I’m always surprised when I meet someone who has been here for several months and still hasn’t been to any of the nature spots, bar / music venues, or longstanding restaurants that give Austin deep character. I’ve lived here for 20 years, so I feel pretty qualified to write this post. Most of these eateries have well seasoned grills, which really comes through in the food as a seasoned iron skillet does. Finally, they are all pretty damn cheap with generous helpings. It’s sad to learn that people only know about what is a corporate chain, trendy, and/or posh here. Not that some of those places aren’t really great too, I’m all for innovation, but my favorite locally owned spots are so down-to-earth, funky, and friendly, like the heart of Austin. I hope you love it as much as I do. Music and art shows are day by day, check the Chronicle, but I threw a few classics in here that are always sure to please. Enjoy! P.S. Please share with your friends. Thanks!
#1 All Time Favorite – Curra’s Grill Mother of Mex (not Tex-Mex) on Oltorf between I-35 and Congress. If the lot is full, park on Rebel St. This is one of the only places where I can order anything on the menu for breakfast, lunch, or dinner and feel as satisfied by it as my previous favorites. If you’re there for breakfast, you must get a Oaxacan (wa-ha-kan) coffee. Soft corn tortillas. Red corn tortillas. If you like smoky Scotches, get a Mezcal (smoky tequila) drink or try their avocado margaritas. Not many places serve those.
2 – Polvo’s on South 1st. I crave their salsa bar. Three types. All delicious. My fav is always the Goliath Burrito with fish, but any filling is delicious and includes squash and other veggies.
3 – Guero’s on South Congress near the river. Delicious raspberry puree margaritas. I usually either get the El Presidente Burrito, but sometimes a Sante Fe enchilada, which comes with a fried egg on top.
4 – Matt’s El Rancho on South Lamar. Really great patio if it’s not too hot. Food’s good too.
5 – Maria’s Taco Xpress on South Lamar. Migas breakfast taco is the bomb! The only place in town that serves chimichurra salsa at their bar. It’s the one that is made primarily of cilantro and chilis, not liquid like most salsa. Funky style old school Austin setting.
6 – El Alma on Barton Springs. The only place good enough to stay in business in the tricky spot. They even have a parking lot across the street now. My drink of choice is the Chilanga, an very orangy margarita with chili salt on the rim. I go in when I just want a happy hour drink and appetizer of their jack and shrimp tostaditos that come with a side of escabeche (ay-ska-bay-chay) which is picked veggies. I don’t even normally like that stuff, but theirs is special.
7 – Habana Cuban on South Congress. Best Cuban sandwich. Best tres leches cake (with cinnamon). Theirs is not too dry or too wet. Great mojitos with the option for mango or coconut rum. Little straw cabana booths outside for when the weather is nice.
8 – 888 Asian (Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese) Their wide noodles with seafood is my fav. The scallops are especially impressive for this price. I’ve tried friends’ plates and those almost made me wish I’d ordered what they had. Of course, family style is also an option. Open very late although there might be a line.
9 – IM Thai. Sunset Valley (SW Austin). Ok this is one is new, but they have the best som tam of anywhere in Austin. Get the one on their House Specials menu and share it with your friend. That one comes with marinated meats and sticky rice.
10 – Conan’s Pizza on Stassney. Not only do they serve great pizza, especially the thick, but this location has an antique piano that you might be lucky to be accompanied on or even get to play.
11 – Square Rut Kava Bar on South Congress. Direct from the South Pacific pure kava beverage in a coconut shell cup. Different strains for different effects. Talk to the bartender. If you are sensitive to bitter, drink slowly and get them add flavoring such as chocolate caramel. There’s one on the Northside too if you stay there.
12 – Can you tell I’m a Southside girl ;) Maudies on South Lamar. Nachos baked on thick chips.
13 – Continental Club / The Gallery (upstairs) & C-Boys Heart and Soul both on South Congress. Always primo acts.
All over town:
1 – Taco Shack. El Nino breakfast tacos (If you can handle it!) egg, chorizo, pickled jalapenos and cheese.
2 – Trudy’s. Again, all good for breakfast, lunch, dinner. Even their mix and match 3-5 vegetarian dishes are sooo good, especially considering they aren’t a veggie restaurant. Best broccoli ever.
3 – Chi’Lantro’s trucks (ck Twitter for the location that day) or storefront on S. Lamar. Ok, these guys are new school, but local and started in a trailer. Bulgogi fries w/ special sauce. Sick! In a good way though.
Central / Campus Area:
1 – Ruby’s BBQ. Off of Guadalupe on 29th. They smoke it there in the back. Rich red sauce and great sides. Shiner and other brews by the bottle.
2 – Pubs: Fado’s Irish food and pub on 4th Street and around the corner from it, Gingerman on Lavaca with over 50 beers on tap. I preferred their old building, but the new one is similar.
3 – Russia House on E. 5th St. I haven’t eaten there yet, but I heard it’s good. I have sampled from their wall of flavored vodkas though. It’s like digging into a bag of Jelly Bellies. Name the flavor and they’ve infused their vodka jars. Bands play at night.
4 – Half Step on Rainey Street (South Central). Classy newish place in an old Rainey Street house with comfy booths. The bartenders put on an entertaining drink making show, sometimes those big square ice cubes. Kind of trendy drink menu, but low key. Great patio. Highly talented bands like improv funk / soul / jazz crew Canned Beets playing on Wednesday nights and teen blues act The Peterson Brothers on Thursdays.
1 – El Azteca on E. 7th. Chipotle chicken
2 – Licha’s Cantina on E. 6th. Ok, pretty new establishment, but in a cute older house with patio covered in stencil art. One of the few places serving huitlacoche (hweet-la-co-chay), AKA corn truffle :) Have you ever tried hibiscus flower quesadillas? Now is your chance! Wide selection of mezcal.
3 – Takoba on E.7th and Onion. Again, not really longstanding, but I have to rave about their mojito. They grind the mint up so you REALLY get the flavor of it. Smart. Delicious food. A little pricier than the others.
4 – El Chile on Manor Rd. Essentially the same as El Alma on the Southside.
5 – Mi Madres on Manor Rd. I heart their burritos with french fries inside. They are the only place that serves café de olla (cinnamon stick coffee in a clay mug).
6 – Blue Dahlia French Cuisine on E. 11th. In my opinion, moules et frites (mussels and fries) and ratatouille are their specialties. Pretty garden dining.
1 – Fonda San Miguel. Gorgeous interior Mexican decor. You know colored tiles, old carved wood furniture, lots of plants. Wonderful food. Sunday brunch extravaganza.
2 – Korea House on Anderson Lane. Most generous variety of banchan (tiny appetizer bowls). A large menu of sushi options. If you want, you can take a table with a galbi grill in the center. There you can prepare the meats as is popular in Korea.
*Bonus: Terra Toys is super close in case you want to go in and play a bit.
3 – Sahara Lounge. Far NE. Worth the drive. Always bumpin’ world music. Latin, African, Jamaican, etc. etc. in a shack filled with old African instruments and jazz, reggae, and world music concert posters and photos. A large backyard including lots of picnic tables. Signature drink: Sahara Slant ginger and cinnamon buzz.
4 – Skylark Lounge on Airport. East Austin Soul. Originale patio.
Veggie Heaven; Mother’s (still my favorite veggie burger in town); Casa de Luz – macrobiotic in a lovely setting; See Trudy’s write up above; Mr. Natural on South Lamar or E. Cesar Chavez
Nature Parks (besides Zilker Park and the Botanical Garden there)
1 – Mayfield Park is a centrally located. Lovely water ponds and peacocks amongst huge palm trees. There is a walking trail if you want to go down to the water.
*Bonus: Laguna Gloria is right there next to it. This is an old, well maintained villa converted into art museum. Walking trail to the left has my all time favorite climbing tree in the world! You will see it. There is a bench underneath to help petite people like me get up.
2 – Greenbelt secret mini waterfalls trail! Enter through parking lot of Retreat at Barton Creek Apts. on S. Lamar Blvd. Park in a visitors spot by the office / pool. To the right of those, you will see a space between the back and side buildings where a bamboo grove stands. To the left of the grove there is a trail going all the way down to the river. Very private.
3 – Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in very Southwest Austin. Best in spring. Go up the tower to see the fields or walk around the gardens and trails. Vast blankets of color.
4 – McKinney Falls State Park is in near SE Austin.
5 – If you have time to get out of town, Enchanted Rock! Pink granite mounds. Ancient Native American sacred place. If you are sensitive, you can feel the magic. I love going around Thanksgiving when the leaves are turned. If you climb up the rock (it’s pretty steep, but if you have strong legs or a walking stick, you can do it!), you get a beautiful vista view of the autumn trees. It’s fun in the spring too though when the wildflowers are blooming. I’ve seen roadrunners and an armadillo there.
Art Galleries (besides downtown – Mexicarte, The Contemporary, The Blanton)
1 – Women & Their Work on Lavaca. Super cool and fun. A sidewall in foyer holds big square brochures of past exhibits for several years. Gift shop with local artisan jewelry, books, and unique gifts. Open Mon-Sat business hours.
2 – Canopy art complex on Springdale houses Big Medium, Co-Lab, Art.Science.Gallery, a coffee shop, high quality craftwork shops, and studios. Ck hours before going.
3 – Laguna Gloria (see Mayfield Park above)
4 – grayDUCK on E. Cesar Chavez. From what I’ve seen is always showing top quality Austin artist’s work.
5 – Dougherty Arts Center Gallery on Barton Springs. This humble place often gets overlooked because although it has been promised funding for a face lift after winning votes in the bond election twice, it has never gotten it. It has so much heart. Please drop in. Community or two person shows exhibit here. Always lovely. Check the theater schedule for performances.
Place to stay next time you’re in town in group of people
Contemporary architecture with Balinese decor. Fresh and gorgeous. Filled with quirky artwork. Lush gardens. Pool. Firepit. Screened in patio with swings. Super nice proprietor. Currently I am the groundskeeper here.