Matt's El Rancho

Same As It Ever Was: 10 Places That Make Austin Bearable

I thought I’d take a break from bitching about Austin’s transformation from the awesome city I fell in love with 30 years ago into some kind of “lite” version of LA. (I think sometimes if I see another man’s skinny hairy legs in plaid short-shorts I’m going to lose it.) Instead, I’ve been searching for those bastions of old Austin that are still out there somewhere between the restaurants serving $8 tablespoons of chicken salad on a piece of toast and the homegoods stores selling $200 throw pillows. Here are my top-ten favorites (in no particular order):

1. Matt’s El Rancho

One of the few remaining places on South Lamar that’s recognizable. Matt’s is still owned by the Martinez family and still serving traditional Mexican food. You won’t find any arugula messing up the food here. Also, they have a beautiful patio, but for heaven’s sake, keep that to yourself.

2. Half-Price Books

I can’t speak for all the locations of Half-Price Books, but the one on South Lamar is still full of diverse customers and the musty smell of used books (although I don’t care for the racks of new books in the front so much). And nothing makes me more nostalgic than that soothing voice over the intercom, “Karen Collier, we’ve got your offer ready.”

3. The Arbor Cinema

The Arbor shows great art films (similar to the Violet Crown and Alamo South), but they don’t have to run PSAs about being quiet because the only people who go here are people who love movies. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone under 18 here in a decade. I would recommend getting there early though. Jenny at the concession stand is the most patient young woman in the world, and sometimes the customers have a hard time choosing between Milk Duds and Junior Mints.

4. The Great Outdoors

I heard the city almost ran these guys out of business earlier this year (some code violation that they hadn’t notice in the past 20 years), but the Dawson Neighborhood Association stepped up and helped save them. Thank goodness because this is one of the few authentic Austin joints left on South Congress. A beautiful nursery where you can get all your plants and pots and fairy garden supplies. Now that the city has backed down, I expect this place to be a safe haven for a long while. Most condo balconies are just too small for gardens.

5. The City-Wide Garage Sale

They were doing vintage when vintage was considered junk. Truth be told, it’s still junk, but just walking through here brings back such lovely memories of Mork and Mindy lunch boxes and those broaches grandma wore on her coat lapel.

6. Austin Public Libraries

I guess because the city is busy using all it’s money to hassle businesses like The Great Outdoors, they don’t have any to spend on libraries, so the Faulk Central and all the branches have changed little. (Not sure about the future, though, as Austin opens a new central library on Cesar Chavez next year.) APL has done a great job with technology, so you can easily place books on hold online, and they’ll deliver them right to your local branch. You can also checkout ebooks without ever leaving home.

7. Westgate Lanes

What could be better than to roll a game on a hot summer afternoon. The only thing that’s changed about this bowling alley is that the shoes have been replaced (thank heavens!).

8. Mother’s Café  

Okay, Mother’s may not be EXACTLY the same. They did have to rebuild the garden room after a homeless guy decided to cook a steak in the parking lost and started a fire in 2007, but essentially, it’s still the same. Delicious vegetarian served by attentive tatted servers, and it’s quiet enough to have a conversation. (I recommend the mushroom stroganoff.)

9. Oak Hill Golf Range

Suck it, Top Golf, you can get a medium bucket of balls here for $12 and have $88 left over to spend on margaritas and chiles rellenos at Matt’s.

10. Hyde Park Theatre

One of the first things we did when we moved to Austin in 1989 was to volunteer to help with a production that was being produced at HPT. Since then it’s changed hands a couple of times, and it looks like most of the equipment has been upgraded, but it’s still the same hot mess it was in the 80s. Not only that, this is the place you’ll see the best theatre being produced in Austin today.

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