Best Austin coffee shops near South Congress Avenue

You’re always a short walk from good coffee vibes on South Congress Avenue.

Cosmic Coffee + Beer Garden. 121 Pickle St. 512-481-0694. cosmiccoffeebeer.com. 7 a.m.-midnight, Sun.-Fri. 7 a.m.-1 a.m. Sat. Lots of onsite parking, but cars overflow onto side streets at busy times. Decaf, teas, chai, beer, wine, cocktails. Music is lively, but one can find plenty of quiet spots in the garden.
Cosmic is cosmic. The latest adventure for Austin hospitality guru Paul Oveisi transforms a former industrial site into a garden of earthly delights for young and old alike. Across the way is a rock-climbing studio, gym and wine-tasting room. In between is a vast array of low, comfortable chairs set next to tables, fires and water features. Could use some more shade when the heat arrives, but Oveisi told me he is taking care of that. The counter to the back of the interior zone is simplicity itself. Adult beverages appear more prominent than the coffee offerings, but this is no dive. Kids wind their way through the garden, where old hippies, young hipsters and, yes, South Austin rednecks hang out. It recalls not only ABGB but, going further back, the Armadillo World Headquarters (1970-1980), Scholz Beer Garten (1866-today) and other beloved Austin casual spots. Is Oveisi making history again?
UPDATE: Paul Oveisi’s last name was misspelled when this was first posted.
Bennu Coffee. 512 S. Congress Ave. 512-448-3919. Open 24 hours 7 days a week. benucoffee.com. Limited parking in a shared lot with many restrictions, additional street parking up the hill on South Congress Avenue. Instant, free WiFi with no password. Decaf Americano. Low volume music.

East Austin favorite Bennu Coffee has taken over the slot occupied for years by social-justice-driven Dominican Joe. Good news: Bennu, which also pledges fair trade, local vendors, reduced waste and philanthropy, has given the L-shaped space a needed shot of energy. Open 24 hours, Bennu added seating indoors and outdoors without forcing a feeling of overcrowding. Despite the larger and younger crowd, the place — wonder of wonders! — is not all that loud. Lots of laptoppers, but also friends visiting in a leisurely way. The owners have simplified the decor and the drink menu, too, now divided into Hot, Cold and Smoothies categories. The food choices, on the other hand, have expanded to include more sandwiches and pastries. The heart of the place, however, hasn’t changed: The inviting counter and coffee stations operate quickly, efficiently and gracefully. My barista, for instance, didn’t shut down my preliminary decaf order, as so often happens at other shops, but rather emphasized the superiority of decaf Americano. Thank you! And mine was, in fact, superior.

RELATED: Best Austin coffee shops near South First Street.

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Jo’s Coffee. 1300 South Congress Ave. 512-444-3800. joscoffee.com. Open 7 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Street parking only. Good, free Wi-Fi. Decaf (Americano), tea, chai. All open-air seating competes with street sounds.

In 1999, this spot revolutionized the delivery of coffee, the design of shops, and even the flow of street life, not just on South Congress but all over Austin. Overnight, a simple green and red box was planted on the corner of the avenue and West James Street, and — this is key — right at the sidewalk line. One ordered through a walk-side window; the seating was open air and shaded, much of it facing foot, bike and auto traffic. Instantly, street life became theater for those who stopped for espresso and other coffee drinks, then a growing array pastries, tacos, chips, waters, teas, sandwiches and, for a while, beer. The last one was huge because alcohol laws had always forbidden anything that looked like open beverage take-out service. (It has since disappeared from the menu.) The coffee has always been good, even if it has been bested by a few specialists around town. Nothing can take away from the location, though, enfolded in the bosom of the Hotel San Jose and its adjacent social and entertainment events. Jo’s didn’t invent SoCo, but it is impossible to think of the city’s charismatic tourist attraction without it. Despite its popularity, there’s almost always an empty seat, subject to the weather.

RELATED: Best Austin coffee shops near Lower South Lamar Boulevard.

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Mañana Coffee & Juice. 1603 S. Congress Ave. 512-872-3144. mananaaustin.com. Open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. Free underground parking. Strong, free WiFi. Decaf, tea, chai. Quiet inside and out.

One of the last pieces in the South Congress Hotel puzzle is in place. Conceived by the New Waterloo group, Mañana Coffee & Juice slips into a narrow spot behind the urban dining magnet Central Standard. You can enter this light, trim space from East Monroe Street, or from the hotel’s courtyard, where spillover tables invite guests to linger on clement days. Many of the interior seats line long counters rather than tables, and so attract solo typists more so than folks chatting. The coffee drinks — made by alert baristas — are potent and the beans come from Cuvée Coffee, while the teas are drawn from Kusmi Tea. A rare offering for an Austin coffeehouse: cold-pressed juices, along with milks, plus fruits and veggies overseen by chef Michael Paley. Pastry chef Amanda Rockman makes the quite fresh baked goods and snacks. These days, our downtown hotels rely on in-house Starbucks outlets, but that won’t do on idiosyncratic South Congress, where almost none of the businesses hail from out of town. Despite the lack of venues to rendezvous inside Mañana and the oddly uncomfortable stools at the bar, it’s likely to become a regular haunt.

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Sage Cafe. 2810 South Congress Ave. 512-916-8804. manray30.wixsite.com/sage-cafe. 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat., 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun. Free parking at Great Outdoors. Decaf, tea, chai. Free wifi with password. Quiet inside and outside.

Formerly Garden District Coffee, then Sage Coffee, this nature-loving spot is now called Sage Cafe. And for good reason, since the small outfit on the grounds of the Great Outdoors nursery offers a lot of food and drink. The outer terrace is swathed in green, cooled by deep shade on most days. Inside, which fills up quickly, old furniture is grouped into a few meeting or reading areas. One orders at a short counter from a multitude of offerings that include frappes, kombucha, protein drinks, cold-brewed and espresso-based drinks. Compared to the rest of the interior, the kitchen looks pretty spacious. What was this building in past eras? Its bones look like something out of the 1930s road culture. Nowadays, it’s as laid-back as possible for St. Edward’s University students from across the avenue and shoppers at the Great Outdoors. It should be remembered that, before the city of Austin improved the streetscape from Oltorf Street more more or less to Ben White Boulevard a decade or so ago, this stretch would not have a convivial location for a coffee shop or a cafe.

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TOMS Austin. 1401 South Congress Ave. 512-350-2115. toms.com. 8 a.m.-8 p.m Sun.-Fri., 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Sat.. Street parking only. Decaf (Americano), no tea or chai. Email entry required for Wi-Fi. Muted music inside and not too loud outside.

Don’t know what it is about coffee and philanthropy, but they seem to go together. In 2014, charming Blake Mycoskie — briefly a citizen of our city — followed up his famous “One for One” shoe-and-eyewear charities with roasted coffee which helps pay for clean water projects. Showcased during SXSW that year, Mycoskie transformed a century-plus-old home on a rise at South Congress and East Gibson Street into a chic retreat, with oversized porch swings, lounge furniture, fireplaces, sheltering oaks and landscaping front and back. Two shopping niches offer the shoes and eyeglasses, while laptoppers congregate in an oddly arranged area to the back. Coffee comes by way of drip, cold, pour-over and espresso. A limited number of other beverages have been added, but there’s still a minimalist feel to the place. Good fit for the SoCo scene, with just enough local authenticity. Sometimes, little parties gather in the back, but the interior spaces, painted in playful colors, are hushed. One thing: It’s not as legible from the street as a coffee shop as, say, Jo’s down the hill. But it is cleanly branded as TOMS.

UPDATED: Apanas has closed on South Congress.

OUR ORIGINAL 2007 STORY.

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Art by Mike Sutter
10,000 Coffee Shops. In 2007, we proposed a series titled “10,000 Coffee Shops.” We found only 100 around Austin, but it felt like 10,000. Our point: That in the 1980s, there had only been three such spots here! We’re sure to count more than 200 during a new run in 2016-2017.

Best Texas rivers: Buffalo Bayou, Part 2

As you Texas river buffs might remember, we traced the lower part of 65-mile Buffalo Bayou from its mouth at the Lynchburg Ferry, through the industrial maze of the Houston Ship Channel, then along several urban parks and trails, to its semi-tamed midpoint at Bayou Bend in River Oaks.

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The next day, we went to the source.

And that source — the juncture of Willow Fork and Cane Branch in southwestern Katy — surprised us. Really not that far from Brookshire and the Brazos River, truth be told, master-planned communities stretch in very direction. Even here at Kingsland Boulevard, the bayou looks channelized, stressed by litter and anything but dangerous. But wait!

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There would be no West Houston if, in 1945, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had not thrown up a huge earthen dams to create the Barker and Addicks Reservoirs, located on either side of Interstate 10. There’s never much of a lake at the Barker Reservoir, except when it floods, but here’s the deal: When Upper Buffalo Bayou flooded in the past, just about everything west of Memorial Park was deemed under threat.

And, of course, there are reports that the Addicks and Barker dams have not been adequately maintained, leaving the city below at “extremely high risk.” Yikes!

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We headed down the curving Westheimer Parkway to take advantage of the vast George Bush Park located in the green lands above the Barker Dam, checking out the soccer fields before hiking a short distance through a water-tolerant forested area to a straight-as-a-line bayou channel where joggers and fishermen shared the banks.

Next we turned onto Westheimer Road (FM 1093), only to find a wide intersection blocked with more than a dozen emergency vehicles. There had been a horrible wreck. We worked our way via backroads to Wilcrest, where we headed north and met the bayou where the city has done a miraculous job of creating a sophisticated hike-and-bike trail among the conifers and hardwoods.

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I’ve walked the dogs along here many times while staying with relatives in the greater Memorial area.

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I can remember hiking, too, along the bayou banks as a boy scout at what was then Camp Hudson, but I can’t find any traces of that sweet spot these day.

The bayou continues from Wilcrest through several tony neighborhoods, some dubbed “villages,” where, along Memorial Drive and elsewhere, the mansions grow to enormous sizes in ever more extravagant styles. It is no exaggeration to call some of these places “palaces.”

img_3648The bayou enters the piney retreats of Memorial Park just west of Loop 610, where we scrambled down the muddy kayak ramp to discover quite a bit of nature underneath the residential towers that poked up above the pines. From here, Buffalo Bayou forms the undulating southern boundary of the park. There are many access points behind the picnic areas and the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center, again a place we must visit in the milds of spring.

Best Texas rivers: Buffalo Bayou, Part 1

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Some readers might ask why we have included a bayou in our quest to trace 50 Texas rivers. Actually, it’s our second one. Years ago, we traced Bastrop Bayou in the tidelands of Brazoria County.

In this case, Buffalo Bayou is one of the state’s most important waterways, historically and economically. At 65 miles long, it outstrips some watercourses that are given grander names (the Comal River, for instance, flows only 2.5 miles before it reachers the Guadalupe).

When you boil it down, a Texas bayou is really a river that was named by someone from Louisiana; a Texas creek was named by someone from Tennessee; and an arroyo was named by someone from Spain or Mexico, and so forth. Those names stuck.

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We began our bayou adventure where we ended our tracing of the San Jacinto River — at the San Jacinto Monument. On dead-flat, brushy land at the juncture of the two waterways, the Texan army defeated Santa Ana and his Mexican troops. Surrounding that point at the Lynchburg Ferry are miles and miles of industral plants and gritty residential neighborhoods strung along the Houston Ship Channel, the largest such industrial agglomeration in the country if not the world. It’s awe-inspiring, though not in an entirely positive way.

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Joe Starr and I started by perusing the small, old-fashioned historical museum at the base of the monument before ascending the tower — taller than the Washington Monument and built during the Depression — in a tiny elevator. The small interior deck faces mostly west, but also south and north, where we spotted the mouth of the bayou near the docked Battleship Texas. Pretty spectacular setting.

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We next headed to old Harrisburg, a former port on the bayou and town that predated Houston, but now is a grim neighborhood within the city limits, split brazenly by freeways and railroad tracks. It took a little iPhone detective work to find the main historical marker here, located outside a modern drive-through bank. We never discovered the location for the marker that tells about Texas’ first railroad, the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado, which embarked from here in 1853.

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Getting down to the docks themselves has never been easy, even less so since 9/11. We were politely turned away, for instance, from the Turning Basin at the head of the Ship Channel by a security guard. But just upstream on the still-wide bayou, we tromped around Hidalgo Park, part of an Hispanic neighborhood alongside Navigation Boulevard that goes back to the turn of the last century. Here, the banks are high and thick with brush, but we got a good view of a rusty railroad bridge and, from a distance, the Turning Basin. A reminder how the port and the rails made this town.

Except for a landscaped area around the original Ninfa’s restaurant, this is an unlovely stretch of Houston that I predicted would resist gentrification. I was wrong. Already, the section of Navigation that abuts downtown has attracted condo-buyers, bicyclists and dog walkers, three signs of what’s to come.

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Only a raving man camping atop a littered hill greeted us on the Buffalo Bayou Hike and Bike Trail near South Jensen Drive. A bankside theater sat across the bayou, but there was no human activity on either side. It continued to confound me that the bayou is so wide here. Later, I read that it is tidal all the way inland to Allen’s Landing, the starting point for historical Houston. Explains a lot.

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Dodging the freeways that entangle downtown, we found a lovely historical bridge on McKee Street next to James Bute Park. A handy marker informed us that this area was also a little town with a spotty history. It, too, eventually was overshadowed by the metropolis around it.

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Attempts to beautify and civilize the bayou get really intense at Allen’s Landing, whose old brick buildings were rediscovered by hippies when I was young, then later by the builders of University of Houston-Downtown.

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Beautiful walkways, gates and other structures makes some sense as tourist attractions, but that’s not the crowd that huddled there this day.

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We next explored Buffalo Bayou Park, part of a gargantuan program by the city to “green” its signature stream, mainly from downtown to the west. The amenities, including an upscale restaurant at Lost Lake, are, indeed, impressive. We walked out on a grand, empty pedestrian bridge.

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I’m sure that if it were not so incredibly humid, more joggers and bikers would have taken advantage of the park’s intricate, recently flooded landscaping.

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Our last stop of the day took us to Bayou Bend, the former home of philanthropist Ima Hogg, now an outpost of the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston. The parking lot located on the northwest bank off Memorial Drive was empty because, it turns out, the pedestrian bridge over the bayou, which leads to the house and gardens on the southeast bank, was under construction. We’ll come back in the spring when the azaleas are in bloom.

It’s worth noting that the bayou will still very high from summer rains. The vegetation along the banks in the River Oaks area is quite verdant. One could imagine what explorers or early settlers thought about this near-jungle when they first encountered it. We didn’t hike around the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. In fact, by this point, we could hardly stand being outside.

We settled instead for excellent Belgian fare at Cafe Brussels on Houston Avenue. The next day: Buffalo Bayou from its source to Memorial Park.

UPDATE: The river at the mouth of Buffalo Bayou was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this post.

 

Best Texas books: What the German Texans left us

Face facts, it’s still summer, weather-wise in Austin. So let’s look back at some recent Texas titles before rummaging through the fall books.

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“The Material Culture of German Texans.” Kenneth Hafertepe. Texas A&M Press. This is a big, beautiful book on a subject that will delight antiquarians and collectors as well as the just plain curious. Heftertepe, who chairs the department of museum studies at Baylor University, has already provided two volumes essential to understanding our region, “Abner Cook: Master Builder on the Texas Frontier” and “A Guide to the Historic Buildings of Fredericksburg and Gillespie County.” Here, he delves into a rich variety of vernacular architecture, as well as covering cabinetmakers, interiors, public buildings, houses of worship and — smart to include — graveyards and grave markers. Hafertepe speaks on his book’s subject at the Neill-Cochran House, designed by Abner Cook, on Sept. 25.

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“Haiku Austin: Vol 1.” Carlotta Eike Stankiewicz. Haiku Empire Press. Small gift books are all the rage. And we approve. Not every opus should double as a weapon. Stankiewicz’s slender volume brandishes its bright, quirky images and light, quirky words quite effectively. Don’t seek profundities here. Instead enjoy page after page of knowing smiles inspired by our town’s beloved singularities. Sample “Lucy in Disguise,” based on the costume shop on South Congress: “sequins and Spandex/drag queens flirt with evil clowns/grown-ups play dress-up.”

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“We Come to Our Senses.” Odie Lindsey. Norton. I look forward to reading this book more carefully and interviewing the Nashville-based author, who has lived in Austin and sets some of his stories here. Lindsey will appear at the Texas Book Festival Nov. 5-6. I can tell you from what I’ve read so far: His dialogue and scene-setting ring absolutely true. His prose reminds me, to some extent, of the plays and the novel, “Rules for Werewolves,” by Austinite Kirk Lynn, which I understand is being considered for movie or TV treatment. Lindsey’s vets are characters of natural interest, given the generational involvement in what seem like endless wars fought for an American public that doesn’t much care.

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“Finding Dorothy Scott: Letters of a WASP Pilot.” Sarah Byrn Rickman. Texas Tech University Press. The author is one of the key keepers of the flame regarding the nearly lost history of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, who trained in West Texas and ferried planes from base to base during World War II. (We recently wrote about one of the WASP flier, Susie Winston Bain, pegged to an excellent exhibit at the Bullock Texas History Museum.) Here, Rickman presents the letters of Scott, preserved by her twin brother, which reveal the flier’s inner life, but also the day-to-day routines of the WASP forces. Incredibly ambitious, Scott died in a mid-air crash at age 23.

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“The Mammals of Texas.” (Seventh Edition). David J. Schimdly and Robert D. Bradley. University of Texas Press. I love this book. And I’ve used it in the field for years. I can’t tell you what has been improved in this, the Seventh Edition, but what will likely open the eyes of first-timers are the number of whales, porpoises and dolphins that live just off our coast, as well as the numerous introduced species, such as eastern Thompson’s gazelles, Barbary sheep and Sika deer. There are even Japanese macaques loose in Central Texas. The authors have not left out domesticated mammals, which fewer Texans could identify these days as the state urbanizes and suburbanizes. One thing: The range maps, organized by county reports, seem pretty primitive for such a image-conscious publisher like UT Press.91pymvgiw7l

“A Kineñero’s Journey: On Family, Learning and Public Service.” Lauro F. Cavazos and Gene B. Preuss. Texas Tech University Press. A Kineñero is a descendant of Mexicans who worked on the King Ranch in the 1800s. Former Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos — appointed by President Ronald Reagan — counts himself as one. His father served as ranch foreman. A longtime educator, Cavazos also was president of Texas Tech University. He is assisted here in recalling his journey by Preuss, a professor of history at University of Houston-Downtown. The father of 10 children with Peggy Ann Murdoch, Cavazos was blessed with a wide-ranging interest in learning and, especially in interactions among cultures.

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“Texas Land Grants, 1750-1900: A Documentary History.” John Martin Davis, Jr. McFarland. Despite the cover art, this is a serious book about serious history. What could be more important to a country than the claim to the land and its resources? Especially in Texas, where, until the modern era, much of what happened here happened because of land grants. Davis, a retired tax attorney who lives in Fort Davis, is an authority on maps. He patiently takes the reader through the history of Spanish and Mexican grants, military and emigrant headrights, Republic of Texas practices, grants among disputed territories in the Trans-Nueces and Trans-Pecos regions, as well as homestead, education and internal improvement grants. He also provides lots of images of sample grants.

UPDATES: References to Lauro Cavazos, Kenneth Hafertepe and Sarah Byrn Rickman have been corrected.

 

 

Rodeo Austin picks new leader

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Rob Golding, new CEO of Rodeo Austin.

Rodeo Austin,  one of Austin’s signature events, has a new leader. Rob Golding, who has served in the past decade as founding principal, chairman and CEO of Live Oak Gottesman, a commercial real estate development and services company, takes over the venerable group that emphasizes entertainment and education, as well as preserving the culture of the West.

“(Golding) brings a strong background and expertise in executive leadership roles and community engagement,” said Laura Estes, director of marketing & merchandising for H-E-B said. “Rob will continue the vision and lasting impact Rodeo Austin delivers in empowering the youth of Greater Austin with entertaining and meaningful hands-on learning opportunities.”

Golding is no stranger to public service. He has been involved at the board level with numerous local organizations including the Urban Land Institute, Capitol Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, Salvation Army, Austin Economic Development Corporation, Greater Austin Crime Commission, Health Alliance for Austin Musicians and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

“It is an honor to step into this role with Rodeo Austin,” Golding said. “The board, staff and incredible base of volunteers have built a terrific organization and I look forward to working with them on innovative ways to grow the presence and impact of the organization. I found the mission and professional challenge at Rodeo Austin irresistible.”

First envisioned in the 1930s, Rodeo Austin started as a livestock show staged across the street from the State Capitol. It later moved to the City Market at Seventh Street and East Avenue, then the City Colosseum near the Palmer Auditorium on the south riverfront. The first two utilitarian structures were demolished, the third was recycled as the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

After the rodeo moved to its current facility, the Travis County Expo Center on Decker Lane, it grew in size, but grew away from core Austin culture. No more parades down Congress Avenue. No more office closures or class cancellations. A breakdown of attendance is usually not made available, but it appeared for years that the group’s carnival far outstripped the rodeo sports, concerts or the nearby livestock show in popularity.

For decades, the rodeo’s powerful board of directors remained resolutely the province of a few loyal families.

Longtime CEO, Bucky Lamb, parted amicably with the group several months ago, according to rodeo spokeswoman Jennifer Stevens.