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Fatty Brisket, Live Music and the Whole Karmic Bowl of Queso

A couple of weeks ago I made a pilgrimage south to my hometown of Austin for various reasons, which I described here. Part of the reason for the trip not discussed in the previous post was a chance to throw open the hood on my creative engine, and there is no better place to find holistic medicine for existential crises than Austin, whose weirding ways are legendary enough to get their own T-shirt.

This middle-aged, economy-model scribe hasn’t been running on all cylinders lately. The loss of my mother to cancer and a young friend to suicide within a few months will pile the miles on your tires and leave you gray faster than Instagram can belch another cheeseburger photo.

Add the full-time job of managing teenagers, and pretty soon a writer starts reaching for the same tools to execute his/her craft. At least, that’s how I self-psychoanalyzed it during the six-hour drive south down Interstate 35 on Aug. 4.

So, I made a list of things I wanted to accomplish after delivering my daughter, Kate, to her cousins’ home in Dripping Springs and dining with my eldest sister Suzanne in Austin. But I’ll spare you the list because what I had in mind wasn’t what the muses had in mind for me. Instead of spending the better part of a week bawling myself out to deliver more inspired copy, I found inspiration in divine happenstance.

Not long before I left for the trip, longtime friend, colleague and photographer-extraordinaire Jim Beckel mentioned he would be stopping off in Austin for a quick stay on his way back from a family trip to San Antonio. I told him it so happened I would be in town and invited Jim to stay with me at the little cabin my family has owned for more than thirty years near the rocky shores of Lake Lyndon Baines Johnson in Granite Shoals, Texas.

Jim arrived Wednesday in time to anger some local wasps nesting under a railing and have some dinner over which we planned a tour of Austin the next day. Before leaving in the morning, we decided to stop in Spicewood, Texas, for lunch. On my many trips to and from Austin from our Burnet County bungalow, I count how many times I’ve passed Opie’s Barbecue in Spicewood, a town notable for being the home of Willie Nelson and family and the gone-but-not-forgotten Weird Plant Store. I’d read great things about Opie’s, but had never had a chance to stop as I was never sure they could accommodate my wife Lori, a card-carrying vegetarian.

We decided an early lunch would set up nicely for an early dinner, and stopped at Opie’s around 11 a.m. on Aug. 7. Inside we were greeted by a commercial cast-iron smoker that looked like a fitting casket for an esteemed family of well-fattened hogs. A young lady arrived lickety-split to swing the top open to reveal what amounted to a barbecue showroom, whole briskets cooked to succulent frailty, rib racks, whole turkey breasts, pork loins and chops, various members of the sausage family and half chickens.

Inner-caveman engaged.

We ordered plenty of the fatty brisket, sliced thick like God intended, some sausage and turkey. Then we walked through a cafeteria line to pick out some sides and dessert. In the center of the spacious barn-style dining room was a buffet containing pickles, onions, jalapenos, sliced white bread and a couple of kettles filled with beans. We were told we could serve ourselves to as much of the beans as we liked. And we liked, a lot.

Served with our lunch was a heaping helping of Texas Hill Country entertainment. A venerable troubadour named Randy Wright sat behind a microphone, slide guitar in his lap and another acoustic by his side. He sang the favorites, and talked us through lunch with insights about concept albums by Willie Nelson and Pink Floyd, took requests and led diners young and not so young in a rendition of “You Are My Sunshine,” one of a handful of songs my mother sang at my bedside to help me fall asleep when I was a child. That made those pinto beans, which she would’ve loved, even tastier.

The brisket delivered on the promise it made to our eyes. Whoever tends the pit at Opie’s obviously grew up in the Texas Hill Country. The brisket was barky on top and moist and tender in the center. Sauce? What sauce? It was fine, but this brisket bristled at the application of any enhancement on what it had to deliver to the palate. We used the sauce as a dip for the aforementioned white bread and some and the tater-tot casserole I couldn’t resist.

By the time we left Opie’s, a line had formed at the counter, reaching out into the hot Texas noon-hour. We understood why, and future trips to Granite Shoals will not go without a stop by Opie’s. Just hope Mr. Wright is there strumming his guitar.

The remainder of the drive into Austin, I basked in the barbecue sedating my senses but kept awake thinking about the nice little blog post I’d just scored. What I couldn’t know yet is that all I’d really done was set up what would become a greater story to share.

That story would unfold after a stroll through Austin’s Umlauf Sculpture Garden and halfway through a visit to the section of South Congress Avenue known better as SoCo, which might well be the birthplace of the weirdness Austin is so keen to maintain.

During my youth, South Congress was little more than a hangout for subculturists at either the Armadillo World Headquarters, behind the Skating Palace at the Barton Springs Road intersection, or up the street on the east side near the corner of Monroe at The Continental Club.

The Armadillo was born in 1970 and became what Cain’s Ballroom is to Tulsa. From Bruce Springsteen to The Clash with plenty of Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson and Joe Ely in between, even Frank Zappa once played The Armadillo. But that venerable venue ended up like one of the critters it was named for when it wanders into traffic the day the property it occupied was assessed a goldmine.

The Continental Club, on the other hand, was born in 1957 as a swank supper club where you’d be more likely to hear then-old-school big band music of the 40s. It evolved into a burlesque club through the 1960s before the Austin music scene began to take shape in the early 70s. It was a far smaller club than the Armadillo, which likely made it more sustainable. And it occupied a space halfway up a rise in the road much more difficult to develop. In the late 1980s, new ownership retrofitted the club to appear more as it did in its early days, featuring a signature red velveteen curtain befitting a supporting role in a David Lynch film. New owners made the place a haven for retro-rock and Western swing. It is Oklahoma legend Wanda Jackson’s home away from home.

As we walked past the legendary club that afternoon, Jim paused to check who was playing that night. He asked if I’d heard of any of the bands. And there, at the 12:30 a.m. slot, I saw What Made Milwaukee Famous – a band I’ve loved for years. A fantastic club band, who really should’ve hit it big but didn’t, in a place that never should’ve hit it big but did felt too mystical not to explore.

We arrived at about 11 p.m. to make sure we could get in, and immediately found our way into some ice-cold Rolling Rock and eventually Lone Star longnecks (Long Live Longnecks!) when I heard someone mention this was to be WMMF’s last Austin show. A quick check on the internet confirmed the news. Not only was this to be their last show in Austin, the city where the band was formed, but the penultimate show of the band’s decade-long existence.

Clearly the performance we were about to see would not only be as lively and entertaining as those I’d seen at Seattle’s Crocodile Club, the Austin City Limits Music Festival and locally at VZD’s, but perhaps something closer to epic.

And it was. The band thundered through the show playing like there was no tomorrow because there literally was only one tomorrow – a final show at the Continental Club in Houston. Frontman Mike Kingcaid was his usual magnetic self, bearing as much emotional range as musical without losing his sense of humor. Not sure I’ve ever seen a band receive so many whiskey shots from the audience. The band navigated the playlist and the shots with aplomb. After the last song ended minutes before 2 a.m., the band exchanged hugs with each other as well as members of the audience.

The total exhilaration of a shared experience left us wired and hungry not only for food but more life-affirming stimuli. At 2:01 in the morning on South Congress, there is really only one place to turn, Magnolia Café South.

When people ask me to explain the difference between dining in Austin and dining in Oklahoma City, I start with the Mexican food but finish with how in Austin there is no hour of any day when you can’t find an interesting place to have an excellent meal. Magnolia is not only a fantastic all-night diner, it’s a keystone to the SoCo district.

After the Armadillo closed in 1980, The Continental Club wasn’t nearly large enough to carry on its global tradition. The area hung on, attracting local businesses like the now-legendary Lucy in Disguise With Diamonds costume shop in 1984, into the historic spaces not unlike what we have on NW 23rd Street. But it was a second Magnolia Café location that was a fulcrum to the area’s rebirth.

An all night café on Lake Austin Boulevard near Deep Eddy pool known for gingerbread pancakes, diner fare, and its “Sorry, We’re Open” sign, Magnolia Cafe was originally called “Omlettry West” when it opened in 1979. The menu expanded over the next few years, the lines got longer and the name changed. Ever-lengthening lines inspired owners Kent Cole and Diana Prechter to expand.

South Congress offered cheap rent and an eclectic all-night crowd, so in 1988 they swooped for the former home of Flossie’s Bar and the Austex Lounge, calling it Magnolia Cafe South.

Whether by Magnolia’s influence or not, the boom commenced henceforth from Guero’s Taco Bar in 1995 to the Hey Cupcake Trailer in 2007 with Tesoros Trading Company, Parts and Labour, The Hotel San Jose, Vespaio, Home Slice Pizza, Amy’s Ice Cream and the First Thursday tent merchant’s market in between.

When we pulled up, I was relieved to see there was no line around the restaurant. Yes, it was after 2 a.m. Friday morning, but I can guarantee in 24 hours the line looped the restaurant.

While Magnolia Café was built on breakfast, it’s now known as the place where when a bath of queso hosts sliced avocado and mounds of black beans and pico de gallo they call it Mag Mud. It is divine, and it never lasts terribly long. Never. (The closest incarnation you’ll find in Oklahoma City is the Naughty Little Queso at Big Truck Tacos, thanks to chef Kathryn Mathis’s long spell as an Austinite.)

We split a big, messy burger on special then each ordered a slice of pie to comply with a city ordinance requiring pie with any meal served between the hours of midnight and sunrise.

A night that will not soon be forgotten ended on a fitting note of blueberry cobbler and vanilla ice cream, recapping the day and night on our 45-mile drive back to Granite Shoals.

Jim got six or so hours of sleep before he had to head back to Oklahoma City, but the universe was not yet done with me.

One of the items on my Austin to-do list was to see Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” at the Alamo Drafthouse at The Ritz, a classic downtown theater, since the film had yet to premiere in Oklahoma City. I knew full well I would see the movie when it finally arrived. Lori and my son Luke were chomping at the bit to see it.

But Linklater’s work – especially the films that exist in his alternate Austin universe – are practically sacred to me. A quick scan of Metacritic made it clear Linklater had brought all his ideas together, and I had no doubt I would see it more than once, just as I have his other films.

But Jim’s visit meant crossing that item off my list, leading me to an evening Linklater would’ve been proud to put on celluloid. I had no idea just how accurate that assessment was until I was seated in the back row of a crowded theater No. 14 at the Quail Springs AMC with my family.

Deep into the landmark film, already dizzied by its elegance, rhythm and commitment to emotional restraint, I saw the signature red curtain of The Continental Club appear on the silver screen. The lead character and his girlfriend are at an Austin Steamers show, sitting three paces from where Jim and I stood a week before. When they leave, the couple dines at Magnolia Café South, where they do what you do in that restaurant at that hour, crush queso and talk life – again just as Jim and I had.

Seated between my wife and son, I couldn’t help but wish they and my daughter had been with Jim and me the week before at Magnolia. But I realize if Kate and Lori had been there, they likely would’ve been asleep in the queso. On the other hand, Luke I really wish had been there. We did a similar late-night diner fandango with friend and former colleague Chad Previch at the Kerbey Lane Café in Austin back in 2006, celebrating Luke’s ninth birthday.

Luke had a rough week while I was gone. The kind of rough week 16-year-olds have, and seeing how he’s the embodiment of “Boyhood,” it would’ve been fitting.

But if “Boyhood” depicts anything, it’s that romanticizing the future is a short-cut to building hope. Short-cuts typically end up costing you more than the time you saved especially when it comes to what we want versus what we need. What my recent trip and Linklater’s film reminded me was time is a concept created by mankind to settle our nerves. The past is data, the future fuels our thirst for life. Now, is where we live but doesn’t always provide the dopamine-spiking, cosmic-tumbler tripping moments we crave. Good things, no great things, take time to come together – like good Scotch, a properly made brisket or a movie filmed over 12 years. Some kind of faith will help you ride out the hard times While you’re waiting, stick to what you know, cling to those you love, keep your eyes, heart and the possibilities open and life will reward you after a spell.

Sometimes it’s stumbling upon a beloved band’s farewell show, a good friend’s surprise visit, a comely hunk of fatty brisket, a venerable troubadour, a bowl of queso bearing black beans and pico, or a movie so good you still haven’t stopped thinking about it a week after you saw it.

And if you’re really lucky, it’s all those things in quick succession when you need it most.

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Dave Cathey

The Oklahoman's food editor, Dave Cathey, keeps his eye on culinary arts and serves up news and reviews from Oklahoma’s booming food scene. Read more ›