Matt's El Rancho
We've only lived here for seven months, but right off the bat, people started recommending Matt's El Rancho. We've been several times and are usually satisfied but not blown away. The Bob Armstrong dip everyone raves over is decent but not amazing, but I did find the pecan-smoked brisket flautas to be a real treat. My husband's beef fajitas were great, if a little too heavy on the onions and peppers. A margarita and a mojito were refreshing and delicious. The service was friendly and attentive, even though we didn't appreciate the balloon-animal guy.
I've noticed some divided opinions on chowhound, and I'm curious why some seem to regard it as an institution while others dismiss it. Thanks for your perspectives.
The regard that it gets is because of how long the place has been around. My parents, and possibly their parents, have all dined there -- while they were students of the University of Texas. Austin has very few places that have that sort of longevity.
But judged on food quality, Matt's isn't awesome. The food is (as you noticed) fairly mediocre.
Personally, I love the Bob Armstrong dip. I think it is Matt's most reliable offering. Then again, I'm a fan of classic Tex-Mex queso. Those who aren't will find the Bob to be only so-so.
We tried to go there once, several years ago. They stuck us at a table at the bar in an otherwise empty restaurant and left us to rot. After waiting 20 minutes with no water, no menu, no nothin', we walked out and haven't returned. Life's too short to wait for a server that long.
I think that are a number of things they still do well. That in addition to good drinks and great service, along with the tradition, keep it high on people's list. There are lots of kinds of list. It might not be on my top great for food lists, but it would probably be on my top 10 lists of places to take out of town people wanting to experience Austin.
Matt's isn't great Tex-Mex, but it's a fun Austin place to go, and I would have no problem taking someone new from out of town (like your mom) there so she could get a little taste of Austin. Same with Gueros (which I actually like [duck]), El Arroyo, Chuys, Las Manitas, etc. If you want to expose her to really good Austin-style Tex-Mex, I would take her to Angies or Enchiladas y Mas. If, however, she's coming because she wants to eat top quality chow, none of these places should be on your list and you probably should look at MPH's posts. Depends what you're looking for. Good luck, and welcome to town!