Austin Rocks: Shop and Eat on South Congress Avenue

Boot shopping on South Congress Ave SoCo in Austin (courtesy Heather Cowper at Flickr CC)

Boot shopping on South Congress Ave in Austin (courtesy Heather Cowper at Flickr CC)

(Part of the Austin Rocks series of posts by a local about things to do and see in Austin, Texas)

The first thing to decide is where you want to end up for eating – the southern end of the area at, say, Magnolia Cafe, or more to the northern end at maybe Güero’s Taco Bar?

That will also determine your parking location strategy. Along this section of Austin’s South Congress Avenue they have a demented invention called “reverse angle” back-in parking, which is as terrifying as it sounds. I enjoy the challenge of a satisfying parallel parking moment as much as anyone, but stopping, maneuvering sideways, then backing your car into a narrow spot – often between two hulking Texas pickup trucks or SUVs – in the midst of busy two-way traffic is not my cup of queso.

The South Congress Avenue area (sometimes called SoCo) is a shopping and entertainment district that lines Congress Avenue after you cross Lady Bird Lake heading south.

You can walk or ride a bike there from the downtown core – as of this writing there are three Austin B-Cycle stations on SoCo – but be aware that it’s up a hill to get there. If you hire one of the city’s many pedicab drivers, give her or him a huge tip for grunting you all the way there.

In the 1970s and 1980s South Congress was mostly a scuzzy haven for drug dealers and prostitutes, but now it’s spiffed up, full of interesting things to see and do, and surrounded by a long-suffering neighborhood with modest houses that few can afford anymore, which is Austin’s problem all over the city, but I digress….

Favorite SoCo Shopping

After years of dedicated on-site research, here are some of my favorite South Congress retailers:

**  Tesoros Trading Company. For decades, it’s been my hands-down favorite Austin merchant, and the place I send everyone who asks for a good local place to shop. They carry folk art, jewelry, clothing, and quirky objets from all over the world, with of course a heavy emphasis on Mexico and Latin America.

**  Allens Boots.  Even if you don’t want to buy cowboy boots, go in there anyway to stand in the aisle and take a deep whiff of the leather smells and Austin retail history. It’s quite therapeutic. If you do buy boots, please don’t tuck them into your trousers and look like a doofus, or wear them with a cute minidress (unless you’re 26 or a very buff 36, in which case, rock it while ya got it.)

**  Kendra Scott. Artisanal jewelry that is colorful and reasonably priced. Women all over town wear it. Sign up for their emails because they put parts of the collection on sale for a short time every week.

**  Uncommon Objects. Weird flea market stuff from everywhere; not necessarily cheap to buy, but always entertaining to look.

**  Blackmail. Black clothing. Because black is still the new black. Occasionally allows other colors on the racks.

**  Vulcan Video South. Tucked off South Congress on Elizabeth Street. Classic, art house, and hard-to-find video, on DVDs since not all of the good stuff can be streamed, you young whippersnappers.

Favorite SoCo Places to Eat

If it’s too crowded and crazy at either Magnolia or Güero’s mentioned above, try these:

**  Home Slice Pizza. The correct answer to, “What’s up, home slice?”  A few tables at the main place, mostly stand-up/takeout eats at offshoot More Home Slice next door.

**  Amy’s Ice Creams. Tiny location. Fabulous flavors. The trick in summer is to cram it all in before it melts onto your hand.

** Jo’s Coffee. It’s an Austin tradition to take a photo by the famous “I love you so much” sign spray-painted onto Jo’s. You can get pastries, sandwiches, and tacos, too.

**  Two places I haven’t been to but my fellow Austinites rave about – Hopdoddy’s for burgers and beer, and Perla for seafood.

Note:  Austin has a lot of outdoor patio dining, which sounds charming until you try them in summer and boil yourself to death. Some things can’t be made bearable no matter how many fans, shade trees, water misters, or sweaty live musicians you throw at it. Don’t be a sucker. Tell them you want a table inside because God made air-conditioning so you wouldn’t have to feel rivulets of sweat running down your spine and pooling in your butt during a meal.

SoCo Hotels

As an Austin area local with a house and a bed, I haven’t had occasion to stay at these places, but I’ve heard good things. Do your TripAdvisor due diligence, of course.

If you plan to catch a show at the nearby Continental Club (try the often-no-cover Happy Hour music there) or their new sister venue further south, C-Boys Heart and Soul, then having a place to crash would be very handy.

Austin Motel sign on South Congress Avenue SoCo Austin (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Everyone takes a photo of this, and that includes the locals (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

**  Austin Motel. “So close, yet so far out” for many years.

**  Hotel San Jose. One of several funky Texas lodging experiences from Bunkhouse Group’s brilliant Liz Lambert, including the Saint Cecilia (also in Austin,) the Hotel Havana (in downtown San Antonio,) and El Cosmico in the far West Texas town of Marfa.

**  (new, opens 7 September 2015, rates start at US$300/night)  South Congress Hotel. A lot of favorite food trucks used to gather where this hotel was built, so many locals are not terribly enthused about the neighborhood addition. The style is heavy on hipster, stark, mid-century modern, which isn’t my thing, but I’m sure it will be booked solid when it opens.

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