by Les McGehee
Photography by Whitney Arostegui
First of all, it’s pronounced BURNit, like “Durn it.” Good old Burnet Road—from 45th Street clear out to the edge of Highway 183, your abandoned and shedding billboards and vintage strips now hopscotch with the stacked flats that have quickly become the residential sentinels lining so many Austin streets. Within the fold, new kids, like Noble Sandwich Co., Apothecary, Juiceland and Pinthouse Pizza vie for elbow room with beloved eateries like Fonda San Miguel, Top Notch Hamburgers, Enchiladas Y Mas and The Frisco. To experience the true beating heart of this part of town, though, you’ll need to visit the trifecta of jewels firmly ensconced in the Violet Crown of the Burnet Road corridor: Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, Lala’s Little Nugget and Buddy’s Place.
Austin has been kind to these old-guard businesses, and they’ve been kind to Austin—nurturing entire communities for decades and providing a through line of consistency, welcome and warmth that is the foundation of the area’s magic. These watering holes are the community and cultural headwaters, backwaters and comforting leaky faucets—frequently finding themselves standing, often unfairly, toe-to-toe with city regulations, and tightly clinging to their grandfathered-in statuses. Within their walls, it’s possible to see the family resemblance of new Austin to old Austin—the veritable DNA of Austinism. Here’s our suggestion for a Burnet Road crawl, starting at far out and ending at farther out.
Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon
5434 Burnet Rd., 78756
Monday–Wednesday, 5 p.m.–12 a.m.
Thursday–Saturday, 5 p.m.–1 a.m.
Sunday, 2 p.m.–10 p.m.
Everybody’s here…even us chickens
A beaming dad proudly shows his grown sons around his favorite old bar while a couple in the corner converses in German and soaks up the atmosphere reverently and wide-eyed. Up at the bar counter, there’s a mash-up conversation among patrons that drifts easily from an unexpected encounter with Debbie Harry at the recent South By Southwest music festival to the distinct expression on namesake Ginny Kalmbach’s face in the large portrait that occupies a coveted spot above the bar. Meanwhile, Alvin Crow, Speedy Sparks, Matt Hubbard and other Austin Hall of Fame musicians start filing in for a gig under the name “Texas Mavericks.” There’s no cover, drinks are only a buck or two and by all accounts, it’s just another Monday night at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon.
The bar’s history is steeped in family, tradition and generosity. It was opened as Dick’s Little Longhorn Saloon in 1963 by Dick Setliff. Kalmbach worked there as a bartender, and the bar was eventually bequeathed to her in the early ’60s because of the kindness she’d shown the owners. Many harmonious years later, when Ginny’s was ready for some gentle TLC, it was family that came to the rescue in the form of husband and wife team Terry and David Gaona, and Terry’s brother Dale Watson, the internationally famous Austin-based musician. The bar had fallen into financial straits earlier that year and Watson had always had a special place in his heart for Ginny’s; it was his first booking in Austin in ’93. The trio thought that purchasing the bar was just the right thing to do.
Terry currently manages the place and books the music, David helps out and Watson has been an active facet for decades—not only performing there but contributing unique touches, like the steeple he had installed on the building so that he could officiate a wedding for some friends (he wanted it to look like a church). Of course, Kalmbach is still around and present many days, and still beloved and addressed, respectfully, by name. “Everyone seems to appreciate the fact that the place is saved,” says David. “You know, it’s a labor of love. Everyone sees that we’re giving our all to it, as much as we can to it.”
Terry is also building a new business model by extending a handshake across parking blocks to their neighbors who serve food. Ginny’s patrons can now order from eateries like Lucy’s Fried Chicken and Threadgill’s (Noble Sandwich Co. is in the works), and the happy neighbors will even walk the food over to the saloon. The fabric of community surrounding Ginny’s is so thick, in fact, that the neighboring cafes (including Taco Deli) have even donated heavy-duty picnic tables to accommodate the late afternoon tailgate-like atmosphere that spills out of the bar into the back lot as patrons enjoy another thing that makes Ginny’s a most unique treasure: Chicken Shit Bingo on Sundays from four to eight. (Welcome to Austin.)
That’s right, lively chickens can often be heard clucking and humming just outside the propped-open back door of Ginny’s as they warm up for the games that draw thousands of fans from all over Allandale, Austin in general, and around the globe—not only for the bingo, but for the accompanying, and always free, chili dog buffet. A large rectangle of plywood painted with bingo tiles is placed over a couple of tables and topped with a chicken-wire enclosure. Then a chicken is placed inside. You can probably figure out the rest. “A lot of times we end up puttin’ both of [the chickens] into the same cage,” says David. “Makes it fun and gives it a little more excitement. And [the chickens] love the crowds and the music—they’re very social,” Terry adds. “Ginny had one that followed her like a little puppy dog.”
When asked lightheartedly if the bingo games are regulated by the World Bank or the federal government, Terry is quick to say that “No, Chicken Shit Bingo’s not lottery, even though we call it bingo, because none of the money goes to the house. All the money donated for tickets goes to the winner. It’s a game the community plays and someone wins; none of it goes to the bar.”
In light of the game’s huge popularity, we wondered why every bar doesn’t adopt a similar fun-with-animals-and-excrement-like model. “There’s too much respect for Ginny—and Dale,” David replies. “And we’ve been doing it for so long that Ginny’s is known for it all over the world. We meet people all the time that heard about it—sometimes from Dale’s touring in Europe or something—and had to come here to experience it.”
On any given night at Ginny’s, you might stumble upon local musical hard-hitters, like Two Hoots and a Holler or Redd Volkaert, and preshow, there’s a jukebox that would make Ernest Tubb scoot a boot—all in a space full of gentle respect and joy that’s about as big as a double garage. “It’s about community and everybody coming and having fun,” says Terry. “We get all the camaraderie and all of our neighbors and, you know, just enjoy every day with our patrons. And it brings money to this part of town. That’s also why we keep our prices low and [offer] free entry—so that people use their money to tip the bands and tip the bartenders.”
Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon’s Famous Chicken Shit Bingo Chili Dog Buffet
Courtesy of Terry Gaona
A bunch of all-beef hot dogs
Lots of Wolf Brand chili, no beans
Lots of hot dog buns
Ketchup, mustard, relish, cheese and other condiments, as desired, but don’t go crazy
Have Ginny put the hot dogs into a large crock-pot with a little water to cover and let them heat until they are delicious (they always taste better when she makes them). In another crock-pot, heat the chili. Make the chili dog buffet available in the shadow of a steeple on a Sunday afternoon with your neighbors while Dale Watson is playing and the chickens are “making their selections.”
Lala’s Little Nugget
2207 Justin Ln., 78757
Tuesday–Saturday, 4 p.m.–2 a.m.
Closed Sunday and Monday, and from 12/25–1/1
A dozen or so blocks north of Ginny’s, it’s four in the afternoon and Andy Williams is finishing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” on the jukebox while candy-colored lights reflect off of Bloody Marys on the bar. It’s Christmas, March 2014. It was Christmas yesterday, too. And we can all rest safe in the knowledge that it will be Christmas tomorrow—unless, of course, it’s December 25th or something and the place is closed. Relax now, though, and soak in the ever-present Yule-tinged warmth that is Lala’s Little Nugget.
The bar has barely been open 10 minutes and one of the elves on the strings attached to the front door drops down, then disappears again. Don has walked in and let out a hearty “Shhhhh!” to the still-quiet atmosphere. Before Don even makes it up to the bar, Sarah the bartender has already readied his cold can of Budweiser and his personal saltshaker. Sprinkling some salt on the lip of the can before each drink, Don proceeds to boldly discuss, to no one in particular, his military service and the details about his recent myocardial infarction. Everyone here appears to know and like Don, and in a way, all bar-going Austinites probably know some form of a Don. These stalwart bar communities are like extended families—and the Dons are our bar cousins.
Atop the lineage of personalities and loyals sits Lala’s owner and old-Austin royalty, Miss Frances Lala. She’s full of energy and overflowing with memories, and though the business of the bar is now managed by Bill, her nephew—not to be confused with Big Bill, her brother-in-law—the cocktails are usually the business of Sarah, who’s been at Lala’s since 1974.
Not that anyone would ever complain about the wall-to-wall, year-round Christmas happiness, but we wondered what inspired it. “I opened Lala’s with my brothers helping me in October of nineteen seventy-two,” Lala says. “So we quickly were decorating for Christmas. It was just beautiful in here—we had big buffets and all that going on—and great decorations. After New Year’s we took the decorations down and all of us just looked at each other and said nuh-uh! and back up it went. And I said, We’re gonna leave it like this and that’s it.”
Of course, as is the case with most quirky historical details tied to a location, there’s plenty of other explanations floating around. “Oh my gosh,” Lala says with intensity. “You’ve got some where my husband got killed…my sons were killed. I don’t have a husband! I never had any children! This PLACE was my husband. I was forty-one when I opened here and I’m eighty-three now! I spent half of my life here.”
This reluctance to change a good thing is, of course, key to Lala’s charm, and it applies to what’s in the air, too. Known for decades to have one of the best jukeboxes in Austin, you’ll find gems like Glenn Miller’s “Blue Rain,” The Coasters’ “Down in Mexico” and Woody Herman and the Third Herd’s “Sleepy Serenade” nestled alongside the enormous collection of holiday music. “We just stayed with the music from back in our time,” Lala says. “I wanted the music from my time, which would be all the big bands. To me it’s still the best music, you know. We’ve got a different jukebox now but the same music.”
Another thing that remains the same is Lala’s popular Bloody Mary. When asked for the secret behind it, Lala says she adapted the recipe from “Mr. Boston,” the bartender’s bible. “The only thing is [the bartenders] don’t know the measurements and I don’t either,” she says. “I go by color. I just show them (Lala’s hands go up in the air and she shakes imaginary bottles) doot-doot of this, doot of that, then doot-doot-doot—and then get ’em to understand the difference between a doot and a doot-doot. Then I tell ‘em, If you forget, or they don’t reorder them, then you can’t make them anymore until we go over it again. You have to have a good, thick tomato juice—I use Campbell’s now; Sacramento was my favorite but we can’t always get it. That was the best—oh my goodness. We sell a ton of them.”
Bloody Mary praises aside, Lala says her favorite compliment of all is how clean her place is—the restrooms, especially. “We treat [the bar] like family,” she says. “We respect it that way, and everyone keeps it nice. Also the atmosphere—I don’t like a bunch of cussing or fussing and fighting, so we just don’t have any of that. Some days, when we wouldn’t have been open, we let the group from the bar use it when we celebrate birthdays, or let them have a football party—family stuff.”
And Lala’s bar family community has had time to become multigenerational. Reed, a frequent patron, says he’s been visiting Lala’s his entire adult life, and his parents came in before that. “And now I’ve got Reed’s children coming in—his son and his daughter,” Lala adds with a wry smile. “And soon, they’ll be starting families, you know. I might get some of them! In the beginning the young people would come in and call it the ‘Old People’s Home.’ Eventually, they brought their parents and grandparents in, and they’d continue to come in. So the kids bring the older people to us and keep coming in themselves. We’ve got a real good mix, because of the music and the fact that you can still talk to each other and not have to scream at each other. This created the generations that come in here—I’ve got lots of kids coming in here that are probably your age,” she notes—pointing at the middle-aged “kid” that is me.
Of course, Lala says it hasn’t always been smooth sailing over the years. The bar once featured a kitchen that was known for good burgers and such. “We don’t use it anymore,” she says. “It was too complicated.” And she admits that working with the City has been challenging. “In nineteen seventy-two, liquor licenses had just come out for around here, so we started from scratch. Over the years, the City had me increase to a total of NINE sinks to this little place. And if it were up to them, they’d have me add another.” (Lala’s is around 1000 square feet, give or take. That’s about a sink per every 100 square feet, or like putting a sink in every room of your home, including the living room and bedrooms). “They had us put in new ceilings that ruined the light in here, and Bill had to come up with this good idea of painting the sky on it. I’d have lost my whole atmosphere! And new ceilings for the men’s room where the urinal is? I said, What do you think the men are going to do? Pee up this way?” she says, pointing to the ceiling. “I don’t even want to talk about the cost—thousands. It makes me mad. We make it work though, and try to keep things the way they are.”
Clinging tightly to the precious grandfathered-in status remains hugely important in keeping things the same at Lala’s. One Burnet Road neighbor, the beloved Poodle Dog Lounge, recently lost their status, and mourners wonder if it can be reopened at all faced with such huge, mandatory changes. “Yeah, it’s sad, it is,” Lala says. “Because, like I say, What can you say? You do everything to do the right thing. People come back to Austin after they’ve been gone four or five years and what they loved is gone. Most every good old restaurant around here is gone. I think the City sometimes is hurting themselves.”
Before moving on, we ask about the wall of military medals and badges just off the side of the bar. “A gentleman who was retiring from out at Bergstrom in nineteen seventy-three wanted to put his medals up here for us to display before he went home to Ohio,” she says. “My brothers were Navy; Big Bill was Air Force—we have a lot of military around. And other military people followed suit. You see that note up there? (she points to the top of the wall) That was a young man who was here with his girl the night before he was being sent to Iraq. He wrote that note and asked if I would leave it up there until he came back. He hasn’t come back yet, but I don’t want to take it down until he does. I don’t touch it. A young man…if he comes back he can take it down himself.” No doubt when he does come back in, Lala’s Little Nugget will be the same wonderful place he remembers.
Frances Lala’s Famous “Doot-Doot-Dit” Bloody Mary
Adapted from “Mr. Boston: Official Bartenders and Party Guide” (published by Warner Books)
Makes 1 drink
Generous shot of vodka
Two generous shots thick tomato juice (Sacramento brand, if possible)
1 doot* lime juice
3 doots Worcestershire sauce (look for a rich, reddish-brown hue)
1 doot Tabasco
1 dit* ground black pepper, to taste
Celery stalk and lime wedge, for garnish
Combine all of the ingredients except the garnishes in a bar mixer and stir lightly. Pour into a highball glass full of ice, garnish with the celery and lime and lovingly place it in front of your bar cousin. If you forgot how to make the drink, or if they don’t order another, don’t make any more until you watch Miss Frances do it again.
*To the best of our ability, we interpret a “doot” to be less than a glug but more than a dash, and a “dit” to be just south of a pinch.
8619 Burnet Rd., 78757
Sunday–Friday, 12 p.m.–midnight
Saturday, 12 p.m.–1 a.m.
Same as it ever was
At three o’clock on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Buddy’s Place, the self-proclaimed “Home of Happiness” near the northern tip of the Burnet Road corridor, plays host to about a half-dozen, well-dressed good ol’ boys shooting pool and spinning stories. There are no tank tops, as the sign on the door clearly prohibits them. And holding court at a round table near the shuffleboard area are owner Jackie Smith and Jasper, the resident mannequin who has his own fan club and is moved around the main room, from table to table, at whim.
When asked how things are going at the bar, Smith doesn’t miss a beat. “Just great! Business is good, and the bar is the same as it ever was. You know, this place has been a bar since the fifties, and the insides have never changed. That’s the biggest compliment we get, from our oldest customers—and our youngest customers, they say Don’t ever change nothing.”
Sweeping change hasn’t happened for a while at Buddy’s. Smith explains that the building started out as a bait shop, then switched to a bar and expanded into the little house sitting next to it. “It’s been a bar ever since. That’s the old house’s front door with John Wayne on it,” he says and points. “It’s been Buddy’s for seventeen years.”
When asked how the bar has remained successful over the years, Smith attributes some of it to the live music from well-known Austin talent that happens most Friday nights. “Son Geezinslaw, who is my brother, and also Glenn Collins who is our nephew,” he says. “I also suggest keeping prices low, and keeping everything the same, which is sometimes a struggle with the City. And I have the best country jukebox in Austin, maybe the world. And having great customers that we celebrate with.” At this point, Smith leaves the table and returns with the “Birthday Board,” a handwritten list of Buddy’s family birthdays—including those of members who have passed, yet are still remembered and celebrated on their day. Every regular wants on that board.
Smith says the bar reminds him of the one in the old Norman Lear sitcom, “Archie Bunker’s Place.” “People laugh, debate and eventually ask to get on the birthday board,” he says. “We also celebrate a couple of times a year with a great fish fry and invite everybody. People bring stuff, too. Our fish has been coming out even better since we got the fryer from the old Charlie’s Steakhouse.”
Indeed, the sharing, borrowing, loaning and acquiring of equipment between the old Burnet Road establishments—whether it was outgrown or reluctantly purchased during a going-out-of-business sale—has become a recurring topic during our visits. It’s like blood transfusions or organ donations between loved ones—all of the flavor, history and idiosyncrasies embedded in the very machines that helped build a clientele are passed around, often coveted and looked after as though family heirlooms. And it truly is a family. We ask Smith if he knows the folks at LaLa’s and he says, “Sure! I’ve known them for years! You know, Billy comes in here all the time—that’s Bill’s dad. Bill runs Lala’s for Miss Frances.” We share that Miss Frances pointed out during our visit that Buddy’s does a great fish fry.
“We keep it nice in here, kind of like an adult daycare center,” Smith says with a laugh. “You can feel good about bringing your date or your mom. We did have a one-person fight once. (Smith glances over at the motionless, life-size Jasper.) One night, when Jasper was sitting at a table, a fella joined him and started talking to him. After a while, the guy started getting frustrated that Jasper wouldn’t respond, so he got up and yelled at him You’re a rude son of a bitch! and stormed off.” (Jasper was, and remains, nonplussed.)
When asked if there are any big plans for Buddy’s Place, Smith pauses and says, “Yes. I’m gonna keep it just the way it is.”
Buddy’s Place’s “Jasper’s-Just-Shy” Fish Fry
Courtesy of Jackie Smith
Zatarain’s batter mix
Fryolator from the old Charlie’s Steakhouse
Submerge fillets in Zatarain’s batter before frying. Gently drop them into the fryer basket and remove when golden brown. Drop the hushpuppies into the fryer and remove when crisped. Serve with coleslaw and a bunch of your bar-family members what brung a dish they wanted to show off. Eat, drink beer, create lasting bonds. Repeat every six months.