Twenty-four 24-hour Austin restaurants (in 24 hours)
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 09.14.11
For all the years I worked fast food, graveyard was my specialty. The adrenaline of the 2 a.m. bar rush was just the right fuel to propel me to sunrise, where there waited an exquisite blend of fatigue and exhilaration, like I’d just gotten away with something by staying up all night.
Because a few thousand of my friends and I will be staying up late the next 10 days, I wanted to map out 24 of Austin’s 24-hour restaurants in 24 hours. I split the job into three consecutive graveyard shifts, rolling from midnight to 8 a.m. Those are the magic hours for the perpetual-motion cafe, because let’s face it, an all-night restaurant at 2 o’clock in the afternoon is just another restaurant, a little worse for the wear at that. Like I told a friend who wondered why I was pulling all-nighters: “A graveyard during the day is still a graveyard. But you meet a better class of people there at night.”
Yes, Austin really does have 24 restaurants that stay open 24 hours, even after Katz’s Deli closed this year. Jack in the Box hits that number all by itself. And Austin is crawling with Taco Cabanas, IHOPs and Denny’s. The trick was to hit 24 all-night havens without duplicating those places that are designed to be the same. I doubled up on Kerbey Lane Cafe and Magnolia Cafe, because each one wears its own brand of Austin weird. For variety, I also folded in a Fiesta Mart, an H-E-B grocery, a 7-11 and to my surprise, an all-night Walmart so big the earth curves somewhere between the lunch meat and the fishing gear.
Follow me to the end and I’ll give you a list of all 24 places, with the addresses, phone numbers and websites. And the hours, all 24 of them.
Graveyard Shift 1: My proprietary sunrise
Makes sense to start the first shift with fuel for the journey, and a nighttime cool spell points me toward the coffeeshop Strange Brew, where the signature hot drink is a sweet froth somewhere between a latte and a cappuccino. It’s probably overpriced at $3.95, but somebody has to pay to keep the lights on and the hamster wheels of the wireless running.
There’s a lineup of pastries and breakfast tacos from strong area vendors like Quack’s and Full English and Rock Star Bagels, but Strange Brew makes its own paninis, and one with pine-nut hummus, tomato and sweet balsamic reduction on toasted sourdough ($4.95) is a hippie kind of thing fit for late night. The laptop surfing culture is so prevalent here a guy has actually brought a monitor to patch into his laptop. Strange Brew fits well into its eclectic strip-mall environment, next to a kung fu studio, a nail salon, a tattoo parlor and Tobaccoville, and I’m looking for Justin Timberlake in a foam rubber suit to lure me in. It’s a small place, with seating in leather scoop chairs and little tables for about 20 inside. A parking-lot patio will fit about another 10. Out back, there’s a tent where a group of people are playing chess, huddled close together, as if they were playing with a hive mind.
I’m amazed at just how dead the streets are this time of night. I’m sailing over roads that sap my will to live during the day, which suits my mission. To invoke the Klingons, I’m a running man with a thousand metaphorical throats to cut in one night. I wonder what Klingons do when they’re stuck in traffic. Intergalactic road rage.
The stretch of the Interstate 35 frontage road southwest of Slaughter Lane is a nexus of 24-hour stops: Whataburger, a boutique-style Jack in the Box drive through, Steak ‘n Shake — and a Walmart. I went in as a goof, to make fun of the chocolate sprinkled doughnut holes and Diet Dr Thunder and 10 kinds of American cheese slices. But among the prop-comedy dreamscape are things like Greek yogurt with figs, wild rice crisps with sea salt and black sesame and Odwalla Superfood juice and a perfectly ripe peach — the same kind of snack basket I’d pick up in a 24-hour Whole Foods if there were such a thing. You could buy a week’s worth of groceries and do your-back-to-school shopping while your family sleeps, and that counts for something.
Steak ‘n Shake offers the same kind of charm for ‘50s diner fans that fake Irish pubs hold for people who drink green beer on St. Paddy’s Day. The booths are upholstered in black and red, and a short counter clad in chrome fronts barstools in studded black leather like Harley seats. I like the friendly sit-down service at 3 in the morning, with fast-food prices and burgers with meat as thin as lace curtains. Matchstick fries are as impulse-inducing as the kind out of a can. I reviewed the overnight visit for my 50 Burgers, 50 Days series. Read it here.
I’m conversant with the Kerbey Lane Cafes on South Lamar and on Kerbey Lane, but the William Cannon/MoPac experience is a novelty. As in I never imagined I’d be The. Only. Person. at a Kerbey Lane Cafe any time of the day or night. But here I sit with the long green counter to myself at the newest Kerbey, having the quintessential egg throwdown: cheddar and Jack cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes, green onions, thick pieces of seared, skin-on potato, with a solid red line of Kerbey Lane salsa ($6.79, plus $1.09 to sub pancakes for the sides). For a limited time, supplement that dish with a lemon-poppyseed pancake. It’s still the size of a breakfast plate, though the legend of the Kerbey Lane pancake isn’t what it used to be, freighted with expectation and weighed down accordingly. An apple-gingerbread pancake carries the same extra weight, but both are full of the flavors that went into them. That lemon poppyseed is like a Frisbee-sized danish, served with a side of lemon glaze.
When I talked to the staff about being a party of one, they said the weekday wee hours are usually like this, that it’s too far away from the night life, and its customer base is more likely asleep than coming off a night at the bars. But a pile of pagers at the front counter sits in silent witness to what happens later in the day.
This Kerbey feels greener than the others, with low woodgrained walls and light fixtures like dandelion heads, all framed in shades of jade. As I leave, another solitary soul wanders in, and I pass the lonely baton.
There’s a familiar sense of indignation building in me as I see the schoolbuses enter the traffic flow on my way to the 24-hour H-E-B on South Congress. As more storefronts flicker to life, I’m thinking that anybody can be up at 6 in the morning, but how many of these peope are already a full six hours into your day? It doesn’t mean as much if they didn’t ride out the night, my indignation demands.
Stepping out of the car at the H-E-B, the aroma of doughnuts breaks the bad mood, and I go straight for the bakery department, where the overnight crew is still boxing that morning’s batch. At $3.79 a dozen, it feels like shoplifting, because right off the glazer, they’re as good as anybody who hangs a Styrofoam doughnut above his business could make them. This is the department to be as the fresh stuff starts rolling out, at an hour when the other departments haven’t yet purged yesterday’s sushi, yesterday's hot chicken wings and ready-made Jell-O molds from who knows when. Four crusty little bolillos are just a dollar, and with a tub of H-E-B cream cheese with cinnamon honey and a bottle of chocolate milk, they make a full blood-sugar breakfast.
The sun has painted the sky a smoky blue by now, followed closely by the orange that will turn into another summer slash of heat. Two crossing guards make sure a kid gets across Congress Avenue for another day at Fulmore Middle School. The guard on the east side of the street gives the kid a little bow, and I pin the needle at 20 mph, no faster. It’s quiet enough in the Magnolia Cafe parking lot that I can hear the whine of the lights on the flashing arrow sign, and I’m seated the minute I walk in, a perk I’ve never experienced in my bar-rush adventures here. Starting at 7 a.m., they could sell me a glass of beer. Hypothetically.
Every square inch of this Magnolia is painted or decorated, framed by a saturated crawl of a mural near the ceiling. I think that’s a group of state legislators across from me, in power suits for the off-season, a contrast to the dad and daughter having a quick breakfast at the counter before school.
Magnolia has a lighter menu for breakfast, another reward for getting here at 7, and it includes a nicely turned eggs Florentine for $6.95 with fresh leaves of steamed spinach and eggs poached to that porcelain white, the kind that sets the yolk in bold relief when it flows on the first stab of the fork. It gets a light, lemony hollandaise and a side of chunky, irregular, charred, highly seasoned and nearly perfect homefries.
Magnolia and Kerbey Lane could have a pancake war, and we’d all win. It’s not fair to compare plain old buttermilk to its denser artisan cousins at Kerbey earlier in the day, but the buttermilk cakes here are fluffy as a feather duvet. Coffee has a bounce to it, a Magnolia blend from three continents. Hands across the coffeepots.
As I pile in the car for the drive home, carryout boxes cover the passenger floorboard, and I’ll be a hero with the kids for one brief shining morning.
Graveyard Shift 2: Roasted, toasted, shaken, slurred
With its Boulevard of Broken Dreams windows, 24 Diner looks better at night. Because let’s face it, the view on North Lamar isn’t that great. One downside to starting a graveyard shift at midnight is that I can’t get a pint of Avery Maharaja IPA. Alcohol service stops at midnight in a civilized place like this. 24 Diner is about half full, so of course they put the drunk couple right next to me. She’s leaning at a 45-degree angle to the table, and everything she says to her havering date is a slurred, conspiratorial hiss. A bit of lowbrow entertainment in a place where you can order deviled eggs or stuffed Swiss chard or a grilled ribeye all day long.
I start the night with chicken and waffles. A small order is $8.95 for two boneless pieces (dark meat, since you asked) and a half-moon of a waffle with high ramparts and deep valleys to hold real maple syrup. And because it’s just half, that leaves room for a roasted banana and brown sugar milkshake, right? It comes in a pint glass for $5.95, almost a consolation for the forbidden IPA. It’s creamy and raspy with banana, not overly processed or whirled, with pulp and circumstance in every taste. The sweetness stays in the background, letting the more interesting flavors do the work.
Salt dusts the primordially uneven surface of the chicken like snow on a toasted plain, and it’d be easy to decide there’s too much, but it works with a mouthful of waffle, and the chicken inside is still seething with juice. I’ve never had a waffle this far to the savory side, a study in yeast and density over sugary brickle. The dish is like a twist on chicken and biscuits or just chicken and rolls. Dark honey butter is another sign there’s something different going on at 24.
24 Diner came out of nowhere, and everywhere, replacing one of the many Waterloo Ice House locations, a venture from the same people. About a year after 24 opened, its closest competition klosed. Katz’s that is, the urban option for 24-hour attitude and food that tried hard to be New York and succeeded mostly in the wrong ways. So 24 Diner entered the 24-hour dialogue at the head of the pack with Kerbey and Magnolia in a city that stays up perpetually late.
I’m happy to mooch free wi-fi from Waterloo Records next door, another thing for which to be thankful to owner John Kunz, who sold me my CD copy of Led Zeppelin IV. Speaking of music, I’m sure that’s Raul Malo of the Mavericks holding court in the corner booth. “Foolish Heart” was one of the first songs I ever downloaded from iTunes. I restrain myself from telling him so. The whole experience has been a lesson in restraint on this first of nine stops on Graveyard Shift 2.
They’re scattered all over Austin, but the Lamar/Riverside location of Taco Cabana draws a cross-section of the night’s most colorful characters. Tattooed bike riders, table grazers, tweekers and railroad hobos. Plus a beautiful woman and her fluffy white poodle, yapping like a poorly socialized child. I’ll give Taco Cabana credit for examining its roots and adding “street tacos” to its menu: three little tacos on doubled-up, palm-sized corn tortillas. They’ve got the rough cut look of brown mystery beef from a vendor, with chopped cilantro and onion, and they work out to $1.43 apiece, an OK price for a decent little bite. My respect for the Cabana always came from its flour tortillas, from a motorized press right there at the store. It’s not the fluffy revelation I remember, but it backs up a taco with egg and brisket just fine. People made such a big deal when the Cabana started selling brisket, like they invented the form or something. But it’s pretty good, marbled with fat, soft and fibered with a taste on the polite side of barbacoa. I’ve seen the storied salsa bar look fresher, and despite all the bright blues and pinks and greens, the place feels like it’s exhausted from staying up all night every night.
By now it’s bar rush on a Thursday night, and Kerbey Lane on South Lamar isn’t the trainwreck I’d hoped for. You can tell a lot about a place by the size of its waiting area, and if you count the twinkle-lit courtyard, the waiting area is almost as big as the restaurant.
Kerbey holds leftover memories from my single days, when I’d get off the night shift at the paper and read magazines under the table lights over a few bean-and-sprout tacos and hot tea, because I wasn’t a coffee guy yet. I never met anybody that way, but the possibilities framed through the diner window made it a low-cost thrill.
I’m indulging that former version of myself, with hot tea and black bean tacos, still one of the best deals in the city, at $6.99 for a plate of two on whole wheat tortillas with chips and salsa and a side salad, plus free wi-fi. The 1980s me wouldn’t know anything about that, and the 2011 me misses the smell of newsprint on my clothes from grabbing late runs from the pressroom. The energy is solid South Austin over here. My host wears a bandanna do-rag and dance music crashes counterintuitively through the speakers, clashing with whatever the kitchen radio is blasting. The tables are filling up with the bar crowd.
Tonight the salad wishes it were somewhere else, and I promise I’d never put a tomato cap in your salad, especially in the summer. As good as Kerbey’s red salsa is, trade it for ginger-soy dressing on your taco to wake up the black beans and bring the avocado to a higher calling. Behind me, two women new to Austin marvel at the Austin nightlife as they explore the Austin Chronicle. “The Austin Lounge Lizards? I’ve never heard of them,” one says. The Lizards’ “Highway Cafe of the Damned” would be funny right about now.
UPDATE: This Kerey Lane location has moved a quarter-mile south to 3003 S. Lamar Blvd.
As I drive along South Lamar, it’s weird to see all the hotspots quiet. Nobody at the picnic tables outside the Black Sheep Lodge. No cars struggling to find room at Uchi. Gourdough’s shiny doughnut trailer and its Odd Duck neighbor as quiet as an equipment yard. They’re closed with a lowercase c, I remind myself. Not a capital C.
I’m intrigued by 7-11’s $1 value menu, drawn like a moth to the red and green sign as familiar to me as Elvis and Coca-Cola. What’s a Buffalo Chicken Roller? Two bananas for a dollar, or two doughnuts, or an iced coffee. Or I could rent “The Beaver” from RedBox for $1.20. Or get a Gulp, a Big Gulp, a Super Big Gulp, a Double Gulp or an X-Treme Gulp, which looks like a liquid-propelled anti-tank weapon.
I put together a $3 breakfast, starting with bananas, nature’s prepackaged superfood, plus a mocha iced coffee and a sausage biscuit. I taste milk and coffee and lots of sugar, like a bottled Starbucks Frappuccino. Whether that’s good or bad is subjective, but a $1 sausage biscuit leaves no gray area, except for the gray between the biscuits, made fresh in nearby (faraway) Lewisville, all salt and fat and mealy aftertaste. To my chagrin, there are no Buffalo Chicken Rollers on the eternally revolving weenie rollers.
Just a few streets over, beneath a bleeding crucified Jesus and in full view of Bandamax video booty-shaking, I’m using free wi-fi at the 24-hour La Mexicana Bakery in South Austin, a disorienting blend of old and nuevo. The al pastor taco ($1.55) has already greased through the foil, the paper bag and a napkin, and I’m worried about what an internal wrecking ball it’s going to be. That’s usually the chorizo’s job, but it’s pleasantly calm and decorous in a taco with fried egg ($1.30) folded into a sturdy flour tortilla made here at the bakery.
La Mexicana has a full Tex-Mex menu with sit-down service, but the bakery case is the draw. I’ve always figured if you wanted to energize your workplace, show up with a box of big sandia sugar cookies and tricolor shortbread giants or sweet-potato empanadas instead of doughnuts. People will think you’re The Most Interesting Man in the ... Office, anyway. (When he logs in, he uses a chainsaw.) A business in the corner called Dirty Six Coffee will pull a double espresso for you.
Again, two different radio stations blare at the same time, an aching ballad and a mash of alarm-clock synth and horns. None of it tracks with the two video stations playing. Welcome to the sonic sonata of 4:30 a.m.
At the Whataburger on Barton Springs, the parking lot looks as wrecked as I feel, but that avuncular voice from the TV ads keeps promising things will be “just like you like it .” And I like that I can sit down inside instead of just dropping fries in my lap in the drive-through. Although to quote Wammo, Austin’s warrior-poet: “There’s too much light in this bar.” The windows of this not-bar are unfortunate mirrors on the weird hour between late night and early morning that we call 5 o’clock.
What I like at Whataburger:
— Fries in a little bag with the Whataburger logo. A little bag. It’s time we brought back the little bag. It’s cheaper ($1.49) and less of a threat to public health.
— Ketchup in little plastic tubs. Because ketchup always tastes better in a tub. Easier to dip things, fewer pools of red on your table and your clothes.
— A wheat bun at no extra charge. Grilled onions at no extra charge.
— I like having my own orange tabletop tent with my order number on it, like I’m on their rec softball team, even though nobody looks good in that shade of orange, not even rodeo clowns.
I drive over by the University of Texas, where Meena Paten is putting out the morning’s bear claws and hot glazed at Ken’s Donuts. At 6 a.m. a Cap Metro driver stops in for a doughnut. A single glazed doughnut, and I admire him, sitting here with my box of nine doughnuts glazed and frosted and sprinkled, with fritters and sour cream and blueberry cake and doughnut holes in glazed and chocolate. There’s even a spicy potato samosa with explosive green chutney, a reflection of this shop’s Indian heritage as surely as the elephant head of Ganesh painted on the front wall, blessing the 24-hour mission.
I like Ken’s best around 1:30 a.m., when the student pack is there in its angst and shower shoes. Ken’s does most all its doughnuts well, especially a luscious sour cream shaped like a gear that could move a cake-shop’s machinery. But what I like best is the simple glazed doughnut, turned to glassy perfection, brittle where it needs to be, soft where it has to be and as sweet as the woman who abides while I indecide what to pack in the box. I’m awake now, the sugar charging my batteries like a firecracker fuse that burns supernova bright while it lasts. Only two more stops before sunup.
The first time I ate at Star Seeds was during a ride-along with the University of Texas police. As a reporter, not a collar. I was putting together a story for the UT yearbook on the UT police force. I was a terrible cops reporter. When an Austin officer leaned into the UT car to tell my ride that they were making an arrest for “felony black in a white zone,” I just froze up. Just a semester out of high school in 1981, I had no idea what to do with that kind of bombshell. I was still processing the fact that my breakfast was half-price because the guys with me had badges.
I wrote about Star Seeds earlier this year for a report on good breakfasts for less than $5. Here, it’s a bagel with lettuce and tomato and sprouts with cottage cheese and fruit for $4.95. But that’d just be covering old territory. So I took the staff’s recommendation for the A-Baum, a scramble of eggs with sausage and a thick blanket of queso over toasted English muffins for $6.95. It’s a trainwreck on a plate, but it tastes good this time of the morning.
Star Seeds has long counter with tiny blue tiles like a swimming pool, and if you look over your shoulder, you look right into the swimming pool of the Days Inn next door. A waitress took requests for the morning soundtrack. We landed on soul songs from the ‘70s. When “Oh Girl” came up first, she said it was one of three songs she knew on the ukulele. The other two: “Rich Girl” and a Sam Cooke gospel joint called “He’s My Friend Until the End,” which she played from her computer. At 7 a.m., it sounded like a benediction.
In the middle of the night, the Fiesta Mart just north of Star Seeds is a picker’s choice of fruit and cheese and baked goods, from apple fritters the size of your balled fist to polvorones and pan de huevos in a Pantone deck of colors. Or pick up 24 corn tortillas for $1.39, so fresh they steam the bag. I’m mesmerized by the produce: whole bins of prickly pear fruit, taro root, primordial carrots and aloe vera leaves. A hog’s head will set you back about $10, and you can buy just about any other part of the pig fresh, cooked or pickled. Honduran- and Salvadoran-style fresh cheeses are just one department down from six-inch long shrimp in their full fiber-optic glory. Mole sauces, rainbow candies, candied squash, banana leaves, chicken feet, cones of raw brown sugar. I feel like the camera is spinning around me in an Aronofsky film. I know, I know. Take the gringo grocery shopping. Get ahold of yourself, man.
But the morning belongs to Fiesta’s taco stand, which opens just as I get there at 7 a.m. I have a taco with egg and chicharron for 99 cents. “Are you sure you don’t want to try it first?” the taco maker asks, probably wondering if I know that chicharron is stewed pig skin. It’s chewy like pork bubblegum, cooked with onion, tomato and jalapeño. But the food that brings tears of joy to my eyes is a $1.99 fruit cup with long sticks of pineapple, cantaloupe and watermelon, finished with lime and sweet dried chile, a touch that same taco maker applied herself. I’m dumbstruck at all the elements that fell into place to put this fruit cup in front of me. But then again, I’ve been up all night. The Fiesta taco bar euphoria spills over into a pint cup of shrimp cocktail ($5.99) packed with tiny shrimp, onion, tomato, cilantro, avocado and a sauce of ketchup, V-8 and lemon juice. A pineapple agua fresca spiked with cucumber is a sweet and bracing appreciation of a simple drink done to perfection.
The taco bar is open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. The wonderland is open all night long.
Graveyard Shift 3: Ten cups of coffee
After two full nights and sleep that comes only in fits during the day, I’ve decided I need coffee at each of the final stops in my 24-hour adventure. Can’t be open all night without selling coffee in some form. I’ll give each place a little Coffee Talk.
Being a party of one sometimes means you can walk right in, even on a high school game night when the parking lot’s full at Magnolia Cafe on Lake Austin Boulevard. There’s so much overflow, you could set up a game in the parking lot and there’d be a bleacher mob and a band for both teams. It gives the place an innocent vibe, like a better-dressed version of the “Slacker” cast that filmed here. I listen to a six-top work their bistro math, the bill split across three cards and a wad of cash, and they still come up $15 short.
I swing into a bacon-Swiss burger ($6.95) with chips and salsa and a side of broccoli. A good diner makes good bacon, and Magnolia is a good diner, above all. And so this burger starts a half-length ahead, propelled by a sturdy sesame wheat bun and a garden-bright salad of toppings. Except for the pickles. We’re in a kind of pickling renaissance, and while nobody expects a diner to prime its own vinegar barrels, anything is better than these heartbreak ridges of sour and salt. Take them off, and this burger is at least 50 percent better.
I’ll recommend Magnolia’s homefries all night long, big pieces of potato crisp and tender and salty, better than french fries. But I need a potato break and they don’t make onion rings, so I pick chips and red salsa for the side and add a plate of steamed broccoli. Note to self: you’re never THAT tired of potatoes.
Coffee Talk: Thin, weak, half-warm, utterly out of step with how Magnolia usually rolls.
Heading north on I-35, I pull into a Denny’s rendered in a classic diner style, with neon piping and lots of thoroughly fingerprinted chrome. Denny’s is a 24-hour fallback position, the place you stop when you’re a stranger in a strange land. We’ll let this Denny’s stand in for all of them, because you can get a Grand Slam or a Moons Over My Hammy at any of them.
I skip the usuals for a limited-time groaner of a patty melt that uses macaroni and cheese as a condiment. Behold the Mac ‘n’ Cheese Big Daddy Patty Melt ($7.99). I read somewhere that it packs 1,600 calories. It’s not worth a quarter of that many for what it brings to the table, or more specifically what it brings to your hands, now ready to add your own fingerprints to the chrome. Grilled onions would have helped that bash, or tomato, or something besides Russian-style dressing. I skip the fries for fruit.
In another spasm of excess, I’m drawn to Pancake Pups ($1.99), and I’m surprised to get fair simulations of beignets, sweet fried dough balls dusted with powdered sugar. The texture is right, but white chocolate and unnatural streaks of strawberry give the pups a prepackaged aftertaste. But again, this is a refuge of next-to-last resort after midnight, and I knew that coming in.
Coffee Talk: Low traffic begets longer times on the burner. This might have started as a decent diner roast, but it’s burned out by the time I get here. What was I expecting, cafe faux lait with my faux beignets?
Bennu Coffee on East 19th Street is a parker’s paradise. There’s free wi-fi, but more important: electrical outlets lie within arm's reach of almost every station of mismatched chairs and tables. Power chords snake down from the ceiling to catch the middle of the room. An impossibly young couple plays chess at a tiny table with the board built in.
It’s possible to eat here, too, if you don’t mind the come-and-go nature of whatever the vendors brought that day. But they’re good vendors: Torchy’s Tacos, Fricano’s Deli, Russell’s Bakery, Hoboken Pie, the Happy Vegan.
Coffee Talk: A Tanzanian dark roast coffee made in the French press ($2.50/small) takes a tawny cast, suggesting intelligence more than raw power, and it’s like toasted nine-grain bread with butter. The little silver pot comes to the table with you, along with whatever mug’s on hand. Mine has bunnies hiding Easter eggs at the beach. Peter Max meets Mary Engelbreit. Mixology bars have specialty cocktail menus with housemade bitters. Bennu has a specialty coffee menu with housemade whipped cream and frothy combinations of mocha and caramel and chocolate. The iced Bennu ($3.50/large) is a pecan cream concoction in a tall Imperial pint glass with finely crushed ice. It’s like a shot of the hazelnut liqueur Frangelico, leaving behind a coffee-candy aftertaste at once bitter and too sweet.
There are things to know about engaging with the 24-hour McDonald’s on MLK near the university. After midnight, you’ll need a car, because the dining room locks up at midnight. It’s an inexplicable tic in a market where most of the target audience is on foot. The other thing is that after 3 a.m., no Happy Meals, even for the ironic big kids. Only breakfast, when you can get a surprising combination: maple-sweetened oatmeal with cinnamon, raisins and cranberries and a decent cup of coffee. For $2 and change. Try not to spill.
Coffee Talk: McDonald’s scored when it introduced Premium Roast coffee. Now an acceptable cup of fast-food coffee is just $1 somewhere close by. It’s at least as good as that first cup of Maxwell House at home.
My plans to hit the Jack in the Box on the Drag where I worked in college went south when their computers crashed at 4 a.m., and I was reminded of something I hated about working graveyard: how much pent-up rage spills out after the bars close. The computer glitch sent a guy in a throaty white Trans Am into a tire-squealing fit, and a stumbling kid in a Theta shirt slammed out the front door with a vengeance.
Epoch Coffee on North Loop is a free wi-fi sprawl with chain-mounted lamps and lacquered wood tables that look like they came from the Blue Velvet vintage store next door. It’s mostly deserted at 4: 30 a.m. on a Saturday. It’s not finals season just yet. By comparison, every flat surface inside and out is occupied at 10:30 on another night. But shhh: Even with a full house, all you hear is the stacking of coffee cups at the counter and music turned low. I’m wishing I had somebody to play Scrabble with. “Insomnia” is only worth 10 points.
Coffee Talk: A sweetened and swirly iced coffee drink called the Mojo wouldn’t keep me coming back, but the Wu Tang clan and a barista with spiky horns on his hat would. He tells me that a friend from high school told him 75 people from the class before his have died already. Chernobyl High, Class of ‘86?
Bless their hearts. A three-person crew at the Waffle House on U.S. 290 is serving a party of eight at 6 a.m., and they’ve ordered everything on the menu. Egg sandwiches, pork chops, T-bones, waffles. Both the flattops are full. “Tomorrow is another day,” one of the crew says. “Today is another day.”
There’s a downside to sitting so close to the cooks: You really don't want to see a working kitchen up-close. Did you really just touch my plate with the rag you used to wipe down the grill? Are you really splashing mop water that close to the buns and clean water glasses? An entire ladle of grill butter for one cup of hash browns? What we don’t see won’t kill us, it will only build up our immune system. And it makes those hash browns taste really good. I got mine “covered” and “smothered,” which is short-order cookspeak for onions and cheese.
I see the cook crack and scramble my eggs to order, and that’s good, but I ordered them over-easy. I keep quiet, because as a kid, I saw a Waffle House cook go through a carton of eggs trying to make them over-easy just for me. I have karma to repay. On the whole, this is state college dorm food from the ‘70s. The artisan food crowd would have fits, but they might enjoy the irony of Pride Buttery Spread and Gold N Sweet waffle iron spray.
Coffee Talk: I see the beans. I see the grinder. I don’t taste it in the cup. But it’s a fine shade of brown in a sturdy mug you’d steal if it had the same timeless design as the outside of the building. Black and yellow is the new and forever black.
At the Jack in the Box on 290 by the Waffle House, I know exactly what I want: two of the drippiest, greasiest, crunchiest, mushiest, bizarro-tasting tacos on the planet for 99 cents. I must have made thousands of these in my time with Jack. I don’t care what’s in them, I don’t care about that unearthly orange color. Jack in the Box wins points for serving the whole menu 24 hours a day. Unless the computer’s down. That makes the Trans Am Transformer very angry.
Coffee Talk: Jack pours what he calls a Kona Classic. Hawaii called, Jack. They’d like you to stop calling it that.
“Garcon! Coffee!” I can practically see Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer in the booth at Jim’s on Research. Jim’s is the kind of coffeeshop your grandparents went to if you grew up in Austin. We’d call this boomerang architecture progressive if it were a high-profile new venture from a celebrity chef. Places like that take their cues from architecture like this. The ceiling angles to an almost 20-foot crest, with UFO light fixtures, raw fieldstone and panoramic panes of glass. Forget Tim Roth. I think I see the booth where Michael Hsu and Patrick Terry must have dreamed up the new P. Terry’s Burger Stand in Lakeway.
At 6:45 a.m., Jim’s didn’t have the mashed potatoes and vegetables to make the dinner version of chicken-fried steak, but they did have grits and eggs and biscuits for the breakfast version ($8.49). Just like the architecture, the chicken-fried steak hews to a classic Texas diner model. Its raggedy crust is a good sign of hand-battering, and the meat inside is pounded out just enough to leave a little chew in it, but not gristle. Some grits, some gravy, a few sunnyside-up eggs and you’re building some real muscle mass there, cowboy. But let’s talk biscuits. These are some of the best crumbly style I’ve had, with a tanned face a Dutch oven could be proud of. They’re salty and fluffy enough to soak up gravy from both the CFS and the broken yolks alike.
Coffee Talk: My taste for diner coffee is growing more impatient with each of these overnight stops. Overworked beans, overseasoned pots and overzealous warming plates. Jim’s coffee suffers all of those maladies this morning. Garcon! Tim Roth says nevermind on that coffee.
At the IHOP near Zilker Park, my waitress and I walk in the front door at the same time, and she’s way too pleasant before 8 in the morning, something I would come to appreciate during brokefast, or whatever you call the ninth meal of the day. I’m just bleary enough after twenty-four 24-hour restaurants to say “Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity” without self-conscious irony. When you’re at IHOP, you order pancakes, just like you’d order guns at Just Guns or brakes at Just Brakes or bass at Bass Pro Shops.
IHOP is like a pillow after a night out: safe, predictable, utterly without challenge, unless you think too hard about where “fresh” fits into “Fresh and Fruity.” The IHOP model works just about anywhere it lands, but I stayed away on purpose from the IHOP at Cesar Chavez and I-35 because when I say “anywhere it lands,” I’m talking about a UFO. It’s like the Mos Eisley spaceport from “Star Wars,” except the music is worse. Case in point: Neil Diamond’s ode to E.T. is playing at the MoPac IHOP. How long before it hits the interstate?
Coffee Talk: What’s inside isn’t memorable, but it’s hard not to appreciate the copper-colored pots that come with coffee at IHOP, ready for a refill or warmup on your schedule. Now that the research phase is over, I’m ready to go home and brew my own coffee and dream my caffeine dreams.
The 24-hour list
Some overnight lessons: You will hear lots of Rolling Stones in the hours between midnight and day. “Miss You,” “When the Whip Comes Down,” “Paint It Black.” Night crews like classic rock, or at least the pushiest mother on the night crew does. Hope you do, too. Also, it’s hard to find light that doesn’t make food and people look they’re on the edge of a very bad day. And graveyard people don’t like to make eye contact, because everybody’s a suspect after midnight. Here are 24 places to look suspicious, with leads on many more.
► Bennu Coffee. 2001 E. 19th St., 478-4700, www.bennucoffee.com.
► Denny’s. 2320 Interstate 35 S., 447-4584, more locations at www.dennys.com.
► Epoch Coffee. 221 W. North Loop Blvd., 454-3762, www.epochcoffee.com.
► Fiesta Mart. 3909 Interstate 35 N., 406-3900, www.fiestamart.com; also at 5510 Interstate 35 S. 373-7800.
► H-E-B grocery store. 2400 S. Congress Ave., 442-2354, www.heb.com.
► IHOP. Just southwest of Zilker Park at 1101 S. MoPac Blvd. (Loop 360), 327-9284, www.ihop.com. Also downtown at 707 E. Cesar Chavez. St., 478-1188.
► Jack in the Box. 8706 U.S. 290 E., 928-8969. Also near Zilker Park and ACL at 1200 Barton Springs Road, 472-6934; more locations at www.jackinthebox.com.
► Jim’s Restaurant. 9091 Research Blvd., 837-1119, www.jimsrestaurants.com. Also at 7101 Texas 71 W., 288-2408. The Jim’s at 12832 U.S. 183 N. is open 24 hours only on Fridays and Saturdays.
► Ken’s Donuts. 2820 Guadalupe St., 320-8484.
► Kerbey Lane Cafe. 4301 W. William Cannon Blvd., 899-2500; more locations at www.kerbeylanecafe.com.
► Kerbey Lane Cafe. 3003 S. Lamar Blvd., 445-4451, more locations at www.kerbeylanecafe.com.
► La Mexicana Bakery. 1924 S. First St., 443-6369, www.la-mexicana-bakery.com.
► Magnolia Cafe. 1920 S. Congress Ave., 445-0000, www.themagnoliacafe.com.
► Magnolia Cafe. 2304 Lake Austin Blvd., 478-8645, www.themagnoliacafe.com.
► McDonald’s. 414 W. MLK Jr. Blvd., 494-0043, www.mcdonalds.com. More 24-hour locations include 10732 Research Blvd., 346-5440; 12443 Metric Blvd., 836-8709; 9422 N. Lamar Blvd., 837-2772; 8500 U.S. 290 E., 933-1907; 2401 N. Interstate 35 in Round Rock, 255-2451.
► 7-11. 2820 S. Lamar Blvd., 447-3119, more locations at www.7-eleven.com.
► Star Seeds. 3101 N. Interstate 35, 478-7107, www.starseedscafe.com.
► Steak ‘n Shake. 9300 S. Interstate 35, 291-8095, www.steaknshake.com; another 24-hour location at 281 University Oaks Blvd. in Round Rock, 524-6012.
► Strange Brew. 5326 Manchaca Road, 828-7636, www.strangebrewaustin.com.
► Taco Cabana. 211 S. Lamar Blvd., 472-8098, more locations at www.tacocabana.com.
► 24 Diner. 600 N. Lamar Blvd., 472-5400, www.24diner.com.
► Waffle House. 8800 U.S. 290 E., 926-1683, www.wafflehouse.com; also at 7809 E. Ben White Blvd.; 389-0444.
► Walmart. 9300 S. Interstate 35, 292-6973, more locations at www.walmart.com.
► Whataburger. 601 Barton Springs Road, 477-9586, more locations at www.whataburger.com.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)