Page Two: Feels Like the First Time

On onion rings, barbecue, and the never-ending "Best of Austin" debate

Page Two
The first time I visited Austin, we drove down from Vermont in a then 20-year-old 1952 Chevy Deluxe that could barely hit 55 mph going downhill with the wind behind it. Not only was the car slow, but the interstate highway system wasn't finished, as well; it took days to get here.

We left from Vermont, where Everett, the car's owner and my co-traveler, lived. It was a time when we were driving up and down the East Coast on a regular basis. Good friends were restoring an old cotton-plantation house, room by room, in McCall, S.C. (just south of Fayetteville, N.C.). Alone, I ended up driving down to Florida, where I lived on the Peace River in a house with shuttered porches on three sides and filled with white wicker furniture from the 1920s. It was just outside of Charlotte Harbor, across the river from Punta Gorda. Our friends lived in McCall for years, and sometime after I left Florida, our friend Fred took a job working for The Associated Press in Miami. So the East Coast run was a fairly regular event for a number of years, even after I moved to Austin.

We'd always stop at South of the Border, a beyond-kitsch, Mexican-themed shopping center in Dillon, S.C., just south of the North Carolina state line. This will be familiar to anyone who did the East Coast run during that time: It was one of those tourist attractions that had many dozens of billboards on roads in every direction, indicating how many miles you were from South of the Border and beginning hundreds and hundreds of miles away. They were especially prevalent on I-95, the classic north-south East Coast run.

Established in 1949, the tacky shopping center's official name was Pedro's South of the Border, as it was presided over by "Pedro," who walked his mule all around. Crawford, one of our friends from McCall, played Pedro for quite a while and, as ridiculous as it all seemed, enjoyed it quite a bit.

Now, though we stopped at McCall on that first visit to Austin, we headed west after leaving, away from South of the Border. While I accept North and South Carolina as the Deep South, I have always regarded Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia as the Southern hat trick – a land even more unto itself. (I absent Louisiana and Central Florida from this list. The former is its own country, and the latter, three decades back, was so like a foreign planet completely imagined by pulp paperback novelists as to make those other three states look futuristic.) Maybe this was because I had traveled through Virginia and North and South Carolina by this time and was used to them. There was the KKK billboard welcoming you on the highway; endless, relatively new, all-white private schools established as a reaction to forced integration; and deep, deep prejudice so obvious that few disguised it. But it still wasn't the land of George Wallace, Ross Barnett, and Lester Maddox.

Shortly after crossing the border into that land, we stopped for lunch. I ordered a steak sandwich at some nonchain, fast-food place. What I got was a crusted, fried piece of steak. I had no idea what it was. In certain ways, the great adventure was beginning.

Dr Pepper, chicken-fried steak, chili without beans, fajitas (that dish specifically, and Mexican food in general, had not yet swept across the land), real barbecue – living in Texas was astounding, and almost entirely in ways I had not expected. It offered a range of foods previously unencountered and all wonderful; Big Red and peanuts, fried pies, and small Texas towns were explored, along with country music, poster artists, and the Armadillo World Headquarters. The first visit lasted a few months, but within two years, I had moved back here permanently. It is important to note that I ate a lot of okay barbecue on that first trip but didn't encounter the truly great, life changing, artery clogging, better-than-anything-you'd-ever-tasted-before, all-you-can-eat kind until we moved here. A friend took us out to Coupland's; after that I knew I had died and gone to heaven – and I knew I was staying! The important point is that, even before encountering the insane variety of mythic Hill Country barbecue, I already had decided to move here. Clearly, this was God's way of letting me know I had made the right choice.

The "Best of Austin" issue should be just such a voyage of discovery. It is a beginning, not an ending – the map for a scavenger hunt for the wonderful, unique, and not-to-be-missed, rather than any kind of exclusive catalog of Austin businesses, people, places, events, and the like. The "Best of" should lead you in hundreds of interesting directions. The heart of the issue, however, is not in these pages. It's when you finish that meal and say, "That chicken-fried steak was great, but it isn't the best! That's at ..." And off you go!

Next time, I'll tell the story of the time Nick Barbaro and Brian Mitchell got into an argument at Dirty's, fighting over which joint had the best onion rings in town: Dirty's or the Stallion's. Such were the stakes that, after finishing our meal of Dirty Burgers, we headed right up to the Stallion to sample the onion rings there. Rather then let such a visit go to waste, we of course ordered chicken-fried steak dinners (a one-patty meal was $1) with which to clean our palates. Barbaro, of course, went for the three-patty deluxe. Sure, I was ill for a couple of days, and my system still hasn't rid itself of all the fat, but it was worth it. Barbaro, as I recall, felt fine and didn't even notice the Katrina of fat that hit his system. end story

'SXSW Presents'

SXSW Presents' third season continues on KLRU on Tuesdays, 9-10:30pm. Below is a schedule for the remaining films in the series.

All films will air on KLRU, Tuesdays, 9-10:30pm unless otherwise noted.

Viva Les Amis

Oct. 17, D: Nancy Higgins

The Dreams of Sparrows

Oct. 24, 9:30pm, D: Hayder Daffar

Iraqi and American filmmakers' portrayal of daily life in Iraq

24 Hours on Craigslist

Oct. 31, D: Michael Ferris Gibson

State vs. Reed

Nov. 7, D: Ryan Polomski & Frank Bustoz

Explores Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed's case

Witches in Exile

Nov. 14, D: Allison Berg

In Ghana, women accused of witchcraft are sent to "witch villages."

A Light From the East

Nov. 21, D: Amy Grappell

American actors in the USSR to participate in a cultural-exchange project witness the fall of the Soviets.

Barbecue: A Texas Love Story

January TBD, D: Chris Elley


January TBD, D: Peter Sutherland

Fast-paced film about an NYC bicycle messenger

SXSW Shorts: Animated Program

January TBD, D: Various

Animated shorts by celebrated artists from Austin and elsewhere

SXSW Shorts: Reel Shorts

January TBD, D: Various

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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'SXSW Presents'
'SXSW Presents'
Animated Shorts Program

Feb. 16, 2007

'SXSW Presents'
'SXSW Presents'
'BBQ: A Texas Love Story'

Feb. 2, 2007

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Best of Austin 2006, SXSW Presents, Nick Barbaro, Dirty's, Stallion

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