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by C. Jeanette Tyson

     You’ve seen that bumper sticker: “I wasn’t born in Texas but I got here soon as I could”? It always makes me shake my head because, let’s face it, Texas is not all flowers in the hair and lying in the chaise with cute boys fanning you and fetching chocolate. But if you changed the word ‘ Texas ’ to ‘ Austin ’, I just might slap the thing on my station wagon.     
It took me more than forty years to get here, but I figure that was just about right.      
Before that, sans children, I would hardly have appreciated Austin ’s kid-friendliness. Somebody must’ve realized a long time ago that when Mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy and henceforth made it an easy town for us. I am writing this while Maddy and Jackson , fast approaching four, do “yoga.” There are fabulous music classes at the Armstrong School for the wee ones. There are wonderful museums. There are nature camps, gymnastics camps, acting camps. There are parks upon parks and people who, miraculously, don’t yell at you if your toddler waddles out in front of their bike. There are kids in every restaurant and at every musical venue. There’s a kite show. There’s a playground at the grocery store. This town seems to embrace every child as its own. It’s heartwarming, and a lifesaver.

For much of my thirties, I would not have appreciated the town’s laid-back nature; there’re few tyrants in Teva’s. No, I would’ve taken it as a sign something was lacking. I had dragons to slay, the bigger the better. The more scarred I was by their fire-breathing, the more worthy I became. I am constantly impressed by the creative juice shooting through Austin ’s veins, but a friend who’s been here more than twenty years, a brilliant guy, laments the old days. “Twenty years ago this place was so great. It was nothing but slackers.”
I may not even have appreciated the heat. If you’re going to put in the gym-time and work that hard to be able to show a little skin, isn’t it nice to be able to show it much of the year?
     So not only am I a happy citizen, I have all the zeal of a convert. Recently I had the chance to show off the town to friends from one of my lily pads along the way, Seattle .

     But here’s the question: when it comes to food, what defines Austin ?
     We started with Guero’s. Really, have you ever had a bad time there? So you have to wait for a table, maybe sit under that fabulous oak and listen to a band with a cold beer. Torture.  Or maybe the only wait you have is for your kids to toss a few coins in the fountain and say hello to the goldfish on your way to a table. Guero’s, housed in what was once an old feed store, is a place you can ease into and stay a while. The shrimp fajitas are unrivaled. 
     Surely there’s a bit of old Mexico in Austin .
     The next night we ventured to Uchi. The minute you drive in through the bamboo fences and search for a parking space, because yes, it is packed on a Tuesday night, you expect something interesting. Beautiful young girls smoke on the porch. (Don’t get me started on that.) The wallpaper is red with huge flowers, the wood dark, the waiters in black. There are booths and tables, everything close. You’ve come into the warm beating heart of the primal Asian beast.
     Toro sashimi was the special that night. It arrived in a small bowl of ice with a tall sprig of flowers. If I didn’t have cats, it would have made a nice piece of art for my house. The fish melted like butter in your mouth.
     We continued with spider rolls; softshell crab, flying fish roe, Japanese cucumber wrapped in white soybean paper.  Crudo, a starter dish of raw red snapper, grape seed oil, garlic and black pepper in an orange juice vinaigrette, was delicious. And the hakujin, a fresh salmon and grilled asparagus rolled in warm tempura flakes, was not our favorite, but interesting nonetheless. 
     The place had pretty much cleared out by ten but it was Tuesday. Even the beautiful people have to pace themselves. Surely there’s a bit of L.A. in Austin .
     Completing the culinary triptych was Magnolia Café. The atmosphere is 3 a.m. diner, though the food is far more conscious than that. Ginger pancakes, of course, are the kids’ favorite thing, besides meeting the kid in the booth next to us and scampering back and forth. There’s a variety of vegetarian offerings, including a wonderful portobello mushroom melt. The catfish tacos are fabulous.
     The weekend breakfast line at Magnolia starts early and lasts into the early afternoon but no one seems to mind, not the college students who’ve just rolled out of bed, the couples who’ve already run the lake, the friends who’ll talk about their own college days and runs around the lake as long as the coffee keeps coming.
     Surely there’s a bit of nostalgia in Austin
     It’s tough to impress people from Seattle , itself a pretty cool place to live, but we managed to do it. Already I’m thinking of other places we should’ve gone. But how do you choose? It’s as difficult as picking the three moments, three relationships, or even the three pairs of shoes in your closet that completely define you.
     But would you have it any other way?

1412 S. Congress Ave.

801 South Lamar

Magnolia Café
2304 Lake Austin Blvd.
C. Jeanette Tyson is AustinMama.com's beloved foodie-in-the-field.


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