Austin: An insider's guide!

It’s time to set the record straight. As one of the few remaining natives left in Austin – seriously, we’re like unicorns – I feel it’s my responsibility to share a true local’s guide to the city. I’ve lived here for over 28 years, agreeing to leave only for college and two ill-advised years in Dallas.
If you are thinking of a fun fall, winter or spring North American getaway this year, Austin should be near the top of your list.

Austin has lots of bling....

Editor's Note:

Dacyl Armendariz on a sunny patio in Austin.

When I knew I was heading to Austin earlier this year I asked Dacyl Armendariz, External Communications Manager, for car2go (whom I met at the 2014 Calgary Stampede) if she might have a few insider tips.  She sent me a very comprehensive list of suggestions, that even in two  weeks I couldn't possibly do.  When I asked her if I could post her email to me as a guest blog, she said, "Yes, but I will need to rework it a bit to make sure I have included a few things I left out."  

The following are Dacyl's wonderful insider tips to Austin.  

DA's Insider Tips

If you’ve read any “Best Places to Live” article in the past decade you’ve probably heard of Austin, TX. Apparently people take those lists and their glowing recommendations seriously, because there are now more than 150 people moving to Austin each day in search of breakfast tacos and near-constant warm weather. It would be a Texas-sized understatement to say that the state’s best-kept secret is out.

The influx of newcomers is exciting and is largely responsible for the revitalization of some of Austin’s oldest neighborhoods as well as a booming food scene. But beware – it also means there are hordes of people who just moved here and can’t wait to point you in all the wrong directions based on their limited, albeit enthusiastic, exploration of the city. Bless their hearts – they just want to help. But the truth is, there are too many new Austinites out there who might send you to Guero’s on your quest for the best Tex Mex. My personal sense of Southern Hospitality just can’t allow that.

It’s time to set the record straight. As one of the few remaining natives left in Austin – seriously, we’re like unicorns – I feel it’s my responsibility to share a true local’s guide to the city. I’ve lived here for over 28 years, agreeing to leave only for college and two ill-advised years in Dallas.

I’ve watched Austin evolve from a sleepy city in the middle of Texas to an international destination.

Yes Austin is fun, funky, quirky and many say weird....

I was here before Trader Joe’s was a fixture, I went to the inaugural Austin City Limits Music Festival and I can actually remember a time where traffic on I-35 didn’t convert it to a parking lot.

As much as I love being in Austin, I do travel quite a bit. When I visit a new place my goal is to eat the best food the city has to offer and get a taste of the culture and activities the city is known for. With that approach in mind, the following guide focuses on Austin restaurants, live music venues – we are the live music capital of the world – and a selection of some of our best swimming spots.

If you visit between the months of April through October you’ll understand why there’s a section dedicated to swimming and you’ll thank me. For good measure, I’ve thrown in a few other treasures.

As much as I will playfully beg you not to move here, I really do want you to love my city as much as I do. If you stay away from Guero’s and hit up the spots in my guide instead, I feel confident you will.

 Music Venues

Austin has fun retro element to it....

The Continental Club – 1315 South Congress Ave

An Austin institution since 1957 on one of our best streets. Live music every night.  Expect to hear blues, country, rockabilly and loud rock music here. Make sure to check out The Continental Club Gallery, an upstairs lounge with art, jazz and cocktails. The Gallery doesn’t have clear signage, head a couple of doors north of the main entrance and up the stairs.

The boys can play...

Elephant Room – 315 Congress Ave.

A basement bar where you will find a different jazz combo playing every night. Rarely a cover, always a good crowd.

Broken Spoke – 3201 S. Lamar Blvd

The quintessential Austin honky tonk. Some land developers actually purchased the land where the Broken Spoke is located and threatened to tear it down, but there was an extreme uprising from Austinites and it escaped unscathed. You’ll see the contrast of the new businesses and condos all around this Austin mainstay as evidence. This is a great dive bar where a band plays country music almost every night of the week and they have two-stepping lessons Wednesday – Saturday from 8:30-9:30 for the uninitiated so you can be prepared when the music starts. If you do the dance lessons get there by 8:00 to sign up!

P.S. there are always a handful of regulars – older gentleman who go every night to dance. They are part of what makes the place great so if they ask you to dance be sure to take them up on the offer!

She can sing and dance...

The Mohawk – 912 Red River Street

This is one of the newer venues that have become a favorite for Austinites. The music lineup is eclectic and includes Austin mainstays as well as some of the best musicians passing through town.  

Guero’s Garden Bar – 1412 South Congress Ave.

I know this seems like a confusing recommendation, give the warnings above. I stand by those warnings. Do not eat at Guero’s, no matter how many “Austinites” tell you it’s a must. The food is mediocre at best, but they have a great garden area next to the restaurant where there is always a steady stream of live music. The link above is to the music calendar so you can pick something out. They have a bar out there so you can enjoy a margarita with the free chips and salsa bar provided. This is a popular venue on sunny weekends, get there early to snag a table.

Saxon Pub – 1320 S. Lamar

Saxon Pub has been a fixture of the Austin music scene since 1990. There’s music every night of the week. Expect a cover for the night shows, but there are also free happy hour shows, weekend matinee shows and late night performances.

Austin is full of surprises...

Strange Brew – 5326 Manchaca Rd.

This is a coffee shop, a bit off the beaten path, that also has a lounge where you can find nightly live music. You’ll pay a cover, but you’ll also see some great music in a setting that most tourists miss. I highly recommend it! The link above is for their live music calendar.

C-Boy’s Heart and Soul – 2008 South Congress

A great, slightly divey, bar where you’ll find performances from some of Austin’s best musicians. If the company you keep truly says a lot about you, consider the fact that Gary Clark Jr, Leon Bridges, Larry McMurtry and Jimmie Vaughn are often seen occupying one of C-Boy’s barstools. If you’re headed there for music, check their calendar before you go, they do have the occasional off night, but they have a band in residence playing every Tuesday night and they have live music every Thursday – Saturday like clockwork. Expect to hear blues, rock, country, jazz or soul music. If you are looking for a quieter place to get a drink, head upstairs to their cozy, red-lit lounge for a more intimate vibe.

Green Spaces

Town Lake is actually a reservoir of the Colorado River in Downtown Austin. It was renamed Lady Bird Lake in honor of the late Lady Bird Johnson, but any true Austinite will tell you it’s still Town Lake to them. There’s a beautiful trail with several entry points and spots to rent kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddle boards along the way. Visiting Town Lake is an Austin must.

Lady Bird Lake is a lovely oasis...

Zilker Park – 2100 Barton Springs Rd.

Zilker is our most well-known park. It’s right in the heart of the city with lots of space to roam, ride bikes, lounge, picnic, etc. The park is the site of the Austin City Limits Music Festival each September/October. Town Lake is also part of Zilker Park so you could easily fit both of these Austin icons into an afternoon.

A great time to visit is in early March for the annual Zilker Kite Festival.  The festival attracts hundreds of Autinites who fill the air with colorful kites.
Link: Austin's Kite Festival: Cheap, Colourful, Chaotic & Crazy
  One of the best festivals I have ever attended and its free... .

One of the best festivals I have ever attended and its free....

Zilker Botanical Garden – 2220 Barton Springs Rd.

A beautiful botanical garden in the heart of downtown.

Umlauf Sculpture Garden – 605 Robert E. Lee Rd.

A garden featuring sculpture artwork from a wide array of artists. They also offer events and free yoga.

Mount Bonnell

A great spot for gorgeous views of the city. Be warned there are A LOT of steps to climb to get to this spot – 102 to be exact. If you don’t want to tackle the climb you could also take advantage of the same views with a stop at Dry Creek Cafe & Boat Dock (4812 Mount Bonnell Rd.). The name is misleading, the only food they have are bags of assorted chips and there’s not actually a working boat dock, but this dive bar has a patio that provides the best spot in Austin to watch a sunset. Ignore all those people who tell you to head to the Oasis, that’s where you find a huge crowd, mediocre food and overpriced drinks. Instead, enjoy your view with a $2.00 beer at this dive.

Swimming Holes/Pools

Swimming gets its own section because when it gets hot in Austin – which is most of the year – you don’t want to be outside unless you are in or around the water. Some of these spots are not IN Austin proper, but the ones outside of our city limits are short day trips and totally worth the drive.

City Centre 

Barton Springs Pool – 2201 Barton Springs Rd.

This is my absolute favorite place in Austin. It’s a pool fed from an underground spring with an average year-round temperature of 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit. There are always interesting people here and if you use the South gate entrance (700ish Robert E Lee Rd.) rather than the main entrance (2201 Barton Springs Rd.) you’ll see a collection of colorful Austinites – drum circles, people practicing acroyoga with a partner, hula hoopers and topless sunbathers. Barton Springs is synonymous with Austin. Entrance fee for non-residents of Austin is $8.00, but if you tell them you live in Austin the entrance fee is just $3.00. They never verify residence so you might as well save yourself $5.00 because when you are in Austin you become an honorary resident!

In Austin

Lake Travis or Lake Austin

You can rent boats/jet skis or even hop on a charter boat for a tour. If you’re not in the mood to swim you can also just head to one of the many restaurants/bars that offer beautiful views of these lakes.

 In Dripping Springs (50-minute drive from Austin)

Hamilton Pool Preserve – 24300 Hamilton Pool Rd., Dripping Springs, TX

A gorgeous spot where a lagoon is fed by a small waterfall. It’s about a 15 minute walk down to the water, but it’s worth the effort. If you make the trip be sure to get there early – a limited number of people are allowed in so the lines get long in the afternoon when they start their one in, one out admission.

In Wimberley (45-minute drive from Austin)

Blue Hole – 100 Blue Hole Rd., Wimberley, TX

Hands-down one of the best swimming holes in Texas, Blue Hole is lined on both banks by cypress trees. There’s also a great rope swing if you’re so inclined. Be warned though, the local teenagers grew up on this rope swing and the tricks they perform for their swimming audience could make your attempt scream “rookie.” Blue Hole is open seasonally for swimming so check the website first for the hours.

In Spicewood (45-minute drive from Austin)

Spicewood – 404 Krause Spring Rd., Spicewood, TX

There are 32 springs and two pools for swimming as well as a lovely butterfly garden

Restaurants

The Austin restaurant scene has blown up and there are tons of great choices. The key items to make sure to eat are breakfast tacos (an Austin staple), Tex Mex and Barbecue. Austin is hugely lacking in good Asian and Italian food, so keep that in mind if anyone makes recommendations in that vein.

Breakfast Tacos

If you’re not yet familiar with the glory of breakfast tacos, prepare to be indoctrinated. See below for a list of the best breakfast taco joints in Austin. Don’t forget the salsa – each of the places below have several options to try. Most of these are also great options for lunch/dinner tacos!

**An important note about breakfast tacos – unless you are gluten intolerant, breakfast tacos are meant to be eaten on flour tortillas.

  Tacos are everywhere...

Tacos are everywhere...

Polvo’s – 2004 S 1st

In Austin, Tex-Mex – along with barbecue – is religion. There are tons of places to get your fix, but Polvo’s is my favorite. They have a killer salsa bar with lots of choices of varying heat levels. Make sure to try the queso here – it comes with accoutrements for you to add to your liking. My favorite item on the menu is the fish fajitas, but you can’t go wrong with anything you order here.

An important note about queso – If your previous experience with queso has anything to do with a jar or the description “cheese sauce,” that means you’ve never had queso. You’re about to have your mind blown. Pace yourself.

Other good Tex-Mex options: Tamale House East, Habanero (cash-only), Mi Madre’s, Vivo

For additional inspiration check out Austin Monthly’s recent Ultimate Guide to Tex-Mex

La Barbecue – 1906 E Cesar Chavez

You’ve likely heard of Franklin Barbecue – it’s nationally recognized as one of the very best barbecue places out there. The New York Times just did this story on it. People start queueing up for their amazing brisket starting around 6:00 AM every single morning, but if you want barbecue that’s equally great with a much shorter line, head to La Barbecue. The brisket is mandatory.

Other good barbecue options: Micklethwait Craft Meats, Stiles Switch BBQ, Freedmen’s, Lambert’s

  Austin has an amazing patio culture....

Austin has an amazing patio culture....

Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ – 7612 Brodie Lane

Valentina’s is the house of worship located at the intersection of the tex-mex and bbq religions. The menu spans breakfast, lunch and dinner. You’ll walk away wondering how you’ve lived this long without pairing brisket and traditional taco fillings.

Launderette – 2115 Holly St.

This is my favorite restaurant in Austin right now. Small plates – perfect for sharing – that facilitate trying a lot of the menu in one meal. If you like cheeseburgers, try theirs. It is perfect and simple. When the dessert menu comes fight the urge to order one of the fancier desserts and get the birthday cake ice cream sandwich. You can thank me later.

Uchi – 801 South Lamar

If I had to choose my last meal in Austin it would be the chef’s tasting omakase from Uchi. A sushi restaurant started by now famed chef Tyson Cole, Uchi is an innovative take on traditional sushi. The focus on traditional rolls is diminished in favor of next-level small plates. Please be warned, there is always a wait for this restaurant so make a reservation if you plan to go. Another note of warning – this restaurant is also very spendy, but worth every last penny.

East Side King – Several locations, see website

Originally a food truck opened by Top Chef winner Paul Qui and Moto Utsunomiya (fun fact – both were Tyson Cole’s protégés at Uchi), East Side King now has two locations in Austin that serve the incredible original menu – one food truck at the Liberty Bar and a brick-and-mortar on South Lamar Blvd. The East Side King family also has two recent additions called Thai-Kun that serve a playful Thai menu that is not to be missed - a food truck at the very cool bar Whisler's and brick-and-mortar in The Domain's new "Rock Rose" district.  My favorite of these spots is the original East Side King food truck behind the delightfully divey bar, The Liberty Bar, on East 6th. However, if the idea of sharing a picnic table outside, with a group of hipster strangers who are smoking American Spirits and sipping whiskey doesn’t appeal to you, hit up the brick-and-mortar location on South Lamar.

Dai Due Butcher Shop & Supper Club – 2406 Manor Rd.

Dai Due’s commitment to serving regionally sourced ingredients runs so deep that even the beer and wine list is stocked exclusively with options from Texas. The food is as good as the menu is imaginative and everything tastes like it was prepared just for you by someone who cares. Head here for thoughtful service from knowledgeable servers who act as your guide through the innovative menu.

Contigo – 2027 Anchor Lane

Contigo describes its menu as farm-fresh Texas fare. That’s not all that descriptive, but all you need to know is that the food and cocktails are great and the ambiance is quintessential Austin. What does that mean? It means that all of the seating is outside – only the kitchen is held within four walls. This qualifies as quintessential Austin because it’s warm enough here 95% of the year to get away with that. They have a great Happy Hour including $1 fried chicken on Thursdays starting at 5:00 PM until they run out!

  Austin is great for BBQ...keep your hands off...

Austin is great for BBQ...keep your hands off...

Additional Austin Treasures

South Congress Avenue

South Congress is one of the best streets in Austin. Lined on either side with shops, restaurants, music venues and galleries, you could basically spend a full day walking up and down the street and never run out of things to do. On the first Thursday of each month – aptly called “First Thursday” – the shops stay open until 10:00 PM. My favorite South Congress spots include, but are not limited to:

  We loved all of the vintage neon signs that were scattered around Austin...

We loved all of the vintage neon signs that were scattered around Austin...

 Parts and Labour – a great place to pick up gifts to take back to jealous friends at home, a new eclectic piece of jewelry from a local artisan or some concert artwork from one of the many amazing acts that have performed in Austin. Parts and Labour only sells goods from local Texas artists, designers, etc.

 Jo’s Coffee – stop by to order an “Iced Turbo” and take your photo by the now famous “I love you so much” graffiti on the side of the building. Show up on Sunday from 12:30 – 3:00 to check out their weekly “Sinner’s Brunch” to listen to great (FREE) live music with your coffee & breakfast taco. However, if you want to be true to the name, order a beer along with your coffee.

 Maya Star – this boutique jewelry store stocks one-of-a-kind pieces from some of the most creative designers out there. They also have a selection of adorable clothes and accessories at affordable prices.

 STAG Provisions for Men – stop in and enjoy a free Shiner Bock beer while you peruse their selection of high-end men’s clothing and accessories.

 Big Top Candy Shop – a circus-themed old fashioned candy store and soda shop where you will lose track of time while you’re reminded of all the classic candies you loved as a child.

Link: Austin: Kid In A Candy Store

Big Top Candy Shop is really really big...

Alamo Drafthouse

The world’s best movie theater chain got its start right here in Austin. Book your reserved seats on the website and prepare to enjoy the best movie-going experience of your life. Alamo has a menu of pizza, sandwiches, snacks and an excellent selection of beer and cocktails to enjoy during your flick (servers bring your order during the movie – quickly and silently like ninjas). In addition to showing new releases, Alamo offers screenings of repertory films you never thought you’d see on the big screen and incredible themed events. Think Beyoncé sing-alongs and film themed feasts.

A note about Alamo Drafthouse – this theater was founded with the mission of keeping the film watching experience sacred. If you show up late for your movie you will not be let in (so you can’t disturb everyone who made it on time) and if you talk or text during the movie you will be ejected without a refund. They take these rules seriously – don’t test them.

Harry Ransom Center

Located on the University of Texas at Austin campus (UT), the Harry Ransom Center is a library, archive and museum that exhibits rotating collections of art, manuscripts, photography, etc. Recent collections ranged from art and costumes from Gone With The Wind to a collection of art and correspondence from WWII.

Bonus – if you go to the Harry Ransom Center you’ll also get a chance to check out the UT campus where you’ll see the latest in backpack fashion and ask yourself “did I look this young when I was in college?” no less than 10 times. 

Last Word 

There you have it, Dacyl's insider tips. Enough Said!

  If you go to Austin, be sure to have a car2go membership as it is the best way to get around...transit is not great...

If you go to Austin, be sure to have a car2go membership as it is the best way to get around...transit is not great...

Nelson BC: Fun, Funky & Quirky

A recent visit to Nelson BC, brought many smiles to our faces as we explored its streets and back alleys.  Nelson might just be Canada’s most bohemian community

It started right from the “get-go” when we checked in at the Adventure Hotel and were dazzled by the psychedelic carpet staircase - inspired by an “acid dream I am sure.” 

The staircase at the Adventure Hotel is like walking on a neon sign. 

After a day of driving (with stops to check out downtown Fernie and thrift stores in Creston), we were anxious to do some flaneuring. We immediately found the two-storey  Touchstones Nelson Museum of Art and History located in a former Post Office building built in 1902. Once inside, we were quickly immersed in a fantasy world of strange goblins and creatures from the imagination of artist Jude Griebel; this was a good start.  

The fantasy world of Griebel is weird and wacky, the head in the foreground is made of bones. 

Then after checking out Touchstones’ museum, we headed to Nelson’s Main Street (aka Baker Street) for some window licking fun as most of the stores had closed by then. We stumbled upon Relish - what a fun name for a restaurant!  The place had a good buzz, we were thirsty and hungry so in we went. 

Just one of the many fun window reflections along Baker Street.

A cold glass each of Harvest Moon Organic Hemp Ale from the Nelson Brewery Company (NBC) quenched our thirst.  I think NBC should win some type of award for the best beer names – Paddywack, Faceplant, AfterDark and Full Nelson!  My amazing burger with brie and apple still has me salivating.

After a little more street and alley wandering, we called it a day.  

The evening light filters through the tree lined downtown streets to create an eerie canopy. 

Day 2: I thought I was going to die!

Up early, we decided to check out the Oso Negro Café, which research told is the best place in town for breakfast. Expecting a small bohemian café, we were stunned by the amazing urban café atmosphere mixed with an enchanting garden setting.  Service was friendly and efficient so the long line up moved quickly.  The place was full of people of all ages - adults chatting, kids playing and nobody on their phone or computer.  How quirky is that?

The Oso Negro cafe has the most inviting garden I have ever encountered. It is both private and public at the same time. The light is magical. It may well be the best place to sit that I have ever experienced.  They even have a map that tells you what all the plants are. 

It was a beautiful day so I had to check out the local Granite Pointe golf course.  Being a single golfer, it was easy to walk on. What wasn’t so was to walk the golf course (even for a seasoned walker like me).  I had a quick debate with the Pro Shop attendant if the course was walkable and we agreed I could probably do it.  He showed me the hill at hole #10 and said that is the biggest climb. It was a gradual climb so didn’t look too intimidating. 

Walking down the 9th hole I was feeling pretty good about my decision to walk the course.

So off I went, clubs on my back, to enjoy what looked like a walk in the park. The front nine wasn’t bad - the views of the city, lake and mountains were spectacular.  I climbed the 10th but it was harder than I had imagined - going down 11 seemed just as hard as going up.  By the 14th I knew I was in trouble.  I was dragging my butt and wondering if I could finish; this had never happened to me before.  “Am I really getting that old?” I had to ask myself.  I finished - but just barely - as 18 was another climb up a hill to a green guarded by a huge granite rock. If I hit the rock who knows where the ball would go and I certainly wasn’t going to go looking for it.  Fortunately, I hit the green, parred the hole, got into my car and headed straight to the Adventure Hotel for a couple of those NBC beers. 

The hill climbing provided wonderful view of the lake and mountains. 

Dinner was at Itza Pizza across the street from the Adventure Hotel as I didn’t have the energy to wander too far.  The sign said best pizza in town and we also learned that back in 2011, Rick Nelson, Itza’s owner and pizza maker was one of four chefs across Canada to compete in Canadian Pizza Magazine’s (who knew there was a pizza magazine, let alone a Canadian one) best Canadian pizza contest. While Nelson didn’t win, he still makes a great pizza.  We had front row seats to Nelson’s street ballet on Itza’s street patio located on the parking spot in front of the restaurant – very urban.   We enjoyed our Harvest Pizza with pesto, sundried tomato, apples, smoked gruyere, roasted red peppers and pickled capers.

Unfortunately I had no energy left to check out the blues band playing across the street that night at Finley’s Bar and Grill across the street.  

Day 3: Caffeine Heaven

Rested, it was back to Oso Negro Café for a repeat breakfast.  By this time we were thinking this must be the best café in the world.

On the way, we noticed a sleazy looking mannequin standing in the back alley. We had to check it out.  It was in front of a funky looking hair salon, which we didn’t think was open at 8 am, but when I peaked in there were people inside and we were invited in to the “Chop Shop.”  Turns out this 50s themed salon/museum was featured on Slice Network’s “Chop Shop” Show.    

Who could resist checking out a barber pole like this one? Not us!

The Chop Shop the most unique and friendliest barbershop I have ever encountered. 

When we arrived at Oso Negro, we were again in caffeine heaven.  It is the perfect place to start the morning as the garden was bathed in early morning sunshine. We lingered for over an hour, people watching and enjoying our muffins and Oso Negro coffee, which we found out is roasted just a few blocks away.

  Another view of Oso Negro garden, sorry I don't think even if I included 10 photos I could capture the wonderful sense of place. 

Another view of Oso Negro garden, sorry I don't think even if I included 10 photos I could capture the wonderful sense of place. 

While Brenda went off to do more thrifting, I went to take photos of the buildings, streets, alleys and shops.  As I was wandering, I discovered the west end of Baker Street was closed for a flower street market.  The street was full of characters from the lady trying to sell worm farms to another lady giving her little dog a drink of water out of a baby bottle. I did say Nelson was fun, funky and quirky, didn’t I? 

There are many wonderful turn of the century buildings like this courthouse in downtown Nelson

Electric Circus books and records had this amazing collection of Beat books. It was a wonderful place to explore.

This flower shop in an alley has a wonderful European ambience. 

Found this wall of seeds in a quirky grocery/garden shop. 

The Baker Street Plant Market attracted an eclectic crowd to downtown.

Then it was off to check out Cottonwood Falls and adjacent Railtown district at the west end of Baker Street. The falls, a hidden gem, though small it packs a big punch -as the water crashing over the black rocks creates a mist that, combined with the sunlight, is ethereal.

Cottonwood Falls is tucked away in a small industrial park on the west end of downtown. 

We next met up with Alex, who toured us through the Nelson Brewery Company building, with all its shiny hardware and hoses creating what looks like a madman’s laboratory – there is even a door that says, “laboratory!” NBC is brewed in funky- looking old building that has been a brewery for over 100 years, so this isn’t some new kid on the craft brewery block, rather something that has evolved over the past century.

As all NBC beers are organic, you have to drink them reasonably quickly (they have a best before date), which I see as a bonus. If you want a tour, fill out the form on the website and they will get back to you quickly.

NBC's brewery is like a mad scientists lab.

Dinner was the Smokehouse BBQ, which is as authentic as you can get thousands of kilometers from southern USA with its plywood and corrugated steel interior. Order from the kitchen window and your meal is brought to you in a cardboard take-away box even if you are eating in.  We grabbed a window seat and chowed down on a finger licking good meal of ribs and pulled pork that was as good as anything we had in Austin Texas (unfortunately, it’s not licensed to serve alcohol).

El Taco is a very popular spot for locals. Did you know that on a per capital basis Nelson has more restaurants than New York City?

While there, we were treated to a steady stream of people picking up their Smokehouse BBQ orders as well as people heading to El Taco restaurant across the street.  As we left, we asked a young Nelsonian enjoying his pizza from Thor’s Pizzeria next to the Smokehouse what he knew about El Taco and he said it is very good and very popular with the locals.  He also added Thor’s has the best pizza in town.

Then it was off for an evening walk along the waterfront pathway. While the pathway along the West Arm of Kootenay Lake is lovely, the place was surprisingly deserted, even on a warm mid-May evening.

The waterfront pathway is a lovely walk along the lake which even has a beach at the bridge. We expected to find lots of people walking and cycling along the pathway, but it was deserted.   

One of the many lovely reflections of the boats in the water along the pathway. 

Last Word

We had a great time in Nelson; our only regrets are we didn’t have enough time to check out all of the great dining spots and that we didn’t do the Pulpit Rock trail which locals highly recommended for its great views. 

A big surprise was that while Nelson has a reputation of being a great art town, there aren’t  many art galleries and lots of the art (galleries, public art and street art) we saw was not as professional and contemporary as we expected. 

Street Art mixes with graffiti on this garage door. 

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that given Nelson’s reputation as the marijuana growing capital of Canada, we didn’t see or smell any evidence of it wherever we travelled in the city.

 

While we didn't see or smell the use of marijuana, there is a store on Baker Street next to the CIBC building where you can buy it, like you are buying an ice cream cone or perhaps some gelato. There were at least 50 flavours.  

Calgary: Tea Trader & Lapsang Souchong

I can’t remember when I first discovered Lapsang Souchong tea, but probably at university (a lot of experimenting happened then), but I have continued to enjoy its smoky (or as someone likes to say “smelly socks”) essence ever since.  Over the years, I have purchased my tea from a variety of suppliers, but for the past few years my favourite supplier, hands down, has been Tea Trader in Inglewood. 

 Tea Trader's entrance on 9th Ave SE, aka Atlantic Avenue, or Inglewood's Main Street. 

Tea Trader's entrance on 9th Ave SE, aka Atlantic Avenue, or Inglewood's Main Street. 

I love that the entrance is just a door on Atlantic Avenue which, upon entering, immediately leads you up a steep narrow stairway to the warehouse-like store.

Authenticity

When you arrive, you are immediately immersed in a world of tea – from the wall of tea tins to the burlap bags of tea piled up on the floor.  It feels authentic and like an oasis at the same time.  And the soft-spoken Kate, the store manager who always seems to be there when I go echoes the sense of tranquillity. 

Each time I go to get my little bag of Lapsang Souchong tea, I also get a little more of Tea Trader’s backstory. However on my most recent visit I asked Kate about other teas that I might like, and without hesitation and like an octopus, she enthusiastically started grabbing tins, while telling me about each of them, and inviting me to smell them. It was then that I realized Kate and my little tea shop was a pretty special Calgary business.

Kate loves to talk about the art and science of teas.

Backstory

Tea Trader, is owned by Ted and Colleen Jones, is located above Robinson’s Camera on 9th Avenue SE (formerly Atlantic Avenue) and has been in business since 1994 (It was the first tea only shop in Calgary).   I only found out recently that its current location is its fourth in Inglewood. It started directly across the street sharing space with one of the many, at the time, antique stores, then it moved two shops west sharing with a craft store, then for a few years it was east of the Blackfoot Truck stop until it settled in its present location for the last eight years.

Its roots lie in Ted’s working in London in the late ‘80s amongst a wide group of commodity traders coal, oil, and notably tea and coffee. Wanting his own business and liking the combination of tea, its customers and the buying/selling environment were key factors in the creation of Tea Trader.

The office/warehouse. 

Calgary Perfect

Ted a Brit, met Colleen from Ontario, while both were working in London and after three years in Cape Town, South Africa, they decided in 1990 that they wanted to live in the Western Canada. Even though they liked Vancouver, housing was too expensive even then. Calgary's lower cost of living, proximity to mountains and the fact they fell in love with Inglewood on their first visit to Cowtown made it a perfect place to start their new life and business.  

Over the years, Tea Trader has shipped tea to customers in Portugal, Britain, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Germany and Mexico, as well as all over North America. About 30% of their business is mail order and 60% is in-store.  Though, they couldn’t give me an exact volume of sales in pounds or kilograms, Kate did confirm “We sell tons of tea and at 3 grams a cup, that is a lot of tea!”

  There is a small collection of vintage tea cups and pots. 

There is a small collection of vintage tea cups and pots. 

Alberta Clipper Tea

At any given time, they have 100 to 160 teas in stock. Because tea is a seasonal commodity, they have to buy enough tea for the whole year when it becomes available; otherwise they miss the boat.  The Jones buy from an assortment of suppliers in India, China, Sri Lanka and Taiwan – some are actual tea garden growers while others are tea agents for growers. 

The Jones create many of their own tea blends - customers’ favourites being Bow River Breakfast (a blend of Assam BOP and Darjeeling first flush black teas) and Alberta Clipper (a blend of Darjeeling, Assam and Yunnan second flush black teas).  blends. Eight Bells is one of their most popular teas - an Earl Grey combining vanilla and passion fruit petals.

Tea Trader was the first store in Calgary to offer non-tea infusions like rooibos, which brought a whole new clientele of South Africans to the shop. Today, hundreds of regulars for whom tea is part of their everyday life, come in like clockwork to buy  at Tea Trader. 

The wall of teas is impressive. 

Funny Stories

Ted was once stopped at Heathrow Airport in London when his bag had 3kg of tea in it.  The security guard, by the look on his face, thought he had the bust of a lifetime, though Ted said it was just tea.  He walked to his supervisor standing nearby and Ted watched patiently as he explained what he had found. The supervisor listened for a few minutes, looked over at Ted and without coming over to the table, waved Ted through.

Perhaps the strangest request they have had was an inquiry for tea to make a special paint for industrial use. The Jones put the prospective customer in touch with Twinings in South Carolina knowing they stocked large quantities of broken tea leaves, which would do the job, and have the specific skills for such a request.

  There are lots of fun subliminal messages. 

There are lots of fun subliminal messages. 

Good Tea

Cooking & Baking

Kate informed me tea can be used in cooking and baking. For example, Matcha, a powdered green tea can be added to shortbread, macaroons and even ice cream. Adding my favourite Lapsang Souchong can impart its smoky flavour when roasting meats or fish.

Japanese green teas can be brewed and used to add a full, rich flavour to soup broth. Tea can also be fermented using a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) to produce a drink called Kombucha.

Tea Trader offers a good selection of accessories.

Last Word

On my last visit, Kate informed me Lapsang Souchong is a pine-smoked variety of china black tea - the smoky flavour is not inherent to the tea leaf but rather the result of the smoke drying process. The story goes, the tea was created during the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912) when the passage of armies delayed the annual drying of the tea leaves in the Wuyi Mountain in southeast China. Eager to satisfy demand, tea producers sped up the drying process by having their workers dry the tea leaves over fires made from local pine trees. It was Winston Churchill’s favourite tea; I heard he would also add a few drops of Lapsang Souchong tea to his scotch.

She also sent me home with a sample of a Keemun Mao Feng that she thought I might like (free taster bags, gotta like that). She was right!

Info:

  • Location: 1228A - 9th Avenue SE, 1-888-676-2939 / 403-264-0728
  • Open: Tuesday to Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm / Sunday, noon to 4 pm MST.
  • Website: teatrader.com
  • Email: shop@teatrader.com

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