 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702

Visited 7/14/17 @ 10:30pm.

EDIT: Rhino Room has closed.

The Drink



Cucumis sativus. Cucumber vodka, St. Germain, lime, syrup. $10.

Before you ask, the name cucumis sativus has nothing to do with weed whatsoever; it's simply the Linnean designation for the humble cucumber, that surprisingly useful household gourd. Now that you know, you shouldn't be surprised that this tastes overwhelmingly of cucumber, which I liked and found very refreshing: a perfect summer cocktail. I don't think I've talked about flavored vodkas before. In general I'm all for them. Vodka isn't like scotch or bourbon, where the whole point is to taste the complex favors that the distillation/aging process has bestowed. Vodka itself should be tasteless, a blank canvas on which the drink artisan can use their palette of ancillary flavors, and the more appealing that blend, the better. I don't think it's possible to go wrong with cucumber, particularly in this heat, and the combination of the elderberry in the St. Germain with the citrus of the lime and the sweetness of the syrup worked out great. A+ would drink again, unless any of their other cocktails tempted me first.

The Crew


Kyle, Rome, Aaron, Davis.


Notes


Rhino Room has been around for about two years, replacing Pete's and El Matador. I didn't ever go to either of those bars, but I would absolutely return to Rhino Room. The ground floor level is a little cramped, in that subtle but unmistakable manner that lends a sense of exclusivity to most places which serve a lot of craft cocktails. If the definition of architecture is the articulation of space to produce an aesthetic experience, then get ready to be articulated shoulder to shoulder at the bar, since the place was pretty hopping on Friday nights. After we had had all the crowding we could stand (literally, since all the tables were occupied), we went upstairs to sit on their tree-lined patio and relax. Next to us there was a Connect Four board that a couple who looked like they were together were using. Connect Four is a solved game, but it's always a lot of fun to watch drunk people in relationships play competitive games against each other, in case there's any drama. Nothing happened, but it was a fun eavesdropping experience. I bet this place lends itself well to interesting experiences.

#89: Pete's Piano Bar

The Bar


Pete's Piano Bar. 421 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701

Visited 7/14/17 @ 10pm.

The Drink



Lucky Duck. Pinnacle tropical punch, blue curaçao, peach schnapps, lemons, lemonade. $37.

That price is not a typo - this blue goblet of crushed ice and vaguely tropical liquor-adjacent fluids acting as a mournful duck pond costs as much as a night out on the town by itself. Granted, this schooner was split among the four of us, but that still makes for about 8 oz of "a delightful, drinkable gem" per person at $9 each. Not exactly a bargain, or a go-to order. It comes off like a watered-down Hurricane (insert your own "more like a tropical depression!" jokes), with just enough booze in it to ensure that it's still technically a cocktail while still leaving enough gustatory space in each gulp to leave the "yeah, that tasted mostly like blue flavoring" impression so characteristic of ersatz tropical-themed drinks, a race between your gag reflex and your brain freeze. But there's a duck in it! Look at that little guy!

The Crew


Davis, Rome, Kyle, Aaron.


Notes


There was a time in my life when I went to Pete's, if not on the regular, at least multiple times a year. Sometimes you just really want to hear about a hundred intoxicated late 40-year-olds warble along to a sub-radio edit-length piano-only rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody about once every 45 minutes, you know? It's a very particular itch to be scratched, to be sure, but when that extremely expensive group karaoke fever hits you, the only cure is paying a $10 cover to struggle for seats with seemingly half the world's population of accountants and then fighting their moms at the bar over who's next up to order a round of $8 Bud Lights. If not a paradise, it's a bracing reminder that there is no world but this one, and that this is your life.

I make it sound awful - and certainly the bitterly jaded and cynical current version of me thinks that it is - but when I cast my mind back to those more innocent moments in my drinking past, all I really remember is the good times. The showmanship of the musicians as they trade off their instruments and work the crowd into a bloodthirsty frenzy. The fun of winning that auction-style competition to request the next song by throwing all the Hamiltons and Jacksons you have into a pile to hear Tiny Dancer. The camaraderie of singing along with your bros to that 70s AOR standard while you're all sloppy drunk on some sickeningly sweet daiquiri derivative. And yes, even those comically overpriced drinks, which would make even the most mercenary Caribbean tourist trap owner blush. I guess fun is what you make it.

In conclusion, Pete's Piano Bar is a land of many contrasts.

#88: The Gatsby

The Bar


The Gatsby. 708 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701

Visited 7/14/17 @ 8:30pm.

The Drink



Old-Fashioned. Bulleit rye whiskey, Angostura bitters, bing cherry, orange. $7.50.

The fifth Old-Fashioned I've been served thus far, this was neither the greatest nor the worst, although now that I think about it I couldn't really pick a "worst", since all of them have been fairly enjoyable, even the wackier ones like Clearport's. There's a lot of room within the basic contours of the Old-Fashioned template for a bartender to use their creativity. I'm glad the bartender went with the rye whiskey variant over bourbon; even though I loved the bourbon version that Ruth's Chris made, I happened to be feeling more like rye whiskey that evening. She was really good at her job, jumping eagerly at the chance to make me something she thought I'd like, even offering to just dump more whiskey in my drink if I thought it needed more (I said yes). She talked up the bing cherries they carry, and I have to agree with her that a good cherry adds a lot to a drink - there's a reason that the "cherry on top" colloquialism exists! I found the excessive amount of ice cubes weird and more fitting for a cheap whiskey coke than for a classic cocktail, but hey: it's just ice, and we are still on Dirty Sixth after all.

The Crew


Kaylee, Michael, Aaron, Rome, Phil (not pictured), Charles (not pictured).


Notes


Friendly staff goes a long way towards making me consider going back to a place after this quest is over. The Gatsby is a decent bar in all other respects - solid drinks at reasonable prices, a nice interior with plenty of room for the live music they have occasionally, a spacious outdoor patio overlooking Waller Creek - and the great service provided by the bartenders each time I've been here has been a great X-factor that makes it really stand out. There's a lot to ponder about what makes "good service", since any bozo can slop liquor into a cup and hand it out to the person providing money for it. Why do some places have it while other places don't? According to the bartender, The Gatsby is owned by a former bartender who struck out on his own, and probably it's that same I've-been-in-those-trenches mentality that's been instilled in the current front-line drink-slingers to make them so likable. Running a successful bar is surprisingly difficult, as shown by the remains of countless fallen bars underneath the current crop like so many ancient Roman ruins, and even if The Gatsby didn't have all of its many physical charms, it would still be worth coming back to for its welcoming attitude alone.

#87: Easy Tiger

The Bar


Easy Tiger. 709 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78701

Visited 7/14/17 @ 7pm.

The Drink



Austin Beerworks Pearl Snap. $5.

I'm mildly surprised at how often this specific beer has been recommended. Not that it's been oppressive or anything, especially given how easy-to-like Pearl Snap is, just that it's notable that this is the beer that all these bars have synchronized on as the one to showcase themselves. Pilseners aren't even the most popular style of craft beer, and wouldn't you need a different beer for the hipster newcomers than for the surly longtime locals? Then again, it did get voted the "official beer of Austin" pretty recently, as you can read in that roundtable (you have to smile at the attempted literature in calling it "a cold-blooded assassin to Austin's ribald summer temperatures and a beer with the boisterous ethos of Texas, with the playful tenor of Austin's vigor"). Personally, I'm not sure I would vote for anything other than a dollar Lone Star special as the official beer of Austin, but maybe I'm just stuck in the past. Regardless, it is undeniably a fine beer for all seasons.

The Crew


Rome, Aaron, Kaylee, Michael, Phil (not pictured), Charles (not pictured).


Notes


Easy Tiger is one of my favorite hangout spots on lazy days. They do just about everything right:
  1. Food. They've got an excellent restaurant, with fantastic German-style dishes as well as a top-notch sandwich selection, with massive renditions of classics like the muffaletta or the Reuben. Their bread is superb - even getting a simple side order of bread and butter is satisfying. Try their pretzels. If I worked downtown, their $9 lunch special would tempt me every weekday, and right after that their happy hour specials are great too. Even better, they have a bakery, so you can take their bread home; several restaurants around town use their bread as well.
  2. Drinks. The big board up by the bar has a broad array of beers, in nearly any style you'd care for, but they've also got a carefully curated cocktail list with their takes on a few of the classics. I haven't spent a lot of time on their whiskey list, but if you've got to go out drinking with one of those people, it should do the trick.
  3. Setup. As we are all aware by now, I'm a big ping pong fan. Easy Tiger has three outdoor tables, and nothing is more fun than to play a few rounds, with rounds of drinks for stakes, right next to Waller Creek with a bench of admirers watching your attempted spin moves. The tables, plus their row seating, plus their indoor air conditioned table service, makes for good options no matter who you're with.
  4. Service. I don't know how they manage it, but I've never had a problem getting a beer no matter how many people are crowding the patio. Their servers somehow always know where I am and that I need another Pearl Snap.
Their long-promised north location seems to have run into delays, which is a bummer, but as long as the original maintains its stellar quality, there's nothing to complain about.