Last year, I wrote up a list of restaurants I'd recommend in Austin for an intern from California who was going to spend all summer here and needed to know what not to miss out on.
This is not just places around downtown. In fact it's weighted toward North Austin, if anything - only because that's where I live and work, not because the best restaurants are there. They're not.
This list probably won't help if you're just in town for a conference, but in case you're moving to Austin, or staying for longer than a week - here are some places you ought to try.
These descriptions might make more sense to you if you're from California, but I'd say the recommendations stand wherever you're coming from.
Since this is mostly just transcribed from an email I wrote last year while waiting for something to compile, I'm missing Hopdoddy (best burgers ever, on South Congress) and G'Raj Mahal (Indian food trailer with beautiful outdoor seating, near downtown), which are now in my top five. Or the pizza slice place that we just found. And I can't believe I've left out the Steeping Room tea house in the domain mall, which we visit about once a week on average. But the list is what it is. Maybe I'll expand it into a whole guide some day.
EDIT: David the intern also found his own gems to share -- including Noble Pig, a fantastic sandwich shop. I should also mention Gourdough's, a donut trailer on south Lamar that has to be seen to be believed. Fresh hot large donuts with mind-blowing toppings, some savory, some alcoholic!
I'm happy to hear suggestions in the comments. Meanwhile - here's the list:
I am guessing that coming from California, you'll be used to mexican food, maybe seafood-heavy baja mex food.
In Texas, good mexican food can be found but more common (and more uniquely Texas) is tex-mex. And it's good - please forget everything you might have learned about "tex-mex" from places like Chili's.
One of the hallmarks of tex-mex vs. cali mexican food is queso (aka cheese sauce) - the best stuff is pretty spicy. Also, you'll see more Jalapeños than other peppers. I think serrano peppers are more common in baja mex. There's more of a focus on enchiladas and tacos than burritos - you'll be hard pressed to find a "burrito place" like the ones all over California.
A few great local tex-mex institutions within a short drive of North Austin:
- Great fajitas
- Try the migas - something I've only seen in Texas so far: it's scrambled eggs with queso and tortillas. Excellent comfort food for brunch.
- You can mix the two and get the migas fajitas. worth a try.
- Other things worth knowing about - their fried stuffed avocado, their lunchtime buffet that lets you sample from most of their menu (amazing, come hungry, leave Texan)
Chuy's: A chain, there's one on 183 in North Austin and a few others around
- great enchiladas (try the ones called "chicka-boom" or something)
- great chips and decent salsa
- very good margaritas that work
- good happy hour ($3.50 margaritas)
- the place can get pretty crowded. Apply margaritas and wait.
Instead of burrito places, austin has taco joints. The two best are Torchy's and Tacodeli:
- This place is a revelation, it's rightfully famous and is almost certainly better than you imagine a "taco place" can be - no matter how much mexican food you've had.
- the one nearest North Austin is "torchy's spicewood". It's more or less along mopac (Loop 1).
- try a couple variations. If you ask me, they don't make a bad taco.
- their current monthly taco is always worth checking out - for example, an occasional monthly fave is a chicken-fried-steak taco called "the double-wide". Don't miss out.
- This place is not the culinary star that Torchy's is, but it's a great option for lunch and has a couple of standout items, including the Molé tacos and the Tortas.
- There are a few around - the one in North Austin is along Mopac, close to the Domain mall and IBM, National Instruments, etc..
- More variety than torchy's - I've also never had a bad taco here.
- A nice variety of salsas, but disappointing store-bought chips. Total missed opportunity. Just get the tacos.
You can find a lot of opinions about barbecue. I suggest you try as many places as you can find - and there are plenty. Rudy's is a large local chain that's visible along 183 in North Austin, and often recommended. I actually think that Rudy's, while good, is kind of the McDonald's of decent barbecue. OK, maybe better, because I'll still go there occasionally.
- My personal favorite in town is Ruby's near UT. It's small, a little grungy, and fantastic.
- great brisket, amazing ribs
- Their sides are pretty good too - I like both kinds of their slaw, and their beans are good n' spicy
- Of course, if you want to take a trip, the salt lick is legendary. It's miles out of town in a dry county, and it's been on TV a bunch of times.
- Their sauce is unique - kind of mustardy, really delicious.
- Make sure you get a sampling of the different meats - their sides aren't that good, 'cause they're not the point.
- Finally, closest to North Austin, the County Line BBQ chain has a restaurant near highway 360 and FM2222 called "county line on the lake" - and it is really right on the lake.
- You can sit outside and order from a patio menu with a BBQ sampler.
- The bbq is good (as good or better than Rudy's) but the ambiance is why I'd go.
Fancy date places
- really great seafood & steaks
- there's one downtown and one in the arboretum (North Austin)
- Downtown, good food, view of town lake and the bats coming from the bridge.
- Once I ordered a caprese salad and I think they used chocolate sauce instead of balsamic. But the food there is usually so good that I wasn't sure it was a mistake. So that's saying something, right?
- world-class sushi (really! I've had actual good sushi and this is it. I'm surprised too.)
- expensive, but a real experience. We went there for our wedding anniversary and it was fantastic.
- More excellent fine cuisine. Probably my favorite fine-dining restaurant in Austin that isn't Uchi.
- A good tapas place in Central Austin.
- They've usually got some inventive seasonal dishes, and usually something great for an appetizer.
- I seem to recall lots of great cheeses.
- A modern italian place by the same folks behind Asti. In a charming part of Central Austin called Hyde Park.
- Really perfectly done food. Great place, crowded seating, always full - kind of feels like a hot new restaurant in a bigger city.
Texas comfort food
There's a style of "Texas home cookin'" restaurant that's really worth giving a try. Here are two off the top of my head:
- Interestingly, also a historic music venue where Janis Joplin sang.
- If you're up for it, their chicken fried steak is an excellent example of the genre. (Chicken-fried steak, also known as "CFS", sometimes painted on the sides of small-town diners along the highway, is a real texas staple)
- Also, good pies, and cheap Lonestar beers.
- They have a "Howdy Hour". Enough said?
Amy's ice cream A local institution. they have great ice cream, but for me the real draw is that their rotating flavors always include two with some kind of alcohol flavor - the beer ice creams are great (they have Shiner, Live Oak and Guinness ice cream. Live Oak is my fave of those)
For some reason, the california burrito bias extends to breakfast, so this was a new thing for me. It's a big deal here - every mexican place, coffee shop, lots of burger joints, and even a few BBQ places and gas stations will serve you a cheap egg n' something taco. They can be a delicious option for breakfast, and way less of a weighty decision than the breakfast burrito you might be used to in california.
But - maybe start with a known good place (Torchy's, for example), before trying out those gas station tacos.
As I mentioned before, burritos really aren't where it's at here. Not sure why.
If you crave a California-style burrito, the closest I've been able to find is Super Burrito in south austin.
Everything I had there was good, and it was exactly like I was back in pacific beach. A bit of a drive, though, and zero ambiance.