Occasionally, the perks of my job introduce me to a particularly enjoyable Austin opportunity that I would never know about otherwise.
One such experience was my death-defying exploration of man's corporeal limits thanks to the adventure I went on courtesy of Austin Eats Food Tours.
The Austin-based company, started by the ingenious Andy Potter, now has six highly specialized food tours ranging from the Whole Foods Healthy Eats walking tour to the (less than healthy) BBQ and Beer van tour. (Yes, of course they go to Franklin. And, no, you don't have to wait in line.)
I chose the food tour along South Congress to get the original Austin Eats experience. Sure, I know a lot about this city. But do I know the outer limits of food nirvana? Do I dare venture to such a place?
With these questions in mind, I set my highly trained snack-sleuthing senses to the test. As I walk up to the corner of Congress Avenue and James Street, I can see my fellow tour members brandishing their bright orange bags.
The investigation has already begun.
Blurry-eyed and already sweating in the morning summer sun, the eleven members of today's tour meet at the iconic wall of Jo's Coffee on South Congress.
There, our friendly food tour guide, Jeni, greets us with the sweet, buttery goodness of a morning bun from La Patisserie and fun-size iced coffees from Jo's.
As we enjoy our first tastes of the tour, we go around the group, introducing ourselves and sharing our favorite foods as well as learning about the story behind the graffiti on Jo's wall. (Gotta go on the tour to learn that one...)
Surprisingly, the majority of the merry touring group resides in Austin on a permanent basis. One couple is visiting from Washington, D.C. and another couple just moved here from Minneapolis. Neither seems content with the 100-degree heat.
Despite the mid-morning swelter, our tour is off to a pleasant start with these iced coffees.
Our first stop along the tour is at Snack Bar, the international tapas restaurant attached to the Austin Motel.
There, we're greeted by Bethany Andree, the co-owner alongside husband Karl Gilkey, who shares her unique, only-in-Austin tale of opening the sustainable, organic restaurant specializing in accessible gourmet foods.
For our tour, she shares with us the Tamago Yoko, a spicy Japanese-inspired "pizza" consisiting of potato hash, bacon, egg, shrimp and vegetables.
Combining the nostalgic charm of the hotel diner with delicious flavors from all over the world makes this South Congress stop a perfect representative of the city and the street it resides upon.
At Guero's Taco Bar, we hitch up to the actual mid-restaurant taco bar for a brief history of the famous South Congress Tex-Mex location and a taste of their tortillas, tamales and queso.
Bar Manager Angela shares the list of the more famous celebrities to eat at Guero's, including President Bill Clinton who required a full Secret Service detail to surround the building while he ate.
Hot, hand-pressed corn tortillas drizzled with their thick, homemade queso and fresh salsas are definitely the highlight of this stop.
Thankfully, we are warned not to fill up on chips and salsa, as there are still four more stops to go.
Jeni announces that our next stop will be at the rightfully popular burger and beer joint, Hopdoddy.
The only time I've been here, I waited in line almost an hour and then gorged myself in response to my ravenous hunger.
Today, we are allowed to bypass the line completely and claim our seats as the food arrives. When we are presented with quarters of the classic cheeseburger and french fries, it's just as perfect as I remember it.
I'm tempted to gorge myself on these fries with their accompanying dipping sauces. But luckily I'm presented with a miniature sea salt and caramel milkshake that provides a necessary, pleasurable distraction.
It's right about now that I realize I'm totally full. And we've still got three more stops on the tour. A bit of panic sets in.
As we wait for the tour group to reconvene, our fearless tour guide prepares us for what's in store for our bellies on the next three stops.
"A lot of people doin't expect the portions like this on a food tour, but we're great at satisfying everyone," she says with a smile. "But just so you know what else is coming: We're getting pie, sandwiches and pizza. So get ready."
As we head up the street to our next location, I notice the peculiar sensation of sweating both from heat and from overeating.
As we step into the air conditioning of the rustic, antler-decorated Woodland, I find myself envious of these unsuspecting pies that spend their days in the frigid cold of the icebox.
I know there is more food to come.
The tour group assumes the family style seating arrangement of two semi-circle leather booths and we await our delicious, impossible fates.
After a blessedly lengthy wait, the plaid-covered servers arrive with scaled-down bowls of Woodland's signature shrimp n' grits.
Amazingly, this is my first experience with the dish. And even though I am honestly too full to take a single bite, I nearly finish the entire bowl. It's that delicious.
I might be dying.
Then the rugged servers of Woodland bring out slivers of the icebox peanut butter pie.
And I will never say no to peanut butter pie. (I mean, look at it.)
So I pretend I am in another world where people do not have bodies with limits, and I eat it all.
After a quick stop into the next-door Farm to Market Grocery for refreshing Topo Chicos, we head back to the Gibson Street Trailer Park where Chef Eric Regan is waiting outside his food truck with a big smile on his face.
His truck, Hey!...You Gonna Eat or What?, is the perfect reflection of his larger-than-life persona and his commitment to flavor in gourmet sandwich offerings.
The sandwich he has made for us today is the signature Monte Cristo with cherry and fig preserves.
Yep, a fried sandwich. As our sixth stop on the tour.
And it's so good. With the perfect blend of local meats and cheeses in a perfectly fried shell, and a light dusting of powdered sugar. And that jelly...
Miraculously, I find a magical dimensional portal to store said sandwich as I consume a part of this mighty, defiant portion.
I may survive this day yet.
We're not done. Impossibly, there is another final stop on the tour.
Not unlike zombies — driven by the eternal directive to feed — we slowly, beleaguered, cross Congress Avenue and make our way to the rear patio of Home Slice Pizza.
If you live in Austin and you haven't had Home Slice, you should stop reading this and go get it right now. It's New York style pizza at its most snappy and profound.
It has the power to tempt you into eating a slice when you have already consumed a week's worth of food... in the last three hours.
Passing around the cold beer and hot pizza, we food tour members — no longer individuals: now a collective unit that has undergone a profound change together — revive, reflecting upon what we've learned today.
Everyone shares their favorite foods and favorite personalities they met along the tour. Flashbacks throughout the day recall the good times we had together. The memories we will all share from this day forward.
Mind you, I went home immediately afterward and slept for the following five hours.
What Austin Eats has created is larger than its basic components. It is a religious experience for the everyman, a joyous exercise in overindulgence. But it is also a new way to learn about the history and character of the city.
Ultimately, I think this is a food experience that everyone — at least those with the stamina and the courage to test their limits — might enjoy as much as I did.
Man, I love my job sometimes.