Chicago Chowhound in Town for 4 Nights: First Time in Austin
Hi there: My husband and I will be in austin in janaury staying at barton creek. Looking for must eats...want some local flair Austin restaurants that are fun with good food (i.e. Mexican and BBQ) and then more upscale restuarants with interesting/romantic atmosphere w/o being pretentious and no food I'd eat at home: i.e. no italain, french, new american, etc. places that are unique to austin on the high and low scale (no hotel restuarants). thoughts? I have done some reaearch and was sondering the following: (1) Moonshine-(sunday brunch or cocktails in carriage house bar), (2) fonda san miguel (brunch sunday), (3) Chuys and/or Shady Grove (dinner?), (4)Manuels (happy hour), (5) Hotel San Jose (coffee or cocktails), (6) Salt Lick and/orLockhart area for BBQ, (7) Uchi (sushi, I know, have in Chicago but atmosphere and preparations look interesting), (8) Hudson's on the Bend (for a nicer but still not formal dinner in uaint location? thoughts on these and/or any others? Also need fun cocktail spots, i.e. Dry Creek Saloon? Any help is greatly appreciated!
First: El Chile is superior to Vivo.
Second: In my opinion, all three of those bars are crappy. They're manufactured forgeries of good bars in town; they're overpriced, overcrowded, loud, and lame. If you're at Fox and Hound (or Ringer's), take a sixty-second walk and you'll be at Gingerman. If you're at Little Woodrow's, walk for a minute-and-a-half, get yourself to either Opal Devine's or Mother Egan's.
re: tom in austin
It's often hard enough to find good chow in Austin on its own without further restricting ourselves to bars with TVs that will be tuned to a particular game. You can find a lot of good comments on the chow here, but the decor and entertainment really isn't the purview of chowhound.
Maybe you could find what you are looking for by searching the Austin board for a thread on sports bars. If you don't find something that way, there may be other sites that cater more to discussions of the TVs in bars. Google could probably help.
I'd be tempted to minimize the food eaten in a sports bar, and supplement the evening with a meal at Enoteca Vespaio (or another restaurant you find appealing from reading other threads on the Austin board) before or after the game.
All you had to say. While all the bars I mentioned will have the game on, none of them are sports bars.
Better for your game in particular would be the Tavern on Lamar and 12th. I go there for many Astros games. The food is much better than any place you mentioned. They have a full bar as well as many beers.
BEST for your game is Shoal Creek Saloon, again on Lamar, this time around 9th street. Owned by a Saints fan who converted an oldschool VW bug into a giant Saints helmet and mounted it outside, this place should be crazy on game night. Decent cajun dishes, good fried seafood. My wife says this place has the best food of any sports bar in town -- I think the Tavern has a slight edge -- but noone could argue that it will be off the hook for a Saints game! Go deep in to the heart of enemy territory and have a blast!
Jo's on S. Congress (adjacent to Hotel San Jose) for coffee before or after a walk/run on the hike & bike trail along Town Lake downtown in the morning.
Amy's Ice Cream on either 6th Street just W. of Lamar, or Guadalupe & 35th St. Ask the server to "do a trick".
Maria's Taco Express on S. Lamar for Sunday morning gospel & breakfast taco's.
Ruby's BBQ on 29th & Guadalupe near U.T. for lunch.
Bacause you're already out at Barton Creek then Hudson's On The Bend for dinner.
If you're going to do a barbecue lunch within the city limits, House Park Barbecue on 12th just east of Lamar is so much better than Ruby's. The sides aren't as good, but you're going for the meat, right? House Park is only open for weekday lunch. I think it's the best in town.
Tamale House on Airport houses all the competition for Migas.It is an Austin original.Casino is so much better than Huts that it's really not fair to compare them.The patty is larger,the beef is better quality and it's cooked on a charbroiler.The Mayan-esque patio and world class jukebox make for a good hang.
Tamale House on Airport is probably the most significant Austin Tex Mex establishment in the city. Be warned that it isn't open on Sunday, and it closes at 3 PM. Also, they only take cash.
PROTIP: If you order the Migas, you can get them to sub the refried beans for a big scoop of guacamole for no charge! Unless the grumpy guy is working there. He'll upcharge you a quarter.
Thanks for the responses. We are leaving soon! So excited! Few follow-up Qs: (1) Best place for Migas: Trudy's or somewhere else, (2) Best place for burgers: Huts or Casino El Camino, (3) Uchi (HAVE to go): If not making a res, better to go thur/fri/sat? and what sushi items are MUST orders (okay, along with the bacon steakie?, (4) Tex Mex: If you had to pick one: confused by Curra's, Chuy's, Polvo's (taking atmosphere, great tex mex--love carnitas, tacos, etc what is your fave), and (5) with only three nights should I make the trip to Backstage Steakhouse? wondering if some of these tex mex joints are more stop by quickly and eat? do they all have margaritas? thanks again so much. will report back when I return!
1. Best place for Migas probably isn't Trudy's, but I'll leave that discussion to other folks.
3. No reservation? Thursday. The earlier you go, the quicker you'll get seated. If you arrive at 5:30, you might wait only a few minutes. (Then again, you might wait an hour. You never know.) If you do have to wait, have some sake, and if you're starving, split an edamame.
I recommend squid salad, the bacon steakie, super toro sushi, the sake toro, and the chef's selection (5 or 7 piece) which will almost certainly include unagi, maguro, sake, and hamachi.
I recommend reading this review: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/357553
4. Of those three, Curra's (on Oltorf). I recommend ordering the cochinita pibil. Polvo's has some decent food and really good atmosphere, but if you specifically want tacos, be warned: their tacos are kinda gross. They have some of the most disappointing tacos al pastor in town, and their breakfast tacos just plain suck.
5. No answer here, as I've never been.
The Tex Mex joints are all pretty laid back; that doesn't mean you can't make a leisurely meal of it. All of them serve margaritas; most will also serve the ever-popular "Mexican Martini". (This is basically a massive rocks margarita served out of a shaker, sometimes with olives.)
re: tom in austin
Uchi takes reservations up to 7pm..would I be better off making a reservation? I just wanted to leave my schedule open, as I was unsure what nights we'd be dining where--not sure if i want to throw in b/w the bbq and mex, or at end of it all...know at some point I'll be in need of some sushi!
re: Greg Spence
I knew the bats weren't there, which is why I listed that after "too bad you're going in January." Probably didn't make that clear enough. I think they come back in March??
But I did NOT know about West Lynn, and I'm very sad. I wonder if there's any way I can get some of those great recipes now that they are defunct? Man, what a bummer.
In visits to Austin, I've found a couple restaurants that I like a lot. I love West Lynn Cafe. No one has mentioned it. Is it no longer good, or were we just lucky every time? Their Spinach Enchiladas in Pumpkinseed-Adobo Sauce - yum. We also liked the Chile Melt. And their salsa was outstanding. I tried to get the recipe - no luck. :( Their migas were good, but I think I'd prefer mine with crunchy rather than soft tortillas, but that's just me.
BTW, no coincidence that the dishes I named are vegetarian. My mom is a vegetarian, and she & I hit West Lynn together and shared some dishes. :)
I think West Lynn will fit one night in that more upscale restaurant you mentioned. It's not overly upscale/fancy but definitely nice for dinner.
We also liked Kerbey Lane. YUM. The gingerbread pancakes -- sighhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Someone in our group got the migas there & was happy with them.
I've also done Salt Lick. My mom & I took my daughter and a friend of hers to Austin (they were 12 at the time). I think the girls liked it, and it was ok. I mean, we had to go. As stated again and again, it's an Austin institution. But I was disappointed. It might have been all the hype that led to a letdown, who knows. It was ok, but for the wait and the build-up, it was a little disappointing. I'm not saying I wouldn't go back. It wasn't awful. It just wasn't what I was expecting.
That said, I liked Huts. It was funky & fun. It's not going to win any chefs' prizes, but it was good. A friend of mine went to UT Austin and raved about Huts. I was afraid she might have built it up too much, but we all (4 of us) really enjoyed it.
We also hit Amy's Ice Cream (another institution). I can't stand Marble Slab (I love ice cream but not MS), so if you aren't a MS fan, don't walk away when you see Amy's is similar. (I think Amy's was before MS. They're all fairly close in year of origination - Amy's, Marble Slab, Cold Stone. I can't comment on CS; never been.)
This isn't food related, but from a fellow Austin tourist, it's too bad you're going in January. Hamilton Pool (grotto) is phenomenol, and so is Blue Hole in Wimberley. And we loved going to see the Congress Avenue Bridge bats! We also thoroughly enjoyed hiking Mt. Bonnell, which you might be able to enjoy in January, as well as Zilker Park.
If you want to try Wink go to the wine bar. You can have any of the 'bar' food OR order off the restauarant menu. My favorite snack there is 'bubbles and burgers'. A few of us will order a variety of bubbles and share a couple of plates of the wink burgers. Amazing stuff.
Some other favorites: El Caribe (just north of the triangle on Lamar)... great tex mex. Hole in the wall atomosphere but the food rocks. Really like their chiles rellanos and the tortilla soup. Good bargin. And they do margaritas.
Another breakfast favorite is cinnamon buns from Upper crust bakery on 45th and Burnet. Not the gooey kind... nice flakey bun with lots of cinnamon and sugar. Great with some coffee. They offer other breads, cakes and quiches for breakfast or lunch.
For BBQ I agree with going to Lockhart... Smitty's or Kruetz' should do it.
Hope you enjoy your stay!
Lived in Austin for 11 years, moved a few weeks ago.
My recommendations -
Barbecue - Smitty's or Kreuz's. Nice drive. If you want closer, hit a rudy's, but you're missing out on a classic experience.
Sushi - Tomo on Parmer. New restaurant, and hands down the best sushi I had in Austin.
Italian - Enoteca Vespaio on congress, My blasphemy is that I think it's even better than the original vespaio.
Can't go wrong with Manuels, for cheaper, try Changos on Guadalupe.
I'm quite partial to Wink as well. Simple, but great food.
I know that people develop their own personal ties with their favorite TexMex - and so others will disagree with me - but I see absolutely no reason to go to Chuys. Its just not that good. Everything is brown and tastes pretty much the same. I love TexMex - and think someone should write a book comparing "The Number One Plate" at all the best - but Chuys wouldn't be in the book. You can do much better. If you love pork in Mexican dishes, you could try Las Palomas - not Tex. Mex., a little nicer atmosphere,interesting fish dishes, chile relleno, soups, and pork dishes too. The musicians that play on Weds nights are fabulous. Often, famous people drop in and play with them. Mariachis on Friday. Best grilled shrimp is at Polvos - but it has gotten so loud and crowded, we don't go anymore. We loved it before it was "discovered" by the young and hip.
If you go to Backstage Steakhouse in the Hill Country skip the steaks and have the daily special.Call first and make sure Raymond Tatum,the exec is working,your mind will be blown with whatever he has decided to do that day.Down the road a couple hundred yards Poodies Hilltop tavern[owned by Poodie,Willie Nelson's road manager]is a quintessential Austin experience:Ice cold,dirt cheap beer,Hatch Green Chile Cheeseburgers and wonderful country music[you could get lucky...Willie has been known to play surprise gigs there as has Shaver,Russell and others].Casino el Camino's grill is open til 1:30 am and their burgers are heaven.Best Brunch? No place in Austin can touch the master:Elmer Prambs at 4 Seasons Hotel.Priced roughly the same as Fonda San Miguel and light years better.Sit on the patio overlooking the Colarado and have a few mimosas.Enjoy Austin it's worthy of the praise.
I second everything that scrumptiouschef says about Backstage, Poodie’s, and Casino El Camino. I haven’t tried brunch at the Four Seasons yet, but thanks for the suggestion.
We can’t comment on non-chow-related items on this board, ljero, so you may want to check the usual travel-related sources for suggestions on what to do in Austin. You’ll probably also want to decide your chow schedule based on factors that only you know (like what else you’ll be doing and where, on given days).
But I will say that, in my opinion, FSM is better at brunch than dinner—because with the wide variety of buffet dishes available, you’re sure to find something you like, and because dinner portions can be small. Most of the food I’ve had at brunch is good, but almost nothing is exceptional or even particularly creative. The best two items I’ve had are the polvorones cookies, which melt on the tongue so quickly that one wonders how they appeared solid in the first place, and their version of capirotada, a traditional Lenten bread pudding, with unique ingredients like fresh pineapple and pine nuts. Many of their classic main dishes (chicken en mole pipian, carne guisada, cochinita pibil) are done as well, if not better, and always for much less money, at humble mom-and-pop places all over the state. But I liked my first visits to FSM, and I’m glad I went. I often take out-of-towners there. They seem to love the “gracious hacienda” setting and are enchanted with the brunch spread. For my own chow needs, since I've already been to FSM a number of times, I'm happy to go elsewhere for a high-end brunch.
For BBQ in Lockhart, you should plan to arrive around 11:30 A.M. for the best ‘cue. Keep in mind that some places aren’t open on Sunday, such as Kreuz Market. I know Black’s is open on Sundays, and I believe Smitty’s is, too, but just until 3.
If you want some of Austin's best carnitas, why not try Angie’s on East 7th Street? They actually make their own good corn tortillas, which is a rarity here. If you want a place that’s popular with mostly white middle- to high-income locals and tourists—plus students (WM2HILT+S), yimay’s suggestion of Curra’s is a good one. I personally don’t like it, but it’s better than many options in the same category. My favorite al pastor can be found at Rosita’s Al Pastor, which is a hole-in-the-wall, but a very good one. See these threads for more info:
Granted, we’re giving you a rather limited view of the local dining scene. As you know, we chowhounds are obsessed food-lovers who would choose which ER to go to based on the kind of chow available nearby. Many of us on the Texas board hate to eat bad food, period, no matter what other charms the restaurant may have. If you’re so inclined, you can find more advice about “fun” or “typical” Austin restaurants in a variety of other websites and guidebooks.
Have a great trip!
Get a late night glass of wine or two at the San Jose. Very nice way to end a night, especially if you're staying there.
Jo's Coffee nextdoor is another fairly Austiny place, and again if you're staying the night at San Jose, it makes a great place to get early morning coffee. Then you can stroll down Congress and hit any number of places for brunch: El Sol Y La Luna (which has been gross the past five times I've been there, but used to be quite good), Guero's, South Congress Cafe, Magnolia Cafe, etc.
If you aren't staying at San Jose (or Austin Motel just down the way), then this whole lovely chain of convenience isn't quite as alluring.
Also, you asked about places to get drinks. My tastes run towards comfortable, unpretentious places that foster good coversation. If you're looking for "Unce! Unce!" clubs, I don't really have any advice. However, if you're looking to go from dinner to a bar, have drinks and amazing conversation, here are some tips.
The Dog & Duck is my favorite bar, mostly for personal reasons. Great juke box, wide selection of beers, a couple wines, and no hard stuff. Next to the university. Less than a block from both Mars and Clay Pit. Decent (but by no means great) menu; their burger is probably their best item.
Gingerman is another beer bar. I'd wager that it has the best beer selection in town. You're within walking distance of Taverna, Traviata, Aquarelle, Malaga, and many other places that are much more forgettable. If barhopping is your thing, you've got a huge number of choices immediately around you. If Gingerman isn't too crowded, it can be a very enjoyable place to relax and have a few pints.
Opal Divine's on 6th Street has the best scotch list in Austin (as far as I know). Across the street is the best Irishesque pub in Austin, Mother Egan's. Both of these places are extremely comfortable, full bar, great beer selection, and have some strange force that keeps them from being annoyingly crowded even on a Saturday night. My hypothesis is that the newish bar Molitov acts as a giant suckiness magnet, freeing these two places up from local jerks. Both places have a decent menu. Aquarelle and Katz are basically nextdoor.
Club Deville is starting to lose the hipness intertia it has for so long possessed. Formerly the undisputed scenester blackjack of the Red River district, recent visits have revealed that the many cool kids have found other playgrounds. The best thing about this place is the very strong drinks they mix. This by no means makes up for the price, or the absurdly long waits for service at the bar; if you get a waitress, generously tip her with cash on your first drink order and she'll take care of your gang for the rest of the night. An excellent place to play hipster bingo ( http://erstwhile.net/junk/hipsterbingo/ ). Within walking distance of Chez Nous and Casino El Camino (which is another excellent place to play hipster bingo).
Barfly's is upstairs from Burger Tex on Airport, and is a classic selection with a full bar. This place is a dive, and the beer selection leaves a lot to be desired. This is more of a Miller High Life place than a Belhaven-on-tap place. You're walking distance to Quality Seafood, and on the same road as the Greatest Austin Mexican Food Institution Ever, the fabled Tamale House. (Please note: Tamale House closes at 3 PM, and is closed on Sundays.)
The Draught House on Burnet/Medical Arts/whatever is another nice place to get beers. Great selection, and they brew their own beers that are actually pretty good. You're near Sampaio, Blue Star Cafeteria.
Wink Wine Bar is something Austin has long been missing. It fills a semi-Californian niche, offering decent tastings and nice snacks. Nextdoor to Wink (duh). The two taken together can make a nice, ritzy evening out. San Jose's environment is more laid back, outdoors, with heaters on cold nights; their wine and snacks don't come close to Wink, though; I've already gone over what San Jose is near above. Malaga has a large wine list and offers wine flights, but (as of my last few visits) their affordable wines are of pretty mediocre quality. (Another wine bar, Cru, really blows and is best avoided.)
If you're wanting a crappy bar with mediocre food but insane country & western dancing and (from time to time) celebrity sightings, the Broken Spoke is your friend. I'm not so into this place, but many people love it. Different strokes.
you guys are making me hungry! ok: so dropped moonshine, shady grove. other thoughts to help you guys further pare down my choices (hopefully): no southern comfort food, love tex mex (pork carnitas, pork anything), love bbq and love a fun, laid back good time in Austinite locale but also higher end but not stuffy restaurant as well. husband loves all things laid back and austine (but we have to meet in the middle somewhere--i.e.he'd be happy every meal at chuy's).
Coming in on a wed night at 9pm and leaving sunday. Trying to pick best places and then decide what days (i.e. are some too crowded on weekends, better on weekends, better for brunch, better for happy hour): So still thinking Lockhartbut maybe for lunch(better for sat lunch? fri lunch? dinner?), Salt Lick (i know, i know, not as good but thought it would be fun to do Mandola and driftwood vineyards and then go--better lunch? dinner weekend?), fonda San Miguel (heard it is resting on its laurels--still worth it? better for dinner than brunch)?, need a good tex mex for dinner and/or lunch, and then THE BEST Sunday brunch (or skip all together and do Lockhart Sunday), and then something for wed night when I fly in at 9pm--maybe a good time to hit a late night bar/food combo, i.e.casino el camino for green chili burger?, and then one restuarant that is nicer (but not dressy)--i.e. maybe Uchi to take break from BBQ and Mex (although I love it ) or Fonda?
Also would love some more local watering holes, too for a cocktail! so excited to visit! thanks!
Burgers at Casino el Camino ("punk rock" bar) for food and local flavor
Flip Happy Crepes for tasty stuffed crepes as well as local flavor (served out of an avion trailer, and eat in a parking lot)
for more casual tex-mex i'd say go to Curra's instead of Chuy's, especially for their delicious tamales.
i second (or third) Fonda San Miguel for brunch. I'm not sure why Moonshine gets such rave reviews, but I don't find it that special.
Uchi, but not for sushi (nothing too special or great traditional sushi-wise)... order the non-sushi items like bacon steakie! if you want sushi sushi, i'd recommend Musashino instead.
Yimay, I've got to respectfully disagree. In my opinion, Musashino suffered from the Great Sushi Chef Apocalpyse several years ago, and hasn't been the same. The fish there is overpriced. Several meals I've had there left me thinking, "What the hell was that? Mikado (or even Sushi Sake) would have been half as much, and tasted better."
In my opinion, Uchi's zany dishes are great, but their "sushi sushi" is also delicious and shouldn't be neglecetd.
Oh, Uchi's squid salad (another sushi standard) is a treat as well, and compares favorably against any squid salad in town.
re: tom in austin
i've never really enjoyed any of the "sushi sushi" dishes at uchi as much as musashino. that super toro i had the other night was the bomb, but the sushi rice underneath it was not up to standards, or what i think sushi rice should taste/feel like. it was super compressed, flavorless. come to think of it the rice may be the problem i have with all of uchi's sushi dishes.
bacon steakie 4 life!
OK, you converted me to the bacon steakie.
The first time I ordered it, it was gross. This time, it was so delicious that people at the table were ordered seconds (and even thirds, although that may have been an accident).
Perfectly charred on the outside, semi-crispy, with an ideal blend of fat.
I am now a bacon steakie convert.
Now I haven't been a resident of Austin for long enough to provide specific recommendations as strong as the others on this board, but I have eaten plenty in Chicago and have been researching plenty here in Austin.
IMO, I don't think you will find interior Mexican food here that will rival Chicago's (which I have found to be as good if not better than Houston and LA). If you're looking more for a fun atmosphere with the Austin vibe, then go for Tex-Mex at any of the above recommendations, but don't expect the best food. You'll def'y have fun though. Oh, and along these lines, I would def'y recommend the Tex-Mex breakfast foods, since I believe they have roots in Austin & Central Texas in general, and are quite tasty.
I think you should def'y go for the Lockhart/Luling BBQ. Chicago has its own (great) tradition of BBQ with their tips & links and aquarium smokers, but you should also get your brisket on here in Central Texas. And the sausage is a different species than the Chicago hot link style.
You should also give the southern home-cooking a go. I haven't tried the Hoover's, Threadgill's, etc, but search the board and get a feel for the opinions and which ones resonate with your tastes.
As for the upscale, well there ain't no Alinea or even Schwa here, so I would say don't set your expectations too high. Having said that, I had dinner at Wink a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed it very much, FWIW. Great sushi in an upscale environment is a very reliable option, since you can't go too wrong with an impeccably fresh slab of o-toro.
In general, I'm not so sure you can combine the "fun atmosphere and Austin vibe" with great eats. Most of the places offering the atmosphere aren't offering the best of grub, so maybe go find your fun in local favorite bars after you finished eating.
Except Casino El Camino -- go there and eat a burger.
since you're looking for "local flair" AND good food, these are my recommendations (they're all casual):
chuy's. it may not be the BEST tex-mex in austin, but it's pretty darn close in my opinion. also, keep in mind that it's TEX-MEX, not authentic mexican. don't want you to be disappointed if you're expecting authentic! i love the chicken flautas, their enchiladas are solid...and make sure to ask for the jalapeno ranch dip to go with your chips (it's free, but you have to ask for it.) oh, and go to the barton springs location.
the salt lick! good job with your research! definitely go there, no other bbq place will do. if you go on sunday, they have beef ribs w/ au gratin potatoes that are even more delish than their regular stuff! oh and make sure you drive out to the driftwood location; don't go to that fake fancy one they opened up off of loop 360.
magnolia cafe (or kerbey lane, but i'm a mag's fan myself.) the food is pretty good. nothing will blow you out of the water, but it's good. and it's open 24 hours, so it's a perfect late night spot. definitely a very "austiny" place though, if that's what you want to experience. both the lake austin blvd and south congress locations are good. yummy (albeit basic) queso, chicken nachos, chicken quesadillas, gingerbread pancakes, burgers, and home fries.
hut's hamburgers. located right on 6th street (at 6th and west, i believe). very austiny, very yummy.
hyde park cafe. try the fries. good food, nice atmosphere, very austiny but a little more adult (and a little less wacky) than some of the other places i've mentioned.
i don't drink, but i hear tell that the oasis is a great place to go for cocktails (b/c their food is no good, but the view is PHENOMENAL.) if you'd like to check out a coffee and dessert type of joint, mozart's is still one of my favorites. it's a bit overpriced, but the coffees and desserts are pretty good (i recommend the cheesecakes and the mousses...the brownie's a great bargain, and quite yummy as well.). the view of the lake (assuming the water hasn't been let out)is really nice. hm, but they might have their holiday lights up still...which tend to be a pretty garish...if you go, and the lights are up, either go inside or down to the lower deck...both areas are nice and not quite so decorated. live music thurs-sat nights, usually.
i'd skip shady grove. it's a nice place to go if the weather is good, but the food's really nothing special.
enjoy your trip!!
Chiming in with Aloo0628, I have to admit: while not included in the Family Style, the beef ribs at Salt Lick can be quite excellent. Not always. Salt Lick is very erratic. But if you're lucky, they're worth ordering in addition to the required Family Style platter.
At Chuy's, if you're not splitting a queso compuesto up front, order the #1 Comida Deluxe or the Elvis Memorial (the #2). I think the #1 is slightly better.
Wow- I'm a visitor to Austin, but my list of places to avoid would include about every place you listed (save perhaps Magnolia).
Each of the spots you listed are institutions in Austin, offering decent but not standout food. Off the top of my head, they can all be bested by any number of places:
Chuy's - "it may not be the BEST tex-mex in austin" We do agree! Chicago has some damned fine mexican food in my opinion, so I'm not even sure I'd send someone from there to anywhere in Austin. I'm quite sure that nothing in Austin can compare to Salpicon or Topolobambo/Fronterra Grille; but that's more authentic Mex than Tex Mex. Still, Chuy's? That's like sending someone looking for an exotic car to the Kia dealership.
Salt Lick: Good thing to say about it: it's all you can eat. Decent sides. Decent to good bar-b-que. And yes, still probably better than anything in Chicago, especially if you are going with a large group. But head to Lockhart, Luling, Taylor, ... all offer better.
Hut's - I'm dumbfounded. I've never been a Hut's fan, and with Casino El Camino or any number of others offering the real deal, why Hut's? I even like Shady Grove more than Hut's.
I'm assuming a visitor would want the "Best of" in terms of cuisine. Austin offers some truly great food, much of it a bargain, but your list seems to offer the vibe of the city without delivering the goods in terms of quality of food.
Just my opinion.
As I have stated in previous postings, a great dining experience will be had at the Roaring Fork. It's in the historic Stephen F. Austin hotel on Congress. I know that you said no hotels - but this is not hotel dining. It's special. It's in one of the oldest buildings downtown and entrance is from the street. There's a great bar and second level deck overlooking all the happenings on Congress. The food is stellar, the people watching fantastic and the experience quite unique.
Link to the menus: http://www.roaringforkaustin.com/menu...
Great for dinner or happy hour. I don't think they open on Sundays until after 4:00.
I'll look forward to your posting after your visit to Austin!
My advice for upscale dining is here:
Several Austin standards are covered: Fonda San Miguel, Castle Hill Cafe, Mars, Clay Pit, Uchi, Aquarelle, and more. Shout outs to two pubs: the Dog & Duck and Mother Egan's.
I don't know what the cuisine is like in Chicago, so I don't know what you're missing. I'd wager that the BBQ and Mexican are the most lacking departments where Austin's offerings could rock your socks off.
With that in mind, I'd plan a day trip to Lockhart to hit the Magic BBQ Trifecta. If you're going to limit yourself to one venue, I recommend Kreuz Market. If you're going to skip one of the trinity, I'd skip Black's. Note: if you ask three different people on Chowhound, you'll get three different opinions about the three places.
If you like-but-don't-love barbecue and don't want to make a journey, local options are all around you. My local suggestion would be Ruby's BBQ on Guadalupe, but I'll admit that the Salt Lick is a bona fide Austin institution. A bit of a drive, but if you bring friends and a cooler full of beer (or some bottles of wine, to suit your taste), you'll definitely have a blast.
As for Mexican food, you'll be surrounded with so many delicious hole-in-the-walls you won't be able to make easy decisions. Even telling you about it, I can't make easy decisions. If you're only going to eat Mexican twice on your trip, I'd drop Manuel's for something better. Polvo's essentially defines the "Austin Flavah" atmosphere: the semilazy service you'll receive also mirrors this city's laid-back attitude. Other Austin classic options include Guero's (where Bill Clinton dined), Curra's (where I have dined many, many times), and the quintessential Matt's El Rancho (where our parents, and possibly their parents, dined while at the University of Texas). However, if you're getting sick of Austinesque experiences and just want amazing food, none of these places really rank.
Then again, if you're willing to put some miles on a rental, you might want to try the Backstage Steakhouse in Spicewood. I'll tell you right now that I've never been there and only base this recommendation on the enticing reviews by MPH. Search for "MPH" and "Backstage" and you'll probably find the reviews I'm talking about. If you're only doing one day trip, I can't advise you between this place and Salt Lick; I've been to Salt Lick probably thirty or forty times, but if I had to choose today, I'd pick Backstage on the merit of the reviews alone. After all, you can hit the Salt Lick stand at the airport on the way out of town.
Finally, some "Bests" of Austin, if you're only here for a few days. You'll have to make snap decisions. Some tips:
Best Brunch: East Side Cafe (baked brie, salmon benedict, trade your sides for a side of bacon [best bacon in town, no joke], great coffee
)Runner Up: Fonda San Miguel
Best Lunch: Quality Seafood
Runner Up: El Chile
2nd Runner Up: Little Deli (oh man. best sandwiches in town, and second place isn't close.)
Best Upscale Dinner: Uchi (be brave and order some super toro, a bacon steakie, and while they have amazing entrees, don't neglect the nigiri sushi!)
Runner Up: Wink
Best Casual Dinner: Enoteca Vespaio (this place offers amazing value)
Runner Up: Curra's (order the Cochinita Pibil!)
Best French: Chez Nous (near tie w/ Aquarelle)
Best Italian: Vespaio (my wife swears by their lasagna bolognese)
Best Indian: Clay Pit
Best pre-dinner drink: Wink Wine Bar
Best place to get pints: Dog & Duck
re: tom in austin
Great list! Unfortunately, at this hour it's too late for me to head out and satisfy most of these newly stirred-up cravings.
By the way, ljero, since you'll be staying at Barton Creek, it will be easy for you to head west of the city, as tom in austin pointed out. Bee Cave Bistro (in the village of Bee Cave) and Pao's Mandarin (in Lakeway) may not be better than your Chicago options for the same categories of food, but they're good, solid choices if you need a quick nearby lunch.
I think brunch at Fonda San Miguel is a dining experience worth having, though their food is not nearly as inventive as I would like it to be. Uchi and Hudson’s on the Bend are also fine choices—unique to Austin, on the high scale, with very good food. Happy hour at Manuel’s is a good bargain. I think Hoover’s is weak to average, but a lot of ‘hounds love it. And, I’ll go back to Castle Hill when they implement a BYOF (bring your own food) policy to go with their good wine list. But I’m in the minority on that last one.
If other visitors’ trip reports are any indication, you absolutely will not regret making the trip to Smitty’s, Kreuz Market, and/or Black’s in Lockhart. Smitty’s is currently my favorite, though that can always change. The sausage and fatty brisket [don’t ask for lean] will blow you away.
I must strongly disagree with some of my fellow hounds on the deliciousness of Matt’s El Rancho, Shady Grove, Chuy’s, Trudy’s, Maudie’s, Z Tejas, and Moonshine. These restaurants are very popular; however, in Austin the popularity of a restaurant is no indication of the quality of its food.
With all the good Mexican food available in Chicago, it would be a shame to hit all the mediocre “gringo Mex” places on your trip to Austin. What kind of Mexican do you enjoy in Chicago? What kind of Tex-Mex dishes do you like? There are a lot of off-the-beaten-track authentic Tex-Mex options in Austin. With more details from you, perhaps we can make some less obvious but rewarding suggestions.
Since this is such a busy time of year, I suggest you do a search for any restaurant you’re considering in order to get feedback from a large number of ‘hounds. Here are links to a few threads where we had a good discussion of Austin’s very best chow.
SF hound visiting Austin, looking for recs
Report: A SF Hound in Austin (long!!
Chicago Area hound Needs Austin HELP!
I hope this helps.
"I must strongly disagree with some of my fellow hounds on the deliciousness of Matt’s El Rancho, Shady Grove, Chuy’s, Trudy’s, Maudie’s, Z Tejas, and Moonshine. These restaurants are very popular; however, in Austin the popularity of a restaurant is no indication of the quality of its food."
I agreed with every word here. Listen to MPH about the Tex-Mex.
Don't do Moonshine. Green Pastures brunch is much nicer. $50, yes, but it's unique Southern cuisine, not something you will find in Chicago.
Fonda, great. I don't suppose you will be going to two Sunday brunches. Choose between this and Green Pastures. Both are the same price. Green Pastures has twice as big of a spread, but Fonda is more unique and distinct from anything you would find in Chicago.
Definitely do not do Chuy's or Shady Grove. I'd recommend Hoover's, Dot's or Tony's Southern Comfort (in that order) if you want cheap casual Southern cuisine.
Go to Lockhart, do not go to Salt Lick. They're both about the same distance away and Lockhart is much much better.
Uchi is fine, though I share the same reservation you already mentioned.
Cocktails? Oasis has a beautiful view of Lake Travis.
Personally, I prefer Manuels Sunday brunch to that at La Fonda San Miguel - they do jazz at the downtown Manuel's location. Another option for Mexican food that is interior, rather than Tex Mex - is Curra's Grill, two locations. For Tex Mex (a cuisine of its own and not to be missed) I agree with Matt's El Rancho (margaritas made with real lime juice, order the Bob Armstrong dip to start). And thinking of breakfast, or brunch, Trudy's has the best Migas going (you can order it anytime of day or night, with fajitas if you want - be sure to get both kinds of hot sauce), except for maybe Maudie's. The Maudie's location on Loop 360 would be in the same neck of the woods as Barton Creek, has a great view and would be great anytime. Their tortilla soup is INCREDIBLE - a big bowl with fresh vegetables, cilantro etc. You really must try chicken fried steak if you want to do the full Texas thing. I would suggest Hoover's Home Cooking on Manor Road. Trudies does pretty good chicken fried too- with fabulous cheesy mashed potatoes. Other options for more upscale dinners with a definite Texas twang to the food - Castle Hill or Zee Tejas (nice room and view at the Arboretum location, more funky at the original on W. Sixth.) One last thought. A book was published a couple of months ago called "The Fearless Critic - Austin Restaurant Guide." Done by a real foodie - over 300 reviews. Fun to read and lots of good ideas. Well - I have gotten hungry just thinking about all this. Hope you enjoy Austin!