I am so sold on AUSTIN, TEXAS. It’s a cryin’ shame I haven’t been there sooner, and the next time I’m going, I’ll make sure it’s not during the SXSW conference, which completely dominates the city (in a fun way, of course, but I’d like to see the city at its usual pace). I can’t believe how friendly people are—every day I encountered such kindness, lots of yes ma’ams, and for crissakes, when you put your car’s blinker on, they let you merge. Charmed. Even the menus say things like, “We politely request you limit payment to two credit cards per table,” or “Changes and substitutions are politely declined.” Well, since you put it like that…
Breakfast, boy, I hope you like it. Because in Austin, it’s the most important meal of the day. As someone who loves eggs, Mexican food, and tortillas, I was in my own personal breakfast heaven. Oh, and one thing to note: you’ll hear the term “interior Mexican” quite a bit. No, it’s not about Mexican rugs and tin mirrors; it’s what it sounds like: Mexican cuisine from Mexico (versus Tex-Mex).
2004 S. 1st St. at W. Johanna
A local friend brought me to Polvos, which has been over-feeding diners for 12 years. It draws a laid-back local scene, and is far from being a looker, but is big on sabor. Hello salsa bar—excellent choices (don’t miss the smoky ahumada salsa—it’s the one they keep running out of). I ended up getting two over-easy eggs with a trio of salsas (you get to choose from five—I picked mole, ranchero, and the oh-so-irresistible carne guisado), plus a side of saucy potatoes and refried beans, all for $7.99. Oh yeah, and homemade tortillas. I got to tuck into my first queso ($6.99) here, which is such dirty, slutty food. You get a bowl of gooey melted cheese with chiles in it, and you get to add ground beef, onion, cilantro, jalapeños, and salsa to your own liking, and then dip your chips in it. Plus guacamole. I can’t imagine a better hangover cure. My friend’s migas ($6.99) were also brunch bodaciousness: scrambled eggs with tortilla chips, jalapeños, cheese, onions, and tomatoes. Full bar (had my first Mexican martini), outdoor seating, and the nicest server were other highlights.
Joe’s Bakery & Coffee Shop
2305 E. 7th St. at Prospect
Another killer local item is the breakfast taco, and the ones at Joe’s Bakery & Coffee Shop in East Austin rocked my world. This low-profile joint has been around for 45 years, and is full of families chowing down (breakfast is served all day, until 3pm). My local buddy told me to get the potato and bean taco (with thick slices of potato—I know, starch on starch—and boy was it tasty), and you can also get deep-fried bacon and egg (personally, I prefer the sugary-crispness of oven-baked bacon). Migas taco, another winner. And a kicky salsa verde that really says buenos días. The star of the show here is their flour tortilla—so fluffy, soft, and fresh. Kind of blew my mind. Never thought I’d say move over, corn tortillas. (Which is exactly why I bought a dozen of them to take home—that’s my idea of a souvenir. And I am going to be very, very sad once they’re gone.) This place is a great pitstop on your way to the airport—it’s barely 15 minutes away. And here’s one more tip: show your SXSW badge or wristband during the conference and receive a free taco with your meal.
Fonda San Miguel
2330 W. North Loop at Woodview
Now, the place that took the cake on atmosphere was Fonda San Miguel, which has been here since 1975. You feel like you’re dining in a true hacienda, with fantastic art and beautiful furnishings. I was ready to move in. The big draw here is the Sunday brunch, with one of the best buffet setups I think I’ve ever seen—but it ain’t cheap ($38.95 per person). You can eat your fill of traditional interior dishes like cochinita pibil and pork in mole verde made from pistachios, all served from big clay ollas. The nopales salad was another standout, along with choices like ceviche, a luscious guacamole, and a bunch of other dishes that will challenge you to even make it to the dessert table, which groans with tres leches cake, flan, and cookies. Oh, and some dishes feature ingredients from their organic garden. Truly an hermosa setting, and most tables seem to have mango margaritas on them.
The Salt Lick
18300 FM 1826
The other big Austin topic is, of course, barbecue. The entire town smells like it, so you end up craving it all the time. I was lucky to get taken out to The Salt Lick, about 22 miles outside the city. It’s quite the sprawling setup: a huge ranch, with rooms filled with picnic-style tables inside and out, a monster-sized pit, and I sure as hell can’t argue with a heaping plate of ‘cue for $12.95, loaded with pork ribs (so meaty, and my sticky finger favorite), juicy links, and beef brisket, plus potato salad, beans, and coleslaw studded with white sesame seeds. There’s an all-you-can-eat option for $19.95, but that would have been a massive meal. Then again, Texans aren’t afraid to do it up. You can geek out on details of their barbecue method here.
Oh, and I got to experience my first dry county! (We were able to bring a cooler packed with Shiner Bocks, no prob.) Cash only, cowboy.
900 E. 11th St. at Branch
The other joint that was on my list was Franklin Barbecue, which was just moving out of their trailer into a brick-and-mortar location the weekend I was there. While chilling out at a Twitter afternoon event, I was stoked to see a table selling a couple of their sandwiches. I was able to sample their pulled pork (I squeezed a Carolina-style vinegar sauce on that one) and topped their chopped beef with a kick-ass espresso-based sauce. I couldn’t even choose a favorite—they were both so meaty, and tender, and just the right amount of fat and smoke. All kinds of amazing. Check out this charming video CHOW did about their brisket.
Buenos Aires Café
1201 E. 6th St. at Waller
One meaty experience I had that wasn’t barbecue, but totally memorable was at the Buenos Aires Café. This Argentine place is all about lunch, because it’s when you can order their lomito steak sandwich ($12.99). It’s quality beef: a juicy six-ounce piece of tenderloin that is remarkably tender and full of beefy flavor, especially with a ton of chimichurri slathered on it. The juice just soaks into the baguette, and while you can add cheese and tomatoes, the simplicity of beef-bread-sauce makes for quite the trinity. You’ll also want to get at least one of their empanadas, with an exquisitely dark gold and flaky exterior—I went for the carne picante ($2.59), filled with ground beef, green olives, onion, raisins, and spices. The dessert menu is huge, and includes the pionono ($5.49), a cake soaked in Kahlúa and coffee, with strawberries and a layer of dulce de leche, and an exterior of whipped cream. 100% bad for you.
1219 S. Lamar Blvd. at Lamar Square
The food cart scene here is INSANE. Everywhere I looked, there were parking lots with trailers, stands, and trucks. And it’s civilized—many of the trailers are parked permanently, with tables and chairs set up, and even bathrooms. Good luck trying to choose. But if you happen to find yourself really stoned (I wasn’t) or wasted (wasn’t there yet) and dealing with a fierce case of munchies, you’ll need to amble your way over to Gourdough’s, a trailer that specializes in donuts with savory or sweet toppings. Demented toppings. Our fave was the Flying Pig, with bacon and maple syrup icing. A close second was the Slow Burn, with cream cheese (a bit too much) and habañero pepper jelly. The Mother Clucker came with cut-up pieces of heavily battered fried chicken and honey butter, which got better when we requested even more honey butter. There are a bunch of sweet options as well. Even eating one donut here will take you down faster than the Kool-Aid man busting through a wall. Tread carefully. Come stoned.
G’Raj Mahal Cafe
91 Red River St. at Davis
Over on Rainey Street are a bunch of bars and outdoor trailers within a couple blocks. The atmosphere at G’Raj Mahal Cafe was tough to beat, very casbah at night, with tiled tables and tents. Sadly the dishes we tried (lamb vindaloo, aloo gobi) were really aggressively spiced, and the paratha and salted lassi were also missing “the touch.” Bummer. But they do win for their extremely clever name.
85 Rainey St. at Davis
A better trailer in the area was El Naranjo, which serves a variety of interior dishes. I went for two tacos for $4.50 (which they let me mix and match). I tried the tinga verde (shredded chicken) and the carnitas estilo michoacan—both were so fresh-tasting, with good flavors and execution, but didn’t turn on the monkey part of my brain that says, “HOW SOON CAN YOU COME BACK HERE AND EAT MORE?” Maybe they were too “clean” (if you know what I mean).
Papalote Taco House
2803 S. Lamar Blvd. at Manchaca
The place that definitely turned on that part of my brain was at Papalote Taco House, a new-ish place that my local pal recommended. I wanted to eat my way through the menu, starting with the lengthy list of guisados (stews/braises)—12 in all—which included tinga, mole poblano, and puero en pipian (shredded pork in pumpkin seed mole). I opted for the cachete/beef cheek taco (a weekend special only), which came heaping with meat that had the texture of carnitas. A squirt of their fresh salsa roja, lime, and cilantro and onion, and I was in THE ZONE (yes, the all-caps zone). What a taco. This place is a gem, and was one of my favorite bites this trip. It’s a tiny spot, totally spotless, zero atmosphere, and quite possibly the first place I’ll hit when getting off the plane the next time I visit.
4200 N. Lamar Blvd. at W. 43rd
My absolute, hands-down, favorite menu of the entire trip was at Tyson Cole’s Uchiko, the somewhat recently opened offshoot of the cult-like Uchi (top of my list for my next visit—since it’s a no reservations place, the SXSW-induced madness would have made it a suicide mission). We sat at the sushi bar (which includes a great view into the kitchen), and proceeded to eat our way through the menu, losing our minds over each dish, from the BBQ scallop sashimi ($18) with the hit of kaffir lime, to the hama chili ($18), with yellowtail, orange supremes, and Thai chile. The dishes on executive chef Paul Qui’s menu were beautifully composed, all so balanced and full of texture and flavor. Really inspired kitchen here. Even the sushi options were fun, like the gyutan toro nigiri ($3.50)—grilled beef tongue with “fish caramel,” and our neighbor at the bar insisted we try his ham and eggs ($10): maki with pork belly, yolk custard, and showered in espelette.
Desserts are some badass mofos. Haven’t had desserts like this in a while—like the tobacco cream ($9), rich with the taste of scotch and yes, tobacco, plus a huckleberry tuile that looked like an exotic flower. Talk about a buzz. The textures and flavors of the fried milk dessert ($9) were also mindblowing. Pastry chef Philip Speer is the man.
2024 S. Lamar Blvd. at Hether
Another meal I enjoyed was at Barley Swine, a tiny gastropub offshoot from Bryce Gilmore, the chef behind the wildly popular Odd Duck trailer. (How popular? Well, the night we swung by the trailer, the wait for food was an hour.). Seating is mostly at high-top communal tables, but we parked it at the bar by the grill station (the line cook threw wood into that thing all night). The menu is full of small plates of chef food, from a puck of crisp pig trotter ($11) with a soft-boiled egg, to plenty of foie, pork belly, and sweetbreads. You kind of have to get the fried Brussels sprouts ($5) with lemon and capers. The smoked fish and potato-stuffed pasta ($10) was unexpected and a standout, with the softest base of scrambled eggs that were more like a sauce, and the barley- and foie-stuffed quail ($17) was juicy and savory. Nice list of beers (hence the name), and try to save room for dessert, like the hazelnut crunch ($7), with a caramel génoise swiped on the plate and the crunch of honey-nut nougat. Great staff, fun social vibe, and the price is right.
Foreign & Domestic
306 E. 53rd St. at Avenue G
On my last night we took a drive out to Foreign & Domestic for a bite at the bar. It’s run by a husband and wife team (chef Ned Elliott and his wife Jodi, the pastry chef), serving some clever New American fare in a cool space with some vintage flair. We sat at the counter overlooking the kitchen—and man, they are right there (you could almost garnish your own plate). We dug the perfectly seasoned venison heart tartare ($10) topped with crisp pigs’ ears—and while I paused over the inclusion of thin slices of white chocolate covered in pepper on the plate, it oddly worked. The menu features all kinds of little creative touches and obvious training, from the involved technique behind the night’s rabbit special (a ballontine, $23), to the elegant plating. Dessert was marvy: almond tart ($7) topped with lemon granita, whipped crème fraîche, and a dark honeycomb.
2043 S. Lamar Blvd. at Oltorf
My friends and I came in to James Holmes’s chic Olivia for a late-night bite. I was pretty stuffed from earlier meals (and the price point was a bit steep—well, for Austin), so I just tried a few dishes, like an excellent carpaccio ($18). Some bites of the other appetizers didn’t quite win me over, like the foie gras céréales ($21) and lamb tongue ($11). But dessert ended things on a high note: a decadent duck egg crème brûlée ($9).
601 W. 6th St. at Nueces
Thirsty? I thought so. I dug the style of the recently opened Haddington’s, which reminded me a bit of the tavern-y vibe of Freeman’s in New York. There are two bars, multiple rooms, and a full menu with some tasty-sounding bar snacks (there’s weekend brunch as well). My friend took on the boozy duck fat sazerac ($9), while the bartender kindly obliged us in our request of Frisco Sours. Both came out well executed; the menu has plenty of spiritous cocktails to get you tipsy.
2nd and Congress
Oh, and thank heavens for the Patika coffee trailer, which hooked me up not once but twice. Owners Andy and Nick are big fans of Blue Bottle, and are super friendly (and talented) baristas.
1315 S. Congress Ave. at James
It was a bummer I didn’t get to see more music on this trip, but I did get to catch singer Toni Price at the Continental Club one Tuesday evening. What atmosphere. Loved the show. And someone likes their whiskey (and I’m not talking about me).
Oh, and I had a blast watching movies at the Alamo Drafthouse theaters (there are a few in town)—can you say full bar and food service? Supposedly the milkshakes are killer.
If I was trying to figure out where to stay, the Hotel Saint Cecilia looked pretty fab, but its sister hotel, the Hotel San Jose, has a mesquite pit in the back, and is right across the street from the Continental Club.
If you’re into vintage treasures, swing by Uncommon Objects—great merchandising. And merch.
Places on my list for next time:
Omakase dinner at Uchi.
A visit to Barton Creek Farmers Market.
Brisket from Rudy’s.
An open-face egg salad sandwich at the Blue Dahlia Bistro.
Tacos and cocktails at Takoba.
Dinner outside at the Odd Duck Farm to Trailer.
A meal at the high-end/stylish La Condesa.
Dancing with a cowboy at the Broken Spoke.
Cocktails at East Side Show Room.