Here's Our Travel Guide to This Nation of Over 7,000 Islands
Nestled in a food trailer park along the booming Cesar Chavez strip, La Barbecue takes its name from owner LeAnn Mueller, part of the legendary Louie Mueller Barbecue dynasty in Taylor, Texas (just 50 minutes NE of Austin, and totally worth the trip). La Barbecue has earned a permanent spot in the top tier of Austin barbecue thanks to a commitment to quality that rivals even Franklin's. You can taste the legacy in everything from the perfectly oak-smoked brisket to the secret weapon: a juicy, flavorful turkey that's worlds away from the typically dry Thanksgiving version. Expect to wait over an hour, but there'll often be a free Lone Star waiting in line for you.
Micklethwait Craft Meats off Rosewood Ave might just have the best barbecue-to-line ratio in the city. Expect a less peppery bark and not quite the fatty rush of La Barbecue -- but that just leaves more room to taste the beef and post-oak smoke. Micklethwait also excels at sausage, offering a daily rotating selection of creative links, as well as Austin's most indulgent Frito pie. Don't miss the jalapeño cheese grits, and save some room for sweets. Micklethwait makes the rare move of baking its own desserts: a delicious selection of pies.
One of the few barbecue spots that's open for dinner (for a Downtown option check out Lambert's), Freedmen's takes the Texas barbecue experience out of a trailer and into a historic campus-area building that dates back to the late 1800s. The space still has Texas charm, but trades butcher paper for craft cocktail napkins. Fancier starters like smoked beets help this spot stand out from more traditional joints, as does the killer brunch dish: the barbecue Benedict.
Manor Rd may be the epicenter of Austin breakfast tacos. Taco-Mex, El Chilito, and La Fruta Feliz offer plenty of migas options. Each has advantages -- Taco-Mex is literally a charming window-in-the-wall, El Chilito hits the hipster note, and La Fruta Feliz is the spot for an authentic Mexican experience. But Mi Madre's is the best of all worlds, a home-style Mexican restaurant that boasts gigantic tacos that taste like they're made by a real Mexican abuela. It also scores points for a spacious dining area, a wide menu of different breakfast plates, and a dedicated takeout counter if you're in a hurry.
The original Tamale House on Airport Blvd became a local institution for selling the cheapest breakfast tacos in town at under 50 cents a pop. Although it's now closed and the prices have risen, the family legacy continues on the east side. With one of the most pleasant patios in town and a location in the heart of East 6th, as well as a serious bar program, it's a perfect way to start the day.
Not all Mexican breakfasts mean tacos. Fonda San Miguel is a bit of a drive from Downtown, but the 1975 institution is well worth leaving the fray. The brunch is the stuff of legend, a diverse spread of regional Mexican delicacies from cochinita pibil to a wide array of moles. It's all you can eat, and you'll want to indulge, so be ready to go hard. Reservations recommended.
Texans love Mexican food for breakfast, but there's still space for more Southern comforts. Contigo excels in culinary-minded, ranch-style Texas cuisine, with now-classic Austin dishes like rabbit and dumplings or a beef tongue hash. Almost as an afterthought, it also rocks one of the city's best burgers. The expansive outdoor space is both dog- and kid-friendly and the perfect place to spend a beautiful day, but indoor seating is scarce, so plan elsewhere in the case of bad weather.
Historically East Austin was the African-American and Mexican side of town, but walking through it now, after years of gentrification, you'd be hard-pressed to tell. But the legacy still holds in businesses like Hoover's, run by a gregarious chef who specializes in battered-and-fried soul foods. Don't leave Austin without trying a chicken-fried steak, a thin filet of beef with a crispy battered exterior drenched in white gravy. The sides are also spectacular: Try the cornbread and the fried okra.
Down the street from Hoover's, Dai Due serves an entirely different breed of Texas-influenced fare. The restaurant has garnered national praise for its creative takes on unconventional proteins. They butcher everything themselves, ensuring that staples such as pork chops and porterhouses are cut and cooked to perfection. You'll find the real standouts are the more exotic proteins, in dishes like coal-roasted bone marrow with garden snails or wild boar confit. Dai Due is challenging the traditional ideas of Southern cooking while staying rooted in a local-first mentality -- and, it should be mentioned, serving up a mean brunch.
Chef James Holmes trailblazed innovative New American cuisine at his restaurant Olivia until his offshoot fried chicken joint became so popular that he shuttered his original restaurant to focus on expanding the comfort food arm of his empire. The fried chicken will blow you away, but the other dishes are just as finger-licking good. Grilled oysters, deep-fried deviled eggs, classic red chili, and fried catfish round out a menu as inviting as any in town and that's a safe choice for picky eaters. Add in a solid selection of local draft beers and legit cocktails, and this is a spot where you could spend all day.
Austin doesn't have its own style of pizza, but if we could adopt one, it'd likely be Detroit's square deep-dish pies. The trailer operation began outside Violet Crown, expanded to Rainey St behind Craft Pride, and then went full-service with two permanent locations. The slices are perhaps the most gluttonous in the city, with a thick pillowy crust given a caramelized crunch from a little extra cheese lining the pan. Meat lovers should order the double pepperoni (two types!), or for a classier experience try the Cadillac (Gorgonzola, fig preserves, prosciutto, Parmesan, balsamic glaze). During peak hours it might take an hour for your pie to be ready, so either call ahead or be prepared to drink a few pints while you wait.
Top Chef winner Paul Qui launched a food truck empire under the East Side King banner, beginning with a trailer behind Liberty Bar that served Asian street foods like pork buns, as well as now-classic Austin dishes like beet fries. The Liberty trailer is still a solid option, but his Thai-Kun partnership with chef Thai Changthong is the new must-visit. The dishes skew extremely spicy, so take the heat scale seriously, but don't let it dissuade you from trying dishes like the beef panang curry or black noodles.
A trailer isn't the most conventional place to find house-made pasta, but Patrizi's creates an authentic Italian experience working out of a space the size of a closet. These guys roll the noodles by hand, smoke their own bacon, and even make their own cheese, arriving at the crack of dawn to prep for dinner service. On the more gluttonous side of the menu the meatballs can't be beat, and the rich carbonara bursts with flavor thanks to the all-important runny egg. The operation is also the most child-friendly on the list, with the expansive backyard serving as an ideal zone to let the kids tornado around. Bonus points for a solid drink selection via its host the Butterfly Bar, plus some of the most Keep Austin Weird programming in town at the VORTEX theater.
Although taco trucks could easily receive their own category, the undisputed king is Veracruz All Natural. Posted up during the morning and afternoon on Cesar Chavez, and until midnight behind Radio Coffee & Beer, the truck serves a solid array of standards -- migas, al pastor, pescado, but with a cleaner and more flavorful punch than most any other truck in town. And don't miss out on the full menu of juices and aguas frescas.
This South Austin temple of Tex-Mex has been a great unifier of Austinites since 1952. Every shade of Texan flocks to this massive 500-seat villa of fajitas when they're in need of the comfort of a gooey plate of enchiladas, chile relleno, or quesadillas. You simply can't order wrong, except to pass up the famous Bob Armstrong dip, which might just be the most popular queso in the city.
One of the earliest anchors of the chic 2nd St district, La Condesa cooks upscale interior Mexican food in an eye-catching space that feels as urban as anywhere in Austin. Start with the guacamole flight or one of the four ceviches, order a few taquitos to whet your appetite, then dig into a three-day mole chicken breast or wood-fired pork chop. The cocktail menu is also on point, making this a perfect happy hour destination to enjoy a smoky, tobacco-infused El Cubico.
So, about that burger. It's everything you'd want in a flat-top beast, the perfect char and a simple dressing of American cheese, special sauce, and pickles. No nonsense, just a taste nirvana that belongs on the short list of Austin's best dishes. Even so, the burger's far from the only reason to visit. Chef Rene Ortiz's menu is full of delights -- try the tandoori prawns and the pork shoulder pappardelle -- with an almost irreverent approach to ethnic styles. The burrata is a must-order appetizer, the whole branzino is a party on a plate, and it'd be criminal to leave without trying the undisputed champ of Austin desserts: the birthday cake ice cream sandwich.
When you're looking for a mind-melting culinary experience, head to Barley Swine. Consistently topping yearly critics lists, Barley Swine has succeeded at seasonal, local, mouthwatering dishes since opening in 2010. The space exudes Texas charm without the kitsch, and the kitchen consistently takes left turns that would terrify other chefs, such as turning pig skin into noodles or marrying the pungent properties of mackerel with a beet cure. It was one of the city's first whole-hog trailblazers, so don't be surprised to see offal like pig face making a cameo in the carnitas. For the less adventurous there's still a straightforward steak, in the form of a top-grade Akaushi beef bavette. The tab can add up quick, but some standout dishes are half-price during Swine Time happy hour (5-6:30pm on weekdays).
Lenoir might be the best restaurant value in the city. A three-course meal typically costs between $35 and $45, with dishes comprised of head-spinning ingredients like a coconut green chili crawfish broth. There's a magic to the tiny interior of the restaurant, thanks to the glow of a dozen hanging lantern fixtures over one community table. Although it's a tight fit, the space still lends itself to intimate romantic meals. The wine garden is also a perfect way to start or end an evening.
It's hard to pick a restaurant, in any category, that has made a bigger stamp on Austin's food culture. The premier sushi restaurant in the city (if not the state) reveres traditional Japanese techniques, but isn't afraid to make the dishes entirely its own. Appetizers like the hama chili (yellowtail, ponzu, Thai chili, orange supreme) have become imprinted in the minds of Austin diners, and the daily fish delivery from the famed Tsukiji Market in Japan ensures that every bite of sashimi sparks with freshness. It even extends an olive branch to the seafood-averse with wagyu hot rocks and a crave-worthy chicken karaage. To save a few bucks, hit the sake social hour between 5 and 6:30, and consider the equally great sister restaurant Uchiko for larger parties.
For street food-style Thai, trailer newcomer DEE DEE is all the rage, but for an immersive group experience Sway stands out as the city's best Thai option. Michael Hsu, Austin's most iconic restaurant designer, lends his signature touches of warm woods and effortlessly modern interior design to create a vibe that's fashionable yet approachable. Family-style dining is the way to go, be it sharing a plate of the chili-caramel chicken wings, a bowl of hot-and-sour blue prawn tom yum, or Texas wagyu beef jungle curry. And don't miss one of the city's best sleeper vegetarian dishes: salt-and-pepper tofu.
Stacking a second Japanese restaurant on this list may short equally wonderful Chinese soup spots like hole-in-the-wall gem Chen's Noodle House or hip Downtown Szechuan palace Wu Chow. But Ramen Tatsu-ya earns the nod for introducing Austin to the wonders of tonkotsu broth. The pork bone specialty glistens with fat, making a perfect home for the slurp-worthy noodles. Ramen connoisseurs will tell you the broth-less tsukemen (served with a thick, supercharged sauce on the side) is the gem, but the entire menu has drawn accolades from the nation's most discerning ramen fiends. A second location on South Lamar has lightened the lines, but expect to wait at least 30 minutes for a table.
A hotbed of late-night debauchery, Justine's is a restaurant where people go to make trouble. The menu of traditional French dishes like steak frites is solid, but the real reason for the visit are the vibes. The restaurant exudes a sexy energy partly thanks to the hippest staff in town. They might take a while to deliver your cocktail, but you'll be having such a good time you won't mind. There's typically a tintype portrait photographer to immortalize your night in a sepia-soaked photo, and the mirror room may be one of the most Instagrammed spaces in Austin.
Tapas are a party food of the highest order, and Bullfight's menu of memorable bites is a solid way to start any evening. Grab a sangria or a gin & tonic with house-made soda, either way the bar menu won't disappoint, and neither will a plate of jamon Iberico to snack on (aged for 24 months!). Classic dishes like Spanish tortilla and seafood paella are a good place to start, but the best way to eat is to let the servers guide the experience to make sure the busy kitchen keeps the assault of delicious bites coming at a steady pace. Be sure to call ahead for big parties: Groups of nine or more are eligible for a family-style feast at $34 a head.
Strolling South Congress is a must for any visitor, and the best way to do it is with a cup of Jo's in hand. The tiny caffeine outpost is best known for its highly Instagrammable wall scribbled with graffiti reading "I love you so much," but it also brews a delicious cup of coffee using Stumptown beans, and offers one of Austin's most iconic signature drinks, the creamy chocolate/hazelnut Iced Turbo. The people-watching is top-notch any day of the week, but stop by on a Sunday morning and you'll also be treated to live music courtesy of the house band.
Now with five locations across the city, Caffe Medici is an institution. For more than a decade it's been serving some of the finest coffee in the city, in environments that lend themselves well to both getting work done or kicking back with friends. Currently the beans come from Wild Gift and Minneapolis-based Spyhouse Roasters, and the baristas are typically happy to walk you through the flavor profile of each bean. The espresso shots are unbeatable.
A stone's throw from IH-35, Brew and Brew is half coffee shop, half beer bar. It's hard to pass up one of the 39 taps, but if it's not yet beer o'clock, the coffee selection is just as enticing. Roasters vary, but local company Flat Track and Portland's Heart typically fuel the menu. There's ample seating for working, as well as a wrap-around patio and spillover seating in the neighboring retail shop Companion, which doubles as a great place to pick up a gift for those with a discerning eye for design.
A neighborhood spot in a booming section of East Austin, Figure 8 might just be the hippest coffee shop in the city. The tables are usually packed with creative types hammering away at projects (read: Facebooking) and enjoying coffee from San Francisco's Four Barrel, Portland's Coava, Seattle's Kuma, and local biz Tweed. Expect to also see a revolving door of Austin musicians, including the shop's owner, who did a stint in classic Austin indie-rock band Voxtrot.