Monday, July 31, 2017

#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.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

#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.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

#90: Rhino Room

The Bar


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

Visited 7/14/17 @ 10:30pm.

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.

Tuesday, July 25, 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.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

#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.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

#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 so many other bars underneath the current crop like 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.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

#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; I know 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.