Category Archives: Texas

Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Park

After Franklin we headed up towards Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. We went through some pretty middle-of-nowhere stretches of road to get there. We stayed at the Rodeway Inn at White’s City, which may be the only hotel in town. We woke up to a sunny but cold day, with temperatures in the 40s, and picked up fixings for PB&J at the little grocery store (if you can call it that) before heading over to the caverns.

There are several tours offered at Carlsbad Caverns, though we opted to explore by ourselves and learn about the formations by reading the informational placards placed throughout the walkways. For the more adventurous you can even do tours in the complete darkness that require you to crawl around army-style. I was tempted, but one of the caves was called Spider Cave, so I figured they weren’t for me. We took the elevator down, planning to walk back out (most tourists do this the other way, as it’s a steep 750 foot climb out, but we wanted the exercise). Once underground, you emerge into a gigantic room with a one and a quarter mile long path on which you can explore a massive display of stalagmites, stalactites, columns, soda straws, draperies, and popcorn in constant 56° temperatures and 99% humidity.

We took our time exploring as the caverns are really quite a spectacular sight and unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It’s easy to forget you’re nearly a thousand feet below the ground. Also impressive there is a cafeteria and full-blown restroom facility down there. The walk out was a quick ascent and you definitely work up a sweat if you walk it as briskly as we did (not to mention the humidity).

One of the biggest draws of Carlsbad Caverns is the viewing of the Mexican free tail bats that live in the caves from March to October. Each night at sunset they leave the cave in a mass exodus to eat (up to half their bodyweight in a night) and mate, a process visitors can watch from an amphitheater built at the cave’s natural entrance. We had fingers crossed they’d be late to leave for the winter, but unfortunately the bats stopped coming out just a few days before our arrival. On the plus side, it meant to we could do the caverns in the morning and head over to Guadalupe Mountains in the afternoon without worrying about sticking around for sunset at Carlsbad.

Onward we went and back into Texas to check out Guadalupe Mountains National Park. There are several entrances to the park, which are not super close to one another, and we were torn on which one to use. We ended up using the Pine Springs entrance and stopped at the visitors center. Having not enough time to do the entire 8.4 mile, 3,000 foot elevation gain hike to the peak, we decided to do the first few miles of it up to this spot the ranger had recommended where you get a view of a canyon on each side. Much of the elevation gain was in the first few miles anyway, so it was a great workout with rewarding views.

Our annual pass saved us $10 each at Carlsbad and $5 each at Guadalupe.

On the drive out we stopped to snap some photos of the mountains, and the views were great, which further solidified our position on being happy we entered the park through Pine Springs.  In fact, the views were pretty stunning for miles, which was welcome entertainment since there are no services for a 130 mile stretch of highway. I’d love to spend a day with someone from Dell City, TX… see what they do all day, for a living, for fun. 130 miles of no gas, food. It’s got to be such a different life. Anyone? Know anyone there?

We stopped for gas in El Paso which seemed like a rough place. We eventually made it back into New Mexico. It was on this drive that we got stopped by Border Patrol for this first time on our trip. I had no idea they stop people who aren’t actually crossing the border. Pretty serious I guess, there were even canines!

Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains National Park and West Texas

Carlsbad Caverns are most impressive with a many-football-fields size huge space loaded with eerie stalactites, stalagmites and other formations 750 feet below the earth’s surface.  It is hard not to use the word “cavernous” when describing the features!  Guadalupe Mountains National Park is beautiful and home to the highest point in Texas at…8,750’!!  Had you asked me before this trip to guess Texas’ max elevation, I would have aimed far lower.

On the drive from Austin we passed a handful of wineries before Fredericksburg and saw many signs for peaches.  Fredericksburg itself had a nice-looking Main Street where I grabbed tasty iced coffee at Java Ranch.  That was about as exciting as it got.  There is hardly anything from here to Fort Stockton where we got gas, after which we passed Pecos which lays claim to the first rodeo.  This is oil and gas territory and we saw countless rigs lit up at night.

Route 720 connecting over to the National Parks Highway was a little gnarly at night but we made it safely to our hotel located at the turnoff to Carlsbad Caverns, and picked up an hour on the time change.

We awoke Wednesday to clear skies and crisp 40-something degree air.  The Caverns visitor center is seven miles up a winding road.  Various tours (in the main caverns and further afield) are offered but we decided to take the elevator 750 feet down for a self-guided walk around the Big Room.

The formations and general enormity are really something.  The temperature down there is in the mid 50s all year long.  I think the loop is about 1.25 miles which we leisurely completed in about an hour and quarter.  To see more and sweat a bit we walked back up which took 35 minutes.

One of the special attractions are the Mexican free-tail bats that swarm out of the cave at sunset to hunt for insects etc.  We heard they can consume half their body weight in a single night!  Sadly we just missed them as they are usually present only from March to October.  It might be worth scheduling your trip during these months to catch this spectacle.

While there are some other activities, it seems to me that one day at the Caverns would be sufficient.  MAKE SURE you have enough gas and water because we passed a sign stating it would be 130 miles until the next available services.

We continued down the road to Guadalupe National Park.  There are a few different entrances and areas with different features; we struggled between McKittrick or Dog Canyons.  The canyons are known for foliage around this time.  In the end, we kept it simple and went to the main entrance at Pine Springs.  Were it earlier in the day we would have tried to hike to the top of Gaudalupe Peak, but it gets dark out pretty early so instead we took the trail part of the way to a lovely view point and then headed back.

We passed a few people on the trail in the span of a couple hours…a delightful experience!  Air pollution is often a problem in the summer but we had clear views with 60 degrees and a nice breeze.  These mountains long ago were a marine reef when the area was an inland sea.

Our drive from here was beautiful and really felt like the middle of nowhere.  Doing 85 with the top down through the high desert listening to Marriage Of Figaro was sublime.

We skirted El Paso as we were heading back north to stay in Alamogordo before visiting White Sands National Monument.  I think we did not miss much and that El Paso is probably a moderately scary place.  At the gas station I had to lift a plastic cover to access the credit card slot, presumably to keep out all the sand and dirt that blows around.

Seeing relatively remote places like Guadalupe and western Texas is one of my favorite things about a round-the-US drive.  Tomorrow it got even better…

Practical Info

We stayed at the Rodeway Inn in Whites City, New Mexico, which seemed to be about the only place really close to the park entrance.  It was adequate, with a large room but poor WiFi.  There are far more options in the town of Carlsbad but that is about 20 miles further away.  Bring supplies or buy them in Carlsbad as services are very sparse in this area.

If we had more time we would have liked to check out Marfa, Texas as well as Big Bend National Park.

November 5-6, 2013 (Tuesday-Wednesday)


Back on the 10 to Texas we went. The swamp areas we drove through were quite beautiful. Upon entering Texas our first impression was, “hot damn, is this a big state.” The last exit on the 10 (or the first if you’re coming from the East as we were) is 878. That’s a wide stretch of the 10! I laughed out loud at the billboard for a jewelry store that boasted merchandise that’s “Just a Little Bit Gawdy!” we quickly noticed that drivers in Texas – at least Eastern Texas – are very aggressive and abide by the “keep left pass right” mentality despite the signs advising the opposite and the Welcome to Texas signs that advise visitors to “Drive Friendly – the Texas Way.”


We checked into our hotel in Austin, conveniently located at 6th and Guadalupe (an Extended Stay – nothing to write home about other than cheap and well situated, don’t believe their lies about free wifi, you have to pay for wifi that actually works). We walked out to 6th street and Alan pointed out the places he’d partied at Josh’s bachelor party. There are tons of food trucks all over the city, but this being Sunday night we couldn’t find any open. We opted for Turf N’ Surf Po’ Boy to try and squeeze in an oyster po’ boy before we left the south. Unfortunately they were out of oysters and we got a buffalo shrimp with blue cheese to share. Much more up Alan’s alley than mine, but not horrible. The bar itself seemed like a pretty fun place to watch a game as well, and the people were very friendly.

We faced some threatening weather the next day (first time in a while on this trip – we were so lucky for pretty much all of the eastern seaboard and south). We drove over to Juan in a Million for breakfast tacos. SO good. I got a guacamole taco (literally just guac on a taco, so I’d probably skip that next time but the guac is fab) and a nopalitas and egg taco which was so freaking amazing. Nopalitas is prickly pear cactus. By the way, for breakfast you could definitely get away with one taco, I only ate half of each and took them to go. Kinda weird, but the nopalitas held up surprisingly well. Alan go the machacado and migas, also both fantastic.

After breakfast we drove across the lake, and over to South Congress. I loved with area. Tons of cute shops and coffee shops and food trucks and restaurants. The signage is probably my favorite thing about Austin. You’re nothin’ if you don’t have a hipster-cool neon light. I particularly enjoyed wandering around Uncommon Objects to check out the antiques, and we tried on some cowboy/girl boots at Allen’s. Big Top Candy Shop had a ridiculous selection of candies, including a number I’d never seen before. And I know my candy.

After South Congress we drove to Covert Park at Mount Bonnell and climbed the 100 or so steps to the top of Austin (775 feet) for some beautiful views of the river and downtown Austin. We admired the mcmansions on the waterfront, and afterwards we drove around Scenic Rd admiring more impressive Texas sized homes.


We checked out the University of Texas campus, which was nice and more urban that we’d expected. For lunch Alan got his second barbecue fill at Iron Works. Both Obama and Bush were pictured on the wall, so I was prepared for some legit BBQ. We shared a combo plate that had beef brisket, ribs, sausage, potato salad and beans. The ribs were best, the brisket OK. I didn’t bother with the sausage, and the beans here had nothing on Brick Pit’s.


For dinner we went to Chuy’s which came recommended by several friends. Alan ordered the Texas Martini, which is a margarita in a martini glass rimmed with salt, and with jalapeño stuffed olives. Be sure to ask for the creamy jalapeño sauce (free) for your chips and salsa. We split the enchiladas chicka chicka boom boom (fantastic) and the tortilla soup (OK). After Chuy’s we went to Rainey St. and met up with a friend of Sam and Kaitlyn’s for a drink. He was super friendly and had given us lots of tips on what to do in Austin, and Rainey St. is such a unique place. With Austin rapidly expanding, they turned this residential street into a row of really funky bars and restaurants all built in these former residential homes. They have backyards you can hang out in, play cornhole or watch live music. This is also where G’raj Majal is located (massively successful Indian food truck that is now expanding into one of the houses on Rainey St.). We were very impressed with the young working professionals’ scene in Austin, and I can imagine this is a really nice place to live for people in their 20s and 30s as there are several areas around town with great bars and restaurants.

On our way out of Austin we went to the barbecue mecca of Franklin. We’d been told you’re fine to get food if you arrive by 10:30am (they open at 11am and people line up in advance). Well, we arrived at 10:10am and Alan dropped me off to get in the LONG ASS line while he found a parking spot. He was devastated to return and see me standing right behind the guy with the “Last Man Standing” sign in hand, meaning he was the last person guaranteed food. We were told we could wait around and see if there was food left, but it would be close to 1pm by the time we knew if that was the case. We were so bummed, and talked with the woman managing the line about how we were on an epic road trip all the way from LA. Alan considered bailing (blaspheme) but luckily he is so slow at making decisions that before he could pull the trigger, she came back and pushed the last man standing card back based on a reevaluation of the availability of food. Still, we were told that it was a long shot that we’d get any ribs (and they wound up selling out a few people ahead of us). Settling in for the three and a half hour wait, the boat chairs came in clutch again. There was a girl walking around selling beer and cold drinks which we took advantage of for one round. Note that you can also BYO, which a number of the fellow waiting diners did. Finally at about 1:30 we ordered our food. Aaron Franklin himself cuts the meat for you, and he gave us a nice free sample of the brisket, which confirmed the three plus hour wait was worth it. I never thought I’d say that about meat, and especially barbecue, but mmmmm mmmmmmm mmmmm. Maybe you’re just so deliriously hungry by then? No, no. It was that good. The brisket at least. I personally wouldn’t wait for the turkey or pulled pork. On another recommendation we also got the banana crème pie, which was a crusted bowl of melt in your mouth happiness. So if I ever went again I would get only the brisket (maybe try the ribs if available) and a pie. Also, they had blueberry soda, which we mixed with regular soda and it was really tasty. I would also get there at 8am. You wait three hours no matter what, so may at least guarantee yourself a shady spot to sit and your choice of meat. All of the guys working the counter were friendly and struck up little conversations with us. I loved that the last guy heard us say we were from LA, and he told us about how he ordered a salad from a  Whataburger in Oklahoma and the cash register attendant asked, “Are you from Los Angeles?”

Texas: Austin

Drive friendly my arse
Drive friendly my arse

Yes, I am in India right now.  But I must finish my US posts for some peace of mind!

I visited Austin last March for the first time for Josh’s bachelor party and loved it, so I was happy to return for Jenni’s inaugural appearance.  This time was a tad tamer.

We drove straight from New Orleans, and you know Texas is big when the first exit you see on the 10 Freeway is # 878.  Despite the welcome sign suggesting that driving friendly is the Texas way, I would say the drivers on this leg were undoubtedly the most aggressive and consistent left-lane-for-no-reason offenders of our entire road trip.

Our first night we sought a quick bite after a long day and ended up at Surf N’ Turf Po Boy.  It is more of a bar with lots of TVs and Skee-Ball and a lively atmosphere for the Texans MNF game.  They were out of fried oyster and the buffalo shrimp was good but paled in comparison to the firecracker shrimp po boy we had at Parasol’s in New Orleans.

Monday was one of the very few rainy days of our trip so we erased any thoughts of renting bikes.  We crossed under I-35 to the grittier part of town for an excellent, cheap, authentic Mexican breakfast at Juan in a Million.  I got the machacado and the migas breakfast tacos and they were so good.  Chips and salsa at 10 am is a nice touch.

Austin has several pockets of hip and/or fun areas, including dirty 6th, west 6th, east of I-35, 4th street, Rainey, Red River around 7th and South of Congress.  We hit this last one first, parking by Elizabeth to walk around.  It is a great stretch of several blocks with restaurants, bars, funky shops and vintage looking signs.  More in “Practical Info” below.

This is also one of the many Austin neighborhoods with several food trucks.  These are very popular here, and is with Portland they are slightly more permanent vs. those in Los Angeles that actually drive around each day.

From here we passed Hula Hut on the lake, a fun place for beverages on a sunny day, and took Scenic Road near the water through nice neighborhoods.  We parked on Mt. Bonnell Road and ascended the ~100 steps of Covert Park to the highest point in Austin at 775’ elevation.  This spot has nice views of downtown and the river with some spectacular homes.

Covert Park
Covert Park

We continued through the University of Texas campus which is nice if a little more urban than I realized.  Oh, on my last visit I had breakfast at the Torchy’s Tacos by campus and it was awesome.  Though Franklin was on tomorrow’s agenda, I figured why not double up on BBQ so we lunched at Iron Works, which I wrote about here.  On my last visit I ate at the Salt Lick in Round Rock, which was a fun outdoor place that I’d locate behind Franklin and ahead of Iron Works on the spectrum.

Dinner at Chuy’s was better than Hangover 3 on Jenni’s computer.  It has some bright moments but the trilogy’s temporal order certainly matches quality.  At Chuy’s I tried the Texas Martini which is a margarita in a martini glass rimmed with salt and jalapeño stuffed olives.  The meal was solid overall, and when they bring chips to your table be sure to ask for the creamy jalapeño sauce.

After dinner we met Sam’s friend Jamin on Rainey Street, which stands out in a city that oozes cool.  Within a couple blocks are perhaps 10 houses that were converted into bars/restaurants.  Most have substantial outdoor space and there is also a food truck square.  I would be sure to check this out.

Our final day in Austin lasted much longer than expected due to the crazy line at Franklin BBQ, but as I explained in detail in my BBQ Post it was worth it, and then some.

Capitol dome
Capitol dome

Practical Info

Accommodation: We stayed at the Extended Stay Hotel at 6th and Guadalupe because it was reasonably priced and well-located.  The Driskill is a classic property with a fantastic location, and there is also a W.  There are a couple spots on South Congress and I’m not certain which looked interesting, but I think it’s Hotel San Jose.


South of Congress…some food spots that caught our eye include Amy’s Ice Cream and Hopdoddy.  Uncommon Objects has tons of antiques.  The Big Top Candy Shop had a most impressive selection, including things like pimento olive chocolate almonds and gummy fried eggs.  Allens Boots has an astounding selection of cowboy boots and attire.  Nearby is Barton Springs Pool, a very popular natural springs swimming area which wevwould have visited were it not cool and raining.

Rainey…we had drinks at Bar 96.  Kaitlyn had recommend G’raj Mahal food truck, which is so popular that it has now taken over one of the old houses.

Dirty 6th: refers to 6th street east of Congress which is packed with bars and at times nears a Bourbon Street feel.  Though technically east of Congress, the Driskill is a classy hotel with a bar and restaurant.

West 6th: refers to 6th street west of Congress which also has several bars and restaurants but a slightly older and more mellow crowd.  I enjoyed the Rattle Inn on my last visit.

4th Street: also calmer than dirty 6th, on my last visit I liked dinner at Peché and drinks at Hangar Lounge.

November 3-5, 2013 (Sunday-Tuesday)



Now I know y’all didn’t think I’d venture through the South without trying a little BBQ?!  While I did not indulge my gluttonous desires for smoked meat as fully as I expected, I did try a few “legit” spots and had something approximating the concept at least a couple other times. To get straight to the point, Franklin BBQ in Austin slaughtered the competition.  It was like me fighting Mike Tyson, and I’m talking back in my prime and when he was already over the hill.

I am certainly not a BBQ expert, but it strikes me that more than most cuisine types BBQ is judged on factors beyond how good it tastes.  This may seem odd to the casual observer, and it merits philosophical debate beyond the scope of this post.  By way of example, Houston’s ribs might not earn high praise at a BBQ competition, despite that many find them delicious!

Let’s start with just a few words about the BBQ-resembling meals I had in the South.  There was the pulled pork sandwich at Top of the Hill in Chapel Hill.  It consists of slow roasted pork, house-made beer cheese sauce, garlic sauteed spinach and frizzled red onions.  Hard to judge the quality of the meat with those accoutrements, but beer cheese sauce was interesting.  I enjoyed it, despite that I felt my arteries hardening with each bite.  Then there was the pulled pork po’boy at Parasol’s in New Orleans.  Parasol’s is phenomenal, and this sandwich was delicious.  But again, we are not talking pure BBQ.  On to that…

The Brick Pit is in a small house-like structure in a fairly nice part of Mobile, Alabama.  Like most places outside Texas, the emphasis is on hog.  The walls inside are covered with writing from patrons.  They had TV screens on CSS Encore showing an old college football game with Auburn dominating.  One orders inside at a pass-through counter, I got the combo plate with ribs and pulled pork, and it comes with coleslaw, BBQ beans and a piece of Texas toast (basically extra thick white bread).  The pit master uses 75% pecan (which is all over the Southeast) and 25% hickory for smoke.  He goes 3.5 and below, meaning the rack should weigh less than 3.5 pounds.

The ribs were smoky and fairly good, as was the pulled pork.  But this was perhaps the clearest illustration to me of the “good BBQ” vs. “tastes great” issue above.  My meal did not taste great.  It may be good, true BBQ, but it just was not supremely enjoyable.  Perhaps my biggest beef (haha) is they do not season the meat, instead choosing to let the smoke impart all the flavor.  The result is meat that is just not THAT tasty.  I think I prefer the Memphis style with a nice dry rub, where sauce is pretty much optional.  They also did not remove the silver skin from the back of the ribs.  This is a controversial subject, but I think I prefer it removed.  The beans here were smoky and excellent, definitely the best of the beans I had.  The cole slaw was pretty heavy on the mayo and also quite good.  Jenni went with the sourdough brick bites which is a $4 slider that was actually a decent-sized sandwich.  Unsweetenened iced tea is available here, and pretty much everywhere in the South.

Next up was Iron Works BBQ in Austin, Texas.  I think it is widely believed at this point that Franklin is superior, but Iron Works gets mad respect.  There are framed pictures of George Bush and of Barack Obama eating there.  Parking is ample and the inside is old-looking and charming.  I got the combo plate with beef brisket, a beef rib and sausage.  It also came with potato salad and beans.  Here again, the distinction arose.  This brisket was sliced thin, and while enjoyable to be sure, I have enjoyed more a brisket I cooked in my oven from a Jewish recipe book.  The sausage was quite tasty, and the beef rib was delicious.  I did not realize until I was in Austin in March 2013 for Josh’s bachelor party how much I like good BBQ beef ribs.  That time I visited Salt Lick at its Round Rock location, and I would say that was the second best BBQ after Franklin.

And now for the champion.  Franklin BBQ is not merely a meal, it is an experience.  It opens at 11 am and I am told it has sold out every day since it opened in 2009.  Having been told by a local that we could safely arrive at 10:30 am, we showed up at 10:10 am for extra caution.  We were met by a line halfway through the parking lot.  I parked the car and returned to find Jenni standing directly BEHIND a group holding the “Last Man Standing” piece of cardboard.  OH, THE HORROR!  The woman working the line informed us there was no guarantee we would get any food, and the kicker was that we probably would not know until after 1 pm.  The likelihood of getting ribs was almost non-existent.  It seems there is a concept of pre-ordering, but I do not know how this works.

We thus faced one of the hardest decisions of our lives.  Cut our losses and move on, or tough it out and go for the glory?  To my everlasting relief, while we debated she informed us that the owner had decided to push back the line and we were now safe.  Hallelujah!!

We broke out the boat chairs for the first time in ages and read and made some phone calls.  At 11 am the doors opened and the first large group entered the restaurant.  But things move very slowly from there.  So at several minute intervals the line would move up a handful of feet, meaning you have to pick up your chairs etc. and relocate.  There was a guy across the street actually renting folding chairs for $5.  Supply and demand at its finest.  There was another Franklin employee walking the line and selling beer and soft drinks so Jenni got a blonde ale and I a lemonade.  Some groups also brought their own beer for the wait.

We entered the structure at about 1:10 pm and got served at 1:30 pm.  So here is the secret: show up early!  Like 8 am.  If you show up at that time, your overall commitment is actually equal if not less and you are guaranteed a selection of anything on the menu.  Plus, you would never have to move your waiting position as long as you are far enough up in the line to enter with the first group.  So show up at 8 am and order at 11 am from the full menu, or show up at 10:10 am and order at 1:30 pm with NO RIBS available.  By the way, Franklin serves pork ribs even though this is Texas.

Upon reaching the counter, your order is taken and filled (i.e. sliced, cut, etc.) by the owner and legend himself, Aaron Franklin.  Despite the immense popularity and praise (Bon Appetit declared it the best in the country), Aaron could not be nicer.  He does not subscribe to the theory of “my food is amazing, therefore I can be a dick.”  He asked whether we wanted fatty or lean brisket, and before we even answered he confirmed our suspicion by murmuring his own response of “fatty.”  Obviously.   He hooked us up with a couple large bites laid on the counter, which reminded me of Katz’s Deli in New York.  It was at this very moment we knew the nearly 3.5 hour wait was worth every minute.

There were three guys sequentially working the counter, and we had pleasant exchanges with each.  First with Aaron himself who asked where we were from etc.  The next guy on the line overheard us mention we had been to a Packers game and then said the prior night’s game was his favorite because he is a Bears fan.  The third guy told us a story about how he ordered a salad at a Whataburger in Oklahoma and the woman asked if he was from Los Angeles.

Back to the food…Jenni and I each got a two meat plate which comes with two sides.  One plate was brisket and turkey with cole slaw and potato salad.  The other was brisket and pulled pork with beans and potato salad.  The beans were good, the cole slaw was very good and the potato salad was OK.  The turkey was sliced white meat and very good, considering the materials.  The pulled pork was delicious, nice and moist and peppery.  I found it far better than the Brick Pit, which is known more for pork vs. beef.  The brisket, though, was fall out of your chair good.  I mean just ridiculously scrumptious.  It was cut very thick and was incredibly moist and flavorful.  They have three BBQ sauce options: a Carolina style vinegary sauce, an espresso flavored sauce, and a Texas style sauce that was a little tangier and spicier.  Sometimes with BBQ I want almost all my bites with sauce but make sure to try some naked bites to savor the pure dead animal.  At Franklin, this was reversed.  We also ate a banana bourbon pie that was yummy.

I would note that we did not order one, but the Tipsy Texan sandwich looked great.  It is chopped brisket and sliced sausage on a white roll with cole slaw and pickles.  There are several tables inside and a handful of picnic tables on a deck outside, which is where we sat.  Folks, when you are next in Austin, do yourself a favor and get to Franklin early (and often).