Food & Drink

Austin's Best Mexican Restaurants When You Need a Break From Tex-Mex

Published On 01/06/2017 Published On 01/06/2017

With the Great Taco War of 2016 in our rearview, we now turn to the more pressing matter: Where can we get some real Mexican food in this city? We’ve got a lot of love for Tex-Mex with its beefy fajitas and bowls of gooey cheese, but sometimes ya gotta branch out and explore regional specialities from the interior of Mexico. With the weather changing, it’s time to warm up with steaming bowls of pozole, tantalizing tinga, tacos al pastor, rich mole, entomatadas, and freshly fried churros. Take a break from your normal order of yellow cheese-smothered ground beef enchiladas and make a run past the border at these nine spots for some of Austin’s best interior Mexican food.

Licha's Cantina

East Sixth

Licha’s Cantina opened up in the former Papi Tino’s space a couple of years ago, much to the delight of Mexican food aficionados. Masa products are made in-house daily, proteins are slow braised, and dishes reminiscent of the owners’ childhoods grace the menu. Find interior specialities like cazuelita de cochinita pibil, tlacoyo de camarón con mole and sopes de lengua, plus an extensive Tequila and Mezcal selection and an excellent $5 happy hour.

El Naranjo

El Naranjo

Rainey St

Rainey St may be well-known for its fratty Sunday Fundays but El Naranjo’s Oaxacan cuisine is worth braving the jungle. The dinner menu ranges from a weekly ceviche to garnachas istmeñas (sopes topped with beef and oaxacan pasilla slaw), scratch-made moles to tampiqueña. The rich Mexican flavors extend to brunch featuring an array of breakfast dishes (like the cheeky huevos Benedictos) and to their truly creative tequila-heavy (and tasty) cocktail menu.

Sazon

South Austin/Bouldin Creek

Sazon has long been a staple of the “real Mexican food” community with influences from Puebla, Yucatán, Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Mexico City. Two of the most distinctive dishes are chile en nogada (poblano, cinnamon-spiced pork, almonds, raisins, pear, apple, walnut cream sauce) and the Pipian Verde con Pollo (toasted pumpkin seed sauce, poached chicken.) Skip the chicken fajitas elsewhere and treat yo’ self to a fresh lime margarita on the patio here.

Azul Tequila

South Lamar and Dry Creek West

Though Azul Tequila has some Tex-Mex items on the menu, it would be a mistake to leave them off this list. Pollo Huasteco (achiote chicken with grilled nopales) and their Cabrito Al Maguey (guajillo-marinated goat cooked on maguey leaves) are standouts on an extensive meat-heavy menu. Sunday brunch is no joke either -- the chilaquiles verdes and cafe de olla (and $1 mimosas) are sure to cure what ails you.

Fonda San Miguel

Fonda San Miguel

Burnet Rd

Fonda San Miguel is that kind of place that you walk in and know you’re in for something special. Bright walls, gorgeous talavera, big art, and scrupulous attention to detail -- it’s a spot that has ambiance with a capital “A.” The food and service is always impeccable, even during the madhouse AYCE brunch. Fan favorites are the Calabacitas Rellenos (baked zucchini filled with corn and white cheese), enchiladas de mole poblano, and Camarones en chipotle cream.

Las Palomas Restaurant & Bar

Las Palomas

Westlake

Westlake has good Mexican food? Yes, as it turns out. Las Palomas has been delighting the Lululemon set since 1983 (so, even before Lululemon existed) with their traditional fare. Though they’re best known for fresh seafood dishes like Seafood Veracruzana, the menu is well balanced with something for all tastes. Banderillas, puntas a la Mexicana and chicken mole enchiladas stand out but the monthly and nightly specials get a lot of love. They’re definitely family and gluten-free friendly for those folks looking for an out-of-the-way spot on a Friday night.

Andrea Lipizzi

Papalote Taco House

South Austin and Balcones

Unlike our other interior Mexican restaurants, Papalote Taco House is home to a more fast-casual vibe. The spotlight on tacos, tortas, and tostadas makes it an easy lunch or dinner spot. Papalote specializes in unusual offerings like tacos with hongos y epazote (mushrooms with hominy, serranos, epazote, queso fresco), tortas de cauliflower (!!!) and tlacoyos (black bean corn masa cakes stuffed with potato). Each day they have a different specialty item and if you’re there for lunch, take advantage of the under $8 deal.

T-Loc's Sonoran Style Hot Dogs

T-Loc’s Sonora Hot Dogs

Rosedale

You may not think of Mexico when you think of hot dogs... but you’d be wrong. Nestled in the Lo-Burn food trailer park, you’ll find T-Loc’s Sonora Hot Dogs. They’ve introduced an already meat-obsessed city to the heart-stopping bacon-wrapped dogs typically found in Tijuana. Topped with beans, diced onions, tomatoes, mustard, and mayonnaise, this might be the last thing you’ll eat... but you’ll be happy about it.

Courtesy of Grizzelda’s

Grizzelda's

Cesar Chavez

Breezy beach vibes at Adam Jacob’s second venture will have you thinking more tropical vacay than lively cantina. With a heavy emphasis on tequila and mezcal, the bar menu includes cleverly named cocktails like Bidi Bidi, Bom Bom, and Bad Girl Ri Ri. Look for Tulum-inspired ceviches, puerco pibil (Mexico City) and daily specialties like Cuitlacoche (corn smut) enchiladas. Don your guayabera and enjoy a meal under the watchful gaze of a giant St. Francis statue.

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Kelly Stocker wasn't born in Austin, but she got here as fast as she could. If you want to follow her adventures around town, find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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1. Licha's Cantina 1306 East 6th St, Austin, TX 78702 (East Austin)

Licha’s Cantina is a neighborhood casita known for it's authentic interior Mexican food. The menu is inspired by the soul food the owner was raised with (and the restaurant is named after his mother) featuring modern takes on traditional dishes that retain the heart and history of their Mexican origins. Expect blue corn huitlacoche quesadillas, lengua sopecitos (in house-made masa cups), and bone marrow huaraches, as well as a slew of tequila- and mezcal-based cocktails. All this in an intimate, welcoming space in the heart of East 6th Street.

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2. El Naranjo 85 Rainey St., Austin, TX 78701 (Downtown)

Unless you're already aware of what's inside, you'll likely mistake this little yellow house in Rainey Street District for... well, a house. The sneaky, unlabeled spot is actually El Naranjo, owned and operated by renowned chefs and power couple Iliana and Ernesto de la Vega. These two whip up some of Austin's most authentic and traditional Mexican fare, like flank steak tacos and Oaxacan mole, with ease and always keep more than a few bottles of mezcal on hand. opened El Naranjo to bring traditional Mexican cuisine to Austin. El Naranjo makes their own salsas, moles, breads, and corn tortillas with fresh and seasonal ingredients.

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3. SazĂłn 1816 S Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78704 (South Austin)

SazĂłn is an Austin-based homage to the culinary culture of Mexico and its various regional cuisines, and has been for years. Located in Bouldin Creek, SazĂłn is authentic in ingredient and technique (read: handmade corn tortillas, house-made moles, and a smattering of huitlacoche), and innovative in composition. Opt out of the played-out carnitas tacos at your everyday Tex-Mex joint, and stop by SazĂłn for the Cochinita Pibil (achiote-braised pulled pork, black beans, xni-pec, and corn tortillas) with a fresh lime house margarita, frozen or on the rocks, on the spacious outdoor patio.

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4. Azul Tequila 4211 S Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78704 (South Austin)

Azul Tequila in South Lamar (or the second location in Dry Creek West) is sure to sate your every agave- and Aztec-inspired craving. The meat-heavy menu and extensive tequila list cover everything from Tex-Mex (like the Nachos Tejanos and Lone Star Fajitas) and oversized frozen margaritas to authentic Aztec dishes like Pollo Huasteco (achiote-braised chicken with grilled nopales, served on a banana leaf) or the Cabrito al Maguey (chile guajillo-marinated goat barbacoa served on maguey leaves). And for Sunday brunch, the chilaquiles and and $1 mimosas are sure to cure what ails you.

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5. Fonda San Miguel 2330 W North Loop Blvd, Austin, TX 78756 (North Loop)

In a city with countless quality, authentic Mexican restaurants, Fonda San Miguel is, and has been, a North Loop staple since 1975. The Old World Mexican hacienda-style space -- decorated with colonial Mexican antiques and Talavera tiles -- along with the sophisticated, authentic interior Mexican cuisine are transportive; the captured Mexican culture is palpable. Signature dishes include blue corn masa huaraches, Rellenas Calabacitas (baked zucchini filled with corn and cheese), and Cameron’s en Crema de Chipotle (Gulf shrimp in chipotle cream sauce). Fonda San Miguel is an Austin institution, and is not to be missed for the Mexican-craving Austinites and tourists alike.

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6. Las Palomas Restaurant - Bar 3201 Bee Cave Rd, Austin, TX 78746 (Bee Cave)

Las Palomas is a family run Mexican restaurant in the West Woods Shopping Center in Westlake that’s been serving traditional Mexican fare to high-end shoppers since 1983. The self-proclaimed “hidden jewel” is the lone restaurant and bar serving authentic Interior Mexican cuisine in Westlake, and does so from its artfully decorated dining room and posh patio. Known for its Chile Relleno, Cochinita Pibil, Fish Veracruzano, and premium margaritas, Las Palomas is a sophisticated stop for distinctive, traditional Mexican cuisine in an unassuming, tucked away storefront in a strip mall.

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7. Papalote Taco House 2803 S Lamar, Austin, TX 78704 (South Austin)

South Lamar taco mainstay Papalote Taco House is decidedly authentic, with lines out the door of the tiny, unpretentious counter-serve space (the same rings true for the taqueria’s second location in Northwest Austin). Papalote’s menu is an homage to the owner’s mother, featuring recipes adapted from her South Mexican heritage. While classic and Texas tacos can be had, opt for adventure with shredded pork with mole pipian instead of tacos al pastor, chipotle-stewed beef tacos with plantains in place of the familiar carnitas, and mushrooms with hominy and epazote for the vegetarians. Mexican street food -- beyond just tacos, but definitely don’t skip the tacos -- is the restaurant’s foundation, with tortas, tostadas, sopes, and tlacoyos (blue corn-potato cakes) also on offer.

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8. T-Loc's Sonora Hot Dogs 5000 Burnet Rd, Austin, TX 78756 (Rosedale)

For the uninitiated, Sonora is a state in Northwest Mexico that borders Arizona, New Mexico, and the Gulf of California. And everybody knows that hot dogs, while of German descent, were popularized in America. So now, when you go to the T-Loc’s Sonora Hot Dog truck in Rosedale, you know to expect a classic hot dog with Mexican influence, right? Right. T-Loc’s serves Sonoran style dogs “con todo” (translation: with everything), which are bacon-wrapped beef hot dogs served in a steamed bun with pinto beans, topped with diced onions and tomatoes, drizzled with mayonnaise, mustard, and jalapeño sauce, and finished with a roasted Caribbean pepper. You don’t have to get it “con todo,” you don’t have to get a hot dog at all (burritos, quesadillas, and tacos are also on offer), but you’d be remiss to skip the food truck’s namesake specialty.

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9. Grizzelda's 105 Tillery St, Austin, TX 78702 (East Austin)

Grizzelda’s is serving upscale Mexican cuisine in a chic, modern space with rustic accents, marble tabletops, and bright pops of color throughout. The Cesar Chavez eatery is breezy and lively with an emphasis on coastal cuisine and agave spirits -- seafood is at the forefront of the menu, and tequila- and mezcal-based cocktails (with kitschy names like Grizz Mizz and Bidi Bidi, Bom Bom) dominate the beverage list. Grizzelda’s is your Mexican beach vacation from its storefront on Tillery Street.

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