By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Texas was not on my list of places to visit. But I can’t say no to my loved ones. How could I resist sharing in the joyous moments with my brother, the proud father who would walk down the aisle with his daughter, passing his torch to the next generation!
So my family and I flew to Austin to attend my niece’s wedding. Though Austin did not impress me before, I decided to explore its merits more thoroughly this time. I exhaled my “Bush Country” bias for this special occasion.
We were determined to make our trip enjoyable. From picking the right hotel to our daily itineraries, my husband organized every detail so we could benefit from the whole experience.
Cheap, cheap, cheap
If Seattle is the eighth most expensive city in the United States, Austin is perhaps one of the most inexpensive. That’s a bonus to tourists.
Our hotel suite, with its nice kitchenette, cost only about $100 a day. This included a breakfast for three. Austin’s gas prices are much lower than Seattle’s. Remember, Texas produces oil.
Even our airfare was a good deal. Compared to years ago, when we suffered a 10-hour ordeal for a flight transfer to Austin, this trip was a piece of cake. Alaska Airlines has a direct flight from Seattle to Austin, which took less than four hours. It was also reasonably priced at $260 per person for a round trip.
However, the low standard of living in Austin has its own drawbacks. Property values have not climbed much in the last two decades. Even in Houston, the real estate values have not changed much. It’s a matter of supply and demand. A vast state, Texas has too much undeveloped land. Seattle, on the other hand, has run out of land to build on.
A shocking White House
How did the media let President Lyndon Johnson get away with spending a quarter of his presidential days inside his ranch and not in D.C.? An hour-and-a-half drive from Austin, Johnson’s ranch was equipped with lots of security and a faux oval office so that no one was able to tell whether he was in D.C. or at home.
The ranch was opened to the public when Lady Bird Johnson died in 2007. When I visited the ranch, it was unthinkable to me that a U.S. President was solving the country’s crises from Texas.
Johnson even held numerous state dinners inside his own house, with the chef preparing food at the White House. The staff would then fly over to the ranch to finish cooking. As many as 500 people were invited to some of these events. Everybody wanted to be on the guest list. Guess who was paying for this and the extensive security involved?
Although the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum is located inside the University of Texas, Johnson’s ranch is more appealing to me. It showed me another side of Johnson.
Cowboys in action
Can you imagine the elegant Seattle Art Museum running a live animal auction with longhorn cows lined up outside the building?
Well, call it the Texan style of having fun. Texas cowboys did indeed hold an auction inside the grand multimillion-dollar Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. The museum, located right next to the University of Texas, is also close to the Capitol.
Inside the museum’s dignified lobby, cowboys were working, while cowgirls showed up in colorful bead-and-sequin costumes.
Longhorns were auctioned off for as much as $33,000 each. It was quite a scene for us Seattleites. Pigs and sheep were also sold.
More than 500 people attended the event.
Don’t think that it’s normal for cowboys to wander about town. We happened to be there at the right time and right place. If you want to learn more about its history and how Texas became part of the United States, this would be the place.
Austin’s spring is lovely with chilly mornings and evenings. It gets to be about 80-degrees in the afternoons. As a Seattleite who has lived with many cloudy days, I welcomed Austin’s sunshine, though my past experiences in San Antonio, Austin, and Houston were unpleasant, partly due to the extreme temperature differences.
A river meanders through the heart of Austin. Mt. Bonnell Park is similar to our Queen Anne; you can have a bird’s eye view of Austin. This also includes a view of blocks of rich men’s spectacular mega houses built on one side of the lake. My son, husband, and I voted for our favorite dream house.
You can always hike miles and miles around the lake. Blooming trees and flowers are scattered on the banks.
Turtles and fishes swim and expose themselves on the surface of the water to receive the sun’s warmth. Green pastures and jogging lanes are plentiful for walkers to stroll on.
My brother took us to the biggest Chinatown, Chinatown Center. Austin’s three Chinatowns are actually malls. What is surprising among the Chinese restaurants in Austin is that there is only one dim sum restaurant. It’s called Fortune.
Don’t expect the wait staff to speak Chinese, either. They are mostly Mexicans. The cashiers of the biggest Asian grocery store speak Vietnamese and English, even though the store has lots of Chinese customers.
In general, grocery stores in Austin, Asian or non-Asian, are much bigger than those of Washington state.
Business is terrific inside the Asian supermarket. My brother told me that the grocery store is making money, but the mall itself has declared bankruptcy.
The supermarket owner is of Vietnamese descent and is also the mall developer. Many vacant lots exist, and business is slow for smaller stores. The restaurants are busy on weekends and slow on weekdays, similar to the challenges of our restaurants here.
We ate in Chinatown three times, for dim sum, dinner, and noodles. We are lucky that Austin’s Chinese food has improved tremendously compared to that during my visits in the 1990s. It is very authentic now.
If Chinese food is not for you, you can try Austin’s spicy barbecued meats and ribs. Austin’s food might not be as refined as the food I experienced in New Orleans, but it is still delightful.
Big companies’ headquarters
Austin is home to several high-tech companies such as Dell Computers, National Instruments, and IBM.
“Don’t go, it’s too far to drive,” my relatives warned.
So I settled for Whole Foods. The headquarter is gigantic, three times the size of our local Whole Foods store.
We had a healthy and delicious lunch. The many choices made it hard for us to decide what to eat. I bought a piece of chocolate cake made of wheat flour and a little bit of sugar. That’s the kind of cake I can devour without guilt. ♦
Next week: Read part two of this series, about a Chinese wedding in Texas!
Assunta Ng can be reached at email@example.com.