I live only ten miles from East Austin, but as I cross Interstate 35 and cruise down Cesar Chavez Street, I feel the same whoosh of anticipation I get when arriving in an unfamiliar city. Historically, this side of town has been home to Austin’s largest concentration of minorities as well as a haven for artists who’ve appreciated its low rents and warehouse spaces. Now a steady influx of indie businesses, micro-niche food trucks, and anti-swank dive bars—plus the curious outsiders they attract—has made this rapidly gentrifying area almost unrecognizable to anyone who’s been away long. Still, despite all the new neighbors, its original flavor remains.
After passing a string of taquerías, used-car lots, and piñata purveyors, I pull up to a green 1925 Craftsman-style house that’s been reworked into the seven-room Heywood Hotel. Owner Kathy Setzer leads me to my room, which opens onto a second-story courtyard, and mentions that there are bicycles available to borrow. I decide to forgo the two-wheeler and set out on foot. Continuing east, I walk past a funeral home, a yoga studio, a halfway house, and a vegetarian cafe before arriving at a bungalow with two clothes racks on its porch and three businesses under its roof. Next thing you know, I’m grabbing a Verducci leather minidress at Charm School Vintage, picking out my “spirit” wig at Coco Coquette, and perusing local art at Salon d’Etoile. By the time I leave, I’ve acquired recommendations for my next meal (vegan comfort food at Counter Culture or fish tacos from the Veracruz All Natural trailer) and for a tarot reader named Sister Temperance. I’m meeting friends for an early dinner, but I can’t pass up a late lunch, so fish tacos it is. Another happy discovery: Veracruz’s array of smoothies, juices, and aguas frescas. One La Bomba (orange, spinach, and pineapple juice) coming up!
Just before six, my friends and I join a crowd of hungry patrons waiting for Justine’s Brasserie to open. Once inside the 1937 wood-frame house, with sultry red walls and a bar that’s nearly always full, we discuss how, just a few years ago, we couldn’t have imagined frequenting this nearly deserted end of East Fifth Street. Now we’re eagerly shelling out $24 for steak frites. After dinner we visit another newcomer, the New York–based cocktail bar Weather Up, near the Heywood. From the 35 drinks offered, I eventually select the Gold Rush, which costs $10 and comes with a hunk of ice the size of a Rubik’s Cube.
At nine in the morning, when most people are thinking about breakfast, there are already several dozen bloodthirsty carnivores in line for brisket at Franklin Barbecue, on East Eleventh. Though it’s worth the wait, I’d rather not stand around for two hours, so I head to Blue Dahlia Bistro for blueberry blintzes and prosciutto on the patio. Open since 2007, this “veteran” of the nouveau East Side movement has been joined by other locally owned businesses like Take Heart, a “modern, handmade, vintage” gift shop, and Switched On, a music electronics seller.
On my way to another longtime East Side gem—Boggy Creek Farm, which hosts market days on Wednesdays and Saturdays—I stop to stroll through Tillery Park, a small collection of retail trailers anchored by two nurseries, Tillery Street Plant Company and East Austin Succulents. While slurping down a Gotta B Green smoothie from the Juice Well, I check out soul records at Elephas Maximus Vintage and Thrift and homemade herbal remedies at La Botanica. Later, over empanadas at Buenos Aires Café, on Sixth Street, I tell my East Side friend about Tillery Park; she hasn’t heard of it. Then she tips me off to Schmaltz, her favorite vegan Jewish deli trailer. We’re both familiar with Hops & Grain, a craft brewery on the far eastern end of Sixth Street, but neither of us has taken one of the Saturday guided tours, a situation we happily remedy with glasses of horchata milk stout in hand.
Back down Sixth Street, we alight on the Grackle, a straightforward pub with one of Top Chef winner Paul Qui’s East Side King food trucks out front (others are parked at nearby watering holes the Liberty and Shangri-La). Qui himself delivers our order (grilled pork shoulder in sweet chili sauce and green-curry chicken wings) after posing for pictures with two starstruck coeds. Next up is the Yellow Jacket Social Club, for beet sandwiches and beers in a grove of crape myrtles. Then it’s off to see a band at the White Horse, which has been described to me as a honky-tonk. Although there are several couples spinning around the dance floor, there’s a suspicious shortage of cowboys. That said, there’s just about every other type out tonight.
Admiring the treetops through the skylight in my shower, I realize I’ve gotten cozy here at the Heywood. Since the HOPE Farmers Market (held every Sunday) doesn’t start till eleven, I sit on my small balcony overlooking the street, sip coffee, and watch the passersby. Students with backpacks drift toward Cenote, the coffeehouse a few blocks west. A homeless man with a Mexican flag affixed to a crutch pushes a cart. Two young boys zoom by on bikes; their mother follows behind with a stroller. It’s easy to imagine this balcony is my front porch, and I wonder if they’d mind one more new neighbor.