The Young spirit of Old Austin
Danny Young -- the Texicalli Grille owner, washboard player and unofficial mayor of the city's south side -- has a storied past.
Sunday, October 6, 2002
Walk into Texicalli Grille once, and Danny Roy Young is apt to poke out his head from the open kitchen and regale you on anything from why an avocado tastes good in a milkshake to his roots growing up in Kingsville, where his mom and dad ran a root beer stand.
And that's just in the first five minutes.
Young, who owns this sociopolitical-cultural hotbed/sandwich shop on East Oltorf, has long been known as the unofficial mayor of South Austin. He'll tell you the nickname has to do with the political battles he fought in the 1980s, but it might have more to do with his way with people.
Man, is he a talker.
"I run off at the mouth constantly," he says. "I like to swap stories."
In a couple of hours' time, he's spouted off opinions on everything from President Bush ("I realize the boy is president, and I like him. I just don't like him as president. He should have been the commissioner of baseball and let someone else be president") to his wife Lu, to whom he's been married 37 years ("Whatever happens to Lu and I, this woman is my destiny. I belong with her").
And there's this, on being a grandfather: "It took me 48 years to know what I wanted to be when I grew up -- a grandpa. Forget rock 'n' roll star, forget major-league ballplayer, forget president of the United States."
A musical who's who
You can tell Young, 61, is at the restaurant if Big Lu-Lu, his red and white 1954 Chevrolet station wagon, is pulled into the worn grass patch out front.
It's lunchtime Thursday, and the car's here. Inside, the usual suspects are crowded around the biggest table, shouting at each other about everything from Bill Clinton's appearance on David Letterman's show to the latest posters for the Cornell Hurd Band, in which Young plays washboard.
They call this the Left Wing Bastards Club (or, for more delicate ears, Hairy-Legged Hillbilly Happy Hour). Artists, writers, filmmakers and assorted eccentric folk gather to complain about government, hash over whatever happened to Old Austin and generally chew the fat. It's been going on for years, and it's what Young and Texicalli Grille are all about.
Today, the jukebox is playing a steady stream of Texas songs as a who's who in Austin music drops by. Howard Kalish, who plays fiddle in the Don Walser Band, is holding court at one end of the table. Sammy Allred of the Geezinslaws pops in to pick up a sandwich to go. Ray Wylie Hubbard strolls past, guitar case in hand. He's got a new instrument he wants to show Young.
"It is a big love fest; everybody seems to know everybody," said musician and Young's close friend Ponty Bone. "Danny's a champion goodwill ambassador of the Austin music scene."
Musician Roy Heinrich agrees. "What Danny's all about is love, in the broadest sense of the word," he said. "You've never met anyone who is so constantly or genuinely happy as Danny Young."
Young spins by, delivering a glass of homemade root beer to a customer, his wavy gray hair pushed back over his forehead. He circles his way through the crowded dining room, a smiling, story-telling whirlwind of good cheer that washes over every table.
"The original Austin is crumbling away," said Olivier Giraud, from the band 8 1/2 Souvenirs. "But (Texicalli) is a stronghold that doesn't crumble."
A hit sandwich
Like everything in Young's life, the evolution of the Texicalli Grille is a yarn with plenty of asides and complicated details.
It goes back 46 years, to when Young's parents opened that root beer stand in Kingsville. Eventually, carhops, frosty mugs and chili dogs segued into pizza takeout and delivery, which transformed into a sit-down cafe.
For Young, the restaurant was home base, even when he left for Alaska during a stint with the U.S. Coast Guard. When he came back, he counseled people in how to legally avoid the draft and became active in the local civil rights movement.
But food was always paramount. And Young wanted to create a sandwich with as much regional distinction as New Orleans' muffuletta or a Philly cheesesteak.
"I knew it was going to be hot, I knew it was going to have mayonnaise on it, it had to be on bread people in Texas would eat, and it had to be beef," he said. This was South Texas, and he lived near the King Ranch, after all.
After seven years of experimenting, he settled on a combination of thin sliced beef, mushrooms, onions, jalapeños and jack cheese. Inspired by a Gene Autry song called "Mexicali Rose," he named it the Texicalli.
The sandwich was a hit and remained one, even after Young sold the Kingsville restaurant and moved to Austin with his wife and two young children in 1975.
After briefly studying philosophy at the University of Texas, he went back to the restaurant business, opening the original Texicalli Grille on South Lamar Boulevard. The restaurant is now in its third location, where it's been since 1989.
A sign on the door sums up the attitude inside: "Just be nice . . . please."
Call to `mayoral' duty
Young is padding barefoot around the South Austin house he and Lu stumbled into, by fate of what he calls "the cosmic crowbar," 27 years ago.
For days, the family drove all over the city looking for a rental house with no luck. When someone at a Methodist church told him about a house, he knew nothing about the differences between North and South Austin. Three days after moving in, he knew he was in the right place.
Like the restaurant, the walls here are packed with memorabilia: kitschy old toy cowboy guitars, a "Happy Trails" coat rack, artwork, photographs, overstuffed leather couches and a spotted cowhide rug. Young swings open the fridge and grabs a bottle of Dr Pepper (from Dublin, where they still make it with cane sugar, he notes), then walks toward the cozy little room his two granddaughters call his "museum." There's a cushy chair, a couple of washboards, even the drum set he played as a teenager. Young settles in; he wants to tell some stories.
Like how he came to be known as "The Mayor of South Austin."
The nickname, he says, has been around since the mid-1980s, when the city planned to widen South Lamar Boulevard and put in a continuous median. Young, worried the expansion would ruin his restaurant business, hit the pavement with his wife, walking up and down Lamar gathering petition signatures from business owners opposed to the project. He spoke at city meetings, once telling the City Council, "I'm not asking you to do something for us; I'm asking you to do nothing for us."
The Lamar expansion plan finally was dropped. But Young's involvement in the controversy and his love for the funkier, more eclectic side of town were well known. As a result, the Austin Chronicle awarded him a certificate naming him "Best Mayor for the City of South Austin," which still hangs at Texicalli Grille.
"It used to be, 'All them Bubbas live over there with toilets in their front yards.' And there's still some of that," Young said. "But it's the most beautiful, supportive community. It doesn't matter if you have long or short hair, Skoal in your back pocket or a joint in your shirt pocket; here people really care about people."
Lamar wasn't the only issue close to his heart. "He'd come to public hearings on any issue that would affect the little people," said Shudde Fath, treasurer of the Save Barton Creek Association. "Anything neighborhood, environment and music."
Young's restaurant hosted the first victory party for Max Nofziger, the former flower salesman who served on the City Council from 1987 to 1996. "When I think of Danny, I think of South Austin, no doubt about it," Nofziger said. "He came to the council meetings and made passionate presentations. As a longtime South Austin person myself, I appreciate his take on South Austin -- and his help."
His style is outgoing and friendly, even with people he hardly knows.
"He always seemed kind of blustery to me, saying he was going to do all these things . . . and I figured this guy's really full of it," said Güero's owner Rob Lippincott, who met Young when the Mexican restaurant was located next door to Texicalli on East Oltorf. "It turned out he's just the most genuine guy there is. He did everything he said he was going to do and was just a fabulous neighbor."
A clean sound
In true Old Austin fashion, Young's persona is larger than the sandwiches he makes and the politics he preaches.
It's just before 8 p.m. on a Thursday, and Young is tearing around Jovita's on South First Street, clapping friends on the back and kissing women on the cheek like a schmoozing politician.
He's wearing black cowboy boots, a sleeveless black T-shirt and dark sunglasses. As band leader Cornell Hurd walks to the microphone, Young pulls on his washboard -- painted on the underside like a Texas flag -- and a pair of leather gloves with dimes glued to the fingertips.
It took Young years of experimenting to get the perfect rub board. He and the metal worker who builds his instruments tried copper and brass in their search to find one that sounded just like raindrops pinging on a tin roof. On the sixteenth try, they found it. But that one wore out. Now Young's playing No. 18.
Young also took his time finding the perfect tool for playing the washboard, going through an assortment of whisks, silver spoons and bottle openers before settling on a pair of leather gloves with silver coins attached to the fingertips.
He started with quarters, but they were too big and loud, so he switched to Mercury dimes, which he'd saved by the handful from the Kingsville restaurant. Then he had to figure out how to attach the coins to the glove -- he tried thread and wire, but the coins kept popping off. In the end, marine glue did the trick. Today, the coins are worn so smooth they look like melted, metallic drops of wax.
A Cornell Hurd Band show is a shtick-laden couple of hours packed with tale-telling and tip jar passing (donate $5 and you'll get a Whoopie cushion) between country numbers. Sometimes, the band dresses up. On those days, Young wears a black jacket embroidered with an array of Texicalli food -- queso fries, chicken-fried steak and burgers -- all flying off an embroidered table, a Dr Pepper bottle running down one sleeve, a Heinz ketchup bottle on the other.
Tonight, as the band rips through its set list, Hurd grabs the stage spotlight with his bare hands, moving the beam from band member to band member.
For "She's in Love with a Rub-Board Playing Man," the beam shines on Young. He's in full form, shimmying up and down, trying to get control of a foot that just won't quit tapping, and zigzagging all over the place. Light glints off his rub board as couples swirl across the dance floor.
This is pure, nonstop, exuberant Young. Long after he gives up the reins of the Texicalli Grille -- and he says he's making plans to do that in the next few years -- he'll still be working the crowd, chatting up everyone in his path.
If you've got a minute, he'll tell you all about how he got there.
And it's an interesting story.