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They told me Austin was fun, and they didn’t lie.
I’ve flown in to stay with my friends Hutch and Rachel for half a week. The weather just turned cold, so we’re bundled up as we ride Birds, electrical scooters you rent with an app to take through a town. We’re zooming over smooth concrete sidewalk. Street lights light the way as their yellow bulbs zip past overhead.
If you move your hips like a surfer or snowboarder while you ride the scooter, you can sashay around divots and ledges in the sidewalk. The max speed is maybe 18mph. In the wide sidewalks of this clean, spacious city, it’s a great way to get around.
And where are we going? The Russian House of Austin, a restaurant with numerous depraved flavors of vodka. Infusions is the more correct way to say it, I guess. And that goes with a menu that has duck liver, wild boar dumplings, elk, borscht, and caviar from salmon, sturgeon, or beluga.
When we arrive, we’re brought into a room with a wooden banquet table, and benches to match. Overhead, there are paintings of peacocks, doilies, and masks in red and white patterns on the high ceiling. The light is warm, orange and dim. As Hutch, Rachel and I dump our coats, red-cheeked from the Bird ride, the waiter sets down three vodka shots, and a bowl of pickled beets and cabbage. There are slices of white bread on a wooden board, too.
We clink shot glasses and swallow down the vodka. It’s cold going down, but I feel warmth spreading out from my stomach soon. It brings on an appetite for the bread and pickled food.
The place is using QR code menus. I’m scanning through the options on my phone. There are maybe one hundred different vodka shot options. We start with cocktails. Mine is the Russian Rabbit, which has jalapeno, spicy pepper vodka, lemon and pomegranate juice.
“I’ve got an idea,” I say. “Let’s play vodka shot roulette. We each order the strangest vodka shot we can for the person to the left.”
Hutch and Rachel love the plan. Hutch is to my left, and he’ll be ordering for Rachel, who will order one for me. No we peruse the infusions looking for something truly suited to the recipient’s personality, like when you’re giving a gift.
Some of the infusions make me wonder how they’re possible. One is called cigar, which is both intriguing and scary. What will I get Hutch? Today was the first full day of my visit here in Austin. It started with numerous supplements, including mushroom extracts. That fact helps me make my decision.
I hope Rachel doesn’t pick anything too outrageous for me. Especially not the cigar one. I like cigars, but what if it tastes like dip juice? How do they make these shots, anyway?
I find a note from the restaurant on the menu. It says all vodka infusions are created by Chef Vladimir. The flavorings are natural. The base vodka is Kruto and Gzhelka.
The waiter comes back, fingers folded around his notebook. Have we made a decision, he asks in a Russian accent.
I order first. “Please bring this man the wild mushroom vodka shot,” I say, gesturing to Hutch. He laughs at the thought.
Hutch orders for Rachel. “Bring her cherry cayenne,” he says. Rachel has only recently discovered a taste for spicy food or drink, and she shivers at the imagined shot.
“And bring him the Cowboy,” Rachel says.
Oh no. The Cowboy is a vodka shot of beef jerky, Texas BBQ sauce, leather, charcoal, and yes, cigar.
“I thought you would order that one but I hoped you wouldn’t!”
I recently bought land in the middle of nowhere out west. The cigar, leather and charcoal shot was my obvious fate. No escaping it.
The waiter returns with a wooden board holding three shot glasses. There’s mine, reddish from the BBQ sauce. There’s a feint brown vodka for Hutch’s wild mushroom shot, and there’s a pinkish one for Rachel.
“Nostrovia,” says Hutch. We all throw the shots back.
The Cowboy gallops down in phases. First, I taste the BBQ sauce. Not too bad. Then my face shudders and my hands shake. Leather taste, like being punched with gorgeous vintage boxing gloves hits me. It’s not over, next comes a flavor like chewing beef jerky around a dead campfire. I take a breath, and there’s the cigar, yes, a little like dip juice, and a little like after you’ve puffed out cigar smoke.
We take bites of our appetizers of duck liver pate and cheburek, which is a Mongolian dish. It’s a crescent-shaped crispy dough filled with beef, pork and seasoned herbs.
I look down. I’m white knuckling the edge of the table. Hutch and Rachel aren’t much better off. The cayenne was far stronger than the cherry in Rachel’s, and the wild mushroom was rich with the earthy taste of fungus.
“Again,” I say. “Let’s do that again.”
“Reverse order,” says Rachel. Good idea. Hutch is ordering for me now, Rachel’s ordering for him, and I’m ordering for Rachel.
There are so many shots to choose from. How do I decide?
The waiter comes back, and it’s game time. “Please bring her the pineapple goat cheese,” I say.
“No!” says Rachel. “I can’t stand goat cheese.”
“Payback for the dip juice,” I say.
She orders the Nuclear for Hutch. No ingredients are given.
“It’s vodka and puddle from Chernobyl,” I say. “I bet it comes out glowing.”
Hutch orders for me. “He’ll have sea buckthorn.”
“What’s that?” I ask. “That sounds like there’s going to be a live anemone prickling around in there.”
“Hopefully!” Hutch says.
We order some entrees, too.
“Goat cheese,” says Rachel. “The worst.”
“I love goat cheese!” I say. Hutch is a fan of it too.
“It taste like a sheep’s butt. You guys like the taste of a sheep’s butt?”
“I don’t judge your weekends, why must you judge mine?” I answer. A laugh goes around the table.
The shots arrive, all a similar color this time.
We find our assigned sentences, and carry them out. A lifting of elbows, and three shots go down the hatch.
Sea buckthorn. What is it? Soy sauce and blueberry? Scratch that. It’s licorice and vinegar. No, more like seawater and cedar tree oil. Forget it. I have no idea what it is. I can’t come up with a combination to explain it. Some day, you’ll just have to try it.
Rachel is making faces from the goat cheese pineapple, and Hutch has broken into a full sweat.
“That is the single spiciest thing I ever drank in my life,” he says about the Nuclear.
Food has arrived to save us with saner flavors, and some meat and potatoes to soak it all up. Hutch has chicken tabaka, a Soviet dish with grilled chicken marinated in garlic and wine sauce, then pan fried in its own juices. Rachel has chicken kiev, a fillet pounded and rolled around cold butter, then coated with eggs and bread crumbs, and fried.
I have a bowl of wild boar dumplings, which come with cups of spicy tomato sauce and sour cream. You might imagine they’d be gamy, but they’re not at all. I like them.
After eating our fill, it’s time to explore the dessert shots. It’s a coffee vodka shot for Hutch, coffee and milk for Rachel, and caramel for me. Mine tastes like butterscotch sundae sauce with vodka.
Now we’re armed and ready to venture back out in the cold to go to the dance clubs.