Time Travel on Airport Boulevard
Approximately 52 people moved to Austin every day last year, and about 157 per day moved to the Central Texas region. I often find myself in parts of the city that I don’t recognize at all due to rapid development. Yet some parts remain, at least for now, iconic Austin.
This spring, while driving on Airport Boulevard past the old Highland Mall (where I spent many, many hours as a teen), I pulled over to take this photo.
The next day, the whole sign was GONE—completely torn down—so I knew it was time to grab my boys for a cultural excursion, similar to the field trip we took last year to explore and document old-school Burnet Road. We had already lost a couple of Airport institutions, including our favorite barber shop, and time was ticking.
Our field trip agenda: institutions in business more than 20 years along Airport Boulevard between I-35 and Lamar. We split it into two trips, and there may or may not have been bribes involved. But by gosh, I did my duty.
First stop, of course, Mrs. Johnson’s Donuts, because everyone deserves a donut. The shop has been open since 1948, serving hot donuts seven days a week. How they sell enough donuts to pay the rent is a mystery, but their sign says that they have hot donuts starting at 8:45 pm daily, so perhaps the night crowd is spendy.
A quick stop by I Luv Video, the world’s “oldest and largest video store” was long enough for me to give the boys a quick synopsis of Slacker. We used to frequent the sister store on the Drag (which recently closed). You can donate or trade in your old DVDs here, enjoy all kinds of discounts and even get free beer on Tuesdays. Next time I’m going to ask them if they’ll Swede a movie for me.
McGuire’s Clocks, established in 1964, is a horologist’s dream. This family owned and operated store claims to be the oldest clock store in Texas. They have all kinds of clocks for sale and specialize in antique clock repair and restoration.
Although we didn’t need gas or car repair, we pulled into M.E. Gene Johnson Garage and introduced ourselves in the front office. Years ago my dad, a long-time customer, noticed a framed clipping from the Austin Chronicle hanging on the wall. It was the “Best of Austin” 1997 edition, with a nice write-up of the garage. Even better, the huge featured photo and write-up on the same page is the “Best Thing in a Tool Belt.” That just happens to be my husband, Garland, so the boys were equally amused and mortified to see their dad hanging on the wall.
It was lunchtime, so we ventured just north of 290 to China Palace, a restaurant I remembered from my youth. The service was fast, the lunch special was cheap and my hot and sour soup took me back to dinners there with my parents in the 70s and 80s. Fortunately (or unfortunately) we went before it failed its health inspection, and we enjoyed our lunch.
The restaurant kingpin on that stretch of Airport is, of course, Quality Seafood. We’ve eaten there many times, and we were stuffed from lunch, so we stopped and bought some fresh fish to cook for dinner. Quality Seafood Market started as a stall in Starr’s Fruit and Vegetable Market on Congress Avenue just across from the Capitol. Read about its interesting history here. I have a date there soon with our 84-year-old neighbor Mary, who loves fried oysters.
Across the street from Quality is every kid’s dream: Lammes Candies. Founded in 1878 as the Red Front Candy Factory, the store also began on Congress Avenue. The founder, William Wirt Lamme, lost the business in a poker game in 1885, but his son repaid the debt and claimed the store as his own, renaming it Lammes Candies. Everyone in Austin knows Lammes, famous for their pecan pralines and chocolate-covered strawberries, but I had never taken my kids there. They each picked out a treat for later.
Another day and another bribe took us to Burger Tex, where my son and his friend ordered milkshakes to go. Talk about a time capsule. The website, with its generous use of italic Comic Sans and exclamation points, emphatically states that the restaurant is “not affiliated with any one of imitators around Austin or Houston.” The milkshakes were handmade (or at least that’s my assumption, since the man behind the counter disappeared into some secret closet for a long time and then reappeared with the goods) and worth the wait. We’ll have to go back to try a burger (2004 Austin Chronicle Critic’s Pick for Best Burger) and maybe even a spicy bulgoki burger.
The final stop on our tour was Casey’s New Orleans Snowballs, family run since 1996. Technically, it’s on 51st Street, but close enough to Airport to count for our purposes. They make over 60 flavors with finely shaved ice and flavored cane sugar. They’re only open six months of the year, so head over before October. We opted for chocolate, which is a traditional New Orleans flavor. The sweet reward at the end of a long line, on a hot day, was worth the wait.
Airport Boulevard, like Burnet Road, is a designated “Activity Corridor” in the City of Austin’s growth plan. One of the plan’s tenets is to “protect neighborhood character.” Let’s hope future development does so. Just in case, you might want to cruise down old school Airport soon.