Sunday, June 14, 2009

Rating the Dates

The pictures have been posted and the thrills described. But how did my back-to-back trysts with Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Austin stack up?

Winner: Albuquerque

Reason: This is going to shock people, but the three best gastronomic experiences I had were in New Mexico, and two of those in Albuquerque. First the Golden Crown Panaderia’s Green Chile Bread rocked our worlds. Then I had a divine trout and leek sauce dish at Zinc in Nob Hill. Finally, my delicious Ayurvedic meal at Annapurna in Santa Fe can also be enjoyed at their Albuquerque branch.

Winner: Santa Fe

Reason: No-brainer here. It’s just gorgeous, like the genetically blessed supermodel who could never be mistaken for anyone else. As if more justification were needed beyond the fact that the Spanish settled here in the 1609 (duh – you pick the best spot first!), it consistently ranks as a top 10 US vacation destination - it was number four in this year's Conde Nast Traveler Readers Choice Awards - and is one of those places whose name alone evokes a dream lifestyle.

Winner: Albuquerque

Reason: Austin is known for its friendliness, but we had a few instances of rudeness that really startled us, such as a bike store employee yelling, “Can’t you see we’re closed?” Santa Fe is friendly, but a little tourist-weary. But in Albuquerque, everyone was warm, chatty and uber-helpful, with strangers taking 30 to 45 minutes to talk to us, draw maps, tell us where to eat, etc.

Winner: Austin

Reason: It’s like no other place in Texas or even the US, really, thanks to its defiant weirdness. It’s the legendary hipster mecca. It’s the home of South by Southwest and Austin City Limits. It’s a big party year-around…and never lacks a blazingly good soundtrack. (There’s even live music in the airport, for crying loud.) It makes you wish you could only be half as cool.

TRAFFIC/CONGESTION (between the two “big cities”)
Winner: Albuquerque

Reason: We didn’t encounter ANY traffic – not even during Friday “rush hour.” For the largest city in New Mexico (population 800,000), that ain’t bad. One reason may be that it has two 75 mph interstate freeways (25 and 40) connecting perpendicularly to disperse traffic. In comparison, Austin (population 1.5 million) has one main artery, and we got stuck on it twice.

Winner: Austin

Reason: Kiplinger’s 2009 Cost-of-Living Index puts Austin ahead – it scores a 94, whereas Albuquerque and Santa Fe come in at 98 and 100, respectively. (100 is the average, so anything lower is cheaper than average.) The biggest factor? According to CNN’s Cost-of-Living Comparison Tool, housing in Austin costs 16% less than in Albuquerque.

p.s. A huge reminder about why I’m on the prowl: Los Angeles scores a painful 142 on the Cost-of-Living Index.

Winner: Albuquerque

Reason: I wasn’t sure who’d come out on top on this one between Austin and Albuquerque. (Santa Fe, at 75,000 people, is just too small.) Then I see Kiplinger’s 2009 Best Cities rankings, which this year “focuses on places that have stable employment plus the talent to create new, well-paying positions.” Both cities make the list, but Albuquerque edges Austin out (#2 vs. #8).

Winner: Austin

Reason: I don’t think I even need to explain this, do I? Sleepy New Mexico’s got nothing on Austin’s wild scene, thanks to its countless live-music venues, bars, and festivals. Also, let’s not forget those 48,000 very thirsty University of Texas students. Or that Travel & Leisure “America’s Favorite Cities” rankings put it #2 for live music and #4 for singles/bar scene.

Winner: Albuquerque

Reason: Santa Fe just doesn’t have the real estate bargains and job opportunities that make for a win-win. Austin and Albuquerque have both, which means it comes down to tiebreakers. If I were single, Austin would probably win out. But I’m not, and these days, less congestion and niceness matter more than nightlife. Clinching the deal, US News & World Report just named Albuquerque the Best Place to Live for 2009, putting Austin #3. So close, but “the ABQ” takes it!

Final tally: Albuquerque 5, Austin 3, Santa Fe 1. Let the planets re-align!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Dazed and Amused in Austin, Texas – Part II

(Read Part I for the beginning of this tale.)

Our second day in Austin we found our bearings. If we’d done our research properly, we probably would have made a beeline to this funky and happening area. But the delay only amped our appreciation.

For anyone who knows Austin, you’ve probably already guessed that I’m talking about historic South Congress (“SoCo”). Dilapidated and seedy not so long ago, SoCo has been revitalized and reborn. It’s now home to the most popular South by Southwest “musician’s hotel,” the Hotel San Jose, the longtime holdout Austin Motel, several carefully curated thrift stores, the Allens Boots megastore, numerous cafes and, of course, the legendary music venue, The Continental Club, which has seen SoCo through good, bad and back.

If you need any further evidence that you’re in the hippest part of town, just walk past Hey Cupcake, which sells cupcakes out of a Airstream trailer accompanied by live music (see photo below).

We knew we were on track as we bit into our uber-rich Carrot Cake French Toast (complete with warm cream cheese sauce) during brunch at South Congress Café. High from all the sugar, an impromptu shopping spree took over us, leaving us with bags full of gently worn retro duds as well as some handmade jewelry from Ten Thousand Villages, the fair trade retailer that sells the wares of artisans from developing nations around the world. (Yes, that was a plug.)

If we hadn’t just had dessert for breakfast, we surely would have given into not only a cupcake but also the weirdo ice cream flavors at Amy’s Ice Creams, including Shiner, which is flavored with the beer Shiner Bock. (Did I mention this is a big drinking town?)

After a nap, we set out again to grab some (more) comfort food and hear some live music. Our greatest hits tour took us first to Threadgills, a local institution for 76 years, and also where local "Roots & Rock" star James McMurty was performing that night.

Unfortunately, our grubbing on fried pickles, meatloaf, mac ‘n cheese, “Texas black-eyed pea caviar” (pictured below) and more in the restaurant adjacent to the outdoor stage ran a little long. When we emerged, there were no seats left, and our nascent food coma was making standing seem out of the question. So we headed back over to The Continental Club, where we were early enough to score table seats and hear some jazz.

That night, we slept extra hard thanks to the turbocharged air conditioning in our room. (We never did figure out how to turn it down, a sign that such as desire was clearly abnormal in these sweltering parts.) We awoke refreshed, and the sun, which had hidden a bit the day before, was out in full force. The obvious thing to do was to go biking. I mean, we were in Lance Armstrong’s hometown after all. But first we needed to fuel up, and we hadn't had a nibble of Mexican food yet.

We made our way to the famed technicolor shack that is Taco Xpress. You can't miss it thanks to the huge, wacky and welcoming bust of owner Maria Corbalan out front (see photo below). We arrived at the tail end of “Hippie Sunday Church.” I’d read something about it a while ago, but I don’t think anyone can fully appreciate it until you’ve experienced it. We’re talking about some serious rocking out.

Young and old, boho and yuppie, everyone was on their feet, dancing, shouting and clapping (with greasy hands from eating tacos, of course) with a true religious fervor. The lead singer of the band was absolutely going for broke, whipping her head to the point that I was concerned for her spinal column. It was perhaps the moment where I really got Austin. This place lives for A) music and B) brunch, and when you combine the two, well, prepare for nirvana.

Still decompressing from that raucous scene (above is the beer line afterwards), we rented bikes at one of the nicest bike shops I’ve ever been in and pedaled the short distance to Town Lake (renamed Lady Bird Lake in 2007, but no one seems to call it that). And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. A lovely lake (formed by damming the Colorado River) right in the middle of town, with big corporate offices just a block away in some cases, but with the added amenity of 10 miles of interconnected trails around the perimeter. Everyone, their brother and their brother’s dog was out walking, jogging or biking.

We had to conduct some high-stakes crowd navigation, but we didn't mind. Biking around Town Lake is darn fun, except when you’re lost, as we were twice. This did allow us to see a rowing competition in progress as well as talk to some natives, but next time, we’ll take a better map. (Talk about the recurring theme of this trip!)