I know this great barbecue joint in Austin.
I know what you're thinking: A weekend trip to Austin, Texas, requires at least one flight or an ambitious road trip. But to eat smoked brisket at this particular establishment, you're going to follow the North Star instead of the Lone Star. Austin, Minnesota, is just two hours' drive from the Twin Cities.
Austin is home to Hormel, purveyors of Spam, aka "Miracle in a Can." Hormel employs 4,000 people — approximately one-fifth the town's population. Austin is also a delightful place for a day trip or a weekend getaway. Lucky small towns in America have their old movie theaters, many of them preserved and repurposed by devoted local patrons of the arts. Austin's is the historic Paramount Theatre (www.austinareaarts.org/Paramount_Theatre.html). It's a gem, lovingly restored and maintained, hosting everything from the high school jazz band to community theater musicals to nationally known acts like St. Paul's Rose Ensemble.
Around the corner from the Paramount, you can shop at Twice Is Nice consignment shop (417 N. Main St.) or see the Minnesota Disasters exhibit on display at the Austin Public Library (www.austinpublic library.org) through March 16.
Our little secret
For cross-country skiing enthusiasts, this brutal winter has meant, at least, plenty of snow. The Jay C. Hormel Nature Center (www.hormel naturecenter.org) features 15 kilometers of groomed Nordic trails (mostly classic style; 2k are designated for skating technique). It's flat prairie terrain, with lots of small loops; that means fewer Lycra-clad elite athletes in training, and plenty of meandering for beginning skiers. You can rent ski equipment on the cheap ($6 for adults, $1 for children). On Thursdays, rentals are free.
Did I mention barbecue?
Skiing, even the meandering kind, burns calories. Piggy Blue's (www.piggybluesbbq.com), on Austin's main street, is a mashup of a Minnesota Nice cafe and a mid-South barbecue joint. The décor is kitschy and family-friendly (paper towels instead of napkins at each table), but serious about the 'cue (paper towels instead of napkins at each table). You'll find ribs, po' boys, pulled meat combo platters, "salads" (with meat, of course) and decadent sides like sweet corn puffs or "pit potatoes" covered in cheese, bourbon sauce and brisket. Kids can choose Piglet Meals for $3. For dessert, Piggy Blue's offers homemade gelato.
Top Noodles (501 1st Av. NW.), just around the corner from the Paramount and Piggy Blue's, focuses on iconic Vietnamese dishes like pho (fragrant, spiced beef broth soup) and bun (rice noodle salad), and it's affordable — everything on Top Noodle's menu is under $10.
Where to stay
When traveling in outstate Minnesota, my go-to lodging is the AmericInn, a better-than-budget motel chain with a good loyalty points program, a decent free breakfast and quiet rooms. Austin has an AmericInn, (www.americinn.com/hotels/MN/Austin) about a mile from the downtown area, with room rates starting at $105. For a bit more per night (about $117, but you can sometimes find a better deal on Priceline), there's the Holiday Inn (www.holidayinn.com; type Austin, Minn., in the destination box) just across the parking lot. Breakfast isn't included, so you'll have to visit an Austin tradition, Kenny's Oak Grill (www.kennysoak grill.com) for Spam and eggs and 1950s décor.
The Holiday Inn is conveniently attached to Torge's Live (www.torgeslive.com). Ostensibly a sports bar, it features live music (not so loud that you can't talk) several nights per week. It's got a welcoming, townie-bar atmosphere that's quieter during happy hour (you'll see plenty of seniors) and more festive as the night goes on. Torge's bar food is just what you'd expect, assuming you expected a peanut butter bacon cheeseburger and a basket of deep-fried Reuben bites. Fortunately, you spent the day skiing.
Exit through the gift shop
No trip to Austin would be complete without visiting the Spam Museum (www.spam.com/spam-101/the-spam-museum), which manages to be both serious about history and utterly whimsical. You may find yourself lingering longer in the gift shop than in the museum, and who can blame you when you have so many choices? Knit caps, iPhone cases, infant onesies, wine glasses, stadium blankets, key chains — a staggering array of consumer products has been emblazoned with the Spam logo. You can also buy Spam by the can, case or single serving pack — including some flavors not available in supermarkets.
Six months out
The Austin Area Commission for the Arts hosts an annual ArtWorks Festival (www.austinareaarts.org) each August (this year's focus is on transforming a former public works building into an arts center).
If you want to get outdoors, the trails at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center are shaded and tranquil — ideal places to run, hike or just sit on a bench to escape the prairie heat.
Jean Sramek is a writer, theater artist and playwright based in Duluth.