If there is one rule of thumb on the Austin restaurant scene it likely is this: You got a shirt, you got shoes or sandals, you got service! There are only a few restaurants in town (maybe a private club or two) where a tie is required. This is a city where dining is supposed to be fun, not an exercise in tailored torture. But as Austin grows, the question being asked is will things stay this way?
For years, Austin restaurants were often described as “laid-back,” but as the number of “upscale” restaurants increases and more and more restaurants are demanding that diners make reservations, there is a fear that Austin’s dining scene will lose some of that wonderful casual flavor. But to counter that fear, Austin foodies look at the blossoming of the so-called “gypsy food trailers” in areas like SoCo as evidence of a dynamic culinary scene. One thing is constant—the Austin dining scene is an exciting one where changes can be swift.
Some of the new restaurants are franchises or outlets for a national chain, but many are homegrown. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of Asian restaurants in the city as immigrants from that continent have found a home here. Several long-established local restaurants have opened additional locations, often in the burgeoning northwest and southwest sections of the city. One of the coolest trends has been the emergence of young, dynamic chefs, eager to take advantage of the wide variety of fresh foods in the city and to open up their cafes in what, until now, have been neighborhoods that were not part of the Austin boom, areas like the revived East Eleventh Street in downtown Austin. Plus, there is a willingness of Austin diners to try new things. There is no such thing as “Austin cuisine.” But there are certain signature cuisines that do have a connection to Texas culture. Given the fact that Texas once was part of Mexico and Mexican-American life is vibrant and very much a part of the state’s cultural weave, it is only natural that Mexico’s culinary influence is felt in a number of ways. There’s Tex-Mex, Nuevo Tex-Mex, South Texas/Northern Mexico, New Mexican, Interior Mexican, Latin American, and South American. Even on the menus of so-called fine dining restaurants and in the city’s bistros you are likely to detect a hint of Mexican or Southwest influence.
Clichés abound when it comes to Texas, perhaps because the state has been celebrated and spoofed, caricatured and lauded in movies and books, magazine articles and newspaper stories around the world. So no wonder that when it comes to eating, most people think a typical Texas meal features a big slab of beef and not much else.
But Texas beef (and it is good) is just one tiny part of the true picture, and while this is a place where cattle do roam, the food picture is much more complex and growing more diverse every day. Agribusiness is 12 percent of Texas’s gross state product. Texas farmers and ranchers produce rice, citrus, nuts, pears, peaches, apricots, strawberries, blackberries, avocados, chile peppers, onions, spinach, and herbs; they raise pigs, cattle, goats, sheep, turkeys, and fish; and food processors are engaged in developing a multitude of products that tout their Texas origins—everything from axis deer venison to zucchini blossoms.
In addition to a variety of ingredients, the state also draws inspiration from several cultures and countries: Spain and Mexico, of course, and Germany, as evidenced in Hill Country towns like Fredericksburg and New Braunfels (see the Day Trips chapter). African-American cooks have left their mark, and in the east of the state, Cajuns and Creoles have tossed their contributions into the pot. The culture of the Mexican vaquero (cowboy) influenced Texas trail riders, and small towns settled by Czechs, Wends, and Alsatians brought new elements into the mix. Waves of immigrants from Italy and the Mediterranean countries have brought their flavors west. More recently, Asian immigrants have left their mark with Chinese, Vietnamese, and Indian cooking introducing new flavors.
With each wave of immigrants, Texas cuisine has grown, and adapted, and old favorites are constantly being re-created. How about shrimp fajitas, pizza topped with chorizo, sushi garnished with goat cheese, chocolate pie with a dash of chile powder?
That said, Tex-Mex is probably the most prevalent and recognizable cuisine. In our listings we have included a variety of Tex-Mex and other Mexican/Latino restaurants in an effort to give readers a good cross section of that multifaceted cuisine. Not all Mexican food is spicy hot. The chile pepper is a staple of the Mexican kitchen, but not all peppers are hot, and many are served in rich sauces, called moles, that blend the pepper with herbs, spices, even chocolate to create multi-nuanced tastes.
Most Austinites have their favorite Mexican restaurant, particularly when it comes to weekend brunch. A popular traditional dish is migas, eggs scrambled with tortilla chips, diced chiles, and tomatoes. Given the city’s late nightlife, weekend breakfast is often served into mid-afternoon. During the week, breakfast tacos are the early-morning order of the day, economical and easy to eat—simply flour tortillas stuffed with combinations of eggs, chorizo (sausage), potatoes, bacon, and salsa.
Another star in the Texas culinary pantheon is, of course, barbecue. It’s a subject, like religion and politics, that should be discussed carefully and with great consideration for individual beliefs—even the spelling of barbecue promotes debate. Generally speaking, Texas barbecue is slow-cooked with indirect heat over wood coals, often mesquite—a quite delicate-looking tree with a gnarled trunk that is the bane of ranchers since it spreads like a weed and sucks up water. Brisket is the most popular cut of meat to be slow-cooked, and most cooks “marinate” with a dry rub of spices and sometimes herbs. (This is treacherous ground, because already some aficionados are saying, “No! No!”)
Barbecue is usually served with pinto beans, potato salad, perhaps coleslaw, certainly sliced raw white onions (or sweet 1015 Texas Onions), pickles, plain old white bread, and barbecue sauce—often the ingredient by which a barbecue joint is judged.
Some of the best barbecue can be found in the small towns of Texas, among them five communities just a short drive from Austin. Most barbecue joints are open all day but close around 6 p.m.—earlier on Sun afternoon. We recommend calling ahead to check on hours of operation. Here are just a few of the most famous and popular joints in the area beyond Austin’s city limits; other barbecue cafes within the Austin city limits and environs are included in the restaurant listings in this chapter.
Lockhart, which touts itself as the barbecue capital of Texas, is home to several barbecue joints. In 2002, with the death of “Smitty” Schmidt, the fabled owner of Kreuz Market, a family feud erupted. Smitty had left the business to his sons and the building to his daughter. The battle even made national headlines and only quieted when the brothers moved Kreuz Market to a new building nearby at 619 Colorado St. (512-398-2361; www.kreuzmarket.com), while the founder’s daughter started selling barbecue in the original building at 208 South Commerce St. (512-398-9344) under the new label, Smitty’s (www.smittysmarket.com). A third popular restaurant is Black’s Barbecue, 215 North Main St. (512-398-2712; www.blacksbbq.com).
Luling, a small town southeast of Austin, is famous for its annual Watermelon Thump festival in June (www.watermelonthump.com) and the numerous natural gas rocker wells in town, many of them decorated in folk art style. But barbecue aficionados seek out Luling City Market at 633 East Davis St. (830-875-9019; www.lulingcitymarket.com) for its famous barbecue.
Northeast of Austin, the town of Taylor is home to two Texas barbecue legends: Louie Mueller’s at 206 West Second St. (512-352-6206; www.louiemuellerbarbecue.com), and Rudy Mikeska’s at 300 West Second St. (512-365-3722; www.mikeska.com).
A fifth Central Texas town, Llano in the Hill Country west of Austin, is home to the “Big Chop,” a huge barbecued pork chop that is the highlight on the menu at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, 505 West Dallas (325-247-5713; www.coopersbbq.com). Cooper’s also barbecues beef and sausage on its old-fashioned pit and you can order from the website.
One of the most popular items to toss on the barbecue in Central Texas is Elgin sausage, and the original can be found in the small town of the same name just east of Austin. Visitors can watch the sausage being made just as it has been since 1882 and then sit down to a feast at Elgin Southside Market, 1212 US 290 (512-281-4650; www.southsidemarket.com). The owners also have opened a second location, Meyers Elgin Smokehouse, at 188 US 290 East (512-281-3331).
A word or two about local customs. Smoking is a crime in Austin, as the late Timothy Leary, LSD guru, found out when he lit up in the Austin airport.
Many restaurants are open for major holidays, except Christmas. It is wise to call ahead. Most restaurants do not take reservations except for parties of 6 or more. We have noted where reservations are advised or required. All restaurants listed accept major credit cards, except where noted. More and more restaurants are staying open later to accommodate Austin’s penchant for late-night noshing after the movies or theater, but most close at 10 p.m. during the week and 11 p.m. on weekends. Some stay open throughout the afternoon to serve late lunch or afternoon snacks, since many Austin businesspeople, particularly the city’s large self-employed population, utilize favorite local restaurants as a conference room or an office away from their home office. We have noted restaurants that stay open beyond the usual hours.
Our restaurant listings are arranged by area of town, starting with central Austin, then South Central and moving south, west, and continuing clockwise around the area. But do not limit your choices to one geographic area, many homegrown favorites have expanded and operate at more than one location, noted in the listings, so browse the entire chapter and check restaurant web links for those additional locations.