As I cleaned my plate of ropa vieja -- eggs plus brisket plus roasted salsa equals no duh -- my friend Albert thanked his out-of-town visitors for inviting him to brunch at our newly opened hotel, the Carpenter, instead of one of our regular old haunts.
"I only check out new places when y'all come to town," he said. "It's gotten too hard to keep up."
Albert has lived in Austin long enough to remember when the city had only one fancy hotel (the 133-year-old Driskill) and six traffic jams per year (one for every Longhorns football game). Now, traffic comes to a daily standstill in the bulging Texas boomtown and state capital, and keeping track of new hotels there -- and especially new restaurants -- is like counting fire ants in a South Austin backyard.
Former residents ourselves, my Texan wife and I are amazed at how much has changed every time we return to Austin. And we've gone back at least once a year since leaving in 2001, just as the city's tech-driven boom really took off.
Austin led the nation in population growth rates throughout the 2010s. About 50,000 people move there every year now. Since many of those new residents are young urban professionals, it's no surprise there's also been a sharp rise in new places for the cool kids to hang.
As much as we love to visit all our favorite classic spots not lost to the boom -- the original Hut's Hamburgers is the latest victim, but at least it reopened in the airport -- we've come around in accepting all these changes in the city we still adore. Or at least we try to stay up on the action more than our old-school Austinite friend Albert does.
With Sun Country and Delta flying more nonstops into Austin from Minneapolis these days, and flights often available for under $300, it seemed like a good time to pass along some of our favorite recent additions to our old hometown. But we could probably come back with a completely different list next year.
1. Ellsworth Kelly chapel. When the Blanton Museum of Art reopened in its 190,000-square-foot new home on the University of Texas campus in 2006, Austin finally boasted an art facility worthy of its artistic spirit. But it took another 12 years for the Blanton's crowning piece to debut: a 2,715-square-foot granite chapel designed by New York painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly before his death.
Officially titled "Austin," the T-shaped, high-ceilinged chapel is like walking into a prism as the rainbow array of light beams down at you from varying corners. Black and white stations-of-the-cross hanging on the walls add to the visual juxtapositions, and actually serve the holy-house purpose, too.
Along with the Skyspace dome by artist James Turrell across campus -- think: roofless planetarium where you watch the sunset without actually seeing the sun -- the University of Texas campus is literally seen in a whole new light nowadays (200 E. MLK Blvd., blantonmuseum.org).