Monday, December 19, 2011

The Lucky Lizard Curios and Gifts/ Museum of the Weird

 One of the first things I did when I moved to Austin was visit 6th Street.  6th Street one of the places that Austin is famous for, after all, and it seemed to be where all the action was.  I learned while in Europe that you need to get out and explore any city you move in to if you really want to enjoy it to its fullest.  I can take you on a tour to Frankfurt, Germany that would blow your mind, and I am quickly developing a similar knowledge of Austin. 

 Austin's catch-phrase is "Keep Austin Weird", a tribute to its artsy and liberal-hippy nature in an often overly conservative state.  Austin is known for its music, its art, its bat-colony, and is becoming known for film-production.  "Keep Austin Weird" has unfortunately been copy-righted and commercialized, and Austin struggles to become more like cities on the coasts, sacrificing much of its unique flavor.  A rare few businesses and venues in Austin work hard to truly keep Austin weird.

 One of the focal-points of weirdness in Austin is The Lucky Lizard Curios and Gifts.

 The Lucky Lizard is not your typical tourist-trap.  Its owners focus on things that are off-beat and "spooky".  The best expression of this idea in my mind are the comic books and television shows from the 1950s and '60s that focus on monsters and strangeness, like "Tales from the Crypt" or "The Twilight Zone".  I have always been drawn to strangeness of this nature; carnival spook-houses, side-shows, tattoo studios.  Probably explains why I became a tattoo artist.  The Lucky Lizard caters to all of these interests.

 When you walk-in, you will find all kinds of weird nick-knacks.  They carry a collection of plush animals and matching ceramic figurines, each with a grinning skull for a face.  A wide variety of Austin and horror-film inspired t-shirts lines one of the walls of the shop.  Jewelry and prints by local artisans dot the sales-floor.  They also carry numerous horror-film related toys and memorabilia, particularly related to the old black-and-white classics; Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, and The Creature From the Black Lagoon. 

 And, it has The Museum of the Weird.

 The proprietors have assembled a collection of taxidermy oddities, horror-film props, wax-figures, and even a couple of actual mummies.  As you walk in, you are greeted by the "Zultan", a fortune-telling machine that was once popular on America's boardwalks and similar to the device featured in the Tom Hanks film Big.   The narrow hallway that makes up the bulk of the museum is CRAMMED with odd items and information about those items and the history of the American Sideshow, including a wax figure of P.T. Barnum.  You can walk the short hall in a few minutes, or spend an hour reading about the collection and checking out all the exhibits.  There is a selection of Bigfoot footprint casts and information about the legendary creature.  The walls feature heads of animals born with two-faces or beasts like the famous jackelope.  One display case is dedicated solely to deformed animals, such as calf with two-faces and 6 legs and a pig cyclopes.

 The first year I went, the hallway was the whole museum, which was more than enough.  I have taken my children back at least once a year since, and have made certain that friends visit the museum when they are in town.  The second year I visited, The Museum of the Weird was being expanded.  It featured a viewing area at the end of the hall where you could see the Egyptian Monitor Lizard for which the shop was named, along with two other little beasties.  The proprietors rescued and rehabilitated all of their lizards, and the Egyptian Monitor happily has the run of the place.

 My last visit, which was just this month, allowed my daughter and I to tour the completed expansion.  We were escorted past the lizard viewing area and up three stories to meet the Egyptian Monitor in person.  She was far more interested in getting outside for a little sun than basking in the attention of her fans, but I did get to pet her and ask questions about her, which was awesome (and a privilege I am not certain every visitor gets).  Then we were taken into The Museum of the Weird's theater.  Here was a small viewing room with chairs facing a stage were horror films are shown on Saturday Nights and where a side-show performer does his set.  

 These additions were made because The Lucky Lizard and The Museum of the Weird are striving to be more than just another off-beat shop in Austin.  They are offering something unique and special to the community, both for fans of strangeness and the artists that create it.  Saturday brings you a "family friendly" spook-show, and Sundays has been reserved for a BYOB showing of The Walking Dead television series.  Doc Ravencraft is available to perform seances, discuss the bizarre artifacts from the "Cabinet of Curiosities", and provide an entertaining journey into the paranormal.  It is an experience that is uniquely Austin, one that should not be missed.

 Even the websites are cool.  Check them out below, tune into Chris Walden's THE SHADOW HOUR on Wednesday nights, and interject a little strangeness into your world.  

 412 E. 6th Street
 Austin, TX 78701
 512 476-5493

Friday, October 14, 2011

The House of Torment

 Halloween is easily my favorite holiday.  I grew up in the 70's and 80's, when it was still common for kids to wander their neighborhoods with no concern about their safety.  Trick-or-treating was something that you perfected into an art form by the time you were 12.  I love horror films, ghost stories, monsters... and Halloween was a celebration of all the above.

 One of the Halloween Traditions that I have always enjoyed is the "spook-house".  In fact, when I go to carnivals, theme-parks, or festivals, if they have a spook-house, I check it out.  When I was a kid in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the best spook-house was the one put on by the local Boy Scouts at an old church; the Haunted Castle.  They still put it on every October, but the church has since been demolished.  Back then, spook-houses were usually put on by a local group trying to raise money for their organizations.  Now, franchises have stepped in with a goal of making a profit, for better or for worse. 

 The House of Torment is one of those franchise spook-houses.

 As an adult, my love of things scary has been shared with my daughters.  My eldest daughter is 17.  Next year, she might be busy with classes, busy with college, or would prefer to go with her friends.  I saw this year as possibly being the last year that she and I would be able to share in this tradition.  It had been a few years since we last went to a spook-house together (not counting the one at Six Flags and the one last year at the Texas Renaissance Festival), so I made a special point of going this year.

  The House of Torment probably has the largest advertising budget in our area.  They advertise on billboards, on radio, television spots, and have deals worked out with local businesses to give their customers discounts (I received a coupon from Sonic for $2 off my ticket price).  The local House of Torment is in a building that was formerly a movie-theater at Highland Mall.  This has been their site for several years, and they have permanent structures in place.  This tells me either they are making enough money to cover their rent of the site for the year during the season, or that the property owners also bought into the franchise.
  
 Either way, the House of Torment is the big money-maker among the seasonal spook-houses in Austin. 

 I was leaning toward going to the House of Torment simply because they are right down the road, they are the most visible, and their advertising suggests that they are the best in the area.  One ad claimed that they were rated as the #2 haunted house in the nation, and another placed them in the top 13.  Word-of-mouth, though, had not been in their favor.  I did some searches on-line, and found both positive and negative reviews, with a few complaining about how the crowd at the site were made up of "thugs and gang-bangers" and that the employees acted disinterested and bored, including the costumed actors.

 Still, I decided to give them a shot.

 The tickets were about $20 each, and paid for both "shows".  My Sonic coupon took $2 off each ticket, but had I planned this out a little more in advance I could have taken advantage of a Groupon purchase of about $15 for the VIP passes (normally $30 each).  I purchased my tickets on-line for the second show (7:30) on a Saturday.  We arrived early, expecting (correctly) a line, at 7pm.  Corrals were in place for each 30 minute showtime, and we were first to arrive for the 7:30 show.  Two different kinds of employees greeted us outside; guides in "House of Torment" t-shirts for crowd control and taking tickets, and actors in costume who entertained the crowds while they waited.

 The actors were very engaging, making jokes, acting spooky, and posing for pictures.  The costumes were impressive.  There was a girl (I am assuming it was a girl) dressed as a demented female robot.  Her costume had lights and made strange noises, and she would occasionally stop and "spit" a black fluid from the masks "mouth" onto the ground.  She walked in a stiff, mechanical manner and creeped people out.  Another actor was dressed as a pirate, spoke with kind of an Irish brogue, and cracked jokes as he worked the crowd.  The guides were polite and friendly... nothing like the negative reviews I had read.  The crowd itself was a diverse mix.  Highland Mall is in or near "da hood" and is the "bad mall" in Austin, but that was not reflected by the crowd that night.

 The spook-house itself was impressively decorated.  The lighting was minimal, foggy, and carried the sounds of creepy music and noises marked often with the shrieks of pre-teen girls either ahead or behind us (while waiting in line, a gaggle of 12-14 year old girls shrieked there heads off every time a costumed actor came near... who they thought they were putting on a show for I have no idea).  The costumed actors inside went out of their way to be creepy, and were all convincingly attired.  There were several animatronic characters, including a couple of massive demons, a flayed dog, and other strange beasts. 

 The House of Torment had several obstacles common to other spook-houses.  There was a rickety "bridge", an air-jet, a tilted-room, and one walk-way that was lined with air-bags, forcing you to push your way through the tight space.  There were no options on the path, you simply walked from area to area, with different spaces having different themes (one show was a burned-out future city, the other a pirate/jungle theme).  The lighting was consistent throughout, so no attempt was made to change the ambiance or using the lighting to frighten you.  

 The actors also only had really one trick in their bag.  The floors in most areas were smooth boards, allowing an actor with knee pads to slide suddenly at you after just a short run.  This might startle you the first few times, but after the 12th or 13 time you simple expected it.  It was the same in both shows.  The second show also ended abruptly in the gift shop.  I expected to be deposited there at the end, but not in half the time it took to get through the first show.

 For an extra $5, you could shoot at pop-up zombie-targets at a paint-ball shooting range.  We passed on that.

 While the House of Torment was not the scariest spook-house I had been in, it was impressive.  As to it being worth $20 a ticket, well, it was worth it to spend the evening with my daughter.  Otherwise, probably not.  No doubt there are other spook-houses in the area that are less expensive and probably are more exciting.     

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Bat City Bombshells

 If you were not in attendance for the It's Hot... Take It Off burlesque show September 10th featuring the Bat City Bombshells at the Red Shed Tavern, then you missed a great show.  At just $5 at the door, it was also probably the best ticket for the price in town that night.

 For those who are unfamiliar with the art of burlesque, American Burlesque (derived from the Victorian Era burlesque shows of Europe), are related to, at least in my mind, the shows of the Vaudeville Era.  Burlesque differs in that their main feature is the strip-tease, which is showcased with mildly raunchy comedy, playful musical skits, and dance numbers.  To me, burlesque represents a period of innocence in the American psyche, something more sexual than the typical Vaudeville Show but less jaded than the performances of Exotic Dancers in modern strip-clubs.  The girls in the burlesque shows that I have seen differ from their "exotic" counterparts in that they seem to genuinely be having fun.  Burlesque is about the tease, not the display.  The give-and-take between the performers and the audience is not as one-sided as it is in a "gentlemens club".  A burlesque show titillates and entertains.  It is a turn-on on more than just a physical level.

 Burlesque is simply more fun, and no troupe I have seen in Austin is more fun than the Bat City Bombshells.

 The show was emcee-ed by Nicole Lucas, a comedic wit that was sharp and sassy, a perfect compliment to the performers on the stage.  Cindi's Gifts provided a basket of erotic goodies that was raffled-off and some t-shirts that were handed-out during the show.  The Red Shed Tavern was a superb venue, offering a stage situated outdoors in a spacious and well manicured back-lot.  Even the weather co-operated, treating us to a break in our 100+ degree weather with a cool evening for the performance.

 The ladies were amazing.  The Bat City Bombshells mix classic burlesque skits and modern dance numbers.  The performers ranged from those having years of experience to a few girls who had never performed burlesque for a live audience until that night.  The skits were humorous, sexy, and fun.  Three of the girls, including the notorious Sherry Bomb, treated the audience to a feathered-fan strip-tease, a tradition in burlesque.  There were several sultry solo dances, a couple of the girls dressed as husband-and-wife did a skit and strip-tease about a woman who just had enough with being ignored, and the finale took the audience to a car-wash where the girls made getting a car clean a little dirty.  All the while, the girls were smiling, winking, and having just as much fun as we did in the audience.

 That is simply what makes burlesque great.

 The Bat City Bombshells are an Austin Original, appearing at finer venues all-over town.  Check out their website and like them on Facebook for details about the girls and up-coming shows.  Burlesque is a bit of lowbrow fun, and the Bat City Bombshells do it like no one else in town.




I love my life.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Kolache Factory

 Before moving to Austin about, man, has it really been 7 years ago (?)... I had never heard of a "kolache".  Indiana is not exactly the center of the universe, so many of the trends that are common in civilization are unknown to the barbarians living deep in the cornfields of the Midwest.  A "kolache" in this case is an American version of a traditional Central European wedding dessert.  Of course, while theirs is filled with sweet fruits and jellies, we fill ours with meat, eggs, and vegetables and eat them for breakfast.

 We're kooky like that.

 This morning I was a little early arriving at the post office to ship about 3 dozen packages to eBay auction winners (check out my other blogs about an Exit Strategy).  Across the street from the Post Office I use on North Lamar is a Kolache Factory store.  I have had a kolache before, but never from the Kolache Factory.  The name makes me think of an automated-process involving conveyor belts or maybe a Rube Goldberg Machine.  The building is located near what I refer to as "the medical district" (due to the number of hospitals, doctors' offices, and medical-suppliers in the immediate area), and aside form the outdoor dining area it has the look of a small factory.

 Inside, the look is completely different, more like an up-scale doughnut-shop.  The two people behind the counter were friendly and quick to serve, and the kolaches; traditional and American, were on display behind them.  The guy who took my order pro-actively offered to heat mine up.  The microwaves are placed under the check-out counter, right at genital-level... which I am not certain is very safe for employees who might be employed there for a long period... but, fuck it, I don't work there and as long as their mutant radioactive kids have enough brain-cells to take my order in the future then they are welcome to continue to irradiate their genitals to their hearts-content.

 Though, now that I think about it, given where they place your food to "heat it up", it might be wise to be nice and polite to these guys.

 I ordered a sausage-and-cheese kolache and a ham-and-cheese croissant.  The kolache was basically a dinner roll with some cheese-paste and a clone of an Eckrich breakfast sausage in the middle.  The sausage and cheese was baked in the roll and doesn't stick out on either side like at some places, and the cheese was not overwhelming.  The most flavorful aspect of the kolache was the little bit of salted butter that had been brushed onto the roll, otherwise it was, well, a roll with sausage and cheese.

 The croissant was awesome.  Now, to be fair, I like croissants, so I may be a little biased.  My girlfriend does not like croissants, so no matter how I might rave about the filling, it is wrapped in what she would describe as a "vile waste of dough".  The filling in this pastry was excellent.  The ham is cubed to a point of almost being ground-ham, and the Swiss (?) cheese held all the ham together.  A "dollop" of ham is really the only way to describe it, like it had been placed in the croissant with a medium-size ice-cream scope.  

 The croissant rocked.

 The best part, though, was the price.  I spent less than $4 for two filling breakfast pastries.  

 The Kolache Factory is also a Texas original, starting near Houston about 25 years ago.  They are spreading out, coming to a town near you.  If you haven't checked them out yet or have one opening near where you are, I highly recommend paying them a visit.  It is hard to beat the value you get for the price.

3706 North Lamar
Austin, TX 78705
512-467-2253

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Hideout

 Let's get something out of the way right now.  Fuck Starbuck's.  Fuck them right in their collective ears.  Starbuck's represents everything that is wrong with our Capitalist System of economics.  Sure, on the surface, you have an American business that has become successful... becoming the model for other coffeeshops across the country.  Indeed, they often buy-out those shops.  They provide jobs for good people and they have a brand that is followed by the masses all-over the world.  The downside is that the American Coffeeshop epitomizes the "mom-and-pop" business.  When someone opens a coffee-shop, it is usually themselves and their family members that actually operate it.  They are invested in how the business runs, knowing who their neighbors and customers are, and creating an environment.  Starbuck's tears the soul right-out of the coffeeshop.  Oh, sure... they pay lip-service to the idea of being a part of the community and they model themselves after the mom-and-pop shops, but when the people behind the counter are minimum-wage earners and not the people for whom this kind of business is a dream-come-true, when it is about peddling as many cups-o-joe as possible and not about creating a place... It just sucks.

 I don't do Starbuck's unless I want a coffee and there is no local option to choose from, and then I have to want coffee really, really bad.  

 With that said, let's talk about the Hideout Theater and Coffeeshop on Congress.  The Hideout caters to and has a focus upon performers; comedians, actors, vaudeville, and burlesque.  It is one of those businesses that "gets" what it is to be a part of Austin.  

 I love this place.

 The first time I visited, it was to catch a burlesque show.  The place was packed, but the folks behind the counter were jazzed about the crowd; happy, friendly, and quick-to-serve.  You could tell that the people were not just employees... they recognized that they were a part of something special, something that goes beyond serving coffee, beer, and sandwiches.  

 I'll talk about burlesque in another post.

 The coffeeshop rocks.  They have relatively the same drinks you would expect from the big corporate machine; frappes, cappuccinos, espresso drinks, etc.  The prices are competitive with those other places as well.  What you don't get at those other places is the atmosphere... the vibe.  Hanging on the walls of this place is a rotating display of art by local artists; whimsical, political, realistic, child-like... As an artist, I can tell you what a boon it is to have a place like The Hideout who will display your art.  Try walking into your local Starbuck's and getting your work displayed.  Yeah, not without going through and getting approved by the corporate office, and only if your work meets whatever standard they are trying to maintain as per their brand.  

 The food is drawn from other local businesses.  This morning I went in and had an espresso-shake made with Amy's Icecream, a croissant sandwich by a local vendor, and my girlfriend had breakfast tacos from Torchy's Tacos.  Even with the food and drinks offered, The Hideout is a hub for many things that are "Austin".

 The seating offers a variety of options, from over looking the street to sitting in a private corner in the back.  You can come in here on your own or with a large party, and not only find adequate seating, but you can usually be as open or private as you want.  My kids and I like to sit at the table that is on the stage (for when they have local musicians perform) and watch the early morning activity on Congress.  

 Even the music playing caters to the uniqueness and community conscious vibe of the place.  It's not piped in from some corporate-approved digital soundtrack, and is not your top-forty drivel.  Most mornings you will either hear from a local musician or they are pulling music from around the world.  It is always something different and always helps complete the mood.  The Hideout is the kind of coffeeshop where you can relax with your friends, sit on your computer and work on a book or artwork, or just get your thoughts in order.

The Coffeeshop supports the improv theater, which is the heart-and-soul of The Hideout.  These folks are students of just about every style of improv you can imagine; short form, long form, Chicago-Style, NY-Style, CA-Style, Austin-Style... especially Austin-Style.  They teach improv to those who are interested, even offering a free introductory class for the curious.  They are dedicated to their craft and keeping the art-form alive-and-well.  They offer classes for adults and children. 

 The Theater has something for everyone.  Comedy is their main billing; offering not only a venue for local, amateur, and professional comedians, both Stand-up and improv, but also a stage for a variety of performers.  You get the feeling that everyone involved feels like they are a part of a family, and that they are keeping something of the essential showman experience alive from the days of vaudeville. There are several shows each week, and every show is unique.  For those who are looking for something "Austin" to do, The Hideout is one of the best tickets in town. 

 I cannot recommend this place more highly.  Check out The Hideout for coffee in the morning, for information about what is going on with the creative community, and for an entertaining evening.  

 617 Congress Ave  
 Austin, TX 78701
(512) 443-3688 (H-I-D-E-O-U-T)

The Cedar Door

 The Cedar Door on 2nd (Willie Nelson Blvd) and Brazos has been an Austin Original since 1975.  What drew our attention is its claim as the "Home of the Original Mexican Martini".  In my review of Chuy's, I point to their Mexican Martini as one of the best in Austin, so it only made sense that I needed to try the original.

 Recently remodeled, the Cedar Door has an impressive outdoor seating section overlooking Brazos, banquet rooms, and glass garage doors facing 2nd St.  The interior was spacious, with large flat-screen television within easy viewing distance in any direction you looked but also not everywhere you turned you head.  You could watch the televisions or focus on the conversation at the table with equal ease.  

 The staff was friendly, and it seemed like the servers make a point of letting you enjoy your food and the atmosphere while themselves not getting in the way.  Our waitress did not hover around our table or her section of the restaurant, but kept our drinks filled.  The check came a little more slowly than I would have liked, but then it is the kind of place that encourages you to sit and relax.

 The menu, which also recently changed, included what I would consider common sports-bar fare.  For example, we ordered fried mushrooms as an appetizer and I had the chicken-friend chicken.  The fried mushrooms were similar to those you get at Cheddar's, and the chicken-friend chicken was a step below Applebee's.  Price-wise, though, these same items were slightly less expensive than from the two places I mentioned.  We went with the top-shelf Mexican Martini, and we didn't like it as much as its counterpart of Chuy's.  It was good, maybe even a little smoother than Chuy's Mexican Martini, but it lacked the same spicy-kick.  

 If you are not a fan of spicy food, then you would probably favor the Cedar Door's drink over Chuy's. 

 Over all, it was a cool place to eat; just a couple of blocks from 6th St, good food, great atmosphere, and a competitive price.  If you are looking for a place that everyone can afford to hang-out at before hitting the bars on 6th St, then check out the Cedar Door.

 2nd and Brazos
 Austin, TX
 512-473-3712

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Gallery Black Lagoon

 This is going to sound a little weird, but I am very excited about this place.  It all has to do with their name and logo.

 I know, I am a sucker for these kinds of things.

 I was a HUGE fan of "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" movie.  It was a tediously slow-moving film, the acting was so-so (I do horror film reviews on another blog, check it out), but the "gill-man" costume was amazing.  It was just one of those things that stuck with me as a kid as being the height of cool.

 When I saw this place going in a year or two ago, I was disappointed that I had not had a chance to stop in and check out the movie-store that was there previously, but thrilled about the idea of an artist having a gallery that had SOMETHING to do with that movie.

 Like I said, I am a sucker for these kinds of things.

 So, this is all a little premature.  Sunday, we rolled by the Gallery Black Lagoon, finally having an opportunity to stop in the Hyde Park area and check it out.  They were closed.  Looking in through the window, I saw a few shelves with some hand-made jewelry, and maybe something on a wall way in the back, but otherwise the place was empty.  The hours were like 12-4 M-F on the door (don't hold me to that...).  I also saw that the place could be rented out for $100 and hour!

 Can you imagine?  You are a "starving artist" and you want to do a show.  Let's say you want to do a Saturday night show from 6pm to midnight.  That will be $600, my hungry friend.  You better hope your flier campaign brings in loads of people with fat-wallets, or that you have a dozen artist-friends willing to share the space and the cost.

 Thankfully, the Gallery Black Lagoon is not in the business of separating artists from their money.  In fact, quite the opposite; they do a series of shows and calls-for-art each year, inviting local artists and artisans to participate for free.  They even let you keep 85% of your sales, which is a bargain, as veteran artists will tell you.  The gallery space is large enough to support several artists at a time, and the place stands-out, so promotion of your show should be easy. 

 The place is also in a cool location, right next to The Parlor Pizzaria (review coming soon) and across from the Hyde Park Theater, forming a kind of creative nexus.  It seems to be a great location for wedding rehearsals, small receptions, and small charity events.  The art displayed and discussed on the 'net is a little more mainstream than my own work, and they have already turned me down as a participant in their next series (for the sake of full-disclosure and not all that surprising).  It looks like a great place for an artist like myself to get involved with the art community, enjoy a show, and get some free eats for a small donation.  

 There next show is August 26th.  More to come... 

 4301 A. Guadalupe St
 Austin, TX 78751
 512 371 8838

Five Guys Burger and Fries

 My 11 year old, Gabrielle, raves about Five Guys Burgers and Fries.  She must have had it somewhere in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.  When we passed the location on Guadalupe in Austin, she was very excited, and said that we had to try it.  Personally, I couldn't imagine what her fuss was about, I mean, it is just another burger-joint.  Still, the next opportunity we had to go out and didn't know what we wanted, we opted to check out Five Guys Burgers and Fries. 

 On the plus side, they keep burgers simple.  There is nothing overly pretentious about the place.  Steak-and-Shake is what I would call an overly pretentious burger-joint... I mean, it is a burger.  Calling ground beef "ground steak" is just assuming that your customers are idiots.  "Burger-and-Shakes" lacks the same ring to it, but that is as far as I would go with the whole "steak" thing.  Five Guys Burgers and Fries has a simple storefront, a simple menu, and is a fairly straight-forward operation.

 I think this is coincidence, but there happened to be five guys working the shift we paid a visit.

 At the front of the store, guiding you to the order-counter, was a walk-way lined with giant bags of what I think were peanuts.  They might have been potatoes, and that seemed to be the impression I had that day, but that would mean that they go through a ridiculous amount of potatoes.  Everything is made fresh.  The place has no freezers, so maybe they were potatoes.  Anyway, I thought it was a nice touch.

 The menu, like I said, is simple.  A burger is 2 patties with whatever toppings.  A little-burger is 1 patty.  You also have hot dogs and (of course) fries, regular of "Cajun".  The variety of toppings allows for 250,000 variations on how you get your burger.  They only do "well-done".  I had a burger with bacon, cheese, and barbecue sauce.

 The burger wasn't too bad.  It wasn't too greasy (not necessarily a "plus" in my book), had only a hint of seasoning, and definitely was better than a once-frozen patty somewhere else.  The fries were good, and they have malted-vinegar on hand for those who like that.

 However, there was nothing outstanding about the burger, nothing worth the hype, anyway.  I am confident that most people could make the same burger at home in a frying-pan on their stove top.  The fries, also, weren't amazing.  My kid was actually a little disappointed.  Apparently, the Ft. Wayne store over-flowed the bag with fries.  Our fries just filled the container.

 Oh, that was the other cool thing.  No trays or anything.  They hand you your food in brown-paper bags, even if you are eating in.

 The food was not bad, but not amazing.  The amazing thing was the price.  My burger, which in size I would compare to a Whopper at Burger King, was $6.99!  That is not with fries and a drink.  My cup-of-soda was another 2 bucks.  To feed the four of us, I spent more than $40.  That is the price I expect to spend at Applebee's, or maybe a local burger-joint like Dirty Martin's where the burger is massive, not a franchise burger-joint.

 So, Five Guys Burgers and Fries was not bad, but was over-priced.  Either make the same burger at home or go somewhere that you get more bang for your buck.

 3208 B Guadalupe St
 Austin, TX 78703

 Tel: 512-452-4300

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Anime Overload

 This year was the 3rd annual Anime Overload convention, and our second year going as regular patrons.  Both my daughters are heavily into the anime culture ("anime" refers to Japanese-style cartoons and comic-books)... so much so that this year they each went dressed as some of their favorite anime characters (referred to as "COSplay"), they create their own anime artwork, and at least one is learning Japanese.  Anime has a broad cultural impact, influencing the look of video-games, toys, and even advertising here in the US.  In Japan, "manga" (anime-styled comic-books) is one of the most popular forms of media with stories in every genre and for every age-group.  A few years ago I even read that military manuals in Japan are illustrated in manga or anime style.

 Anime Overload lasts a weekend, beginning on a Friday at 10am and ending the following Sunday at 5pm.  At least for the last 2 years, it has been held at the Crockett Event Center on North Lamar Blvd, and the date has been set for early summer; late June or early July.  Last year, there was some mix-up with their original venue, which is the reason they moved to the Crockett Center.  The Crockett Center may not be the most ideal location; one half of the building houses a Hispanic Flea-Market, and the event center more frequently caters to mixed-martial arts tournaments and gun-shows... but it seems to be the easiest one to book.

 Anime Overload features a variety of vendors and artists selling their wares, including an "artists alley" which seems to include mostly local artists.  Among the vendors are several artists who visit conventions like this one nationally, traveling from convention-to-convention largely on the profits earned from each event.  One of the artists, Ali Morgainne, who markets her work as "Hoshikko Ink", is from Houston, and travels the state at these conventions.  Another artist, Chuck Porcheron, of "Warhound Art Studio" travels the country.  Both artists have got my daughter and I considering participating at future conventions.

 There are two distinct groups of people patronizing in Anime Overload.  One group I would refer to as "deep-geeks".  These are the people who are deeply invested in time, money, and effort into some fringe past-time or hobby.  A deep-geek can be into just about anything, but if it is profitable (like tattooing) or socially well-received (like football), the "geekiness" is less obvious.  The deep-geeks at Anime Overload participate in the seminars, discuss and break down anime plots and characterization, and share tips on creating COSplay costumes and accessories.  The deep-geeks often are deep into the anime scene; they know the people who have been invited as guests, co-ordinate their own activities locally, and probably are involved in some fashion with Anime Overload's production team.

 The other group, which make up the dominant majority of the people you see running around the place, are "fan-boys" (despite appearances, the distinction is gender-neutral).  These people are fans of anime.  They have their favorite manga or anime shows/characters, and are up on the latest series being played on channels like Cartoon Network.  They COSplay, getting their costumes pre-made with little or no personal effort in the creation or design.  Some of them wear costumes totally unrelated to anime or anything going on at the convention.  This is because, unlike the deep-geeks, fan-boys are interested in being recognized by others as a fan of anime.  Their investment is not in an interest in anime itself, but rather in anime as part of their personal means of self-expression. 

 It is there way of being special.

 There are numerous events to participate in.  Sleeping Samurai is a performance group that invites the crowd to participate in mock sword-fights with nerf or padded weapons (many of the patrons showed-up with custom-designed "regulation" weapons).  The rules are simple; each opponent tries to land a strike on one of their enemy's limbs.  Combat is referreed.  If a limb is struck, that round ends, and during the next round the victim cannot make use of that limb; the struck-arm is placed behind the back, a struck-leg requires the victim to go down on one knee.  The fight is over when one of the opponents looses the use of all four limbs (or both arms, whichever comes first).  There are a few people who get deep into this mock-fighting, and are almost acrobatic in their performances.

 COSplay chess involves participants in costume acting as a living chessboard.  Each participant is assigned a piece (pawn, knight, king, etc), with each team selecting one person to be the player.  Each player calls out to the COSplay character and instructs them on wear to move. 

 This year there was also a zombie-hunt.  Video-games are more-often-than-not using the anime style of illustration in their character design, and numerous of the more popular games involve zombies.  COSplayers show up as both the protagonists form their favorite games and as zombies.  There was even a vendor who sold clothes made to looke like the wearer had been a victim of a zombie attack.  Patrons bring Nerf-guns and hunt the zombie COSplayers in a refereed game. 

 Throughout the day, there are a variety of seminars and classes, a video-game arcade (featuring the latest or most popular home-system games), opportunities to speak with professional anime artists, writers, and character actors, kareoke, and of course viewings of anime cartoons.  Friday and Saturday nights end with a rave, starting around 10pm and lasting until midnight. 

 In preparing for and participating in Anime Overload, I have a few recommendations.

 -Buy your tickets early.  Buying your tickets on-line, a few months in advance, gives you a big savings compared to buying at the door. 

 -Buy a three-day pass.  The cost of a one day ticket at the door is almost as expensive as a three-day pass purchased on-line, especially if purchased early.

 -Buy the VIP pass.  The VIP pass gives you more access and a gift-package.  When purchased early, it is the best bargain offered.

 -The convention begins at 10am, Friday.  The line for pre-registered ticket holders was over 2 hours long, and despite their intentions to the contrary, the event coordinators where not able to get people there passes at 9am.  You are better off showing up after noon on the first day.  The convention doesn't officially open until 4pm.  Unless there is an event that you wish to participate in that morning, your not missing anything but a wait in line by showing-up late.

 -Plan your visit ahead of time.  The events scheduled are listed on the website.  There really is nowhere to sit, wait, or lounge (all though plenty of fan-boys camp-out on the floor near the bathrooms).  You could take about an hour to walk around and check-out all the vendors, but afterwards without something to do the convention can be fairly boring.  Knowing what is scheduled and having a plan will either fill the void between events or allow you to leave and return for your events.

 -Bring your own beverages.  Food options are limited in the convention; there is a stand selling Japanese snacks (including sushi) and the event-centers hotdog and nacho vendor... both ridiculously over-priced.  At this time, there is no prohibition on outside beverages (no alcohol), and as far as I know outside food is also allowed (I have not tested this).  If you get hungry, there is Chuy's Tex-Mex right across the street from the Crocket Center, and McDonald's, Taco Bell, What-a-Burger, Popeye's, Wendy's, Burger King, Sonic, and Subway all about three blocks south on Lamar.  There is also a Shell station across the street and a 7-11 about two blocks south.

 -Bring your laptop, Magic the Gathering cards, hand-held game systems, etc.  The event center is wifi-capable, and it will give you something to do.

 -Bring your camera, and a backpack.  There will be things and people you want to take pictures of, and you will need a place to store your loot.

 Anime Overload seems to play second-fiddle to Ikkicon, the anime convention held during New Year's weekend.  Everyone I spoke with said the Ikkicon was better, which may have more to do with the weather in Texas (HOT in the summer, mild in the winter) than anything else.  If you're local, and want a free ticket, see about volunteering... although the event manager I spoke with said they actually had more volunteers than needed this year. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Monkey See Monkey Do!

 A long time ago, in a decade that us old-folks like to call "the 80's", there was one store at virtually every mall in America that was a guaranteed stop for the majority of us.  That was Spencer's Gifts, which sold an eclectic selection of weird and humorous oddities (as well as some erotic novelties).  People shopped there, but far more often than not you went in just to look at all the odd items.  Spencer's catered to every taste; pop-culture hipsters, metal-heads, class-clowns, perverts, and freaks. Spencer's had a dark-edge that wasn't well received by everyone (especially parents).  With the emergence of stores like Hot Topic, Spencer's focused on maintaining its hold on that part of its market... and lost.  Today, Spencer's is still in a few malls, but they do not have nearly the presence they had in the 1980's.
 I bring up Spencer's because Monkey See Monkey Do on South Congress is a lot like that kitchy and wacky store of my youth... sans the dark edge.  Monkey See Monkey Do caters to all that is fun in the lowbrow seen; weird toys, quirky art, odd household items... with everything relatively safe for the majority of the public, young and old alike.

 And, of course, they have monkeys... lots and lots of monkeys.

 Monkey See Monkey Do is a perfect example of Austin weirdness, situated right in the heart of South Congress along with the other strange and funky shop on the strip.  Monkey See Monkey Do also fills in the void left behind by the Lowbrow Emporium that used to be on South Lamar, retailing many of the same items and art works that are featured in magazines like High Fructose and Juxtapose.  You will find classic kitch items like magic 8-balls and "x-ray" glasses, tiki-culture nick-knacks, nostalgic novelties, strange toys and action-figures, unusual  books and magazines, "Keep Austin Weird" merchandise, and monkeys.

 Monkey See Monkey Do is a must-stop shop on South Congress.  Tell them Sorrell sent you when you pay them a visit.

 1712 S. Congress Ave
 Austin, TX 78704
 512 443 4999

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Spider House

  Spider House is THE coffee house to check out in Austin.  The atmosphere is eclectic and laid-back, the coffee and beer selections are excellent, and the food is fair.  Spider House connects patrons with the local music and art scene; it is a venue for a variety of bands and solo-acts and supports a number of art shows throughout the year.  Located near the northern-most point on the UT "Drag" and situated within a college residential area, Spider House feels like Austin.

 Its best feature is the outdoor dining area, a big back-yard full of metal yard-furniture situated both close to the stage as well as well away from the stage.  Tables are situated so that people can be seated alone, as couples, or as groups.  The wait-staff is friendly and attentive.  The prices are better than Starbucks for arguably a better coffee-drink.  The food is a little pricey, and other than the frito-pie and frito-burrito tends to favor the health-conscious.

 Because the best seats in the house are outdoors, the best times to go are during the mild Autumn, Winter, and Springs seasons, although if you like a little skin and can take the heat the Summer is never too bad.  Happy hour is from 7am to 7pm with a dollar off all draft beers.  Check it out for the shows, the brews, or just a chill-location to hang-out.

 Spider House Cafe
 2908 Fruth St
 Austin, Texas
 512-480-9562

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Ken's Donuts

  My uncle owned or managed several donut shops, and some of my fondest childhood memories involved being at one of his shops early (like 1 or 2 am) on Christmas or New Year's night and having donuts freshly made.  My dad, during the really hard economy in the 1980's, used to work for my uncle at the shop and bring home donuts literally by the garbage-bag full.  You could say I know donuts.  The mockery of pastries that Krispy Kremes tries to pass-off as a donut just does not cut it.  How they can legally call them donuts is beyond me.  Ken's Donuts makes donuts... and as close to the donuts my uncle used to make that I have had in a while.  Best of all, Ken's Donuts is open 24 hours a day and is right off the Drag.

 The down-side is that Ken's Donuts is not exactly the most inviting donut shop to sit-down and enjoy a pastry in.  I am certain the place is clean enough, but the word that comes to mind to describe the look of the place is "grimy".  It is almost like the idea of people actually sitting down for some donuts and coffee in the place was an after-thought.

 I have to admit that this is the only donut-shop I have visited since being in Austin, and being diabetic means that I probably will not have the occasion to visit too many others.  While I am sure that some of the other donut shops may be better than Ken's, this place is conveniently located and open 24 hours a day.  That alone rocks.

 I might get the kids up at 2am and make a donut run.

 Ken's Donuts
 2820 Guadalupe St
 Austin, TX 78705
 512 320-8484

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fran's Burgers

  Fran's Hamburgers has been an Austin Institution and a part of the South Congress scene since 1973.  It is a purely American Diner, not a sports-bar and not big on kitch.  At Fran's, it is all about the food.  The prices are comparative to other burger-joints (not to be confused with fast-food-joints) as is the menu.  They make a fair milk-shake and offer-up a huge, 100% real beef hamburger.  The locals often rave about Fran's, and the place is always busy.  Service is fast and friendly, and the portions are well-worth the price.

 However, the one thing they are known for, their burgers, did not really impress me.  I don't know if it was the cook that day or what, but my burger was almost over-seasoned, like I wasn't tasting the beef anymore.  The onion-rings are a must, probably some of the best in town.  While I understand that the place is considered a part of the fabric of Austin, nothing struck me as peculiar to Austin in anyway.  Fran's could be any burger-place anywhere; a truck-stop diner that had the good-fortune to be located in close proximity to one of the city's tourist attractions.

 Honestly, with nothing really outstanding going for it, my money is better spent at the McDonald's a few blocks down the road on Oltorf. 

 Fran's is another Austin venue that is out of business.  Missed for the nostalgia, but probably not for the food.

 6214 Cameron Rd
 Austin, TX 78723
 512 458 6007