Bar Reviews: Austin and Houston, Texas

One of the reasons that I created this blog was to be an outlet for the information that I collect about cocktail bars in the various cities that I visit.  In these posts I’ll typically publish pictures of the menu and say a few words about my experience at the bars.

I was in Austin, Texas for about a week back in early May, and then I spent one night in Houston on my way back. In Austin, I was amazed at the cocktail quality across the range of various bars that I visited. Even bars that looked like typical beer and well drinks places had cocktail menus that were interesting and bartenders with some education. Fernet was available at most places. Since I was only in Houston for a short time, I can’t evaluate the quality of the cocktail scene as generally, but I got the impression from the few places that I visited, and the bartenders at Anvil Bar & Refuge, that it doesn’t have the same quality across the board as Austin (no real surprise there, frankly). Anvil is at the same quality level as all of the top places in Austin though, so you can still get a great cocktail in Houston.

Coasters from La Condesa and Haddington's, and a menu from Anvil Bar & Refuge

Haddington’s Austin, TX

Haddington’s was suggested to me by a friend who visited Austin for SXSW, and I was specifically recommend to try the Duck Fat Sazerac. I was with friends and one of them ordered this drink. As I dislike ordering the same thing as other people, I ended up with something else, but I did get a taste of that drink and it is very good. My recollection is that the duck fat gives the drink a bit of a thicker mouthfeel than is typical of a Sazerac and flavors added by the duck fat gave the drink a subtly more savory flavor than normal. I perhaps had my expectations up a little too high for this drink and I don’t think they were met, but it’s still a very good drink.

I tried three cocktails off of the menu at Haddington’s: Peacock Swizzle, Fernet Me Not, and El Conde.

Clive Bar Austin, TX

This is a cool place in the Rainey St. District of Austin, where apparently all of the bars are converted from former residential houses. I will admit that I did not have high hopes when I walked up to the bar, because it looked like the type of place where the most complex cocktail made would be a Jack & Coke. I had a cocktail here, but unfortunately I didn’t record what it was. I know that I finished with a shot of Fernet, which I was surprised that they had!

Icenhauer’s Austin, TX

Icenhauer’s is another bar in the Rainey St. District, and, like all of the other bars, it seems that someone took a residential house and replaced the kitchen area with a bar (not a bad idea in my opinion!). I also didn’t record what I drank here, but I know that I had The Jena, which is one of the first times that I’ve seen a cocktail that makes use of the pickle flavoring. As I recall, it was similar to drinking a dirty vodka martini, except with the obvious pickle notes instead of olive notes.

Péché Austin, TX

I seem to not have taken any pictures of Péché, but it was one of my favorite bars in Austin. In total, I ended up there at least 3 times over the course of my visit. You can check out their bar menu here, which doesn’t include several drinks that are advertised on small chalkboards on the wall behind the bar.

On my first visit to Péché I tried the Wicked Witch and the Campari Sazerac, the latter of which was one of the drinks named on the chalkboards and not the menu. The Campari Sazerac was probably my favorite, making use of Campari, Cynar, honey, Peychaud’s bitters, and a Mythe absinthe rinse. It’s something that I should definitely try making at home sometime.

Second Bar + Kitchen Austin, TX

Second Bar + Kitchen is one of three venues that are part of the Congress restaurant complex, the other two being the ultra-fancy Congress restaurant and Bar Congress (discussed below). I ended up here multiple times when I was really trying to go to Bar Congress. While Bar Congress is definitely a better venue, the cocktails at Second Bar + Kitchen are still quite good and the Acid Brothers cocktail in particular wins my award for most original and complex cocktail that I had in Austin. I also tried the Barbed Wire Love cocktail, which was essentially a Black Manhattan that uses both sweet vermouth and Averna.

La Condesa Austin, TX

La Condesa is a fabulous mexican restaurant with a bar that features a nice speciality cocktail list and a large variety of tequilas and mezcals. Their recent menu shows what I mean.

I ended up a La Condesa twice, once to drink and another time to eat. Both were great experiences, and on the drink front both times I primarily introduced various friends to mezcal. If you go, I highly recommend one of the mezcal sampler options.

Bar Congress Austin, TX

I think that I tried to go to Bar Congress at least three or four times while I was in Austin, but it is not open on Sunday or Monday and seems to often close before it’s stated midnight closing time if the traffic is slow. I only managed to find it open one time towards the end of my trip, but I’m glad that I did because the drinks were absolutely fantastic. I only had time for two drinks, and I tried The Oracle and The Scarlet Lantern, both of which you can see pictured below.

Of all the places that I went to in Austin, I would say that Bar Congress and Péché were probably the top two in no particular order, because of the quality of the bartenders, the creativity of the drinks, and the overall experience.

Anvil Bar & Refuge Houston, TX

I was in Houston for a very short time, but fortunately I was able to make my way over to Anvil Bar & Refuge. Anvil is definitely the equal of any of the top cocktail bars that I have been in around the country, including those that I visited in Austin. They have a very diverse selection of liquor that goes beyond what most places carry (for example, they had both Zucca and Bonal, an Italian amaro and a French apertif wine respectively), experienced bartenders, and a very creative cocktail menu that I believe updates frequently. What I found most interesting was that there were several cocktails featuring Bonal on the menu, which was especially notable to me because I had just acquired a bottle myself and I hadn’t seen drinks featuring it at a bar before. That said, I might not have noticed if it was on a menu before I knew what it was.

Overall, it was a great experience and I would definitely go back. The only downside was the bartenders did seem a little arrogant. For example, when I asked if there were any other good cocktail bars in Houston, I got a sneer and a response along the lines of “of course not.” After looking into the Houston scene a little more, I think that may have been a truthful answer, but certainly not delivered in the way that I would expect.

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