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Report: A SF Hound in Austin (long!!)

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Thanks to you Austin hounds' helpful suggestions my gf Sarah & I had a great time visiting your fair city last week, and our friends we were visiting were very happy to find some new and tasty places they didn't know about.

Here's where we ate, and what we (mostly I) thought of it. All told I must say I like your Mexican fare a lot more than I like ours here in San Francisco (we have very little in the way of decent sit-down Mexican fare here, although great CalMex burrito takeouts abound, and there are no migas anywhere to be had - *sigh*). Our favorite local BBQ joint (Memphis Minnie's on Haight St. in SF) actually holds up to comparison with the BBQ we had in Austin, much to my surprise (this speaks highly of Minnie's, not poorly on the TX BBQ we had, and of course BBQ's the stuff of flamewars that I don't want to get into!). Except for sausage - both Black's and Kreuz's were much better than anything here.

El Mercado
13776 Research Blvd. (Hwy 183)
Austin, TX (512)219-0232
This low-key place in a strip mall in North Austin sports colorful decor and friendly service (even if they do push their (tasty!) margaritas a bit much), but the food was bland. Their chips & salsa were adequate, but our taquito-style appetizer, although crunchy and well-cooked, were lacking in flavor. Ditto my bacon-wrapped shrimp, which were stuffed in jalapeños - how you can combine bacon, shrimp, and jalapeños and wind up with few flavors is beyond me, but they managed. Sarah's beef fajitas were the best thing we ate. Not worth a repeat visit, IMO.

Maria's Taco X-Press
2529 S. Lamar (@ La Casa Dr)
Austin, TX (512)444-0261
A quintessential Austin-style joint, Maria's is a tiny indoor space where you order and food is prepared, and an outdoor area with live music and benches. The menu was short and to the point, containing several items not seen on CalMex menus (barbacoa, el pastor, etc). I ordered three tacos (around $2/ea), one barbacoa, one el pastor, and one carne guissado. The guissado was a bit bland, but the barbacoa was full of tasty nuggets of seasoned meat. I'm not sure if it was barbacoa de cabeza (head meat), or in any case, if it was beef or goat, but it was tasty regardless. The el pastor was very flavorful and tender, full of yummy chunks of pork. Sarah and Lee ordered a taco plate combo, both with chicken, and they were fine from the bites I stole, although they wouldn't mix and match the types of taco on the plate. The rice was particularly flavorful, and the chimichurri sauce was a nice departure from the usual salsas. Their margaritas, straight out of a margarita machine, were pretty good, and certainly hit the spot on a warm day. On our visit, local funky rock band Daktari was playing, and they were quite enjoyable. All in all this was one of our favorite food experiences in Austin. Not that the food was the absolute best, but it was very good, cheap, and the whole place was just plain fun. Our bill was $32 for 3 tacos, 2 x 3-taco combo plates, and 3 margaritas.

Manuel's
10201 Jollyville Rd (@ Executive Rd, off 183)
Austin, TX (512)345-1042
We arrived here 10 minutes after happy hour - d'oh! Although we missed out on half-price apps and cheap drinks, we still had a very tasty meal here. Located on a nondescript corner, Manuel's has an interior that was actually designed, as opposed to thrown together, and has a casual but sort of upscale feel to it. Their pomegranite margaritas ($7.75 for top-shelf) were excellent and judged a hit by all 4 of us. Ditto the cantaloupe martini ($7.50), which had a pronounced natural melon flavor and was very smooth. We started with a small guacamole ($5), which was fine, but no better than I could make at home in 5 minutes, and a small serving at that - better to get the large one during happy hour when they're half-price, or skip it altogether. Our hogos gusados appetizer ($6) was a very flavorful mushroom dip with a bit of cheese - earthy and rich, we all liked it. For my main I had the chicken mole enchiladas ($14). According to the menu, Wine Spectator proclaimed it the best mole in Austin. I don't know about that, but it was certainly very good, savory and deep, with just a hint of chocolate and not too much sugar. The sides were OK, but nothing special. Sarah had the Lomo de Puerco ($17), tender pork medallions in a too-sweet-for-my-liking sauce. Randy's Chicken Flautas ($10) were well-prepared, flavorful, and had a nice crusty cheese on top. Lee enjoyed his chicken enchilada bandera ($12), but I didn't taste any. For our second round of drinks Sarah had a mango margarita ($7.75 for top-shelf) and I had a cucumber mint martini ($7.50). Both were very good, but my martini was my favorite drink of the evening - strongly cucumber-flavored, and with a dash of spicy salt on the rim, and in the center, it was unusual and delicious. Service throughout was friendly and casual. The only bad thing I can think of to say about or meal was that Manuel's is not inexpensive - our bill including drinks and tax, but not tip, was $115 for the 4 of us (but we did drink a lot ;).

Jardin Corona
13233 Pond Springs Rd, Suite 301 (S. of Anderson Mill)
Austin, TX (512)250-1061
Alas, this was the only place we went out to for breakfast, but our breakfast here was tasty enough, and inexpensive to boot (not to mention only a mile from where we were staying). Jardin Corona has a drive-through window and apparently does a brisk take-out business, as well as having a large dining room. Decor is non-present and consists mainly of a few televisions by the walls. When breakfasting in Austin, I always get migas, as I love them and they're not available anywhere near SF that I'm aware of. Here the choices are regular migas or chorimigas (with chorizo), both $5.99. I had the latter and Sarah the former. Mine were a tasty concoction of eggs, chorizo, and a flavorful ranchero sauce, with refried beans, potatoes and tortillas on the side. Despite having chorizo, the migas weren't overly heavy or too spicy, and quite hit the spot. The potatoes were very bland, suitable only for adding to the tortillas for a little texture variation. The coffee was, alas, terrible. Service was attentive and friendly, if a bit rushed, throughout. If I lived near a place like this, I'd go there regularly, but I don't imagine there's any reason to drive to North Austin just to go here, as there are good migas to be found all over.

Artz Rib House
2330 S Lamar Blvd (SW of Goodrich Ave)
Austin, TX (512)442-8283
This funky South Austin rib joint has a country diner vibe and sported a very good C&W band, the Texas Swing Kings, on our visit. A large'ish place, with an outdoor patio, the four of us were seated promptly behind the band (which happily was playing at a volume that made conversation possible) and ordered beers (me a Shiner Bock, which I quickly re-leared that I don't care for). It took a long time for our waitress to take our order, but we were in no hurry, and had read that service can be ... uh, casual ... at Artz. When we eventually placed our order, Sarah ordered the beef ribs (they were out of their Country Pork Ribs, their specialty), I the brisket, while Lee had a 3-way "surprise me" combo an Randy had the Pork Baby Back Ribs. The brisket was not good, dry and tough, with no smoke flavor to speak of, but everyone's ribs were great. Both the pork baby back and beef ribs were meaty and juicy, with the flesh falling right off of the bone, and a nice crust on the outside. I wished I had ordered ribs rather than the brisket. The sausage on Lee's combo platter was average, neither great nor bad. Sides weren't an afterthought here, and we found the coleslaw to be delicious - crispy and flavorful and not mayonaisse'y at all. The beans were tasty too, but the potato salad, while good, wasn't memorably so. Service continued to be pretty darned slow, but eventually got the job done. This isn't a place to eat if you're in a hurry, that's for sure, but why hurry when there's good music and you're out with friends? Artz is the type of place I would want to visit every time I'm in Austin for reasonably-priced ribs and live music.

Black's BBQ
215 N. Main St.
Lockhart, TX (512) 398-2712
This unassuming joint just off the main square of Lockhart is strong on the meat and weak on the rest. You serve yourself sides at a salad bar then order up your meat, pay for it, and grab a table. Per recommendations on the net, I had a 1/3# slice of brisket and a sausage, while Sarah had pork ribs and Lee and Randy had brisket and ribs too. The brisket was very smoky, with the expected red smoke ring on the outside, and plenty of juiciness inside, while the sausage also had a smoke ring, and was much less greasy than I had expected it to be. It had more of a meat flavor than the more nonspecific "you probably don't want to know what this is" filling in most sausages, and the filling was ground finely. Sarah said her ribs were OK, but not as good as Artz (see below). We all agreed that the sides were poor-to-awful, especially the coleslaw, which was very mayo-heavy. The BBQ sauce, available self-serve on a counter, was alright, and the meat didn't really need much/any to begin with. Ambience is funky southern, but would have benefitted from a jukebox. While I enjoyed the place, it wasn't Sarah's style (she's a side dish fan, and was understandably unhappy with what was offered at Black's). Still, it's one of the 4 must-visit BBQ places in Lockhart, or so I'm told. Next time we'll have to check out Smitty's and Chisolm Trail to complete the quartet.

Catfish Parlour
11910 Research Blvd (Hwy 183)
Austin, TX (512)258-1853
This funny restaurant off the side of Hwy 183 in a large barn-shaped building serves up, you guess it, catfish, and sides in an interior decorated with kitschy signs and pictures. We had no wait on our Monday evening visit and promptly ordered Lone Stars. A basket of finger-shaped hush puppies with a very good tartar sauce (and a jalapeño tartar if you ask) arrived with our beers, and we dug in while we perused the menu. Lee suggested getting some appetizers, so we had corn fritters (a delicious creamed-corn-filled patty, battered and fried) and fried okra (a good version of it - nice and non-slimy). For my main dish, I decided on a large spicy breaded catfish plate ($10.50). Their included Caesar salad bar was funny, as it consisted of lettuce, parmesan, cruton packets and caesar dressing, and nothing else! It wasn't remarkable, but we had to have at least one non-fried thing with dinner. My fish was good and crispy, with a fairly spicy breading, and the accompanying fries were crispy and pretty good too. Service was friendly throughout and checked in on us several times to see if we needed more beer (yes) or water (no). Although not a gourmet joint by any stretch, it was a fun meal out, and unlike anything you're likely to find in San Francisco.

Kreuz Market
619 N. Colorado St.
Lockhart, TX (512)398-2361
We got takeout here on our way back to Austin from Lockhart for our 4th of July BBQ, and were glad we didn't eat there. Located in a huge barn-like building, Kreuz is a very no-frills type of place. It looked like there were several ordering counters (including perhaps one for sides & drinks?), and in the back in a large, chokingly-smoky room, a small counter with grandmas serving up meat (I don't know how they can stand working there - it's seriously smoky!). We got a half dozen sausages and a half pound of fatty brisket to throw on our Q. Included with the meat are slices of white bread, but that's it! Unless available at the other counter, there were no sides or sauce to be seen (which is fine by me, but may not be for everyone). When we grilled 'em up the next day, the sausages were excellent, with a delicious crispy skin and surprisingly lean, but flavorful, filling. The fatty brisket was also very tasty, and I'm glad we got fatty, as the non-fatty brisket would have dried out on the Q. Certainly an interesting place, but I'd want to try the two Lockhart BBQ joints we missed before returning to Kreuz's.

Los Pinos
4919 Hudson Bend
Austin, TX (512)266-3231
On our last day in Austin, Sarah & I borrowed Lee's car and drive around Lake Travis to get a look at the hill country (which is pretty and very green). Los Pinos, located in Hudson Bend (SE side of Lake Travis), is a low-key restaurant, medium-sized, and with fairly generic Mexican decor. Unfortunately on our lunch visit, the recommended dishes were not available and their menu was typical Mexican fare. Sarah & I each ordered a combo of pork tamale, cheese quesadilla and beef tostada ($6'ish) with the usual sides of rice and refried beans. The salsa was very good, but the chips were a little past fresh. Our entrees were good, but not spectacular renditions, much like many other places'. I would be interested in trying them out for dinner, but wouldn't return for lunch based on our visit. It wasn't bad, and it's worth a try if you're in the area, but it wasn't remarkable either.

Although we ate like pigs, we didn't nearly manage to get to all of the places recommended to us - the more to sample on our next visit!

Many thanks and kind regards,
_Adam

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  1. Hey Adam.

    Sounds like you got some hits and misses.

    Firstly, let me personally apologize for the lackluster experience at Los Pinos. Terrible they were out of what you wanted at lunch! I would not recommend anything Americanized (tostada, quesadilla - and everyone knows I've never like tamales), but if they were out of the fajitas and the conchita pibil, what's a chowhound to do? Let me personally invite you out to a "Make-Up Lunch" - on me - the next time you're in town.

    As to El Mercado, I couldn't agree more. That place has never impressed me. If given the choice up north, I would have probably suggested Chuy's. The Pico salsa is good, the patio is nice, and they have a few standout dishes, the steak burrito, chimichanga and Elvis chicken being my favs.

    Again, sorry you didn't make happy hour at Manuel's. That's the only time I go. I agree it's much to expensive otherwise. That way you can get the mole, chiviche and hongos all for under $20. oh well.

    I am glad you made it to Maria's. I love that place.

    Once again Adam. should you be back in the lone star state, let me take you out to a make up lunch full of flavor...I promise.

    1 Reply
    1. re: amysuehere

      Howdy Amy Sue,

      You're too kind! I hope I didn't convey the wrong tenor in my post - our food experiences there were overwhelmingly positive (it helps that the waitstaff is generally more friendly there than here, and that we had margaritas with nearly every meal :).

      I look forward to returning to chow my way through the many recommendations that we didn't get to. Hopefully we'll get out there at least once a year, maybe more.

      Best,
      _Adam

    2. Adam,

      Thanks for your detailed trip report. I’m glad you had some good meals, though I’m sorry to hear that you suffered through some mediocre Tex-Mex/Mexican dishes while in town. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common experience even for locals. One really has to look for the good stuff. FYI for any future visits: I think Chuy’s will similarly disappoint anyone who is truly looking for delicious chow.

      That’s why follow-up posts are so helpful. Reading about your experiences will be useful to future visitors. Just as importantly, hearing new perspectives can inspire us local hounds to re-evaluate the advice we give.

      Ultimately, everyone on the board benefits.

      All the best,
      MPH

      1. Adam,

        It sounds like you had a great time eating like little piggies! I'm glad. Only one thing ... next time try the Jardin Corona in Cedar Park for your chorimigas. It really is noticeably better.

        Rene'

        1 Reply
        1. re: Rene

          It looks like your recommendation got him to try some chorimigas that he enjoyed. The ship may have sailed, though, on getting him to try your favorite location of Jardin Corona. When I visit other towns only occasionally, there are so many places to try that it takes a really special first impression for me to make a return visit, even to another operation in the same chain. When I read your recommendation, it was clear that you liked the Cedar Park location best, but I did not sense that you meant "do not, for any reason, eat at the other locations". Did you?

          It would help me on my next trip up north (and others as well) if you wanted to lay out your observations of Jardin Corona as a separate topic. What you enjoy there (or don't) on your next visit and why will help future visitors to put their tastes in context with yours. Doing the same to compare and contrast the locations would get extra credit.

          Thanks for the recommendations.

        2. If you come back to Austin, I highly recommend trying Kreuz again. After the line to get meat, you go inside another set of doors to get sides. The place is a tad bit funky - they also do not believe in plastic-ware or BBQ sauce. (The sauce thing is fine by me - I don't like it ... but it bothers some others. They really do take pride in how they season their meat and I think they pull it off well.) My favorite is their brisket and sausage - with a side of cheese and pickles. They have other sides as well - like potato salad and other BBQ joint staples. I lived in Lockhart for almost 2 years and I have to say that Kreuz is the best of them all.
          As far as breakfast goes - you guys in SF have the best place of all!!! I still dream about the Bagdad Cafe. If I find myself back in SF again, that's a must-eat place for me!