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Chicago Chowhound in Town for 4 Nights: First Time in Austin

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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!

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  1. I'd definitely go for Chuy's, and Matt's El Rancho is a local favorite. I think you have a great list so far!

    1. 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!

      1. 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.

        Hudson's, great.

        Cocktails? Oasis has a beautiful view of Lake Travis.

        1. 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.

          http://www.chowhound.com/topics/305303
          SF hound visiting Austin, looking for recs

          http://www.chowhound.com/topics/308652
          Report: A SF Hound in Austin (long!!

          )

          Chicago Area hound Needs Austin HELP!
          http://www.chowhound.com/topics/92863

          I hope this helps.
          MPH

          1 Reply
          1. re: MPH

            "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.

          2. My advice for upscale dining is here:
            http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

            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

            1 Reply
            1. 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.