36-Hour Austin Whirlwind

A few years ago, when I was working full-time and the girls were 3 and 4, a dad-friend of ours invited Andy, Phoebe, and Abby up north to his ski-house for some winter wonderlanding. Just dads and kids. No moms. I should’ve been offended, but I wasn’t. Almost as soon as Andy told me about the invitation I started making a mental map of all of the ways in which I would abuse my roughly 36 hours of alone time. There would be late sleep-ins, and long newspaper reading sessions by the fire, maybe an afternoon nap, maybe, if I was feeling ambitious, a really girly movie — get this — in an actual movie theater. In short, do nothing and embrace doing nothing. I was about 37, and 37 years are a lot of years in which one might get to know oneself and remember that…I’m not so good at doing nothing. I am almost too embarrassed to tell you (almost) how much got packed into those 36 hours, but let me just say that out-of-state zip codes were involved, the freezer was packed with different portion sizes of Chicken and Orzo soup (page 290, my book), and at midnight I was sipping a bourbon while assembling a newly-purchased Ikea chair. Every minute I wasn’t taking advantage of  the fact that a kid was not climbing on top of me, brought on a wave of guilt.

Aren’t you glad you’re not married to me?

I bring this up because I was in total 36-hour-whirlwind-mode last week when I flew to Austin to speak at BlogherFood. I knew I’d be hanging around the conference for at least a good part of Friday morning, and then after that — I’d be free to explore if I wanted to. In fact, it looked like I had enough time for two dinners, one lunch, one breakfast, and a pretty solid chunk of afternoon time in there, too. Even better, I had convinced an old friend to tag along with me — Lia, my Time for Dinner editor and, as luck would have it, we picked up a new friend/old hero of mine along the way — Molly, one of the originals, creator of Orangette. Molly spoke on my panel (topic: storytelling) and won my heart (again) when she said about food-writing, “This is my first trip away from my 9-month-old daughter, and to me, sitting at a bar alone with a margarita, and how that feels is so much more interesting to me than whatever food I’m going to be eating.”

That doesn’t mean we didn’t eat good food. We were in Austin for crying out loud, and oh my goodness, I must say, we did right by Texas. My plan was to book reservations for two dinners and then leave the rest to chance and mood and how much could be squeezed in between meetings. Here’s a run-down of what we did. Austin residents and aficionados: You should of course, feel free to tell me I did it all wrong. Cause I’m definitely willing to go back and redeem myself.

Thursday Night: Dinner at Uchi
A few months ago, I asked Andrew Knowlton, Bon Appetit‘s restaurant reviewer, if he had one meal to eat in Austin, where would it be. He barely hesitated: “Uchi.” I didn’t know anything about Uchi (or Austin for that matter) but it sounded all wrong to me. “Really?” I asked. “Sushi? No burritos? No Mexican? No barbecue? “Really,” he said. “The place is the most exciting thing that’s happening in that city right now.” In spite of the authority with which he spoke these words, I was skeptical. At least until I sat down and a parade of Tyson Cole’s contemporary sushi plates started arriving. Highlights: Hamachi with dried pears, marcona almonds, and raisins and a sea bream with jalapeno and a touch of coconut that Lia and I wouldn’t shut up about for the next 36 hours. Andrew’s review here.

Thursday Late Night: A Drink at The Driskill
This is where we were staying. In truth, the sake from Uchi was taking its toll on us, so we just ordered seltzers with lime while catching up with our friend Katie. The bar, like the lobby, is covered in cowhide and a Texas Longhorn lords over the lounge area. Also: I think they might have the best hotel headboards ever. (See photo above.)

Friday Morning: BlogherFood Conference
Blaring nightclub music in a banquet hall while pink frosted cupcakes and pistachio-speckled rice puddings flash across two Jumbotron screens? It could only be BlogherFood! I spoke on a panel about “Food and Storytelling” with Molly, Rachel, and Merry-Jennifer.

Friday Lunch: Veracruz
Two things to say here. One: When traveling, always ask your dinner waiter where to go for lunch the next day. And two: It is a good sign when someone has to hand-draw a map to answer your question “Where will we find the best burritos in Austin?” After being politely admonished (“burritos are a West Coast thing, it’s all about tacos here”) we left dinner with the map you see above directing us to Veracruz. Along with the note: “Best tacos ever! Order the migas taco on corn!” We do what we are told. All three of us ordered exactly that along with a Big-Gulp-size watermelon agua fresca. I don’t know if it was the migas that was so good or it was just the fact that we were sitting on electric blue picnic benches next to a gas station and a pinata store in a place that we wouldn’t have ever found on our own.

Friday Afternoon Activity 1: Barton Springs
Because we couldn’t eat allll day. The three of us lounged on the grassy berms of the famous spring-fed pool in our cotton dresses and jeans among swarms of tattooed, bikini-clad swimmers. One of those perfect travel activities where the act of just chilling out counts as soaking in the culture.

Friday Afternoon Activity 2: Shopping on South Congress
I love this little stretch of stores — A swanky boutique like By George (which sells Rag & Bone, K Jacques, Joie, etc.) next to a down-and-dirty record shop, the kind of place you find around the back and down the alley. (Or in college towns.) Vintage tchotchke- and objet-packed Uncommon Objects is a must, even — especially — just to browse. And lest we lose energy for our precious few hours of aimless wandering, we kicked it all off with an ice coffee at Jo’s. (Thank you for the rec, Tony!)

Friday Night: Dinner at Sway
It’s contemporary Thai on South First, and at the helm may just be the most likable man in Texas: Rene Ortiz, also of La Condesa fame. Sitting on high stools at the end of an enormous mahogany table, Lia, Molly, and I attempted to pace ourselves as we reveled in sticky tamarind chicken wings, and chilled prawns wrapped in betel leaves with cashews that you pop in your mouth like…a taco. This is so the way I could eat every day.

Saturday Morning: Breakfast at Polvos
When Andy was last in Austin he came back singing the praises of the migas and famous salsa bar here and so Lia and I snuck in one last meal before heading out to the airport. An adobe building on South First Street, festooned inside with multi-colored Christmas lights, Polvos was all I ever needed in a breakfast. Or on a whirlwind vacation, really.

Saturday, Noon: AUS –> JFK

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Ooh. I went to the University of Texas, and was therefore in Austin for two years, and believe it or not, I did none of the things you did in 36 hours there. (Although…it is kind of difficult to go to Uchi on a grad student budget.) But I’m glad you got to sort of explore a place I still regard with great fondness, and also extremely envious of your encounter with Molly Wizenberg…


Wow! Orangette and Dinneralovestory together! Food bloggers are my rock star, so when i hear of my favorite bloggers hanging out,it makes me excited, like two rock legends jamming. I have to start calling you guys by your names though, in my head, you are dinneralovestory, and Molly who? oh Orangette, the food blogger i have been following since 2007.


Your list makes me realize I need to get out more. I think I’ll start with the place next to the pinata store — that map cracked me up! Glad you enjoyed Austin.


OMG – you came to Austin and didn’t give us fans a chance to meet up or make rec’s? You did pick some pretty amazing places but I wouldn’t call Uchi the most exciting place in town – maybe the best – but buzz has moved on to Uchicko and to Qui (former executive chef under Tyson and Top Chef Texas winner Paul Qui’s new place that has been doing the soft open. Plus you missed out on the que especially in light of TX monthly new ratings. Finally, although there’s much I could recommend there probably wasn’t time for – you could have grabbed Amy’s local ice cream in the airport.


Polvos is where it’s at. That salsa bar is just amazing, and the spicy carrots. HELLO. That place is pure Texas.


My hometown! Oh, I just love Austin and miss it all the time. Sounds like you did it up right, but if you ever go back I have another long list for you 😉


I have been born and raised in Texas and just FYI it is so so easy to make your own migas tacos in the morning. Embrace it 🙂

Laura Miller

I wish you had gotten IN Barton Springs Pool. Wow, it’s chilly! Can’t believe I used to swim in that as a teenager. . . Glad you had fun. As Lyle L. says, “You’re not from Texas, but Texas wants you anyway.”

Megan H.

As an Austinite, I’d say you did a great job!! Glad you enjoyed your time here. Let us know when you’re back!


Hi Jenny- I visit here everyday & try to cook for my family of five often- tonight it’s your ribs! But one of my favorites is hearing what books your girls are into. My girls are about the same age and we always love your recommendations. Big big hits! Anything new we should read for summer? Please 🙂


We’re headed to Austin on Friday for a visit with our two grown daughters. Hopefully we won’t have to do any deconstructed dinners except for the 2 1/2 yr old and 8 mo old at the table. Love your stories.

Slone Ranger

There are just so many great places to hit up in Austin, but it sounds like you covered a lot of good ones. You should definitely plan another trip back to Austin in your near future. Thanks for the entertaining post!


Ok, so I’ve never been to Austin and have nothing to add on that front. But what I just LOVE is the whole 36-hour-whirlwind of alone time that only a working mother of young children can understand. I have one coming in a week and a half. I have thought about it non-stop. What will I do? What can I do? Who will I visit? How much can I cram in? Thanks for the big smile…

Katie Workman

I am now going for a 36 hour whirlwind in Chicago for BlogHer, and wish you and Lia were going to be there to meet me for a drink at a bar!